Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking back on 2014: A dozen excellent historical reads

This is another of those "favorite books" posts that have been springing up on numerous blogs at the end of the year.  I thought about coming up with 10, but that was too difficult, so I decided on a dozen and choosing even those was a challenge.

According to Goodreads, I read 109 books during 2014, and most were strong, good-looking, and above average.  A fair many were excellent, and if I thought about my picks even more, I might have come up with a different list.  These are all books I read during the last year, even if they were published earlier, or will be published later.

I found it interesting to see there isn't much overlap with the Goodreads list for Best Historical Fiction, as voted on by readers.  I've read only five of the 20 finalists, and just two (My Name Is Resolute and Secret Life of Violet Grant) made it to my list.  Another, Emma Donoghue's Frog Music, was outstanding, but I read it as an ARC in 2013. 

Hope you all had a good reading year, and I'm looking forward to the new crop of books in 2015. Thanks for reading along with me.

And now for the list.  The links lead to my reviews of the books, if they exist.

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Knopf, 2014). Boyden’s mesmerizing third novel sits at the confluence of three civilizations in 17th-century Ontario: the French, the Iroquois, and the Huron (Wendat). Despite the cultures’ disparate beliefs, the author remains clear-sighted and impartial, and the scenes of Native spirituality are beautifully rendered.

Alix Christie, Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Harper, 2014). This gorgeously written debut, an inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation set in the cathedral city of fifteenth-century Mainz, dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible. I hadn’t heard of Peter Schoeffer or his important historical role before this, and it was a revelation.

Charles Finch, The Laws of Murder (Minotaur, 2014). Set in 1876 London and featuring gentleman detective Charles Lenox as he gets pulled into a Scotland Yard investigation with links to his own past, this stellar mystery is chock full of atmosphere and twisty, dramatic surprises. I jumped into Finch's series with this 8th volume without much trouble.

C. W. Gortner, Mademoiselle Chanel (William Morrow, 2015). Disclaimer: the author is a good friend, and I read this as a manuscript. That said, I honestly feel this is his best novel yet, an engrossing story of 20th-century designer Coco Chanel: her career successes, her love affairs, her hidden vulnerabilities. For those weary of “famous guy’s wife” novels, many of which explore unfulfilled ambitions, this convincing vision of a driven, powerful woman is an ideal antidote.

Alexis Landau, Empire of the Senses (Pantheon, 2015). I’ll be reviewing this later on so won’t say very much about it now. This ARC arrived with little fanfare (plain tan cover, no other material), but I was immediately swept into an absorbing saga about a family of mixed faith living in WWI-era and late 1920s Berlin.

Laurie Loewenstein, Unmentionables (Akashic, 2014). This warmhearted, involving work, situated gracefully in small-town Illinois and overseas during the WWI years, depicts a wide range of social concerns as people's minds are opened to new, previously hidden possibilities.

Rett MacPherson, Sleeping the Churchyard Sleep (Word Posse, 2014). When Olivia VanBibber and her brother bring a plate of their great-aunt’s fried chicken over to the home of a newly arrived stranger, their surprising friendship transforms her world – and eventually pulls her into a genealogical mystery. A warm-hearted, stereotype-free portrait of 1950s West Virginia, and the witty, forthright narrative voice of Olivia (a polio survivor who uses a wheelchair) is irresistible.

Marschel Paul, The Spirit Room (Wasteland Press, 2013). This epic about two teenage sisters’ coming of age in 1850s New York State, set against a vivid backdrop of quirky social fads and dark situations, is a fabulous read for fans of American women’s history. I picked this up on a whim when I was supposed to be reading something else and got drawn right in.

Stephanie Thornton, The Tiger Queens (NAL, 2014). A lengthy, immersive read about the extraordinary women who supported Genghis Khan and strengthened his kingdom. It’s full of fascinating detail about 12th-century Mongolia yet the plot moves forward with unstoppable momentum.

Nancy E. Turner, My Name Is Resolute (St. Martin’s, 2014). Resolute Catherine Eugenia Talbot (a fictional character) reveals the story of her eventful life, from her Jamaican childhood through her involvement in the lead-up to the American Revolution. Full of adventure, romance, and unexpected surprises, her account remains captivating throughout its nearly 600 pages.

Various, A Day of Fire (Knight Media, 2014). Six well-known historical authors – Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, and Vicky Alvear Shecter – got together to collaborate on a high-concept novel set in Pompeii at the time of its destruction in 79 AD. This gets my vote for “most creative.” Their stories interlock perfectly, and if you seek out fiction set in the ancient world, it’s not to be missed.

Beatriz Williams, The Secret Life of Violet Grant (Putnam, 2014). A dual-period novel – you might call it a historical mystery-thriller-romance – set in WWI-era Oxford and Berlin and also in 1960s Manhattan. The cheeky, whip-smart voice of Vivian Schuyler, a young woman caught up in solving the mystery of her the great-aunt she never knew, won me over completely.

27 comments:

  1. Lovely recommendations, I've added a few of them to my wishlist. Happy reading in 2015!

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    1. Thanks, Sam, happy reading to you too! Hope 2015 is a great year for you.

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  2. I've only read one of the books on your list -- The Orenda, which made my 2013 best books list. I'm going to have to check out the others. I will be reading The Tiger Queens early in 2015, and am very much looking forward to it.

    Happy New Year!

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    1. The Orenda seems to have flown under the radar in the US; I haven't seen it on many "best of" lists yet, which I figure is because it hasn't been as widely read. It was excellent, though. I'll be curious what you think of Tiger Queens.

      Happy 2015 to you too!

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  3. Thanks so much for this wonderful list. Happy New Year!

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    1. Thanks, Kathryn, hope you have a wonderful New Year!

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  4. Thanks for the list, Sarah! I've been meaning to read My Name is Resolute and The Apprentice, and of course I'm looking forward to Mademoiselle Chanel. The Orenda sounds fascinating! Here's to a new year of reading!

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    1. i haven't heard of any of these books, except Tiger Queens, which was reviewed on another blog. Point taken about famous-guy's-wife novels, though some were written by the likes of Barbara Hambly, a wonderful writer of both fantasy fiction and historical crime novels set in New Orleans. :-)

      Interesting to look at the Goodreads list. The only book there of which I had heard was The Narrow Road To The Deep North, which won the Man Booker but got very few votes from Goodreaders. You can't tell people what to like, I guess, but I do intend to read it when ?I get through my pile of Aurealis Award entries and review books.

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    2. I'm going to check your list out more closely, Julianne, since I only had a chance to skim it at work yesterday. Hope it's a great year of reading for you too!

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    3. Hi Sue, I've enjoyed many novels that follow the "wife" trend and will undoubtedly read many more, though there have been a lot of them lately! I read Hambly's novel about Mary Lincoln some years ago. She didn't have an easy life.

      Narrow Road to the Deep North is literary fiction about a difficult period of history, so I'm not surprised it wasn't as popular as some others, but it did make the GR list, which was nice to see. I've had an ARC for a while and hope to read it at some point, once the to-review pile is under control. (I have three assignments due before Jan 15th so need to get cracking.) That's great you're involved with the Aurealis Awards. I was on an awards committee once, and it was a rewarding experience, but a lot of work!

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  5. The only historical novel -- maybe just about the only novel at all -- I was able to read all the way through this year was Sharon Kay Penman's A King's Ransom.

    I read so much history and related non-fiction there just was no juice for fiction, I guess.

    I did read all three of the massive volumes of Blotner's massive biography of William Faulkner -- and those were at least as entertaining in content as fiction! They were informative historically too, of course. :) Most of all they took all three months of the summer to read!

    Happy New Year -- looking forward to reading your blog in 2015!

    Love, C.

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    1. I need to get caught up with Penman, since I haven't read the book previous to King's Random, either. Apart from that, I've read all she's written.

      I looked up Blotner's volumes on Amazon - they are indeed massive! And they look incredibly detailed and informative.

      Hope all's going well with the publication process for your own non-fiction, and all best wishes for 2015!

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    2. Thank you! Yah, things are going well -- so far! -- with all the nudgy finalities of the pre-pub process. Publishers were even so kind as to send along the last part of the advance last month, so we had to pay 2014 taxes on the sum rather than they paying the taxes on it for 2014. :) Still on the schedule for fall 2015 release. This book is as massive as a Blotner volume -- but there's only one volume at least!

      Love, C.

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  6. Love and trust your blog. Thanks for the list. I loved Unmentionables, recommended it to others. Several more of your favorites are either on my wish list or the TBR. One of my favorites of 2014 is The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Happy New Year!

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    1. Thanks, Linda! I appreciate your comments and glad you've been enjoying the blog. Thanks also for the recommendation of Invention of Wings, which I've heard many good things about. I've had a copy sitting here for ages, and since our reading tastes are similar, I'm sure I'll enjoy it too.

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  7. Another great year of reading coming up, thanks to Reading the Past's insights and vitality! Happy New Year!

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    1. Thanks, Alex, happy new year to you too!

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  8. The Tiger Queens sounds right up my interest alley, Sarah. I’ve added it and a couple of others here to my, as usual, over-ambitious list. I wish I could read as fast as you! 100 books read in a year is quite a feat!
    Looking forward to your recommendations in 2015.

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    1. Hi Cynthia, I know the feeling - the floor around my desk (piles and piles of as-yet-unread books) shows how over-ambitious I was last year. Living in the middle of nowhere gives me more reading time than I'd undoubtedly have otherwise, but I still have a lot I've been meaning to get to!

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  9. "Narrow Road to the Deep North" was a standout for me - Flangan's searing, luminous prose illuminates the fragile, tender humanity of all the particpants in his harrowing tale.

    I also loved "Day of Fire". I enjoy collections of stories based on a theme- the "Medieval Murderers" mysteries are great fun- but the many faceted yet seamless nature of this collection is exceptional.

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    1. You know, I've yet to read one of the Medieval Murderers' collaborative mysteries and am not quite sure why. I have the impression the stories have a common theme/object but different characters - is that right?

      Day of Fire seems to have been a great success all around! I wonder if a larger publisher will come calling, wanting to snap it up.

      Have you read any others by Richard Flanagan? His novel Wanting has always intrigued me.

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  10. Yes, the "Medieval Murderers" mysteries have a common theme, but don't necessarily feature the same characters. Each story in a collection takes the theme through a different historical period.

    No, sorry - I haven't read "Wanting", though have read Flanagan's "Sound of One Hand Clapping" and "Gould's Book of Fish". And though I was personally wowed by "Narrow Road to the Deep North", I'd be the first to say that it isn't for the faint-hearted or those who prefer a HEA ending. It is tragedy in the classic sense, where the actions of a flawed hero shape the lives of those around him. To quote one reviewer: "Flanagan's triumph is to find poetry without any pity at all".

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    1. Thanks for the additional information - I'll be prepared! Although I didn't really expect an HEA from a literary novel with the Death Railway as a subject. I still want to read it, nonetheless. Gould's Book of Fish also sounded intriguing. It passed through my hands only briefly, but I remember some original turns of phrase, and also (more superficially) that parts of it were printed with colored ink. It made me wonder why.

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  11. I love your "lists" posts! My Name is Resolute was in my top 3 this year. It was great. I also really enjoyed The Secret Life of Violet Grant. I'm currently reading the Tiger Queens and I recently purchased A Day of Fire. I think I got it for a low price on Kindle. Thanks for all of the wonderful recommendations. I look forward to next years posts! : )

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    1. Thanks, Debbie - it sounds like we have very similar tastes. Day of Fire did just go on sale on Kindle - it's an excellent deal :) I read it for a blog tour but ended up buying a real version to read since I really liked the cover!

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  12. Thanks for the list! I have some of these same books on my list to read for 2015 and hope to tackle them this year. It is always nice to see other lovers of Historical fiction tempted and partaking of the same tasty tales as the followers on my blog Historical Fiction Addicts.

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    1. I agree - it's fun to compare notes with other bloggers and see what titles we agree on. Thanks for telling me about your blog. I've just linked it up on my sidebar and look forward to reading more of your thoughts on historical fiction.

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