Friday, December 29, 2023

Short takes on nine historical fiction titles I read in 2023 but haven't reviewed here yet

For my last post of 2023, I'm taking a look back at some novels I'd read over the last twelve months but didn't get around to reviewing at the time. I fit all of these in between review assignments since sometimes I need a break, preferring to read without the necessity of taking notes.  Still, all of these are books I'd highly recommend, so I wanted to write about them, at least briefly.  All were personal purchases or library copies.

Good reading to all of you in the New Year!

Daughter of Providence, Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant, Florence Grace cover images

In Julie Drew’s Daughter of Providence, which I bought right after its publication in 2011, a privileged young woman in 1934 coastal Rhode Island discovers how much of her family history has been kept from her. The first surprise is the arrival of her young half-sister, Maria Cristina, who she learns was the product of her late mother’s affair with a man who shared her Portuguese background. A moving coming-of-age story echoing with themes of parental abandonment, labor unrest, family secrets, and reconnecting to one’s heritage.

Countless historical novels use long-hidden love letters to cinch the connection between two parallel narratives. Kayte Nunn’s The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant, set on the Isles of Scilly near Cornwall, shows how a talented author can revitalize this trope and make it distinctive and unexpected. Moving between the early 1950s and 2018, the story evokes the rustic coastal beauty of its isolated setting as it follows a marine scientist’s uncovering of a young mother’s forced stay at an island sanitarium.

A blurb on the back of Tracy Rees’ Florence Grace (from fellow novelist Joanna Courtney) describes it as “so very wise, as if it contains half the answers to life.” The quote is actually accurate. Florrie Buckley, an orphaned teenager from a remote corner of Cornwall in 1850, comes into a surprising inheritance and moves to join her newfound relatives in London, where she slowly adjusts to upper-class ways and forms new relationships but remains uniquely herself. Full of entertaining personalities and the protagonist’s lively narration, with a good balance of light and dark.

The First Ladies, Lone Women, Firelight Rising covers

After teaming up for Belle da Costa Greene’s story in The Personal Librarian, which I loved, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray join forces again for The First Ladies, a dual perspective take on the close friendship between American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Black civil rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, nicknamed the “First Lady of the Struggle.” Their interracial bond was controversial, and the authors take a nuanced look at how the pair learn from each other as they make mistakes, grow, and unite to promote equality and justice.

Victor LaValle’s dark historical fantasy Lone Women opens with a shocker: Adelaide Henry, daughter in a Black farming family in 1915 California, flees the scene of her parents’ brutal murder for a homesteading site in Montana, toting a painfully heavy trunk too dangerous to be opened. Let’s just say I had questions. As a “lone woman” in a harsh environment, Adelaide must form alliances with other would-be settlers but needs to discover who to trust. Inventive and not for the squeamish, this novel is a defiantly original take on the multicultural settlement of the American West.

Anyone who’s traveled to the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne in Northumberland knows it’s a special place. First in a trilogy, Johanna Craven’s Firelight Rising takes place there in 1715, as Eva Blake, her siblings, and their families have grudgingly returned after two decades' absence, just as an underground Jacobite movement is stirring. As the Blakes restore their decrepit home, they contend with mysteries of the past and present-day dangers. A highly atmospheric story brimming with romance and mystery and a stellar sense of place.

Exile, The Pilot's Daughter, The Weight of Ink covers

Historical Stories of Exile is an anthology of thirteen short stories, each taking a different angle on its theme. All of the authors are talented historical novelists, and their contributions provide an appealing assortment of settings. Among my favorites were Anna Belfrage’s “The Unwanted Prince,” the heartbreaking true story of a young boy forced to part from his home and loving mother; Cryssa Bazos’ “The Exiled Heart,” retelling the love story between Prince Rupert of the Palatinate and his jailer’s daughter in Austria; Elizabeth St.John’s “Into the Light,” a 17th-century tale of religious disharmony and new beginnings; and Amy Maroney’s “Last Hope for a Queen,” evoking the valiant spirit of Queen Charlotta of Cyprus in the 15th century.

The Pilot’s Daughter by Meredith Jaeger is another dual-narrative story, split between the late WWII years and Jazz Age New York. An office girl at the San Francisco Chronicle, recently informed of her pilot father’s MIA status, comes upon love letters intimating that he’d had an affair. For answers, she turns to her aunt Iris, who has her own secret past as one of Ziegfeld’s dancers in the ‘20s. An engrossing novel about meeting life on its own terms, partly inspired by a real-life crime, the murder of the flapper called the “Broadway Butterfly.”

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish tightly interweaves the stories of two modern academics, a stern older woman and a male American grad student who's used to charming his way into people's good graces, with that of a young Sephardic Jewish woman who handles correspondence for a blind rabbi in exile in Restoration-era London. As the modern pair uncover details about the scribe who signed herself “Aleph,” a deeper succession of mysteries unfolds. Over 500 pages long, brilliant on a sentence level and in its entirety, this National Jewish Book Award winner somehow achieves thriller-like pacing as it celebrates the undeniable quest for learning and delves into perennial human themes. This is right up there with A.S. Byatt’s Possession in my view, and more accessible. A magnificent read.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Season's Readings: A compilation of favorite historical novel lists from 2023

Covers of some books chosen as the year 2023's best

I feel like I've been neglecting this blog over the last week. It's been a busy semester at the library, and I've also been spending a lot of time reading and reviewing novels that won't be published until 2024. These will be appearing here later. For now, I thought I'd post links to the "best books of 2023" roundups I've found that cover historical novels.

The New York Times has their selection of the best historical fiction from 2023. This is a gift article, so you can read it even if you don't subscribe. Unsurprisingly, most of these ten are literary fiction. Paul Harding's This Other Eden and Daniel Mason's North Woods would be on my list too. There are some others on the list that I struggled with. For example, I found The Fraud alternately compelling and confusing, since it's very dense, and the nonlinear structure left me feeling lost at times. But I can understand its appeal, and I'm very glad that the NYT has been covering historical fiction regularly.

The historical fiction category at NPR's Books We Love is a perennial favorite since the books fall across many subgenres and age categories. And there are always novels here I haven't come across before.

The Sunday Times offers a dozen best historical novels of 2023. This is probably paywalled unless you have an account, so I'll give some highlights. Elodie Harper's The Temple of Fortuna, third in her trilogy about a woman from a Pompeii brothel, is on the list.  Book 1, The Wolf Den, was excellent, and I'm looking forward to the next two. There's also Elizabeth Fremantle's Disobedient, about Artemisia Gentileschi, and Laura Shepherd-Robinson's The Square of Sevens, set in Georgian England.

Crimereads has their best historical fiction of 2023. They describe their picks as historical mysteries and thrillers, but their definition seems broad; it encompasses historical fantasy adventure novels, a swashbuckling pirate story (Katherine Howe's A True Account), The Square of Sevens again, and Cheryl A. Head's Time's Undoing, a dual-period story about unearthing racial injustice, which I'd read from a library copy.

The Toronto Star lists just five books, including Emma Donoghue's Learned by Heart, about the young Anne Lister, and Janie Chang's The Porcelain Moon, covering a little-known angle on WWI-era France. has been asking authors to name the best books they read this year. They compiled the results, sorted them by category, and came up with a list of the 100 best historical novels of 2023. Many of these are older titles, and it'd be a stretch to call some of them historical fiction. But it is a wide-ranging, diverse list of choices. You can also narrow it down to those titles published this year.

And the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2023 in the historical fiction category. There's some overlap between this list and the ones linked above -- like James McBride's The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store and Isabel Allende's The Wind Knows My Name -- but not much. The overall winner is Emilia Hart's Weyward.

If you have other lists to share, please let me know.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate!  I'll be back after the holiday with more reviews and historical fiction news.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Other Princess reveals the life story of Queen Victoria's African-born goddaughter

Novels that trace an entire life can show extraordinary depth of character as the protagonists adjust to shifts in circumstance and mature physically and emotionally. The Other Princess is such a book, and its narrator, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, endures more trials than most. Hers is a life of extremes: enslavement, violence, loss, and loneliness, but also friendship, love, and great privilege, accompanied by countless restrictions on her behavior and choices. As wonderfully conveyed by Bryce, Sarah navigates the ripples and swells of her life with grace, always confident in her innate worthiness.

Born into a royal family of the Egbado people in West Africa in 1843, and named Aina by her father (“child of a difficult birth”), she is orphaned at five, when the warriors of King Gezo of Dahomey attack her homeland, and gets transferred to a slave camp. Several seasons later, a British naval commander saves her from ritual sacrifice with the aim of bringing her to England and gifting her to Queen Victoria. As she grows up amid Commander Forbes’s family, the girl renamed Sarah, meaning “princess,” comes to appreciate life’s finer things, becoming a talented pianist and befriending Princess Alice on her regular visits to Windsor Castle to see the Queen. However, a permanent home eludes her.

The story principally covers Sarah’s childhood and adolescence, since this formative time impacts the woman she becomes. As she moves across years and places, from various British locales to Sierra Leone and back, her voice feels achingly authentic, full of strength and pride but also vulnerability; she determines to find purpose in an existence where she’s seen as an outsider or novelty. Her relationship with Africa, the source of both her childhood trauma and her royal heritage, is rendered with remarkable complexity. A beautifully resonant biographical novel about a noteworthy figure.

Denny S. Bryce's The Other Princess appeared from William Morrow in October. In the UK, the publisher is Allison & Busby.  I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review.  Another historical novel based on the life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta is Anni Domingo's Breaking the Maafa Chain, which imagines a sister for Sarah who is transported to America as part of the transatlantic slave trade.

Saturday, December 09, 2023

Jessie Burton's feminist Medusa flips the script on an ancient Greek myth

Originally published in 2022 for young adults, Burton’s feminist reboot of Medusa’s story has been reissued for the adult market, where mythological re-imaginings flourish.

After her terrible transformation four years earlier, Medusa, now 18, and her immortal older sisters self-exiled to a deserted island, seeking peace. When Medusa observes a beautiful stranger anchoring his boat, she foresees a potential end to her loneliness.

She and the boy, Perseus, grow close while exchanging personal histories, even though Medusa gives him a false name and doesn’t let him see her. Each draws back from revealing their ultimate secret—for Medusa, her head of multicolored snakes; for Perseus, the deadly purpose that led him there. A reckoning with the truth awaits.

Burton compassionately humanizes her protagonist, a rape survivor yearning for the normal life she can never have, in unambiguous, occasionally poetic contemporary language as Medusa grows in self-confidence. While not as substantial as Natalie Haynes’ Stone Blind (2023), this short novel of betrayal and destiny, which questions who the myth’s real monsters are, grants Medusa a well-deserved, empowering finale.

YA recommendation: Medusa’s narrative encapsulates the themes of the #MeToo movement in an honest, vulnerable voice that YAs can easily relate to.

Medusa was published (or I should say, republished) in paperback by Bloomsbury this month.  I wrote this review for Booklist's November 1st issue. The most recent cover is at the top; the original YA version is further down. The original indicates it contains illustrations, although these weren't there in the version I read. It's not typical that YA novels are reissued for adults, though this novel could work either way. Whether Burton's retelling is truly historical fiction (of the historical fantasy variety) is open to debate, since the story feels more timeless than ancient. There are references to specific places, but little sense of the historical past. 

Burton is also the author of The Miniaturist, its sequel The House of Fortune, and The Muse (links to my reviews).

Friday, December 01, 2023

Resistance and memory: Lauren Grodstein's We Must Not Think of Ourselves

Acts of resistance take many forms. For the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis in November 1940, conditions are miserable: cramped living quarters, food shortages, mandatory curfews, increasing restrictions, harsh abuses stemming from pure bigotry. But these people are determined to embrace life, even as it becomes clear the world won’t be rescuing them. “It is up to us to write our own history… Deny the Germans the last word,” says organizer Emanuel Ringelblum, in recruiting the narrator of this penetrating novel to his clandestine archival team.

As a recorder for the Oneg Shabbat (“joy of the Sabbath”) project, Adam Paskow, a 42-year-old widower, agrees to interview his fellow Jews about their daily lives and histories, whatever they witness in the ghetto and choose to reveal. Adam, an English teacher who continues his classes in the basement of a destroyed cinema, is an affable fellow. Having been surprised into sharing a small apartment with two families, he finds his interviewees close by.

The children’s accounts are simultaneously poignant and delightful. While young boys smuggle food in from the outside, keeping their families alive, they remain amusingly disinterested in adult issues and problems, including Adam’s nosy questions. And through the unavoidable intimacy of their shared living space, Adam grows close to Sala Wiskoff, a married mother of two who’s resourceful, caring, and witty. Still in possession of his late wife’s valuable jewelry, Adam clings to it, realizing its value as a future bargaining chip during desperate times.

The Oneg Shabbat was a real-life documentary project, a unique example of cultural resistance during the Holocaust in Poland. Grodstein movingly re-creates the circumstances behind its creation, capturing the dire atmosphere of the Ghetto and the richly developed, distinctive lives of the people trapped within its walls. Among recent WWII-era fiction, this is a memorable standout.

We Must Not Think of Ourselves was published by Algonquin Books this week. I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for the Historical Novels Review.  The novel, the author's first work of historical fiction, is the December 2023 pick for the Read with Jenna book club on the TODAY show.

Read and view more about the Oneg Shabbat underground archive at Yad Vashem.