Saturday, 11 November 2017

Recommended Reads: Great Historical Fiction

I don't know about you, but November screams historical fiction month to me. Seriously, it is the month I read so much historical fiction - especially anything set in the WWII era. I think it is a combination of Remembrance Day on November 11th, and the gloomy weather but it just screams cozying up with some tea, a blanket, and a book and then reading some damn good history. So I decided to give a list of some recommended reads for historical fiction lovers. 

1. Atonement by Ian McEwan 
I saw the movie before I read the book which I know is awful.  However, I love both book and movie equally – they are both beautiful and harrowing stories about family, and the consequences of perception. Briony is a protagonist that one can't help but hate a bit for her actions in the novel. Briony starts as a precocious child, and ends the novel as a wise and regretful figure, reminiscing about the effects her actions have had on the lives of her family members - particularly that of her sister Cecilia and the family gardener, Robbie. The ending will GUT YOU if you haven’t seen the movie and aren’t aware of the twist - so have the tissues handy. I always cry, even the soundtrack to this movie makes me tear up. 

2. Eva Ibbotson Books 
Seriously read anything by Eva Ibbotson. She is SUCH an underrated writer of historical fiction. Her novels usually are set between WWI and WWII, and take place in London or Austria. THEY ARE AMAZING. I first picked up A Song for Summer when I was 15 and from there I just DEVOURED all of her historical works in a few months. They are beautiful stories of young women in various positions in society, usually seeking safety or fleeing their homes, and how they deal with war. There are romances in all the books, but they are not overwhelming to the plot. The novels are very character driven, and are beautifully written. My favourite is A Countess Below the Stairs (also called The Secret Countess) – about a Russian aristocratic family who flee to London after the Russian Revolution and who fall on hard times. The daughter of the family (the above mentioned countess) takes on the role of a chambermaid in a great house in the English countryside to support herself and her family. It is a lovely tale that I have read so many times my copy is pretty much worn through. I also loved The Morning Gift about a Jewish girl in 1930s Vienna, as well as A Song for Summer which takes place at an Austrian boarding school on the eve of WWII.

3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 
This won the Pulitzer Prize so you know it's got some pretty dang high approval ratings. But it is so so worth all the hype. It is a beautiful novel (take a shot every time I write the word beautiful in this post). Seriously – beautiful is the only way I can describe the story, the writing, the intricate weaving of the two character's tales. All the Light We Cannot See follows the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl living in France with her museum curator father, and Werner, a youth in Germany signed up with the Hitler Youth and preparing for war. It is a story of how these two come to meet, and their journey from childhood to adulthood through the years leading up to war and through the occupation of France by the Nazis. It is not fast moving, but is still a page turner because the setting and the characters are so compelling it will draw you in. The chapters are also pretty short so its so easy to keep saying "One more chapter" and finish like half the book. As is the way with most historical fiction set in the war years, it is a tragic tale, and I balled like a baby. It definitely was unique in that it covered not only the Allied perspective, but also the perspective of a young German boy – a Nazi – and how he got sucked into the war, not because he believed in the Nazi propaganda but because he saw the war as the only way to improve his future. Werner is such a morally grey character, that you are torn loving but end up loving him anyways. God it was beautiful and just writing about it makes me want to cry. 

4. The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch 
This is a fun, if gruesome, mystery series set in Bavarian area of Germany (before it was Germany) in the 18th century. It follows Jakob Kuisl, the local hangman and town outcast, as well as his family – including his beautiful daughter Magdalena, as well as the local town physician who is fascinated both by the hangman and his beguiling daughter. After a midwife is wrongly accused of witchcraft, Jakob has the unfortunate problem of torturing this woman (in all its gruesome and gory detail) while also subsequently trying to prove her innocence with the help of Magdalena. It is a great read –  it was a great creepy book, with just enough gore, and the family written about is based off the author’s own family history which is quite cool! I’ve only read the first book – but it has been made into a whole mystery series around the Kuisl family, which I am quite excited to continue with.

5. Stolen Empire series by Sherry D. Ficklin 
This is my guilty pleasure historical fiction read. It is a fictionalised (very fictionalised) account of Catherine the Great's teenage years in Russia, as she battles for the hand of the Tsareveich Peter II, handles political intrigue, and begins to cultivate her reputation as a lover of men. IT WAS FABULOUS. Not the best written novel by far, but it was so much fun, and seriously addictive. The books are quite short so I finished them all in about a day and a half. Definitely recommend if you don’t mind some historical inaccuracies and don’t mind a few tropes here and there.

6. Briar Rose  by Jane Yolen 
Why are all WWII books so beautifully depressing? This is a short read, and is a WWII novel that is combined with the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Since Sleeping Beauty is my favourite fairy tale, I just had to pick it up. Since it is such a short novel it is hard to give the details without giving away the whole story - but essentially Rebecca's grandmother has always told the same, unique, version of Sleeping Beauty for her entire life. After her passing, Rebecca's promise to her grandmother leads her to Europe to uncover the shocking claim that her grandmother is Briar Rose from the sleeping beauty tale. It sounds like a fairy tale, but this is a dark retelling of the story that adapts actual events to a fairy tale, and demonstrates the coping mechanisms of individuals who experience trauma. 

7. Karen Witemeyer Books
Just as a heads up I am not a very religious person. Like at all. So when I bought this christian historical novel called A Tailor Made Bride, I had NO IDEA it was christian at all – I just liked the description on Amazon and bought it on my kindle because it was on sale that day. However, colour me surprised when I not only discovered it was christian but I actually ENJOYED IT. I have tried out the historical christian fiction before and it has been rather preachy to me,  but here I found it well-blended into the story. While there was definitely some mentions of god and Jesus, I found it didn’t detract from the overall story. Karen Witemeyer's books are quick easy reads, usually set in the Midwest or in Texas, and are quite different from the epic WWII tragedies I usually read. They are lighthearted and always have a happy ending. If you're looking for a clean read, with a light-hearted story then give any of Karen Witemeyer’s books a chance. I highly recommend A Tailor Made Bride or To Win Her Heart to start with. 

8. The Diviners series by Libba Bray 
1920s Jazz Age New York, with a ghostly paranormal twist. NEED I SAY MORE? I've already raved about this book a few times now and on like every platform of social media, so really just go read it. It is the best book I've read in 2017, I binge read the series and I absolutely adored everything about it. I seriously don't have a complaint. Evie is a character I can't get enough of (I relate to her so well), the 1920s setting is so well written that I feel like I'm actually there, and the books are scary enough I need to read them with the lights on.

9. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah 
Another WWII book – this time a book from the perspective of two sisters, doing very different things during the war. One sister, Vianne, is a mother, and is simply trying to stay out of notice to protect her and her daughter. The other sister, Isabelle, is a rebel – and gets involved with the resistance in France – with tragic consequences for both. I can’t explain more without giving much away from this book but all I can say is that while I sobbed. Like a lot, I just started crying. I definitely connected more with Isabella than I did with Vianne, but I think that’s because of my own personality and position in life – I too am a single young woman, not a mother and maybe that’s why I found Vianne's actions less relateable. I think the writing wasn’t the best overall, but the tale was heart-wrenching and it was so refreshing to read a story of war from the female perspective, and dealing with real issues women dealt with at that time.

10. Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
This book is a blend of fantasy and history. It’s a bit hard to explain but essentially the story follows Ismae after she is rescued from a brutal marriage and given sanctuary in the convent of St. Mortain. However; St. Mortain isn't like every other convent, its devotees serve the old god of death and act as handmaidens of death - more often called assassins. This book was so bad ass - assassin nuns? SO MUCH YES. The story is set in medieval Brittany, and has tons of political intrigue, along with a unique twist of the author's own making with the fantasy element of the "twelve gods of old." The setting is one not common in historical fiction, and thus was unique and fun to learn about (many of the characters in the Brittany court being based on actual historical individuals). Ismae is a brave, smart and loyal assassin who is a great YA heroine I think. There is a romance - a slow burn one - but overall the book is a story of female empowerment in an age of male power. Most of the main characters are female, as are most of the real political movers in the story. I love the first one the most in the series, but this is a trilogy of companion novels that are all really excellent. 

11. The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman 
A demon-hunting paranormal series set in regency London. I originally held off on buying this book because the cover was atrocious. But it came highly recommended at one of my favourite bookstore (who acknowledged the terrible covers) and I am so glad I read it. I really enjoyed the story and if you are looking for a fun paranormal historical romp – and a YA with little to no romance – than look no further! The main character, Lady Helen, is such a bad ass female and I really enjoyed her – she was no simpering ninny but she also wasn’t completely unrealistic for the time period. I look forward to continuing the series and seeing how the extremely slow burn romance develops. I can also say that the regency details put into the story were quite detailed! I actually looked some things up to see if some of the details of women’s fashion, and young women’s presentation to royalty were accurate – and they were! So its also historically accurate (except for the evil demon part).

12. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon 
I should be upfront and say that I only gave Outlander a 3/5 rating on Goodreads. I really loved the first half of the book – I was so immersed in the setting and Jamie and Claire’s love story, it was beautifully written and presented. But about halfway through the book I ran into problems with the amount of sexual violence in the book – and that is what ultimately lowered my rating. I respect Diana Gabaldon’s decision to depict the brutality (especially for women) of the Scottish/English situation, but for me personally it was deeply triggering. However; Outlander is a must for historical fiction lovers – it’s sort of a quintessential read, and even though I have my own issues with it, I can’t deny that it’s a beautifully written piece, with a gorgeous and lush historical setting in Jacobite Scotland and a heart-pounding romance for the ages. I also love the TV show (though I avoid most of the sexual assault scenes).

13. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue  by Mackenzi Lee 
See my review here. I LOVED THIS BOOK. It is such a fun jaunt through 18th century Europe, following British aristocrat Monty, his best friend (and unrequited love) Percy, and sister Felicity as they trek all over Europe following a series of unfortunate incidents, in search of a medical mystery and some high-stakes adventure. It is one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading (or listening to since I did it on audiobook) this year and I laughed out loud so much. Monty is a DELIGHT and I want to be his best friend. I adored this book, and cannot recommend it highly enough. It deals with a lot of current contemporary issues, but through the eyes of a historical context. A definite must read.

14. HONOURABLE MENTION: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows 
More of a pseudo-history than true history, but god, this is a joyful romp about Lady Jane Grey - the infamous nine days Queen. The story addresses the Catholic v. Protestant divide that led to Jane Grey being heir to the Tudor Throne, but does so with a fantasy twist - instead of religious divides, its a division between shape changers and non-shape changers. Yes, I know that sounds weird. It really is a hard to explain story without making it sound bonkers but the setting is a fun Tudor tale, with a pseudo-history twist, and had me laughing out loud several times. Jane and G - our main characters, are so delightful and witty. Jane in particular I love, no one knows what her face looks like because she's always reading a book - I can relate Jane, I can relate. Anyways, this definitely won't be everyones cup of tea, but if you can put the historical inaccuracies aside for a second (you know, like the ending which completely changes history) it is a really enjoyable, quick, read. 

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