Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Historical Novels

Top Ten TuesdayHistorical fiction is my favorite genre, and I’m not sure I could pick an adequate top ten. There are so many great books that fit into this genre. You can find my list below with the following caveats: I simply haven’t had a chance to read a lot of great historical fiction that’s out there yet, so this list is necessarily limited to just those books I have experience with, and also I have decided not to include classics that were set during their own contemporary times but are history now (e.g. [amazon_link id=”0486284735″ target=”_blank” ]Pride and Prejudice[/amazon_link] or [amazon_link id=”1441408223″ target=”_blank” ]Jane Eyre[/amazon_link]). Also, these are in no particular order (aside from the order in which they occurred to me) because I couldn’t begin to rank them. Finally, I selected these particular books out of all the historical fiction I have read and loved because they so perfectly evoke their time settings that they bring the historical eras in which they are set alive (with historical accuracy) and simply couldn’t take place any other time.

  1. [amazon_link id=”034549038X” target=”_blank” ]The Dante Club[/amazon_link] by Matthew Pearl: Not only is this book a solid thriller with fun connections to Dante’s [amazon_link id=”0812967216″ target=”_blank” ]Inferno[/amazon_link] and the Fireside Poets, but it is also a great snapshot into life in Boston right after the Civil War. In terms of period detail and engaging reads, you could do worse than Matthew Pearl for sure.
  2. [amazon_link id=”0780748433″ target=”_blank” ]Catherine, Called Birdy[/amazon_link] by Karen Cushman: This is a middle grades/early YA novel set in 1290 in England. Catherine is the daughter of a knight, and Cushman captures the Middle Ages (particularly, the lives of a family in a small manor house) in exquisite detail.
  3. [amazon_link id=”0152164502″ target=”_blank” ]The Coffin Quilt[/amazon_link] by Ann Rinaldi: The subject of this YA novel is the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. Told from the viewpoint of Fanny McCoy, the novel touches on all the major events of the feud and is simply one of the most well-written YA novels I’ve ever read.
  4. [amazon_link id=”0345521307″ target=”_blank” ]The Paris Wife[/amazon_link] by Paula McLain: This novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and time in Paris perfectly captures the lives of the American artist expatriates living in France during the 1920’s. It’s a gorgeous novel.
  5. [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link] by Sara Gruen: This isn’t just great historical fiction. It really captures an era and a subculture that I’ve not seen captured as well in any other novel. Superb read.
  6. [amazon_link id=”0765356155″ target=”_blank” ]Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell[/amazon_link] by Susanna Clarke: While also classified as fantasy, this novel also explores England during the Napoleonic Wars, including brushes with Mad King George and Lord Byron as well as the Duke of Wellington. The footnotes are a great touch. I loved this novel.
  7. [amazon_link id=”039331507X” target=”_blank” ]Nothing Like the Sun[/amazon_link] by Anthony Burgess: I don’t think I’ve read another historical fiction book about Shakespeare that touches this one. Burgess’s characters speak like Elizabethans, and the events described are both believable and fun homages to Shakespeare’s plays. The premise behind the book is that Shakespeare’s tangled love life majorly influenced all of his work.
  8. [amazon_link id=”B000FC10KC” target=”_blank” ]Ahab’s Wife[/amazon_link] by Sena Jeter Naslund: Oh, how I love Una Spenser. She is my fictional BFF. She is amazing. I need to read this one again. As you might have guessed, this book takes the passage in [amazon_link id=”B003GCTQ7M” target=”_blank” ]Moby Dick[/amazon_link] in which Captain Ahab mentions he has a young wife at home and creates her character and her life (and it’s a fascinating life that, in my opinion, puts that of her husband to shame).
  9. [amazon_link id=”0061577073″ target=”_blank” ]The Poisonwood Bible[/amazon_link] by Barbara Kingsolver: This novel about Christian missionaries in the Belgian Congo right as the country declares its independence from Belgium is a fascinating snapshot into the Congo of the 1960’s as well as the lives of Christian missionaries and also serves as an allegory for America’s own role in colonialism.
  10. [amazon_link id=”0061990477″ target=”_blank” ]The Thorn Birds[/amazon_link] by Colleen McCullough: When I read this novel, I couldn’t put it down. I haven’t read a lot of books set in Australia, but this novel seems to so perfectly capture the times and setting. Meggie is an engaging heroine, and who doesn’t love Father Ralph de Bricassart?

