June 5, 2020

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

I had seen the book title Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith and had written it off as another silly True Blood/Twilight-esque entry into the current mania over supernatural beings. My husband checked out a library copy of his sequel, The Last American Vampire and deemed the writing quite excellent.

I decided to tackle the original Grahame-Smith novel on Abraham Lincoln. What a revelation. Not only is the mash-up deliciously inventive, but, aside from the vampire story line, the historical research on our 16th President is right on the mark. If adding vampires to books gets people to read about history, so be it.

The book was turned into a movie which got mixed to negative reviews so I am recommending the book only. I can’t wait to start the follow-up novel listed above, or possibly his book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

What’s next for Grahame-Smith? He could probably convince me to read even Tom Sawyer and Leprechauns.

Orphan Train, best selling book

A mixture of historical fiction and Little House On the Prairie, author Christina Baker Kline has been riding the best seller book charts with her emotionally engaging novel, Orphan Train. The book is based on a true historical event where orphans were literally farmed out to families in the Midwest.

We are introduced to a 91 year old woman who was one of those displaced children but has kept her past a secret. She hires a troubled teenager who is a Penobscot Indian and floating through the present-day foster care system to help her sift through her attic.  A friendship arises between them which allows both women to exorcise the past and find more emotionally satisfying views of their lives.

While technically considered young adult fiction, Orphan Train might please anyone wanting to know more about orphans of the past and present. A movie about orphan trains was released in 1979, but Kline’s moving story should be given its own time on the big screen.

Book Beat: The Rocks by Peter Nichols

It seems like many of today’s best-sellers are set during World War II (All the Light We Cannot See, The Book Thief, The Nightingale, etc.) so I was excited to find a book set in Europe, albeit a Spanish island named Majorca with the first chapter starting in 2005.

It won’t be giving too much away to say that two characters die at the outset and the chapters go backward in time to give the backstory.  This is a death mystery in reverse.

The setting is exotic with non-Spaniards visiting for vacations and some staying permanently, intermingling with the locals. We follow the once-married Gerald Rutledge and Lulu Davenport in flashbacks, meeting their friends, family and progeny. The backwards writing technique is intriguing, but you may want to make yourself a little chart of who’s who so you don’t get too confused by the retrograde storytelling.

I had the sneaking suspicion that the story would end up back in World War II, but to my relief, the story goes back to only 1948 in post-World War II  Europe and then briefly flits back to 2005 in a satisfying conclusion. This book definitely should be read in warm weather!

Edward Rutherfurd, historical fiction writer

I love getting recommendations from friends and colleagues so I tip my beret to Jaime Krohn who turned me on to historical fiction writer, Edward Rutherfurd. Why isn’t this guy a household name? He chooses gigantic historical topics and then proceeds to make it understandable on a micro level with characters who live through wars, political upheavals, marriages, births, deaths and social intrigue.

His list of published books reads like a really serious library book shelf (London, New York, Russka, The Princes of Ireland, to name a few) and the tomes weigh in just under 1,000 pages but be not afraid, Rutherfurd will make history literally a joy to read with his interweaving plots and vivid characters. Even those who sniff at historical fiction may want to give  him a try.

No small surprise, I was immediately attracted to his book entitled Paris. We  follow selected members of six French families as they interact with historical characters and events from 1261 to 1968. Be forewarned that you will have to note the dates at the beginnings of chapters since the author skips around with flashbacks.

An ironworker in the book helps build both the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. The Paris Commune is brought to life as a military man is ordered to execute a group of rebellious “communards.” Aristocrats collide with the “trade class;” Catholics commit a mass murder of Protestants; Jews are driven from the City of Light; major characters cope with both World Wars; famous poets, artists, musicians and writers make cameo appearances. The epilogue deals with student riots in 1968 bringing the sweeping canvas to a close. I am an avid student of French history but this book clarified many important events that were previously murky in my memory and understanding.

Rutherford, a disciple of author James Michener started with his novel Sarum in 1987 which is a 10,000 year account of merry old England. That goes on my “to read” list, but may I confess that I need some 100 page books to give my arms a rest before diving back into the wonderful historical world of Edward Rutherfurd.

A Horse, of course

For some reason, I have been drawn to books where horses figure prominently. I made a short list of outstanding books to satisfy my equine literary mania.

Everything that John Steinbeck wrote is worth a read, but The Red Pony stands as a classic novella that appeals to middle and high school students. Actually four loosely related vignettes, the simple yet elegant prose can be appreciated by adults as realistic American literature.

Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty, is a short novel that’s earned a place as one of the best-sellers of all time with 50 million copies sold and a famous movie with Elizabeth Taylor based on the book.  With a theme of animal welfare, the book teaches us to treat both two-legged and four-legged creatures with kindness and respect.

Absolutely new to me was Coal Black Horse, a novel by Robert Olmstead set during the American Civil War. Robey Childs, a fourteen year old is tasked by his mother with bringing back his father from the fighting. The boy’s big black companion is by far the more seasoned of the two when they set out. Part war novel and coming-of-age account, Coal Black Horse joins the list of well-written equine-centric fiction.

Originally a Nordic classic, Out Stealing Horses is written by Norwegian Per Petterson. A 70-year-old man tells his neighbor about a fateful event involving horses when he was a teenager. The memory evokes revelations about the two older men and their parents.

War Horse has been justifiably immortalized on stage and screen, but don’t miss out on reading the original 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo.  Another short work aimed at younger readers, the novel depicts an English horse being sent to serve in World War I in France. His young original owner endeavors to bring him back to the family farm in Birmingham, England.

Although not a work of fiction, Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand has entered the cannon of notable books starring horses. Her fine writing describes the life of an under-rated racehorse during the turbulent time leading up to World War II.

Now where did I put that schedule for the Arlington Racetrack……..

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

David McCullough, the famous author of history who turns 82 this week, has done it again, created a riveting account of the Wright Brothers and their single-minded endeavor to allow man to defy gravity. The reader is drawn into the world of Wilbur and Orville from their bicycle business in Dayton, Ohio to their experiments at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Not all was smooth sailing at the outset. Naysayers doubted they had fabricated a machine that could actually fly. Competitors like Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian worked to beat the Wright Brothers in the race to build a viable airship. Frequent accidents not only destroyed their airplanes but sometimes caused bodily injury or even death to those venturing into the sky.

Their travels abroad to Paris, LeMans, London and Italy are relayed in interesting detail as they meet kings, captains of industry, military men and ordinary folk in Europe.

We come to have great affection for the taciturn Wilbur, the more fragile Orville, their dedicated sister, Katherine and their down-to-earth father, the Reverend Milton Wright.

McCullough envelops us with copious information that never overwhelms, but draws us into the narrative much like a good novel does. The Wright Brothers joins such enlightening McCullough works as John Adams, Truman, The Greater Journey, 1776, The Johnstown Flood  and The Great Bridge.

The  Wright Brothers written by David McCullough, published by Thorndike Press, 2015.


With graduation season having just ended, mention of David McCullough Jr. should be made. Not only is he the son of author David, but he is the high school teacher who gave a 12 minute commencement speech at a school near Boston entitled, “You Are Not Special”  which went viral on electronic media. Well-turned phrases and brilliant ideas surely runs in the family.

David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement speech: