Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

June 11, 2021


This is a sweeping, propulsive, in some ways old fashioned, work of historical fiction that, even though I resisted it at times, I ultimately loved. It tells the story of Marian Graves, an Amelia Earhart-like early woman aviator whose dream is to circumnavigate the globe from North to South Pole. It also tells the contemporary story of Hadley Baxter, the disgraced young star of a Twilight-like film franchise who has been hired to play Marian Graves in a biopic. I initially resisted this use of dual timelines which has become common in historical fiction and can sometimes break up the flow of a novel for me. However, I came to appreciate the value of Hadley’s storyline. For one thing, the story of Marian and her twin brother Jamie, from the very start when they are rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner, is almost relentlessly eventful, both in terms of world events (Prohibition, World War II), and their own lives. I found myself worrying about their well-being so much that the contemporary story of Hadley and her mostly surface level Hollywood problems came as a relief. Also, I appreciated that Hadley seemed to mirror my own feeling of being more interested and invested in Marian’s story than in the world of contemporary Hollywood. And Hadley’s story does serve as a commentary on how in some ways the roles assigned to women can still constrain and stifle as they did in Marian’s time.

But the pulse of the book is Marian’s story, and it is quite a story. The events of her life alone are riveting: growing up mostly unsupervised in Montana, working as a driver for bootleggers during Prohibition to earn money for flying lessons, serving as a pilot in the British Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II, and of course her attempt to fly from North to South Pole. But what interested me most about Marian was her struggle to figure out how and where she fit, mostly due to a lifetime of being forced into roles that didn’t fit. In terms of her dreams, her identity, her sexuality, she just did not fit the conventional mold for women. What she did have, however, and what drove her, was her love of flying, and the freedom and sense of self she found in flight. And that is what set her apart from other characters in the book who also struggled to find their place, particularly Jamie and Eddie. A wonderful aspect of this book is the richness of the surrounding characters. There are so many memorable people in this book I wished I could spend more time with. Although the book is long (over 600 pages), I think it is important that the author takes the time that she does to tell this story. You are with Marian long enough that you come to cherish some of her memories and miss the people that she loses. Highly recommend to historical fiction lovers.

Great Circle is available at the Library, and on Libby/Overdrive.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

The Parisian, or al-Barisi, by Isabella Hammad

May 31, 2021


Brief review: Stunning book, compelling protagonist, historical fiction in a time and place that is less familiar. Ultimately a deeply human story written in beautiful, masterful prose.
Find the Parisian in our catalog here
Read it on Hoopla here
Read it on Libby/OverDrive here

And… the longer review:

This novel takes place in two places: France and Palestine. However, it really takes place singly in the life and mind of our protagonist, Midhat Kamal. We begin as Midhat leaves Nablus (“a town north of Jerusalem, south of Damascus”) for France to study medicine at The University of Montpellier. There he stays with the Molineau family, comprising Doctor Molineau and his daughter, Jeannette.

We follow Midhat’s relationships (especially with Jeannette – which is a complicated and mysterious one) and his trajectory at first the University and then the Sorbonne in Paris until he returns to Nablus to step into his father’s business in textiles and clothing.

The remainder, and bulk, of the novel takes place in Nablus, where the history of “Greater Syria” and Palestine is unfolding. While historical fiction often teaches us a lot about a time and/or place that we aren’t very familiar with, this book does it all from the particular point of view, and experience of, Midhat — an outsider no matter where he is. So, this “view” of historical events is both participant and observer.

That is the frame of the story — but the driving force of this sad, beautiful, human story is Midhat’s inner life and interaction with the people and world around him. He is a sympathetic, flawed character who never quite finds a home. Against the backdrop of both Arab and Jewish struggles to establish a territorial home under outside machinations of large powers (France, Britain, Turkey, the Ottoman Empire), we still experience everything from the personal instead of the political.

The writing is exceptionally beautiful and masterly, in some places almost more like being immersed in a painting than a novel. Strikingly, this is the author’s first novel – she is 19! [for those Top Gear fans, her father is Richard Hammond, long time co-host of that program.] Our sympathies (not surprisingly) lie with those Arabs who live in Nablus (what many characters think of as Greater Syria), but given the deeply personal point of view of a man who isn’t blantantly political, the reader (ie: me) doesn’t necessarily feel strongly partisan. More so, there is a loneliness of not quite belonging in the way that others do, that seems far beyond the author’s years.

