I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.
A highly enjoyable historical novel set in the 1940's and 1950's in Malaya (nowadays Malaysia).
The story takes place against the backdrop of the unrest, war and occupation in the 1940's and 1950's and it craftily takes you through the events and touches upon some very interesting themes: the experiences of South-East Asian peoples under the Japanese occupation, the great ethnic complexity of Malaya and the tensions and frictions that resulted of it (refreshing, as most Western lit pretends there are only two kinds of Asians in the period of the Pacific war: Japanese and non-Japanese).
Eng really knows how to evoke the highland sceneries: the jungle, the tea estate, the Japanese garden are all conjured up with wonderful imagery. However, the conversations and lines of thought were at times oddly cut short and the change to a different topic abrupt, making the story at times a bit of a bumpy ride.
The novel relies heavily on the plot, with the characters remaining without much depth. However, the twists and turns in the story kept me entertained and the characters were likeable.
There are, unfortunately quite some issues I had with the main character, miss Teoh. Her character was extremely disappointing; flat, underdeveloped and no exploration of her emotions nor her struggles with her traumas from the camps. We don't know what she likes, what she dislikes, what she wants.... Even if one argues that her traumas are so overpowering after the Japanese occupation that she doesn't have a personality outside of her traumatic experiences (ouch), there still isn't even a hint as to the person she was before. Everybody has dreams. What were hers? Her sister, who gets next-to-no screen time feels more real than her because we know she loves to paint and is fascinated by Japanese gardens.
After I read the book, I was surprised to learn it was shortlisted for the Booker (I somehow completely missed it written on the cover of my edition...). This is a highly enjoyable historical novel, but it's not Booker material. So I'm glad I didn't know it was a Booker nominee before, as I would have had higher expectations for the character development, which would have left me very disappointed.
If you're interested in detailed non-fiction about the Antiquity that's accessible to lay readers, check out Fik Meijer's books. Sadly, this particular one about Rome and Constantinople isn't available in English, but there are a few others like The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport and Emperors Don't Die in Bed.
Zeer aangename non-fictie waarbij de veranderingen gedurende de late oudheid in de twee belangrijkste steden in het Laat-Romeinse Rijk worden gevolgd. Meijer gaat in op de veranderingen in betekenis van de steden binnen het Romeinse Rijk, de bemoeienissen van de keizers en de pausen, de architectonische veranderingen en hoogstandjes in beide steden en de beslommeringen van de gewone bevolking. Door het hele boek zitten zwart-wit fotos en er is een kleuren-foto katern van de vele gebouwen en kunstwerken uit deze tijd. Dit boek leest waarschijnlijk het beste als je zelf naar Rome of Constantinopel op vakantie gaat, of bekend bent met een of beide steden. Dit geldt met name voor de passages waarin Meijer de interessante gebouwen beschrijft.
A popular non-fiction book on a fascinating subject: judicial duels or trials by combat. Jager follows one famous case: the fabled last judicial duel to ever take place in France. Two men fight to the death over the accusation that one has raped the wife of the other. The subject has all the good ingredients for a juicy historical story: the Hundred Years War, a noblewoman seeking justice, the world of the lower nobility, medieval legal and military antics....
Good popular historical non-fiction can permit itself some more liberties compared to academic non-fiction in interpreting the lacunas in the sources, and the style of writing is not necessarily argumentative, but narrative. Jager has chosen to write his book as a narrative with heavy literary influences, which makes this particular book a bit of an odd beast. The author at times permits himself a fictionalized interpretation of key scenes, such as the blow-by-blow action scenes of the judicial duel itself, which not only helps the reader transport themselves to that place and time, it allows for a pleasant change of pace in the overall narrative.
Inside the cultural-historic framework, Jager tries to tease out the personalities of the key figures. This does not always work as well. The figures emerge as types instead of human beings of flesh and blood: there's the rugid and honest man-at-arms Carrouges, there's the sly courtier Le Gris, there's the silent "good wife" Margerite. There's little room for nuance in these characterizations, but this typification allows for a solid good vs. bad storyline and isn't at all unpleasant to read.
The author has a clear love for this story and his own interpretation of what kind of characters the key figures in the story must have been. As a reader, I wanted to give in and follow Jager's narrative and interpretation of events. However, the style of the book makes it impossible to distinguish which parts are based on medieval sources and which are Jager's own interpretation or imagination. Furthermore, I felt that there were a lot of minor errors and argumentation flaws in his story.
