Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

On Sara Gruen’s “At the Water’s Edge”

14 Apr

At the Water's Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

At the Water’s Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

Damsels in distress, bearded men with thick accents, giant mythical monsters, and a backdrop of worldwide warfare. No, I’m not talking about the new season of Game of Thrones. I’m talking about the newest novel from the author of Water for Elephants. I’m talking about a young America woman who gets dragged to Scotland during World War II to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster in Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge, which, aside from the gore and the patricide, is practically the same as Game of Thrones anyway.

Rich kids Ellis and Maddie Hyde and their ever-present third wheel Hank Boyd tear through the upper crust parties of Philadelphia, drinking the best champagne and mixing it with the best drugs. But all the pill cocktails in the world can’t drown Ellis’s feelings of inadequacy after being denied enlistment due to his colorblindness. After a scathing confrontation with Ellis’s father that threatens to cut him off from his inheritance, he takes action. Since the best kind of action always involves hunting down cryptids to clear the family name of horrifying, public shame, the three sail off to Scotland to find the infamous Loch Ness Monster. Maddie Hyde narrates as she witnesses Hank’s and her husband’s desperate attempt to prove a myth. She is an unwilling passenger on this wild ride, but, as Maddie is quick to learn, she is as complicit as the two men: they are invaders of the already war-torn lives of the villagers.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

What’s that out behind Urquhart Castle? Is it …? Could it be …? Is that Yeezus? (Photo from “jan zeschky“)

Gruen poignantly describes the era’s ultra-rich and their obliviousness to warfare and suffering. Behind an insurmountable fortress of wealth, the Hydes and their companion are offensively ignorant of the actual turmoil around them. As Ellis and Hyde immerse themselves in their monster-hunting adventures, Maddie’s eyes are opened to reality and her heart changed by the people around her. She soon realizes that–whether or not a massive sea creature lurks beneath the black surface of the loch–a very real domestic monster lurks under the preening surface of her increasingly volatile husband. If only there were a muscular, bearded Scotsman around to save her from it all ….

As fun as a solid, beardy Highland romance sounds, AtWE includes a cast of extremely problematic male characters. (Maybe later, if you’re not doing anything, we can discuss the validity of arguing for male characters’ depth in romance novels that appear to be written for straight women.) Ellis’s growing manifestations of violence and vileness leave little room for his humanity. Gruen shies away from fully exploring his inner demons, of which there are many, abandoning him instead to a fully realized antagonist, who is present in this novel solely to be defeated by the powers of Goodness and True Manliness. Angus Grant provides that stark, haloed relief to Ellis’s blackness. Though the man is gruff and pithy to the point of rudeness, Angus is honorable beyond measure and seems incapable of fault. Both Ellis and Angus are cheated out of their humanity, and seem to only find a place in this novel to be way points for Maddie’s life. This is the type of novel that distorts straight women’s definitions of romance, and, incidentally, for the straight men who presumably want relationships with those straight women.

Milkman among ruins of London

Life carries on despite the desolation meted out by German bombers. (Photo from “Jhayne“)

The art Gruen performs well is toeing the line between mainstream fiction and romance paperback. Some brief lines about classism and a backdrop of one of the most horrific wars of recorded history grounds an otherwise fluffy plot, but one more shirtless Highlander, and we might have needed alternate cover art by Harlequin Enterprises. I tease, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little romance in brogue. AtWE is predictable in the best kind of way: everything you want to happen happens. Every foreshadowing comes true and every dream is fulfilled. It’s the type of book that hoards come to love because it scratches an itch, and it scratches it thoroughly.

Read It: At the Water’s Edge makes for the perfect read when you’re looking for a good intrigue and saucy romance on that spring break cruise. The historical period of 1940’s Britain makes for a picturesque setting and Sara Gruen is an expert at weaving a compelling, entertaining story of love lost and won.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to venture into the loch’s icy waters with Gruen if you, maybe, have a severe allergy to predictable plots and overwrought tropes. AtWE won’t make you think or astound you with its creativity; it’s purely fun and games with just enough heavy themes to keep the book solidly in the literature section of book stores.

Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s most recent novel Lucky Us tells the story of two sisters struggling through WWII-era American and England. There story crosses countries and decades as the sisters learn new definitions of love and family. I suppose I should also recommend Sara Gruen’s claim to fame, Water for Elephants, though I can’t vouch for anything other than the film adaptation starring the marvelous Christoph Waltz. You can’t say no to this face.

Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen (Photo from Goodreads)

On Ron Rash’s “Serena”

17 Feb

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

I can already feel it: 2015 is the year of the bear attacks and wilderness novels. Less than a month ago, I posted the review of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, and in a short while I will be posting the review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

It’s 1929. The Great Depression is in full swing, and Americans everywhere find themselves jobless and destitute. George Pemberton and his newly acquired wife and business partner Serena take full advantage of a desperate workforce in their logging empire in the mountains of North Carolina. The terrain is treacherous, and if the falling trees or mishandled logging tools doesn’t kill man, then the rattlers or the cougars will. And if the rattler and cougars don’t kill a man, then a vengeful, cold-hearted employer will. Serena and her husband rule their domain with an iron fist. Any and all betrayal is met with instant, lethal retribution. The only thing that equals Serena’s hate for betrayal is her derision for incompetence, but she has met her match with George Pemberton.

Logs and loggers (Photo by "paukrus")

Urban Outfitters made the whole lumberjack look cute again, but there was nothing cute about the constant peril under which loggers lived. A slip of the hand here, a falling branch there could mean a lost limb or lost eye or lost life in this lethal world. (Photo by “paukrus”)

One thing is certain upon Serena’s arrival at the logging camp, having recently married Pemberton and come down by train from the upper echelons of Boston’s high society, and that is Serena’s utter capability, her stark difference from the bodiced, high-heeled, prim wives of Pemberton’s partners. Serena steps off the train in pants and boots. When Pemberton is met with a disgruntled logger whose teenage daughter Pemberton knocked up months before, Serena cooly orders her husband to off the man with her wedding present: a one-handled steel knife. It turns out watching Pemberton kill a man is a huge turn-on for Serena, and the couple begin their married life with a long bout of passionate, if a little psychopathic, sex. The honeymoon carries on for months as the couple plots their way to world domination, one logging tract at a time, but trouble begins when politicians enter the scene on their campaign to create the first national parks of the country. Betrayal is the name of the game, but it turns out Serena–aside from activities like taming Mongolian eagles and supervising logging sites–makes a hobby of dealing with traitors. The honeymoon ends the only way honeymoons can: in a wake of the blood and bodies of your enemies. That is how honeymoons end, right?

In the backdrop to the “Serena and George Show” are several minor characters, but none more important than a motley group of loggers that makes frequent appearances to comment on the changes in the logging camp and the changes in their employers. The men–Snipes, Stewart, Ross, and Preacher McIntyre–make spirited attempts at intellectual or philosophical debates to cast light on main events. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this tragedy. Or maybe, more fittingly, it’s like Tucker & Dale vs. Philosophy, which I would watch in a heartbeat, by the way. As interesting an idea as they are–blue collar men in stark contrast to the educated, powerful Pembertons–the chorus of men seem to confuse the themes Rash presents rather than inform them.

I couldn’t help but admire Serena’s unflinching brutality. She isn’t wanton with her power or violence. Instead, she acts with a singular goal in mind and never waivers. Serena is as logical and scientific as a thunderstorm, and, like with most natural disasters, is impossible to turn away from. Rash explores aspects of Serena’s personality at great length, but it was as if he couldn’t decide if Serena is evil she breaks the laws of nature or understandable, good even, because she adheres to the laws of nature. In several passages, Serena is criticized by the chorus of peons for wearing pants, not riding horses with a side saddle, and for training her Mongolian eagle to hunt down all the rattlesnakes in the woods, making the work environment safer for the loggers. “You’re disturbing the natural order of things is what you’re doing,” one logger says.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers. (Photo by “cesareb“)

In another passage, Serena is one of “nature’s paradoxes,” and is compared to a tiger and the black widow spider for being both beautiful and “the most injurious.” Serena is one of the most capable people any of the men of Pemberton Lumber had ever known. She is strikingly beautiful because of her competence and confidence, but several people, including Sheriff McDowell and the doctor who made these comparisons, begin to recognize the threat lying just underneath Serena’s poised surface.

 “Serena’s beauty was like certain laws of math and physics, fixed and immutable. She walks in beauty.”

The foil to Serena’s hardness, her personality like a force of nature, is the impregnated teenage girl whose father was slain by Pemberton at the beginning of the story. Rachel gives birth to Pemberton’s bastard son and raises him alone while tending to the property left to her by her father. Young, motherly, sensitive Rachel is Serena’s antithesis. Serena–whose opportunity to bear children (obviously, the most “natural” act a woman could perform) passes her by, whose only offspring will be the animal familiars she consorts with–sets out to destroy the mother and child who threaten her dominion. I still have reservations about Serena’s treatment as the unnatural, sexual yet genderless, psycho woman, because this story should be more than a cautionary tale against marrying the “crazy bitch.” Told from another angle, this novel tells the tale of a competent, ambitious business person in a ruthless landscape, and Serena is someone to be admired–from a distance, naturally. But I think Rash missed a few opportunities to forge a fantastic, lasting antagonist (or protagonist, you might view her), and, in the end, finds a resolution that tempers the wild, adventurous story line rather than affirming it.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn't last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn’t last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

I’m interested to see how Jennifer Lawrence uses her angel face in this role as a ruthless, lethal business person. Serena is the more ambitious version of Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Even more intriguing is Bradley Cooper playing the brutish, capable, yet utterly smitten George Pemberton. I watched him play the puppy dog-eyed bff in Alias, so I know he can do it, and I guess Lawrence and Cooper’s chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook was too good to pass up again. They are equally messed up in Serena, but in an extraordinarily different way. The casting choices should be interesting to watch when the film adaptation by Danish director Susanna Bier is released on February 26.

Read It: Serena is a fantastic piece of historical fiction that gives the reader a view of a dismal time in the United States. The research Ron Rash executed to make this novel authentic had to have been extensive, and because of it, the story is immersive. The descriptions of the destructiveness of human nature and the constant threat of a lethal, angry natural world are captivating backdrops to an interesting story line, and I got chills reading Serena’s increasing violence and insatiable hunger for power.

Don’t Read It: If you’re in the least bit squeamish, steer clear of Serena. Aside from straight up people murdering other people, the novel is filled with the deaths of other animals. Whether an eagle is preying on–in gratuitous, excruciating detail–snakes in the underbrush or the Pembertons go hunting for deer, the blood doesn’t stop flooding in. This is not to mention the natural brutality of the profession of logging, where the smallest slip could mean the death or maiming of a fellow logger, so in case you didn’t get it the first time around, this book is about killing and death and violence.

Similar Books: The one book that comes instantly to mind is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which, if you haven’t read it, also features a married couple desperate for each other in a bizarro love-hate-lust-more-hate relationship. If you haven’t already read Flynn’s blockbuster novel or seen the film adaptation, get ‘er done, at least before Flynn’s novel Dark Places hits the big screen with its film adaptation later this year.

On Michael Punke’s “The Revenant”

20 Jan
The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

There are inspirational books that make you marvel at the perseverance of the human spirit, the resourcefulness of our minds, the strength within all of us that drives us to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds–books that fill you with the warm, fuzzy satisfaction of belonging to a truly dominant and admirable species. And then there are books that remind you that you will never be as badass as that guy. Not ever. Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant.

The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself. In late summer of 1822, Hugh Glass joined a company of Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers in their pioneering journey up the Grand River. Together, the trappers hoped to make their way to Fort Union before the snows set in and, along the way, pick up plews of beaver fur while evading attacks from the hostile Arikara tribe. Easier said than done.

On September 1, 1822, Hugh Glass scouted ahead of the trapping party and finds a campsite by the river. He is ready to take his German-made, silver-trimmed Anstadt rifle to hunt for dinner when he sees two grizzly cubs trundling up to him. We could all learn a thing or two from this scene: “trundling grizzly cubs” is equivalent to “you’re screwed,” because where there are grizzly cubs there are grizzly moms.

Glass managed to kill grizzly in one-on-one combat, but not before the grizzly completely jacked up his face and back. As a consolation for survival, Glass was recognized as the Badass of the Week in 2006, so there's that.

Glass managed to kill grizzly in one-on-one combat, but not before the grizzly completely jacked up his face and back. As a consolation for survival, Glass was recognized as the Badass of the Week in 2006, so there’s that.

I’ll leave the grizzly details (sorry, I had to) to Punke’s novel, but I’m sure you get the picture of how this turns out. Mauled and a whisper away from death, Glass isn’t given a chance by his comrades. His captain leaves behind two trappers to do him the honors of burying him after he dies, while the others keep to their course. The two scallywags who volunteer to stay behind with the ailing Glass feel the impending threat of the Arikara. While Glass looks helplessly on, Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald take Glass’s supplies, his knife, and his coveted Anstadt rifle, and they leave him to die. Only, Glass doesn’t die.

In truth, The Revenant is the tragic romance of a man whose most precious loved one is stolen by another man. Punke sets up the love story himself: “Glass’s rifle was the one extravagance of his life, and when he rubbed grease into the spring mechanism of the hair trigger, he did so with the tender affection that other men might reserve for a wife or child.” Aside from the care Glass gives it, the Anstadt is also the envy of all the trappers. He’s got the biggest, baddest gun of all the men in the crew–the gun that’s going to get all the ladies. So it’s no wonder that Fitzgerald jacks it when he gets the chance, and it’s no wonder Glass traverses hell and high water to get it back. The film adaptation ought to be called Taken 4:The Revenant. Glass’s very particular set of skills is what gets him through hundreds of miles of hostile frontier country to save his only love from the clutches of a perverse, amoral kidnapper.

I mean, who wouldn't cover 600+ miles of wilderness with life-threatening injuries in the middle of winter for this beautiful, beautiful gun?

I mean, who wouldn’t cover 600+ miles of wilderness with life-threatening injuries in the middle of winter for this beautiful, beautiful gun?

Teasing aside, Punke is careful (or perhaps he’s just oblivious) not to make this a tale of manliness–a self-stroking, exhibitionist’s tale of old school masculinity or a pining for a long-gone era of true American machismo. A story like this could easily swing from super badass to super sleazy in a few clacks on the keyboard. Props go to Punke for resisting. Likewise, the story could also have easily fallen into the tired trenches of white American apologetics when Punke depicts Glass’s interactions with local tribes. The author steers clear and focuses on the story at hand.

Punke’s writing style makes The Revenant an easy novel to consume. The prose is neither lyrical nor didactic, humorous nor academic. In a way, the novel reads like a lengthy Wikipedia article: events and name-dropping dot the book like landmarks on the way toward a destination, and no reader would be able to get themselves lost along the way. Readers are just along for the wild ride that is this mountain man’s insanely eventful life, and nothing stands in their way to enjoying the second-hand satisfaction of Hugh Glass’s survival and quest to get back what’s his.

Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass will star opposite Tom Hardy's John Fitzgerald in the upcoming film adaptation.

Ladies and gentlemen, gird your loins, because Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass will star opposite Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald in a battle of the beards in the upcoming film adaptation.

Read It: Readers who enjoy historical fiction and historical non-fiction will dig it. The Revenant is filled with dates, landmarks, and references to minor historical figures. The book reads quickly because of the utter lack of art and artifice in its prose, which some will see as a virtue, and which certainly makes the novel accessible to most.

Don’t Read It: Since this novel is based on true events and is written by an author who writes nonfiction, don’t read The Revenant if you’re not a fan of histories. You may be looking for character development or quirky little literary devices or carefully constructed plot points, but you won’t find them here. This is a novel that takes its cues from real historical events and doesn’t stray far from the trodden path. Punke doesn’t let his imagination much of a lead.

Similar Books: The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which looks like it will also get the silver screen treatment with a 2015 adaptation starring the one and only Benedict Cumberbatch and Sienna Miller, tells a similarly improbable story of Col. Percy Fawcett, the last Victorian explorer, who disappears in the Amazonian jungle in the attempt to find the real El Dorado. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is the story of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, and Daniel H. Burnham, the architect of the 1893 World’s Fair. It is written in the same novelistic style as Punke’s The Revenant, and the film adaptation might star Leonardo DiCaprio, to boot.

Michael Punke--Capitol Hill lawyer turned author turned US Trade Ambassador--is pretty badass himself.

Michael Punke–Capitol Hill lawyer turned author turned US Trade Ambassador–is pretty badass himself.

On Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” and Amy Bloom Live

21 Oct
Lucky Us

Lucky Us

Apparently, I needed a six-week hiatus from all things book-related, but you better believe I’m back now, despite the glorious initiation of the NFL regular season. (Just don’t expect any blog posts on Sunday nights.) I can’t think of a better author to get me off my lazy ass than Amy Bloom, with her powerful, imagistic storytelling and her epic whirlwind plots. On August 4 at the Seattle Public Library, Bloom read from her newest novel Lucky Us and immediately hooked me on her quiet authority. She filled the room with her presence before she even read a word, and when she did start reading, the author of Away–nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award–reminded me why I love her stories.

In Lucky Us, half-sisters Eva and Iris work out their tumultuous love-hate relationship with World War II-era America as their backdrop. Eva’s story begins when her mother leaves her on the doorstep of her father and half-sister, and she narrates her life as she knows it: being the shadow of the captivating, horrible, hilarious characters around her. The narrative alternates by chapter–from Eva’s first-person perspective to the letters from Iris years into the future to the close third-person perspectives of secondary characters–as the sisters and their makeshift family travel from coast to coast back again, picking up and losing members along the way.

Fireside Chat

Eva, like many of her fellow Americans, spends her days entranced by the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt in his Fireside Chat.

Here are the three things you need to know about Amy Bloom:

1) Her greatest strength is writing incredibly three-dimensional characters. With Bloom’s background in psychology, she shows that she knows people. None of her characters are perfect, but they are all relatable. They are all believable. They are all real people. In the reading she gave in Seattle on August 4, she said, “The goal for me isn’t to create characters. The goal for me is to create human beings.” In the short length of the novel, Bloom creates a plethora of human beings. None of them seem to be very likable, even the passive, apathetic Eva, but something can be said for creating a unlikable human beings really, really well.

2) Bloom believes “World War II is where you saw the seeds of change begin to crack,”  and that belief led to her extensive research of the state of a country on the brink of yet another global war. From era-specific music to the lure of Hollywood, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the internment Japanese- and German-Americans, Bloom sets a solid historical foundation for her sweeping family epic.


One character finds himself

3) For Bloom, novel-writing is like a race against time and space. She has to cover as much ground and as many years as she possibly can, and she’s only got 250 pages to do it! While her short story style is concise–pithy even–and jam-packed with content, Bloom’s novels feel plot development on steroids. Lucky Us begins in Eva’s youth. She is an abandoned daughter, a younger sibling in the shadow of her flippant, teenage half-sister, but by the end of the novel, decades have passed, and everything has changed. It may feel as if Bloom writes in generalizations because years pass in a single paragraph, or characters travel cross-country in half a sentence. But truthfully, Bloom’s prose is so efficient and terse that she doesn’t need a hundred pages to describe a road trip.


Bloom is as succinct and impactful in person as she is in her writing. At her reading in Seattle this summer, she established herself as an expert on people and an expert storyteller.

Read this book if … you enjoy historical fiction, character-based stories, and/or American epics. There are many things Bloom excels at, but my favorite is her apparent love and respect for the American epic.

Don’t read this book if … you’re a sucker for details. Bloom doesn’t care much for those. She’s a brilliant character sketch artist. She’s genius at the long game. But her broad brush strokes aren’t for everyone.

This book is like … Bloom’s first novel Away in its scope and similar content. Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a young, first-generation immigrant to the United States. Lillian embarks on a cross-country journey from New York to Alaska in order to be reunited with her daughter who was separated from Lillian and left in Russia. Lucky Us also reminds me of A View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. The Nobel Prize-winner Munro writes mostly short stories, as does Bloom, and both authors’ attention to history and epic perspective feel extraordinarily similar. One major difference is Bloom’s tendency toward the romantic and Munro’s tendency toward the understatement. Both are excellent.

Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. All to say, she’s a badass.