Tag Archives: historical fiction

Sweethearts Unmet by Berta Ruck

It continually boggles my mind that Berta Ruck’s books aren’t better known. She wrote before, during, and after WW1 and her novels give stunning glimpses into the social outlook of women during that period, particularly within the context of war. When she writes about ‘our boys in khaki!’ she writes it in 1914 with no knowledge of whether England will win the war or not. She captures the desperation of war and a suddenly changed society and she does it from the front lines. 

Written in 1919, Sweethearts Unmet tells a sweet story about two sweethearts…who never meet. At least, not for the first 3/4ths of the book. The plot flips back and forth from ‘The Girl’s Story’ to ‘The Boy’s Story’ and so the reader gets a front row seat to how often they almost meet. They’re two adorable, sweet characters with old-fashion values and pure hearts. They’re perfect for one another. And they both manage to get engaged to perfectly wrong people. 

Spoiler alert: sweethearts eventually meet.

In fact, by the end it is almost too sickeningly sweet. Not only do the characters harp on ‘what if we hadn’t met?’ (i.e. sweethearts unmet) but the author has an entire chapter at the end devoted to ‘what shall happen to all the nice young people who don’t meet? We must find ways to bring soulmates together!’ 

It that sounds vaguely over the top, I agree. But it is so much better when set within the historical context. Berta Ruck is not just telling some sugary little love story and declaring that young men and women should socialize more. She’s recognizing the change the war has wrought on traditional courtships. 

Because pre-war: Boy sees Girl. Boy likes Girl. Boy has someone introduce them. Or, if no introduction can be found, has his family approach her family. In no way must Boy talk to Girl without an introduction. And for the Girl, not only would she not talk to Boy, but she would not give Boy the time of day if he did talk to her. A Nice Young Lady does not do such things.

But then came War.

And now Boy sees Girl. Boy likes Girl. But Boy’s family is dead. All Boy’s chums died fighting. Boy has no way to introduce himself. Girl sees Boy. Girl likes Boy. But when Boy tries to talk to her, Girl freezes up because a Nice Young Lady does not allow perfect strangers to talk to her. Even if she knows no one else in London. 

The two young people would be perfectly happy if properly introduced. But they no longer live in a world where the old rules work. So they are left at a standstill. (Hence sweethearts…unmet!) And hence Berta Ruck’s strong push for breaking some of the social constraints around ‘young people finding happiness.’ 

Not my favorite Berta Ruck but one I think I will return to as it combines both the interesting historical context with some strong, female side-characters. 


Silence For the Dead by Simone St. James

Silence For the Dead

The Great War just ended but for many the horror still remains. 21-year-old Kitty Weekes is on the run. Determined to get out of London, she forges credentials and presents herself as a nurse at Portis House, a “madhouse” for soldiers suffering from PTSD. But Portis House hides its own secrets. The previous owners mysteriously disappeared. An unknown stalks the corridors at night. And the men all suffer from the same terror…someone coming for them at night. Someone now coming for Kitty, too.

4 out of 5 stars

Silence For the Dead attempts two things. Separately, they succeed. Together, they fall short of full success. But surprisingly, not as short as I initially expected.

First, the book presents historical fiction with a psychological twist. The plot takes place post-WW1 in a “madhouse” for soldiers suffering from PTSD. Kitty experienced abuse as a child and suffers her own form of PTSD. It all feels very realistic and well-crafted. While the heroine might demonstrate a little too much ‘open-mindedness’ for true historicity, the modern mindset towards mental health does not really permeate these pages and that helps a lot with the setting. These men—and the people around them—view themselves as cowards for giving into their nightmares. As historical fiction I found I really enjoyed the setting and the balance the author strikes. 

Second, this is a ghost story. Think And Then There Were None but with ghosts. The characters all live in isolation with no chance of escape, even the staff. Something is coming and they are helpless to stop it. The mystery of the abandoned house-turned-hospital remains an open ended question until the climax. Very intense, very eerie, and very enjoyably put together. I am as a general rule skeptical of ghosts and “mad” characters who act without rhyme or reason. They make such terribly convenient excuses for irrational actions. But the author doesn’t give into the convenience; she does a good job laying the groundwork and setting up the climax. It really pushed this book up a star in my mind.

Separately, then, two good plots. The problem comes when you combine them. It is hard to take the soldiers’ PTSD seriously when ghosts stalk around causing trouble. But on the flip side, it is hard to genuinely enjoy the ghost story when the author so carefully presents actual, psychological issues. The fantasy disrupts the realism and the realism disrupts the fantasy. I never felt the full “punch” of either story line because the other one kept dancing in my peripheral vision, distracting from the actual emotions before me.

