Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2017. Children/Young Adult, Western, 19th century. 384 pages. ISBN 9780544918887.
Teenager Reece Murphy is compelled to join a ruthless outlaw gang, the Rose Riders, during a robbery, when the outlaws discover a mysterious gold coin in his possession. Reece doesn’t know much about the man who gave him the coin, but the boss figures he does, and keeps a close eye on him. In the meantime, Reece is guilty by association and finds himself dubbed the Rose Kid due to the train robberies, murders, and general mayhem caused by the gang.
Spunky 15-year-old Charlotte Vaughn means to follow in the journalistic footsteps of her idol, Nellie Bly, and in doing so lands in the middle of a train robbery committed by the Rose Riders and starring Reece Murphy. This sets up the frequently changing fortunes of the two main characters, which continues until the end of the book with breathtaking regularity.
Written in crisp, vibrant prose, the short chapters and shifting points of view of Reece and Charlotte suck the reader into the dangerous world of Arizona Territory in 1887, and play up the desolate surroundings, scrubby inhabitants, and the ever-widening grasp of the railroad in an effective combination. High stakes put Charlotte and Reece at odds and then in reluctant cooperation as feelings blossom between them.
Don’t be surprised if you hear the far-off echo of train whistles and cowboys’ yee-haws in this fast-paced, emotionally satisfying read that hits all the right notes of a western adventure.
The Sorceress and the Skull by Donald Michael Platt. Penmore, 2016. ISBN 9781942756569; $15.00, Paperback.
The 16th-century French seer and predictor of frightening futures, Nostradamus, died many years ago. His family line lives on in The Sorceress and the Skull, however. Michele is born in 1932, and prophecies point toward her wielding great power. That is, if she manages to reach puberty when such powers will be manifested. Allies like the Skull, a man disfigured by the horrors of war, join with a gargoyle to protect the young sorceress.
In this solid thriller, the action is slick and fast-paced. The atmosphere is thick and charged with intrigue. Historical details are meticulously researched but perhaps relayed a bit too faithfully. An example sentence reads: “Michele and her aunt, who went by the name of Mrs. Desaix, sat in Principal LeRoy Stephens’ office at Lowell High School, situated on Hayes between Ashbury and Masonic.” This level of detail can make the sentences unwieldy, but it does lend an air of authenticity to the prose, and after a while the reader accepts it as a stylistic quirk. The quatrains scattered throughout the book lend authenticity and an air of mystery to the tale.
I found the characters difficult to sympathize with, mainly because they were hard to get to know. Their portrayal is heavy on action but light on inner thoughts and feelings, another stylistic trait that may trip up some, while others may not notice its absence. Overall, this book leads the reader through dark pathways to a satisfying conclusion by using detailed prose and intense research.
Here’s another of my Historical Novel Society reviews – this one all about the Vikings and drowning, which seems to be a thing in publishing lately, for some odd reason.
The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker. Harper Little Brown, 2017. ISBN 9780062563699; $27.99, Hardback.
It is 9th-century Norway, and the Vikings are sailing, raiding, battling, and attending the gathering of peoples known as the Thing. Ragnvald Eysteinsson, a young warrior, finds himself betrayed by the very men he fought alongside, and left to drown in the cold waves of the Viking seas. His sister, Svanhild, faces challenges of her own back home, where she must navigate the social waters of suitors. The mercurial Solvi juggles political alliances and personal attachments deftly, and the warrior Harald of Vestfold—King Harald—comes to claim the loyalty of Ragnvald in a move that will change the course of each character’s lives.
A first novel, this title is also the first book of a trilogy. The author can trace her own lineage back to King Harald and, inspired by this family history, she has studied Norse history and literature for many years. Her attention to detail is the most enjoyable aspect of this book, which does an excellent job of evoking a vibrant society from years past. The opening scene, which finds young Ragnvald dancing across the oars while his ship sails, is evocative, dreamlike, and overwritten. The rest of the book follows this pattern.
This is the kind of book to sink into and enjoy for its beauty and atmosphere, not the kind to read for thrilling adventures or a complicated plot. The characters spend a lot of time debating things in their heads, and this trait serves to slow the narrative. However, if you are patient and in the mood for a period piece that brings to life a bygone era, you may find this volume satisfying reading.
That’s quite to book title, isn’t it? Well, it’s an interesting book and worthy of a looooong title. Here’s another of my Historical Novel Society reviews.
Wisconsin Logging Camp, 1921: A Boy’s Extraordinary First Year in America Working as a “Chickadee” by James Bastian. Trails, 2015. ISBN 9781934553541; $18.95, Paperback.
Will Heinlein is only eight years old when he finds himself an orphan. Suddenly he is a new immigrant to the United States with no family nearby and no prospects. How will he survive, much less live up to the promise of the book’s subtitle?
The narrative opens years later when Will is a wounded soldier in World War II, and then backtracks to Will’s childhood. It takes a while before he becomes the promised Chickadee, or a boy who was given the job of helping the loggers by tending to the trails of their horse-drawn wagons. First, though, the reader is taken on an engaging trip through the struggles of American immigrants and European soldiers and country people. When Will finally does get to the logging camp, his experiences are well-detailed and immerse the reader in the personalities, dangers, and concerns of the workers.
The book is an unusual mishmash of fiction and nonfiction. The title and black and white photographs point toward nonfiction while the storyline and characters are fictional. The narrative reminded me of an oral interview with an irascible old World War II veteran. Well-researched without being pedantic, it gives a good look into the challenges of the era: war, disease, and economic devastation. Similarly, it shows how hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit helped America to thrive even before the explosion of prosperity that World War II engendered.
The author has a strong voice and a good hand with characterization. Despite this, though, it was sometimes hard to accept that an eight-year-old protagonist would speak and behave in the manner portrayed. If you can overlook this flaw, however, the story will take you on an entertaining journey.
Good Water by John D. Nesbitt. Five Star, 2016. ISBN 9781432832759; $25.95; Hardback.
Tommy Reeves is a young ranch hand working his way across the West, accompanied by his friend Red Armstrong. When the two of them come across a settlement of Mexicans nearby, they can’t help be interested in the people there, especially the pretty young women. Despite the fact that their foreman orders them to stay away from the settlement, they return. Their defiance sets in motion a devastating chain of events that result in violence and murder.
The book proceeds at a slow, loping pace through most of the story events, relaying them in a restrained and understated manner. Characterization is satisfyingly complete, and the laconic style of dialogue is especially effective in portraying the Old West. The book really shines with its wonderful, authentic details, though. Most westerns don’t go into detail about how to skin an antelope or cook tortillas on an open griddle, but this book does, with fascinating realism. At its heart the story involves Tommy’s coming of age. His romance with a beautiful Mexican girl also illuminates Mexican culture and the challenges they faced due to their ethnicity.
Lots of the story’s pivotal action scenes take place offstage, so don’t expect a traditional shoot ‘em up tale of revenge and gunslingers. While the narrative does include range fires, bullet wounds, and other Western tropes, it suffers overall from a lack of drama. However, if you are looking for a story which evokes the spirit of the West, with its hardworking settlers, simple lifestyle and wide-open sky, you can’t go wrong with Good Water.
For some time now I have been reviewing books for the Historical Novel Society (an organization filled with probably the MOST enthusiastic history lovers I have ever seen). This children’s graphic novel is my favorite so far.
A Castle in England by Jamie Rhodes. No Brow, 2017. ISBN 9781910620199; $19.99; Hardback.
For several months in early 2016, researcher and author Jamie Rhodes lived in Scotney Castle in Kent, South-East England. There he walked the grounds, pondered the ruins, and studied the archives for stories illuminating the castle’s centuries-long past. The result is a young adult graphic novel that includes five tales that span the ages from the late 14th century through the early 20th century. Each part is illustrated as a comic by a different graphic artist in their own unique style. Family trees, historical context information, and facts pertaining to Scotney Castle during the associated period accompany each story in order to provide needed information to help the reader more fully understand what he or she has read.
The stories include “The Labourer” (medieval), “The Priest” (Elizabethan), “The Smuggler” (Georgian), “The Widow” (Victorian), and “The Hunter” (Edwardian). Each of them is inspired by actual events that took place in, near, and around the castle.
The tales are engaging and interesting, making each a quick, easy read. Trying to figure out what, exactly, the tale ultimately means is not as easy or quick, though. Because of this, it is necessary for the reader to carefully examine the family tree and historical context information and think about how the tale was presented, and perhaps even read it over again with these details in mind. For that reason, the graphic novel becomes a potent educational tool for young people and adults alike, and not a piece of spoon-fed diversion. Highly recommended.
One of the more recent trips I took was to St. Petersburg, Florida for the Historical Novel Society‘s yearly conference. The fact that it was held in June kept me inside the hotel 95% of the time, due to the humidity and heat. When I did step out of the hotel to take a few pictures, my camera immediately fogged up and it was almost a week before it worked correctly. (note to self: keep camera in a plastic bag when traveling to such destinations in the future!).
The most interesting session I attended at the conference was Colour in Historical Novels by British member Jay Dixon. Below, I’ve jotted down some notes from the session, and at the end I included some interesting links if you wish to explore further. Dixon opened the session by saying that she entered an Italian restaurant on a rainy English day and the site of the ochre-colored paintings transported her back to Rome, where she lived for some time. Color, she asserted, can be very evocative of a place. Some examples:
Rome – ochre or gray stone
London – gray skies; green grass
Greece – blue skies; white clouds
Authors should keep in mind the following facts about color:
Mauve – first named 1856 – before that it did not exist
Purple – a royal color, called such because in antiquity the purple dye was so expensive that only royalty could afford it.
Scarlet – connected to the Catholic Church (or a disgraced woman – The Scarlet Letter)
White – never used for weddings until the reign of Queen Victoria; women simply wore their best dresses.
Black – Puritans (although they only wore this color when they went to have their pictures taken; ie when they were in their “good” clothes. Most times they dressed like everyone else at that time. Little black dress – came about in the 1920s; before that black was worn for mourning.
Green – color for wallpaper; it was dangerous because the process that created it involved arsenic, which poisoned people.
Indigo – it was produced in India; it also grew wild in America. In addition to its beautiful color, it repelled mosquitoes, which was important in preventing disease.
Red (synthetic) – did not become available until the mid-1870s. Before that, red would have consisted of russets and orange-reds – natural colors. Why did armies use red in uniforms? To disguise blood.
Blue – true blue came from lapis lazuli, and is a pale color. Rich blue became synonymous with wealth in the 1400s. Early blues had more gray and violet. Clear blue signified divinity.
In the past you would not be surrounded by today’s vibrant colors – colors would look drab to us because the majority of the people only had access to natural colors. The wealthy, however, wore purer colors. For example, the Greeks only had natural colors: black, white, ochre, brown, and red. Where did the “wine-dark sea” of Homer come from? The color of red wine at the time.
The symbolism of color has been different depending on the culture and time period.
To the Aztecs’ blue turquoise signified fire; while green turquoise signified fertility.
Pseudo Dionysus of the early Middle Ages equated darkness with God, not light.
In Europe, turquoise and sapphire equaled good luck.
In 14th century Europe colors had religious meanings: gold (God, the Father), scarlet (Jesus’s blood), green (the Holy Spirit). White represented faith, red clarity, and green hope.
In the Middle Ages the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were equated with colors:
White – illness or Pestilence
Red – war
Pale Green – death (the color of a corpse)
Black – famine
In the Red Badge of Courage, author Stephen Crane used color at the end of each chapter to symbolize different things: red – blood; yellow – vivacity and excitement; blue – how the soldiers saw one another. Therefore, the reader was left with the vivid afterimage of color.
By 1918 the color red became associated with blood and death because of World War I.
Today, we consider red and green a strong juxtaposition of colors. In the Middle Ages, yellow and green were considered strong colors playing off one another.
And, a couple of notes about fashion:
In the 1780s, in Europe, it was fashionable to wear an indigo coat and yellow trousers, as evidenced by The Sorrows of Young Werther.
In the 1880s the aristocracy considered yellow a vulgar color.
One of the more interesting things Dixon spoke about was the medical condition Synesthesia, in which one can actually taste different colors. I had never heard of it, but this article by NPR talks a bit about it, as does this editorial and the associated TED video. Most of us have heard of Color Blindness, a genetic condition that occurs more frequently in men than women, and usually affects perception of the colors red and green. However, it can also affect blue-yellow color vision. It can even result in an absence of color vision entirely. The NOAA’s National Weather Service website includes an interesting visual simulation of the different color blind conditions:
Jay Dixon handed out a document on the color wheel, primary colors, and other color related information: Colour by Jay Dixon (right click and choose “save link as” to download).
The Web Exhibit site called Pigments through the Ages provides a wealth of information on colors, including their history, how colors were made and used, and, especially for historical writers, an easy to read chart about color through the ages. In addition, Causes of Color and Color Vision and Art are but two of the informative exhibits at the same site: http://www.webexhibits.org/ (where you can also find out about the history of butter … bet you didn’t know you were curious about that, did you?)