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10 January 2008

Favorite Historical Reads of 2007

The New Year is filled with “Best of…” lists. We thought we would try something g along those lines but with our own Hoydens twist. Several of us have chosen a favorite historically set book we read in 2007. These are books we read in the past year, but they weren’t necessarily first published in 2007--in fact, we’ve included both historical novels and books written in the past that were contemporary when first published.

From Amanda Elyot - March by Geraldine Brooks

March, Geraldine Brooks’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is not merely the best historical novel I read in 2007, but perhaps one of the best ever written. Her premise is a grabber: a “what if” that imagines what Mr. March, the father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and devoted husband of Marmee, is doing while he is serving in the Union army during the early years of the American Civil War.

So, she begins with a story we already know and love and opens up the life of the one character who remains largely unknown in the source material. From there, she shows us a society and a nation that is torn at the seams and deeply frayed, seen though the eyes of an idealist who becomes more and more conflicted as the great conflict rages on. The narrative weaves back and forth between March’s rosier past and his present circumstances; and the last third of the story is told primarily from the first-person POV of Marmee who (as we remember from Little Women) receives a telegram that her wounded husband is in a hospital in Washington DC and has gone down there to be with him.

While her premise itself is a hook, Brooks’s wordsmithing is glorious; her soaring prose is reason enough to read the novel. Her tone and style feel like they are placed squarely and accurately in 1860s America, while remaining totally accessible to contemporary readers. And her imagery transports us to a distant place and time, never shying away from the ugliness and horrors of war and slavery.

And if all this isn’t reason enough to read March, Brooks crashed big-time through the paper wall of received wisdom in the publishing business (this was a big topic of discussion during the Historical Novel Society convention in Albany last June). Confounding all the supposed experts, who claim that you’ll never get a novel published that is (a) set in America; (b) set in the 19th century (in post-Regency years, even though we of course didn’t have a Regency); and (c) features a male protagonist, the heartrending and yet uplifting March became a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

From Pam Rosenthal - Villette by Charlotte Bronte

In 1842, two unsophisticated, unfashionably dressed young Englishwomen journeyed to Brussels, Belgium to study French and teach English at a school for young ladies, the Pensionnat Heger.

The purpose of the adventure was for Charlotte and Emily Bronte to improve their French, in order to equip them to open a school back in England. The teaching they did at the Pensionnat helped pay their fees.

Charlotte was twenty-six, Emily twenty-four. Shy and quaint, austere and stiff-neckedly Protestant, these daughters of a Yorkshire parson were completely out of their element in a sophisticated, continental, Catholic capital with its courts and cathedrals. Emily's stay was brief and miserable. After accompanying her sister home, Charlotte returned to the Pensionnat for an extra year of study.

They never opened their school. It's well known that after Charlotte's return to Haworth Parsonage the Brontes wrote some of the greatest of the Victorian novels. Charlotte gave the romance tradition the poor, proud governess Jane Eyre, the tortured Mr. Rochester, and the madwoman in the attic. Emily made us the less assimilable (but imo even more wonderful) gift of the angry, tragic lovers Heathcliff and Cathy, their fierce unquiet spirits still walking the moors at Wuthering Heights.

But it's less well known that during her year away from home, Charlotte fell unhappily and unrequitedly in love with her professor at the Pensionnat Heger, and that Villette -- her final, less well-known, but greatest, novel -- draws upon all the pain and passion of that experience of love and foreignness, distilling it into a wonderful, terrible, near-hallucinatory novelistic aloneness. Charlotte's "cold" outsider heroine Lucy Snowe cherishes within herself a burning matrix of self-contradictory desires -- for love, for power, for independence -- that still can shock a twenty-first century reader.

I'm not kidding about the shock -- when my book group read Villette a few months ago (even back-to-back with the uncompromising Wuthering Heights) we found ourselves awestruck by its egotism and eroticism, its furious insights into desire and gender. No wonder this book has never quite made it into "the tradition" -- or any tradition. All the more reason to read it.

