Archive for ‘Historical Fiction’

July 25th, 2012

The Dark Monk by Oliver Pötzsch

by Gwen

The Dark Monk

Last year, I really enjoyed Pötzsch’s first book in this series, The Hangman’s Daughter. The setting was interesting, Germany in 1660. The characters were different; how many Hangmen have you ever read about? The mystery of the missing children, while a teeny tiny bit formulaic, was full of twists and turns. The whole package left me eager to read the upcoming sequel.

Enter The Dark Monk.

The hangman, Jakob Kuisl, takes a backseat for a majority of this book and lets his daughter, Magdalena and the town doctor Simon take most of the limelight and risk. A priest is found dead;  Simon and Kuisl don’t think that it was natural causes and then they stumble into an ancient crypt under the church. Simon soon thinks he is hot on the trail of the lost treasure of the Templars, Magdalena gets a marriage proposal from a big city hangman before she gets kidnapped, and Jakob has his hands full with Johann Lechner, the town clerk, and a whole mess of bandits.

I don’t think that I would be giving away too much if I mentioned that there is one seriously bad and messed up monk involved. Also, the dead priest has a beautiful wealthy sister that is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and manages to make Magdalena jealous.

Much like the first book, the time period and characters were interesting, however, the plot was reminiscent of the puzzling quests of Dan Brown. I liked it, but (Yes there is the big BUT) it read really, really slow for me. This baby is 512 pages long and I felt each and every page. It took a good long time to even get the story moving and then the characters seemed a wee bit slow on the uptake.

Did The Dark Monk suffer from the Sophomore curse? I think it did, but it was still nice to see the characters develop and I already have the next book in the series, The Beggar King, on my wishlist. (slated for January 2013)

 The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (June 12, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0547807686
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547807683
This book was sent to me by BzzAgent. If you have never heard of it, go check it out. They send you products and you spread the bzz honestly.

July 13th, 2012

The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head by Todd Pliss

by Gwen

Hole In His Head


The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head by Todd Pliss

Phineas Gage changed the world in 1848. Unfortunately, it did take the world a while to notice. Don’t know who Phineas Gage was? You may remember him from that Psychology course you took way back when. While  blasting rock for the railroad in September of ‘48, he blew a tamping iron clean through his head, destroying most of his frontal lobe. Now workplace accidents happen, but what was amazing about this one is that Phineas survived. He lost an eye and he wasn’t quite the same man anymore, everyone said so. Still, he was alive, walking around with part of his brain gone.

His doctor, Dr. John Martyn Harlow, spent years trying to get the medical establishment to even believe that Gage had been injured as badly as he was. He spent years trying to get everyone to understand just how little we actually knew about the brain and its functions. Gage’s accident changed his life as well.  This book is just as much his story, maybe even more so than it is Gage’s.

Todd Pliss has made both men’s jump out of the pages in his book. Reading about Gage in textbooks, you were never able to get a bead on the man. Sure, they give you the basics, but by taking the facts and wrapping it up with some nice historical fiction wrapping, both men become human. So deftly done, there were times that I totally lost myself and needed a reminder that the book was indeed historical fiction.

As part of the tour, I asked Todd Pliss a question or two.

1. What was it, besides the obvious, that drew you to Phineas Gage?

I have always been a history buff and possess my teaching credentials in the social
sciences. My mom sent me a newspaper – printed up like an old-time paper from
the 19th Century, with stories included from that time. One of the stories was about
Phineas Gage and the doctor who had treated him, Dr. John Harlow, who had
been ridiculed by his colleagues for his published findings on the case. Like most
people, I was vaguely aware of the case, having learned about it in science class,
but didn’t really know the whole story and the aftermath of the accident. The more
I researched it, the more I was convinced it would make a gripping “based-on-a-
true-story” novel.

2. So much of a historical event isn’t just about the event itself,
but how it changes the outcomes of the participant’s lives. I think
that is what I appreciated about your book, that it was also about Dr.
Harlow and how Phineas changed him. Was highlighting his dealings with
Phineas and how his life turned out in your original plan/outline or did
it grow organically?

Going into detail about Dr. Harlow’s experiences and how having Phineas as a
patient changed him was always part of the plan and what originally helped draw
me to the project. The story was not only about Phineas, who died in 1860, but
how in the aftermath of Phineas’s death, John Harlow was able to find redemption.

There are so many times that we learn the basics of a story, but don’t get to know the people involved. The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head brings you out of the text book and allows you a pretty good look directly into Gage’s good eye. (couldn’t resist the pun)

Somewhat OT, but this book reminded me of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin . Both books bring the human factor into their subjects so strongly that you run to see if there are any other books about them.


The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head by Todd Pliss


  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: S.B. Addison Books (February 21, 2012)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0983868170



September 24th, 2011

Rules of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles

by Gwen

Rules of Civility

Not too long ago, I told you that I just couldn’t appreciate literary fiction. Well, I take that back. Or at least I take it back when you mix it with historical fiction like Amor Towles did in a magical book called Rules of Civility.

If marrying a book wasn’t crazy pants and probably illegal in most states, I would marry this baby. The words floated off the page and enveloped me with visions of wonderful things. Am I blushing?

Never flowery, each word was still chosen carefully for the perfect effect and imagery.

“The driver put the cab in gear and Broadway began slipping by the windows like a string of lights being pulled off a Christmas tree.”

Can’t you just picture that? The lighted shop windows, whisking by you as you drive down the street?

“Anyone can buy a car or a night on the town. Most of us shell our days like peanuts. One in a thousand can look at the world with amazement. I don’t mean gawking at the Chrysler Building. I’m talking about the wing of a dragonfly. The tale of the shoeshine. Walking through an unsullied hour with an unsullied heart.”

Okay, so that is sort of flowery, but it hit home for me.  For example, I get the biggest kick out of the lizard that hangs out near my front door, everyone else just walks right by it.

There was so much to this story that resonated with me. It takes place in the NYC of the late thirties, when the depression is winding down and the talk of war is ramping up. Women are working in more and more fields and marrying later. The characters grew up during the roaring twenties and are left to figure out just where they fit in this brave new world that is grumbling, stumbling, and limping into the future and into war.

I just read that last paragraph again and realize how it is to explain how a story about the thirties resonated with me. Let’s try it another way…

  • The characters are rather lost. I am rather lost.
  • They are late bloomers, trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for. Me too.
  • They were raised in luxury, but the world changed and are trying to live within their now smaller means. Check.
  • They are all running from something or to something, not sure which. Double check.
  • There is a character named Wallace. I know a character named Wallace, who just happens to have liked this book.
  • They are all bright, all have a razor sharp wit, and all but one are beautiful. Just trust me on this one.

Do you feel me now? There were moments when I made myself stop reading because I didn’t want it to end so quickly. This is one of my top favs this year, if not the top. This is why I keep trying with books that some consider literary fiction, even though most are not for me. There is gold in stepping outside of your comfort zone; it just takes a lot of hope and maybe some Rules of Civility.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1 edition (July 26, 2011)
  • ISBN-10: 0670022691
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670022694

July 18th, 2011

The Traitor’s Emblem by Juan Gomez-Jurado

by Gwen

A Spanish Captain rescues four people afloat on a raft at sea in 1940. They don’t speak Spanish and the Captain doesn’t speak German, but he quietly gets them to safety and in return, the leader gives him a strange gold emblem. For the rest of his life, Manuel Gonzalez Pereira tries to find what the medal means and where it came from. All he ever was able to find that it was a Masonic symbol, but every Mason he ever contacted told him that it was probably fake.

Pereira eventually dies, leaving the emblem to his son, Juan Carlos. Years later, he crosses paths with a man that has a story to go along with that emblem. It is a tale of families, of betrayal, of father that a son never knew, and a quest that takes place in turbulent 1930’s Munich.

Earlier this month, I read Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, so delving into the fictional Munich during the same time period gave me such a comfortable feeling. The late 30’s however, were not a comfortable time to live in Germany and The Traitor’s Emblem felt so authentic, almost gave me the creeps as I was reading it.

I enjoyed this more than his last work, The Moses Expedition. I’ll be honest though, I can’t really put my finger on why. At their most basic, they are both personal quests with political/religious overtones, but The Traitor’s Emblem just seemed more unputdownable.

The Traitor’s Expedition by Juan Gomez-Jurado

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books; Reprint edition (July 19, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439198780
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439198780
  • February 10th, 2011

    A New Birth of Freedom: The Visitor by Robert G. Pielke

    by Gwen

    A New Birth of Freedom The Visitor

    A New Birth of Freedom: The Visitor by Robert G. Pielke

    • Civil War – Check
    • Abraham Lincoln – Check
    • Robert E. Lee – Check
    • Dire Consequences – Check
    • Man from the Future Asking for Help- What?! – Check

    Now this is Historical Sci-Fi that I can get excited about and I usually hate anything Sci-Fi related.

    In 1849, Abraham Lincoln has a strange encounter on a train. A man, Edwin Blair, says that he needs his help. The catch is that he doesn’t need his help now; he needs it in 14 years, but he will give him the retainer now.

    Fast forward to 1863, the Civil War is raging and Edwin Blair is granted an audience by then President Lincoln. Edwin Blair isn’t selling anything, but what he has to get them to buy is hard to swallow. You see, he is a 19th century history teacher from the future, 2203 to be exact, and he needs both the armies of the North and the South to join together in order to ward off some “pests” that are going to endanger America in the future.

    Blair has to walk a razor thin line between telling them enough to believe him and do what he needs them to do or tell them too much and blow their minds to the point that they won’t take action and lock him in the booby hatch as a crazy person.

    Once he convinces Lincoln and his cabinet, his struggle isn’t over. He has to then go convince Robert E. Lee and the great army of the South to join he and the North in a united cause. It isn’t easy and the clock is ticking. The pests are coming on July 3rd and he needs everyone to be ready to defeat them.

    What I loved about A New Birth of Freedom: The Visitor is that even though the sci-fi aspect is hugely important to the story, it really takes a backseat in the action. It isn’t like Edwin Blair blasts onto the scene in a funny Star Wars getup and yells, “I am from the future and aliens are coming to attack!” The aliens aren’t even called aliens, they are pests and Edwin Blair uses his knowledge and love of 19th century history to prove his point, not cool gadgets and tools from the future. Well, he does use a few of those, but he does it sparingly.

    He convinces these important men to stand together by being able to tell them things that he shouldn’t and wouldn’t know if he was just a man off of the street from 1863. By showing Lincoln a message that he had written, but at that time, hadn’t even sent yet. (He got these from the National Archives of the future just like we could)

    The Visitor’s strength also lies in the dialogue. When Lincoln talks, it sounds like what I think Lincoln would say. When Robert E. Lee interacts with Blair, it feels real, not like total poppycock. Pielke has taken a pivotal point in our American history and created another outcome that I couldn’t have imagined pulling off. Even better, he does it well.

    My one gripe- this is a trilogy so the ending is a cliffhanger. That was intentional and I understand that. The thing is, I am not really a fan of cliffhangers, especially when I can’t go and buy the next book right away. I want the next one, now!

    A New Birth of Freedom: The Visitor by Robert G. Pielke

  • Paperback: 226 pages
  • Publisher: Altered Dimensions (August 15, 2010)
  • ISBN-10: 1936021234
  • ISBN-13: 978-1936021239

    I received a PDF copy of this book from Tribute Books, but that fact didn’t influence my review above.