California Literary Review

Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Fort by Bernard Cornwell

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October 5th, 2010

Bernard Cornwell, who has written a masterful novel about Agincourt, tackles the American Revolution and its realities in his new work, The Fort. You won’t find any shellacked heroes here. His patriots range from the committed few to the mercenary many and include a host of men who have been shanghaied (“Impressed” was the term of the day) into serving their country involuntarily.

A Separate Country by Robert Hicks

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March 16th, 2010

A Separate Country tells the story of Confederate General John Bell Hood, who moves to New Orleans after the war and marries a Creole debutante. Hood is a haunted man who has been physically marked by the war; he has lost a leg and the use of an arm. In addition, he can only excel militarily, and his life as a businessman is a resounding failure. Nevertheless, he finds love with the young beauty Anna Marie and they have eleven children together.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

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November 17th, 2009

Even so, to hold The Lacuna in one’s hand, to read it, is to witness and experience years of distilled effort and research. Like Diego Rivera’s murals, it is a lager-than-life work full of color, life, and movement, one executed by a masterful artist at the height of her creative powers.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

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October 1st, 2009

Mawer’s The Glass Room is a genuine intellectual achievement—a breath-taking story of love and its loss, of art and lost art, of wars lost and then won and lost again, of rich gentleman Jews and Jews lost to Nazi madness. His broad canvas covers the decades of Mittel-European horrors that began in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. The themes are familiar, but treated in a fresh and stimulating, not to say disturbing, way.

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

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August 31st, 2009

Sing in me, Muse quotes Homer (the original one). “Jacqueline, my muse, I speak to you directly for a moment,” quoth our modern man. It is no accident that Homer addresses his story to a French reporter whom he briefly met. For, in a way, his account is his own universal newspaper, an elegy to the disintegration of 20th century America, the winding down of the clock.

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

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February 24th, 2009

Much more serious, though, is the book’s take on the medieval world as a whole. Alongside the loud cynicism of its insistence that the battles are meaningless, the church is corrupt and the aristocracy live in a different world, Agincourt continually asserts a broadly positive, modern outlook.

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

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February 11th, 2009

On the morning of March 2, 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant who had fled the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, knocked on the door of Chicago Police Chief George Shippy. Noting Averbuch’s foreign features and working man’s dress, the officer assumed he was an anarchist and gunned him down.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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February 8th, 2009

Yet when an author treads into specific territories, the ground becomes awfully muddy. We’re happy to let writers play around with being a Roman slave of the first century or a prostitute of the eighteenth, but when it comes to depicting a person who has lived through the Holocaust or the Civil Rights era, ah, then I think we hesitate. Does an author, even in the services of fiction, have a right to appropriate these stories?

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišic

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October 2nd, 2008

Yet it is no accident that Aleksandar begins with an account of death, nor is it an accident that he wishes himself a magician, able to wave a wand and make things okay again. For tucked in the lines of his narrative we hear ominous rumblings, like shellfire in the distance. Communism is discredited, nationalist sentiment is on the rise.

The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III

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September 17th, 2008

Of course, the reason the affable Dubus was feeding strippers $20 from his writing fellowship becomes a little clearer when one reads the book – the tale of an exotic dancer in Florida whose life intersects with one of the hijackers of 9/11.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

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September 2nd, 2008

Such a pity Mary Ann Shaffer is not around to enjoy her celebrity! Shaffer died in February of this year and thus missed her own miracle—best-sellerdom for a first book written by an already “mature” librarian, former bookseller, and unpublished, aspiring writer. The good news, however, is that her opus is engaging, ingenious and ahead of the publishing game.

The Count of Concord by Nicholas Delbanco

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August 18th, 2008

Sir Benjamin Thompson, a.k.a. Count Rumford, is probably most familiar to modern ears as the inventor of the Rumford Fireplace. Yet that honorarium does not begin to cover the career – tinkerer, teacher, soldier, and spy – of this poster child of the Enlightenment.

The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

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June 16th, 2008

If you’re going to mix brains with bosoms, however, you have to be very careful stylistically. Readers don’t mind sex, we’re very fond of it in some cases, but we do mind when it’s over the top. And what jars in the racier bits jars overall. Underneath the adjectives and adverbs, there’s a streamlined, engaging book in here. It just needed a firm editor on passages like these

Coffee with… Series

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March 20th, 2008

Barnes’s giant of the Western world is short, sharp, and funny, and well worth spending time with, even if he is, perhaps, more modern Englishman than ancient Greek in some places. As a taste of philosophical ideas Coffee with Aristotle is just right – now if only the longer treatises were as palatable.

The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin

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October 25th, 2007

Goodwin now returns with another mystery, a tale as exotic as the first one, delicious in its evocation of the last days of the Ottoman dynasty. Here, however, the territory is dangerously personal.

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