Category: Historical Fiction

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Posted March 18, 2017 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

War and Turpentine by Stefan HertmansTitle: War and Turpentine (Goodreads)
Author: Stefan Hertmans
Translator: David McKay
Published: Text, 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Before he did, Stefan Hertmans’s grandfather gave him two notebooks which make up his life. Stefan held on to these notebooks for a while before he read them. Expecting the story of war he found a more detailed account of his grandfather’s life, from growing up in poverty, meeting his great love, war and a passion for art. Providing a more modern voice, War and Turpentine is a stylised account of what was in these notebooks. To call it a biography or memoir is a stretch but this literary hybrid is masterfully told.

Born in 1891, the author’s grandfather lived until 1981. While the key focus of the novel is the life of one person, I was particularly drawn to how it represented a whole country. This was a very turbulent time for Belgium. During The Great War, the occupation by German forces was so harsh that it is often referred to as the ‘Rape of Belgium’, which economically crippled the country and lead to a high unemployment rate. World War II was not as devastating but the country once again capitulated to the Germans.

There is a large section that focuses on the devastating nature of war to the people involved and the country. Despite the gritty nature, there is real beauty to be found. Like the title, War and Turpentine this is a novel of polar opposites; from gritty depictions from the trenches to almost dreamlike descriptions of the German zeppelins floating overhead.

Putting the depictions of war aside War and Turpentine also explores family, love, marriage and art, which allows a contrast from devastation to beauty. There is a real tenderness in the approach that Stefan Hertmans took in writing his grandfather’s story. I wonder what this story might have been if Hertmans produced it when he first received his grandfather’s notebooks. I think the 40 years between receiving the notebooks and writing this book gave him enough time to develop his craft and live his life. This I believe was necessary to come up with something so stunning and beautiful.

I love the title War and Turpentine simply because it accurately covers the balance found in the book. From destruction in war to the creation and beauty of art. This is a powerful piece of storytelling, masterfully executed. I am not sure where I found out about this book, I went into it not knowing much about it at all. The writing alone was enough to make War and Turpentine wonderful, which is a huge credit to David McKay’s translation. Everything about this book just resulted in the perfect balance of the dramatic and absolute beauty.


Harlequin’s Costume by Leonid Yuzefovich

Posted November 23, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Crime, Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

Harlequin’s Costume by Leonid YuzefovichTitle: Harlequin's Costume (Goodreads)
Author: Leonid Yuzefovich
Translator: Marian Schwarz
Series: Ivan Putilin #1
Published: Glagoslav Publications, 2013
Pages: 266
Genres: Crime, Historical Fiction
My Copy: ARC from Publisher

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I am very particular when it comes to crime novels; I like it to be dark and gritty. However there are some exceptions to the rule. Harlequin’s Costume is an exception, and I do not believe it is just my love of Russian literature. The premise of the novel is simple; set in St. Petersburg 1871, an Austrian military attaché is found murdered in his bed. Chief Inspector Ivan Dmetrievich Putilin leads the investigation for this high profile case. Although investigating this case is not going smoothly as the Tsar has also called in the secret police to find out if this murder was politically motivated.

What drew me to this novel was the fact that Ivan Putilin was a real person, he was the Tsar’s Chief of Police in St. Petersburg from 1866 to 1892. I am fascinated when authors manage to blend the line between fiction and reality. In particular when they take historical figures and add them into their novels. There is a fine line, and it is hard to get right. I think picking someone like Ivan Putilin is an easier pick as I cannot find much information about this man (I do not understand Russian so that causes limitation). I would imagine picking a well-known historical figure would require more research.

What I really enjoyed about Harlequin’s Costume was discovering Leonid Yuzefovich’s own interest. He was a history teacher and a Ph.D candidate of Sciences, with a focus in Russian diplomatic etiquette (particularly in the 15th-17th centuries). The novel has a focus in the Russian Empire politics, both foreign and domestic. With my love for Russian literature, I found myself focusing on the Soviet era and have not spent much time exploring the history around the Tsardom or the politics surrounding it. In fact my main knowledge in medieval politics comes from a video games like Crusader King II and Europia Universalis IV, so it was a thrill to learn more.

