Dispelling Dark Myths


Did you ever hear the story of “Typhoid Mary” as a child? I remember a gaggle of us neighborhoods kids scaring each other with stories of the woman whose myth lived long after she died.  It’s not a person we learned about in school, yet just the mention of her name culled up disease, darkness and death.  That’s one reason I was happy to come across this sympathetic portrait of an Irish-American woman who was much maligned by the press.

Not a biography, this fictional account relies on many true-to-life details to make its story highly believable. Young Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to stay with an aunt. She soon went to work and started as a laundress--hot dirty work that offered no hope of advancement. Being smart and clever, Mary noticed that the cooks were paid much more and had more freedom. She also liked the creative aspect of crafting fine meals for the wealthy of early 1900s New York City.

Mary got her big break as a substitute cook, and she turned one success into a career. By the time she was 17, she received an excellent summer gig in Oyster Bay, but unfortunately fever swept through the summer place leaving the baby she loved and several other members of the household dead. Read more »

Read-A-Likes for These Is My Words: the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901, Arizona Territories by Nancy Turner


In August 2013, the Books Plus library book club read the book These Is My Words: the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901, Arizona Territories by Nancy Turner. The book is very loosely based on her grandmother’s memories of moving to the Arizona Territory and what life was like there on the frontier.  Fast paced and character driven, the author brings to life the hardships of ranching before electricity and cars. Sarah is a no nonsense woman who survives and thrives through happy times and sad.

 Other books featuring pioneer women include:

 A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich. Written in 1928, this has become an American classic and was a best seller at the time of publication. The story is also based on the author’s ancestor, in this case her mother who traveled by covered wagon to Nebraska in 1865. Another woman who was not broken by hardship and strife on the great plains.

Boone’s Lick by Larry Mc Murtry. Beginning in 1865, Mary Margaret Cecil is ready to call it “quits” with her freight hauler husband, but first she has to find him. With her extended family of kids, Pa, brother-in-law and others, they head West from Missouri.

And just for fun, How the West Was Won by Louis L’Amour. Noone writes sweeping sagas like L’Amour. You may remember the 1962 movie starring some of the biggest names of the day. It won three Oscars. The book is even better. Remember Linus Rawlings, survivor of Indian Country or Lilith Prescott who ran away from home and married a gambler. The book features many characters with great stories.  

Compared with the challenges faced by these women, the stories in the books makes frozen computers, cars that won't start and clogged up drains seem like a minor inconveniece.

The Garden of Evening Mists


This beautiful historical novel is set in an exotic place, rural Malaya, after World War II before it became the country of Malaysia. It’s also one of the rare novels that is centered on a Japanese garden.

The narrator, Teoh Jun Ling, a woman of Straits Chinese heritage, has just retired from her career judging war criminal cases. Previous to that, she was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. In fact, she was the only person to survive; after being tortured there, she developed a great hatred for all things Japanese. Yet her dear sister, Yun Hong, who died at camp, always had a passion for Japanese gardens after she had visited the island nation as a child.

Yun Ling returns to the highlands to see old friends and also to visit the tea plantation of Yugiri where an ex-Japanese, Aritomo, has long worked a spectacular garden.  Although she is repulsed at asking a favor from someone Japanese, she requests that Aritomo build a Japanese garden in her sister’s memory.

He adamantly refuses. But then a few days later suggests an alternative. If she is willing to serve as his apprentice, he will teach her how to create her own. Read more »

Many Eras, Many Lives


Have you ever wondered how different you would have been if you’d lived during Napoleonic times, the First World War, or the Second? This novel explores how much the era a person lives in affects his or her personality, and choices in life.

In the autumn of 1985, Greta Wells loses her twin brother to AIDS. She’s also been injured in a serious car accident that has also harmed her dear Aunt Ruth.  Because Greta sloughs through a deep depression that will not lift, her psychiatrist recommends an old treatment that is becoming new again. Greta calls it electric shock therapy. Dr. Cerletti corrects her—“It’s called electric convulsive therapy.”

During my college years, I worked as a psychiatric aide at two mental hospitals, and I watched this procedure several times.  It struck me as something medieval and horrifying, but luckily in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, ECT is not described in great physical detail. Read more »

Madame Tussaud and Read Alikes

Madame TussaudMadame Tussaud is a historical fiction book by Michelle Moran based on the real Marie Tussaud, a sculpturess and museum owner in Paris. Apprenticed by her uncle, Marie learns the art of wax sculpting amid the politics, court intrigue, and massacres leading up to and during the French Revolution. Marie needs the museum to be profitable, but is often torn by personal loyalties and her desire for success. It was really refreshing to read a historical book with a strong female character who does more than sit around in fancy dresses and flirt with famous men. With a little digging, I uncovered a few more books that fit this description - historical fiction with strong women who earn income, love to learn, and are passionate about their careers! Read more »

Rosie Nominations and Historical YA Fiction

Between Shades of GrayQuick! Name one thing you know about the Crimean War! Nothing? Florence Nightingale maybe?

