Posts Tagged Historical Fiction

Escape Holiday Stress with an Adventurous Book

by Danielle Schapaugh

Because this time of year is extra stressful (plus the weather is getting bleaker and the days ever shorter), it’s the perfect time to escape into a can’t-put-it-down fantastic story.  The books below will whisk you away to other worlds and great adventures, some are gritty and others uplifting, and each one is worth a try.

Pierce Brown’s debut novel, “Red Rising,” will grab you from the first page and take you on a daring, action-packed journey into the future and across planets.  The best part is, it’s also full of heart.  The story begins deep in the mines of Mars with Darrow, the youngest drill specialist or “helldiver” in recent memory.  After a torturous betrayal, his need for vengeance drives him to become a revolutionary with the hope of changing the entire caste system of his society.  Driven to seek social justice by his indestructible love of family, he transforms himself and becomes more than he ever thought he could be.  Like Rocky Balboa, he possesses an inhuman ability to endure, and you will love Darrow soon after the first line, “I would have lived in peace but my enemies brought me war.”

Book two in the Red Rising series, “Golden Son,” does not suffer from the typical sophomore book slump.  I was grateful to be able to pick it up immediately after finishing the first book and am now anxiously awaiting the third installment, “Morning Star,” which is due to be released on January 12.  I recommend Brown’s books to everyone I meet, including my dental hygienist, mail carrier, and all of my coworkers.  Universal Pictures purchased the screen rights for seven figures, so it looks like a new blockbuster is in the works.

Next, for an adventurous tale that is both gritty and poetic, try “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doer.  This is the story of two young people on opposing sides of WWII in occupied France.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a young blind woman left alone in a house that is crumbling around her.  As the bombs drop, you follow her journey while she hides, drinks the dusty water from a bathtub, and discovers a last can of food that is miraculously filled with peaches.  Your heart may forget to beat as you turn the pages.

Marie-Laure’s counterpart, Werner Pfennig, is a German orphan who loves fixing things.  When an officer discovers Werner’s uncanny ability to repair radios, he finds himself recruited by the Nazis and plugged into the war machine.  You will long for the war to end but for the book to continue forever.

Finally, in “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” you will find yourself becoming strangely fascinated with the study of moss.  The journey in this book is largely internal, but oh, what an immense and powerful journey it is.  Plain-faced Alma Whittaker moves from infancy to old age and discovers truths about herself which only time can reveal.  The visceral details of 19th century life, the struggles between identity and expectations, and the passion with which Alma approaches her scientific study of mosses will have you immersed in another world and begging for more.

Accepting someone’s book suggestion requires a certain amount of trust.  You wouldn’t trust the opinion of someone you don’t know, but I would like you to think of your local librarians as your “book fortune tellers.”  Librarians are trained to identify the “appeal factors” of a book in order to recommend the right book for the right person.  So, if ever you find yourself in need of a reliable suggestion, a librarian will help assess your preferences and give you a list of books you are sure to love. The next time you’re here, ask a librarian about getting a personalized reading list.  You can also call the library at (785) 477-2735, or email us at


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Time to Travel

by John Pecoraro, Assistant Director

People talk about having time, making time, and wasting time. We’re anxious about time all the time. It’s no surprise that we’re fascinated by the idea of time travel. After all, who hasn’t dreamed about going into their past, and maybe improving the present? Who hasn’t fantasized about journeying into the future to see how we all turn out?

While H. G. Wells’  “The Time Machine,” written in 1895, popularized the concept of time travel, prototypes of time travel stories include Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle,” (sleeping for 20 years), and even the 8th century Japanese folk tale “Urashima Tarō.” In this story, a fisherman visits a world under the sea for three days only to find after returning home to his village that three hundred years have passed.

There are several best of time travel lists on the Web, and hundreds of titles listed. Here is a small sampling of some of the best.

In “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” by Audrey Niffenegger. Librarian Henry de Tamble suffers from Chrono Displacement disorder. He disappears into the past or the future during times of stress. Needless to say this can wreak havoc with a marriage. Clare, the time traveler’s wife, endures, as does the relationship between her and her husband.

The Time Machine,” by H.G. Wells is the classic time travel tale. Wells coined the term “time machine” to describe the mechanical device that propelled his Victorian scientist hero through time. The unnamed protagonist travels into the far future where he discovers a world peopled by the peaceful, childlike Eloi, and the ape-like, underground dwelling Morlocks, and the horrifying relationship between the two.

When illustrator Si Morley is recruited to join a covert government operation exploring time travel, he jumps at the chance to leave the twentieth-century for 1882. What happens when Si meets and falls in love with a woman in the past is the story Jack Finney tells in “Time and Again.”

