At the Fair

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford is a sad historical fiction loosely based on events which occurred at and around the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle.

In this novel, a young boy named Earnest Young is raffled off at the fair. The lucky winner turns out to be the Madame of a local house of ill repute. Prior to being raffled off, Earnest was born in China to a starving Asian mother who sells him with the belief that it will save his life. Earnest never knew his American father. He is loaded onto a boat and transported across the ocean to Seattle where he is unwanted and unloved. The World’s Fair changes his young life in unimaginable ways – some good, some bad.

The novel shifts back and forth between the 1909 fair and another over 50 years later when Earnest is an elderly man.

Even though the story is a sad one, I enjoyed it. The writing is good and the characters vividly memorable. The author did a fine job of weaving a fictional story out of limited historical facts. I admire her creativity.

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We Believe in God

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett is novel number five in a series of books. I haven’t read the previous novels, but this one stands well on its own.

The novel takes place in England and France during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It is a long, epic retelling of the war between the Catholicism and Protestantism. Many vivid characters populate the book – monarchs, spies, clergymen, earls, lords, and common folk. Much of the tale is told in the first-person voice of Ned, a fictional English spy. The rest of the story is revealed by an omniscient narrator.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel even though it took a while to capture my interest because of the numerous characters in it. From time to time, I got confused because there are so many plots and people in the story. Historically, it is a very interesting subject to me, a lover of the Elizabethan era.

This is a story about religious freedom and persecution. It is also about power and corruption. I couldn’t help but think how, as in many other historical novels, one cannot help but observe the fact that history repeats itself.

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The New Girl in Town

Every Frenchman has One by Olivia De Havilland is a memoir written by the well-known American actress who lives in Paris. Dating back to the late ’50’s, it is a lighthearted collection of her observations of life and customs in Paris.

The memoir speaks of clothing, food, faux pas, home renovations, schooling, religion, medicine, and several other topics. There are amusing anecdotes, but overall, the impression I got from the book was one of superficiality. I don’t think this memoir was written ” from the heart” and that disappointed me.  It is not a tell all book. That is ok! The only thing which surprised me was the fact that De Havilland and her late sister, Joan Fontaine, attended a convent school when they lived in the U.S.  However did they both end-up in Hollywood? Perhaps that story is written and explained elsewhere.

While reading this book, I never got the impression that De Havilland eventually fell in love with Paris. That surprised me. I do not recommend this memoir for any reason other than light reading for those who enjoy star-gazing.

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Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a Young Adult historical fiction recommended to me by my friend Joan. Although this is an excellent novel, I wouldn’t recommend it for children in grammar school or junior high.

The story is based on a tragedy which took place in the Baltic Sea during World War Two. It happened during a Nazi evacuation of refugees in effort to help them escape the rapidly approaching Russian army. This is a completely new story to me.

Sepetys’s exceptional story revolves around a group of young refugees from different countries whose paths cross as they try to escape the Russians. Each character’s personal experiences highlight different realities of war as seen through a child’s eyes. One of the traveling companions is an elderly shoemaker. He represents the voice of experience.

This story made me gasp and cry. I thought it was expertly written, but as I wrote earlier, I don’t think it is suitable for young children. I am grateful to have read it because it brought to light a story previously unknown to me. I admire this novel greatly because it is masterfully crafted. If you enjoy historical fiction, I recommend reading this novel.

Further reading:

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The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, is a Top 150 novel which made little sense to me. What really amazed me is that the novel won prestigious awards.

This is a fictional story about a woman named Daisy who has a life strewn with hardship. Her mother dies during childbirth – strike one. A neighbor lady who lovingly raises Daisy dies – strike two. Daisy’s alcoholic husband falls to his death on their honeymoon – strike three.

I listened to this novel in its entirety, waiting for a glimpse of greatness, but never found one.
I think the story was too disconnected for me personally. I am sorry I missed the point!

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Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser was published in 1900 and is another Top 150 novel. The title of the book led me to believe this would be a story about a nun. I couldn’t have been further from the truth!

This is the story of an 18-year-old girl named Caroline who boards a train in her small town home in Wisconsin headed for a new life in the big city of Chicago where she intends to stay with her older sister and her husband. No sooner is she on the train, than a traveling salesman by the name of Charles Drouet makes a move on Carrie. Ignorant of the ways of such men, she is taken-in and forthcoming in sharing personal information with the smooth talking stranger who pounces on her soon after her arrival in Chicago.

Jobs of consequence and fair pay are inaccessible to a girl like Carrie who has no previous experience. Forced to take a menial factory job leaves Carrie miserably unhappy and disillusioned. In addition, her sister and her husband take almost all of the meagre pay Carrie earns as room and board. Enter Drouet, with a pocketful of money and an ulterior motive, and Carrie follows him on a dead-end path away from her family. With stars in her eyes,  she believes Drouet’s self-motivated promises. In reality, Carrie becomes a kept woman.

As the story progresses, Carrie’s unfulfilled desires lead her along a path of compromise, disillusionment, and disappointment. Considering the year in which the story was published, one can imagine how racy the subject matter was. The story isn’t solely about a girl gone wrong, it is a social commentary about the early nineteen hundreds; in particular the mores which affected women.

Unfortunately, this is another novel which lacks a happy ending. I enjoyed reading it very much because, even though more than a hundred years have passed since it was written, I don’t think life has changed as much as we’d like to believe. The novel is well-written and the characters believable. I came away from this novel with the reinforced belief that some things never change.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was definitely not to my liking. I am still wondering why and how it was included on the Top 150 list. Might it have been widely read? Beats me!

This is a futuristic novel which describes a ghastly change in the U.S. as we know it. Using first-person narration, Atwood speaks in the voice of a woman who belongs to a select group of women in red garb who are still capable of reproduction. These women are farmed-out to powerful couples unable to conceive children of their own. The concept was so bizarre and abhorrent to me that I struggled to read the book.

With hopes of a happy ending, I made it to the conclusion which left me all the more dissatisfied. As stated earlier, this genre is among my least favorites. I would only recommend this novel to someone who enjoys this type of thought.

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