Brief history lesson: The Crimean War was fought between Russia and an alliance of France and England over the declining Ottoman Empire in what is now part of the Ukraine.  This war pre-dates World War I, and is often considered as the first modern war. It is also famous for Florence Nightingale who drastically improved nursing practices while caring for wounded British soldiers.

Sounds exciting, right?  Ok, maybe not the most promising backdrop for a YA book, but In the Shadow of the Lamp has enough to keep you turning pages. Molly has been framed for theft and fired from her job as a parlor maid at a fancy London home. She decides to sneak her way onto a ship headed east when she hears that Miss Nightingale is looking for nurses. Even though she doesn’t have any training, Molly is headstrong and is willing to work hard. She is found out by Miss Nightingale, but her hard work and natural inclinations at nursing and caring for people proves her worthy. In fact, Molly's abilities are even a bit magical. The magical elements aren't played up too much and Molly is a likeable character as she struggles with defining her future, both professionally and personally. Whether during the Crimean War or now, trying to figure your way in the world is a timeless endeavor. Read more »

Light between Oceans


When we lived in Alaska, every summer we rode the Alaska state ferries past some islands--rocky, bird-filled--that had only one sign of civilization, the bright revolving lighthouse. Each time I wondered about this way of life that had almost faded. This wonderful novel fleshes out what life was like for a family in the 1920s off the east coast of Australia.

If you ever wondered about this vocation, Stedman captures the isolation and the magic of being far from the crowd, the joy certain light house workers found in a solitary working environment where the people you served--the sailors and merchant shipmen--relied totally upon you even though you would never meet.

The Light between Oceans begins with young Tom Sherbourne riding a boat to Partageuse on the east coast of Australia after having recently been discharged from the military. He'd won some medals in WWI and was now assigned to be a temporary lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock. While in town getting his papers processed, he meets Isabel, a girl of nineteen, who invites him to feed bread to the ducks at the dock. When he thanks her later, she says, it's just a silly thing, but he replies that he enjoyed it very much. Tom is scarred by the violence of the war and by his family life before when his mother abandoned him and his father and brother. In fact, Tom refuses to speak to his dad over what happened. Read more »

2013 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Orphan Master's SonThe Pulitzer Prize is an annual awards given to excellence in newspaper and online journalism, literature, and musical composition and are administered by Columbia University in New York City.  The 2013 awards were announced yesterday.  For books, the following awards were given.

Fiction - The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Ambitious and inventive, this novel is set in an orphanage in North Korea.  Protagonist Pak Jun Do is forced to become a fighting tunnel expert and a kidnapper before he takes his fate into his own hands. Johnson is able to tell the tale of touching humanity set within the backdrop of a brutal regime. Read more »

The Lifeboat


Charlotte Rogan's debut novel The Lifeboat restores your faith in 21st century writing.  In this historical novel, two narratives intertwine: the more dramatic one being the story of the shipwreck of the Princess Alexandria during the first months of WWI on a voyage from England to America.  The second story is about Grace, a young woman whose family has suffered a financial collapse. Suddenly, needing to make her own way in the world, Grace's choices are narrow:  to become a governess or find a rich husband, Grace being resourceful and not wanted to be tied down by a job with long hours and little pay chooses the latter.

She finds her husband material in an unlikely place:  the engagement listings of a London society paper.  Henry Winter, an American financier, is handsome and rich and works for a company rapidly increasing in power and influence. Amazingly, this part of the plan works. They marry and set off for America. On the ship, as a sign of her newly altered status, Grace and Henry are invited to sit at the captain's table.

But there Grace's good luck ends. For one thing, Henry has not cabled his parents about the marriage, and seems reluctant to do so. His parents send him telegrams about his former fiancee but does she even know that she's become history to him? In the middle of the night the Empress mysteriously explodes and the new bride finds herself the last person squeezed onto a lifeboat, and without her husband. Read more »

The Last Runaway


In The Last Runaway (as in all Tracy Chevalier's historical novels), you feel as though you are living exactly in the time period that she is describing. Her combination of research, realistic dialogue, characters true to the day, plus her skill at capturing the myriad details of daily life make her writing very believable.  In this novel, Chevalier transports us back to 1850s Ohio to a small town at the edge of the wilderness. But first, we experience a grueling ocean voyage from Quaker Honor Bright's perspective.  

Honor Bright accompanies her sister to America where Grace plans to wed someone from their English hometown.  After Honor suffers terrible seasickness on the journey, she refuses to take the lake route to Ohio, so they proceed by train and carriage. However Grace comes down with yellow fever and dies on the trip. Not knowing what else to do, Honor continues the journey to Faithwell, Ohio.

She catches yellow fever also and stops in Wellington at a local milliner's shop. Belle Mills takes her in.  Unfortunately, she's already met Belle's brother on the journey. Donovan is a slave hunter and he has stolen the key to Honor's trunk after ransacking the carriage while searching for runaway slaves. Read more »

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