Reviewed: “Wunderland” by Jennifer Cody Epstein

I think there may have been too many timelines in Wunderland for it to reach it’s full potential as a World War II novel.

I give it credit for not trending toward outright romance in the shadow of war, as a lot of WWII novels do, or focusing on some aspect of the resistance to the Nazis, as many WWII novels do. The author attempted something different with Wunderland in that she focused on women in Nazi Germany and the effects that could have through the subsequent generations.

Unfortunately, it fell flat and a lot of that can be, I think, laid at the doorstep of too many timelines playing out at once and too much switching back and forth. It got confusing and clunky in places.

I wanted to read more about each of the women and every time the next page switched timelines, I couldn’t help but wish we were sticking with the one who’d just been speaking.

Really, the story of Isle and Renate, Ava and Sophie could have been a duology to a trilogy and it would have been good. The subject matter deserved something more given what the author was obviously trying to convey in an under 400 page book that spanned sixty years and four main characters.


(Thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for the chance to read this book in exchange for a honest review. I apologize for how long it took.)

When History is Fictionalized…

I am a history nerd.

There is no debating this. If something seems ever so vaguely rooted in real history, I’ll probably give it a chance. This is especially, and maybe impossibly, more true when it comes to my favorite parts of history to study – Tudor England, World War I, World War II, the 1920s… to name a few.

This willingness to try just about anything is a path fraught with missteps.

Much like any favorite genre (be it books, movies, or television), the more you try new things within it, the more clunkers you will find. You’ll find absolute gems, of course, but you will also find plain old rocks that you toss over your shoulder in your quest for gems.

Is that a strange analogy? Maybe? Oh well.

In any case, here is my guide for what works and what doesn’t work in historical fiction. (This is, of course, totally my own opinion and I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree down in the comments.) Think of it as a way to maybe know what to look for, if you’re new to historical fiction.


  • (at least at first, if you’re new to the genre) stick to periods of history that you know something about. You want to learn from reading, but you don’t want to have to do prep and homework to prepare for fiction.
  • push yourself a little bit, by reading something that will might teach you something. History teaches us all, every day, so read something ‘old’ that might help make your world ‘new.’
  • make use of ‘if you liked that, try this’ lists because if, say, World War II historical fiction, is your proverbial cup of tea, those lists can be invaluable to discovering new favorites.


  • assume that ‘historical fiction’ means you have to read Tolstoy and Victor Hugo and even Jane Austen. Remember, in many cases, even their novels can be called ‘contemporary’ at least to their times. Read Middle Grade or YA or graphic historical novels if you like!
  • feel like you have to follow the crowd. As in everything, the crowd can be very wrong and historical fiction can veer toward particular interpretations of history that can be not quite factual.
  • ever be ashamed of what you read. If ‘historical fiction’ means ripped bodice lairds and lasses on the cover, go for it. Just look for the history around the sex!

My recipe for the perfect historical fiction

Since I’m picky (the Picky Nikki nickname of my childhood was both unfortunate and fitting!), and I like to talk about my preferences and particulars, here is what I consider the ideal ingredients for a historical fiction novel.

  • the best ones are not about the most famous people (think Henry VIII or Elizabeth I) because there is too much already known and they tend to read more like dry biographies or, if they invent scenes, too many facts can be wrong
  • the best ones are about events that are not the most famous (think D-Day or 11/22/63) for the same reasons as above
  • the best ones don’t change the dates of actual events, don’t change the key players in actual events, and don’t change the effects that actual events had on the world
  • the best ones are ‘inspired by true events’ or something similar to that
  • the best ones are the ones that teach the reader something, by making them a part of the story
  • the best ones are the ones that truly honor HISTORY

So… are you a fan of historical fiction? What makes the best sort of story for you? What are you favorite historical fiction novels? Let me know in the comments down below!

Reviewed: “The Forgotten Home Child” by Genevieve Graham

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for the chance to read this incredible book in exchange for an honest review.

Historical fiction is my go-to genre in books. Nothing makes me happier than getting lost in the past through the pages of a compelling story. It’s doubly good when the topic of the novel is something I don’t know much about. I want to learn from the books I read.