In “Timeline,” by Michael Crichton, archaeologists studying the remains of medieval towns in Dordogne discover a pair of modern glasses and a note on parchment in the handwriting of missing Professor Edward Johnson. Using quantum technology provided by a mysterious company called ITC, a group of history students travel to 1357 France to look for the missing professor. What they don’t realize is that ITC’s motives for traveling to the past involve more than research.


When Claire Beauchamp Randall walks through a cleft stone in Scotland in 1945, she is somehow transported to 1743. There she encounters her husband, Frank’s, evil ancestor, Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. So begins “Outlander,” by Diana Gabaldon, the first in the popular series by the same name.

In “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” Connie Willis weaves the story of Ned Henry who travels from the 21st century back to the 1940s as part of a project to restore Coventry Cathedral. But when fellow time traveler, Verity Kindle, rescues a cat in Victorian times and brings it back to the present of 2057, she starts in motion events that can change the course of history. Now Ned has to jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right.

Travelers through time may seek to change the past, or they may be guardians sent to protect the past from other travelers. They may want to prevent a bad future from happening by changing the present (think “The Terminator”). Time travelers to the past may unintentionally change the future (their present) by their actions. In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Sound of Thunder,” a time traveling safari to see the dinosaurs has drastic results when one of its members makes a very small adjustment in the past.

There was a moment in history when everyone in the western world jumped several days in time. On October 4, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that the very next day would be not October 5, but October 15, thus correcting the ten day error of the Julian calendar. Of course we all time travel on a very limited scale each fall and spring. We fall back in time to relive an hour, or we zoom ahead. Happy time travelling.

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A Fable for Our Times: The Buried Giant

by Marcia Allen,  Collection Development

I just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, and I was stunned by the superb quality of the writing and the subtle levels of meaning within the story. I am sure that I will return to this book again and again, because I know I missed some of the nuances the author has so carefully woven throughout the story. This seemingly simple little tale has much that is hidden.

The story concerns Axl and Beatrice, an older Briton couple living in a rough village long after the fall of Rome, who have decided to attempt a walking journey to visit their son. The two are lovingly devoted to each other, and Axl always addresses his wife as “Princess.” But something is amiss: Despite their eagerness to visit their son, they have little memory of the boy and are not quite sure where he actually lives. Like everyone else in their village, their memories have been clouded by the presence of an obliterating mist.

Nevertheless, off they go on their quest during which they will have all kinds of adventures. Among other events, they will encounter ogres and mysterious boatmen. They will meet treacherous monks and hostile Saxons. They will encounter odd-behaving children and a slumbering dragon. As they travel, it becomes clear to the reader that the one constant in their lives is their love for each other.

Buried GiantLike the travelers of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, they are joined by others seeking their own quests. They meet Wistan, a well-trained Saxon knight, who seeks something that will change the course of British history. They meet Edwin, a young boy accompanying Wistan, who bears an unusual wound. And they meet Gawain, a knight once dedicated to the service of King Arthur, whose quest brings him into brutal conflict with that of Wistan.

So, what is this delightful book telling us about humanity? It says much about the nature of memory. While we readers are appalled that the main characters have forgotten their son and don’t recall much about their own lives, we soon realize that their failing is not their fault. As Axl grasps at shadowy recollections of his past experiences, we come to understand that there was a deliberate plan for mass forgetfulness, one that robs the soul of individual memory but also averts some of the evil in the world. If memory returns, so, too, will forgotten grudges and hurt feelings that have long been buried.

The book also has much to say about death and the way the dying are conveyed from life. Both Axl and Beatrice are frail older people, and this journey they have undertaken will bring terrible stress to them. Troubled by both rough terrain and terrifying creatures, they will struggle valiantly to complete their quest, discovering as they go that their beliefs about their lives are far from fact. The final passages of the book are a poignant reminder of the uncertainty of life and a testament to the ability of letting go.

To whom will this book appeal? To anyone who treasures tales of the distant past. To those who love a bit of fantasy in their stories. To folks who appreciate symbolic meaning in everyday events of ordinary people. To anyone who loves a story of exquisitely worded language. This book will appeal on many different levels, and readers lucky enough to sample it will surely feel that they have been enthralled by a master storyteller.


