by Octavia Butler
“Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.”
Originally published in 1979, Kindred is a brilliant exploration of “the peculiar institution” of slavery. In this historical fantasy, Dana, a twentieth century black woman, is ripped from her time and deposited on a 1820’s Maryland plantation to save a young white boy named Rufus from drowning. When threatened by the boy’s father, she snaps back to her own time, wet and muddy from the river, to the astonishment of her husband who saw her disappear before his eyes only seconds before. This is the first in a series of time displacements that occur whenever Rufus is threatened by death and snaps her back when her own life is threatened. The time elapsed includes only a few months of Dana’s modern time, but years in her life with Rufus (as a boy and later as a young man) and the slaves on his plantation. Continue reading
The Confessions of Young Nero
by Margaret George
“While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire…Nero’s determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become—an Emperor who became legendary. With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy’s ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.”
Because Nero is a minor character in one of my books (Sword of the Gladiatrix) and plays a more impactful role in the upcoming sequel (Song of the Gladiatrix), I was curious to see how George would handle this fascinating and controversial figure. The Confessions of Young Nero is set in the period considered by some historians to be Nero’s “sane” period (even though it included his infamous murder of his mother). His early life, especially under the influence of the philosopher Seneca and other older mentors, showed much promise. As he grew older and more independent, his choice of companions grew more reckless and his actions less excusable. Continue reading
by Gordon Linzner
“Imprisoned for thousands of years in the hilt of a ceremonial sword, the oni, a hideous Japanese demon, is accidentally released to wreak the havoc of its pent-up fury on an unsuspecting world. All-powerful, immortal, and possessed of an unquenchable lust for human blood, the demon seems invincible, leaving in its wake an increasing number of horribly mutilated bodies.
Only one woman has learned the oni’s history and the key to its destruction. But will she be able to pit her puny human strength against the demon’s murderous powers before she becomes yet another victim?”
It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a horror story—although that’s how I started my writing career. The Oni is just the kind of horror story I enjoy: gritty realism meets ancient evil—The Mummy kind of story. There are tons of setting and period details in both the modern and ancient Japan strands of the story, interesting and diverse characters, and a truly terrifying monster. Linzner writes this horror/fantasy like a tight police procedural: not a lot of fancy language, but with plenty of nail-biting tension and character insight. There are even some lighter moments as the evil oni tries to apply his ancient cultural biases to 1982 Manhattan. Continue reading
The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna
by C.W. Gortner
“Narrated by the mother of Russia’s last tsar, this vivid, historically authentic novel brings to life the courageous story of Maria Feodorovna, one of Imperial Russia’s most compelling women, who witnessed the splendor and tragic downfall of the Romanovs as she fought to save her dynasty in its final years…From the opulent palaces of St. Petersburg to the World War I battlefields and the bloodied countryside occupied by the Bolsheviks, C. W. Gortner sweeps us into the anarchic fall of an empire and the complex, bold heart of the woman who tried to save it.
C. W. Gortner has hit another one out of the park with his newest historical novel The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. The book ranges over half a century from the eve of the protagonist’s sister’s wedding to the heir to the British throne (1863) to her dramatic escape from civil war-torn Russia (1919) aboard a British battleship. Gortner takes us on a heart-rending journey through the life of the woman born Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar (“Minnie”) of Denmark. She took the name Maria Feodorovna when she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, married the heir to the Russian throne Alexander II and became the mother of the last Tsar of Russia Nicholas II. Minnie is an appealing character and much less known than her daughter-in-law Empress Alexandra. My only acquaintance with her was as the white-haired aristocratic grandmother in the animated Disney film Anastasia. Continue reading
by Gore Vidal
Vidal is a master of his craft. This novel starts from the point of view of Charles Schuyler, a young law clerk working in the law office of an aged Aaron Burr. His employer inexplicably invites him on a mysterious carriage ride which ends in Burr’s wedding to a notorious rich widow. Schuyler, who prefers journalism to the law, writes an article about the wedding for a local newspaper–which gets rejected. But the editor, who is deep into New York and national politics, has an offer the penniless young man can’t refuse: a lucrative contract to write an anonymous pamphlet accusing Martin Van Buren (current vice-president and future presidential candidate) of being Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son which could hand the presidency to the likely contender Henry Clay. Schuyler just has to come up with some “proof” which, in those times before DNA testing, was pretty thin. This sets up the story in which young Schuyler struggles with his conscience over hurting a man he admires and helping a man, whose politics he abhors, win an election. Continue reading
Vikings and Goths: A History of Ancient and Medieval Sweden
by Gary Dean Peterson
I have a complicated history with Vikings. Until I wrote Twilight Empress, they were blood-thirsty raiders who raped and raided Europe in the middle ages and “discovered” the New World well before Columbus. Like most people, I developed this attitude based on movies and TV shows and didn’t look too closely at any data that contradicted the stereotype. As I studied more deeply—particularly the Scandinavian influence in the fifth century (pre-Viking Age)—I found a much more interesting history of a complicated society of farmers, traders, warriors, and—of course—raiders. I was also surprised to find that Vikings and Goths were related.
In my studies for Twilight Empress, I learned that the Goths who raided Rome in AD 410, established a kingdom in Spain and southern France, and toppled the last Roman Emperor in 476 were most likely Scandinavians. They probably migrated from their Swedish homeland to Poland in the second century, then to the area north of the Black Sea. The advancing Huns pushed them into the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries laying the ground work for the “Fall” of Western Rome. (Eastern Rome centered in Constantinople morphed into, what is now known as, the Byzantine Empire and lasted another thousand years.) I used this background in all my books set in the fifth century. Continue reading
Book Review: The Princess Diarist
by Carrie Fisher
Most of my readers know about my dual fascination with both history and science and my love of fiction in both genres. I mostly blog about the history and science stuff, but also review books or movies about HF and SF/F. The new Star Wars movie is out on the origin story of Han Solo. I haven’t seen it yet, but plan to. I probably won’t do a movie review, but in the spirit of the time, I’ll do my readers one better. I highly recommend reading The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher about the making of the original Star Wars (now “The New Hope-Episode IV” – ACK!) The memoir came out only two months before Fisher’s death in December 2016 and over a year before her last movie Star Wars: The Last Jedi made it to the big screen.
This was a bittersweet read for me. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I saw the original movie in theaters and duly indoctrinated my daughter when she came of age. Between us, we donated over 100 Star Wars books to her high school library when she left for college. Since then she’s been trying to replenish my bookshelves each Christmas with a new Star Wars book and The Princess Diarist was 2017’s entry. (2016 was a cute hard-backed comic book called Vader’s Little Princess by Jeffrey Brown.) Continue reading
Rebecca Solnit: Two Books for Activists
Coming out of Women’s History Month, I wanted to share with you a women historian, writer and activist I recently discovered. Rebecca Solnit has been active in social justice movements and writing for nearly forty years. How is it that I just found out about her? She’s the author of twenty or so books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, including the books Hope in the Dark and Men Explain Things to Me. She’s written a trilogy of atlases of American cities; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; A Field Guide to Getting Lost; and River of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (for which she received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a columnist at Harper’s and a regular contributor to the Guardian.
That’s her CV. This is how I finally learned about her. Last winter, Bob Garfield, one of the hosts of the NPR radio show “On the Media” was in such despair after the election that he said during a staff phone call that he had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. One of the other people on the call asked, “Have you heard of Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit?” He hadn’t, but contacted Solnit and had her on his show to talk him down. (You can listen to the segment here.)
This was my first introduction to Solnit and I loved what I heard. I immediately bought her books, which did uplift me, and now I want to share. Continue reading
Exceptional Women in History Part II:
She Captains, Scientists, and Musicians
Last week in Part I, I introduced you to three books of exceptional women in history which primarily covered royals and aristocrats. This week we look more closely at (un)common women in three books. Readers and writers alike will find inspiration here!
She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea
by Joan Druett
This one sat on my TBR shelf for far too long, but finally got its chance. First of all, I’d say the title is misleading. I expected a book of She Captains to be primarily stories of women who captained ships and lead crews. Druett starts off with 78 pages on ancient queens who sailed with their own navies, female Vikings, and actual female pirates. The rest of the book is devoted to women who are captains’ wives or mistresses, victims of pirates, or involved in the business end. Their stories are fascinating and I enjoyed hearing about them, but that is not what I expected.
The writing is a bit dry and some of the stories seem like padding. I could have done without the chapter on women being captured by Barbary pirates and the space given to Lady Hamilton (Admiral Nelson’s paramour), neither of which seem to fit the premise of the book. What did work was the astonishing number of documented women who went to sea as crew disguised as men; or accompanied their husbands on war ships, whalers, or exploratory expeditions. I had no idea that captains regularly took their wives and children with them on long voyages. I’d always suspected that a number of women made their livings from the sea, especially wives, widows and daughters of seaman, fisherman, and shipping magnates; and was glad to have that confirmed. From the chapter on Ice Queens:
“The winters of the last two decades of the nineteenth century regularly discovered a dozen or more whaling vessels snugged up in Pauline Cove at Herschel Island in the western Arctic, all neatly roofed over and with the sides banked up with blocks of snow. Quite a town would be established around these strange residences, for native, intrigued by the exotic community, build their snow houses near by on the ice. Inside the ships, it was cozy and both inside and outside it was sociable…In the 1894-95 season there where no fewer than seven European females at Herschel Island…It was a strangely formal existence, with dances, whist parties, costume balls, concerts (one concert party being called “The Herschel Island Snowflakes”), and amateur theatricals. Dinner parties were staged, complete with amazing menus. One included “Lobster salad & olives, Oyster Pate with French peas” and “Bartlett Pears, with citron & sponge cake” for dessert.”
The book seems well-researched. Druett doesn’t use footnotes or offer a comprehensive bibliography, but does have a sixteen-page chapter by chapter list of bibliographical notes and a thirteen-page index. I’d recommend this book for anyone who needs to have their consciousness raised about women and the sea (it wasn’t just the boys sailing out there!) It’s the kind of book, that doesn’t quite rate as a research book, but can inspire additional research into the stories of the individual women covered.
Exceptional Women in History Part I:
Scandalous Women, Bad Princesses
and Female Kings
It’s Women’s History Month and I thought I’d provide readers and writers alike with some resources on exceptional women in history. I have a soft spot for a particular a kind of history book; collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. They generally follow a pattern of one to five page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.Some of these books are little more than gimmicks or novelty books, best known for their wretched research. Usually there are one or two women that I’ve studied or read about extensively. How accurate the author is with that particular woman is my gauge on how well she’s researched the others.
Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration. In this post, I’ll do quick reviews of three of my favorites. Next week I’ll do three more. Continue reading