Tag Archives: historical fiction

Marie’s Reading: “Girl Waits With Gun” by Amy Stewart

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartI’m a little late to the party on this one.  But I’m so glad I finally arrived!

Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States.  Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey.  One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car.  Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up.  Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.

This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble.  The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch.  These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters.  As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.

The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life.  These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest.  And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories.  Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn.  In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.

Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession.  This real-life quote from Constance says it all:

“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on.  These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.

If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s.  Check it out here.

And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!


Marie’s Currently Reading…Blizzard Edition!

As most of you have probably  heard, there’s a blizzard on the way to Maine tonight.  CRIPPLING, you guys.  It’s going to be CRIPPLING: http://haggett.bangordailynews.com/2017/02/12/home/crippling-blizzard-on-the-way-for-coastal-and-interior-maine-2/


I’ll do my level best not to go insane.  No promises.

Tomorrow is looking like a wash.  A whitewash.  We’ve called a closure already here at the library, because…seriously, CRIPPLING BLIZZARD, guys.   In between shoveling out our driveway from the snowdrifts and baking brownies and praying that the power stays on, I’ve got lots of great books on the go for tomorrow’s snowstorm!

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes–a history of hot air ballooning!  There’s something incredibly inspiring about the early aeronauts and their quest to take to the air.  Balloonists were showmen, scientists, adventurers, and everything in between.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart–fun, rollicking historical fiction with a fascinating lead and some cracking good dialogue.  It’s about a woman named Constance Kopp, who was one of the first deputy sheriffs in America.

The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stewart–this is a witty and very entertaining novel about a barber in a small French village.  When he starts losing clients due to baldness, he decides that he’ll become the village matchmaker instead.  It’s clever and cozy but not twee.

Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon–I need at least one thriller on standby.  An alcoholic journalist tries to redeem her life and career by taking on an unsolved case.

Not a bad set of companions for the day.  Apart from Snow Shovel, of course, who I’ll be seeing a lot of.  I hope you’re all holed up somewhere snug and safe tomorrow!






Marie’s Reading: “His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae” by Graeme Macrae Burnet


His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is a deft blend of historical fiction, murder mystery, psychological fiction, and courtroom drama.  The writing is also complex and elegant all the way through (this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize).

Set in the Scottish Highlands in 1869, the story is about Roderick Macrae, a young man who has brutally murdered three of his neighbors.  He does not deny his guilt in the slayings.  But the question is: is Roderick sane?  Or will he hang for his crime?  And what drove him to murder in the first place?

Burnet tells the story with the conceit that he is piecing together a narrative from materials related to the case that he found in an archive.  A nice framing device, but one that, for me, quickly was absorbed into the memoir which was supposedly written by Roderick.

Roderick’s story is gritty and bleak, given his time, place, and social status, and it’s clear from his personal narrative that there’s something off about him.  Yet you’re sucked into his story completely, and into his poor community and desolate household.  You know there’s something he’s not telling you, but at the same time you get a good picture of what his life and relationships (or lack thereof) were like.

Following Roderick’s account of the murders, there are accounts from the medical examiner, a criminologist, and then a courtroom transcript.  All of these following accounts allow for the reader to fill in the gaps in Roderick’s narrative, and to provide a clearer and more three-dimensional picture of the other characters.

For my money, the best parts of the book were the memoir written by Roderick, and the excerpt about the case written by the criminologist.  Both have the best atmosphere and voices in the book.  They also allow for the best presentation of the historical time, place, and mood.

If you enjoy historical fiction and/or historical murder mysteries, give this one a try!


Marie’s Reading: “The Heavenly Table” by Donald Ray Pollock

Heavenly TableThe Heavenly Table is set in 1917 in and around a small town in Ohio.  One storyline concerns the Jewett brothers, the other a farmer named Ellsworth Fiddler.  The Jewett boys live a poor, hardscrabble life with their crazy father, Pearl.  Ellsworth lost his family savings in a swindle, and his son Eddie has taken to drinking and disappearing.  As the book goes on, these storylines grow and then intersect.

Along the way there are several more subplots and characters whose stories converge with those of the Jewetts or Ellsworth (or both), adding to the layered and well-populated feel of the story.

