When you’re in the mood for something slower-paced that draws you into a certain time and place with lots of accuracy and detail PLUS great stories and emotional pull, that’s the time to find a historical fiction title! Recently members of the Library Staff met to discuss the historical fiction genre and many of us were surprised to realize we read more of these types of books than we had assumed. It seems like this genre used to be dominated by really long sagas (think James Michener, John Jakes, Taylor Caldwell, Irving Stone, etc.) but you can find absorbing titles that are shorter as well. Here are some that the Staff recently enjoyed:
The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien – Really interesting mix of fact and fiction about the Civil War and particularly hospitals and nursing; characters include Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton among others.
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliviera – another book set during the Civil war about a New York midwife who wants to be a doctor. Really captures the atmosphere of Washington, DC during Civil War, the role of women and medical conditions. Historical characters like Lincoln are part of story.
The Woman of the Green Glade: The Story of an Ojibway Woman on the Great Lakes Frontier by Virginia Soetebier – real history written as a novel; very researched story of the daughter of Indian chief in Wisconsin in the late 1700s. Especially great if you are familiar with the upper Great Lakes region.
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson – Young adult novel about a 14-year-old girls struggling to survive during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Liked how the story captures the role of African Americans who helped care for fever victims.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett – set in the 1960s at start of Civil Rights movement, pulls in details that are true to the time as well as themes of racism, feminism, etc.. The audio is so good, people may want to listen to it as a separate experience from reading the book.
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez – Ohio in 1850s provides a “vacation” destination for white male slave owners and their black mistresses in this shocking, eye-opening, and tragic debut novel. May be a good companion read to The Help.
The Long Song by Andrea Levy – Set against the backdrop of a sugar plantation in Jamaica during the years (1820s – 50s) leading up to the bloody slave rebellion, the story, told in flashback, captures the birth of a nation.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer – compelling debut novel about three Jewish Hungarian brothers and how their lives and relationships are tested by the onset of WWII. Liked how the author used individual stories to illuminate the larger issues without being too sad.
Want more historical reading ideas? Try our booklists, including “Mysteries with a History.”
Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a poignant story of young Rose Edelstein’s unusual gift enabling her to taste the emotions of whoever prepares her food. Elements of magical realism and dark family secrets are revealed in this coming of age tale……….Set among the wealthy Hamptons, Karen Weinreb’s The Summer Kitchen is about drastic life changes Nora Banks experiences when her husband is arrested for a white-collar crime. Shunned by her community, she finds courage and hope from her sons’ nanny and her own efforts at opening a bakery to support her family……….Books exploring different facets of the Second World War appear frequently on bestseller lists; an extremely worthwhile story is Tatiana di Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key. Ten-year-old Sarah and her family are arrested by the French police, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard believing it will only be a few hours before she sees him again. A haunting, unforgettable story of the German occupation of France and the silence that surrounded the lives of those arrested and the survivors……….Tom Rachman’s (The Imperfectionists) clever debut uncovers the private lives of the staff of an English language newspaper; both staff and paper are having difficulty keeping afloat. Set amidst the beauty of Rome, this moving story is also about the paper’s unexpectedly rich history……….Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook It is Anthony Bourdain’s latest, funny, confessional/memoir. The author investigates controversial characters from the food world… typical fare from this chef, though his honest, tough language may offend at times……….Randy Wayne White’s seventeenth bestselling Doc Ford novel, Deep Shadow, is a fabulous, edge of your seat underwater adventure about Doc Ford and two friends trapped in a watery Florida cave. When Ford escapes while his pals remain trapped, his troubles begin ! Wonderful as an audio……….Focusing on yet another World War II era story, Alexander McCall Smith’s La’s Orchestra Saves the World finds La (Lavender) fleeing London’s bombing and memories of a failed marriage. She settles in Suffolk where she quietly does her part for the war effort and even organizes an amateur orchestra near a local RAF base…a wonderful, bittersweet story……….For thirteen years, the hero of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line leads a highly successful and deceptive life as a black Pullman porter/ steelworker (James Todd) and a celebrated white geologist, author/ explorer (Clarence King). Martha A. Sandweiss’s book reveals a larger-than-life character that is absolutely fascinating……….Margaret Drabble fans will enjoy her latest The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws and discover some curious, wonderful facts about the author’s childhood and the history of games, especially, jigsaws. Portrayals of Drabble’s parents, siblings, children and her wonderful Auntie Phyl are candid, and her thoughts on the importance of play, books, art, aging, and memory are witty, caustic and memorable. A challenging but rewarding read!……….Francisco X. Stork’s YA novel Marcelo in the Real World finds seventeen year-old Marcelo, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, facing new challenges when his attorney father forces him to work in the mail room of a law firm for the summer. Faced with new/difficult choices, some real world dilemmas and the possibility of love, Marcelo navigates this world with grace and honesty. Not to be missed!
More book ideas!
Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress is reflective and beautiful historical fiction weaving together the lives of three very different women. Set in Cape Cod and London during the Blitz, The Postmistress carries within its narrative, themes relevant for today:romance, history/war and personal responsibility. ~ Fans of multicultural fiction should try Ala Aswani’s The Yacoubian Building which follows the lives of its residents. One of the best selling novels in the Arabic language, Aswani’s novel is a testament to an older Egypt and what it is has become. ~ Pete Dexter’s Spooner explores the emotional pull between a former naval officer and his somewhat wayward stepson. An edgy, humorous fictional story with overtones of Dexter’s own life. The writing is superb! Sherman Alexie’s War Dances is a poignant, funny collection of short stories and poetry that explores the fragile balance among one’s personal responsibilities to art, family and self-preservation. ~ Written with narrative grace and power, Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest reveals old stories and secrets as a dying man fulfills his final wish. Accompanied by family and a few friends whose courage and love will be forever altered by his memories, Harry Wainwright’s tale is also a lovely, quiet story with a powerful sense of place. ~ And if you’re not sure about who landed first on North American shores, Morgan Llywellyn’s fascinating, well-researched, novel Brendan offers convincing evidence that the Irish/saint/monk may indeed have been the one! ~ Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China is an informative, fascinating history of tea and its cultivation in India (Himalayas) and Britain (Gardens at Kew among others). (382.41372 ROS) The adventures and discoveries of famed British botanist Robert Fortune (who actually stole tea seeds and hundreds of other floral plants while on his travels through nineteenth century China) are exciting and at times unbelievable! ~ Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off with Katniss and Peeta’s embarking on their victory tour. This action-packed science fiction thriller presents powerful themes of sacrifice, morality, and obedience. A good story for Young Adults. ~ False Mermaid is the third in Erin Hart’s Dr. Nora Galvin Irish mystery series. Galvin (a forensics expert) opens an old wound with the investigation of her sister’s murder several years ago. Hart’s stories always present interesting side plots with lots of Irish myth and legend. ~ ~ And lastly The Three Weissmanns of Westport finds Betty Weissmann abandoned by her husband of 50 years for “irreconcilable differences” …another woman. Soon Annie and Miranda (Betty’s adult children) find themselves middle-aged victims of a broken home. The women regroup at a small beach cottage in Westport, Connecticut and deal with strained economic circumstances, discover love and even survive. Cathleen Schine’s novel of manners pays some tribute to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with its smart, strong women, a few plot contrivances and a wide range of characters.
Born to Run:A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougall 796.424 MCD
Christopher McDougall, runner, AP war correspondent and contributor to Men’s Health, reveals the secrets of the Tarahumara Indians ( world’s greatest distance runners) as he trains for the race of a lifetime: a fifty-mile race from Mexico’s Copper Canyon to the Leadville Trail in Colorado. In his engaging narrative McDougall reveals our love of running, and pits the “super-athletic Americans” against the Tarahumara with inspiring and ironic twists along the way.
Going Bovine Libba Bray (YA FIC BRAY)
16- year-old Cameron Smith isn’t exactly the most successful high school student until he contracts Creutzfeld-Jakob’s disease (mad cow).While in the hospital, a lovely angel or wild hallucinations encourage him to search for THE CURE to save the world. With stalwart companions Gonzo the dwarf and Balder a Norse god in gnomic disguise, Cameron finds himself on a quixotic journey where he learns about true love (naturally), wormholes and string theory . Using humor, satire and a bit of the surreal, Bray leads readers on THE ROAD TRIP of a lifetime…A great, contemporary story though a bit long.
