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Posts tagged 'Historical'

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

PerryEssexThe Essex Serpent represents the best in current historical fiction. A second novel by British author, Sarah Perry, it was named Book of the Year by the Waterstone’s Bookstore. Set in 1893, the book explores many themes—among them, friendship, science vs. religion, the role of women in Victorian England, the class divide, and social conditions and mores of the times. The writing is highly evocative and calls to mind the writings of other Victorians such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Like Dickens, Perry highlights the squalor of the London slums. Perry also illuminates advances in medicine and surgery, including the first open-heart surgery and the prevailing treatment of tuberculosis in the late 19th century.


The main character is Cora Seaborne—a young widow formerly married to a sadistic older man. Now free to live as she chooses, she embraces her early passion for collecting fossils and roaming the English shores. Like others of her class, she is influenced by Darwin’s publication, The Origin of the Species, first published in 1876.When she visits Essex, Cora falls in love with the sheer wildness of the place. There, she befriends the local pastor and his family and learns about the Essex Serpent—a mythical creature dating back centuries. The plot is driven by Cora’s desire to determine whether the monster really exists.


Sara Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Historical  British Fiction


Moonglow by Michael Chabon

ChabonMGMoonglow, according to Chabon, was inspired by his 1987 visit to his dying grandfather. During that visit, his grandfather revealed secrets of his life to the twenty-four-year-old author. The book is a dream-like distillation of what may or may not have been spoken. To quote the New York Times Book Review:

Moonglow [...] wanders where it will, framing a series of chronologically disordered episodes from the past with conversations involving the narrator (who never tries to persuade us that he is anyone other than Michael Chabon) and various kinfolk, principally his mother and grandfather. This isn’t to say that the book lacks structure, but rather that its structure is determined by the logic of memory, and that the author has resisted the urge to do too much tidying and streamlining. The action zigzags across time and geography—from Germany in the last days of World War II through a grab bag of American locations in the decades after—with blithe indifference to the usual rules of linearity or narrative economy" (Scott, A.O. "Michael Chabon Returns With a Searching Family Saga." The New York Times. 18 Nov. 2016.).

The grandfather serves as military intelligence trying to hunt down Wernher von Braun in Germany. Von Braun was the brilliant Nazi rocket builder whom the United States later enlisted into its space program. His grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, raised by nuns. Her full story is only alluded to, but her experiences have left her prone to hallucinations and psychotic episodes. She has a mystical persona, unlike the practical grandfather, and entertains her grandson with tarot cards and scary stories.

Chabon writes lyrically and captures the essence of war. But the book is not without humor. While in a retirement community at the end of his life, Michael’s grandfather goes on a Quixotic quest for a pet-eating python. He does this with the same zeal and planning he used when hunting Nazi rocket scientists. The scenes reveal as much about the grandfather’s sense of honor as they do about the struggle for meaning in old age.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Historical  Family Drama  Contemporary  21st Century


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow. The setting is 1922 Moscow, and the main character, Count Alexander Rostov, is an “unrepentant aristocrat” sentenced by a Bolshevik Tribunal to a lifetime of house arrest in the Hotel Metropol.  Returning from the trial to the hotel, where he has lived the last four years, the Count finds that his valuable antiques and artwork have been declared “property of the people “ and have vanished from his sight.

The Count is ousted from his luxury suite at the hotel and moved with meager belongings to a 100-square-foot apartment on the low-ceilinged top floor, where he can barely stand up.  Determined to make the most of his circumstances, he sticks to his old routines of dining, barbering, and socializing, all within the confines of the hotel.  A breath of fresh air arrives in the form of 10-year-old Nina, also a “prisoner of the hotel” while her widowed father serves as a diplomat. Nina wears a master key to the hotel on her necklace, and together she and the Count explore the behind-the-scenes workings of the Metropol. A life-long friendship is forged, which will test the Count again and again. Although he clearly remembers being told “Make no mistake – should you ever step foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot,” when an adult Nina asks a favor of him, it’s hard to say no.

This book has been described as “a masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history.” I would add that it is a good long saga, spanning four decades. The author has done a marvelous job of drawing the characters not only of the Count and Nina, but also of the supporting cast that works in the hotel.

Several subplots are woven in, each serving to forward the story and keep you turning those pages.  If I were going on a trip, and could only take one book, this would be it. Good writing, engaging characters, and some history all in one volume.

Russia  Relationships  Nancy's Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Historical


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

GyasiHomegoing is an absolutely fascinating and wonderfully written first novel by a 26-year-old woman who was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. It is a fictional look, from a different point of view, at a history and people often written about. Homegoing traces two families through several generations, beginning with half-sisters Effia and Esi, born of the same mother, who never know each other.

The novel begins in 1763 in a small village in Ghana. The first chapters are written about each sister; then chapters alternate about the lives of their descendants, through several generations, to the present.

One family remains in Ghana, and one family is transported to the Americas as slaves. While the stories set in the Americas are more familiar to us as readers (slavery in the South, emancipation, and life in Harlem), the African lives have been written about less often. One of the focuses of the novel is the slave trade on the Gold Coast in Ghana and what the Africans contributed to it, tribes fighting and selling each other to the white slavers.

While the stories of the generations contain details of the difficult and abusive situations of racism, hatred, and loss, the individual characters are very human and each generation lives with new hope. Gyasi writes with knowledge and understanding of a difficult history and of the real people whose lives are a part of it. In the Black Church tradition, a homegoing is a celebration of someone’s life, as opposed to a burial service. In Gyasi’s well written novel, each chapter is a small homegoing for each individual in a long chain of family and events. 

Historical Fiction  Historical  Gail's Picks  Family  Coming of Age  African American


Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown

ChoWhat a treat Cho’s first novel is! It reads as a delightful story, yet is full of truths of history, politics, social structure, and race and gender discrimination.

The setting is Regency England. While many citizens have some degree of magical powers, the nation’s supply of magic is declining. Following the death of the Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias’ guardian and mentor, Zacharias, a young freed slave and a proficient magician, has earned the staff that only the head of The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is able to use. He befriends Prunella, a young biracial Indian woman with exceptional magical powers; but, in England, women are not permitted to practice magic.  Zacharias struggles to continue his responsibility of serving his country using magic. He travels to Fairyland to find the source of the loss of the supply of magic.  He combats jealousy within the Royal Society and the actions of a variety of magical demonic creatures.

The novel is full of interesting and compelling characters. There are true friends and mortal enemies. There are fairies, dragons, familiars, mysterious orbs and stones, flying magic transport clouds. The story is a blend of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, magic, and romance. It is well structured, and fast paced.  There is mystery, danger, suspense, but also wit and humor.

Cho is an award winning short story writer; this novel is the first in a planned trilogy. I am eager to know what these characters will do next and how England and the world will prosper through magic. Meanwhile, if you want to read another excellent novel with similarities in setting, although differences in tone, try Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Retellings  Magic  Historical Fiction  Historical Fantasy  Historical  Gail's Picks  Fantasy  Dragons


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