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2014 Shaara Prize for Civil War Fiction Goes to “Nostalgia”

by Mary, Adult Services Librarian

The Michael Shaara Prize for Civil War Fiction was awarded a few weeks ago on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Each year the prize is given to an author of a novel about the Civil War published for the first time in the current calendar year to “encourage fresh approaches to Civil War fiction”

nostalgiaThis year Dennis McFarland won the prize for his stunning Civil War novel, Nostalgia.  A young private is fighting to find his way to safety after being injured physically with deafness and disorientation.  His friends have deserted him and he is battling emotional trauma.  Unable to write his name Hayes struggles in a military hospital with what is then called “soldier’s heart.”  He encounters a captain who is convinced that Hayes is faking his illness, an amputee that shows compassion and an eccentric visitor to the ward, Walt Whitman, who becomes his advocate.  This timeless story, whose outcome hinges on friendships forged in crisis, reminds us that the injuries of war are manifold, and the healing goodness in the human soul runs deep and strong.

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Adventure Awaits at your Library

Do you remember being a child and having the time to curl up in a chair, spending the day lost in an adventure taking place in another time or world? Remembering those classic children’s fiction books take us back to those days. And re-reading those books as adults, or reading them aloud to our children, brings a new perspective on the stories that we so fondly recall.

There are many children’s books that are considered classics, and a few of the favorites on my list include:“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1911, is one of my all-time favorite stories, one that I read and re-read as a child and read aloud to my own children. It tells the story of Mary Lennox, orphaned in India and sent to live in the moors of England with her uncle. Misselthwaite Manor is a cold, lonely estate, made isolated and somber after the death of her aunt, leaving her uncle in inconsolable grief. Mary hears rumors of a hidden garden, as well as hearing strange cries in the night. She discovers the hidden garden as well as a sickly cousin, Colin. With the help of her maid Martha, Martha’s brother Dickon, and Ben, the kindly old gardener, Mary brings life back to the garden, to Colin and to the Manor. This is a charming story of friendship, family and determination, with wonderful descriptions of the garden and the children growing and changing. Burnett is also the author of another favorite, “A Little Princess.”

Continue Reading Adventure Awaits at your Library

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Bring Up the Bodies: Part II of a Superb Tudor Trilogy

index (73)By Marcia Allen
Technical Services & Collections Manager
Those who devour historical fiction will well remember one of 2009’s best books, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.  To no one’s surprise, the book was destined for prestigious awards, among them the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.  The reasons for praise were many:  Mantel’s writing manages to bring to life a distant time period and to enliven characters long gone except in history books.  Reading her prose is a lively immersion into the drama and customs of 16th century royal England.
Wolf Hall is the first of a trilogy that follows the life and career of Thomas Cromwell.  The story begins with a grim look at his brutal childhood and works its way to his role as successor to Cardinal Wolsey during the reign of Henry VIII.  As the story is told from Cromwell’s point of view, readers get both a compelling story and an intimate character study of a complex individual.  All of this occurs against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn.
But history shows us that Anne’s reign was doomed early on.  Much as Henry was quick to fall for her, he quickly lost interest, and Anne’s failure to deliver a living son was a catalyst.  That’s the focus of author Mantel’s new book, and second part of the trilogy, Bring up the Bodies.
The story begins shortly after the execution of Thomas More.  First queen Katherine of Aragon languishes in exile.  Cromwell is a favored confidante for King Henry, but he walks an uncertain path, as do others who counsel such a volatile leader.  Henry is disappointed in Anne’s aborted pregnancies and has recently noticed the shy manners of Jane Seymour.  He has already begun to weigh variables in dissolving his second marriage.
What makes this second volume just as compelling as the first is partly a matter of the author’s expertise in conveying the richness of the time period and partly a matter of her gorgeous use of language.  Consider, for example, Cromwell’s thoughts when he visits the ailing Queen Katherine:
“If she (the queen) is ill in the night, perhaps she dreams of the gardens of Alhambra, where she grew up: the marble pavements, the bubbling of crystal water into basins, the drag of a white peacock’s tail and the scent of lemons.  I could have brought her a lemon in my saddlebag, he thinks.”

Another equally compelling feature of Mantel’s writing is her uncanny ability to make the reader a silent witness to dramatic historical events.  Toward the end of this book, Mantel recounts the boasting of musician to the queen, Mark Smeaton, who claimed to know the queen in intimate terms.  The reader can feel the tension, as Smeaton’s questioners, Cromwell among them, realize that they have found the loophole that will free Henry from his burdensome marriage.  The reader also senses the horror that this idle boast will bring upon Anne and her court.
The concluding passages of the book speed through the hurried trials of those convicted of treason.  Mantel’s handling of those details immerses the reader in the brutality of the times, of the fate that awaited those who dared offend Henry.  And the retelling of the actual executions is so vivid, so realistic, that readers can but cringe.
I have to confess that I read this book in only a day or two, which would seem to indicate that it’s fairly short and fairly simple to read.  This is not the case.  This is a complicated tale with multiple layers of nuance, a story that dedicates five opening pages alone to its list of characters.  My haste to read the book is due to its hypnotic nature: it is just that well written.  I am eagerly awaiting the third volume of this outstanding trilogy, which promises to put Cromwell into dangerous conflict with his unpredictable monarch.  I urge you to get lost in the pages of Bring up the Bodies.