The problem with a lot of little things is that then add up into one big ball. There are several instances where you can doubt the historical validity of the claims, or the explanations just feel off-key. Possibly, this the result of wanting to simplify things for a wider audience and the fact that the writer is specialized in medieval literature and not medieval history. The result is imprecisions or off-the-mark typifications. Examples include typifying the disputes between Le Gris and Carrouges prior to the rape as a "feud" (no blood flowed, no armed clashes took place - you can hardly speak of a feud when Carrouges has badmouthed Le Gris for a bit. One could possibly speak of a fued starting once Margerite is raped) and the author's confusion as to why the mother of Carrouges wasn't living with her grown son after her husband's death (this is really common for the late medieval nobility - all examples of widows I know of lived on their own land and not together with their adult son).
Then there are spots in the argumentation and explanation of events which are wholely unsupported. It went to the point that I became suspicious of any statement which started with "it is likely that...". One glaringly obvious example early on in the book is the claim that Margerite did not like staying with her mother-in-law. It is never explained why the author thinks this is the case, except for the "mother-in-laws, ammi rite" vibe. Hardly a sound argument.
What certainly doesn't help the author's credibility is the fact that the notes are a mess. There are plenty of phrases throughout the book which are placed in quotation marks without any reference to whose words these are. Then there are the notes which are provided at the end of the book. They do not have a clear reference to the text as there are no footnotes to indicate in the text where exactly the footnote refers to. Though upon checking, I learned that they certainly do not refer to the mystery quotes. Very sloppy and an eternal shame as the author clearly did do a lot of research and digging into the original sources.
Furthermore, I found that two things were lacking in this book. One was that we never learned what happened to Adam Louvel. Was he executed after the duel for his complicity? Second was that I really missed an exploration of the misogyny that informed so much of this process - from the fact that Margerite herself can't pursue justice, to the dismissal and and disbelief in her story by so many men, both contemporaries of her as well as historians later on. The disbelief in her statement is harrowingly mirrored by the treatment of many survivors today - a comparison that could easily have been made, but sadly isn't.
All in all a book about a fascinating subject, though I feel the author hasn't been able to write the best book he could make of it.
Sometimes there are books that come along and happen to be just what you needed at that moment. That was Fudoki for me: the right book at the right time. I've read it with so much joy that, in the moments that I couldn't read, I was waiting for the time when I could pick it up again. It's been a while since a book has been that gripping.
The story is just the right mix between historical fiction and fantasy. The fantastic flows effortlessly from the spiritual beliefs and the folklore of Heian era Japan, while the story is tied into historical events through Harueme's recounts of her half-brother, Emperor Shirakawa, who ruled in the late 11th century. I would love to read more historical fantasy that incorporates the fantastical into the historical in this manner.
The characters were well rounded and their journey's - spiritual and actual - where a joy to read. I found Harueme's relationship with Shigeko especially touching. Also, I loved that the protagonists aren't your usual suspects: they're a cat-woman-warrior and a seventy-year-old princess.
**Dutch review below**
I'm not sure why, but all graphic novels / comics with a decent historical fiction storyline are from the Franco-Dutch tradition, with little to no examples of such graphic novels in English. Sadly, that means many amazing books are not available in English. This book included.
The book tells the story of Jan van Scorel (Dutch painter and Renaissance man) and his adventures in Rome when he's in service of the Dutch pope Adrianus VI. In the story, Scorel sets out to find out the truth of Adrianus' death, because the man cannot have died from natural causes. The story has all the good stuff: intrige in the Vatican, the high politics between the German Empire and France, and Scorel's son has his own adventures back in Scorel's hometown Utrecht when the Protestant reformation and the beeldenstorm kick off.
The story is carried by the beautiful drawings which bring to life sixteenth century Rome and Utrecht. The illustrator has done a lot of research to make sure his drawings are as historically accurate as possible - from clothing to the buildings to the street scenes. However, the storyline is overly ambitious. There is simply too much good stuff which the writer has tried to stuff into the story, which means the events and characters do not get as much depth as they deserve.
Aardige strip waarin Jan van Scorel de hoofdrol speelt: hij gaat naar het Vaticaan om de Nederlandse paus Adrianus te dienen, en na diens dood gaat hij op onderzoek uit: in de slangenkuil dat Rome is kan het uiteraard niet zo zijn dat een ogenschijnlijk gezonde man zo snel een natuurlijke dood sterft.