Harlequin’s Costume is a perfect blend of a historical crime novel and an exploration into Russian politics. The novel seamlessly was able to offer a thrilling read while still offering something far more detailed. I am curious to see if this will become Russia’s answer to a classic detective like Sherlock Holmes but I am also now interested in trying out Boris Akunin. While I would not call Harlequin’s Costume a perfect crime novel, it offered more than I expected and hope to read more of Ivan Putilin.


Treading Air by Ariella van Luyn

Posted September 6, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

Treading Air by Ariella van LuynTitle: Treading Air (Goodreads)
Author: Ariella van Luyn
Published: Affirm Press, 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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There is a certain sense of glee to be had when you read a novel set in a familiar location. That moment when you recognise a street or the author accurately describes a location; that feeling is comforting and is what drove me through Ariella van Luyn’s debut novel Treading Air. The story takes place in two locations, in Townsville and Brisbane during the 1920s and 1940s, following the life of Lizze O’Dea. From an attraction and eventual marriage to battle scared Joe, to the new life in an unfamiliar town, Treading Air is a cinematic portrayal of independence, love and sex.

I often felt like there was something very familiar with the plot of Treading Air; a sense that I have read this novel before. Which I had, it was from French author Joseph Kessel, and the novel that was turned into the surrealist classic film of the same name, Belle de Jour. I could not unsee the similarities, a lonely housewife discovering her sexuality as a sex worker. There are more similarities to be explored but I do not want to give away anything.

Once I discovered this connection, I had a hard time really enjoying Treading Air, to the point where I considered abandoning the book once or twice. I merely kept going due to the fact that this was the selection for book club and I wanted to give it as much attention as possible. Treading Air is based on a real woman, the author found some information about her while looking through historical archives and thought that the story was too good not to write. They say truth is stranger than fiction, yet it was fiction where I found this story previously.

In the end I ended with two major issues with this novel. Firstly I think there could have been some interesting insights into the motivation and mindset of a sex worker that could have been explored. I feel that because the novel was written in third person we were never really in the mind of Lizzie and there could have been value to be had there. Secondly one piece of advice I hear about writing it ‘show don’t tell’ which is not always true (there are some great authors that tell rather than show) but in the case of this debut by Ariella van Luyn, it would have made for a better novel.

Do not get me wrong, this is not a bad book and I am curious to see what Ariella van Luyn does next. I personally felt it lacked some of the key components that I am interested in, especially in a novel about sex workers. Rather than pick Treading Air apart any further, I would simply say I was disappointed. I know others have enjoyed this novel but it just was not for me. If the synopsis does interest you, do not be afraid to give it a go.


A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

Posted February 13, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

A Meal in Winter by Hubert MingarelliTitle: A Meal in Winter (Goodreads)
Author: Hubert Mingarelli
Translator: Sam Taylor
Published: Portobello Books, 2014
Pages: 138
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Three German soldiers set off early one morning through the frozen Polish country side to search for Jews. If they are successful they will be able to do it again, if not they will have to go back to their job as executioners. Having found a man hiding in the woods they settle in an old abandoned house to warm up and share a meal. Tensions increase when an outspoken Polish man joins them to escape the cold. A Meal in Winter is a highly emotional French novella that is worth checking out.

It is hard to talk about this book, it is a very emotional book. It is the type of book that will rip out your heart, punch you a few times in the face and then end abruptly. Leaving you emotionally and physically drained and having to think about all the themes. I love A Meal in Winter because it really explores so many interesting ideas and themes and leaves you thinking well after finishing it.

This is such a quick read and explores the idea of following orders and issues of mortality. The Jewish man has done nothing wrong and these Nazi soldiers know this, but if they take him back as a prisoner then they might be able to go out searching again. Is it better to hunt or kill, both will end the same for the Jew, but which one would make you feel better about your actions?

I truly love what Hubert Mingarelli did with such a small book like A Meal in Winter. I have not been able to stop thinking about the book since I finished it. I love when a piece of literature leaves me contemplating about life and philosophical questions that I had not considered before. A Meal in Winter did just that and I think this short hundred page novella will stick with me for many years to come.