Let the Great World Spin Colum McCann (FIC MCCANN)
Using Philippe Petit’s 1974 illegal high-wire walk between the Twin Towers and subsequent courtroom trial as backdrops, Colum McCann presents an electrifying, vivid portrait of the beauty and misery of life in South Bronx during the 1970s. Petit’s trial is the catalyst that moves a storyline comprised of ten inter-connected tales beautifully written and poignantly felt by the reader. Don’t miss them!
Sovay Celia Rees (YA FIC REES)
It’s England during the French Revolution, and beautiful, rich, 17 year-old Savoy (disguised as a highwayman) sets out to find her father and brother who have been condemned for supporting the French. Savoy’s mission takes her to dangerous, exciting underworlds of Paris and London. Capturing the romance, political /class struggles and the drama of the 18th century, Rees’s readers will not be disappointed with her richly detailed descriptions of period clothing, architecture and technology, not to mention her fresh take on the “ highwayman.” For Young Adults and up.
Open: An Autobiography Andre Agassi (796.342 AGA)
In this revealing autobiography from one of the world’s greatest athletes, readers learn of the harsh, lonely childhood of Andre Agassi whose father (a former Golden Gloves fighter) forced his son to become a champion, like it or not. Such pressure was not without consequences as Agassi experienced sorrow and failure in both his professional and private life. However, since his marriage to Steffi Graf and his acceptance of the game he once hated, Agassi’s life has taken a more hopeful turn. Read this extremely honest, heartfelt memoir written with J. R. Moehringer as ghostwriter. A cautionary tale for Young Adults and up.
Into the Beautiful North
When 19 year-old Nayeli realizes that most of the men in her Mexican village, including her father, have gone to the US for work, she decides to go north and find 7 men to protect her home town from the villains attempting to control it. Urrea’s prose is luminous, filled with memorable characters, and he includes social commentary on immigrant life along the Mexican/US border. An enjoyable, humorous story.
This recent addition to the Joe Pickett mystery series covers the issues of global warming…Game Warden Joe Pickett is forced to relive his foster daughter April’s death (six years ago) when he learns that his daughter Sheridan is currently receiving text messages from someone claiming to be April. Added to his nightmarish horror is the suspicion that the texts are being sent by someone associated with environmental terrorists.
Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat
Gwen Cooper (636.8 COO)
A tender memoir about a young woman who adopts a blind cat at a time in her life when her lover, job and housing situation are challenging to say the least. Though reluctant to add a third cat to the two previously adopted ones, Cooper gives in when kitty # 3 purrs as soon as she is picked up. Throughout the next 12 years, Cooper finds herself growing into a mature, compassionate human being as she shares some difficult life experiences with an intrepid, wonderful cat. Warm, hopeful and entertaining.
What Is the What: The Autobiograhy of Valentino Achak Deng
Though a novel, Eggers’s book is a true account of the adventures of Valentino Achak Deng, one of 3,800 Lost Boys from Sudan (Lost Boys because they were unaccompanied minors) who survived years in refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia. We learn of the unimaginable sufferings of these children as Achak narrates his frightening, sometimes wonderful experiences of escape, rescue and hardship …even after settling in Atlanta. What Is the What carries the emotional impact of an epic with touches of humor, poignancy and wisdom. Dion Graham’s narration pulls the listener into this harrowing reality, yet the warmth of Valentino’s personality plus Eggers’s gift as a writer makes one reluctant to leave this world when the book ends. An unforgettable witness to the beauty and power of one individual…not to be missed!
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Typical high school pranks and friendships are part of 16 year-old Miles’ freshman year at Culver Creek Preparatory School … until a fatal automobile accident irrevocably changes everything. This tragic, accurate, account of a teenager’s suicide is recommended for older teens. Listened to the audio ~ story bogged down midway.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Sixteen-year-old Gemma, a young India girl, is sent to boarding school in England after her mother dies (under mysterious circumstances). While at school she discovers her magical powers, such as her ability to see beyond the world of reality. A tale of magical realism with elements of romance and mystery. (YA)
The Lottery by Patricia Wood
What happens when a developmentally challenged young man wins Washington State’s Lottery ($12 M.); that is, how do people, including his horrible family, treat him ? Set in the Pacific Northwest, this sad but charming story is told from the point of view of Perry L. Cranall, a 31-year-old-man with an I.O. of 76. Wood keeps the reader in suspense until the story’s end and portrays a mentally challenged, fully functioning young man who is perhaps the wisest person in the whole book!
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan
A sweet, humorous story that depicts the “contest era” of fifties and sixties America. Terry Ryan, Evelyn’s daughter, narrates the story of her indominatable , hard-working mother (10 children) who turned financial challenges into opportunities (saving the family from poverty) by creating witty prose and poetry ~ Listened to the audio which was good, but given all the poems, jingles, etc., reading the actual book might have been more enjoyable!
The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily Ever After by Melanie Gideon
Gideon’s memoir is a celebration of the joys and indignities of contemporary life. Upon reaching her mid-forties, Gideon stumbles upon the inevitability of her own mortality, and with this epiphany hopes to discover and create meaning in life’s ordinary activites. Humorous and entertaining.
Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow
SCPL owns CD only. This is a gritty mystery involving “hippie” surfer detective Boone Daniels. Obsessed with the unsolved case of a young girl, he stumbles upon an opportunity to make amends for the police department’s failure to clear this crime. Great descriptions and history of San Diego area.
The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys
Humphreys’ lovely novel is comprised of 40 vignettes based on actual events that took place when the Thames froze during the years 1142-1895. Tales are rich with magic, hardships, fairs, the Plague, politics, love and honor. In a thoughtful, poetic style, Humphreys portrays the power of a thing so simple as ice to influence people’s lives and imaginations. Period art and lush designs add to this lovely, little book’s appeal. Don’t miss it!
After reading some “heavier” nonfiction and fiction during the past month, I realized I really wanted to lose myself in some lighter and more predictable stories that would entertain and yet still have some heart to them. In other words: I wanted to read some good romance! Fortunately, I was given some great recommendations which I will pass along now that I’ve had my time with them.
First up is The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O’Neal. I found out about this book through a blogger/reviewer who complained that the cover for this book would mislead people into thinking it was fluffy chicklit when it features more mature characters grappling with past hurts, new relationships and starting over. Instead of writing another summary, here’s the link to the review that made me want to try it!
Next up was the historical romance, What a Lady Wants by Victoria Alexander. I discovered this witty and warm story of love in 1854 London while looking through an old copy of What Do I Read Next? (you can see the new copy – it’s one of our Readers Services “reference” books in the New Books area of the Library). It’s the second in the “Last Man Standing” series.
A patron insisted I try this next title: Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas. I’m glad she did because I enjoyed this contemporary romance of an advice columnist who finds out relationship problems are not as easy to solve when they involve her sister, an abandoned baby and a sexy Texas millionaire.
I rounded my little romance binge with Nice to Come Home To by Rebecca Flowers – which I selected from the “What the Staff is reading” display in the Library. At 36, Pru has lost her job, boyfriend and sense of direction for her life. Fortunately, an eclectic group of friends, family, her ex’s cat and the recently-divorced owner of a nearby diner are around to support Pru as she reinvents herself.
I’m always open to new suggestions – if you have a romance to recommend, please leave a comment!
Sometimes you just want to try something completely different from what you usually read. Of course the problem then is finding something you’ll enjoy. One thing I often remind myself is that books are no longer an assignment! I can take home a variety of titles to try, and if they don’t have my interest after a certain number of chapters, then back they go. It was hard to do this at first, I’ll admit. Not finishing a book seems “wrong” somehow, and there are some books that are difficult to read, but ultimately gratifying in the end so I am glad I kept going. But on the other hand, if I’m not enjoying a book, why spend the time forcing myself to finish it? It’s a tough call and only the reader can decide which books to set aside. With all that said, below are some titles I tried over the years and found to be worth reading “cover to cover”!
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
This poignant story follows nine year old Oskar Schell and his extended family as they cope with the loss of father/husband/son in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Along the way, Oskar meets many interesting characters as he tries to find the lock that goes to a key left behind by his father. An engaging, sometimes humorous, and thought- provoking study of human nature creatively presented through words and pictures.
