Monday, April 11, 2011

International book pile

I'm taking a break from the controlled chaos known as National Library Week to finish writing up a post I've had in draft since mid-March (ack).

Over the last little while, I've had some book purchases arrive at my door, and I hope to showcase more of these in upcoming posts.  The historical novels in the pile below come from around the world, five of them via English translations. I didn't have to travel far to get them, though; all were bought from Amazon US with the exception of the Haasse and Falcones, which came from Book Depository.

Sally Armstrong's The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (Vintage Canada, 2008) is historically-based fiction written by the title character's 3x-great granddaughter.  Armstrong imagines her ancestor's life, tracing her journey from 1775 England to the West Indies to northern New Brunswick, where she takes refuge with the Mi'kmaq.  The cover says "national bestseller," so Canadian readers will likely know it already, though I just discovered it recently.

I finished Oliver P√∂tzsch's The Hangman's Daughter (AmazonCrossing, 2010) two days ago.  Who'd have thought a 400-page historical mystery set in a small town in 17th-c Bavaria would be a bestseller in America?  It's published by AmazonCrossing, Amazon's new imprint for translated fiction, and I understand they've been advertising it to Kindle readers... so the word has spread quickly.  It's proved so popular that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has snapped up print rights to it and its three sequels, for publication beginning this August. In his tale of serial murder and supposed witchcraft in 1659 Schongau, the author keeps a steady balance between the setting's grim reality and the warm-hearted humanity of his main characters.  First published in Germany in 2008.

Margaret Sweatman's The Players (Goose Lane, 2009) is another Canadian find, "a voyage of discovery straddling libertine Restoration England and Canada's northern wilds" that follows actress Lilly Cole from the English stage across the Atlantic. The 17th-century is one of my favorite periods to read about, and this looked like a new perspective on the era.

We're moving into doorstop territory now.  Lin Zhe's Old Town (AmazonCrossing, 2010) is another book from the online bookseller's translation imprint.  To select titles for its catalog, Amazon looks at bestselling titles from its international stores and, based on their contents and ratings, decides which are likely to succeed as English translations.  Lin Zhe is described as "one of China's foremost authors," and this is her saga covering a century of change in that country over three generations.  I love long novels with family trees, and based on the two printed in the first few pages, Old Town looks to have a lot of personality.  There's an "Eldest Sister" who marries a guy named "Rotten Egg" Zhang, and under the name of "Second Son," there's a note that says "ran off with prostitute."  I look forward to reading their stories.

It's been over ten years since I've had the pleasure of reading one of Hella Haasse's novels; unfortunately I'm not fluent in Dutch.  Her In a Dark Wood Wandering, set in 15th-c France, is a favorite, though I admit I never got on well with her Threshold of Fire (5th-c Rome).  The Tea Lords (Portobello, 2010) is set amidst the Dutch colonial experience in the East Indies in the early years of the 20th century.  First published in Dutch in 1992. That's a very long time to wait for a translation, though at least we got one.

Dalene Matthee was a well-known South African writer, and her Pieternella, Daughter of Eva (Penguin  South Africa, 2008) tells the story of the first white settlement in the Cape of Good Hope.  Pieternella was a mixed-race child, the daughter of a Dutch surgeon and a woman of the Hottentot tribe, and Matthee's novel is based on a true story.  See the author's website for more. This is a translation from Afrikaans.

The nearly 900-page The Hand of Fatima (Doubleday UK, 2011) is Spanish writer Ildefonso Falcones's latest novel, following his bestseller Cathedral of the Sea.  I'm probably crazy buying a novel this long, given my growing TBR pile, but I couldn't resist a novel set in the Kingdom of Granada in 1564, about the extended conflict between the Moors and Christians.  I had this on preorder from Book Depository for nearly a year, and it finally arrived last week.

Sorry if you're seeing a duplicate post in your RSS reader.  This posted once before I was done writing!


  1. What a great pile, Sarah. Every one of the books listed sound good. The two Canadian books you've listed are of particular interest to me, as I'm always on the lookout for historical fiction set in Canada. I admit to not having heard of the Sally Armstrong book, despite it being a bestseller here.

  2. The Sally Armstrong book was really quite good. I was surprised. I read it a couple years ago. I didn't know it was quite that popular, but I am glad. :) Now, the other Canadian book you mentioned I have not heard of and now I want to read it. Off to see if I can easily get a copy. :)

  3. I actually just recently tried to get through In a Dark Wood Wandering and failed miserably. It seemed to be all nitty-gritty details on character's personalities, but no real historical context into what was going on. At least, I felt like that, having very little knowledge of French history at that time. I don't know if I can try another Haasse book for a while after that experience, but I'm glad if you like her that she is being translated :-)

  4. "Tea Lords" is apparently almost faction, in that quite a bit of it is based on actual private letters and journals. Hasse said "The Tea Lords is a novel, but it is not fiction".

    It's described as being very much in the family saga tradition of some years ago, not surprising since it was originally written in 1992 and only now made available in English translation.

  5. Kailana and Annis - that's encouraging! Those (the Armstrong and Haasse) are the sorts of stories I like best... historical novels about real but little-known people.

    The Tea Lords translation has been in the works for a while... I read about a deal for it some time ago. That makes four translations of her novels. I wish there were more.

    AR - I look for HF set in Canada too, and I enjoy frontier/settlement fiction in general, so these looked like good bets. If you read one, let me know what you think!

    Aarti - I remember your writeup of it! Sounded like a writing style mismatch. It's true, Dark Wood doesn't make it easy for those without prior knowledge of the Hundred Years' War and the complicated family relationships... it's also rather contemplative and melancholy.

  6. Do you mean 1464 rather than 1564? Because by 1564 the Kingdom of Granada had been gone for about 72 years, thanks to Isabella and Ferdinand concluding the wars of what Spain calls the Reconquista.

    Typos, they are so easy, so insidious!

    Love, C.

  7. I can understand why that would be the natural guess, but it's actually not a typo. The conflict in the book is the Morisco Revolt beginning in 1568; the Kingdom of Granada at the time is a territory of Castile, but still referred to by that name in contemporary records.

  8. O-Kaye! The Moriscos! And so, we got the Barbary Pirates, that scourge of the Med and even to the Irish coasts for taking slaves!

    That forced removal from Southern Spain was akin to the Trail of Tears for its cruelty and barbarism.


    Love, c.

  9. Ooh, I want to read that one on the Moriscos. I'm just now reading Andrew Wheatcroft's Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, and really enjoyed the chapters on Spain.

    I read and really enjoyed The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor. Sally Armstrong is a former editor of Homemaker's magazine, which, despite its domestic name, was actually a very feminist mag under her tenure - she went to Afghanistan in 99 or 2000, and wrote about the situation of women there, before 9/11 made such issues trendy.

  10. What diversity! I often feel like there isn't enough international representation in the historical fiction category, despite most countries having plenty of high-quality home-grown historical fiction writers. Nice to see some books making their way to English.

  11. I just read The Tea Lords last week. It's a very good read.

  12. I just found your post about it, Tiina, and am glad you enjoyed it. I hope to get to it soon.

    I wish more historicals were translated into English. After my visit to Germany last fall I came home determined to learn German well enough to read all the titles in the historical fiction section in bookstores... I had major linguistic envy :)

    Thanks for the background on Sally Armstrong, Heather - that's now several recommendations for her novel. I need to take a sabbatical just to read all these books!

  13. Anonymous10:44 AM

    "I couldn't resist a novel set in the Kingdom of Granada in 1564, about the extended conflict between the Moors and Christians."

    Hah! Spoken like a true historical fiction geek! We all understand what you are feeling here. It would be very interesting to have readers post what they couldn't resist. Mine would be set in 17th or 18th century, or WWI period . . .

    Sarah Other Librarian

  14. Things that I have trouble resisting: historical settings that hardly anyone else has written about. The 900 pages did give me pause, though.

  15. Thanks for all these great suggestions, Sarah! Can't wait to get my hands on several of them.