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Inspiration from the Refugee Experience

Library column printed in The Mercury, Jan. 1, 2012

Several books featuring refugee children have left me in awe of the rebounding spirit of children and their amazing ability to hope, dream and find their place in the world. Though these are all fictional accounts, several authors had personal experiences that led them to write, and their openness adds integrity and genuineness to the characters’ tales.

Betti on the High Wire by Lisa Railsback is an engrossing read told from the point of view of 10-year-old Babo/Betti. Babo is one of the “leftover children” in a worn torn country when two “melons” (as she calls them) from America decide to adopt her and rename her Betti. Betti’s honesty about losing the world she understood, however strange and difficult it was, and her struggle to understand American life is fascinating. Betti clings to what she knows of her past, of being born into a circus camp where her parents were famous, and is sure her parents will one day return for her, which is why she needs to convince Mr. and Mrs. Buckworth that she is so bad they need to send her back. Railsback, who has worked with children in refugee camps, creates a strong character in Betti that readers will love to get to know, and seeing from her perspective might make kids interact with more kindness and understanding when they meet other children who have moved here from different countries.

Similar in some ways, 10-year-old Ha’s refugee story comes alive in Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, which recently won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Ha’s family flees South Vietnam in 1975, leaving behind everything they know and taking with them the unsettled sadness of their father missing in action for nine years. Lai gives the story a unique feel by writing in sparse verse. “Ten-year-olds, especially Vietnamese, think in tight images. I cut out every word I didn’t need,” she said in an interview. The words flow and match the tone of each experience as Ha describes her Saigon landscape, travel by sea, and acclimating to the strangeness of Alabama.

Ha’s story mirrors Lai’s own childhood when she moved with her mother and eight siblings from Saigon to the U. S. in the 70’s. “Life got more complicated, with me not speaking English and never having tasted a hot dog,” Lai recalls in her biography on the publisher’s website. “Add that to my looks. I was the first real-life Asian my classmates had ever seen.” In the story, Ha endures bullying from classmates, mean comments and alienation, but she also finds kindness, friendship and a determination to succeed in her new life.

Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water is a real gem. It is based on the true story of Salva Dut, one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, starting with the day soldiers burst into his village and burned his school. Young Salva ran into the bush and had to find his way without his family to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and later to a camp in Kenya. Park says that some aspects have been “fictionalized,” but she interviewed Salva extensively and made the story as true to his experience as possible. Salva’s fear and daily trials are entwined with another story, that of teenage Nya who must walk two long trips every day to a pond to get water for her family. Although Nya’s story takes place years after Salva’s, they intersect with each other in the end.

Salva’s story is both upsetting and inspiring. The realities of war are so harsh and cruel, but Salva learns to take one step and one day at a time to persevere, which he says (in a letter at the end of the book) is the important thing that he would like to pass on to others.

Linda Sue Park flawlessly captures the essence of Salva’s remarkable story. Readers may want to start raising money for Water for South Sudan, a not-for-profit organization created and led by Salva Dut. More than 100 wells have been drilled, allowing children like the fictional Nya to go to school every day instead of walking miles to get water, and keeping families healthier with clean drinking water. It is amazing to read about the many close calls Salva survived in order to be at this point where he is helping hundreds from his country live better lives.

Finally, What You Wish For is a new short story compilation honoring the children of Darfur, with well-known children’s authors contributing like Meg Cabot (Princess Diaries), R. L. Stine (Goosebumps), Cornelia Funke (Inkheart), and Jeanne DePrau (City of Ember). The foreword by Mia Farrow describes one of her many encounters with children in refugee camps. “And this is the amazing thing,” she says. “No matter how dire the circumstances or bleak the prospects, every child I have met in Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, or Angola has a dream.” The stories are quite varied, going from an abandoned baby floating down a river in a box to a clique of teenage girls living in a futuristic, overcrowded world. They all contain the themes of wishing and hoping for something better, and often doing something about it. Sprinkled with poetry, photos of refugee children, and even a comic-book-style story, What You Wish For is perfect for short reading breaks or for sharing in a classroom setting.

Review by Jennifer Adams

Posted in: Children's Dept, Mercury Column

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