Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

January 22, 2019


This book looked like it would be right up my alley – a combination folk tale/historical fiction/warm fires on icy Victorian British nights- and it did not disappoint. Setterfield is a wonderful storyteller. She lets the characters tell their stories in their own time – and it this brings out their hidden depths in often unexpected ways. I’ve not read her first book – The Thirteenth Tale – but I’m definitely adding it to my list. This book is a good choice for fans of Kate Morton. And if you enjoy the folk tale aspect of this book, you might also enjoy Katherine Arden and Naomi Novik.


The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

October 5, 2018

[Lesley] There are lots of quotes out there about how reading and books take us out of ourselves to new places and new perspectives. I love finishing a book and feeling like I have glimpsed into an unknown world — not science fiction (though I love sci fi too!), but part of the human experience that I know next to nothing about. The book There There by Tommy Orange did this (see staff review) with the culture of “urban indians.” Fascinating stuff.

The Sympathizer (Pulitzer Prize winner in 2016) turns some of the standard ideas about the Vietnam War and Vietnamese refugees on its head (at least for me!). Our narrator is Vietnamese, a close confidante of a general of the South Vietnamese army who is included with the general, his family, and others chosen by the general when they escape the country. They all start new lives in Los Angeles not realizing that one among them is working both sides.

While this book looks at America’s role in the Vietnam War (as part of the whole), the perspective is entirely a Vietnamese one. Admittedly – only one. This perspective is compelling and irresistable though.

What sets The Sympathizer apart is our narrator. He is sly, funny, strategic, and scheming. He makes sharp observations about people, governments, war, food, friends, furniture, jobs – pretty much everything. He is surprising and unpredictable. Nguyen’s voice makes this book extraordinary.

The structure of the book is also magnificent. We start in one place – writing to a “commandant” – then circle back through the story leading up to that beginning. Then, the story picks up from that original beginning and it was completely unexpected and gripping. I don’t often get to the end of a book and think: “genius,” but I did at the end of this one.

Can I make this required reading for anyone interested in exploring history from different points of view and/or those who love masterful writing? Probably not. But, I do recommend it most highly.

Check availability: The Sympathizer
Pulitzer Prize page for The Sympathizer

Circe, by Madeline Miller

April 22, 2018

[Lesley] Circe. The witch who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. That’s about all most of us think of when we hear the name. I love how Madeline Miller uses the staging of Greek mythology and hero lore to tell an old story from a new perspective. I liked Circe even more than the Song of Achilles and I think some of that had to do with the female voice. I like that our biases and our complacency with the old stories are exposed when we read this re-interpretation. We are usually so busy looking at Odysseus that we miss Circe andTelemachus. We are so sure that naiads and nymphs are beautiful and good that we miss the complexities of being even less than a demigod. We see Prometheus alone, bound to that rock and never think of a girl who might have tried to offer him comfort. As Miller (and Circe) shine a light onto this, we also see how Circe overlooks the stories behind the stories and comes to suffer for it. She straddles the strange line between god and mortal and ultimately uses witchery (actually the power of Kronos, but who would know how to collect or use it but a witch?) to choose where she will land. Choice after a near-eternity of living out someone else’s intentions for her.



Check the library catalog for availability:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

August 5, 2017


This was a fascinating book. Set in post-Russian Revolution Moscow, the book follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov who has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life under house arrest at the elegant Metropol Hotel. In many ways it is a very intimate book, focused on his life and how he adjusts to his new circumstances, but it also gives a very vivid sense of the impact that so much upheaval has on all facets of this society. He writes beautifully, and it is a really lovely book.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows

April 12, 2017

guernseyI loved this audiobook! The cast of narrators were amazing and, although I started out doubtful that the correspondences would be able to carry my interest through an entire novel, the unique format totally kept me wanting more. Hard to get out of the car at the end of my commute with the thought that I might be missing out on something going on in 1946 Guernsey!