Because I read a ton of historical fiction, I need to include some honorable mentions:

  • [amazon_link id=”0547550294″ target=”_blank” ]The Witch of Blackbird Pond[/amazon_link] by Elizabeth George Speare: This YA novel is set in Colonial Massachusetts and is a great vehicle for middle schoolers (or even their older siblings and parents) to learn about that time period in history. I can’t think of too many books that do as good a job with this era.
  • [amazon_link id=”0312378025″ target=”_blank” ]The Tea Rose[/amazon_link] by Jennifer Donnelly: This book is a fun read, but has a few lapses in terms of credibility (at least for this reader). Set in Whitechapel as Jack the Ripper ravages London, this novel is the story of Fiona, daughter of one of the Ripper’s victims, who makes her way to New York and builds a tea empire from scratch.
  • [amazon_link id=”B001NLKT2E” target=”_blank” ]The Commoner[/amazon_link] by John Burnham Schwartz: This story of a commoner’s marriage into the Japanese imperial family makes for a great read, too, though Schwartz takes some liberties to make his character’s ending happier than that of the real model for his heroine.
  • [amazon_link id=”0060515139″ target=”_blank” ]A Plague of Doves[/amazon_link] by Louise Erdrich: Some of this novel is contemporary, which is one reason I didn’t include it above, but it is one of the finest novels I’ve read and concerns the repercussions of a murder and hate crime that sent ripples through a community for generations.
  • [amazon_link id=”B003WUYROK” target=”_blank” ]The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane[/amazon_link] by Katherine Howe: Also partly set in contemporary times, this novel concerns Connie Goodwin’s attempts to learn more about her ancestors’ grimoire and secret powers.
  • [amazon_link id=”0399157913″ target=”_blank” ]The Help[/amazon_link] by Kathryn Stockett: While this book certainly evoked Mississippi of the 1960’s, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it did not seem as realistic to me as some of the books I included in my top ten.
  • [amazon_link id=”0307588661″ target=”_blank” ]Madame Tussaud[/amazon_link] by Michelle Moran: This novel, set during the French Revolution, was an excellent read and shone a spotlight on a historical figure who hasn’t perhaps received as much attention as she was due.
  • [amazon_link id=”0143034901″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link] by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Barcelona’s book world during the 1930’s and 1940’s, though to me, the plot did not have to be set during era or in that place.
  • [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb: Again, because this novel is set partly in contemporary times, I excluded it from the list above, but the historical fiction parts were my favorite. This novel is the story of how a song learned on the crossing from Scotland to America in the eighteenth century was passed down in a family and survived to the present day.
  • [amazon_link id=”039306915X” target=”_blank” ]Emily’s Ghost[/amazon_link] by Denise Giardina: The story of Emily Brontë and one of the better historical fiction novels about the Brontë family.
  • Pretty much anything by Jude Morgan. Love him. And Syrie James. And Tracy Chevalier. I mean, this was really a hard topic for me to narrow down.

Related posts:

Top Ten Tuesday

Readers Who Don’t Read Historical Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. I enjoy learning when I’m reading, and I have always been fascinated by history. My historical fiction reading habits may have formed when I was in middle school and started reading the Sunfire historical romances. But I recognize that not everyone really likes historical fiction. If I could recommend ten books I think might change your mind if you count yourself among those who don’t like it, I think it would be the following books:

