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Eleanor Marx: A Life

Written by Rachel Holmes
Published by Bloomsbury Paperbacks; Reprint edition (November 15, 2016)

Review by Bonnie Stanard

I stayed up until after 2:00 AM finishing Rachel Holmes’ well-documented biography of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx. I couldn’t go to sleep once I got into the dirty dealings of the nefarious Edward Aveling. The last two chapters lay the groundwork for another book that addresses the dichotomy of Eleanor’s way of life versus her way of death.

Here’s my take on the book:

It provides a sweeping picture of socialist movements of latter 19th Century England, touching on France and Germany. This is a character study of Eleanor Marx only in so much as it relates to her career. She was an indefatigable person of enviable intellect in promoting her father’s principles. Her life was given to travel, organizing labor, writing and promoting the rights of workers.

In advocating an eight-hour day, age limits for employing children, and more humane treatment of women, she met a swell of opposition and wasn’t one to falter. With youthful boldness she faced ridicule and rejection from colleagues and powerful businessmen.

For many years she lived hand to mouth, moved from one shabby place to another, and persisted with enthusiasm to promote a socialist agenda. This won her many friends and admirers, especially among people working in sweatshops.

Holmes has given Eleanor the character of a person who faced obstacles with determination, energy, and sagacity. That she was the unlikeliest of persons to commit suicide is not the focus of this book. Eleanor’s devotion was first and foremost to her father’s social philosophy. That she gave up this cause and took her life when faced with her lover’s betrayal is covered in one short chapter at the end of the book. Worse yet, the lover-cum-conman who betrayed her inherited her estate.

The book’s concluding scenario is reason enough for another biography. This is not meant as a criticism of Holmes’ book, which is a fine introduction to the socialist scene at the time Eleanor Marx lived. 

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Bonnie Stanard draws on her rural upbringing and an interest in history to write novels, short stories, and poems with credits in publications such as The American Journal of Poetry, Wisconsin Review, Harpur Palate, The South Carolina Review, and The Museum of Americana. She has published six historical fiction novels and a children’s book. She lives in South Carolina. 

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Seeking Historical Novel Reviews

Do you write reviews of historical novels? The Copperfield Review is actively seeking submissions of historical novel reviews, including subgenres such as historical mysteries, romance, even historical fantasy. We also accept submissions of reviews of nonfiction history books and biographies of historical figures, as well as nonfiction books about writing and creativity.

We publish reprints, so if your review has appeared on your own blog or elsewhere and you have the rights, we will consider it for publication. Be sure to check our guidelines for how to submit your work.

We’re looking forward to reading your submissions. Please repost if you know of other fans of historical fiction who write book reviews!

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The Sins of Jubal Cooper

Written by Mary Lingerfelt.

Published by Amazon Digital Services LLC.

Review by Harry Andrew Miller

The Sins of Jubal Cooper is a 2018 historical novella by Mary Lingerfelt, a Christian author. Sitting at around 40,000 words, the novella is set in rural Georgia, during the height of the Great Depression. It follows the misadventures of eight-year-old Will Henry as he commits a crime and is then forced to work off his debt to society by working for the infamous Judge Jubal Cooper, a man Will considers to be like the devil.

Speaking historically, The Sins of Jubal Cooper accurately captures the feelings and themes of Depression-era America. The text deals with families doing it tough, the division of class between the rich and the poor, the treatment of African-Americans, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

The story is told from the perspective of Will and, as such, it uses literary techniques that immerse the reader in the mind of an eight-year-old. Words like scared as purposefully misspelled as skeered or killed as kilt. These types of misspellings aren’t overbearing, and they do a fantastic job of adding to the immersion. As a poor eight-year-old in Depression-era Georgia, Will certainly doesn’t speak as ‘proper’ as Jubal Cooper, for instance, and the divide between Will’s language and Jubal’s language definitely helps to reinforce the theme of class division.

As Mary Lingerfelt is a Christian author, The Sins of Jubal Cooper also discusses the concept of faith, particularly Will’s as he tries to repent for his crime and his belief that Jubal Cooper isn’t a very moral man. Personally, I am not a religious person, but I still found this novella thoroughly captivating. The religious themes are visible enough to tie the story together; but, if you’re non-religious like myself, the themes definitely aren’t overbearing.

For me, the line that best represents The Sins of Jubal Cooper (and its themes of religion, repentance, and Depression-era loss) is found about halfway through the text. Will says, “I was ‘sposed to repent right away, and I knew that; but it was a Depression on, and everybody had to dicker with their conscience the best they could.” All in all, this is a book about Will trying to repent for his crime and navigate the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous life that Jubal Cooper leads.

I genuinely liked this novella. At 40,000 words it isn’t that daunting to pick up, for those of you who like reading shorter stories. I look forward to reading more from Mary Lingerfelt in the future, as I am definitely interested in her writing style, and the way she uses historical fiction to paint a picture of different historical eras.

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Harry Andrew Miller is a freelance history writer from Australia. He specializes in writing about the First World War, but his interests encapsulate all eras. Visit Harry online at www.harryandrewmiller.com.

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Everything I Never Told You

Written by Celeste Ng

Published by Penguin Books

Review by Meredith Allard

 

Some readers may argue against my classifying Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng as historical fiction. The story takes place in the not-so-distant past of the 1970s, but as someone who lived through those years reading the story did bring on a sense of nostalgia. In some ways, life seemed more simple then. There were no cell phones, no social media. You had actually use a rotary phone to contact people, and there were these things called typewriters, kids, where you needed ribbons and messy liquid paper to fix those pesky typos. We can have a discussion about how far in the past something has to be in order to qualify as historical fiction. We can also discuss whether or not nostalgia in itself is enough to qualify something as historical fiction. My rationale for including Everything I Never Told You as historical fiction is that, while the story about a family mourning the death of its teenage daughter is timeless, the story itself may have looked different if it took place in the 21st century.

Teenager Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, but being the favorite child isn’t as wonderful for Lydia as you might think. She carries the weight of both of her parents unfulfilled dreams—her father’s insecurities being about Chinese and feeling as though he never fit in, and her mother’s unfulfillment at feeling destined to the life of a traditional housewife, thereby never meeting her true potential as a woman in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. When Lydia is found drowned, the carefully woven family fabric begins to unravel, and everyone in the family, including Lydia’s older brother and younger sister, is forced to confront what they knew, or what they thought they knew, about their family.

Everything I Never Told You is a family story about how often we don’t know the people we’re supposed to be closest to. Ng does a wonderful job sharing each character’s perspectives, and we understand James and Marilyn, or at least we understand why they acted as they did. Yes, it would have been nice if there were more self-reflection among the characters while Lydia was alive, but that’s not particularly realistic. Often, we don’t recognize where we could have done better until after the fact. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we may even see some of our own family dynamics reflected in the story. There’s that old saying from Maya Angelou—when people do, they do the best they know how to do. That’s what James and Marilyn do in Everything I Never Told You—they did the best they knew how to do. And that’s all anyone can do in any given moment.

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Daughters of the Witching Hill

Written by Mary Sharratt

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review by Meredith Allard

 

I was drawn to Daughters of the Witching Hill because of my interest in witch hunts and witch trials, and Mary Sharratt did not disappoint. The story is based on historical details and transcripts from the real-life 1612 Pendle witch hunt.

The novel starts with an interesting premise. What if some of the people accused of witchcraft in the 1612 Pendle witch hunt actually practiced magic? Daughters of the Witching Hill begins with Bess Southerns, known as Mother Demdike, a poor woman living with her children in Pendle Forest. She discovers a familiar, delves into magic, and develops a reputation as a cunning woman, which is considered different than a witch because cunning women use their powers to heal and not hurt people. The magic works both for and against Bess and those she cares for most. Bess’ granddaughter Alizon, is afraid of the magic her grandmother possesses, but Bess’ best friend since girlhood embraces the dark side of magic. Bess is betrayed by her own family—some who testify against her willingly, and some who don’t. Bess, Alizon, and others are accused of witchcraft and may suffer the ultimate consequence because of one man determined to make his name as a witch finder.

The novel caught me from the first page through Bess’ narrative voice. When Alizon takes over the narrative later in the story, her voice is just as powerful. Mary Sharratt does what the best historical novelists do so well—she weaves facts of the time period, details about food, clothing, work—seamlessly into the plot. Through Bess, we see what life was like for poor people in late 16th and early 17th century England. Work was hard to find, and poor people had to travel from place to place asking if there was any work. There were times when Bess and her family went hungry. There were famines when many people died. Magic provided Bess and her family with an income as well as some respect—at least until Bess begins to age and lose some of her potency as a healer. As someone from the poor end of the socioeconomic spectrum, Bess and her family are vulnerable to the whims of those with higher status. Sharratt does a fine job showing the precarious nature of life for poor people like Bess and Alizon.

If you’re interested in witch hunts or witch trials, you will love Daughters of the Witching Hill. This is also a great read for those interested in 16th and 17th-century English life.

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Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Written by Samantha Silva

Published by Flatiron Books

288 pages

Review by Meredith Allard

 

The caveat for this novel comes after the story where author Samantha Silva notes what most of us figured out while we were reading–that this is not a biographical sketch of how A Christmas Carol came to be but an imaginative “What if” about how Dickens might have come to write the world’s second most famous Christmas story. The Dickensians among us might easily fall into the trap of thinking “This didn’t happen,” “That didn’t happen,” and “There’s no way on earth that ever happened.” To fully enjoy this book we need to leave what we know about Dickens aside and simply enjoy the novel for what it is, a sweet retelling of the classic story using Dickens himself as the Scrooge who needs to discover the true meaning of Christmas. I highly recommend this novel for those who love Dickens, love his Carol, and are looking for a unique retelling of the tale.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Maid of Baikal: A Speculative Historical Novel of the Russian Civil War

Written by Preston Fleming

Review from The Copperfield Review

 

 

Maid of Baikal by Preston Fleming is a speculative historical novel, as it states in the book’s title. Fans of traditional historical fiction should be warned that this is a “What if?” novel based on the question “What if the White Russian army won the Russian civil war?”

The story of Maid of Baikal centers around Zhanna Dorokhina, a romanticized version of Joan of Arc who strives to beat back the Bolsheviks through military force. Like Joan of Arc, Zhanna believes she is on a divine mission as she leads her army, in this case the White Russian army against the Bolsheviks. The battle scenes were well written and compelling, and I found myself rooting for Zhanna to win. I felt as though I was there in Russia since the descriptions were so vivid and specific.

As an avid reader of historical fiction I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. Normally I don’t care for alternative historical fiction because it defies the reason I like to read historical fiction, which is that I get to learn about the past. Even though some of the details presented in Maid of Baikal are the result of imagination, there is still a lot of history to learn here about the Bolsheviks, the Russian civil war, and Russia itself.

Creating a Tolstoy-like epic, Fleming shares a realistic, vivid world within the Russian civil war with rich, multi-dimensional characters that reveal various aspects of humanity as seen in war time, all made more fascinating by the question “What if?” If you love historical fiction and you’re open to speculative circumstances different to that of historical facts, then you will enjoy Maid of Baikal by Preston Fleming. Readers with an interest in Russia and Russian history will also enjoy this novel.

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Soaring With Vultures

Written by Dan Kelly

Review from The Copperfield Review

 

I was pleasantly surprised by Dan Kelly’s novel Soaring With Vultures. Soaring With Vultures takes place in Missouri after the end of the Civil War, and though the war itself has ended there is still violence to contend with. Soaring With Vultures is told from the point of view of Leslie Warner, who must watch as his family suffers in the aftermath of the war. Leslie’s sister, Sallie, is embroiled in a bitter divorce, and Sam Nutter, the man she divorces, is a less than savory character. Nutter wages his own war against the Warner family, leading to a murder trial.

Soaring With Vultures has the feel of a western with good guys versus bad guys, so fans of westerns will particularly like this novel. Author Dan Kelly manages to make the murder trial suspenseful, not an easy task when so many murder trials abound in books, television, and film. The history shared in Soaring With Vultures is particularly fascinating, especially for readers who haven’t read much about life during this post Civil War period in Missouri. The story is based on true life events, which adds a certain validity for fans of historical fiction who like their fiction to contain as much historical fact as possible. Soaring With Vultures has been carefully researched, and Kelly has paid a lot of attention to detail, also important elements for fans of historical fiction.

Kelly has an easy to read, conversational writing style, and he pulls readers into the story through allowing the characters, and the facts, to speak for themselves. Readers with a taste for post Civil War fiction, westerns, or murder mysteries will enjoy Soaring With Vultures.

 

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The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of René Descartes

Written by Andrew Pessin

Published by Open Books

Review by Richard Moorton

 

The Irrationalist is a brilliant and complex novel, chiaroscuro in tenor, rich in humor and horror, fact and fiction, full of myriad mysteries finally all resolved, set in counter-reformation Europe at many sites, and unified by the intertwining lives of a junior Jesuit Adrien Baillet, coopted to investigate the circumstances of Rene Descartes’ death in Stockholm, and the multifaceted and, as it turns out, mysterious Philosopher himself. Although it is a novel, it is based closely on the real events of Descartes’ life and mysterious death.

The book begins with a rapier duel to the death by two unidentified men in a field in Germany. One is able to move below the guard of the other and inflict a crippling wound to the ankle. When the disabled man falls helpless on his back his antagonist runs him through the chest and walks away. Though cryptic, the scene is crucial. It is precisely dated, and as this novel moves forward and backward in time, dates mark a causal order that must be carefully noted.

