Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Raye's List of the Best Historical Fiction

After reading ten works of historical fiction which I chose from "Best of..." lists on the internet, I am ready to provide my own top--ten list. Only one of those just read is included here. The rest come from my reading history.

What, in my judgment, qualifies as historical fiction? I would say that the term should be reserved for books written at least 75 years or so after the events depicted; otherwise participants and witnesses to the events would still be alive, and the work would qualify more as remembrance. I would also specify that the important events and culture of the time being portrayed should be prominent and not just serve as an atmospheric backdrop for another type of story altogether.

What makes a work of historical fiction outstanding? In my judgment, it must above all tell a good story. I want suspense; I want drama. If I wanted just to read a history lesson I would read a history book. The characters should come alive as real people, with problems and conflicts brought about by the events of their time. If the protagonists are historic personages, I want their reported actions and thoughts to reflect as much as is recorded of their known facts, even though the author's imagination necessarily enters in.

That brings me to another of my requirements: I want the history to be accurate, because I am a dilettante reader who frequently does not have much knowledge of the era being depicted. I don't want to be fooled, to have events twisted around or falsified to fit the author's plot requirements. I feel that a considerable number of historical fiction writers indulge in this practice, trusting that their readers have little knowledge of the history and won't know the difference.

Finally, I want to be immersed in a different time and place, with all the sights and sounds and smells and customs. Science fiction/fantasy writers are often very good at this sort of world building, but they have the advantage of being able to use only their imaginations and not having to do any research. How much more difficult it must be for a writer to interpret and convey real life as it once was.

Here, then, is a list of the works of historical fiction that best fit my requirements:

The imagined "autobiography" of the lame, stuttering man who outwitted all his ambitious, bloodthirsty rivals to become Roman Emperor in 41 AD. Graves does such a good job of making the story convincing that one can readily believe it to be the emperor's actual writings.

A character-driven account of the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the prospective of the officers of both the Union and Confederate armies. Shaara examines how men of good conscience who were often old friends could enter into deadly conflict with each other. I was surprised that this book affected me so deeply on an emotional level.

The well-known Gothic Romance about a deformed bell ringer, a lust-filled priest, and a beautiful gypsy girl, set in the Middle Ages in Paris. In addition to bringing to life the most exciting of stories, Hugo creates a "thick" world, immersing the reader in the time and place in all its splendor and squalor.

A grim look inside Andersonville Prison, the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, with characters both historical and imagined. I read this book about 40 years ago, and I can still remember some of the details vividly. It's a very disturbing book to read, but then it should be.

A highly melodramatic story of love and sacrifice set in London and Paris during the French Revolution. Dickens is one of the greatest of storytellers, so this novel may be a bit long on plot and short on history, but it does provide an insight into why the common people were so revengeful against the aristocrats. As a plus, this novel has one of the best opening paragraphs ever and a last sentence that makes me cry, every time.

A look at World War I through the eyes of an Irish soldier fighting with the British army in Flanders and then, tragically, back in Ireland against his own countrymen during the Easter Uprising. An unflinching look at the horrors of war, and also one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read.

In this play about the Salem Witch Trials, the characters and events are historically accurate, but the motivations for the actions come from the author's imagination. Miller wrote it as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the government went on a hunt for Communists. History often repeats itself this way, because scapegoats come in handy when things aren't perfect.

A full-bodied account of Egypt in the 14th century B.C. through the eyes of a physician to the Pharaoh. This is the most immersive piece of historical fiction I have ever read, plus it raises philosophical questions that are pertinent today.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Aztec civilization, including graphic descriptions of human sacrifice and of a large variety of sexual practices. The fictional protagonist gives a tongue-in-cheek account, which is considered to be historically accurate as to events. This novel is great fun to read.

Everything you ever wanted to know about feudal Japan, through the fact-based story of an Englishman who witnessed and participated in the rise to power of a warlord (shogun), culminating in a famous battle. Fun story: When my daughter was a baby (in 1976) she had a months-long case of colic. The sound of my voice sometimes had a calming effect, so I read large chunks of this book aloud to her. It helped me stay sane during those middle-of-the-night crying spells.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge (1996)

Although Every Man For Himself culminates in the sinking of the Titanic, it is not so much a fictionalized history of that event as it is a social history of the wealthy and privileged passengers and the personal history of the protagonist as he tries to find his place in life. The book is divided into five sections, the action in each one taking place during one day of the short-lived voyage. Thus, only the last chapter narrates the actual sinking.

As narrated by the fictional nephew of the real-life owner of the ship, J. Pierpont Morgan, the large cast of characters includes many who were actual famous upper-crust passengers --Guggenheims, Vanderbilts, Astors--and many who are products of the author's imagination. The young Morgan recounts the amusements of the rich and famous--the formal dinners, the concerts, the rounds of tennis, the flirtations, the clever and sarcastic conversations--all the while as he is feeling somewhat set apart because he cannot quite match their detachment and self-absorption. While he struggles with vague ideas about right and wrong and social injustices, he is influenced by a cynical fellow passenger, who tells him, "Have you not yet learnt that it's every man for himself?"

That statement, given in a different context, of course foreshadows the happenings of the last section, when passengers and crew react to the disaster. Through these events, narrated at breakneck speed reflecting the frantic pace of the action, young Morgan reveals his true character by his instinctive conduct.

All along, as the story progresses, Bainbridge cleverly slips into the narrative the many possible causes for the sinking, such as the disappearance of all the binoculars, the excessive speed demanded because the captain was ordered to make record time in the crossing, the ignoring of the warnings about icebergs, the fire in a coal bunker which was known about at the time the voyage began. Insinuated blame is cast on J. Pierpont Morgan, because he knew about the fire and cancelled his own ticket just prior to the departure.

I am totally impressed by this novel. Its tone is ironic without being cynical or sarcastic. It is often quite humorous. It is subtle, so that it becomes much more than just the action story of a tragedy or an indictment of the upper class. Its prose is precise, with never a word more or less than is needed. It is short, literally a one-day read, but it is just long enough.


This novel won England's Whitbread Award in 1996 and was nominated for the Booker. Bainbridge is a writer I am going to further investigate. Her The Bottle Factory Outing is also excellent.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989)

Speaking of long historical novels, this one is so thick I may use it as a step stool. Warning: This one is very hard to read in bed.

The setting is medieval England in the 12th century, when the country was often involved in civil war and the king and the church were vying for dominance. The plot centers around the people and strife involved in the decades-long building of a vast Gothic cathedral.

Although The Pillars of the Earth is marketed as a work of historical fiction, it reads more like a fantasy novel with a mock-medieval setting, in the style of Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin. It features an action-adventure plot with a set of stock characters, as is typical of the fantasy genre. While the background political strife is based on recorded history, the primary plot is entirely fictitious and so melodramatic and stereotypical as to be beyond belief as real history.

The plot is patterned so that every time things seem to be going well something very bad happens, over and over and over. Then, immediately after, the "good" people rise to the top again. For example, the construction project is finally going well when a nasty earl and his knights burn down the village and kill the master builder in charge. Then his son takes over and completes one section of the building, but while the first mass is underway the roof falls in. A bit later the master builder's stepson shows up to complete the cathedral. This pattern is also repeated in the many subplots. Eventually the story falters because the reader has come to know that no matter how dark the outlook seems, right will eventually prevail.

When Follett's characters are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid. Only a few of the supporting characters show any shades of grey, but they redeem themselves and turn to the white. We have a good monk and a bad monk (who is always dressed in black), two good builders (with women who love them) and one bad builder (who is impotent), and two good women (who are beautiful, with liquid eyes and lustrous hair) and a bad woman (who is hideously ugly, with boils all over her face).

Also following the formula of the more lurid branch of the fantasy genre, this novel is filled with graphic violence and graphic sex, both consensual and forced.

Unexpectedly, the most specific historic details in the book concern the cathedral itself -- the floor plans and challenges of a vast construction built of stone designed to last for hundreds of years. Although many of the technical aspects were hard to understand, it did make me long to see some of the grand cathedrals of Europe for myself.

Even though I don't consider this a historical novel, despite its backdrop, I still found it to be quite entertaining to read, maybe even because of its very predictability. It's often very comforting to know the good guys from the bad guys and to be able to anticipate that everything will come out all right in the end. That's probably why small children like to listen to the same books over and over again. That's probably why The Lord of the Rings is my most frequently re-read book. This was and continues to be a very popular novel.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)

Historical novels tend to be long, sometimes too long. In contrast, Year of Wonders is relatively short, too short, as it turns out.

This is the story of one small village in 1665-66, when the black plague spread across England. It is the first-person account of a young woman who is a servant for the most prominent family and for the vicar and his wife. Through her eyes we witness the coming of the plague, the subsequent decision of the village to quarantine itself to prevent the spread, the deaths of two-thirds of the population, and several incidents of attendant violence and mayhem as residents seek to avert danger and place blame. The many dramatic events which occur hold reader interest, yet they come with little back-story of the characters involved to indicate why they respond as they do. Many writers have used the plot device of a group of people cut off from the rest of civilization, and the best of these authors have developed their cast of characters to the extent that their actions seem logical, at times inevitable. If Brooks had given her story more room to develop, it could have been much more rewarding. Instead, she tends just to introduce one dramatic event after another. In fact, many of the character actions and reactions don't seem believable, even given the extraordinary circumstances.

Brooks' inspiration for the book was a village in England which did quarantine itself in 1666 during the last great surge of the plague. This foundation, the continuation of superstitious belief in some and religious belief in an angry God in others, and the random inclusion of a few period terms are the only obviously historical contributions. Even her heroine seems remarkably to think and act like a much more modern woman. I hesitate to class this as a historical novel, because the history if largely absent.

This novel has an eventful plot and an assured style, and is thus fast and entertaining reading. After I finished, though, I realized how much more it could have been, if more had been included.


FYI....Geraldine Brooks' 2005 novel March, a historical novel with a Civil War setting, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Egyptian by Mika Waltari (1949)

This review comes with a story from my youth. When I was in junior high I was already a confirmed bookworm, so I stopped by my little town's public library once or twice a week. By that time I had gone through their stock of children's books, and young adult books did not yet exist, so I read adult fiction. One day I brought home The Egyptian. My mother, who was also a dedicated reader, often read the books I brought home, and she picked this one up and read it. When I looked for the book later in the week, she told me she had taken it back to the library because it was "not appropriate" for a girl of my age. Of course I was then consumed with the desire to read it, but I knew I could not even check it out and read it in secret because the librarian might tell my mother. (This was the kind of town where everybody knew everybody, and people would actually tell your parents if they saw you misbehaving.) Imagine my excitement, then, when in my research for the best of historical fiction I found this book on several lists.

What a fine work of historical fiction this is! It is written as the autobiography of the fictional character Sinuhe, who rises from obscurity to become personal physician to the historical Pharaoh Akhnaton in the 14th century B.C. He witnesses the reigns and deaths of four Pharaohs and the near collapse of that world's greatest empire, when religious strife disrupts the country and enemies threaten the borders. He is more than just an observer of events, though, as his personal story is a journey of self-discovery, raising many philosophical questions that are pertinent today.

This is a full-bodied re-creation of a time and place--the sights, the weather, the sounds, the dress, the social habits, the customs, the religious practices, and particularly the smells. Waltari even re-recreates a battle with chariots and horses and swordsmen and archers so that it is understandable and immediate. According to all reports, professional Egyptologists have praised his efforts. Some historians have disagreed with his account as to who was related to whom, but then others agree with him and he is by-and-large considered to be historically accurate.

To my mind, Waltari sets the standard for historical fiction. This is a fascinating book, and I recommend it highly.


So why did my mother think it to be inappropriate for her 14-year-old daughter? It includes a fair number of sexual encounters, but they are all non-descriptive and relayed in euphemistic terms, not much different from what can be found in the Bible: Sinuhe "lies with" three women he loves. The back cover of my copy of the book informs that it was "widely condemned as obscene" when it was first published. How times have changed. This would not even raise an eyebrow today.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Romola by George Eliot (1863)

It's not often that I give up on a book. In fact, I think I could count on one hand the number of times I have not finished a book I started. But I give up on this historical novel about 15th Century Florence. It may have a stellar plot; I can't say because in the 135 pages I read all that happens is that a young Italian-Greek man arrives in Florence and meets Romola, the title character. It is judged by those who know such things to be historically accurate and immersive in the era, which I'm sure is true because it is thick with references to various scholars and politicians of the time and every page contains obscure allusions, unfamiliar phrases. and sentences in Latin, a language then familiar to educated people. The fact that the book needs 50 pages of notes in very small print to make it intelligible to a modern reader would give you a clue that Eliot knew more than most anybody about the time and place.

So after spending four days reading 135 pages (plus 17 pages of notes), I just could not face 541 more pages (plus notes).

Read this one at your own risk. Some say it is very good.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Pure by Andrew Miller (2011)

In my quest to read the best of historical novels I consulted several "Best of...." lists on the Internet, and this novel about Paris a few years before the Revolution was mentioned on several sites. Frankly, I am puzzled. Pure seems to me to be a very slight book, short on historical information and also short on plot interest. It would seem to have all the ingredients for a corker of a story, because (as the back cover of the book tells you) it includes a graveyard, mummified corpses, chanting priests, rape, suicide, accidental death, friendship, desire, and love. The back cover neglects to mention an attempted murder and a hint of necrophilia. One would think, with all that, it would be impossible to produce an even slightly boring novel, but Miller did it.

The protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer who is hired by the French government in 1785 to demolish the oldest and largest cemetery in Paris, unearthing all the bodies, including many mass graves, and moving the bones to another sanctified location. Being a provincial and a newcomer to Paris, he hires a former colleague and 30 former miners to help him carry out the work. He makes some new friends, who are involved in painting graffiti against the monarchy on walls around the city. He meets a girl. Over the course of a year, he observes or experiences all of the above, and yet the telling of it is as deadpan and unexciting as is this review.

The clearing of the cemetery did happen and dissidents did paint slogans on walls prior to the 1789 Revolution, but these are the only references to the history of the time. Anyone who reads will encounter hits and misses. This is one of my misses. It's not a terrible book, just a slight book.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (1992)

Sadly, I know only bits and pieces of the history of countries other than my own, and almost all I do know I picked up from reading novels. Undoubtedly, much of that information is wrong or incomplete. For example, take the French Revolution: From popular culture I had learned that when Queen Marie Antoinette was told that the people were hungry because they had no bread she said, "Then let them eat cake." As it turns out, that's apocryphal. From high school and college history lessons I previously knew that France had a revolution shortly after the American Revolution, that King Louis the Someteenth and Queen Marie Antoinette had their heads chopped off, that Robespierre was somehow involved, and that a mob stormed the Bastille. The rest of my prior knowledge of that important time in history came from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. From that most melodramatic of novels I learned something about why the general populace was so angry at the aristocrats and about how their anger turned into violence and the Reign of Terror. In this novel, Mantel further fills in my knowledge by providing everything I ever wanted to know (and more) about the political maneuverings before and during the Revolution, focusing on the lives of three of the most well known revolutionaries.

The three are Maximilien Robespierre, a thoughtful and self-righteous lawyer who becomes for a time the leader of the revolutionaries; Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre's childhood friend who as a writer of pamphlets and newsletters becomes the voice of the revolution to the populace; and Georges-Jacques Danton, a lawyer with an imposing physique and powerful oratory style who often uses the turmoil of the period as an opportunity to enrich his own wealth. Mantel's account reveals not only what they did (which by all accounts is historically very accurate), but also why they did what they did (which comes, obviously, from her imagination and interpretation of their known histories). All the other characters in this very long and detailed novel are also actual historical personages.

This historical novel would have seemed to me to be too long on information and too short on drama, EXCEPT for the fact that the characters were so well developed that they became real people in my mind and that I was so ignorant about the actual history that I was held in suspense about who would survive and who would fall victim to the Guillotine. I guess that is an example of why sometimes ignorance is bliss. The author examines only the actions and motivations of the leading revolutionaries, neglecting entirely any insight into the dissatisfaction of the people, picturing them instead as an uneducated and bloodthirsty mob highly susceptible to being swayed this way and that by their leaders.

Hilary Mantel is most well known for her historical novels about Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. Both Wolf Hall (reviewed in October, 2011) and its sequel Bringing Up the Bodies (reviewed in January, 2013) won England's prestigious Booker Prize. She is an extraordinarily talented writer and her research is said to be extensive. Judged strictly on an enjoyability scale, this novel falls short of the excitement of A Tale of Two Cities. Judged on historical accuracy and amount of information conveyed, this is at the top of the scale.