Garlic & Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
I’m not a huge nonfiction reader, but I “devoured” this fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the life of a food critic for the New York Times. What I found most compelling is the author’s reflections on creating disguises (to maintain her anonymity) and what she learns from the different personas she adopts. It is especially interesting to see the different ways she is treated based on her appearance and demeanor. Written prior to 9/11, it is bittersweet to hear her experiences dining in New York City, particularly the Windows on the World Trade Center Restaurant. I listened to the book and found the audio version captivating! (Nonfiction – B Reichl)
Passage by Willis, Connie
It is unfortunate that the Science Fiction label will keep many people from picking up this well-written, thoughtful book. It is more accurately “speculative” fiction – posing the question about what it must be like in the seconds after a person dies, making the passage from life to death. An interesting question, with a most original theory (and a twist at the end that might drive you nuts). I can’t say I “loved” this book, but it is definitely different!
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
This lengthy novel reads as if it were truly the personal diaries of a real person. Logan Mountstuart is a typical well-born Englishman, but his globetrotting ways lead him to a variety of experiences including fighting in the Spanish Civil War, spying for the British in WWII, and meeting all sorts of twentieth-century notables, from Picasso to Ian Fleming. He is a flawed character, and yet is universally recognizable – and someone you’ll miss when the story ends.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar Paul Theroux
For Paul Theroux fans, his latest train odyssey does not disappoint as he retraces an earlier journey ( The Great Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is filled with rich portrayals of people and their homelands; as usual he shares his political and historical insights with the reader. Even if you do not agree with him, Theroux is always entertaining and enlightening. The difference between Ghost Train and his earlier works is the author’s compassion, even gentleness, compared to the cynicism of his earlier days. He seems a bit more forgiving of human foibles, but lest you think the old Theroux has completely disappeared, take heart, the old skepticism and sense of humor are still apparent!
Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life Kathleen Norris
If you are in the mood for a book that makes you think about your life and where it is going or has taken you, then try Norris’s (The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace) latest memoir in which she explores the ancient term “acedia,” a condition long recognized by early monastics as a profound weariness of soul, the “noonday demon.” Her personal stories, including her own battle withacedia and the long, painful illness of her husband, are especially moving and expressed in beautiful prose. Replete with quotations from earlier Christian thinkers and interesting etymological narratives, this captivating, thoughtful work offers spiritual hope for the “social acedia” experienced by many in today’s world.
A Little History of the World E. H. Gombrich
This was, I think, written for the author’s children, so it is just the right level for me. I tried to read a chapter a day (some of them are really short!), but I didn’t end up getting all the way through. Very readable and would appeal to someone who wanted an easily accessible history lesson.
Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Really Be Distracting. A Memoir Meredith Norton
The memoir from a 30-something new mom about her battle with breast cancer. Irreverent, sassy, funny, alarming, distressing,hopeful. The author sounds like someone you’d love to hang out with, though don’t be surprised when things go awry. Her story isn’t exactly inspirational in terms of the cancer struggle, but you do sense the author’s courage in the face of odds and going on with her life.
Throughout November we’re featuring mysteries set in other times and places in Reader Services. Stop by to browse in person, or view a partial list of titles online. Here are a few the Staff have particularly enjoyed over the years to get you started:
Dirge for a Doge by Elizabeth Eyre
Political intrigue, complex plot twists, and memorable characters (including a one-eared dog) make for a suspenseful story set in Renaissance Venice.
Funeral in Blue by Anne Perry
This entry in the William Monk series finds the Victorian private detective and his wife, Hester, involved in solving a murder that hits very close to home.
Piece of My Heart by Peter Robinson
Rotating between murder mysteries set in England in 1969 and 2006, veteran author Robinson revisits rock music festivals and the hippie scene of the late sixties while creating a baffling modern case for DCI Alan Banks. In this mystery Robinson reminds us of the anguished struggles between teenagers and parents, the angst of the late 60s, the devastating effects of dabbling with drugs, and the unappreciated but important role of the police. It seems impossible for Robinson to disappoint. That said, ardent fans of Banks might not find this as satisfying as the excellent Playing With Fire since Banks must share billing with 60s counterpart, Chadwick, who himself is an intriguing character. Suitable For Young Adults.
Stalking Horse by Miriam Grace Monfredo
This exciting historical mystery follows the adventures of one of the first female Pinkerton detectives as she races to protect President-elect Lincoln from assassination before he can assume office. A wonderful series and highly recommended.
The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin
Set in Moscow in the late 1800s, this mystery features the bright, young and naïve policeman, Erast Fandorin. Full of twists, the plot takes Erast to the salons of wealthy Muscovites as well as the shabbier sections of London.