Saturday, December 31, 2016

Some highlights from a year of reading - 2016

I debated whether to post a list of 2016 favorites.  Choosing from among those I'd read in the last year proved challenging, and I spent way too much time dithering over a list.  In the end, I decided I'd already made my decisions via Goodreads, so I should stick to it.

Goodreads has a nice display of my 2016 Year in Books.  I didn't meet my challenge of 100 books read, instead getting to just 94 (Goodreads says 89, but I didn't track manuscripts I'd read for friends, which aren't in the system anyway, or books I'd read as an award judge).  For my choices on which to highlight in this post, I counted only books first published in 2016.

Okay, enough disclaimers.  Here are the 10 books I'd rated as five-star reads in 2016, arranged in no particular order.

Natashia Deón, Grace - A deeply affecting novel about motherhood and freedom in the antebellum South, as seen from the viewpoint of an enslaved woman murdered just after her daughter's birth.  Brave, unflinching, and memorable.

Sarit Yishai-Levi, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem - This debut novel from an Israeli author became an international bestseller in  its original Hebrew.  It involved me fully in the daily lives, hopes, and sufferings of four generations of Sephardi Jewish women in 20th-century Jerusalem.

Brad Watson, Miss Jane - A beautifully contemplative novel about a woman from early 20th-century Mississippi (based on the author's great-aunt) who was born with an unusual medical condition that precludes marriage but seizes what joy she can from life all the same.

Suzanne Wolfe, The Confessions of X - This imagined autobiography of the unnamed mistress of Augustine of Hippo is a poetic work of art, literary historical fiction set during an age -- the shadowy fourth century AD -- about which few historical novels are written.

Jennifer S. Brown, Modern Girls - In this warmhearted yet realistic novel, an immigrant mother and her Americanized daughter in 1930s NYC both find themselves unhappily pregnant. It's full of wonderful details on Jewish life and customs at the time.

Emma Donoghue, The Wonder - In 1859, an English nurse travels to rural Ireland to investigate the case of a "fasting girl" and discovers a potential crime-in-progress. Devout Catholicism mixes with folk superstition in my vote for the most affecting, suspenseful read of the year.

Mary Sharratt, The Dark Lady's Mask - The imagined relationship between English poet Aemilia Lanyer and William Shakespeare; the author always has insightful things to say about historical women's roles and accomplishments.

Mary F. Burns, Ember Days - On the cusp of the 1960s, life-changing secrets emerge among the residents of the small coastal town of Mendocino, California. There are many characters and viewpoints, all distinct, and their religious beliefs, carefully interwoven without preachiness, allow for an abiding sense of hope.

Weina Dai Randel, The Moon in the Palace - This debut novel about the younger years of the future Empress Wu presents a young girl's transition into womanhood at the imperial court of 7th-century China.  Far from a standard tale of royal intrigue, the writing provides entrance into a formal yet sumptuous world.

Catherine Banner, The House on the Edge of Night - A near century-spanning epic set on the fictional isle off the Sicilian coast, Banner's debut novel combines the lively style of a folk tale with the realism of a meaty historical saga.  I found it engrossing and would love to visit Castellamare in person.

And there we have it, with just six hours to spare until the New Year.  Thanks very much for following this site, and I hope the next year will bring you lots of good reading!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Historical fiction paperback makeovers, part two

I always like examining and discussing historical novel cover art.  The following ten pairings include the hardcover jacket design and the corresponding cover redesign for the paperback (mostly from 2016, with a couple from 2015).  In most cases, the books are considered literary fiction, and the images reflect this: they're elegant, bold, dramatic, and original.  The paperbacks incorporate the novels' themes while conveying a more approachable feel, with the increased usage of human figures and readily identifiable tropes. Dictator, for instance, uses a look that implies "ancient-world historical adventure."  That's my impression, anyway.  What do you think of these makeovers?

Part 1 in this series, from August 2015, can be seen here.

Elizabeth, New Jersey, during one tragedy-filled season in the 1950s.

The Biblical story of King David, as seen from multiple viewpoints.

A female pugilist's story in Georgian Britain.

Third and final novel in the Cicero trilogy, set in ancient Rome.

The lives of wealthy expatriates Sara and Gerald Murphy on the French Riviera in the 1920s.

The lives in a family of mixed faith (Jewish-Christian) in Berlin during
the WWI years and Jazz Age. 

The fateful voyage of the Hindenburg in 1937, from the viewpoint of its passengers. 

The relationship between sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. 

 A multi-generational saga about a Jewish family, set along the Connecticut
shoreline in the 1940s.

The story of Loretta Young and Clark Gable during Hollywood's Golden Age.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Aimie K. Runyan's Duty to the Crown, second in a saga of early French Canada

In my review of the first book in Aimie K. Runyan’s trilogy about the women of New France’s Quebec settlement in the 17th century, Promised to the Crown, I’d written that “the latter part of the book appears to head into saga territory.” This turned out to be a good prediction for the second book, Duty to the Crown. It opens in 1677, about half a generation later, and focuses on three women of very different upbringing, and who aren’t particularly close, but who are drawn together as their circumstances change.

Manon Lefebvre, a young Huron woman who had been raised as a foster daughter in a well-to-do colonial household, had returned to her home village but must reinvent her life after she’s suddenly expelled from it. The painful realities of a woman’s lot in this French frontier community are exemplified through the story of Gabrielle Giroux. A talented seamstress who had escaped a rough family environment, she marries a stranger to save her guardians the large fine they’d incur if she doesn’t find a husband by age sixteen. Lastly, Claudine Deschamps, Manon’s spoiled foster sister and the younger sister of Nicole from the first book, undergoes trials that transform her character.

The story excels at depicting the women’s emotional growth over the novel’s three-year span. They rely on one another for support when men or the law abandons them to their fates, which happens quite often. It’s made clear how directly their happiness, or lack thereof, is tied to the men they wed. In a close-knit community like Quebec, an unmarried woman can lose her good reputation after one thoughtless act, while a Rouen farmer’s daughter can become very wealthy and gain social status through her marriage to a local seigneur. By now, the women and their families aren’t new immigrants, but settlers who think of Quebec as their home, and their mindset reflects that.

The larger political and economic events shaping French Canada aren’t as prominent as they were in the first book; the settlers’ world seems very self-contained. However, the author strikes a good balance among the lives of the colonial elite, with their richly appointed homes and gowns, and those of average settlers and the Huron peoples.  This lively and entertaining saga is written with a light touch. The women’s domestic concerns are paramount, and the joys and misfortunes they experience are evoked in an affecting way. I felt personally involved in their lives and am eager to see where their families’ stories lead from here.

Duty to the Crown was published by Kensington in November.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Best of historical fiction lists from various venues

'Tis that time of year when "best of" lists are appearing at different bookish sites. Many such lists exist, but most don't divide the books by genre, or if they do, historical fiction isn't one of them.  There are a few I've found, though, that include a category for historical novels.  Am I missing any others?

The 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction went to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, a worthy choice.  There are a few neat things about this list.  First, the voting is open to everyone with a Goodreads account.  Second, you can see how many votes the winner and nominees received. Third, the end result makes for a nice mixture of literary and genre fiction, for those who categorize books that way. Fourth, for me personally, it's always one of the few prizes (if not the only one) where I've actually read a number of the nominees.

It helps that there are 20 altogether, and I've read five:  in addition to The Underground Railroad, there's Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, Weina Dai Randel's The Moon in the Palace, Kathleen Grissom's Glory Over Everything, and Jennifer S. Brown's Modern Girls.

Next, NPR's Book Concierge, their guide to 2016's great reads, gathers all of the books tagged "historical fiction" in a gallery of covers.  Both adult books and YAs are included.  The Wonder is included here too, along with Rose Tremain's The Gustav Sonata.  There are a few here I've never heard of before and look like potentials for the TBR.

Library Journal 's Best Genre Fiction selections include a Historical Fiction category, with five books chosen.  Among these, the only one I've read is Natashia Deon's Grace, which I agree belongs on a top 5 list.

Addendum: thanks to my Bloglovin feed, I just found one more.  Booktopia, an Australian bookstore, has a six-book shortlist for the best historical fiction reads of the year, as well as the winner, Melissa Ashley's The Birdman's Wife.  And some of the books on their lists for literary and popular fiction are historical, too.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin, a literary love story set in Belle Époque Paris

They meet while aloft in a hot air balloon over Paris in 1887. Caitriona Wallace is an impoverished Glaswegian widow acting as chaperone to the wealthy Arrol siblings as they travel Europe on their Grand Tour. One of Gustave Eiffel’s engineers, Émile Nouguier needs to marry among his class to please his mother and bolster the family finances.

Although Alice Arrol is a naive teenager, she’s a potential match for Émile, but he finds himself more intrigued by Cait. However, in returning his affections, Cait would be choosing passion over honor.

Their beautifully restrained love story, told in a refreshingly unhurried manner and grounded in the era’s social constraints, gains complexity as Alice and her brother, Jamie, rebel against their expected roles. Nouguier is a historical figure, and readers get a close-up perspective on the Eiffel Tower’s step-by-step construction.

Drawn with care and suffused with stylish ambiance, Colin’s (The Glimmer Palace, 2008) Paris is a city of painters, eccentric aristocrats, desperate prostitutes, secret lovers, and the magnificent artistic vision taking shape high above them. Devotees of the Belle Époque should relish it.

To Capture What We Cannot Keep was published by Flatiron Books in late November (hardcover, 304pp, $25.99).  This review first appeared in Booklist's 10/1 issue.

There are two other things I should say explicitly about this book: it's a work of historical literary fiction, and although a love story forms an important part of the plot, it's not a romance by genre. Readers expecting more of a traditional romance will likely find the pacing too slow for their tastes. Also, as with other literary novels, the characterizations are complex, subtle, and multi-layered.  The cover is great and fitting, but the title doesn't really do it for me. It feels like it was chosen to appeal to the many fans of All the Light We Cannot See.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Historical novels by Australian women writers for #AWW2016, and on to 2017

I'm wrapping up my second year of participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  Now that I'm part of the associated Facebook group, I'm seeing the impressive reading accomplishments of the other participants, which far surpass mine, but I'm pleased to have met my 2016 goal of six books read, four reviewed.  I reviewed all six, which are as follows:

The Wife's Tale by Christine Wells, a dual-time romance/mystery set in modern and Georgian England.

The Memory Stones by Caroline Brothers, literary fiction about what happens to an Argentine family during the country's Dirty War.

Call to Juno by Elisabeth Storrs, the final book in her trilogy set in ancient Rome and Etruria.

The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay, a literary novel about the aftermath of loss, set in the Australian seaside town of Thirroul beginning in 1948.

Daughter of Albion by Ilka Tampke, a gritty historical fantasy set in first-century England.  In the UK and Australia, the title is Skin.

And the final review was for a book-length literary study on the historical fiction genre by Gillian Polack, History and Fiction: Writers, Their Research, Worlds, and Stories, which I reviewed for the nonfiction section of November's Historical Novels Review.

Thinking about it, I'm realizing I actually read seven that fit.  The one which I didn't review (because I read it on vacation) was Barbara Hannay's The Secret Years, which uses the popular multi-era format to tell the story of a north Queensland family from WWII to the present.  It used to be on sale for Kindle in the US but isn't any longer.

I've also signed up again for 2017; I have plenty of books by Australian women writers waiting on my physical and virtual shelves to be read.  I'm especially eager to get my hands on Lucy Treloar's Salt Creek, which finally came back in stock at Fishpond.  With everything I'm assigned to read by various publications, I'm not sure if I can make it past my 2016 goal, but we'll see.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Christina Courtenay's The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight, a step back in time to historic Raglan Castle

Coincidentally, this title came up for review while I was planning a trip to Raglan Castle in South Wales, and it turned out to be a perfect introduction to the site. It’s a well-written dual-time romance partly set against a pivotal episode of English Civil War history: the 1646 siege of Raglan, which was among the last Royalist strongholds to fall to Parliamentary forces. Today the castle is a picturesque ruin.

Tess, the young Countess of Merrick, is the likeable present-day heroine. A talented furniture artist, she gained her title by marrying her estranged late husband, Giles, a compulsive gambler who was killed in a drunk-driving accident. Because of his habit, she has little money to spare. The estate was entailed, so Tess expects to vacate Merrick Court once Giles’s closest heir is found and moves in. He turns out to be Josh Owens, a handsome Kiwi adventurer. Initially Josh wants to sell the place, but he comes to find rural Welsh farm life appealing. He finds Tess appealing, too.

The time-shifts are smoothly handled. Tess and Josh begin seeing ghosts and tapping into the past through the eyes of a 1640s-era couple who seem to be warning them about something. Arabella Dauncey, the dispossessed heiress of Merrick Court, lives at nearby Raglan Castle as the Marquis of Worcester’s ward. Rhys Cadell, a Cavalier knight, cares for her but is unsure of her loyalties.

Courtenay provides wonderful visual details of the castle interior in its elegant former state. Readers are carried along on a daring moonlight ride and experience the siege as living spaces become overcrowded and Fairfax’s large New Model Army gathers outside, its cannonballs destroying Raglan’s walls piece by piece. Family squabbles, rumors of lost treasure, and a couple of nasty villains add to the entertaining plotline.

The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight was published in 2016 by Choc Lit ($11.99/£7.99).  It's volume 4 of the Shadows from the Past series.  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review magazine.

And here are some pics of Raglan Castle, taken on the gray, drizzly morning of September 9, 2016. There were very few other tourists there, so there was ample room for exploring.

The approach to Raglan Castle (photo by me), under gray skies

The picturesque ruins of Raglan, with the South Wales
countryside in the background (photo by Mark)

An interior doorway and stairway, with historical marker (photo by me)