Thursday, December 20, 2007

My favorite 10 historical novels of 2007

First, the obligatory disclaimer: I can only choose favorites from those I read in the first place, which is about 75 novels total. Still, despite the inherent arbitrariness, I wanted to showcase ten novels that I enjoyed reading, talk about why they appealed so much, and, hopefully, persuade other readers to pick them up too (this is my evil plan). Each is a work of historical fiction published during 2007. They appear in alphabetical order by author. It's a diverse list that reflects my eclectic (or wide-ranging, take your pick) reading tastes.

Four of the ten were sent to me for review. If you want to know why I continue to review new books, with my TBR pile the size it is, this is the reason. Five are first novels. Nine are by authors I'd never read before.

This is a meme, by the way. Whether you write long descriptions or simply name a list of ten titles, whether you list only 2007 publications or older ones too, feel free to join in! If you do, please leave the URL in the comments.

Jonis Agee, The River Wife. (Random House, 2007. 416pp. Hardbound, 9781400065967)

When pregnant Hedie Rails moves to Jacques Landing, Missouri, in 1930 to become Clement Ducharme's bride, she doesn't know she's also marrying into his disturbing family legacy. As Hedie reads the diaries of Annie Lark, crippled in the 1811 New Madrid earthquake and rescued from Mississippi River flooding by French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, she begins noticing eerie parallels between Annie's life and hers. Annie is only the first of several "river wives," women associated with Jacques over the next 120 years. The others include Omah, a freed slave who joins him as a river pirate; Laura, his fortune-hunting second wife; and her daughter, Little Maddie, who becomes Clement's mother. More than simply a work of fiction, The River Wife is an all-consuming experience, and the frontier setting of the Missouri Bootheel region comes sharply alive. Haunting but not melodramatic, tragic without being depressing, this mesmerizing saga is classic Southern gothic.

Ellis Avery, The Teahouse Fire. (Riverhead, 2007. 391pp. Hardbound, 1594489300)

This literary family saga, spanning thirty years of the early Meiji period, realistically conveys, in lush and intimate detail, the gradual process of cultural change sweeping through late 19th-century Japan. Nine-year-old orphan Aurelia Bernard arrives in Kyoto in 1866 with her uncle, a priest, on an unofficial Christian mission to the country. Fleeing when he becomes abusive, she takes refuge in the Baishian teahouse, and the tea master’s adolescent daughter, Yukako, unofficially adopts her. Given a new name, Urako, and obliged to learn a new language, Aurelia observes how the traditional Japanese tea ceremony – with Yukako’s help – must adapt to the ways of a newly modernized Japan. Avery adroitly captures the viewpoint of Aurelia, a young American woman who comes to love her adopted country, yet can never truly belong. A novel to lose yourself in.

Vanora Bennett, Portrait of an Unknown Woman. (Morrow, 2007. 417pp. Hardbound, 9780061256516)

Award-winning British journalist Bennett's first novel vividly evokes the changes wrought by the Protestant Reformation both in England and in the family of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII's pro-Catholic chancellor: a dangerous role to have when the king was contemplating divorce. Meg Giggs, More's intelligent adopted daughter, recounts her courtship with secretive John Clement, her family's former tutor; her dismay at More's role in rooting out heretics; and her changing relationship with Hans Holbein, the German painter hired to depict her family - and, later, the Tudors - on canvas. Two paintings done by Holbein of the More household, one in 1527 and the other seven years later, craftily reflect how King Henry's changing moods affected them all. A page-turning read about England at a time of great religious change. All of the major characters are historical figures.

David Blixt, The Master of Verona. (St. Martin’s Press, 2007. 569pp. Hardbound, 9780312361440)

In 1314, Pietro Alagheiri arrives in Verona, Italy, with his younger brother and father, the brilliant poet Dante, still in exile from Florence. At the court of Francesco “Cangrande” della Scala, Verona’s charismatic ruler, Pietro forms a strong bond of friendship with two young men, Mariotto Montecchi and Antonio Capecelatro. They remain inseparable until Mariotto falls in love with Antonio’s fiancĂ©e, the beautiful Gianozza. Meanwhile, Cangrande causes a scandal by bringing an infant boy to court, a child who may be his illegitimate son. This swashbuckling tale, complete with cinematic action scenes, creatively imagines the origins of the Montague-Capulet feud from Romeo and Juliet. It all plays out against a vivid, large-scale backdrop of early fourteenth-century Verona. Even if you know nothing about Shakespeare or Dante, The Master of Verona will make you want to find out.

Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death. (Putnam, 2007. 384pp. Hardbound, 9780399154140)

The Mistress of the Art of Death is Adelia Aguilar, a physician from Salerno, Italy, whose specialty is forensic investigations. In the late 12th century, Adelia arrives in Cambridge, England, to solve the murders of four children of the city. The Jews of Cambridge are being blamed, because they’re widely known to be child-murderers, but King Henry II believes in their innocence… or perhaps he just wants their tax revenues. Accompanying her are two assistants, a Jewish man with skills in detection and a Muslim whose assistant Adelia pretends to be. If it were known that a woman was the brains behind the operation, she’d be suspected of witchcraft. The author who writes as Ariana Franklin had to use a pseudonym to finally get the recognition she’s long deserved. Diana Norman's specialty is the medieval period, and she’s in fine form with this chilling psychological thriller, which has been described as CSI meets the Canterbury Tales.

Carla Kelly, Beau Crusoe. (Harlequin Historicals, 2007. 298pp. Paper, 9780373294398)

Susannah Park, a beautiful widow shunned by society after her scandalous elopement, lost her husband to a cholera epidemic in India seven years earlier. James Trevenen, a lifelong sailor, has just returned to London after spending five years stranded on a deserted tropical island. When Susannah’s godfather invites James for a visit to discuss their mutual interest in South Seas exploration and marine life, he hopes to make a match between him and Susannah. James, however, hides a secret that makes him unsuitable for marriage. Beau Crusoe isn't just the best romance I've read all year, but one of the most impressive historical romances I've ever read. Kelly never flinches from portraying the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the gradual revelations of James's South Sea experiences make this Regency romance far darker than most. Yet both James and Susannah are truly likeable people, with wit and intelligence to spare, and their growing relationship is touching and delightful to read about.

Peg Kingman, Not Yet Drown'd. (Norton, 2007. 428pp. Hardbound, 9780393065466)

When Catherine MacDonald, a young Scottish widow, receives a mysterious parcel one afternoon in 1822, it sends her on an irresistible quest to the far side of the world. Sandy, her twin brother, was reportedly killed a year earlier in a monsoon flood, but a sheaf of traditional bagpipe music sent to Catherine, curiously retitled "Not Yet Drown'd," appears to be in his own handwriting. Accompanied by her older brother Hector, her stepdaughter Grace, a runaway American slave, and an enigmatic Hindu maid, Catherine leaves Edinburgh aboard a ship transporting Hector's revolutionary new steamship engine to India. Along the way, she learns much about the East India Company's very profitable tea trade, the company she keeps, and the brother she hopes to find again at journey's end. With a lilting touch, Kingman combines dry humor with breathtaking descriptions of tea plantations and the countryside alongside India's interior waterways. It's a joy to experience Catherine's voyage of discovery firsthand and see how the world opens up before her.

Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Grave. (Mira, 2007. 509pp. Hardbound, 9780778324102)

It is 1886, and Sir Edward Grey has just collapsed and died during a dinner party at his London townhouse. The family doctor blames Edward's heart condition, and his wife, Julia, believes him - despite suggestions by Edward's debonair private enquiry agent, Nicholas Brisbane, that it was murder. Over a year later, Julia comes across compelling evidence that proves Brisbane was right. As the pair follows a trail that should have gone cold long ago, Julia uncovers unpleasant facts about her late husband's behavior, as well as surprising truths about herself. This gripping, fast-paced mystery balances its darker aspects with deft humor (in the form of Lady Julia's eccentric Victorian family) and more than a little romance. Great fun, and despite its length, you'll want to read it in one sitting. I look forward to spending more time with these quirky and fascinating people.

Mark Slouka, The Visible World. (Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 242pp. Hardbound, 0618756434)

An unnamed American man of Czech parentage grows up hearing only snippets of stories about his parents’ lives during World War II, and his mother’s possible love affair with a member of the Resistance – a man whose memory continues to haunt her. As an adult, the narrator travels through their homeland in search of answers to his mother's despondency, and his parents' secret past. Unable to discover the truth, he creates his own version about what may have happened. In a novel-within-a-novel, he pictures his mother as a young woman in love with a Czech soldier involved in the plot to assassinate SS leader Reinhard Heydrich. This is a poignant work about how we reinvent our past in order to survive, and how we use the power of stories to explain both the unknown and the unthinkable. The narrator's fact and fiction blur together well - probably a little too well - but it's a testament to the author's skill that I still remember individual lines from the novel, a year after reading it.

Tim Willocks, The Religion. (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2007. 618pp. Hardbound, 9780374248659)

I normally detest gory novels, and the blood runs thick and heavy here - there's no avoiding it - but I absolutely loved The Religion. Among panoramic epics about a major military siege, few can rival its scope, grandeur, and sheer storytelling power. Readers will also discover a touching, surprising romance in its pages, along with thoughtful meditations on history, war, and religious belief. In 1565, Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent calls for jihad against the Knights of St. John, the rulers of Malta, a small island that’s the last Christian stronghold in the Mediterranean. The Knights, who call themselves “the Religion,” prepare to defend Malta to the death. Carla la Penautier, a noblewoman exiled to Italy twelve years earlier for bearing an illegitimate child, asks German soldier-of-fortune Mattias Tannhauser to accompany her home to Malta to find her son. Meanwhile, the Knights plan to use Tannhauser’s presence there to lure him to their cause. Jacqueline Carey, quoted on the dust jacket, has it right: by the end, you will feel like you've lived through the Siege of Malta.

13 comments:

  1. Ah, now I'm going to have to add more books to my Amazon wish list!

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  2. Of these, the only one I have read is the Ariana Franklin, which I really enjoyed! I have had a couple of them on my TBR pile for a while now, and a the others are all new to me!

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  3. Mistress... has been on my TBR list. I think I'll bump it up!

    Have you read Simmons' THE TERROR? I saw it favorably reviewed in HNR, just wondering what your take was on it.

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  4. I haven't read The Terror, though I did really enjoy Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion when I read them ages ago. I'd say The Terror doesn't seem like my type of book, but then neither did The Religion or the two Hyperion novels, so... :)

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  5. Great choices, Sarah. Thanks for this. Some of these books I've read and loved; some you and I have corresponded about, and some I'd not heard about before. Thus, my 2008 To Buy list has officially begun. Happy holidays and new year to everyone!

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  6. I second the fabulousness of The Religion. I sang the praises of that book for weeks after I read it.

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  7. I'm looking forward to reading The Mistress of the Art of Death. Great list.

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  8. David Blixt9:15 AM

    I'm delighted and honored to be on the list. Thank you, and have a wonderful New Year.

    Cheers,
    DB

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  9. Nice choices. I am in the middle of Portrait of an Unknown Woman and cannot put it down!

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  10. My goodness, ALL these books look great...I want to read them all!

    I read Deanna Raybourn's "Silent in the Sanctuary" quite by accident. My daughter works at Borders, and the employees are allowed to take some of the complimentary copies that come in. She thought it looked like something I might like, and boy, did I! I pretty much didn't stop reading until I finished it. I definitely want to read her other books.

    Thanks for the list!

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  11. I'm really interested in reading "The Teahouse Fire". This sounds like a wonderful piece of work. It's really interesting to have a story set with an American girl/woman learning to adopt to a foreign culture/country. Usually stories are written about experiences which are the other way around: people of other cultures adopting to Western society. Sounds like a great read to me!

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  12. Nicole M2:31 PM

    I haven't heard of any of those books but in reading the reviews I'm especially excited to pick up The Religion, sounds like a phenomenal read!

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