And, boy, did I learn from The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham. The story she weaves through Winny and Jack is compelling and so easy to get lost in.

I knew that the United Kingdom sent children to Canada during World War II to protect them from the Blitz. I did not know that the United Kingdom had been sending children, who they more or less hoped were orphans, to Canada as indentured servants from 1869 to 1948. It seems… unreal to think that the most powerful nation in the world for much of that time, a nation that outlawed slavery in 1820, sold children into service an ocean away from everything they knew. They were to serve until they were eighteen or twenty-one. England seems to have more or less hoped that those in Canada, mostly farmers, who ‘bought’ workers between the ages of 4 and 18 would care for them, provide them with shelter and food, and even send them to school.

This was not, of course, always the case.

And Genevieve Graham focuses her narrative here, on those who suffered. She explains in her author’s note that she pulled the lives she created for Winny and Jack from stories shared with her by people who were ‘Home Children’ and the families they later had. Not every author can do that as well as Graham does.

And she does it in a way that broke my heart and still made me hope.

There really isn’t much more that you could ask for in a novel, not in my humble opinion.

I could, and maybe should, say more about Winny and Jack but I want people to read this book and to tell you more might influence whether you read it or not. I will say this… this book includes romance but friendship is the current that every aspect of the story rests on. And that seems most how a life should be balanced, even in it’s darkest hour.

Fair warning if you have trouble reading of child abuse, death, and war. It’s there, but it was also a very real part of the lives of those who were ‘Home Children.’

Reviewed: “Fire in Heaven” by Malcolm J. Bosse

For what it’s worth, I absolutely didn’t even realize that “Fire in Heaven” is a sequel when I read it, not until I sat down to write my review. That being said, I can say that you do not need to read the first book in order to fully appreciate the sequel. It never even crossed my mind that I was missing out on anything.

And this book is stunning.

It’s big, an epic, really. More than 600 pages, but it only spans about two years. But the details in it, the intricately woven stories of the characters make it an epic.

The perspective of the story rotates between four people – Vera, a Russian ex-pat in Thailand who married an American after loving a Chinese warlord; Sonia, the daughter of Vera and the warlord, who wants to return to the land of her father; Philip, the American who loves Vera more than she loves him, to the point that he betrayed the warlord; and Rama, an Indian man who starts as a servant but becomes an integral part of the lives of the other three. It seems like a lot of characters to focus on, but it isn’t. It works because each of their stories are connected on the deepest levels and a reader can’t help but want to follow each and every thread.

China, Thailand, and India serve as settings for the story and a reader can’t help but feel transported to each of these places. The story is set in the late 1940s and travels all over Asia but it is abundantly clear that the author researched and knew what he was writing. From the way signs on antique shops in Thailand (then Siam) were written, to the shades of red that betel can dye teeth, to how many steps there are on holy mountains in China… the reader is put in those places. The settings of the story really are the supporting character.

Things get a little questionable when a particular romance blooms in rural China, in the middle of a war, but not questionable enough to ruin the book. The romance isn’t a major plot point and it’s easily enough overlooked.

The ending of the book is a bit predictable, but “Fire in Heaven” is a sprawling, fascinating story nonetheless.

(I received a copy of “Fire in Heaven” through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “A Death in Harlem” by Karla F.C. Holloway

A DEATH IN HARLEM is a story of the Roaring Twenties. I haven’t read THE GREAT GATSBY since high school, but this book seems to be an excellent view of another slice of life in the same time period. Set in Harlem, as the title implies, it is also the story of how the people most like us, in the case of race for this story, are the ones who are going to be most awful to us.

The story focuses on a death, also as the title implies, which is a murder in the Negro (and I’m using that word because it is what the author uses in the story) community. It happens at a ritzy awards banquet to honor authors, and Zora Neale Hurston even makes a brief appearance, and the only police officer assigned to the event is the only minority officer on the force – Weldon Haynie Thomas.

Weldon takes it upon himself to do what few of the other police officers seem to want him to do and investigate the death of Olivia Frelon as carefully as possible.

Olivia Frelon was first thought to be white, by some, and known to not be white by others in the Harlem community. Vera Scott, a respected doctor’s wife in Harlem, is also fair-skinned enough that she can pass for white. This means that suspicion falls immediately upon Vera because… reasons, I guess.

To see, again and not for the last time, how it’s not as simple as black and white… how a larger group of humans, humans who call themselves “our people” and “community” and “family”, must always find someone that is just that much lesser than they are, even by shades of skin color, is both fascinating and disheartening.

In a good turn for A DEATH IN HARLEM, that makes for excellent storytelling and I really did like story. It’s a good, important book and I’m glad I got the chance to read it.

(Except for the random, unfinished side story of the vice-mayor’s son Wyckomb.)

(Thanks to NetGalley and Northwestern University Press for giving me the chance to read this book in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt” by Andrea Bobotis

THE LAST LIST OF MISS JUDITH KRATT somehow manages to be both bleak and hopeful. It is the story of heartache and pain. And it is the story of healing and love.

This is because it’s the story of a family, and families are eternally good at causing as much heartbreak as they do hope.

Miss Judith Kratt is an elderly white woman in 1989 South Carolina, making an inventory (i.e. her last list) of the valuable items in her family home. She never married and inherited what it was that her family had. She lives only with an elderly black woman named Olva, with whom she has an incredibly complicated relationship.

The story is told entirely from Miss Judith’s perspective, both in 1929 (when her brother was murdered) and in 1989 (when she makes her list). Her father was the most powerful man in the town of Bound, South Carolina… building an empire on the backs of other people, manipulating them into capitulation based on the secrets his son tells him. And then his family falls apart, because they are a family in ways he does not accept.

In 1989, Miss Judith is forced to confront hard truths. She is forced to pick a side, after sixty years of desperately trying not to.

And she picks the right side, the one her father would hate.

This books is a fantastic parallel story of racism and bigotry, family and friendship, violence and hatred, love and understanding… proving that even if it doesn’t seem like things have changed in sixty years, there are good things, good people even in the darkest of moments.

(I received a copy of this book through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “Call Your Daughter Home” by Deb Spera

I received an advance copy of Call Your Daughter Home through NetGalley and Park Row in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.

Labeling a book ‘historical fiction’ will draw me in every time. There’s really no better hook if you want me to read your book. That being said, not all historical fictions are created equal and sometimes you have to read a handful of absolutely meh ones to find the proverbial diamonds.

Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera might not quite achieve Diamond Status but it’s definitely a gem.

Set in the 1924, only a few years before The Great Depression, the novel follows three women living in rural South Carolina. The women are unique and very different from each other – Annie is well-off elderly white woman with more skeletons in her family closet than even she knows, Retta is an older black woman who was one of the first in her family born free – though she is met with skepticism by blacks and whites alike because she works for Annie, and Gertrude is an impoverished white woman with four young daughters and the most abusive husband I’ve ever encountered in fiction. They are connected – Retta working for Annie just as Retta’s mother did before her, Retta was pregnant at the same time Gertrude’s mother was, and Gertrude needing both Annie and Retta’s help if she and her daughters will survive.

A novel that begins with a murder, a carefully orchestrated murder involving the participation of an alligator to erase the evidence, is bound to be dark.

And Call Your Daughter Home is dark. It’s dark in a real way, one that is easy to imagine in a rural place when the world is moving on from one way of life and the inhabitants there are struggling to keep up. Keeping up is a daily battle and when being alive is a daily battle, it can be hard to find light.

Over the course of the story, should you choose to challenge yourself and read it – as you should, you will encounter spousal abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, murder, pedophilia, racism, suicide, teen pregnancy, mental illness, alcoholism, and marginalization. These things could be called trigger warnings, I suppose, but it also doesn’t take long to realize that, in the setting of Call Your Daughter Home, these things would have been and were real, rampant, and constant.

Remember, going in, that the story is set in rural South Carolina in 1924. Poverty was a way of life for people of all races, and poverty can breed desperation and violence. Jim Crow laws were in effect and there was a clear distinction between whites and blacks in the South at the time. The cotton crops had just been decimated and the people who had only just begun to rebuild after the Civil War were brought down again, this time by things they could not control. Girls married young because it was their only option and because their parents decided they should. The things in Deb Spera’s book were real, they were history. That makes it all the more important that her story be read now.

Reviewed: “The Tubman Command” by Elizabeth Cobbs

My favorite books are the ones that teach me something.

Elizabeth Cobbs’ The Tubman Command taught me more about Harriet Tubman than two years of American History in high school, a B.A. in history at college, and countless documentaries, books, and movies ever did. It taught me about a part of the Civil War that seems painfully forgotten in our collective recollection of that defining war. And it taught me that the best stories we can read are the ones that are closest to being or having been real.

Everyone knows (and if you don’t, you really should) that Harriet Tubman led about seventy people to freedom in Canada as a ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad. That’s what gets the attention, as well it should. Sometimes we see that she was a scout and a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, but that’s often glossed over. Without judging whether one is more important than the other, because they are equally important, it seems most important to know the whole story. That Harriet Tubman went back into the Deep South to act as a spy for the north, with a heavy bounty on her head for her work on the Underground Railroad, should be known as well.

It should be known because it brings with it a deeper understanding of the war, a reminder that cotton was not the only commodity produced by enslaved people in the South. Plantations along the South Carolina coast produced rice that fed the South and was grown by thousands of enslaved people. The Carolinas were all the more important early in the Civil War, when the North was not winning and when the strongest bases of support for the Confederacy were there. The Union Army couldn’t focus there because the Confederate Army was pushing north, and that lack of focus meant the outcome of the war hung in the balance.

That Harriet Tubman chose to go there is a testament that makes what she did before the war all the more powerful.

Books that make me look things up, make me add other books to the list of books I want to read… they are the books I like best.

The Tubman Command is that book. Through the fictionalized story Cobbs wrote, I learned that Southern slaveholders who did not support the Confederacy were allowed to bring slaves into Northern free states. I learned that Northern slave states were not required by the Emancipation Proclamation to free their slaves, and that proclamation itself was not issued until after the Union Army suffered a few defeats. I learned about General Hunter who, on the brink of being removed from command, ordered a raid up the Combahee River to burn the rice fields and destroy Confederate supplies but also to free the slaves who worked the plantations there. For General Hunter, it was partly a means to enlist freed slaves in the Union Army. He commanded Colonel James Montgomery to lead the raid and Montgomery, who had been part of Bleeding Kansas and a supporter of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, knew that the men would not enlist while their families were enslaved.

So, with Harriet Tubman, he led the raid.

My history classes never taught me this, even on days spent dedicated to Harriet Tubman.

I feel kind of cheated.

But not by Elizabeth Cobbs’ book. This book is one of the best I’ve read this year and one of the best historical fiction novels about a real person that I’ve ever read. If you like history and fiction, if you like a story that teaches you something about true heroism and valor in the face of danger, and if you like novels that tell a story of humanity on it’s basest, purest levels…

Well, then, please read this book.

I received a copy of The Tubman Command from BookishFirst in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.

Reviewed: “Repentance” by Andrew Lam

I received an advanced copy of Repentance from Tiny Fox Press in exchange for an honest and fair review. All thoughts are my own.

I don’t cry easily. Words have the power to move me, and they always do, but tears are a sign that something important, meaningful, and powerful has been committed to paper. At least for me.

I cried, more than once, as I read Andrew Lam’s Repentance.

Repentance is a story of war, of family, of understanding, of acceptance, of grief, of love…

The war is World War II. Ray Tokunaga was born a nisei (first generation Japanese born in American) in Hawaii and was drafted into the Army after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was placed in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team that served with distinction throughout Europe.

The family is essentially centered around Daniel Tokunaga, oldest son of Ray and Keiko Tokunaga. In 1998, when the story begins, he is a world-famous cardio-thoracic surgeon in Philadelphia and he has been estranged from his father for decades. He is absolutely convinced that Ray was too demanding and not enough understanding. And he had no idea that Ray is a highly decorated soldier.

Grief comes before understanding and acceptance, making it all the more powerful when Daniel understands, for the first time, that life cannot be as black and white as he always imagined it would be. He is taught that things aren’t always what they seem and that to assume he knows better than someone else who they are is to hurt them, to hurt himself by missing out on the chance to know them and to be known by them.

For some specific things that Lam handles with grace and respect, consider:

  • the juxtaposition of Daniel’s career as someone who saves lives, who is surrounded by blood and the looming specter of death every day, with Ray’s time fighting in the worst parts of the European Theater of Operations is perfect and almost poetic (and the first line of the novel is written in a way that all first lines should be written)
  • that Daniel more or less considers his father guilty of (verbal) child abuse until his father is a frail old man in a hospital bed and Daniel begins to consider that maybe Ray didn’t know how to love, how to show it, and that he showed love the only way he knew how – by pushing his son to be a better man than he saw himself as – is even more poetic

It’s best to leave the understanding and acceptance at that too, just so you know that I didn’t forget them, because to say more would be to spoil things and Repentance is a book that needs to be read – whether historical war fiction is your genre of choice or not, whether you are a history buff or not, whether you knew Japanese-American soldiers made up the most decorated unit in U.S. military history or not.

Please read this book. And incredible thanks to Andrew Lam for writing it and to Tiny Fox Press for giving me the chance to read it.

I’ve read a lot of historical fiction set in war, especially the two world wars. If I see it, I’ll read it. But I’m picky about my favorites. Repentance is a top three favorite now. Without a doubt.

Have you read any good historical war fiction that I should look for? Let me know in the comments!

“The Kennedy Debutante” by Kerri Maher

So… I can be a snob about novels that are fictionalized tales of real people in history. I admit to this. I’m obsessed with all things history and have spent many hundreds of hours happily lost in the rabbit holes of history, playing a sort of Word Association as I get lost in Wikipedia articles about obscure people and places I’ve never known just how badly I wanted to study. <b>The Kennedy Debutante</b> is different because, long before Wikipedia was a dream in the eye of whoever it was that started it, I had a bit of an obsession with the Kennedy family.

My family would probably say it was more than a ‘bit’ of an obsession and the stack of biographies still resides in my closet. I have to admit that Wikipedia is a little easier to handle than stacks of thousand pages biographies and histories.

But anyway, my obsession is still alive and well, it seems, because when I saw a novel about Kick Kennedy (JFK’s second sister, fyi) available for request on NetGalley, I clicked Request before I read the synopsis. (Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Books for granting me access in exchange for an honest review!)

So, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy was a debutante in London in when her father was U.S. Ambassador to England. Eighteen at the time, she was quickly swept up in the elite social circles of aristocratic England, despite her being a Catholic American. And she fell in love with the Marquess of Hartington, who was considered a potential husband for Queen Elizabeth II. He was a Protestant. This caused many problems.

Those are historical facts, a very quick summary.

For the book itself, the novelization of Kick Kennedy’s life… it just works. The looming backdrop of World War II, the fact that Kick is one of the lesser well-known Kennedys, the… I don’t know the reasons, really, but Maher has centered on something magical here. Kick’s view of the world is privileged but unique, bleak but honest, full of love and full of heartbreak.

This fast became one of those novels about real people where you find yourself thinking “I don’t know if this might have happened but… gosh, I hope it did!” because you want them to have their happily ever afters.

But Kick is sort of the forgotten tragedy when it comes to the Kennedy family. Hers was a life cut short at only twenty-eight, one full of love and strength and independence and character. I knew how it ended for her, for her and the Marquess she loved, for her in all things and yet Kerri Maher made me cry for Kick. It’s not easy to make me cry. But that someone as strong as Maher wrote Kick to be, as I believe she was from my dusty stack of biographies, lost so much made me root for her even when I knew how it would end.

If you like historical fiction, read this book. If you like love stories, read this book. If you’re alright with some angst and tragedy, read this book. If you know a little or a lot about the Kennedys, read this book. If you like fiction set around World War II, read this book. If you are human, just read this book!