De strip wordt gedragen door de prachtige tekeningen die zestiende eeuws Rome en Utrecht tot leven wekken. Echter, de verhaallijn is nogal ambitieus. Niet alleen het gekonkel van Rome en de geschiedenis van Adrianus komt aan bod, zo speelt op de achtergrond de beeldenstorm in Utrecht en de politiek tussen Frankrijk en het Duitse rijk. Fantastisch materiaal voor een verhaal, maar met slechts 80 pagina's is het verhaal te kort om de intriges en de personages de diepgang te geven die ze verdienen.
Verschrikkelijk. Slecht geschreven, en het tweede boek dat ik van Wieringa heb gelezen dat een seksistisch hoofdpersonage opvoert en geen fatsoenlijk vrouwelijk personage als tegenhanger kan opdragen. De vrouw in dit verhaal is geen mens van vlees en bloed, maar een mythisch wezen in het leven van de hoofdpersoon gekomen om alles beter en mooier te maken (jammer dat dit "ding" niet lijkt te werken, he?).
Ben er helemaal voor om een apart genre te maken met "guy lit", vol met verhalen over mannen met een mid-life crisis. Dan hoeven die boeken zich niet meer te verstoppen onder "literatuur". Kan dit boek gelijk tussen.
A highly enjoyable detective set in ancient China. Robert van Gulik definitely made me interested in reading more in this genre. He bases his stories on an old Chinese genre of writing detective stories, which revolve around the magistrate: a government official who was in charge of justice. He was the detective and the judge in one.
The story is streamlined to revolve around the mysteries, with the historical and cultural context as a background. Therefore, unlike historical novels pure sang, all historical details which are unnecessary for the story to be told are left out. It is therefore an action-packed, quick and enjoyable read.
However, it in no way suffers from a lack of historical grounding. Gulik has done his research and his knowledge of ancient China, as well as the original Chinese detective stories, shows. His main character is a known historical figure from the Tang dynasty and he has done considerable research for his character and his cases, as well as the court and police proceedings of the time. Furthermore, the afterword explains how Gulik used several narrative elements in the original Chinese detective stories.
My only squabble with the book is that the language, especially in the beginning, was a tad old fashioned and therefore it took some time to get into the story. As my edition is rather old (1957), that might not be an issue in later translations and reprints. That being said, I greatly enjoyed the drawings made by the author which were included in my copy.
The biography of Toto Koopman, an intriguing woman who lived life to the fullest, is told with contagious enthusiasm by her biographer Jean-Noël Liaut. He takes us to the most vibrant and exciting scenes in 20th century Europe: Paris in the '20s and '30s, the gruesome '40s in Italy and the German camps, London in the '50s and '60s, Sicilian islands where the artistic elite gathers to holiday - the list goes on and on.
The same can be said about the heroine of the story, Toto Koopman; successful model, spy, resistance fighter, camp survivor, society lady, art lover, archeologist, polyglot, biracial, bisexual, sexually liberated, free spirit - she can hardly be described in one word, let alone a list like this. It never seems to feel like a complete portrayal, too closed and narrow to define a woman who lived life the way she wanted, unconditionally.
nb. this book has not been translated into English (as far as I know), but is available in Dutch (original language), French and German, and perhaps some other languages as well.
I will say before I start with the review that I did not finish this book. I read until half-way and then I gave up. It's not that it isn't any good, it's just that this main character is written in such a way that I couldn't finish it.
First the positive. There are many good things about this book. It's about Elizabeth Cook, wife of the famous explorer James Cook. I think this is a very interesting premise for a novel: instead of writing the story about James and his adventures and discoveries, we get to read about the woman who stayed behind, who had to do things all on her own and despite years of marriage didn't spend more than one entire year in her husband's company. That was the reason I wanted to read this novel. It's an interesting, fresh subject and it's so interesting to explore the role and life of women like Elizabeth Cook. I do think the novel succeeds in this. It shows the loneliness, the doubt, the self-denial and generally the harsh life of a woman who has to do everything on her own - from running the household to mourning over her children who died at a young age.
The writing is clean and gives a great sense of the period and the confined world of Elizabeth: her home, the daily rounds she walks, her imaginations about James' travels.
However, I had a major issue with the way Elizabeth was written. The author clearly meant to get across to the reader to show how hard life was for Elizabeth, and the effect it had on her mental wellbeing. After all, she lived to be well into her nineties, she lost all her children, her husband, her best friend, etc. That's hard, I get that. But from page one of the novel (when she still has her husband, who is on the return after a long journey! shouldn't you be happy about that?), we get nothing but a defeated character. If the writer set out to write a depressed character, she succeeded. However, I personally cannot read about such defeatism, such self-loathing, self-denial and self-sacrifice, without a spark of hope that it will change. I just don't handle narrow POV stories about depressed characters very well.
I kept on reading until halfway through the novel, hoping for Elizabeth to change quickly, but everything just circled back to her defeatism. There was nothing to feel for this character except pity and frustration that she didn't try to do anything on her own initiative, for herself, or her own happiness. I had to abandon the novel.
Perhaps others find this a really wonderful portrayal of a woman who had centered her life around a husband who was never there, and as a consequence had a tough, unhappy life, and the kind of effect it had on her psyche. Sadly, it was not for me.
This book is highly enjoyable, the writer clearly has talent and I can't wait to see what he has in store for us next. However, it feels like a debut novel. I had some difficulty with the writing in the beginning of the book. It didn't flow very well and was a bit of an obstacle for me getting into the story. As the story progresses, the writing improves, and by the end, during the climax, the writing was great. It flowed and had just the right pace.
The greatest asset of the story are the characters: they're very memorable and likeable. I adored Eleanore. They're such a fascinating historical figure and it's great to see a fictional interpretation of them. My only squabble with Holsinger's interpretation of them is that his descriptions of their gender seem contradictory. Of course, one could write a character as fluid or themself unsure of their gender, but the way it was written didn't convey any fluidity or uncertainty. So instead, it came off as contradictory to me.
I love the duo Gower and Chaucer. I think they make a really nice mystery/thriller duo. Instead of a detective with his trusty sidekick, we get two friends who seem to be very close (and who want to be very close), but who still have a very uneasy working relationship. There's such an interesting tension between these two and I'd love to see more mystery/thriller novels with a team-up like that. And as the writer is planning to write sequels with this duo there's more of the Gower/Chaucer team-up in the future (hooray!)
The romp continues! The second book in Young's Insurrection trilogy about Robert the Bruce is just as great a read as the first in the series (my review here).
The start of the book is especially strong. Young uses the medieval imagination, full of prophecies, relics and rumors of mysterious orders to the fullest in creating her story. Her use of these (for modern readers - not so much for the medieval mind) fantastical elements together with her clear grasp of the period and the political and military struggle in Schotland, give this story the feel of an epic story, instead of yet another military adventure story set in the Middle Ages. Young did bend a lot of the history in order to tell the story the way she did, though it is all explained in her extensive author's note. For me, it didn't distract from enjoying the novel, but for those who want a more truthful retelling of Robert the Bruce's story it might be a dealbreaker.
Young's writing had me staying up late a couple of nights, turning the pages to see what would happen next. She does know how to entertain! So, why the 3.5 stars for a novel which I clearly enjoyed?
The flaws I noted in the first book of the series - with her descriptions not being as succinct as could be, are also in this novel. I am, for instance, not sure what lines like "Westminster Hall (...) was two hundred and forty feet long" (p. 170) add to calling up the scene. At times, descriptions also get away from her, with lines that make no sense to me, like "the crunching, grating sounds of two armies grinding into one another" (p. 244) (what does that sound like? I don't know. I never heard to armies "grinding into one another")
On top of that, I felt that the occasional hopping to the stories of minor characters greatly distracted from the speed and the excitement of the novel. I felt no connection to any other character apart from Robert (Young could work on giving her minor characters more emotional depth). So for me, reading about other characters really needed to be founded in moving the plot forward. Sometimes I felt that wasn't the case at all. The substory with the king's daughters could have been cut out or greatly reduced, and the battle of the Golden Spurs could have been incorporated in another way instead of describing it in a scene. Nothing as annoying as reading a battle scene in which you have no stakes at all.
The third and final book in this series is expected to be published this year, so I'm looking forward to how Young handles the last part of Robert's story.
