historical fiction

Book Review: The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

76bb0ddee4f2bc28810f6a7067006eeb1Title: The Courtesan

Author: Alexandra Curry

Publisher: Dutton [imprint of Penguin Random House]

Date Published: September 8, 2015

Format: Hardcover


Sai Jinhua is only seven-years-old when her father is executed and leaves her all alone. As the daughter of her father’s adored concubine, she may have been his treasure, but his first wife does not see her in the same way. Left in ruins with a girl she despises, she sells young, sheltered Jinhua for seven silver coins. Jinhua is eventually sold to a brothel and her life takes an ugly turn. From having a father who refused to let anyone bind his little girl’s feet, she has her feet broken and destroyed. For their investment in her, she is expected to become a “money tree” at the brothel when she reaches the ripe old age of twelve. Her only joy at this time in her life is her friendship with the crippled maid (crippled by a foot-binding gone wrong) at the brothel, who becomes her sister.

The Courtesan is a beautifully written novel inspired by the real-life courtesan Sai Jinhua. She lived during a tumultuous time in China’s history (end of the Qing dynasty, the Boxer rebellion, and invasion by European powers, for example) and tended to find herself in the middle of it. Eventually she is taken out of the brothel and an old, peculiar scholar makes her into his concubine. With him she travels the world. He is named the ambassador from China to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and while he dreads leaving the homeland, Jinhua flourishes abroad. She tries her hardest to learn about this new world while her husband will not allow her to leave the house or take guests. However, little by little Jinhua starts to find her freedom.

Curry takes many liberties with the life of Jinhua, but there is not much concrete known about her life in the first place. She has become a figure of legend in China where people debate the veracity of almost every aspect of her life. I wasn’t bothered by this, though. Curry embraces this mysteriousness in the novel. She skips time periods in Jinhua’s life and at times (especially towards the end of novel) the novel feels like a series of elongated vignettes and poetic moments. This novel excels in my favorite part of historical fiction novels, which is crafting a character that feels real. Sometimes this genre gets so bogged down by accuracy that it neglects to make these legendary figures feel human and to give context for their world and actions.

This novel is truly about the search for freedom. Jinhua was owned for most of her life. She was either paying off a huge debt to a brothel or being a concubine to a man who saw her as something she wasn’t. She pays some huge prices for this throughout the novel. Her strife is mirrored by her friend, Suyin, who does not have the luxury/curse of being beautiful and desired. While Jinhua is the lead character without question, Suyin does play an important role in the novel and without her I feel that it would’ve been a lesser book.

Cover Critique: It’s so beautiful. I love the painting they chose for the cover. She looks so guarded and shy, while still being beautiful and intriguing. I also really like the title and author’s name on those two strokes of paint. The painting behind them is so realistically done and perfect, and those two slashes show a impulsive and emotional quality to the book.

Quick Version: The Courtesan is a book about a near-mythic, mysterious, controversial figure of Sai Jinhua. She went from young “money tree” at a brothel to a woman who traveled the world and influenced key political figures in early 20th century China. Curry weaves her tale with a focus on poetic language and immersing the reader into Jinhua’s emotions and experiences. I sadly didn’t know anything at all about Jinhua before reading this book and I’m left with a desire to learn more, which is something that all good historical fiction does.

Score: 5 stars 




Book Review: Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

Title: Wolf by Wolf

Author: Ryan Graudin

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers [imprint of Hachette]

Date Published: October 20, 2015

Format: ARC {Received in exchange of a fair review}


Yael wants Hitler dead. She is willing to do anything to see this man pay for what he has done to the world and her people. When she was a little girl she was taken to a death camp and after a being subjected to horrible experiments, she managed to escape. It’s now 1956 and Germany and Japan have carved up the world between them. A rebel group sees their chance to execute the Führer by entering Yael into the annual motorcycle race that crosses Asia, from Europe to Japan, which if she wins, we get her close enough to end him. The Nazi experiments left Yael with the ability to change her appearance. She must imitate last year’s female victor (Adele) to try to win again, but she does not anticipate Adele’s twin brother and a jilted boyfriend to also be in the race testing her cover at every moment.

I’m not usually into alternate histories. Alternate WWII stories, especially, tend to be everywhere and after a while they just seem to have more fun playing with ‘what-ifs’ than actually telling a good story and developing intriguing characters. Wolf by Wolf does an excellent job of not falling into that trap. It is original, clever, fast-paced, and the world is very well-developed.

Yael is a well-crafted character. She is damaged and because of her abilities she has spent most of her teenage life pretending to be the enemy. She can’t even remember what she used to look like before the experiments erased her identity, but Yael still manages to have a strong sense of self. The one thing that she cannot erase when she changes skin are the numbers stamped into her skin. She decides to hide these with elaborate wolf tattoos to represent people she has lost and what she is fighting for. It helps her remember who she is and even though it would be so easy, she doesn’t just run away from it all and blend in with the population. While racing and interacting with other racers we see her world expand and her character grow more and more.

Cover Critique: It looks like a WWII propaganda poster (what a surprise! 😛 ). I think it works perfectly for this book. I like it.

Quick Version: Really interesting and entertaining take on the Axis powers had winning WWII. The world is interesting and thought-provoking, the motorcycle race is entertaining, and the protagonist, Yael, made you want to keep reading and rooting for her. I didn’t know until I was at the end of the book that this was part of a series and while that lead to this ending being a bit anti-climatic, I still really enjoyed it and will definitely be reading the sequel.

Score: 4.5/5 stars


April Mini-Reviews

April was a busy month for me; I feel pretty proud of myself for all I was able to accomplish in it! I finished up my first year of graduate school, went to a variety of book festivals and signings, and celebrated my birthday! Even though I didn’t have a chance to read too much, I did enjoy what I did read. When I was looking at this list, I noticed that I read quite a number of graphic novels this month. I do tend to do that around exams. I guess all I want to do is distract myself with pretty art!

1. Bride of the Water God (Volume 1), Mi-Kyung Yun

This is a manhwa (a Korean graphic novel), and I’d never read one before. The art style is very similar to most manga, but it’s read left-to-right like a Western comic. I really enjoyed this story. It’s about a girl in an ancient village, which is going through a major drought. The villagers decide to sacrifice a young woman to the Water God, in hopes that he’ll give them some rain. Soah‘s chosen to go. She enters of world full of deities and magical things. But, of course, she’s not too happy about being shipped off to the handsome and petulant Water God.  {4/5 stars}

2. Demon Love Spell (Volumes 1-5), Mayu Shinjo

These books are hilarious. They’re pretty much romantic, silly beach-reads in manga form. It’s the story about a demon and a priestess that fall in love, and obviously that comes with many problems. I had so much fun reading these and I’m excited for the final volume, which comes out this summer. {4/5 stars}

3. The Here and Now, Ann Brashares

I didn’t enjoy this book. I’ve probably rambled about it enough already. Check out my full review here. {2/5 stars}

4. Library Wars (Volumes 1-11), by Kiiro Yumi

Yet another manga series I got into in April. This was honestly my favorite thing I read all month! This manga’s set in the near future when libraries are fighting the federal government over censorship. The situation has gotten violent and the local government and libraries have had to create their own army to protect freedom of speech– the Library Forces. We follow a young trainee into the Force and she is so adorable. She’s clumsy and so earnest. You can’t help but love her. The romance is really cute, too 🙂 {4.5/5 stars}

5. Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang

These books were really interesting. I can’t say that I loved, or even particularly liked them, but I really appreciated what the author was trying to do. Yang told the story of the Boxer Rebellion through two different perspectives. In Boxers, we follow a boy on his journey to save the country from the “foreign devils” invading them. In Saints, we follow a girl who is on the other side of the conflict. Both of the characters struggle a lot with their religions and sense of national identity. They are quick reads, if you want to give them a try, but I cannot wholeheartedly recommend them to you. {3.5/5 stars}

6. Sora’s Quest, T.L. Shreffler

This book was a nice surprise; I really enjoyed it. It was a very fun, quirky adventure story in a well-developed, fantastical world.  I wrote a full review of it, check it out here. {4/5 stars}

7. Thief’s Magic, Trudi Canavan

This was another great read. I reviewed it for Girls in Capes (they’re awesome and they have a GIVEAWAY going on for a copy of it). I’m putting review up here soon, as well! {4/5 stars}


What did you read in April? 😀