Top Ten Historical Fiction

September kind of got away from me. September is always a busy month during which I think I’ll have more time than I do have, but this year, thanks to two bouts of stomach flu, I pretty much missed half of it entirely. Which is to say, I’ve been meaning to write a Top Ten Tuesday post for the historical fiction genre since I read Linda’s Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels blog post over half a month ago.

Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I find that the best authors in this genre are able to weave period detail into their stories in a way that is subtle and memorable at once. Even though I studied history in college, it’s the history I learned through stories that has stuck with me best.

Cover image of Wolf HallSome novels take famous figures from history and are centered around important historical events. In the case of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it is the court of King Henry VIII in England. In the former, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is the main character during Anne’s rise, marriage to Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and Henry’s disenchantment with (and beheading of) Anne. For her books – the first two of a planned trilogy – Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell as her main character.

Cover image of Suite FrancaiseOther novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the draw of these stories is how their authors are able to make the time and place come to life in a way that seems real. Like Henry VIII’s era, World War II is a popular time period for historical fiction; most recently, the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a bestseller (and with good reason). A few of my favorite WWII novels are Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Cover image of FeverStill a third type of historical novel features extraordinary people in ordinary (for them) times. These characters are as vivid as their settings: Mary Malone (better known as Typhoid Mary) in Fever by Mary Beth Keane, set in turn of the century New York. Katy Kontent in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, also in New York, in the 1930s. Regret, a Korean “picture bride” in Alan Brennert’s Honolulu. Tom and Isabel in post-WWI Australia in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. Mattie Gokey in the Adirondacks in 1906 in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, and Desdemona Hart in 1930s Massachusetts in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade.

Cover image of AstrayFor those who have been counting, this has been more than ten, but I want to mention just three more. Astray is a collection by Emma Donoghue, in which each story was inspired by a real piece of history; Donoghue is so inventive that she can spin two sentences from an old newspaper into a complete, absorbing story.

Finally, there are two books from my childhood that could be called historical fiction with a twist: Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck includes an element of time travel, and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix takes place in what appears to be an 1840s village, but – to the main character’s shock – isn’t.

Do you like historical fiction? Which novels are your favorites, and why? If you haven’t read historical fiction before, do any of the above sound interesting?




Pleasure reading should be pleasurable

Makes sense when you think about it, right? Yet so many of us feel obligated to finish a book once we’ve started it, and feel guilty if we set it aside. We really should read it, because a friend recommended it, or it got a good review, or it’s on a topic we really ought to know more about, or everyone else is reading it, or we put it on our to-read list four years ago (but we can’t remember why), or it’s a classic…fill in the blank however you like.

But unless a book is assigned reading for school or work, then presumably you’re reading for pleasure, and pleasure reading should be pleasurable. Not that you shouldn’t ever explore a new genre or try a book that you find a bit difficult, but if you’re 25 or 50 or 100 pages in and you’re just not that into it, then by all means, put it down and pick up something else instead! You have this librarian’s permission.

This is something I have worked on for years myself. I was inspired partly by Knopf editor Marty Asher, who said something along the lines of “I don’t have time to read anything but great books” (and that was almost a decade ago). Of course, you might well think a book is going to be great and it turns out not to be: you can only judge so much by the cover, title, author, first sentence, first page, flap copy, reviews, etc. Most of us don’t choose books we think we’re going to dislike on purpose.

And yet it can be so hard to put down a book we’ve invested some time in already. It feels like giving up; it feels like failure. And who knows? We’re optimistic; maybe it will get better in another 25, 50, 100 pages. But no: at some point you begin to feel certain that this book is not the one for you, at least not right now. (“Every reader his/her book, every book its reader“).

One side effect of my free time having been somewhat curtailed of late is that I have become much better at putting down a book that doesn’t hook me quickly. This is usually not a reflection on the book’s quality; it’s just not for me, not right now. For example, I have decided to return M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead to the library – despite the fact that it was personally recommended to me by a reader I trust, and that it was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults – because I just can’t get excited about the siege of Leningrad right now.

What can I get excited about? Young adult fiction, apparently: I’ve read nine YA novels so far this year, including some truly stellar books (all right, let’s name names: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Like No Other, Dumplin’, Roller Girl, Echo, A Step Toward Falling, Bone Gap, Rain Reign). I’ve also read (and re-read) some excellent picture books. And, I got to read Gayle Forman’s upcoming adult novel Leave Me, which is just as good as her YA; I read it in just two days, and I have a three-month-old baby, so that should tell you something. (The thing it should tell you is “read Leave Me“!)

So there you have it, from a librarian: if you don’t like what you’re reading, and you don’t have to read it, put it down and read something you love instead. That’s the beauty of the public library: millions of books just there for the borrowing. Don’t do what I did and spend an entire month trying to slog through a book you aren’t that excited about: you’re not being graded, and ticking a box on a checklist you made yourself isn’t nearly as satisfying as spending time reading a book you love. In fact, I think there’s a song about this. Let it go…

[All that said…my library is hosting a 2016 Reading Challenge with some interesting categories, and one book can count toward more than one category. Click through to read more if you’re interested in participating.]

Do you debut? Focus on first books

I only realized how few new debuts* I read when I was offered the chance to contribute to another Reader’s Shelf column in Library Journal,New Year, Nearly New Books: Favorite 2015 Debuts.” Looking back through nearly a year’s worth of reading, there weren’t very many for me to choose from, but I did really enjoy The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister. If you like magic and illusion, turn-of-the-century America, and (possibly) unreliable narrators, it would be a great book to curl up with this winter.

*”New debuts” isn’t redundant, I don’t think: an author’s first book is a debut whether it was published ten years ago or ten days ago. And if it was ten years ago, then hopefully there have been a few since, and you’ve got some catching up to do!

Do you seek out debuts? I don’t make a point of it, though I certainly don’t have anything against them – if it’s recommended to me or gets glowing reviews or has a great hook, I’m just as interested in a first novel as a tenth, and discovering a new writer is a pleasure. Really, the only downside to reading a new debut is that you’ll be waiting for the next one instead of diving into an author’s backlist.

Do you like to read everything an author has written, or do you read more selectively, even if you really like the author? Do you like to read an author’s work chronologically, reverse-chronologically, or does the order not matter to you?

Books on the radio

I was invited to be on Wisconsin Public Radio at the end of December to talk about audiobooks: why people might try them, how to find a book (or narrator) they like, when they might even be preferable to print books. Being on the radio was fun! It’s archived on WPR’s Central Time website (though I haven’t listened; I don’t want to hear how many times I said “um”). If you want to download or listen online, it’s from 5:30-6pm (unless you need to catch up on your local Wisconsin news and chit-chat, in which case, go ahead and listen to the whole thing).

I’ve written about audiobooks on this blog in the past; if you missed those posts, don’t worry, you can access them here, because the internet is forever: “I’d listen to her read a grocery list: on audiobooks” (3/12/14) and “Audiobook recommendations for a friend” (10/3/14). Or if you don’t want to click through, here’s the bullet point version:

  • How to get started if you’re new to audiobooks: Try listening to a book you’ve already read; choose a shorter book; listen to the first few minutes of a few different ones to see which narrator’s voice you like best.
  • Remember, taste is subjective: You might prefer a male or female narrator, a full cast production, American voices or other accents, slow or fast talkers.
  • How to get audiobooks: You can buy them, of course, but that gets expensive! Your local library probably offers audiobooks on CD and/or Playaways (a small device that contains one whole book), and may offer downloadable audiobooks as well through Overdrive, hoopla, or another platform. If you’re hearing impaired, you can get access to audiobooks for free in every state.
  • Value-added aspects: Some authors read their own books, which can be especially fun if they are familiar voices already, like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Vowell, Neil Patrick Harris, or Aziz Ansari. Neil Gaiman and Jenny Lawson also read their own books, which I highly recommend.
  • A social experience: Before school vacations and holidays, lots of people come to the library looking for audiobooks the whole family can enjoy on long car trips. Finding a book everyone will enjoy can be a fun challenge depending on ages and tastes!
  • Seamless switching between formats: I haven’t done this myself, but one of the callers said she switched back and forth between the Kindle e-book and Audible audiobook; Amazon owns Audible so accounts can be synced for seamless transitions between audio and print.

Do you listen to audiobooks? Do you have a favorite genre to listen to, or a favorite narrator?



Best Books I’ve Read in the Second Half of 2015

See Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2015 from July 1. I will still talk your ear off about Greenglass House and Graceling. And Trigger Warning and NPH’s Choose Your Own Autobiography are superb audiobooks. Here are ten of the books I’ve enjoyed in the second half of the year:

Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway: Cover image of Emmy & OliverEmmy’s best friend (and boy-next-door), Oliver, was kidnapped by his father when he was seven; he returns at age 17, and reconnects with Emmy and her friends. Good realistic/romantic fiction for those who liked The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney and Sweethearts by Sara Zarr.