  1. [amazon_link id=”0441020674″ target=”_blank” ]Those Across the River[/amazon_link], Christopher Buehlman: If you think you prefer horror or even just creepy stories, this historical fiction novel about werewolves in a small Georgia town might just prompt you to give historical fiction a chance. Just because it’s set in the past doesn’t mean it’s all petticoats. Review.
  2. [amazon_link id=”0440423201″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link], Diana Gabaldon: This first book in the Outlander series has a bit of romance and sci-fi as well as some war drama as it begins as World War II ends and moves back in time to just before the second Jacobite Rebellion. Notoriously hard to classify, Diana Gabaldon’s books take you squarely back to another time and keep you turning the pages, too. Review.
  3. [amazon_link id=”0765356155″ target=”_blank” ]Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell[/amazon_link], Susanna Clarke: This alternative history fantasy novel set during the Napoleonic Wars pits two great magicians against one another. It’s a little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Neil Gaiman, and a little bit J.K. Rowling. Review.
  4. [amazon_link id=”034549038X” target=”_blank” ]The Dante Club[/amazon_link], Matthew Pearl: This one is part murder mystery set against the backdrop of post-Civil War Boston, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is translating the first American edition of Dante’s Inferno. He and his fellow poets Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and their publisher J. T. Fields, gather to look over Longfellow’s latest cantos and offer him feedback. Meanwhile, a series of murders mimicking the punishments in Dante’s hell strike fear into the heart of the city, and only the poets know Inferno well enough to commit such crimes… Review.
  5. [amazon_link id=”0345419642″ target=”_blank” ]The Vampire Lestat[/amazon_link], Anne Rice: Anne Rice will make you interested in eighteenth and nineteenth century Paris and New Orleans. I have always thought Rice wrote better when she was writing about the past.
  6. [amazon_link id=”0345521307″ target=”_blank” ]The Paris Wife[/amazon_link], Paula McLain: This book will interest folks who normally only go for literary fiction. First, it’s about Hemingway’s time in Paris and is told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, his first wife. Second, it’s quite literary and beautifully written itself. Review.
  7. [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link], Sara Gruen: Set in a Depression-era circus, this book has a little of everything: action, forbidden romance, and running away to the circus! Review.
  8. [amazon_link id=”0684801469″ target=”_blank” ]A Farewell to Arms[/amazon_link], Ernest Hemingway: Given that this book was written in the 1920’s about WWI, I guess it qualifies as historical fiction, although it does feel like cheating to include it because I wouldn’t include a book set in the 1990’s on this list. Ah well. At any rate, it’s a great novel, well written, with some of the most beautiful passages in American literature. And it’s Hemingway writing on war. Review.
  9. [amazon_link id=”B000FC10KC” target=”_blank” ]Ahab’s Wife[/amazon_link], Sena Jeter Naslund: Not only does this one give you the perspective of Captain Ahab’s wife Una, but you also learn quite a bit about nineteenth century New England. The book is gorgeous. One of my favorites of all time. Review.
  10. [amazon_link id=”0061577073″ target=”_blank” ]The Poisonwood Bible[/amazon_link], Barbara Kingsolver: This book is for those who love literary fiction, symbolism, and allegory and think it can’t be found in historical fiction. This is a beautiful book, another one of my favorites, and so important in terms thinking about Africa and America’s own role in colonial history. Review.

Related posts:

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellSusanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell breaks all the rules. It’s over 800 pages long. One of the title characters isn’t properly introduced until over 200 pages into the novel. Clarke develops the history of her world largely through incorporation of 185 footnotes. Generally any one of these things would cause me to gripe about a book, never mind all three. However, I’m not the first reviewer to say the novel, even at over 800 pages, seems too short—I wanted more. The late introduction of the charismatic Jonathan Strange serves only to further develop the mystery surrounding him and to establish the character of his counterpart—his teacher and rival—Mr. Norrell. And finally, the footnotes establish Clarke’s alternate history England as a world rich in magic and still every bit as real as our own world.

“Two magicians shall appear in England…”

The Learned Society of York Magicians, theoretical magicians, mind, not practical magicians, is confronted by Gilbert Norrell and forced to disband. Norrell, who has led a reclusive life of study in his library at Hurtfew Abbey in York, is suddenly thrust into London society. Eager to be of assistance to the government in the war against France, he makes an unwise alliance. Eventually, he gains a pupil in Jonathan Strange, but the two magicians part ways. Jonathan Strange delves into darker and more dangerous magic, while Norrell is unable to to see the dangers right under his own nose.

The book ties each strand of its storylines together in the ending, which will not satisfy all readers, but which I liked—the door is open for a sequel, or not, as Clarke wishes. Clarke evokes the characterization of Dickens, the storytelling of Austen, and the Romantic sensibilities of Byron (who appears as a character himself), all of which combine to create a book that seems wholly new and fresh—certainly unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This novel is obviously a commitment, but it pays off well in the end.

I listened to this book on audio, and Simon Prebble’s narration is wonderful. I love the distinct voices he gives to the characters. If I have any complaint, it is only that he changes the voice of Christopher Drawlight near the end and mispronounces the word sidhe. Minor quibbles in an excellent audio adaptation.

I read this novel for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, but it also makes the fifth book for the Typically British Reading Challenge.

Related posts:

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and PrejudiceI first read Pride and Prejudice during my first year teaching (which was 1997-1998, and I know it was 1998 when I read the novel). I fell in love with Jane Austen that year. Despite my affection for Ms. Austen, I had not re-read any of her novels, though I have watched adaptations in film. I decided I was overdue for a re-read of Pride and Prejudice, and this annotated version of the novel appealed to the scholar in me. I had hoped to learn some new interesting things or gain new insights from the David Shapard’s annotations, and I was not disappointed.

In some cases, the annotations were repetitive (for example, for each reference to “town,” Shapard reminds the reader that “town” refers to London). However, learning the differences between the different types of carriages, gaining insight into the conventions of the day, and so much more that I can’t possibly list it all here really enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am currently listening to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I find that the annotations in Pride and Prejudice have enhanced my enjoyment of that novel, too—after all, it owes a great deal to Jane Austen. A sojourn in Jane Austen’s novels is always rewarding, and I wonder if it’s possible to feel homesick for a place you’ve never even been except in books.