In 1649 Descartes had been invited to join the Academy of intellectual luminaries being assembled by the young Swedish Queen Christina—accurately described as one of the most brilliant, eccentric, and colorful queens in history. Soon after his arrival in Stockholm Descartes died, allegedly of pneumonia. Arriving shortly after Baillet meets the sinister Chancellor Zolindius who is arranging the gala to celebrate Sweden’s victory in the just concluded Thirty Years war full of Christian slaughtering Christian over religious hatred and power politics in the Hapsburg Dynasty’s rivalry with France. Zolindius insists that Baillet write a report concluding that Descartes’ death was by natural causes—lest the murder of France’s prominent Catholic philosopher in Lutheran Sweden unravel the fragile peace—but Baillet’s sleuthing tells him otherwise.

With this beginning, the novel flashes back to the birth of Descartes, and his later enrollment in the School for future Gentlemen and Jesuits at La Flèche. Descartes is a lazy if brilliant student, who takes years longer than the usual to graduate and then sets out, accompanied by a servant he has purchased from the Rector of the school, to find a life of pleasure and adventure far different from that which Joachim, his ambitious father, intends for him. From this prologue, a long and fascinating tale unfolds. This is enough of an introduction, as I wish neither to stumble into spoilers nor further encroach on the art of a master.

Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor at Connecticut College, though I knew him only in passing when I retired from there four years ago. His novel came as a complete surprise. Many professors try their hands at a novel, but this one is different. It is a masterful work of literary art. The author has an authentic and major creative gift. This is literature, and in time it may become a classic. Pessin’s academic specialty is apparently Descartes’ philosophy, and he obviously prepared for writing the novel by researching Descartes and his period in fantastic depth and scope. He made himself an expert on every facet of life of the philosopher and his times. The detail is microscopically rendered. The result is that the reader lives this novel instead of just reading it. The characters are complex and convincing, and their experience runs the gamut from tragic, hilarious, suspenseful, diverting, astonishing, idyllic, and elegiacally sad. The plot is a Chinese box of mysteries, each intriguing, built and unpacked with amazing skill. The book is incredibly subtle, and a two-word phrase in one part may unlock a puzzle beginning hundreds of pages away. The very title is a puzzle: “Who exactly is ‘the Irrationalist’?”

This world is dangerous. Again and again Baillet is told to trust no one, for good reason. He is an unlikely hero who squeaks when threatened, as he often is, but in the end he finds his courage and solves his case. Descartes is a chameleon who will shock the expectations of many readers. The novel is built like a mobius strip, a geometrical anomaly co-discovered by Mobius and (in the novel) Descartes, but it is Descartes who sees in this trinket he invents for his daughter a whole new world of mathematics. In a mobius strip, a geometrical figure which has only one side, a line drawn on it always returns to its starting point. The action of the novel does likewise, as Baillet realizes at the end.

Crafting such a novel is a tour de force, but this book has many wonders. One could go on at length about the arts of the polymath who built a riveting, exciting, relentless and explosive quest for justice, but no review can capture the many arts rich and strange which Pessin has fused into an unforgettable narrative. The only satisfactory review is that discovered by the fortunate reader who experiences the polyphonic ensemble. If you would do this book justice, read it, but beware. It is not for the unwary.

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Richard Moorton, Jr., is Emeritus Professor of Classics at Connecticut College. His interests include Greek comedy, Roman history, Vergil, the evolution of culture, the nature of religion, and Eugene O’Neill.

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The Song of Achilles

Written by Madeline Miller

Published by HarperCollins Publishers

Review by Meredith Allard

 

This is simply an outstanding piece of literature. Miller’s simple yet lyrical style pulls you effortlessly into the poetry of the Iliad. Here we focus on Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus, the young prince who is banished from his land for accidentally killing another boy and he is taken as a companion for Achilles. Patroclus and Achilles become partners in every way, and the Song of Achilles is really a love song between the two men. This isn’t simply an attraction between Patroclus and Achilles. This is a deep, abiding love that transcends death.

If you’re familiar with the Iliad (which you do not need to be to enjoy this book), then there are few surprises here except perhaps for the scope of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. There is no twist-filled ending here: the fate of the two men has been sung about throughout the ages. Still, Miller ends this tale in a way that is perfectly heartbreaking, but in a good way. Despite war, broken promises, and the loss of all one holds most dear, there can be peace in the end.

This is not a retelling of the entire story of the Iliad. This is one version of one story as told through the eyes of the man who knew Achilles best. I’m looking forward to reading more from Madeline Miller.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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