This is how I like my historical fiction: meticulously researched, well developed characters and a well written story. Mantel has done an amazing job with her research into the characters and the time and by how she incorporated that into her fiction. Not once did it feel like a lecture, or like the author showing off her knowledge. Yet her writing shows her extensive knowledge on life in medieval London, the workings of a merchant's household, the festivals and events in a medieval year. She makes you believe Cromwell's expertise in drapes, the complexity of court politics, the work of an advocate. She conjures up the various historical places all over Europe, as well as the intimate details of the rooms of Cromwell's house, the court, the Tower. And she does so while narrating the complicated events around Henry: the king with his many wifes.
The only squabble I have is that I felt that in all those details of the story, Cromwell's development as a character was moved to the background, particularly in the second half of the book. While in the first half, we see Cromwell struggle
However, his character gets very little development in the second half of the novel, due to a shift in focus on king Henry and his troubles - and what Cromwell is doing about that. While the day-to-day stuff of Cromwell's household still gets mentioned, it feels out of place, as Cromwell's personal story is no longer the focus of the plot.
What a great novella! The debut of Hella S. Haasse, written for the Dutch week of literature (boekenweek) in 1948, tells the story of a friendship, of colonialism, and of growing apart. Two boys grow up together: the narrator is a Dutch boy whose father helps run a plantation in colonial Indonesia. His best friend is Oeroeg, the son of the head servant. When the story was published, the Indonesian war for independance was ongoing - something which gives the story more urgency as the events in the novella go right up to 1947.
Haasse's writing - as always - is evocative. She knows how to paint the scene, how to create the atmosphere. The story left me thinking a long time after I've finished it. And because I can't seem to write down my thoughts without giving away just about anything about the story, I've put them all under the spoiler warning...
A great book on the fascinating figure René d'Anjou: 15th century aristocrat, writer and art lover. The book covers various aspects of René's life, like his politics in the various lands he owned or made a claim to (including his Neapolitan adventures), his writings, his life as a a rich nobleman in 15th century France, and his significance in history.
The writing is accompanied by many images of himself and other important figures, his castles, the art made for him, images from manuscripts of his writings, and so on. All those photos of those beautiful castles make me want to go on a roadtrip this summer...
The contrast between Jeanne d'Arc and Gilles de Rais isn't a novel subject for authors. There's, for instance, Lampo's "De duivel en de maagd" ("the Devil and the Virgin" - available in Dutch and French), plenty of cultural references and even an opera.
Tournier's take on it is an interesting character sketch of de Rais, his demonic delusions and his obsession with Jeanne.
Tournier has done extensive research into the court case and the figure of de Rais and he tells his story with great clarity. However, I didn't feel like he could conjure up the historical setting in great detail. The tidbits of everyday life, of 15th century reality remained vague and blurred. It gave the story the feel of a gruesome fairytale set in some far off land, instead of something that happened in 15th century France.
Something that might have contributed to that is that at times I felt that the language, especially the dialogue, was stilted. Though I don't know whether that's the Dutch translation, or if that's also the case in the French original.
So while this isn't a traditional historical fiction book in which you can get a glimps of the period, it is an interesting read for those interested in Jeanne d'Arc and her companions, as well as those looking for a bit of horror (no explicitly graphic content though).
Heerlijk boek; precies zoals goede historische non-fictie hoort te zijn. Diepgaand, zonder dat het onbegrijpelijk wordt voor mensen zonder voorkennis. Panhuysen weet de ingewikkelde gebeurtenissen helder uit te leggen, en met zijn rake typeringen van personen en toevoeging van interessante details weet hij het verhaal tot leven te wekken. Het resultaat leest lekker weg, zonder oppervlakkig te worden.
Panhuysen beschrijft de gebeurtenissen van 1671-1674/5 aan de hand van de correspondentie van één familie. Vader zit als diplomaat aan het Brandenburgse hof om de Duitse vorsten over te halen de Nederlanden te hulp te komen. Moeder moet het thuis zien te redden, waar ze schippert om het hele huishouden veilig de oorlog door te slepen en de constante zorgen over het kasteel en het dorp dat ze hebben moeten ontvluchten, nu in handen van de vijand. Hun enige zoon is officier in het Nederlandse leger. Door het leven en de zorgen van deze drie mensen te beschrijven, geeft Panhuysen een goed beeld van de gebeurtenissen en hoe mensen dit beleefden.
Absolute aanrader voor mensen die meer willen weten hoe het ook al weer zat met "radeloos, redeloos, reddeloos" 1672.