But it works in the end. Not, perhaps, as well as it could. But well enough that I do recommend this one if either of those genres catches your interest. It was an engrossing, fun story. I’ll definitely find more by this author.

(PG-13 for a fade to black scene.)


Re-reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond

I have blogged at length before about my love of The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. When forced to pick a favorite book, I usually default to this one. I’ve read it countless times. In fact, I wore out two copies of the book before graduating high school. However, it has been a while since I last read it, so I decided to pick it up again. I forgot how good The Witch of Blackbird Pond is. I really, really, really love this book. 

One reason I enjoy re-reading Georgette Heyer’s novels is that I always discover something new. She uses such subtlety with her characters that I constantly find I have missed something in my earlier reading. This is not the case with Elizabeth George Speare. However, that is not because The Witch of Blackbird Pond lacks subtlety. I have just read this book and daydreamed about it and analyzed it so many times that I almost think I could quote parts of it. Kit and Nat and Mercy and Judith are all old friends to me. I don’t think I could find a new side to them. 

Re-reading this book after a long break, I’ve been struck by how much my enjoyment is mixed up with my familiarity with the story. I find a sense of identity and pleasure as much in remembering reading it as I do in actually reading it. 

It is just like the Cornelia Funke quote in Inkspell:

“Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times?…As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells…and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower…both strange and familiar.”

This is exactly the reason I added a “re-read” section to my challenge. It is so nice to re-read favorite books. Now if you will excuse me, I have almost reached the scene where Kit discovers the meadow, one of my favorite parts! 


2016 Reading Challenge: My 5 Star Reviews, Part 5

The final 6! I read a lot of amazing books in 2016. 

Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers

In this intriguing book, Sayers tackles the “analogy” of God as Creator and takes a deeper look at what it means for humans, who create, to be made in the image of God. This was a good but very challenging read. I didn’t always understand the definitions or logic and often had to re-read passages. However, like with Chesterton, I came away with a greater understanding and desire to know more. Sayers’s approach to the Trinity is intriguing and it offers an interesting glimpse into the creative process. Overall, this book is definitely worth the effort. 

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico 

At 48 pages, this is another charming children’s book that really stuck out this year. The Snow Goose is the story of a hunchbacked painter and a young girl who bond over a wounded snow goose. This book is surprisingly adult (not in content as much as depth) yet beautiful enough to read to children. Gorgeous art and an emotionally real plot. Though somewhat predictable, it is also sweet and noble.

For the Love of My Brothers: Unforgettable Stories from God’s Ambassador to the Suffering Church by Brother Andrew

For the Love of My Brothers picks up where God’s Smuggler ends and represents the expanded vision of Open Doors Ministry during/after the fall of communism. Though “dated” in some regards (I was age 3 and 5 respectively when this book was written and then updated), the book doesn’t feel obsolete. It was a great reminder of all God accomplished and continues to accomplish in the lives of believers across the world. Though I read a couple Brother Andrew books this year, I particularly appreciated this one because of my 2015 visit to Eastern Europe. 

Letters to Children by C.S. Lewis

Lewis received thousands of letters from children and this volume contains some of his answers. I found it immensely satisfying. Lewis’s letters are encouraging, instructive, and occasionally just about mundane things like the weather. There is a delightful amount about Narnia in this book. I love how often Lewis encourages children to write their own Narnia stories. He also answers lots of questions about the Narnia books (yay! More Narnia! Fangirls rejoice!) Even outside of Narnia, though, I was really surprised and impressed by how intelligently Lewis wrote to children. He peppers his letters with references to other books and texts. Truly worth reading and owning. 

The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man by J. Budziszewski

An interesting  and challenging analysis of politics and Christianity. Budziszewski has two particularly intriguing chapters critiquing liberal and conservative viewpoints. However, the entire book is worth chewing over. I love his strong, pro-life arguments. Readable and worth the time, even if there are moments it feels “dated” and occasionally dense. One of those books I really enjoyed but I don’t expect most people to. 

Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

It is very possible that I have lost all perspective and objectivity when it comes to Heyer. Even books I previously gave 3 stars I have been tempted to up to 5. I really, really love her writing and characters. While Beauvallet probably isn’t in my top 5 Heyer Reads, it is still pretty high up there. This is a grand, romantic, swashbuckling adventure set in the Elizabethan era. “Mad Nicholas” Beauvallet is a privateer and favorite of Queen Elizabeth who falls for a Spanish lady and determines to woo her, even if it means traveling through Spain where there is a price on his head. I was charmed to find the stereotypical Heyer characters out of their usual Regency setting and I liked the cameos from Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth, and Mary Stewart. Not perfect but certainly charming enough to win my heart.