If you haven’t seen the new blog Following Jane, you might want to check it out. It’s interesting to read the perspectives of man dedicating himself to reading all of Jane Austen’s novels and blogging about his experiences. In a recent post written before he started Northanger Abbey, his first selection, he mentioned he was anxious to finish the book he had been reading at the time so that he could start reading Austen. I know that feeling. As I reach the end of the book, my thoughts are turning toward my next read, which will be A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro. All the talk about Shapiro’s new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, has inspired quite a lot of quick reviews of A Year in the Life, which I have on my shelf and haven’t read. Austen and Shakespeare, my two favorite authors. How I’d love to sit down and have tea with them both.

Typically British Challenge

Pride and Prejudice is my fourth selection for the Typically British Challenge, and concludes the “Gordon Bennett” level of four novels that I committed to read. I may read other British authors over the course of the year (the challenge expires on December 31), but I can claim for the first time ever that I actually finished a reading challenge.

Related posts:

2010 Once Upon a Time Challenge

Once Upon a Time Challenge

2010 Once Upon a Time ChallengeI always love Carl’s challenges, even though I don’t often finish them. I am participating in his Once Upon a Time Challenge; I’m committing only to the Journey, as I am in grad school (huge time-suck), and I’m already participating in other challenges (of course, this one may overlap).

Perhaps it’s cheating, but I plan to finish Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for this challenge. I think I began it maybe four days before the challenge began, but honestly, the dates are so close, and the book is so long, that I feel it should count. In addition, this particular book fits the requirements of the challenge perfectly.

I am more than 20 chapters into the audio book at this point. Simon Prebble is the reader, and he captures the dialogue very well. Listening to him reminds me why I like being read to so much. Clarke’s style reminds me a great deal of Jane Austen’s, and I can think of no higher compliment. Particularly interesting is the way Clarke manages to convince the reader that magic is and has long been completely normal in Britain. It’s not quite alternative history à la Jasper Fforde, but it’s very satisfying, and I have a feeling that once I’ve reached the end of the novel, I will have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Related posts:

A Really Good Day

GateFirst, I received an e-mail from HarperCollins informing me that I won The Map of True Places Sweepstakes. I enter contests like this all the time, but I never have any expectation of winning. My prize is a weekend in Salem, Massachusetts, a place I have always wanted to visit (especially as an English teacher). I am so incredibly excited. I hardly know how it happened. Like I said, I enter these contests whenever one strikes my fancy, but how exciting!

Second, I am slowly catching up with my Instructional Technology coursework. I read and took quizzes on three chapters of Educational Research yesterday. I didn’t too badly on the quizzes either, especially considering the difficulty of the quizzes. Today I wrote a short paper critiquing a journal article for the same course. I am virtually caught up in this course based on the schedule I set for myself. What I would like to do this week is get a little ahead in both this course and Multimedia Authoring so that I can be sure to finish both courses by the end of the semester. Once again, I find myself wishing we didn’t use grades to evaluate. I would much rather receive the feedback and a pass/fail. Grades stress me out. I hate giving them to my students, and as a student I hate worrying about them.

Finally, I noticed a small crack in the back case of my iPhone about half an inch long originating at the center of the docking port. I have scheduled Genius Bar appointments twice, but canceled them so I could continue working or not feel pressed for time completing other activities. Finally, I decided it bothered me enough to bring in and see what would happen. The Genius at the Apple Store examined the phone, determined somehow that I didn’t cause the damage by dropping it (not sure how he figured it out; I didn’t cause the damage that way, but I admit to having dropped it, although not hard—maybe it was the location of the crack), checked on my warranty (glad I got AppleCare), and replaced the phone. I’ve had it since December 2008, so it wasn’t new. It was in good shape, though the corners were chipped (I didn’t used to have a case for it; now I do), and a tiny scratch marred the otherwise perfect screen. I bought some crystal film protectors to prevent damage to the new phone’s screen and immediately put it in the case. I hope I can keep this one in pristine shape with some extra care.

So all in all, a really, really good day. Plus it’s spring break! Bonus!

In book news, I’m still reading The Annotated Pride and Prejudice and keeping up with Crime and Punishment as best as my schedule and interest will allow (I’ll be glad to finish that one and begin Gulliver’s Travels). I am thoroughly enjoying the audio version of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I am planning to read about the Once Upon a Time Challenge to see if I can participate.

photo credit: Svenstorm

Related posts: