Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

People of the Book – A Historical Account of a 15th Century Hebrew Text

People of the Book: A Novel

Geraldine Brooks
Paperback, 400 pages
Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
December 30, 2008

 

The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Hebrew prayer-book that miraculously survived centuries of warfare and uprisings, has surfaced once again and ancient text conservator Hanna Heath has been tasked with the job of restoring it before it goes on display at the National Museum.  Hanna is surprised and delighted when the honor could have gone to any number of experts in text conservation, namely her mentor Werner Heinrich who is considered to be the authority on Hebrew manuscripts.  But given the delicate political state of the area in the mid 1990’s, the Bosnian government had reservations about hiring a German, and Hanna  being a native Australian, fit perfectly.

 As soon as she steps onto the tarmac she’s whisked to the museum by a UN escort and gets to work on the haggadah.  This particular haggadah was made famous because of the beautiful illuminations that are unique to a text of this type because it was made at a time when traditional Jewish beliefs prohibited illustrations.  During her conservation work, Hanna discovers tiny clues amidst the pages and binding that could shed light not only of the history of the book itself but of the people who made and cared for it through the generations.

 What follows are the stories that explain these small treasures – an insect wing, a wine stain, salt, and a white hair – told by people of various religions, nationalities, and time periods that all played a part in the haggadah’s history.  These tales are interwoven with chapters of Hanna as she solicits the help of friends and colleagues to delve deeper into the mysteries of the book.  Along the way she’s distracted by a brief affair with Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the museum – who risked his life to save the book – and his dying son, drama with her disapproving neurosurgeon mother (who dubs Hanna’s chosen profession as “Kindergarten work”), and the identity of the father she never knew.

 After wrapping up her research and concluding her report, Hanna returns to Sarajevo for the opening of the haggadah’s brand new exhibit only to discover to her horror that the vellum used for the book’s pages doesn’t match that of the one she studied.  She tries to convince Ozren that the book is a forgery and all her confidence is shattered when he doesn’t believe her.  Consumed with self-doubt about her life’s work, she swears off ancient texts and returns to Australia to study Aborigine cave paintings.  But was she really wrong about the haggadah or had it been found only to be lost again?

 People of the Book was an excellent read.  The artifacts that Hanna found brought the people involved with the book to life for me and illuminated the tragedies and struggles of so many years of religious persecution and conflict between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  The historical aspect alone was wonderful, but I also enjoyed the 20th century chapters with Hanna, who is a great character.  I loved her personality, use of Aussie idioms, and how she bickered with her impossible mother. 

 The whole book was gripping and there weren’t any parts that I felt were slow or boring, even though I was introduced to a new character quite often.  Some of the scenes were so intense my heart was pounding as I read them (the torture scene in the salt chapter quickly comes to mind).  This was my first try at a Geraldine Brooks novel and I was definitely impressed enough to check out her other books.  If you’re interested in history you should give it a try!

Revolution: A YA Historical Fiction Novel

 Revolution

Jennifer Donnelly
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House Children’s Books
October 12, 2010
*Thanks to Random House for the ARC!

Andi and Alexandrine live worlds apart, but the miles and centuries that separate them do nothing to lessen the connection that Andi feels when she discovers Alex’s secret journal written in the final days of the French Revolution.  As the daughter of a Nobel prize-winning geneticist, Andi is used to a life of privilege, attending a highly prestigious prep school where her classmates are the children of the rich and powerful. 

But ever since the tragic death of her little brother, Truman, Andi has all but given up on life.  She’s tormented by guilt and plagued with suicidal thoughts that the high dosage of antidepressants she pops like candy can’t dispel.  Her only remaining passion is music, but even that doesn’t seem to help anymore.  When her quasi-estranged father gets a call from her school informing him that she’s dangerously close to failing out, he insists that Andi accompany him on a business trip to her mother’s native Paris during Christmas break so he can make sure she finishes the outline for her senior thesis. 

More depressed than ever after her mother is checked into a psychiatric hospital back home, Andi throws herself into her thesis research on 18th century French composer Amadé Malherbeau and makes a deal with her dad that if she finishes her outline to his satisfaction she can hop on the first flight back to the U.S. 

Her dad is just as engrossed in his work as she is in her research and though she sees little of him during the day, he fills her in on what he’s working on.  G, a historian and old friend of his, has enlisted him to do DNA tests on a human heart believed to belong to Louis-Charles, the child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who was walled up alive during the Revolution.   While staying at G’s house Andi stumbles upon a journal hidden in a secret compartment of an old guitar case, along with a small portrait of the very same doomed prince her father and G spoke of.

Andi is filled with a sense of dread the instant she opens the weathered pages, but something compels her to discover their secrets.  She soon finds herself drawn into a world where the guillotine never rests, the streets of Paris are awash with blood, and its citizens live in constant fear.  The author of the diary is Alexandrine, a street performer employed by the king and queen to keep their morose son happy and entertained.  Alex can’t believe her luck when she catches the queen’s eye by making Louis-Charles laugh and she soon finds herself living at Versailles, surrounded by wealth and luxury.  Planning to use the boy as a means to rise to fame and fortune on the stage, she devotes all her skills to making him adore her. 

But now the king and queen are dead and Louis-Charles is locked away in the tower, being held captive in horrible conditions and left to die, alone and afraid.  Alex grew to love the young prince while he was in her care and refuses to stand aside and do nothing while he suffers.  Knowing his love for fireworks, she risks life and limb on the rooftops of Paris, shooting off rockets that light up the sky so Louis-Charles knows that he’s not forgotten. 

Andi feels an overwhelming connection with Alex and naturally equates the young prince’s death with her brother’s.  As she delves deeper into Alex’s story, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur and she soon learns that the past is a lot closer than she thought.

I love reading books with parallel stories and Revolution was no exception.  It was exciting and mysterious while highlighting this tragic period in human history, when so many lives were lost in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  The historical aspect was fascinating and it really made me want to learn more about the French Revolution. 

I would have preferred more chapters devoted to Alex’s story in general.  As a character I found her much more engaging than Andi, who really irritated me at times.  I think she might appeal to a younger audience, since that’s who the book is directed toward in the first place.  It wasn’t just the teenage angst that got on my nerves (and I had to give her a break on that since she was mourning her brother after blaming herself for his death), but her personality and attitude as a whole.  She had a huge chip on her shoulder and there was an arrogance about her that rubbed me the wrong way.

But that was a minor blip in the grand scheme of things.  I loved all the connections and coincidences throughout the book, like how fate seemed to lead Andi to the diary (which was entwined in her father’s DNA case) or how she got to meet the subject of her thesis face to face and teach him the musical genius of Jimmy Page.  So many questions were left unanswered (Did Andi really see the dead like Alex?  Was her journey back in time real or a hallucination brought on by a drug overdose?), but in the end it didn’t really matter because ultimately the story was about learning to let go of grief and, despite all the cruelty and brutality in the world, finding a way to heal and get on with life.

Have you read Revolution?  What did you think?  I would love to get other French Revolution historical fiction recommendations!

Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell

Stonehenge: 2000 B.c.

Bernard Cornwell
Paperback, 448 pages
HarperCollins Publishers
December 01, 2004

I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s Stonehenge and I am impressed and amazed at this piece of work that is part epic historical fiction and part fantasy.  I say fantasy because though it takes place four thousand years ago in modern day Britain, there are zero modern geographical or temporal references.  All the deities, characters, settlements, and tribes are fictional and without the book’s title or cover art I could easily have thought the story took place in some other realm.

Stonehenge is about exactly what it sounds like, though it focuses more on the people responsible for the construction of the mammoth standing stones and the reasons they had to build it (as imagined by the author).  It’s a tale of sacrifice, ritual, murder, love, and the power of belief to achieve the impossible.  The story is narrated mostly by Saban and his brother Camaban, though the cast of characters span generations and tribes across the land.  Saban and Camaban are two of the three sons of the chief of Ratharryn.  The third, Lengar, brings an end to his people’s way of life when he happens upon an Outlander carrying gold lozenges from the settlement of Sarmennyn.  The priests declare the gold a gift from the sun god Slaol and refuse to return it to its rightful owners. 

Camaban, who starts out as a crippled outcast who narrowly escapes being sacrificed to the moon goddess Lahanna, comes under the tutelage of the sorceress Sanna in Cathallo, who heals his twisted foot.  The student soon becomes the master and he uses his newfound status as a powerful sorcerer to manipulate the leaders of all three tribes to do his bidding.  He convinces Lengar, now chief of Ratharryn, to return the gold lozenges to Sarmennyn if they give him one of their temples.  Camaban has a plan to banish winter and end all human toil and suffering by reuniting Slaol and Lahanna with the temple.  He enlists Saban to build the seemingly impossible temple of standing stones and arches. 

What follows is an account of the 20 years of backbreaking labor, uneasy truces, raids, and violence that ensues while Sarmennyn’s temple is dismantled and transported back to Ratharryn.  The blood and sweat of the laborers and the careful planning and execution of Camaban and Saban as they struggled to figure out a way to erect the immense stones in their new home that would bring an end to winter was beyond measure.  Camaban’s demands become increasingly unrealistic and as the years go by he begins a slow but steady descent into madness.  He becomes obsessed with the temple and will stop at nothing to see his vision realized. 

The size and scope of what would come to be known as Stonehenge was impressive in its own right, but learning about the lives and deaths of the ones responsible for its creation was even more satisfying.  My mind wandered during the pages dedicated entirely to the finer details of the mechanics of shaping and erecting the stones (I definitely don’t need to read about levers or sleds again any time soon), but everything else was enthralling. 

I loved Saban and Camaban throughout the book.  I agonized over the uncertain outcome upon the temple’s completion, mourned the loss of loved ones, and gloated over exacted revenge right along with them. 

This book was so different from anything else I’ve read lately and it was exciting, tragic, and captivating – a fascinating account of what might have been.  We’ll never really know who built the engineering marvel that stands today on Salisbury Plain or what its purpose was but I’d like to think that Cornwell’s version comes close to the truth.

The Twentieth Wife

The Twentieth Wife

Indu Sundaresan  
Paperback, 416 pages
Simon & Schuster
February 18, 2003
 
 
From the back cover:
An enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India’s most controversial empresses – a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal Empire.  Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, The Twentieth Wife sweeps readers up in Mehrunnisa’s embattled love with Prince Salim, and in the bedazzling destiny of a woman – a legend in her own time – who was all but lost to history until now.

I confess I’ve never been all that interested in the history of India and I couldn’t even really tell you why.  I guess I’m just more of an ancient Egypt or Rome kind of girl.  But after reading The Twentieth Wife I’m happy to say that I’ve officially been won over.  Indu Sundaresan paints  a beautiful portrait of the Mughal Empire in vibrant colors, tantalising scents, and the rich culture of the multi-faith population under Muslim rule. 

Mehrunnisa is a rich and warm character, with a cunning intellect and just a touch of guile, and it was hard not to fall in love with her.  She had me spellbound from the start, and I delighted in seeing her catch the prince’s attention in the zenana when she was a child, and I shared her devastation when she fails to become pregnant during the first years of her marriage only to miscarry twice – denying her the only form of solace she can conceive of in her loveless marriage to Ali Quli. 

In the Afterword, Sundaresan describes how she set out to fill in the gaps in the incomplete historical record – provided mostly by travelers’ narratives and bazaar gossip – and bring the stories of these women who ruled “behind the veil” to life.  I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about Mehrunnisa’s life in The Feast of Roses as well as the other empresses Sundaresan has chronicled. 

Her writing style is beautiful and almost lyrical, and the pages are filled with emotion.  And best of all, she transports you to an exotic past surrounded by emperors, palaces, and harems (not to mention wild elephants and tigers) in a way that you don’t even realize how foreign it is.  I felt perfectly at ease waiting on the empress in the zenana or strolling through the marketplace with Mehrunnisa, and even watching court proceedings behind a screen or veil.  In fact, I got so immersed in her world I was almost startled when I had to put the book down and get jolted back to reality.

I have to mention that I had the pleasure of hearing Indu speak on a historical fiction panel at the LA Times Festival of Books in April as well as meeting her at the book signing that took place afterward, and she was incredibly well-spoken and personable.  It was wonderful listening to her describe her writing and the ups and downs of her genre (e.g. that no matter how meticulous your research, someone will always find a mistake and email you about it).  It was such a thrill to meet her and I know without a doubt that if I enjoy her other books as much as this one, I’ll be investing my time and money in all her future releases.

Daughters of the Witching Hill

Daughters of the Witching Hill

Mary Sharratt  
Hardcover, 352 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference Publis
April 07, 2010
*I received a complimentary ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

From the publisher:

Daughters of the Witching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt. Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic. When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family members against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights. Sharratt interweaves well-researched historical details of the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt with a beautifully imagined story of strong women, family, and betrayal. Daughters of the Witching Hill is a powerful novel of intrigue and revelation.

When I first read the description of this galley I was immediately interested in reading it.  I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by witch trials, and after reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane recently I was reminded of my interest in the subject.  Most of my knowledge stems from the trials in Salem, Massachusetts so it was a nice change of pace to learn about one of the most famous witch hunts in the Old World in Daughters of the Witching Hill.

I have to say it was an absolute pleasure reading this book and learning about the women of Pendle Forest that spanned three generations.  Their strength and independence, along with Bess’ reputation as a powerful cunning woman with the ability to heal the sick, gave them the tools to survive in a harsh reality of poverty and hunger and eventually led to their downfall. 

From the first few pages I was drawn into the world that Sharratt recreated so masterfully through what I’m sure was thorough and painstakingly detailed research.  It was beautifully written and what really stands out in my mind after finishing the book is how authentic and three-dimensional the characters seemed to be.  From their speech patterns and interactions even down to their unspoken thoughts, it was readily apparent that these people were genuinely from the 17th century and would stick out like sore thumbs if they were somehow transported to the present.

The magic that Bess, Liza and the other cunning women use was unique in that it was actually just folk magic left over from the forbidden Catholic religion.  It mostly consisted of chanting latin prayers and the use of herbal remedies, but without the help of their familiar spirit the spells would lack the power to work properly.  I thought it was a unique take on the magic employed by witches, which is typically associated with abra cadabra, broomsticks, and deals with the devil. 

Overall, Witching Hill is a great read.  One that’s filled with intensity, love, triumphs, heartbreak, and betrayal.  The harrowing ordeals that these women had to go through were the stuff from nightmares and the fear they lived with leaked right out of the pages into me, making me feel that I was the one accused of sorcery and condemned to hang.  I would definitely recommend it to fans of historical novels, especially if they’re looking for a different perspective on the 17th century witch trials in England.

New Releases: February 2010

So I was perusing the New Releases section of BarnesandNoble.com on my lunch break the other day and came across a few interesting titles (some of which I’ve also noticed on recent editions of Shelf Awareness) that I thought I’d share with you.  

Sadly, my TBR queue is so large and unmanageable as it is I probably won’t be doing more than adding these to my overly extensive Wish List, but hey, a girl can dream, right? 

Heresy by S. J. Parris

Synopsis

Masterfully blending true events with fiction, this blockbuster historical thriller delivers a page-turning murder mystery set on the sixteenth-century Oxford University campus.

Giordano Bruno was a monk, poet, scientist, and magician on the run from the Roman Inquisition on charges of heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. This alone could have got him burned at the stake, but he was also a student of occult philosophies and magic.

In S. J. Parris’s gripping novel, Bruno’s pursuit of this rare knowledge brings him to London, where he is unexpectedly recruited by Queen Elizabeth I and is sent undercover to Oxford University on the pretext of a royal visitation. Officially Bruno is to take part in a debate on the Copernican theory of the universe; unofficially, he is to find out whatever he can about a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen. 

 

The Infinities by John Banville

Synopsis

In his first novel since the Booker Prize–winning The Sea, John Banville gives us a dazzling new book that chronicles both a human family and a rather unholy gathering of immortals.

On a languid midsummer’s day, old Adam Godley, a renowned theoretical mathematician, is dying. His family gathers at his bedside: his son, young Adam, struggling to maintain his marriage to a radiantly beautiful actress; his nineteen-year-old daughter, Petra, filled with voices and visions as she waits for the inevitable; their stepmother, Ursula, whose relations with the Godley children are strained at best; Petra’s “young man”–perhaps more interested in the father than the daughter–who has arrived for an untimely visit.

And around the Godley family hover the mischievous gods: among them, Zeus, who has his eye on young Adam’s wife, and Hermes, our narrator: “We too are petty and vindictive,” he tells us, “just like you, when we are put to it.” As old Adam’s days on earth start… 

 

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Synopsis

An American housewife is transformed by an intriguing manuscript about the Sufi mystic poet Rumi

In this lyrical, exuberant follow-up to her 2007 novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak unfolds two tantalizing parallel narratives- one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century, when Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz-that together incarnate the poet’s timeless message of love.

Ella Rubenstein is forty years old and unhappily married when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment is to read and report on Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by a man named Aziz Zahara. Ella is mesmerized by his tale of Shams’s search for Rumi and the dervish’s role in transforming the successful but unhappy cleric into a committed mystic, passionate poet, and advocate of love. She is also taken with Shams’s lessons, or rules, that offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, and the presence of love in each and every one of us. As she reads on, she realizes that Rumi’s story mir­rors her own and that Zahara-like Shams-has come to set her free. 

 

Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend by Mark Collins Jenkins

Synopsis

Mark Jenkins’s engrossing history draws on the latest science, anthropological and archaeological research to explore the origins of vampire stories, providing gripping historic and folkloric context for the concept of immortal beings who defy death by feeding on the lifeblood of others. From the earliest whispers of eternal evil in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, vampire tales flourished through the centuries and around the globe, fueled by superstition, sexual mystery, fear of disease and death, and the nagging anxiety that demons lurk everywhere.

In Vampire Forensics, Mark Jenkins probes vampire legend to tease out the historical truths enshrined in the tales of terror: sherds of Persian pottery depicting blood-sucking demons; the amazing recent discovery by National Geographic archaeologist Matteo Borrini of a 16th-century Venetian grave of a plague victim and suspected vampire; and the Transylvanian castle of “Vlad the Impaler,” whose bloodthirsty cruelty remains unsurpassed.

Jenkins navigates centuries of lore and legend, adding new chapters to the chronicle and weaving an irresistibly seductive blend of superstition, psychology, and science sure to engross everyone from Anne Rice’s countless readers to serious students of archaeology and mythology. 

   

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub

Synopsis

The incomparable master of horror and suspense returns with a powerful, brilliantly terrifying novel that redefines the genre in original and unexpected ways.

The charismatic and cunning Spenser Mallon is a campus guru in the 1960s, attracting the devotion and demanding sexual favors of his young acolytes. After he invites his most fervent followers to attend a secret ritual in a local meadow, the only thing that remains is a gruesomely dismembered body—and the shattered souls of all who were present.

Years later, one man attempts to understand what happened to his wife and to his friends by writing a book about this horrible night, and it’s through this process that they begin to examine the unspeakable events that have bound them in ways they cannot fathom, but that have haunted every one of them through their lives. As each of the old friends tries to come to grips with the darkness of the past, they find themselves face-to-face with the evil triggered so many years earlier. Unfolding through the individual stories of the fated group’s members, A Dark Matter is an electric, chilling, and unpredictable novel that will satisfy Peter Straub’s many ardent fans, and win him legions more.
 

   

Coming of the Storm (Contact: The Battle for America Series #1) by W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O’Neal Gear

Synopsis

From New York Times bestselling novelists W. Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear comes a landmark new series portraying the devastating clash of cultures that followed the European invasion of early America. Dramatic, authentic, and deeply moving, this first book in the Contact series tells the story of the blood-drenched years that followed Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto’s landing in “La Florida” in 1539 — as seen entirely through the eyes of two courageous Native Americans. Black Shell, an exiled Chickasaw trader, is fascinated by the pale, bearded newcomers who call themselves “Kristianos,” and not even the wise counsel of Pearl Hand, the extraordinary and beautiful woman who has consented to be his mate, can dissuade him. It will unfortunately take a first-hand lesson in the Kristianos’ unfathomable brutality for Black Shell to fully comprehend the dangers that these invaders pose to his people’s way of life.While his first instinct is to run away with Pearl Hand, somewhere the Kristianos cannot find them, Black Shell has been called to a greater destiny by the Spirit Being known as Horned Serpent. With Pearl Hand by his side, Black Shell must find a way to unite the disparate tribes and settlements of his native land and overcome the merciless armies of de Soto, which will stop at nothing to attain wealth and power. 

For years readers have urged the Gears to bring the clash of Native American and European cultures to life as only they can. Now, with Coming of the Storm, the Gears unleash their expansive breadth of knowledge and stunning writing talents to dispel the myths and falsehoods surrounding Hernando de Soto, as they paint avivid portrait of the heroic men and women who fought a terrifying, militarily superior power for their survival — and in so doing defined the character of a nation. 

 

 

Today while at Barnes and Noble (to finally buy a Nook, hooray!) I came across these and immediately added them to my wish list:

Black Hills by Dan Simmons 

Synopsis

When Paha Sapa, a young Sioux warrior, “counts coup” on General George Armstrong Custer as Custer lies dying on the battlefield at the Little Bighorn, the legendary general’s ghost enters him – and his voice will speak to him for the rest of his event-filled life.

Seamlessly weaving together the stories of Paha Sapa, Custer, and the American West, Dan Simmons depicts a tumultuous time in the history of both Native and white Americans. Haunted by Custer’s ghost, and also by his ability to see into the memories and futures of legendary men like Sioux war-chief Crazy Horse, Paha Sapa’s long life is driven by a dramatic vision he experienced as a boy in his people’s sacred Black Hills. In August of 1936, a dynamite worker on the massive Mount Rushmore project, Paha Sapa plans to silence his ghost forever and reclaim his people’s legacy-on the very day FDR comes to Mount Rushmore to dedicate the Jefferson face.

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens : How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford

Synopsis

A magnificently researched history of the ruling women of the Mongol Empire, revealing their struggle to hang on their patrimony and to preserve their nation.Jack Weatherford tells the gripping story, lost ot history until now, of the female heirs of the Mongol Empire. He beings with the six daughters of Genghis Kahn and the traces their royal families through 250 years of upheaval as the empire tore itself apart, pitting brother against sister and son against mother.

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian M. Fagan 

Synopsis

The name “Cro-Magnon” inspires images of a snowbound world, mammoth hunting, and eerily alluring cave paintings. Who were these ancient people? In a word, they were us—the first anatomically modern humans.

Bestselling author Brian Fagan brings these early humans out of the deep freeze with his trademark mix of erudition, cutting-edge science, and vivid storytelling. Cro-Magnon reveals human society in its infancy, facing enormous environmental challenges—including a rival species of humans, the Neanderthals.

For ten millennia, Cro-Magnons lived side by side with Neanderthals, an encounter that Fagan fills with drama. Using their superior intellects and tools, these ingenious problem solvers survived harsh conditions that eventually extinguished their Neanderthal cousins.

Cro-Magnon captures the indomitable adaptability that has made Homo sapiens an unmatched success as a species. Living on a frozen continent with only the most basic tools, Ice Age humans survived and thrived.

*I’m extra excited about this last one because the author was my first archaeology professor at UC Santa Barbara and he was just fantastic!*

 

Have you picked up any of these beauties?  Excited for any other new releases? 

 

Top 10: Historical Fiction

History is one of my passions and when it’s combined with my love of reading, I’m in absolute heaven. I love being transported back in time to experience the world decades or centuries ago, and to see what life was like through the eyes of royalty, peasants, soldiers, and fools alike.

Here’s a list of my favorites so far (in no particular order)…

1. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

Actually this is one of my favorite books of all time so naturally I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you’re interested in Egyptian or Roman history. George’s Cleopatra comes to life and is depicted as an extremely cunning and effective ruler as well as a loving wife and devoted mother as she struggles to keep her lands and people safe in the face of drought, famine, and war.

2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

This book is beautifully written and is just a classic. It follows the story of Chiyo, a nine-year old fisherman’s daughter who’s sold into slavery by her father, and her transformation into one of the most successful and renowned geisha of her time. Although it’s a story of suffering and heartbreak, it’s also one of love and passion, and of doing whatever it takes to change your destiny and achieve your dreams.

3. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Everyone seems to be in a Tudor frenzy at the moment, and I’m no exception. I’ve always been familiar with the story of the doomed second bride of Henry VIII, but this was the first novel I’d read about her life. It’s told from the point of view of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, who is the first to be ensnared by the young king’s affection and follows the family as they rise to power. It’s quite an intense read as it puts you right in the heart of the Tudor court, where one wrong step could lead you to the Tower of London and into the hands of the executioner.

4. River God by Wilbur Smith

Okay, if you’re obsessed with ancient Egypt like I am then you need to read this and the other Taita books by Wilbur Smith. I guess technically I should classify them as historical fantasy because there are elements of magic involved in some of them. This is the first one and it takes place during the reign of Mamose when Egypt is invaded by the Hyksos. Taita is a fascinating and mysterious character who you’ll want to follow through the twists and turns of the political intrigues and warring kingdoms of the Nile valley.

5. The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George

More Tudor hysteria? Yes please! This book is a massive undertaking but well worth the almost 1,000 pages. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started it, in fact I went into it thinking I wasn’t going to like it just because I thought it would be impossible to sympathize with Henry. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was frighteningly easy to slip into his mind, walk in his shoes, and understand why he did the things he did. It starts with his childhood and the death of his brother that leads to his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and we see through his eyes the scheming and manipulation of his courtiers and the radical separation from Catholicism that threw his kingdom into turmoil. Fantastic read.

6. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

This book actually reminded me a lot of Memoirs of a Geisha, although it takes place in China rather than Japan, but the writing style and character development were similar. Although, Empress Orchid was far more gritty and dark, which suited me just fine. It tells the story of the last empress of China in memoir-like fashion, from her childhood to becoming a royal concubine and then one of the emperor’s wives, who ends up ruling the empire for over four decades. I was fascinated by life in the Forbidden City and the role of the women there as Orchid fought to stand out among the countless other concubines to win the favor of the emperor. I haven’t read the sequel, The Last Empress, yet but it’s in my TBR queue and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

7. Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

This was Michelle Moran’s debut novel, set in 14th century B.C. Egypt, and I found it to be very well researched and absolutely thrilling. It’s told from the point of view of Nefertiti’s sister Mutnodjmet during the reign of Amenhotep IV, who takes on the name Akhenaten after casting out the old religion and replacing it with a monotheistic one worshipping the sun disc Aten. It was fast-paced, yet detailed and descriptive, and I became invested in all the characters – including Nefertiti, despite her selfishness and thoughtless behavior toward her sister. Towards the end it got pretty stressful as the people blame Akhenaten and Nefertiti for the plague that sweeps through the capital and everyone in the royal family fears for their lives. I couldn’t believe this was Moran’s first novel. Incredible story telling!

8. The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

I’m actually not quite finished with this one yet but it’s every bit as good as Nefertiti was and I can already tell it deserves a place on this list. It picks up about 20 years later when the old religion has been restored, the capital has moved from Amarna back to Thebes, and all that’s left of the heretic queen’s family is her niece Nefertari.  The young princess is feared and despised because of her ties to Akhenaten and Nefertiti and when she becomes the second wife of her childhood best friend and first love, the young pharaoh Ramesses, she knows the only way for her family to be written back into the scrolls of history is to become Chief Wife and to be crowned the queen of Egypt.  She’s surrounded by enemies but with her intelligence and the help of some influential allies she strives to do whatever it takes to win the love of the people and take her place on the throne.

9. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Again, this is more accurately historical fantasy due to the time travel element – and I included it in my top 10 fantasy books too, sorry for the repetition – but it’s a truly amazing read.  I absolutely could not put it down and when I was finally forced to, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Scottish highlands and the world that Claire finds herself in after stumbling through ancient standing stones and travelling back in time two hundred years.  It’s written so well that it seems perfectly plausible that in the blink of an eye you could magically appear in another century.  Claire is such a compelling character with real emotions and flaws and I defy you not to fall in love with Jamie Fraser.  This entire series is great but Outlander knocked my socks off.

10. Mary Queen of Scotland & The Isles

Yes, another book by Margaret George.  What can I say?  She’s a master of her craft.  Meticulous research, great pacing, thought provoking writing and characters that you can connect with.  Mary is a true heroine.  Her tragedy was my tragedy, her triumphs were my triumphs, and I got so caught up with her story that I lost touch with reality while reading the book.  With all the indignities she suffered, Mary remained proud, refusing to give up hope or give in to defeat. 

I highly recommend all this books to fans of historical fiction!  Out of all the titles I’ve read in this genre, they’re my favorites.  I feel it might be worthwhile to mention a few that I was less than enthusiastic about, surprisingly from these very same authors.  I couldn’t stand Margaret George’s Helen of Troy.  As much as I tried to get into it I simply couldn’t.  Helen as a character just fell flat and I couldn’t have cared less whether she or Paris lived or died, that’s how detached I was from the story. 

The Virgin’s Lover was my least favorite of Philippa Gregory’s books that I’ve read so far.  Elizabeth was a giggly, empty-headed grown child who couldn’t conjure up a single thought of her own, relying on Robert Dudley for every decision or opinion.  After reading The Queen’s Fool and seeing how strong and calculating Elizabeth was in that book, I just couldn’t understand how the same author could have portrayed her in such a contradicting fashion.  Maybe that was intentional in The Virgin’s Lover but I had to force myself to finish that one.  I wasn’t thrilled with The Other Queen (also about Mary Queen of Scots) either, but it was alright.  On the other hand, I loved the Queen’s Fool as well as The Constant Princess.  I got Gregory’s newest, The White Queen, for Christmas and I’m really looking forward to reading her take on the War of the Roses.

Here are some more titles currently in my TBR queue that I’m excited about:

  1. The Last Empress, Anchee Min
  2. The Last Queen, C. W. Gortner
  3. A Thread of Grace, Mary Doria Russell
  4. An Echo in the Bone, Diana Gabaldon
  5. Cleopatra’s Daughter, Michelle Moran
  6. The Last Days of the Romanovs, Helen Rappaport
  7. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

What are your favorite historical novels?  What are some you could have lived without?

Fresh Faces

Sometimes I tend to get into the habit of falling back on my favorite writers and only reading their books.  It feels like a no-brainer.  I already know I’ll like the writing style and it’s pretty safe to say that if I loved one or two of an author’s titles, chances are I’ll love most of them. 

Let’s face it.  There are so many thousands of books out there that I would love to get a chance to read and since I work full-time and try to keep some semblance of a social life, I have to make choices.  And who has time to read a book they don’t like? 

Now and then I get the courage to take a chance on a new author, whether they’ve just published their first novel or they’re a seasoned pro just new to me.  Recently I can’t believe my luck in finding books by fresh authors that I absolutely love and Fresh Faces will give me an opportunity to give some recommendations.

 

nefertitiNefertiti, by Michelle Moran

Hardcover, 480 pages
Crown Publishing Group
July 10, 2007

I’ve been fascinated by ancient Egypt for years and when I read Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti, I could not put it down.  It’s told from the point of view of Nefertiti’s younger sister, Mutnodjmet, who is brought to live in the royal palace along with the rest of her family upon the marriage of the young Pharoah Amenhotep to her beautiful sister.  This is an incredible period in history when the two rulers cast down the old religion and risked their thrones and lives in the creation of a new, monotheistic cult of the sun disk, Aten.  The beautifully written narrative brings the characters to life as they struggle through famine, plague, and plots against the royal family.  I was definitely won over by this debut novel and can’t wait to read the sequel, The Heretic Queen, along with her next release, Cleopatra’s Daughter.

 

nameThe Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Paperback, 672 pages
Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
April 07, 2009

 

This is definitely not just another fantasy book.  From page one, Rothfuss grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me completely into his world.  It tells the story of the legendary and mysterious Kvothe, perhaps the most dangerous man alive, who has been disguising his true identity and playing the role of the owner of the Waystone Inn.  After being discovered by a scribe who has overcome great dangers to find him, Kvothe agrees to divulge the story of his life over a period of three days.  The Name of the Wind recounts the first day, in which he relates the tragic murder of his family, his struggle to survive alone as a poverty-stricken street urchin, and his life at the University, studying to be an arcanist.  I was so enthralled by the story and captivated by the child version of Kvothe, I couldn’t wait to continue his journey and discover his transformation from homeless orphan to feared and awe-inspiring legend.

 

sowerParable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

Paperback, 352 pages
Grand Central Publishing
January 01, 2000

 

Okay, so Octavia E. Butler isn’t exactly a new author but I wasn’t familiar with her work until I read Parable of the Sower, a sort of post-apocalyptic dystopian portrayal of the not-so-distant future.  It was incredibly compelling to say the least, and it was so easy to imagine the horrifying world becoming reality.  A world where society has broken down and people are forced to exist in walled communities, exiled from those on the outside.  Oil is gone, water is a priceless resource, cholera outbreaks kill entire cities and a drug that causes pyromania is spreading throughout the country.  Fifteen year old Lauren Olamina knows it’s only a matter of time before the wall that keeps her neighborhood safe is breached, and she is prepared for that day.  When it finally happens and she’s left alone among the fire and killing, she escapes her devastated home and heads north on foot, travelling freeways that were once clogged with traffic.  This book is not only about the struggle to survive, but the creation of a new way of thinking, a new faith called Earthseed that Lauren believes has the power to save humanity.  It was disturbing but very powerful.  If you’re in the mood to contemplate the future, pick up Parable of the Sower, put on a brave face, and turn the page.

 

poisonPoison Study, by Maria V. Snyder

Paperback, 416 pages
Harlequin Enterprises, Limited
December 01, 2008

 

This is Snyder’s debut, about a young girl who becomes the ruler’s food taster in order to avoid execution for the murder of the son of a general.  The girl, Yelena, is given poison and must receive the antidote each morning in order to stay alive, preventing her escape.  She is immediately tutored on all manners of poison and is exposed to them in order to ensure that she’ll be able to recognize any danger to the Commander that may be hidden in his food or drink.  First of all, the poison lore itself is fascinating and I loved reading about the rigorous training Yelena had to undergo before being ready to embody her new title.  I was drawn to Yelena and interested to find out more about her past and what led her to sign her own death warrant by committing murder.  The other characters, including the Commander’s right-hand man, Valek, were just as three-dimensional and it was easy to invest in them and care about their fates.  It was definitely a unique fantasy and I would highly recommend it, along with the sequel, Magic Study.

 

What new authors have you discovered lately?

Book Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

deliveranceBy Katherine Howe

Hardcover, 384 pages
Hyperion Press
June 09, 2009
 

This book caught my eye on the New Fiction shelf early this summer but I passed on it at the time because I could barely carry the stack that I was already buying that day.  Recently I passed by it again and couldn’t help but be drawn to its tantalizing cover and unique title.  I immediately scooped it up without bothering to re-read the jacket.

Katherine Howe’s debut novel is about a subject that I’ve always found terrifying and fascinating – the Salem witch trials.  The book is centered around Connie Goodwin, a Harvard grad student struggling to keep her sanity amid gut-wrenching qualifying exams, hounding professors and bottomless dissertation research. 

When she gets a call from her free-spirited, new-age mother asking her to get her late grandmother’s ramshackle house ready to put on the market, Connie reluctantly agrees.  She moves in, planning to spend her summer putting the house in order and doing some much needed research for her dissertation on colonial America.  Early in her stay, Connie stumbles onto a mysterious key, holding a tiny slip of paper bearing the words, Deliverance Dane.

With constant pressure from her advisor, Professor Chilton, to find a new original source for her dissertation, Connie throws herself into a non-stop investigation to learn more about Deliverance Dane, who turns out to be a previously unknown victim of the Salem witch trials,  and the discovery of a centuries-old book that could contain the key to unlocking the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone and the promise of eternal life. 

Soon she comes to realize that a lot more is on the line than her dissertation, and after fellow history buff/romantic interest, Sam Hartley, is stricken with a fatal illness with little hope of recovering, it becomes clear to Connie that finding the book will be a matter of life or death.

 The book is told partially from Connie’s point of view in the early 1990’s, and partially from the perspectives of various players in Salem in the late 17th to early 18th centuries.  The parts in the past bring clues to life as the mystery of the elusive physick book of Deliverance Dane slowly unfolds.  As Connie uncovers the truth about the role of Deliverance and her family during the famed witch hysteria, the more she discovers about her own family history and the magical powers that were passed down through the generations.

 I really liked this book with its illuminating flashes to the past, fast-paced plot and likeable characters.  Howe’s writing style isn’t too flowery or descriptive – it’s to the point and yet descriptive enough to be able to picture yourself in every scene, whether being up to your elbows in a dusty archive or enduring unspeakable horrors in a stinking, overcrowded cell. 

It was easy to sympathize with the characters and the chapters that took place in the 17th centuries were especially interesting to me because they – like Howe’s general perception of the Salem witch trials – were so unlike anything that I had ever read on the topic.  And instead of focusing on how the hysteria was a result of scapegoating social issues in a Puritanical world (where if someone became ill it was because they had sinned), Howe points out that it was much more than that.  These people believed in witchcraft and witches – they genuinely thought that their neighbors were entering into evil pacts with the devil in order to do harm.  It was definitely a refreshing take on a typically one-sided subject.

The only gripe I had was with the Chilton character.  I don’t want to give too much away but his motives and actions throughout the book felt too forced and weren’t quite believable.  But overall, it was a great book and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting and entertaining mystery with a historical twist.

On a quick side note, I thought it was interesting that Howe is a descendant of two of the accused Salem witches, Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe.