Review: One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Series: Gaither Sisters
Genres: Historical Fiction, Middle-Grade Fiction
Maturity Level: 2
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Rating:
⋆⋆⋆

In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.


I wanted to love this book. Truly, I did. But it just didn’t click for me.

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Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes
Genres: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 2
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Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

Long retired, Sherlock Holmes quietly pursues his study of honeybee behavior on the Sussex Downs. He never imagines he would encounter anyone whose intellect matched his own, much less an audacious teenage girl with a penchant for detection. Miss Mary Russell becomes Holmes’ pupil and quickly hones her talent for deduction, disguises and danger. But when an elusive villain enters the picture, their partnership is put to a real test.


This is one of those books that is going to be hard to write a review about because it was just so fine. Like, it was good, but there was nothing to really glow about. But there wasn’t anything bad to whine about either. So I guess I don’t have much to say.

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Review: Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Genres: Middle-Grade Fiction, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 2
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Rating:
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Esperanza thought she’d always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico–she’d always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances–Mama’s life, and her own, depend on it.


Goodness, I forgot how much I adored middle-grade historical fiction when I was a kid. There is something about this genre that I really connect with, and I think it gives kids the opportunity to explore heavy and difficult themes of the past without feeling confronted and uncomfortable about bad things now. If that makes sense.

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Review: Leading Men

Leading Men by Christopher Castellani

Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5-
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Rating: ⋆⋆

In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encounter will go on to alter all of their lives.

Ten years later, Frank revisits the tempestuous events of that fateful summer from his deathbed in Manhattan, where he waits anxiously for Tennessee to visit him one final time. Anja, now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, lives as a recluse in the present-day U.S., until a young man connected to the events of 1953 lures her reluctantly back into the spotlight after he discovers she possesses the only surviving copy of Williams’s final play.


This is a classic example of why “literary fiction” isn’t for me. Can we not have a book that isn’t mostly about how we’re all going to die someday, and in the meantime it’s inevitable that we’re miserable? Where is the hope? In all fairness, this book ends on a hopeful note, but the first 420 pages were decidedly philosophically bleak.

If you’re super into the great writers of the mid-20th century (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and so on), this book will certainly appeal to you. If you are fascinated by LGBT history, this book is probably also for you. If you enjoy novels in which the characters spend more time thinking and reflecting than they do talking, this is DEFINITELY a book you will enjoy. If none of those things are particularly interesting to you, you’ll likely be as bored as I was.

Which I realize sounds like I’m not interested in LGBT history. Let me clarify that that was the one thing I did enjoy.

A big problem for me was that the characters are all unsympathetic. Tennessee is a narcissist, Frank is infuriating, and Anja is cold. I realize that was done on purpose, but for me it was kind of a lot. In particular it really bothered me how Tennessee and Frank would use their fame and charm to sexually take advantage of young boys. Again, I think it’s rather supposed to bother you, and good literature makes you uncomfortable, but there wasn’t really enough to redeem them.

As a love story I also found Frank and Tennessee lacking. They certainly aren’t presented as the ideal relationship. I guess what really bothered me about them was how they cared for each other, but refused to admit it to one another. They were also both really selfish, and thought often of themselves before their partner.

This book was certainly masterfully crafted. Frank and Tennessee leaped off the page as if Castellani personally knew them, and I was 100% convinced that Anja was a real person. The prose are lovely, this philosophizing is intense, and the descriptions are vivid. The time period and setting are captured picture perfectly. There is a nice balance between events that serve to develop characters and events that serve to drive the story forward. Even the multiple POVs and time periods are handled expertly. It was easy to tell who was talking and when.

But as outstanding as this novel was, I personally didn’t connect with it or enjoy it. I appreciated the brilliant writing, the insights in to these real men, and the LGBT history lesson, but I felt like I finished this book out of obligation rather than enjoyment.

Top 5 Tudor England Books

Have I mentioned before that I’m a history nerd? (yes) Okay, have I mentioned before that I am obsessed with Tudor England? (yes) All right then, it sounds like you know everything you need to know about why I am writing this post. No intro needed. On to the list!

5. The Rose Without a Thorn by Jean Plaidy

I don’t know why this book is on this list. Maybe because it was the first Tudor era novel I ever read? Maybe because after this one I started devouring Tudor fiction like it was the only fiction there was? Maybe because I was 11 when I read it so I thought it was the greatest thing ever written? Regardless, I read this book 20 years ago and it has stayed with me

The Rose Without a Thorn follows the life of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard. You know the one, she was beheaded for having an affair. No, not Anne Boleyn, the other one beheaded for having an affair. It’s a rather tragic story of a young woman in love who became Queen not because she wanted to, but because when the King of England wants you, you don’t say no. While probably outdated, I think some of the themes would probably be even more relevant in the Me-Too era than they were when the book was published in 1993.

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Review: Daisy Jones & the Six

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5
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Rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.

Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.

Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.

Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.

The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.


There were so many things about Daisy Jones & the Six that took me by surprise that maybe shouldn’t have? Like the drugs. I knew that rock and roll artists in the 70s were in to drugs, but either I wasn’t aware just how bad it was, or Jenkins Reid really played it up. I’m thinking probably I didn’t realize how bad it was. This whole book was so much grittier and darker than I expected, which again, maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked. My naivete will never cease to amaze, I’m afraid.

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Review: Whiskey When We’re Dry

Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison

Genres: Western, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 4
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Rating: ⋆⋆⋆


In the spring of 1885, seventeen-year-old Jessilyn Harney finds herself orphaned and alone on her family’s homestead. Desperate to fend off starvation and predatory neighbors, she cuts off her hair, binds her chest, saddles her beloved mare, and sets off across the mountains to find her outlaw brother Noah and bring him home. A talented sharpshooter herself, Jess’s quest lands her in the employ of the territory’s violent, capricious Governor, whose militia is also hunting Noah–dead or alive. 

Wrestling with her brother’s outlaw identity, and haunted by questions about her own, Jess must outmaneuver those who underestimate her, ultimately rising to become a hero in her own right.


Let me start off by saying that this was my first western, so this is by no means an especially knowledgeable or well-informed opinion.

I suppose it makes sense to start first with authenticity. Again, bearing in mind that my only context for this novel is Bugs Bunny cartoons, Whiskey When We’re Dry felt to me as authentic as they come. I felt like I was reading some classic like Lonesome Dove, or like I was living in the unsettled California frontier. The dialogue, the scenery, the whiskey, it all rang so true and clear. The Wild West didn’t feel Holleywood-ized, but as bleak and barren and desperate as it must actually have been.

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Review: Enchantée

Enchantée by Gita Trelease

Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Maturity Level: 3+
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Rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆


When smallpox kills her parents, Camille Durbonne must find a way to provide for her frail, naive sister while managing her volatile brother. Relying on petty magic—la magie ordinaire—Camille painstakingly transforms scraps of metal into money to buy the food and medicine they need. But when the coins won’t hold their shape and her brother disappears with the family’s savings, Camille must pursue a richer, more dangerous mark: the glittering court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

With dark magic forbidden by her mother, Camille transforms herself into the ‘Baroness de la Fontaine’ and is swept up into life at the Palace of Versailles, where aristocrats both fear and hunger for la magie. There, she gambles at cards, desperate to have enough to keep herself and her sister safe. Yet the longer she stays at court, the more difficult it becomes to reconcile her resentment of the nobles with the enchantments of Versailles. And when she returns to Paris, Camille meets a handsome young balloonist—who dares her to hope that love and liberty may both be possible.

But la magie has its costs. And when Camille loses control of her secrets, the game she’s playing turns deadly. Then revolution erupts, and she must choose—love or loyalty, democracy or aristocracy, freedom or magic—before Paris burns…


Thank goodness Enchantée lived up to my expectations! I was so excited for this book: a fantasy set in Revolutionary France, who could resist?! Trelease delivered on everything I was hoping for.

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Discussion: Problematic Content in Historical Fiction

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and they started talking about Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, a book which remains the only Steampunk novel I’ve actually enjoyed. I admit I was a little taken aback when the hosts mentioned that they had a problem with the way Priest talked about Chinese-Americans in the novel. Many of her characters are outright racist, but then what else would you expect from the Civil War era? I hadn’t batted an eye-lid at it when reading.

But as I started thinking about it, this is something I have noticed people critiquing other historical fiction for as well. Specifically the two things I most often see historical fiction critiqued for is racism or inclusion of asylums.

As I am right in the middle of reading a historical fiction novel with some extremely offensive language right at this moment, I thought I would take a second to weigh in.

First of all, let me start by saying that we can not go back and change the past. Like or not, people in the past made mistakes. They were racist, they were anti-gay, they didn’t know how to handle mental health problems, they killed people who were inconvenient to them. The past SUCKED. I don’t know why it is that we are so drawn to it, but there it is.

So the way I see it, any author writing a historical fiction novel has three choices for how to deal with history’s problems:

  1. Ignore the problem all-together. Make everyone white, straight, and healthy.
  2. Put the diversity in there, but make your characters okay with it, even if that means losing some authenticity.
  3. Write your novel authentically, even if that means leaving in some problematic content.
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Review: The Winter of the Witch

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

the winter of the witchSeries: The Winternight Trilogy
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 4
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Rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆


Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.


What a great end to this amazing series! The Winter of the Witch was everything I hoped it would be. It answered all my questions, gave my favorite characters good arcs and development, fleshed out the magic a bit more, and went in a completely different direction than I was expecting! Continue reading “Review: The Winter of the Witch”