The Heavenly Table is atmospheric and vivid.  Engrossing, gritty and dark, and completely absorbing.  There’s a certain raw quality to Pollock’s writing, one that can be gory and gruesome.  There’s a lot of violence in this book, of many different kinds. And yet there’s also pathos and humor, and maybe even a kernel of goodness.

It’s got the feel of a Western, with all the outlaws and whores and soldiers and poor farmers.  But it’s the more the modern, nuanced kind, without too many good guys or lone heroes.  Interestingly, I noticed that one of the subject headings for this book is “Noir fiction.”  So-called “rural noir,” with lots of bleakness and darkness, is pretty in right now.  Sort of a descendant of Southern Gothic.

For readers of Daniel Woodrell, particularly Winter’s Bone.  I’d also suggest Black River by S.M. Hulse if you want something with a similar Western tone but not quite as violent or bleak.  Kings of the Earth or Finn by Jon Clinch might also be good.  Also, do try Pollock’s other books, Knockemstiff and Devil All the Time.


Marie’s Reading: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-clay-book-coverHow am I only just reading this now?

Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay has actually been on my to-read list for a while.  People rave about this one, and lots of people I know call it one of their favorite novels of all time. After reading it, I see why.  It’s got everything.

It’s complex and intricate, but approachable and funny.  The characters are three-dimensional and, while not always likeable, always human. The whole saga has a leisurely pace that manages to be sweeping and compelling.  It’s got pathos and atmosphere and brilliant historical detail, including cameos by historical figures.  It’s got World War II, comic books, escapists and magicians, a story frame which treats Kavalier and Clay as actual figures in the golden era of comics, and a poignant family story.

The basic story is this: In 1939 New York City, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Hitler’s Prague, joins forces with his Brooklyn-born cousin, Sammy Clay, to create comic-book superheroes.  The two form Empire Comics, and create a character called The Escapist.  The story follows Joe and Sam through the war years and into the mid 1950’s, when superhero comics are going out of fashion.

Chabon takes a lot of time exploring all of the inspiration and fantasies that go into Sam and Joe’s creations as they mature and grow as people, and as the world changes around them.  The history of comics in America figures into the plot quite a bit.  Most of all, the themes of heroism and escapism (two big appeal factors for superheroes) shine through the most in this meaty novel.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an amazingly rich, detailed, intelligent and entertaining story.  I’d suggest it if you’re after a novel to immerse yourself in, if you enjoy novels about the Jewish experience in World War II, if you enjoy novels about New York City, and if you enjoy family-saga type stories.  Really.  It’s got a little something for everyone.


26 Books to Read in 2015: #19

#19: A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t.

My memory of school reading in elementary school is a blur of boring and stupid.  The Giver is the only book I really loved from that time period, followed closely by Sign of the Beaver.  I still re-read Shiloh, a book from third grade, from time to time.  I remember the books I read on my own more than the classics that were being shoved down my throat in grades four through six.  I wanted Goosebumps and Felicity Saves the Day and The Boxcar Children: That One Where They Live in a Lighthouse for the Summer.  As far as I was concerned school could keep their Sing Down the Moons and their Bridge to Terabithias and their Phantom Tollbooths.

“Deformed? Why didn’t you say so?! They should call this book ‘Johnny Deformed.'”

This is why I’m not a school librarian, guys.

Anyway.  The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman.


As I said, the assigned reading during these years is hazy at this date.  But I’m pretty sure The Whipping Boy was a reading group assignment in fourth grade.  Maybe third, but I refuse to blame Mr. Morin for The Whipping Boy.  I don’t recall reading groups in sixth grade, but it’s possible–I mostly remember the science units from that year.  At any rate, at some point during my later elementary years I was supposed to read The Whipping Boy and I didn’t because I thought it was boring and confusing and then I had to fudge my way through the response sheet and discussion at school.  Several times.


Did I read the book? I’m insulted! Is this a book report or a witch hunt?!

I decided to go ahead and give The Whipping Boy a fair shake.  So I took it home last night and read it.  I kept an open mind, and brought my adult reading sensibilities and comprehension to the work.  Perhaps I’d just been in the wrong headspace for it when I was in school.  Maybe other homework had been getting in the way.  Maybe I just didn’t get it or something.

The story is about the horrible bratty Prince Horace and his whipping boy, Jemmy.  As it is not fitting for a prince to be beaten, it’s the whipping boy’s job to take a thrashing whenever the prince misbehaves.  The idea was that, since a prince and whipping boy were brought up and educated together, the prince would not want to see a friend get whipped and he would behave.  You can imagine how well this works out for Jemmy.  So he decides he’s going to make a run for it–only Prince Horace is running away, too.  Horace and Jemmy run into some highwaymen, which leads to them inadvertently switching places prince and pauper style.  From there it’s a run from highwaymen and a journey of personal growth, with lots of characters and adventures thrown in.

Would you believe it? I got bored and wanted to stop in the exact same place as I did when I was a kid!

Clearly, this is a case of personal preference over judgment.  The Whipping Boy is a good story with a nice quick pace, good characters that develop nicely, funny bits and moving bits.  As a grown-up I think I had more appreciation for the relationship that develops between Jemmy, the whipping boy, and Prince Horace.  It’s actually very well-done and believable how they come to an understanding and come to respect each other.  The narration is primarily through Jemmy’s eyes and his voice is perfect.  The bumbling villains are fun.  It deserved its Newbery Award.  I’m just the wrong reader for this one.

At least I can say I finally fulfilled a homework assignment that’s been on the shelf for nearly a decade!  All thanks to the Reading Challenge.


No joke, while I was researching this post and reading about The Whipping Boy, I got distracted and started reading a blog about Goosebumps Old habits, man.


Surprise Smekday!

Greetings to you on yet ANOTHER cold, blustery, snowy day.  I’ve got a TBR pile as tall as the snowdrifts, and there’s just no more room.  My stack of books is as overwhelming and deadly as those same snowdrifts.

So who’s taking a long toboggan ride down a short slope today?

This one pains me.  Actually pains me.  I’m so sorry to say that it’s Galapagos Regained by James Morrow.

galapagos regained

No! Say it ain’t so!


I keep second-guessing myself but I know it’s for the best.  I love James Morrow.  Love Love Love James Morrow.  I did Snoopy dances of joy when I heard about this novel, which centers around an actress who goes to work at Charles Darwin’s estate, and then decides to use his theories of evolution as evidence in the famous God Contest.

It’s so good so far!  I really like the style, I love the ideas.   I love the characters and the construction and the…

You know what?  I can’t do it.  I can’t Surprise Smekday Galapagos Regained.  We’re going to work it out.  I promise we’ll work it out!

So here’s a swift snowboot for you, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

cuckoo's nest

Sorry.  Has to be done.  Maybe in couple months we can try for, oh, I think the fifth time, Chief.


Marie’s Reading: “Whistling Past the Graveyard” by Susan Crandall

whistling Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall invites comparison with Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Plot-wise, it is Huckleberry Finn, more or less, just set during the Civil Rights era and with a female cast.

The story: Starla is a sassy red-headed kid who lives with her grandmother, Mamie, in 1960’s Mississippi.  After getting grounded yet again for un-ladylike behavior, Starla decides she’s had enough of Mamie.  She’s going to hitch her way to Nashville, where her mother is a country singer, and live with her instead.  But who should pick Starla up but a young black woman named Eula…who just happens to have a white baby in tow.  From there it’s a coming of age story intertwined with a road trip tale, examining race, love, and loyalty along the way.

Continue reading →

December Simply Books! Meeting

A fresh new year means fresh new reads from the Simply Books! group.  Though technically, this was our December meeting, I’m counting it as 2015.

Here are the titles we talked about last Saturday!  I’ve included the reader’s comments and descriptions, which I noted to the best of my ability.  (It’s hard to take notes with this crew, they’re so fast and funny and smart, I always miss a few things….a good problem to have):

War in Val D’Orcia, 1943-1944 by Iris Origo
Origo wrote this diary during WWII, and it  was published largely unedited in 1947.  Origo wanted to keep the emotional immediacy of  her experiences, and it was well worth the effort. During the war Origo and her husband  owned a 4,000 acre farm complex in Tuscany, where they took in twenty-three children from the city as well as housed and protected deserters and travelers.  She wrote every day  for two years, describing their activities on the farm, the visitors they’d had, the  German inspections. Her story of life “on the ground” during wartime makes you think  about what war does to people–how many soldiers are just regular people who would rather  not be where they are, and how sometimes war can bring out the best in people.

Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life by Roxana Robinson
This was a re-read of the hefty but rich  biography of O’Keeffe.  The artist was a fiercely independent extreme introvert who loved nature, and felt that art comes from feeling and intuition (which made her a bit of a maverick in the art world of her time).  Her nuances and complexities make her a  compelling subject for biography.  Robinson also includes a lot of discussion about  schools and theories of art, which adds to the already rich life story.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This modern classic centers on an impeccable  butler named Mr. Stevens, who has spent his life in service to one Lord Darlington at  Darlington Hall.  The plot centers on Mr. Stevens taking a road trip (with his new  employer’s car) to retrieve the housekeeper he used to work with.  Along the way,  disturbing, rattling memories begin to surface, as well as the realization that the man  Stevens idolized wasn’t as wonderful as he seemed.  A fascinating character study as well as an instructive meditation on the human ability to self-deceive.

The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson
A delightful, charming, witty story of a vicar and  his four daughters in a small quirky village in England during the second world war.   It’s fun but not frivolous, very much of its time.  A lovely read.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
A novel which tells the story of Jacob’s only daughter,  Dinah.  This fictionalized account of her life is very rich in Biblical history, womens’  issues, and relationships (the red tent is where the women of the tribe go in times of  menstruation and childbirth, to receive guidance and support from fellow tribeswomen).   It’s nice to hear a Bible story from a woman’s perspective, and to learn more about daily  life in that time and place.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The reader had just started this novel, but had read  The Kite Runner and was very impressed with Hosseini’s phenomenal job of portraying  both a woman’s perspective and that of modern Afghanistan.

Revival by Stephen King
He did this story at least twice already, and did it better  and scarier in Pet Sematary, and better and more heartrending in The Green Mile. Namely, the exploration of grief and what comes after death–in this story, it has to do  with a former minister broken by loss and grief and obsessed with what he calls “secret  electricity.”  All of the good elements of King are there, his characters and compelling  storytelling ability.  What’s missing is either drama or horror this time around, at least not in the usual doses.

There you have it!  If you’d like to join us for our January meeting, bring your latest greatest read to the Jean Picker Room on Saturday, January 24th at 2pm.



November Simply Books! Meeting

This month’s meeting was jam-packed!  With conversation, with debate, with laughs, with friendly sharing of hobbies and travels, and with people.  November’s meeting had the most people attend so far this season, which is great!

Unfortunately I had to duck out at the two-hour mark.  The meeting continued well beyond that, however.

Here are the titles that generated so much conversation!


“Daughters of India: Art and Identity” by Stephen Huyler
A local expert on India, this book of Huyler’s focuses on many women folk artists from India.  It gives a great sense
of their lives and their region, with beautiful photography.

“Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others” by Stacy Horn
A memoir about choir singing.  Horn’s experiences are weaved together with a history of choral singing
as well as scientific findings about singing in a group.

“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
A novel set in a future America, post-flu pandemic, where a group of nomadic artists travel from settlement to settlement
performing the classics.  A bit sci-fi, but mostly in a “Fahrenheit 451” kind of way–compelling and very much about the survival of culture.

“Dancing with Einstein” by Kate Wenner
A novel inspired by the people involved in the Manhattan Project, the story follows a woman named Marea as she tries to deal with her past–namely, the role her father and family friend Einstein played in the Project, as well as her father’s death.  The story moves back and forth in time, giving a sense of both historical novel and coming of age story.

“East is East” by T. C. Boyle
A “black farce” without much heart or insight to it.  It’s ironic and wry, but never goes much deeper than that.  The plot concerns a young Japanese man who jumps ship en route to America and winds up in backwoods Georgia, filled with both rednecks and the denizens of an artists’ colony.

“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant” by Roz Chast

“New and Selected Poems” by Mary Oliver
Thanks to the man who shared this for a lovely reading of a few of the poems from this collection!  Nature, heart, and spirit abound in these poems.

There you have it!  One housekeeping note: due to many scheduling conflicts in December, the group decided to NOT have a meeting.  Our next Simply Books! meeting will be on Saturday, January 3rd at 2pm instead.