The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Posted December 15, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

The Story of a New Name by Elena FerranteTitle: The Story of a New Name (Goodreads)
Author: Elena Ferrante
Translator: Ann Goldstein
Series: The Neapolitan Novels #2
Published: Text, 2012
Pages: 471
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Following directly after the events of My Brilliant Friend comes the next novel in the Neapolitan series. Lila is now married and Elena’s own attempts of romance are a little more complicated. Although Elena is also focusing on her academic and literary career. The Story of a New Name continues the story of the two friends living in Naples from the age of about sixteen to their mid-twenties.

I was enjoying being in the world of Lila and Elena that I picked up The Story of a New Name as soon as I had finished My Brilliant Friend. A novel that I found far more enjoyable than the first one. The two woman are now adults, thinking about their lives and planning for a future. I found that their world had opened up a lot more, with more details about Naples and the political tensions of Italy. I like how Elena Ferrante wrote these books with the world expanding to the reader in the same way it would to the characters.

It is difficult to talk about the plot within The Story of a New Name as it would spoil My Brilliant Friend. However I have been enjoying the character development found in this series. Both Elena and Lila (and all other characters) often make unexpected decisions or stupid mistakes but this just makes the novels feel more genuine. It is hard to predict how a character will act because they are constantly growing and changing and when you think you have worked them out, they do something different. This has kept me hooked and makes me want to move onto book three Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, though I have decided to hold off.

The only problem I found with The Story of a New Name involved a sex scene at the start of the novel. I am not sure if this was the work of Elena Ferrante or the translator Ann Goldstein but when referring to both male and female genitals drastically changed. The terms “his sex” and “her sex” just irritates me and I have no idea why these terms were used in book two and not in the first one. I have heard that Elena Ferrante wrote this series without many re-writes so it is possible this was just a consistency issue but it still annoyed me.

I am loving this series, and like I said with My Brilliant Friend, it is not for the faint of heart. You get to experience all the highs and lows of the two women’s lives and there are some pretty devastating lows. Although they have hard lives, both Lila and Elena are strong, independent and brilliant women and I really enjoy that about these characters. I plan to read book three and four next year just to give myself a little break but I really want to return to this world. Only problem with that is I will finish the Neapolitan series far too quickly.


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Posted December 11, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteTitle: My Brilliant Friend (Goodreads)
Author: Elena Ferrante
Translator: Ann Goldstein
Series: The Neapolitan Novels #1
Published: Text, 2013
Pages: 331
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Elena Ferrante has become a literary sensation lately, with the four-part Neapolitan series. These books are a bildungsroman that explores the lives of friends Elena and Lila. My Brilliant Friend follows their childhoods and teenage years, living in Naples during the 1950s. There are speculations that this series is autobiographical but Elena Ferrante is so secretive and does not do interviews, so no one can know for sure.

First of all, I think I need to point out that Naples in 1950 was a rough time. Naples was the first Italian city to rise up against the Nazi occupation, in fact when American troops landed they found that the city was already liberated. After the war, while Italy was trying to rebuild and recover, a majority of the focus remained in Rome and this southern city did not much get more attention. The Italian Social Movement and neo-fascist movements across Italy caused plenty of political tension.

Having said that, for Elena and Lila, their entire world consisted of the few blocks they grew up in. Not knowing the devastation running across Italy, these two friends focused on their own problems, both having a very tough life with plenty of dark moments seeping into this novel. Do not expect a normal coming of age story, these two brilliant friends have to live through devastating moments and conditions, making this novel not for the faint of heart.

I compared My Brilliant Friend with The Valley of Dolls in the sense that it explores the life of these girls through their up and downs. I loved the experience of exploring their lives and I find myself taking the time with the book, not wanting it to end. Luckily there are three other books in the series and I did indeed move onto The Story of a New Name right away.

My biggest complaint with this book was trying to keep the characters straight. Elena is often called Lenù which can be confusing, and Lila is also called Raffaella. Most people have multiple names and it can be hard to tell who is a part of the Greco, Cerullo, Sarratore or Solara family. Luckily there is a list of characters at the front of the book to help understand who each person is and their relationship to everyone else.

While devastating, I really enjoyed reading My Brilliant Friend, and as I have already said, I started The Story of a New Name right after finishing book one. I enjoyed immersing myself this fictional world of Naples, I need to get all the books in this series. I wish I knew more about Elena Ferrante because I am curious to know how much of this is true to life. Her books seemed to become a sensation overnight, despite the fact that she had written a few books previously including The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter.


A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Posted December 10, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon JamesTitle: A Brief History of Seven Killings (Goodreads)
Author: Marlon James
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2014
Pages: 688
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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In the lead up to 3 December 1976 general election, Bob Marley planned to perform the Smile Jamaica Concert to help ease political tension. However seven gunmen from West Kingston stormed his house, although Marley did survive he had to flee the country the next day. Not a lot was said about the fate of the seven gunmen but there are whispers around the streets. A Brief History of Seven Killing is inspired by these events in a fictionalised oral history of what might have happened.

This novel spans three decades, spanning the political tension of Jamaica in the 1970s, the crack wars in the 1980s and the changing Jamaica in the 1990s. It also follows multiple narrators, with very unique narrative styles. One thing I loved about this novel is the fact that each narrator had their own style and you could easily work out who was narrating without looking at the title of each chapter.

A Brief History of Seven Killing is Marlon James’ third novel and has recently won the Man Booker Prize. I read this before the award was announced and I was really hoping it would win. I think there are so many interesting perspectives, exploring ideas of corruption, organised crime and even the CIA trying to control the fate of the country. I was interested in America’s involvement in Jamaica’s politics in an effort to fight the spread of communism.

One of my favourite narrators was Alex, a journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine. I thought he had the right amount of bitterness and sarcasm, making his narrative style stand out. All the other narrators are great as well, and I liked the way I was able to experience so many different angles of the story. There are over seventy different characters that regularly show up throughout the novel; it can be difficult at times to remember who is who, however I think Marlon James did a decent job helping the reader through this.

I have heard people compare A Brief History of Seven Killing to The Wire, but I compare Marlon James’ style as doing something similar to James Ellroy. I hear that HBO have brought the rights to make this into a show; this is the people who developed The Wire. I am glad to see that this novel is getting the attention from winning the Man Booker Prize. I really enjoyed the experience of reading this novel, even though this is anything but brief. I am curious to see what Marlon James’ other novels are like.


The Green Road by Anne Enright

Posted November 11, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

The Green Road by Anne EnrightTitle: The Green Road (Goodreads)
Author: Anne Enright
Published: Jonathan Cape, 2015
Pages: 312
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Rosaleen Madigan is the matriarch of the Madigan family of County Clare. The Green Road tells the story of this Irish family, from the perspectives of the four children. Each section is dedicated to one child’s perspective from different times of their lives. A unique narrative style, which I believe Anne Enright adopted in her novel The Gathering which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

The Green Road explores small fragments of the Madigan family, which can be frustrating for some people but I really enjoyed. I like dipping in and out of this family and their drama. Anna Enright does not make a clear narrative, and leaves a lot to the reader to try and connect the dots. Different readers will make different assumptions from this novel which makes it an interesting book club pick. In fact this was a book club pick for my in-real-life book club.

The novel is emotionally charged and jammed packed full of drama, manipulation and bleak moments which brings together really rich characters and an interesting story. I found Rosaleen to be my favourite character, she is manipulative for what she considers good reasons; all she wants to do is keep the family together. However each section is years apart and we witness this family start out close but slowly drift into strangers.

Anne Enright considers herself a short story writer and it really shows in The Green Road. Each section is tightly compacted and work like little short stories from the same family. Although to read one story and put it down and come back to the next would be a mistake. This book requires the reader to work at making connections and drawing conclusions but I think that is what makes this novel stand out to me. I loved dipping in and out with the Madigan family and just experience the fragments of their lives.


One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Posted September 22, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag MontefioreTitle: One Night in Winter (Goodreads)
Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore
Published: Harper Collins, 2013
Pages: 480
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Moscow 1945, the Soviet Union is preparing for their Victory Day celebration on the 9th May, celebrating the defeat of the Germans. While Stalin and the rest of Moscow is celebrating, on a nearby bridge a teenage boy and girl lie dead. Was it murder, a suicide pact or part of a bigger conspiracy against the Bolshevik state? Stalin himself is interested in this investigation which at the centre of it all is an exclusive school where all Russia’s most important leaders send their children.