From Lauren Willig - The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser

My pick for 2007 is George MacDonald Fraser's glorious spoof on swashbucklers, The Pyrates. It's a rollicking romp through seventeenth century high seas that sends up all our favorite stereotypes, from Charles II (complete with wig and spaniels), to the strong-jawed hero and the requisite bearded pirate who bursts out with "Arr" and "avast me lubbers" at the least provocation. It's one of those books that, while it makes no pretense at historical verisimilitude, makes you feel terribly clever for getting the historical in-jokes, such as the practice of the heroine, Lady Vanity, of classifying Society bucks as N.S.A.V., N.S.I.S.C., and N.S.A. (Not Safe at Vauxhall, Not Safe in Sedan Chairs, Not Safe Anywhere). As MacDonald Fraser himself says in his introduction, it's history not as it was, but as it ought to have been-- and a jolly good time it is!

From Mary Blayney - The Vanishing Viscountess by Diane Gaston

The Vanishing Viscountess is the latest book from Diane Gaston, one of
the most gifted historical-romance story tellers working today.

Diane's road to publication is legendary. Her first book features a
prostitute as a heroine and it took more than one trip to the Golden
Hearts for an editor to see what a treasure they had in The Mysterious
Miss M
and Diane's writing. A RITA win came next for Diane for her
book, A Reputable Rake. This woman has a career ahead of her and some
impressive books behind her.

The Vanishing Viscountess starts off with action, a sinking ship.
Diane finds a convincing way to put Marlena and the hero, Tanner,
together in a bedroom while still strangers and to keep them together
as they become friends and lovers.

Tanner escorts Marlena through England without the benefits of his
title and wealth, giving the author's version of a story many writers
are tempted to try. Diane succeeds beautifully. In the course of their
adventure their flaws both save and threaten them. While not exactly
edgy the author comes close as she presents the darker side of the
Regency, which is her specialty. Possibly because of her long career
in social work, Diane has the ability to draw flawed but appealing
characters that stay with you long after the end.

In the interest of full disclosure: Diane is a good friend of mine.
But loyalty and honesty are not at odds here. This is a wonderful book
that I encourage all to read.


From Tracy Grant - The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

I have a confession to make. Though Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is one of those books I’ve always meant to read, I didn’t actually read it until this year. And the reason I finally read it relates to my own writing. When my publisher wanted a new title for the reissue of Daughter of the Game, one of the things I liked about Secrets of a Lady (the title we finally settled on) was the echo of the title of the Henry James novel, which I thought gave the title a lovely nineteenth century-novel feel. It then occurred to me that perhaps it would be a good idea if I read The Portrait of a Lady. (I had visions of being at a book event and being asked if I’d been thinking of The Portrait of a Lady when I came up with my title and having to confess that yes I had but that I’d never actually read The Portrait of a Lady.)

So one evening I made a cup of tea and curled up in an armchair with The Portrait of a Lady. The theme is one Henry James returned to frequently, from a fascinating variety of angles—a young American heiress abroad, confronting the mysterious complexities and intricate historical layers of England and the Continent. The opening pages immediately pull one into the world of an English country estate that is now owned by American expatriates. The opening scene, afternoon tea on an expanse of green lawn, is still vivid in my memory. But I read the early part of the book at a leisurely pace. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, but I didn’t feel compelled to race through the story. Yet, the more I learned about the characters, the more intriguing—and in some ways elusive—they became. Then in the midst of the book the story takes a time jump. After that time jump, the characters’ circumstances and attitudes have altered (this is particularly true of Isabel Archer, the heroine). I found myself turning the pages as compulsively as I would in a tautly written mystery. Looking for clues and answers, not to “who done it” but to who these characters were beneath all the layers James so brilliantly builds up. As a writer it was a fascinating lesson. And as a reader, it was an enthralling reading experience.

Now it's your turn. What was your favorite historically set read of 2007? Do let us know, and we can all start working on our reading lists for 2008!



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25 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY has long been one of my favorite novels, and thought PYRATES was a whopping good read, such wicked fun. When George Macdonald Fraser died last month, I wept over the loss of his delicious sense of humor and the improbability of any more Flashman novels or a sequel to PYRATES without a seance.

VILLETTE has been on my TBR list forever, and Pam's post on it will surely send it at least to the top of the stack!

4:55 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

My favorite historical read has to be the final volume in Libba Bray's trilogy, A Terrible Beauty. I bought it New Year's Eve, and could barely put it down long enough to attend the party I had to go to that night. The world that she created in the realms was so vivid, as well as her portrait of late Victorian London that I just wanted to live in that world a little longer. If I can bring 1/10 of that sense of atmosphere to my historical YA I will consider it a success.

Thanks for the recommendations! I have a copy of Pyrates on my bookshelf that I've often thought about reading. I adore The Portrait of a Lady and hated Jane Campion's film of it, I thought she missed the point completely. I wonder why the BBC hasn't done a version of Villette since they've done Jane Eyre a zillion times.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Belinda said...

NORTH AND SOUTH by Elizabeth Gaskell. Like I posted in my blog, it was like learning to love reading all over again. Margaret Hale, daughter of a southern English parson, moves with her family to industrial northern England and is shocked to find the working and living conditions so far below the easy countryside situation she is used to. When Margaret realizes that her father's pupil, Mr Thornton, is the master of the factory forcing people to live in such squalor, she can't stay quiet.

This book was wonderful. It's like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE but with added levels of philosophy on human rights, the role of women in society, and the relations between social classes.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So many wonderful suggestions! I actually haven't read any of the books on fellow Hoydens suggestions list, though I've been hearing great things about George MacDonald Fraser for years (and "Pyrates" sounds particularly fun, especially as I've been watching the Pirates of the Carribbean movies a lot lately), I've heard all sorts of buzz about "March" this year, and I've always wondered about "Villette," though I didn't quite know what it was about until Pam's great (and very intriguing) description.

I just added Mary Blayney's contribution, Diane Gaston's "The Vanishing Viscountess to the List" (the post had gone astray online), a book I've also heard great things about (the title alone is so intriguing).

Elizabeth, I keep thinking about plunging into the Libba Bray trilogy. Not sure what I haven't. Maybe because I don't tend to read Y.A. How Y.A. are they? You're account of the description of London alone makes me want to read them.

Belinda, my good friend and fellow writer Monica McCarty gave me the DVD of "North and South" for my birthday last year. It was quite wonderful and really makes me want to read the book. It's so comparatively unusual to have a story set in the industrial north, and I love the layered issues the story deals with.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, yes Libba Bray's books are technically YA, but you have to remember that 16 year olds in 1895 are not the same as our label obsessed, text messaging, cellphone using teens of today. Still, the emotions are the same, the growing pains of having to make some serious choices, leaving friends behind, plus there is the paranormal element to it as well. Plus the books are about female power, which I always find interesting. Her books remind me of the YA I read growing up like Johnny Tremaine and The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! "Witch of Blackbird Pond" was one of my favorite books growing up, and I also really enjoyed "Johnny Tremaine." Did you ever read Sallie Watson's Y.A. historicals? "Hornet's Nest" (pre-American Revolution), "Lark" (post English Civil War), etc...

11:01 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

I am ::gasp:: someone who doesn't enjoy the Brontes. I can appreciate that they're "good" but just not good in a way I enjoy! Villette sounds interesting tho...

I'm going to go and research the others...they sound fantastic!

I just finished Silent in the Grave and Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn. Wow. Fantastic. So many historical elements that had me itching to go do some extra research and a great adventure on top of that!

Also adding North and South as I've heard great reviews. Sounds appealing on EVERY level!

11:16 AM  
Blogger Belinda said...

Tracy, I actually read North and South because I loved that same BBC movie. There are things changed in order to make the book fit in a viewer-friendly miniseries, but I feel the movie caught everything the book was trying to portray. If you liked the movie, you really ought to read the book.

Also, I have to agree that Libba Bray's books are great, and not the typical sort of YA. Very adult-friendly, I think.

Stephanie, I loved Silent in the Grave, and I have its sequel on my TBR list. I'm glad you liked it, I have high hopes myself!

11:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Stephanie, I can understand. I enjoy the Brontes, but when it comes to 19th century novelists, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot are more to my taste. I get impatient with Jane Eyre (despite loving a lot of things in the story), and while I can appreciate the emotional power of "Wuthering Heights," I was so annoyed with Heathcliff by the end it really distanced me from the story.

Thanks for the recommendations of the Deanna Rayburn books--they look intriguing (particularly as I also write historical suspense), and your comments definitely make me want to read them!

11:26 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Belinda! Good to know the BBC version is so close to the book. It was a wonderful adaptation--so many vivid characters from different levels of society.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Tracy--you worded my feelings about the Brontes far better than I could have! Not to mention Jane Austen IS my favorite author...

Ah, Historical Suspense! I was trying to figure out how to define them as I found one book in the romance section, one book on a general fiction table, and they have quite a bit of mystery and intrigue.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I thought I'd seen the Rayburn books talked about as historical suspense/mystery. it's tough when books cross genres (though a lot of my favorite books do). I have the same problem defining my own books. I've been shelved in mystery, romance, and general fiction (for books in the same series). Now my books are being reissued in trade with covers that have a historical-fiction-with-suspense-overtones look that I think (hope!) really works.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Jane said...

My favorite historical was Julia Ross'"Games of Pleasure." I also loved "Clandestine."

12:21 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Jane! Julia Ross is a fabulous writer (I've been enjoyed her books back to when she was writing traditional Regencies as Jean Ross Ewing). I'm behind on her books (I have both "Games of Pleasure" and "Clandestine" tbr).

12:31 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

You must read Villette! It was an underground classic when I read it for the first time, uh, a long time ago. And I too enjoyed Fraser's Pyrates--I was so sad to hear he'd died recently. I blogged today about the Flashman books at the Risky Regencies blog.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Janet! "Villette" sounds more and more interesting. Did it cause a stir/scandal when it was first published?

Off to read your Risky Regencies blog...

1:44 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I can't narrow the list to just one, so, in no particular order...

I love Donis Casey's mystery series set in early 20th century Oklahoma. First book is The Old Buzzard Had It Coming.

Sharpe's Waterloo is in a three-way tie with Triumph and Trafalgar (both of which I read in 2006) for my favorite of the whole series.

Jo Beverley's Lady Beware was my favorite historical romance of the year.

Broos Campbell has a fun and well-written American Navy Age of Sail series started--first book is No Quarter.

I think those are my favorites for historical fiction. If I expanded the list to include alternate history and historical nonfiction, it'd be a lot longer.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Susan! I think "Sharpe's Waterloo" is my favorite of the series--I love how you get a sense both of the an overview of the battle and the event surrounding it, and the gritty, on-the-ground reality. Have to check out the other books you mention!

2:28 PM  
Blogger Monica McCarty said...

Sadly I don't think I've read any of the books on the main list--your synopsis of Portrait of a Lady sounds familiar, but maybe I saw part of the movie. LOL. Sounds like one I should read (or re-read). I have read North and South and like Belinda really enjoyed it--but it was a few years ago so it doesn't count. Hmm...best historical read of the year is a tough one. I've been reading mostly romance lately. I think it was this year that I read Penny Williamon's Once in a Blue Moon--so that's my pick. :) Either that or something by Marsha Canham (since I went through most of her backlist this year).

5:44 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Omigosh, I'm in the same company with a Pulizer Prize winner, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, and George MacDonald Fraser (who I just learned of today but, boy, what a creative mind he must have had).
Surely I am not worthy.....
But, Mary, thank you very much for mentioning The Vanishing Viscountess and for saying such nice things of my work. I am a very great admirer of Mary's books as well - such a quiet elegance to her Regencies. I can't wait for Traitor's Kiss....

5:58 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

You ladies are going to cost me a fortune. You realize this, right? What a great list of books. Fortunately I have already read THE VANISHING VISCOUNTESS and I must concur. It was a terrific read. I have both of the Deanna Rayburn books on top of my TBR pile at the moment. I will be searching out Pyrates, as well as the other Flashman novels. Villette sounds fascinating. Love Julia Ross as well. I really loved both of Anna Campbell's books - Claiming the Courtesan and Untouched and highly recommend both of them. Mistress of the Elgin Marbles was also an intriguing read.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

KATHERINE, by Anya Seton---that's one of my favorite historicals and I just discovered it this year!

Oh my, how could I have gone so long without reading this book---a classic medieval love story, ture to history.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Thank you, doglady!

I completely forgot about Mistress of the Elgin Marbles! I read that, too, and enjoyed it very much.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Monica, Penny will be so excited you chose "Once in a Blue Moon"--it's a fabulous book, isn't it? Another I still have really vivid mental images from. I particularly loved the Marsah Canham that's a Robin Hood take off--I can see the cover in my head, but I'm blanking on the title. Your books remind me a lot of Marsha Canham's--they have the same adventure and richness and intense emotions.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Diane, I'm so glad you found the post! And you aren't the only one excited for "Traitor's Kiss" (like "The Vanishing Viscountess," another fabulous title!

Doglady and Diane, is "Mistress of the Elgin Marbles" the nonfiction biography of Lady Elgin? If so I have a copy someone gave me that is (with so many other books) in my tbr pile.

Kathrynn, I read "Katherine" in seventh grade, I think. Such a fabulous book! The characters jump right off the page.

10:00 PM  

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