For Lovers of Historical Fiction

Alchemists Daughter

If you are a lover of historical fiction, as I am, and need ideas for great reading, there are three excellent resources readily available.

Behind our Fiction/Media desk, on the first floor of the downtown library, on the wooden reference stand, is the primo reference, Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. This has excellent reviews, some of them starred, in many sub-genres of the historical novel, including literary, romance, Christian, fantasy and mystery. At 800 pages, there are many years worth of reading here!

In our Research database is an excellent fiction resource called Novelist. This site is worth exploring for the many ways it assists readers in choosing their next great novel. In the historical fiction category, there are 32 bibliographies of suggested reading on such subjects as: Artful Reads, Dear Diary, The Great Depression, Royal Reads, Troubled Times and World War I.

And, finally, check out the website of the Historical Novel Society, which specializes in celebrating everything about historical literature. You can find information on their two magazines, the next historical fiction conference, soon-to-be-published historical novels and, for great annotated lists of preferred reading, look at the editor’s choice reviews here.

Some of my enduring favorites are: Poison by Kathryn Harrison; The Last Jew by Noah Gordon; Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks; and The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon.

Booklist's Top 10 First Novels and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #188

Of Booklist's Top 10 First Novels 2009, 5 of them were blogged here. (Dream House, A Fortunate Age, The Invisible Mountain, Miles from Nowhere, and Precious). Quite a number of them are sitting on the shelves. Perhaps you would give them a second glance now.

And I happened to have just finished a 6th on the list - Grace Hammer : A Novel of the Victorian Underworld by Sara Stockbridge – a gripping and captivating debut novel set amidst the squalor of London’s East End where Grace makes a comfortable living managing her brood of pickpockets. Out of the blue, her checkered past is about to catch up with her. A magnificent ruby necklace might spell her doom. “Fast-paced, racy”, with plenty of intrigue, local color and masterfully realized characters.

Clearly, those folks at Booklist know how to pick them! Highly recommended by my good friend Jen Baker who knows her historical thrillers.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #184

Recently picked by Booklist as one of the ten top first novels of the year, Carolina De Robertis's debut novel The Invisible Mountain* is a "deeply intimate exploration of the search for love and authenticity, power and redemption, in the lives of three women, and a penetrating portrait of a small, tenacious nation, Uruguay, shaken in the gales of the twentieth century."

This gripping and lyrical story, at once expansive and lush with detail, begins with Pajarita, a healer with a mysterious second birth, her daughter Eva , a poet who suffered sexual assault as a child, and granddaughter Salome who as a revolutionary endures arrest, torture and imprisonment.

" De Robertis is a skilled storyteller in relating the stories of these stalwart women, but it is her use of language from the precision of poetry to the sensuality of sex that makes this literary debut so exceptional".

Readers of historical fiction from a strong female perspective would also find interesting The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allenda; and the 2004 National Book Award winner The News from Paraguay* by Lily Tuck.

* = Starred Reviews

Remembering the "other" depression

When a parent recently asked for historical fiction for an elementary student, among books that came to mind was Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis. This great novel, set in Michigan during the Great Depression, was chosen by the parent over my other suggestions, "because now that Michigan is in an economic depression again, I'd like for my child to read how it was back then." Good choice.

I <3 this romantic historical novel

I think it was the 70th anniversary of World War II that prompted me to pick up Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, by bestselling novelist Elizabeth Berg. Whatever the reason, the novel leapt into my hands and wouldn’t leave. Extremely entertaining, as it tells the stories of the lives and loves of young Kitty, Louise and Tish Heaney, Irish Catholic sisters in Chicago during the war. Some readers didn't like the final plot twist. I just loved it.


Molokai tells the life story of Rachel Kamala, who was torn from her family at the age of seven and sequestered in the leper colony on the island of Molokai. Native Hawaiians were particularly susceptible, at the time (the story begins in 1891), to the bacterial infection which caused the disfiguring disease and anyone suspected of having it was mercilessly hunted down by bounty hunters and taken away, with great shame brought on the family of its victims. Rachel becomes a part of the community of lepers at all stages of the disease, and the nuns and doctors who volunteered to care for them, who all become a substitute family for the lonely, but spirited, child. She grows to adulthood in this community, finding friendship and love, but losing almost every one of those friends to the disease. It is a beautiful story of her great strength and endurance and her ultimate liberation from the confines of the island and the stigma of being "unclean".

The most famous resident of Molokai was Father Damien, a priest who lived with and cared for lepers on the island for 16 years, eventually succumbing to the disease himself. Damien has been declared a saint by the Catholic church and is due to be canonized this year, on October 11th.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #160

Etta, by first-time novelist and Emmy award-winning television reporter Gerald Kolpan is a richly imagined fictional account of the life and loves of Etta Place, the beautiful, adventurous and elusive companion to Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (a.k.a the The Sundance Kid).

Born Lorinda Jameson, the story traces her privileged upbringing as a Philadelphia debutante, the tragedy that rendered her destitute, a new identity as Etta Place, to working as a "Harvey girl" in the Wild West where she met up with Robert LeRoy Parker (a.k.a Butch Cassidy) and the Hole in the Wall Gang.

Incorporating diary entries, telegraph messages, and news clippings into the narrative, Etta is "a compelling love story, high adventure, and thrilling historical drama". The vivid setting and skilled storytelling make this tale both captiviting and entertaining.

Anyone who enjoyed Robert Redford/Paul Newman/Katharine Ross's memorable classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) wouldn't want to miss this.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #158

Can't believe I'm #112 on the request list for Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife*! The waiting is going to be unbearable.

Praised by critics as "fierce and sophisticated", this fiction debut (after a memoir) is set in 1907 Wisconsin. Catherine Land answered well-to-do businessman Ralph Truitt's newspaper ad for "a reliable wife". As she stepped off the train, it was obvious that Truitt has been deceived. Both these complex characters have plenty of traumatic baggage that is peeled away layer by layer as the two engage in a darkly dangerous game of check and checkmate.

Reliable "calls to mind the chilling tales of Poe and Stephen King, and at its core this is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. It melds a plot drenched in suspense with expertly realized characters and psychological realism." ~Bookpage

* = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #154

A Beautiful Place to Die* is an accomplished debut in a projected mystery series by Malla Nunn.

Award-winning filmmaker Nunn sets this atmospheric police procedural in her native South Africa. Det. Sgt. Emmanuel Cooper is called to investigate the murder of an Afrikaner police captain in Jacob's Rest, a small border town with Mozambique.

1952 saw the gathering force of apartheid. New government decrees further etched the color divide. Racial tension, already ingrained, festered with secrets and lies both sordid and honorable. Cooper, being an outsider and under the oppressive supervision of the farcical government agents, must tread lightly to get at the truth.

Mystery readers might remember fondly James McClure's early apartheid procedurals, mostly out-of-print. For another current series set in South Africa, try Salamander Cotton by Richard Kunzmann.

Fans of the PBS MYSTERY! program should also check out the cinematic 1999 miniseries Heat of the Sun, about a former Scotland Yarder transplanted to 1930s Nairobi, filmed entirely on location.

* = Starred Review

Fireflies in December

Fireflies in December is the debut novel of Jennifer Erin Valent about a 13 year old girl, Jessilyn, and her parents taking in her best friend Gemma, after Gemma's parent were tragically killed in a house fire. The problem is, the year is 1932, Gemma is black, the Lassiters are white, and they live in a small Virginia town. Jessilyn is the character of dreams, taking cues from her father and speaking out against the threats coming from her small prejudiced community. The tone and speech in the novel take you to the south to a time where the people faced struggles not only from the Depression but from intolerance as well. The plot of this novel reminds readers of the evil that ordinary human beings are capable of doing, even in the name of righteousness. If you don't mind some moderate religious undertones, this book is heart-warming yet bittersweet and reminds us that even in the face of violence and terror, goodness can still surround us.

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