Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Review by Trisha I. ’24)

The House of MirthThe House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’re a young woman living in the big city. You go to social events, despite some introverted qualms, partly to get some social currency and mostly to meet your charming, lovely friends. You like shopping for new clothes, even if you can’t afford them, because they’re pretty (and your peers expect you to). You like this one boy that you really aren’t supposed to like. What could be more human that?

To me, the saddest thing about Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is that, reading it a century after it was written, I could still deeply understand the seemingly shallow yet nuanced societal flaws the novel depicts.

Spoiler alert: You are Lily Bart, the protagonist, and you’re desperately trying to stay financially afloat in New York as the stock markets begin to jump around a little too wildly and the allowance your aunt gives you drains a little too fast. The House of Mirth charts your path after you turn 29 and realizes that the only socially acceptable solution to your financial problems is finding a husband. However, you are attracted to a penniless lawyer rather than the wealthy stock market brokers and other gentlemen who could actually support you in a stable, if boring, future.

The novel’s premise isn’t what makes it relatable, of course; times have changed, and marriage is no longer a woman’s end goal in life. Yet, as Lily sets about her wearying task of finding a rich and dull suitor, she grapples with a subtle snowballing of rumors, backstabbing fair-weather friends, and misunderstanding after misunderstanding that threatens her good name and prospect—and that kind of awkwardness is understandable to the reader.

The consequences Lily faces are bizarrely large in their scope and a consequence of the stricter times she lives in, but what she goes through is ultimately universal. Everyone knows the pain of a lost friendship or the disorienting feeling of having said just the wrong thing to shut down a conversation without knowing.

Wharton’s writing is at its most poetic when writing dialogue, which is just a slew of verbal irony: in an era of glitz and affected lifestyles, no character means what they say. Each conversation challenged me with its subtext. In one powerfully-executed scene, Lily realizes that one character whom she’d previously looked down upon no longer needs her help nor will help her.

With one passionate speech and sparse language, Wharton depicts Lily’s conflicting feelings of shock, regret, acceptance, and sense of dignity. That’s one scene of many that frustrates me with its sadness but stuns me with its simplicity. If you’re looking for a somber but thought-provoking and relatable read, this is the novel for you. —Review by Trisha I. ’24

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Books That Defy Genres! (by Ms. Pelman)

One of the easiest ways to talk about books is by genre. We say, do you like mysteries? What about fantasy, or sci-fi? It’s a great way to find common ground and to seek out, or give, recommendations.

Did you know that genres follow a formula? It’s true! If you read enough mysteries or romance books, you’ll begin to see patterns. Some people really dig this for their reading, as familiarity can be comforting. Often people return to the same author over and over again because they know just what to expect.

Of course, there are times when you crave something out of the ordinary. And when that happens, books that break the mold are the most satisfying. When you want to expect the unexpected, here are a few books that blur the lines of categorization in interesting ways:

Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson

The year is 2065, Adri has been preparing her whole life to be an astronaut who will help colonize Mars, and she is elated when she is chosen for the mission. When she moves from Miami to Kansas for training, she discovers a journal written by someone who lived in her house over one hundred years ago. Adri becomes increasingly absorbed in the fates of the people contained within the journal.

Since the book is told in multiple timelines, and across vast geographies, it is a satisfying blend of science fiction and historical fiction, complete with secrets, betrayals, and heartbreak.

Lovely War by Julie Berry

Romance, history, and wartime, but with a mythological kick.

When Hephaestus finds his wife Aphrodite cheating on him with his brother Ares, he convenes a trial in which Aphrodite must defend herself and her actions. To do so, she relays a harrowing story about interracial love, music, and friendship during World War I.

Beautifully written and captivating, while not shying away from historically accurate portrayals of racism and sexism, this soaring book makes a compelling case for the enduring human spirit as told by the goddess of love herself.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

If you think you know all about books where teenagers go to magical schools, think again.

When the obnoxious and unloved Eliot winds up in a magical realm called the Borderlands (protected by an invisible wall), he meets elves, mermaids, and other magical people. It seems like his dreams will be realized, but this is a place where expectations, stereotypes, and other prejudices are thrown out in place of the unpredictable. Eliot will fall in love and make an unexpected friend, but can he save the world while doing it?

This funny novel plays with fantasy tropes, but more than that, it turns preconceived notions of gender, colonialism, and sexism upside down and inside out.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

A classic work of literature by an author whose work has produced a rabid and devoted fanbase.

In this book the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has become “unstuck in time” so the story does not follow a linear timeline. It jumps around all over the place featuring different moments of Billy’s life.

Vonnegut’s unique writing style is at times humorous, sometimes derisive, but always memorable and moving.

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

When the story begins, Travis is a 16-year-old suffering from cancer. Once he realizes that he will not survive the illness he agrees to participate in an experimental procedure in which, after he dies, his head will be removed from his body and cryogenically frozen, to then be attached to a new body if and when the technology allows…

…It doesn’t take long and Travis is born again 5 years later, albeit with a new body. He would like, and expects, to pick up his life where he left it, but that won’t be so simple. Some of the most important people in his life, namely his girlfriend and his best friend, have been living, loving, and changing in the time that he was gone and Travis must figure out where he fits in.

This strange tale raises both philosophical and existential questions about life, wrapped up in a funny and heartfelt story about love and the nature of being.

Have you read any other books that defy genres? Share them in the comments!

Celebrating AAPI Literature (By Ms. Pelman)

Out of countless prodigious options, here are four books that I’ve read recently written by Asian American authors. They each represent just one facet (of infinite) perspectives. While these books take on wildly different subject matter, each one is fascinating, eye-opening, and riveting in its own right.

We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

This work of historical fiction follows a group of Japanese American teens who live in San Francisco during World War II. Their lives are thrown into tumult and their bonds are tested as some of them face the decision to fight in the war, and others are sent to an internment camp. If you like books told from multiple perspectives, you won’t be let down by this vivid and moving book.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

This offbeat National Book Award winner is written in a screenplay format. Willis Wu is a Chinese American actor who hopes to graduate from the bit parts of “generic Asian man” to the ultimate role for Asian men: Kung Fu Guy. Clever, funny, and fast-paced, this book skewers Hollywood in the most satisfying way.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Another historical fiction set in San Francisco, though this one follows Lily, a shy and obedient girl living in Chinatown in the 1950s. As Lily navigates a growing discomfort with her family, culture, and best friend, she discovers truths about herself and her sexuality that will change her life forever. A lovely tribute to self-discovery amidst painful realities.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

This nonfiction book of essays contains brilliant commentary and criticism on race in the United States as the author explores and explains her Korean American identity. It is also beautifully written and complemented by memoir-like personal experiences. A memorable experience that makes you think and feel.

Have you read any great books by AAPI authors? Share them in the comments!

The Burning God By R. F. Kuang (Review by Alysa S. ’22)

The Burning God (The Poppy War, #3)The Burning God by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two years after The Poppy War, the first part of this trilogy series, was placed into my hands, I finally finished this emotional roller coaster. By the time we reach The Burning God, Rin is no longer the petty, lost child she once was, but I became increasingly frustrated with her blunt attitude and actions, now as a war-hardened general and a powerful shaman finally in control of her powers. It takes some willpower to move past the first 8 chapters of Rin’s ruthless carnage before we see more into her reasoning and limitations.

In terms of the storyline, R.F. Kuang seamlessly maps the history of 20th century China, from millenniums of imperial rule to the Republic of China to the ensuing revolts to western imperialism, into a narrative complete with ancient Chinese mythology, folklore, and war tactics. Though we finally see an end to the war, this last book especially taught me the demanding, cutthroat decisions that political and military leaders were forced to make for the sake of their country. This insight is made all the more heartbreaking as Rin grows increasingly vulnerable to war paranoia, factional infighting, and betrayals. The added issue of defending Nikan against the technologically advanced Hesperian nation also allows readers to understand the deep history of racism and subjugation that western powers inflicted upon 20th century China.

Kuang especially highlights a universal message: history moves around in vicious circles, and Rin is no exception to that pattern. Beyond the grim storyline and much, much, much more mature issues, Kuang continues to deliver on the evocative imagery of Rin’s divine firepower, as well as develop her complicated love-hate friendships with Kitay and Nezha. Side note: I think Nezha is a beautiful character (think broken redemption arc deserving Draco Malfoy), and I love how Kuang describes his aristocratic but scarred persona. However, I wanted to see more of Nezha’s reasoning and thoughts, and I had hoped for more insight into the pain he deals with as the opposition. I gave this book three stars because, like the author says, this ending may not be satisfactory for everyone (as it wasn’t for me). However, this is still one of the most unique and exciting books that I’ve read in a while, and I hope everyone gives the series a try. —Review by Alysa S. ’22

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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Review by Anika F. ’21)

Gods of Jade and ShadowGods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At this point in my fantasy journey, it’s hard for stand-alones to impress me. Some are too short and don’t allow for enough world building or character development. Others are large tomes (like The Priory of the Orange Tree) that are pretty much a full series condensed into a brick. Similarly, Young Adult fantasy is not something I reach for, since I prefer the depth and nuance of New Adult or Adult novels.

Yet, somehow, Gods of Jade and Shadow, clearly both a decently lengthy stand-alone and a Young Adult fantasy, surprised me. While the characters and plot are interesting, what really drew me to the book was the descriptions and the storytelling. Silvia Moreno Garcia creates these lush settings with hints of magic, crossing the boundaries between our world and mythology.

Even if you’re not a big YA fantasy reader, I still think there’s a lot to gain from this book. It discusses racism and discrimination, feminism and misogyny, and the importance of charting your own path, even when your family holds you back. —Review by Anika F. ’21

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Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee (reviewed by Anya W. ’20)

Outrun the MoonOutrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s tough to be an American born Chinese girl in San Francisco in 1906, and Mercy Wong knows all about it. But, for all that she was born and raised in chinatown, she’ll let it shape her but not define her. So, after she finishes her last year at the only public school in the city open to kids from chinatown, she seizes the first opportunity she can get to con (beg, borrow, barter, blackmail) her way into a better school. After all, St. Clare’s will help her get a foot in the business world, so one day her weak younger brother won’t have to take over her father’s laundry business. Things go all right, at first. Then they devolve. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and Mercy is nothing if not tough.

Lee’s Outrun the Moon is a riveting tale of prejudice, friendship, and loss, set against the wonderfully dramatic background of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Her characters are dynamic and multifaceted, each with their own stories, weaving a well-built picture of many different lives converging by chance. Lee paces her story well for the most part, and my only request is an extra hundred or so pages in the middle to allow more time for characterization. Even though the romance is predictable, it is still fairly sweet, and the rest of the novel more than makes up for it. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. – Anya W. ’20

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee (review by Tasha M. 20)

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings, #1)The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Henry “Monty” Montague embarks on a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend, he expects a year of glitz, of parties and flirting, and just generally enjoying himself. He does not expect to be the target of a manhunt.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is easily the best historical fiction I’ve ever read. Without bogging the reader down with details, Lee weaves in a few key historical points. Additionally, the tone of the writing was perfect – right from the first page, I knew that Monty was part of the British aristocracy simply from the narrative style. The plot was engaging right from the start, accelerating beautifully right up until the end. I also appreciated the lack of an “epilogue” chapter that only serves to tie up loose ends.

Lee develops her characters spectacularly. I found myself invested in Monty’s growth from a devil-may-care attitude to someone who genuinely cared for the people he was close to. The romance was believable; Monty and Percy did fight as opposed to staying in a utopian love the entire time.
In short, The Gentleman’s Guide blew me away in every respect, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good fiction book. – Tasha M. ’20

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The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore (review by Connie M. ’17)

The Last Days of NightThe Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I picked up The Last Days of Night from the “free book” rack, I was doubtful of whether Graham Moore’s second novel would live up to the whirlwind Gilded Age adventure the back cover promised. However, the fact that this novel is based on, of all things, a patent lawsuit, impressed me all the more when I found myself completely absorbed in the incredibly intelligent and fast-paced plot. Moore skillfully paints his characters with depth and unique personalities, many of whom are well-known historical figures (Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, J.P. Morgan, etc.). I loved getting to know the eccentricities of these almost legendary people, and Moore periodically provides wonderfully profound insights into the way their minds operate. My only reservation is that Moore can sometimes overdo the most unique parts of his writing. For example, I found the quotes that he placed before each of the very short chapters more distracting than helpful, and his insights can occasionally be presented more subtly. Overall, The Last Days of Night was refreshing and exciting and would be a great read in particular for fans of historical fiction, law, or the history of inventions. – Connie M. ’17

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The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama (review by Catherine H. ’17)

The Samurai's GardenThe Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden tells the tale of a young Chinese man, Stephen, who travels to a sea-side town in Japan to recover from tuberculosis during the Second Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930s. He stays with Matsu, who has worked for Stephen’s family all his life, and learns to live in the quiet town of Tarumi while he regains his strength. Stephen also meets Matsu’s friend Sachi, also an outcast, and slowly gains her trust. This book tells a touching story about friendship in a time of war and Tsukiyama’s simple, yet elegant language really draws the reader into Stephen’s story. I really appreciated learning about the war and how Tsukiyama incorporated Stephen’s identity as a Chinese man who is immersed in Japanese culture and makes friends at Tarumi during this time period. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a satisfying read.

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Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys (review by Melissa K. ’18)

Out of the EasyOut of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Out of the Easy begins with seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine’s stark opening line: “My mother’s a prostitute.” From the very first sentence, author Ruta Sepetys sucks the reader into the world of 1950s New Orleans, a place rife with scandal and mystique. Desperate to escape the stigma of her mother’s reputation, Josie dreams of leaving New Orleans by attending college far from the South.

Everyone in the novel has something to conceal—the wealthy Mr. Lockwell hides his trips to the French Quarter from his wife; Josie’s friend Patrick hides his aging father’s memory loss from the authorities; Josie hides a pistol under her skirt. The inexplicable death of a wealthy Memphis businessman in the French Quarter only adds to Josie’s list of secrets, especially when she suspects her mother’s involvement.

Ruta Sepetys writes flawlessly, revealing striking historical details through Josie’s observant eye. As historical fiction, Out of the Easy is painstakingly researched and powerfully told. Do I need to say more?

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