Find in Wiggin’s catalog:
Print Edition
Large Print Edition

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

March 2, 2017

[Lesley] Catton somehow manages to take a large cast of characters (alive and dead), a wild and untested place and time, and a very tangled plot and create a fabulously crafted story. Mystery piles on top of mystery amidst lies, betrayals, innocent mistakes, and plans-gone-awry and it all unfolds with lush descriptions and intimate details. I especially loved how painstakingly the story is revealed in the first 3/4 of the book only to careen almost off the rails to the ultimate explanation in the end. Masterfully written. I can’t say I ever really came to understand the structure of the constellations/zodiac but it didn’t distract from everything else that is wonderful about this book.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

December 7, 2016

[Tricia] This is a beautifully written, powerful and deeply compelling novel telling the  story of two sisters in Ghana in the 18th century, one who marries a British officer and stays in Ghana, the other is sold into slavery in America. The book tells the story of the descendants of each sister, all the way up to the present. The sense of place in this book is so strong, and I feel like it’s going to stay with me for a long time. Highly recommend.

The Nix, by Nathan Hill

October 30, 2016

[Lesley]  One of the best books I have read in a long time. I loved how smart, funny, and insightful this book is as well as its willingness to be bold. The novel covers a lot of ground – Samuel Andreson Anderson’s childhood, his mother’s story, the Vietnam War and domestic protests, online gaming addiction, child abuse, estrangement, police corruption, and Norwegian mythology – but the story is small at its heart (the one story – wanting to be loved, wanting to belong), a story of a mother and son, but in telling it, the scope of this book is large — Is there any way to be “true” to yourself without being alone? what is the aftermath of abandonment, abuse, obsession? if we commit wrong acts in a world that is inherently wrong, who is at fault? Is anything true or is everything just one person’s perspective, or story, or a story told about them? Nathan Hill does a masterful job leading us through the story, back and forth in time and place, and always wryly shining a light on imperfection.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

January 26, 2016

[Lesley] There are some books that when I finish them I can’t believe it took me so long to read them — Wolf Hall is at the top of that list right now. It has been on my radar since it won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 but for some reason I never picked it up until December when I downloaded it on audio using OverDrive.

What a truly excellent book. It is masterfully written, mainly from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, whom I knew next to nothing about. It takes place during the reign of King Henry VIII as his marriage to Katherine is ending because of his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell is by nature a calm, even-headed, intelligent man who is not prone to drama, emotional reactions, or impulse all of which sets him apart from nearly everyone else who surrounds him including the King, Cardinal Wolsey, the Noblemen (and women), the Boleyns, and some of his own family. The way the story is told however gives us insight into all that is going on inside Cromwell and as a result there is painted a complex, layered portrait of a time and place that transcends the usual focus on all of the scandal. I feel like I learned much about the history of the time, but even more I feel like I came to understand some of what England felt like (though only a little from a commoner’s perspective, even though that was Cromwell’s background) and how the personalities and events (plague, threats of war, alliances, marriages, holidays, religion) impacted people’s decisions and lives.

The sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was also excellent though a few of the (in my opinion, unwarranted) criticisms of the first book seem to have changed the way some things were written in the second, which was a little irritating. Still, a small thing in such an excellent story. I can’t wait to read the third book (when will it be published, when??) which will pick up after the King’s favor has turned to Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn has been taken to the Tower.

Two Books, Briefly

July 24, 2015

[Lesley] As I’m catching up on reviewing some of the things that I’ve liked recently, I want to include two brief reviews for books that you’ve probably never heard of: Off Course, by Michelle Huneven and The Kept, by James Scott. We don’t have either in the library’s print collection but Off Course is available through interlibrary loan and her other book, Blame, is available on audio from OverDrive. The Kept is available on audio and ebook formats from OverDrive — that’s how I listened to it.

Off Course is another book about a small community of locals and summer visitors and also has a daughter returning to the place as a refuge while she figures out what to do next in her life. The relationships in this book are the focus and they are complicated. I picked this book up because of its cover (gasp!) and it delivered. One of the things I liked best was the honest way the book ended which felt just right for the story.

The Kept is sort of a western (though it takes place in NY State), sort of a mystery, sort of historical, and sort of a thriller. It’s hard to get western-style stories right, and I don’t know that I’ve ever read one that was as successful in tone and in its other aspects at the same time. Describing the story won’t do it justice – the circumstances are so far-fetched or unheard of – but the tone, the setting, and the writing pull you in from the beginning. As various things unfold and get revealed the tangle is deliciously ominous. I listened to this on audio and the reader was very good. If you aren’t into downloading books, we could definitely get it through interlibrary loan as well.