Simon Sebag Montefiore1 is a British journalist and historian who has written many books about Russia including two biographies on Joseph Stalin (Young Stalin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar). His book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar went on to win multiple awards including the now defunct History Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. It is with this background he wrote One Night in Winter, his third novel set in Soviet era (the other two being My Affair with Stalin and Sashenka).

While the novel is set around the deaths of a teenage boy and girl, One Night in Winter starts off with our protagonist, Andrei. Having returned with his mother from exile in Stalinabad (known Dushanbe, Tajikistan2) for the sins of his father, Andrei is determined to start a new life. This included being enrolled into the exclusive School 801, where he wants badly to fit in and make friends. This is the school which the country’s top leaders send their children, and he quickly falls in with a group of people who are trying to start their own literary movement; The Fatal Romantics.

The Fatal Romantics are inspired by the workings of Alexander Pushkin and in particular, his novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Despite the fact Pushkin is a cultural icon and even one of Joseph Stalin’s favourite poets, The Fatal Romantics are playing a dangerous game, one could be accused of bourgeois sentimentalism or being un-Bolshevik. The rules for The Fatal Romantics club were as followed;

  1. We suffocate in a philistine world of science and planning, ruled by the cold machine of history.
  2. We live for love and romance.
  3. If we cannot live with love, we choose death. This is why we conduct our secret rites; this is why we play ‘The Game’.

What stood out to me the most about One Night in Winter was the amount of research that seemed to go into this novel; the afterword from the author even goes into details about historical inaccuracies and why facts were changed for the story. I appreciate this in a piece of historical fiction and made me more trusting of what I was reading. Because this novel was a campus type novel, featuring a literary movement, set in Russia, I had high hopes for the book and it did not let me down. There are a few problems I did find with the book, however for the most part, I was completely sucked in.

I have not read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s non-fiction but I am interested in reading a biography or two on Joseph Stalin. I got the impression Montefiore is a little sympathetic towards Stalin and might lead to a bias view in a biography. Being aware of his opinions towards this tyrant will allow me to go in with a different expectation. One Night in Winter gave a great insight of the cultural and mindset of the people living through the Soviet era, and I found it to be a compelling read.


Girl at War by Sara Nović

Posted September 15, 2015 by Michael Kitto in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

Girl at War by Sara NovićTitle: Girl At War (Goodreads)
Author: Sara Nović
Published: Little Brown and Company, 2015
Pages: 336
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Ana Jurić is a carefree young girl, running and playing through the streets of Croatia’s capital city Zagreb. This was the summer of 1991, and this is the summer that will change everything, not just for Ana, but also for all of Croatia. The country has declared its independence from Yugoslavia, which has sparked civil unrest and quickly became the Croatian War of Independence. Girl at War tells the story of Ana as a ten-year-old in 1991 and then ten years later while living in New York City.

The Croatian War of Independence lasted from 1991 to 1995, between the Croat forces local to the government and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). This war started when the Croatian government declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The majority of Croatians wanted to become a sovereign state, but Serbs remained loyal to Serbia’s wish to remain apart of Yugoslavia. This cost Croatia between 6,000 – 8,000 soldiers and almost as many citizens were killed (or missing) during the conflict as well. However they estimate about 220,000 people were displaced during this period.

Girl at War is a coming of age story of a girl living through the crumbling soviet state and trying to move on. She founds herself in New York City when 9/11 happens, which forces her to confront her past and deal with the part of her life she has tried to bury. Sara Nović’s debut novel is a perfect novel, reminding me of books like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra and All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon. This is an unflinching look at a crumbling Yugoslavia and a country unsure of their future.

This is a heart-breaking debut, that was flawlessly executed, many people might be familiar with my love for novels set in a crumbling soviet state and this was my chance to explore the history of Yugoslavia. I hope there will be many more novels like this released in the future, and I am eagerly anticipating the next Girl at War as well as a new novel by Sara Nović. There is not much about Nović to be found online, but I suspect some autobiographical elements within this novel because the emotions just felt too real. Do you know any other books similar to this that I might enjoy?