Slade House by David Mitchell: This haunted house story is a companion to The Bone Clocks, so of course I loved it; there’s no need to read The Bone Clocks to enjoy Slade House, though, so if this is your first foray into Mitchell’s universe, you can start with this more concise novel. The titular Slade House appears every nine years so its inhabitants can harvest a soul to prolong their lives, but the last victim it lures in is on to them. Deliciously creepy. (I got an early copy and wrote the blurb for LibraryReads.)

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh: Just as good as The Language of Flowers, but with illegal immigration instead of the foster care system and homelessness as the central issue. Not to say that it’s an “issue book”; the Mexican-American characters at the center of the story are real and complex, their dilemmas hard and heartbreaking.

Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches: I’ve already written about this one here. If you work in a library, or design any kind of product or service or platform for library users, read this book!

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande: Cover image of Being MortalI’m consistently impressed with Gawande’s writing ability, and the clarity with which he communicates his message. In this case, he addresses the issues presented by an aging population, on both the societal and the individual level. An important book that is also easy to read.

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer: If you’ve been having second thoughts about settling down with the guy you’ve been dating for years and are now engaged to, and he becomes paralyzed in an accident, do you stay with him? Or do you go? This is Carrie Bell’s decision, and The Dive From Clauden’s Pier is a character study of a young woman making a difficult decision about what she should do, and what that might mean about the kind of person she is.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg: Though I’m no longer in the dating pool, I enjoyed listening to how romance has changed and how it has stayed the same in recent history. The audiobook was great; it’s stand-up comedy backed up with smart social science.

Cover image of Unfinished BusinessUnfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter: The author of The Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has written a book about the unequal value American society places on competition (ambition, putting oneself first, breadwinning) and care (providing care for children, aging parents, other family members or friends); the former is traditionally male, the latter traditionally female. In order to address gender inequality, we must also adjust the value we place on competition and care.

George by Alex Gino: George is a fourth grader who was born a boy but knows she’s really a girl. But how does she tell her family and friends? And how will they react when she does? This is most likely – hopefully – just the beginning of transgender lit for children and teens, and it’s a sweet, realistic story that avoids extremes: there’s no horrific bullying, but not everyone is instantly accepting either. George’s friend Kelly is a great character also.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: Cover image of Did You Ever Have a FamilyA story of grief and guilt, told by multiple narrators – the survivors of a tragedy and those related to them. For those who liked The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy, How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz, The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer, Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney, The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen.

That’s it for me for 2015. If I read any outstanding books in the next week, I’ll tell you about them in January. Meanwhile, what were your favorite books of the year?

Readers’ Advisory: Novels featuring real historical characters

The Massachusetts Library System (MLS) has a new series called “5 in 15 Booktalks,” where librarians talk about 5 titles in 15 minutes or less. I got to work with the excellent MLS staff to put together a “5 in 15 member edition” booktalk, where I talk about novels that feature real historical characters, including:Cover image of Wolf Hall

  • Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
  • Edith Wharton in Jennie Fields’ The Age of Desire
  • Mary Mallon (a.k.a. Typhoid Mary) in Mary Beth Keane’s Fever
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife
  • Vanessa Bell (nee Stephens) in Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister

Watch the video (me talking over slides). It was hard for me to narrow my list down to five titles, so I mention some others during the talk, including The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, Z by Therese Anne Fowler, Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, and a few others.

What’s your favorite novel featuring a real historical character? Or do you prefer your historical fiction to have a purely invented main character? Share in the comments!

LibraryReads October 2015 list

LibraryReadsLibraryReads is an initiative that was launched in September 2013 and has been going strong ever since. Simply put, LibraryReads is “The top ten books published this month that librarians across the country love”; it’s a list of ten books compiled every month by library staff across the country. All library staff are eligible to vote and write reviews. I’ve seen presentations from the LibraryReads organizers at least twice (once at the Massachusetts Library Association conference in May 2015, once at BEA in May 2014), and have written occasional reviews for the books I’ve managed to read ahead of time, but this is the first time one of my reviews has been featured, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s for David Mitchell’s Slade House.

Cover image of Slade House“Every nine years, Slade House appears in a little alley in London, and every nine years, someone – or multiple someones – disappears into it, never to be seen again. Slade House is a lacuna, frozen in time, and its inhabitants need a new soul every nine years for their continued survival. Fans of The Bone Clocks will inhale this compact, six-part work that draws on Mitchell’s previously established mythology and, of course, reintroduces a familiar character or two. New readers, however, won’t be lost, as important pieces are explained to each new character who is drawn into Slade House. Literary fiction, fantasy, and a dose of horror combine here to make a deeply satisfying book.”

See all ten of October’s LibraryReads picks here. I’m also looking forward to After You by Jojo Moyes, The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, and Welcome to Night Vale. October is always a good month for publishing!