Find the Parisian in our catalog here
Read it on Hoopla here
Read it on Libby/OverDrive here

Author photo: (c) Kathy Coulter
Winner of The Plimpton Prize, O. Henry Prize, and National Book Award “5 under 35” Honoree.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

May 6, 2021


In some ways reading this book reminded me of watching one of those 1950s Douglas Sirk films – lush, colorful, melodramatic, but with an underlying social commentary. The book takes place in Jaipur India in the 1950s, a few years after India gained independence from British colonial rule. The book centers on Lakshmi, a woman in her thirties who makes a living as a henna artist and an herbalist and healer for wealthy women. Lakshmi has worked very hard to establish her business and her position, after having escaped an abusive marriage as a teenager and come to the city to build a life for herself. Her dream is to build a house of her own, and she is nearly there when her life is disrupted by the arrival of Rahda, Lakshmi’s 13 year old sister, after the death of their parents. Lakshmi was not aware she had a sister, given that when she ran away from her marriage as a teenager, her parents were ostracized by their community and have refused contact with her. Lakshmi had not wanted to have children, and struggles with being responsible for Rahda, who has grown up in difficult circumstances and was considered to be bad luck back home. Rahda is obsessed with British literature and Hollywood movies, and bristles under Lakshmi’s attempts to make her understand and follow the rules and restrictive role demanded by Lakshmi’s work catering to the elite of Jaipur. Rahda’s choices, and in many ways her very existence, ultimately jeopardize Lakshmi’s precarious role in this world.

I appreciated the ways in which the stark realities of poverty, abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and the narrow and restrictive roles of caste and gender, refuse to stay out of sight in this book, no matter how hard the wealthy characters, and to some extent Lakshmi herself, try to ignore them. While Lakshmi’s independence and success are admirable, It is painful at times to watch her struggle to keep her role in this wealthy society in light of the cruelty it often shows to those like her and her sister. But I also appreciated that there is compassion shown to almost all of the characters in the book, with empathy particularly for the difficulties and challenges of even the most privileged women, whose lives on the surface seem easy. This is a highly readable book, and there is a sequel that is coming out in June which I very much look forward to reading.

I listened to the audio version of this book on Hoopla. The book is also available at the Library, and as both an eBook and an audiobook on Libby/Overdrive. The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is on order at the Library.


Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

April 12, 2021


I love it when historical fiction reminds me, as it so often does, of how much I don’t know. This was the case in many ways with Libertie. For one thing, the book introduced me to the life of Dr. Susan McKinney Steward, the first Black woman physician in New York, and only the third Black woman to become a doctor in the country. The book, inspired by Dr. McKinney Steward’s life, is told through the eyes of Libertie, the daughter of a Black woman doctor, growing up in a free Black community in Brooklyn during the Reconstruction era. At the heart of the story is the complicated relationship between Libertie and her mother. Libertie idolizes her mother growing up, but struggles with her mother’s expectation that she too will become a doctor.

One of the things I liked most about this book is the that it provides such a fascinating snapshot of two particular places during this pivotal time – first, the free Black community in Brooklyn where Libertie grows up, and then Haiti, where Libertie moves when she marries a Haitian doctor. The racial, political, religious and class dynamics the author depicts in both places during this time were fascinating. I also realized how little I know about the history of Haiti, which is something I need to dig into.

One of the most striking aspects of this book to me is its focus on the mental health impacts of slavery. As a child Libertie sees her mother treat several people who are brought to her directly after having escaped slavery. Even when their physical wounds are healed, the psychological toll, what we would recognize today as PTSD, is something that her mother struggles to treat. There is also a fascinating dynamic throughout the book between those like Libertie and her mother who were freeborn, and those, including many of her mother’s patients, and two college friends of Libertie, known as The Graces, who had been enslaved.

There was so much to think about from this book, and I think it will stay with me for a while. I’m very glad I read it.

Libertie is available as both an ebook and an audiobook on Hoopla, as well as at the Library.


Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

February 25, 2021


I have to admit that I was a bit reluctant to read this book, because it seemed as though it would be unbearably sad. I was thankfully convinced to read it by a member of the Library Book Group (thanks Liz!). What I found is a book that is almost unbearably beautiful. The story is based on the fact that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet (or Hamlet, as the names were used interchangably back then) died at age 11, and that four years later he wrote the play Hamlet. From this fact, and the few other known facts surrounding Shakespeare’s life, O’Farrell has woven a lyrical, mesmerizing, story of this family, and their life in Stratford. One thing I really appreciated in the book is that it is the story of a family in a particular place and time, and the fact that we still know about one member of that family today is not really the point. Shakespeare himself is the only main character never named in the book, he is only known in terms of his relationship with other people – he is alternately referred to as the husband, the father, the Latin tutor, the brother. He has a much smaller role in the novel than I had expected, as he spends most of his time in London building a separate life in the theatre. The focus is on more on his family, and the impact that his career and his art had on them, although there is a powerful exploration towards the end of the impact that the death of his son might have had on his art. Agnes, his wife, is more of the central character, and she is fascinating – magical, a healer, an unusual person struggling to make a life for herself and her children in the claustrophobic household of her in-laws, and trying to understand her husband’s need to pursue his dreams in London. I was particularly taken with details such as the way the author makes you feel the day to day impact of the lack of education on women– how frustrating it can be to not be able to read, especially when letters are such a valuable mode of communication. You also witness how these people manage to live their day to day lives while navigating the painful mortality rate of children, the fear of dying in childbirth, and the ever present threat of the plague. You come to know Hamnet as a sweet, regular kid who shares a deep and beautiful bond with his twin sister Judith. And you see how the different members of the family deal with the loss of Hamnet. This is a haunting, beautiful book. Yes it is sad, and it is beautiful and well deserving of all the accolades it received. Hamnet is available at the Library and on Libby/Overdrive.

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

January 8, 2021


There have been many re-imaginings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, including Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern day adaptation, Eligible, and one of my favorites, Longbourn by Jo Baker, which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of Sarah, the Bennet’s housemaid. In the vein of Longbourn, The Other Bennet Sister is set in the world of Pride & Prejudice, but tells it from the perspective of Mary Bennet, the middle sister. In Pride & Prejudice, Mary does not fare particularly well. She is considered the unattractive, bookish, and socially awkward sister who either annoys or embarrasses the rest of her family. In The Other Bennet Sister you learn of the toll that her family’s dim view of her has taken on Mary, and how bleak the prospects were for an unmarried woman, even a woman of some means, in that world. The expectation was that Mary, as a spinster, would spend her life living as an awkward and uncomfortable guest in the homes of her sisters and their families. The book traces Mary’s attempts to gain some control over her life and her happiness, and in the process we are given new glimpses into some familiar characters, including Mr. Collins, Charlotte Lucas, Caroline Bingley, and the wonderful Gardiners. This was a lovely and engaging book. I listened to the audiobook on Hoopla, which was terrific. While this book will certainly appeal to fans of Pride and Prejudice and Longbourn, it is also just a great choice for fans of historical fiction about an interesting and smart and unusual woman.

The Other Bennet Sister is available at the Library, and on Hoopla as an audiobook.

The Other Bennet Sister

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

December 29, 2020


With elements of historical fiction and fantasy, and a strong and compelling female protagonist — this book was right up my alley. It tells the story of Addie LaRue, who lives in a small town in France in the early 1700s. She yearns for a life of adventure and independence, but as she has no say in her own life decisions, she is set to be married. In desperation she runs off to escape the life she doesn’t want, and begs the ancient gods for freedom. As it turns dark, one of the dark gods answers her plea and she ends up trading her soul for freedom and immortality. However, she soon realizes that this freedom comes with the devastating price that no one will ever remember her. As someone who loved to draw, she is no longer able to make so much as a mark with chalk, and is unable to speak her own name or tell her own story. The ways in which she manages to survive and navigate the parameters of her curse, are really compelling. It’s gritty and hard, but she continually chooses to go on and create a life for herself rather than surrendering her soul. There are elements of romance, both with Luc, the demon who has cursed her, and with Henry, the first one who remembers her after 300 years, but the story remains Addie’s, with the focus on her need to tell her story and make a mark in whatever way she can. If you enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, or Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, you might give this one a try. I really enjoyed it.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is available at the Library and on Libby/Overdrive.

Title details for The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab - Wait list

Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris

December 4, 2020


This is a fascinating story about a survivor from Auschwitz who was convicted of working with the Nazis by the Russians who released them from captivity and sent her to Siberia for a 13 year sentence.  The story reverts back periodically to her years in Auschwitz so the reader really is there with her and her struggles to survive. You can find Cilka’s Journey at the Library, as an audiobook on Hoopla, and as an ebook and audiobook on Libby/Overdrive.

Title details for Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris - Wait list

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

September 21, 2020


This book has been on my to-be-read list for so long — seven years, it turns out, since it was published in 2013! I remember intending to read it when it first came out, and then every once in a while I’d see it sitting on the shelf and almost grab it, but it was only this week when I saw that Hoopla has the audiobook that I finally took the time to read it. I’m so glad I did! I am a sucker for historical fantasy books to begin with. Give me a book set in turn of the century New York City, add in a blend of Jewish and Arab folklore, and I’m a happy reader. This is a slow-paced, lyrical story that draws you into the strange situation that these two mystical creatures suddenly find themselves in – the golem, a woman made of clay created to be the perfect wife, who suddenly finds herself widowed and alone in a new city, and the jinni who is accidentally released from the flask he has been trapped in for a thousand years. The way that these two characters try to find a place for themselves in this new, unfamiliar human world is quite moving, and their friendship is unexpected and endearing. This is a strange and lovely book, perfect to read on a cold day. You can find the book at the library, and the audiobook on Hoopla and Libby/Overdrive.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

September 9, 2020


Deacon King Kong is the latest book by James McBride, author of the National Book Award winner The Good Lord Bird, and it is every bit as rich, funny, deep, and award-worthy. It is set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969. While the story centers around Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, or Sportcoat, as he is known, it really is the story of this community. The people in the community- from the Church elders who came up to New York from the South during the Great Migration, to the local mobsters, bodega owners, police officers, drug dealers, security guards- all have a story, and their stories are told with humor and a great deal of compassion. Everyone is struggling with the changing world of 1969. And the humor in the book never covers over the real pain, anger, and disillusionment over the poverty and racism and impact of drugs on this community. There are moments of joy and pain and outrage and silliness in this book that will stay with you. James McBride is a wonderful writer and a great storyteller. You can find Deacon King Kong at the Library, and on Libby/Overdrive.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride