So I haven’t blogged since September. Shame on me. But a bunch of you have asked for suggestions for historical fiction books for Christmas gifts so here’s my list of favourites!!!
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout young nun, leaves the south Indian state of Kerala in 1947 for a missionary post in Yemen. During the arduous sea voyage, she saves the life of an English doctor bound for Ethiopia, Thomas Stone, who becomes a key player in her destiny when they meet up again at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa. Seven years later, Sister Praise dies birthing twin boys: Shiva and Marion, the latter narrating his own and his brothers long, dramatic, biblical story set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up and the love story of their adopted parents, both doctors at Missing. The boys become doctors as well and Vergheses weaving of the practice of medicine into the narrative is fascinating even as the story bobs and weaves with the power and coincidences of the best 19th-century novel.
Abundance by Sena Jeter Nasland
The opening sentence of Naslund’s fictional memoir of Marie Antoinette (“Like everyone, I am born naked”) sets a hypnotically intimate tone that never wavers as the much-maligned Austrian princess recounts her life from baptism in the Rhine and rebirth as French citizen to appointment with the guillotine. In Naslund’s (Ahab’s Wife) sympathetic portrayal, 14-year-old “Toinette” arrives in France a pretty-mannered naïf determined to please the king, the court and, most importantly, her husband, the Dauphin. The novel provides a wealth of detail as Toinette savors the food, architecture, music and gardens of Versailles; indulges in hair and clothing rituals; gets acquainted with her indifferent partner and her scheming new relations; and experiences motherhood and loss. Her story unfolds like classical tragedy—the outcome known, the account riveting—as famous incidents are reinterpreted (the affair of the necklace, the flight to Varennes), culminating in a heartbreaking description of the bloody head of the Princess de Lamballe held aloft on a pike for the deposed queen to see. With vivid detail and exquisite narrative technique, Naslund exemplifies the best of historical fiction, finding the woman beneath the pose, a queen facing history as it rises up against her.
The Salt Road by Jane Johnson
Isabelle’s estranged archeologist father dies, leaving her a puzzle. In a box she finds some papers and a mysterious African amulet — but their connection to her remains unclear until she embarks on a trip to Morocco to discover how the amulet came into her father’s possession. When the amulet is damaged and Isabelle almost killed in an accident, she fears her curiosity has got the better of her. But Taib, her rescuer, knows the dunes and their peoples, and offers to help uncover the amulet’s extraordinary history, involving Tin Hinan — She of the Tents — who made a legendary crossing of the desert, and her beautiful descendant Mariata. Across years and over hot, shifting sands, tracking the Salt Road, the stories of Isabelle and Taib, Mariata and her lover, become entangled with that of the lost amulet. It is a tale of souls wounded by history and of love blossoming on barren ground.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie series by Alan Bradley
It’s the beginning of a lazy summer in 1950 at the sleepy English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Up at the great house of Buckshaw, aspiring chemist Flavia de Luce passes the time tinkering in the laboratory she’s inherited from her deceased mother and an eccentric great uncle. When Flavia discovers a murdered stranger in the cucumber patch outside her bedroom window early one morning, she decides to leave aside her flasks and Bunsen burners to solve the crime herself, much to the chagrin of the local authorities. But who can blame her? What else does an eleven-year-old science prodigy have to do when left to her own devices? With her widowed father and two older sisters far too preoccupied with their own pursuits and passions—stamp collecting, adventure novels, and boys respectively—Flavia takes off on her trusty bicycle Gladys to catch a murderer. In Alan Bradley’s critically acclaimed debut mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, adult readers will be totally charmed by this fearless, funny, and unflappable kid sleuth. But don’t be fooled: this carefully plotted detective novel (the first in a new series) features plenty of unexpected twists and turns and loads of tasty period detail.
The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo
Meet the Keller family, five generations of firstborn women—an unbroken line of daughters—living together in the same house on a secluded olive grove in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California.
Anna, the family matriarch, is 112 and determined to become the oldest person in the world. An indomitable force, strong in mind and firm in body, she rules Hill House, the family home she shares with her daughter Bets, granddaughter Callie, great-granddaughter Deb, and great-great-granddaughter Erin. Though they lead ordinary lives, there is an element of the extraordinary to these women: the eldest two are defying longevity norms. Their unusual lifespans have caught the attention of a geneticist who believes they hold the key to breakthroughs that will revolutionize the aging process for everyone.But Anna is not interested in unlocking secrets the Keller blood holds. She believes there are some truths that must stay hidden, including certain knowledge about her origins that she has carried for more than a century. Like Anna, each of the Keller women conceals her true self from the others. While they are bound by blood and the house they share, living together has not always been easy. And it is about to become more complicated now that Erin, the youngest, is back, alone and pregnant, after two years abroad with an opera company. Her return and the arrival of the geneticist who has come to study the Keller family ignites explosive emotions that these women have kept buried and uncovers revelations that will shake them all to their roots.
Sins of the House of Borgia by Sarah Bower
A young Jewish woman is drawn into the splendor and corruption surrounding the court of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, in Bower’s debut, a slick historical soap opera. After Esther Sarfati is baptized and becomes a lady-in-waiting to the widowed Lucrezia Borgia, the pope’s illegitimate daughter, she is attracted to Lucrezia’s seductive and cruel brother, Cesare. Esther becomes ensnared in a web of deceit and betrayal as Lucrezia is sent in a political marriage to the powerful Alfonso d’Este, heir to the dukedom of Ferrara. Determined to pursue a romance with the elusive Cesare, Esther is increasingly drawn into the schemes and passions of the Ferrara and Borgia families. While Esther’s blind love for the careless and usually absent Cesare strains belief, the sheer grandeur of the papal and Ferrara courts, and the spectacle of the Borgia and Ferrara siblings’ rivalries and revenges form a glittering take on one of the most notorious families of the Italian Renaissance.
My name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliviera
Mary Sutter’s expert midwifery skills are renowned throughout Albany, New York, in 1861, yet she yearns for more. After local physicians refuse to formally train her in medicine, and her hoped-for husband chooses her twin sister instead, she heads south to Washington, D.C., bringing only a valise and her single-minded ambition. Mary runs into prejudicial roadblocks even there but gains acceptance as a charwoman-turned-nurse at the Union Hotel hospital. While caring for wounded, disease-ridden soldiers under appalling conditions, she persistently ignores family pressures to return home. The viewpoint shifts between Mary, her family members, two doctors who come to love her, and real-life figures like Lincoln and Dorothea Dix, ensuring an intimate yet wide-ranging portrait of the chaos, ineptitude, and heartbreak of wartime.
Into the Wilderness series by Sarah Donati
The desire to educate children of all races takes Elizabeth Middleton from her comfortable home in England to the wilderness of eighteenth-century upstate New York where her father, the judge, rules the domain. Independent in spirit, she is appalled at her father’s plans to marry her off to a rich doctor. Enter Nathaniel Bonner of the broad shoulders, flowing locks, and dangling earring. He is the son of Hawkeye, who is the adopted son of Chingachgook (Donati’s use of James Fenimore Cooper character names and settings enhances her tale’s aura of authenticity), and a multifaceted romantic hero passionate about family and his home on a mountain called Hidden Wolf. Elizabeth not only falls in love with Nathaniel but also figures out how to protect Hidden Wolf from the scheming of her father’s crony and avoid the dreaded marriage. Smart and tough, she sets out for help alone when Nathaniel is gravely wounded deep in the woods, fighting her way through miles of backcountry and defending herself from a murderous rapist. Donati’s captivating saga is much like the books in Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling Outlander series.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Set during the hazy, enchanting, and martini-filled world of New York City circa 1938, Rules of Civility follows three friends–Katey, Eve, and Tinker–from their chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year’s Eve through a year of enlightening and occasionally tragic adventures. Tinker orbits in the world of the wealthy; Katey and Eve stretch their few dollars out each evening on the town. While all three are complex characters, Katey is the story’s shining star. She is a fully realized heroine, unique in her strong sense of self amidst her life’s continual fluctuations. Towles’ writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges. Reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Rules of Civility is full of delicious sentences you can sit back and savor (most appropriately with a martini or two).
Molokai by Alan Brennert
This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai’i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.
Elizabeth Street by Laurie Fabiano
In Elizabeth Street, Laurie Fabiano tells a remarkable and previously unheard story of the Italian immigrant experience at the start of the 20th century. Culled from her own family history, Fabiano paints an entrancing portrait of Giovanna Costa, who, reeling from personal tragedies, tries to make a new life in a new world. Shot through with the smells and sights of Scilla, Italy, and New York’s burgeoning Little Italy, this intoxicating story follows Giovanna as she finds companionship, celebrates the birth of a baby girl, takes pride in a growing business, and feels a sense of belonging on a family outing to Coney Island. However, these modest successes are rewarded with the attention of the notorious Black Hand, a gang of brutal extortionists led by Lupo the Wolf. As the stakes grow higher and higher, readers share with Giovanna her desperate struggle to remain outside the fray, and then to fight for–and finally to save–that which is important above all else: family.
The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich
Hannah Levi is renowned throughout Venice for her gift at coaxing reluctant babies from their mothers—a gift aided by the secret “birthing spoons” she designed. But when a count implores her to attend to his wife, who has been laboring for days to give birth to their firstborn son, Hannah is torn. A Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians, but the payment he offers is enough to ransom her beloved husband, Isaac, who has been captured at sea. Can Hannah refuse her duty to a suffering woman? Hannah’s choice entangles her in a treacherous family rivalry that endangers the baby and threatens her voyage to Malta, where Isaac, believing her dead in the plague, is preparing to buy his passage to a new life.
Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
Based on the real Lady Duff Gordon’s journey to Egypt with her maid in the mid-19th century, Pullinger’s novel brings a broiling desert landscape to life through the eyes of the working classes. Maid Sally Naldrett jumps at the opportunity to travel to the Middle East with her lady, but her fairy tale grows even more exquisite when she falls in love with the lady’s interpreter and guide, Omar. The blithe domestic scene takes a turn for the worse when Sally becomes pregnant, much to Lady Duff Gordon’s disappointment. As Egypt’s lower classes rise up against the tyrannical khedive, Sally’s position grows tenuous, forcing her to fend for herself and her half-English, half-Egyptian child in Cairo, a budding tourist town quickly shedding its history. Incorporating actual quotes from the real Lady Duff Gordon’s letters, and endowing Sally with tremendous character, Pullinger successfully imagines an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.
Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay
When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. Instead, the former ballerina finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed the course of her life half a century ago. It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions—Gersh, a brilliant composer, and the exquisite Vera, Nina’s closest friend—became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia that a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal—and an ingenious escape that led Nina to the West and eventually to Boston. Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that a unique set of jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.
All book descriptions are taken from Amazon.com and are not my own. I claim no copyright to them.