All right, it’s Monday morning and that’s obvious because it took me three tries to spell “geography” right in the subject line of this post.
If you’re anything like me, being in the middle of a good book is sometimes the only thing that gets you out of bed on a Monday morning – the thought that if you can only get through the prep work of making yourself sanitary enough to be seen in public, you can sit down (ha!) on the train and read for a bit before facing the harsh reality of the workweek. It’s the little balm between having to wake up and having to go to work.
I’m now in the middle of an existential crisis because I’m reading a book that I don’t enjoy terribly much, but I’m doing a 50-book reading challenge and I’m way behind for the year (probably because I spent six weeks reading Cutting for Stone and another six reading Guns, Germs and Steel – I think my strategy of “picking really long books” was a bit off there) and so if I put it down without finishing it, I feel like I’ve wasted the time I’ve so far put in.
But for those of you who aren’t crippled with this self-defeating neurosis, you might be looking for some good books.
Since my speciality is the historical novel, that’s what I’m going to recommend. Here are nine of the best. Tell me in the comments how you would round this off as a Top Ten.
Time and place: Germany, 1940’s.
This is one of those novels where, when I see someone reading it, I’m jealous because they get to read it for the first time.
Narrated by Death, this book tells the story of Liesel, who steals books, and Hans, who is, unwillingly, hiding a Jewish man from the Nazis. How their stories intersect is a wonderful reveal of German society during the Holocaust – as Philip Ardagh writes in The Guardian, “We meet all shades of German, from truly committed Nazis to the likes of Hans … Zusak is no apologist, but able to give a remarkable insight into the human psyche.”
This book is fascinating in its ability to make you understand a country too often simplified as “the Enemy” in World War Two stories, to help you see the different shades of humanity, from the cowardly to the heroic to the misguided, that both led to the Holocaust and resisted it. It is also beautifully, tenderly, tragically written.
Time and place: England, 1660’s-1680’s
This is a brilliant example of how to avoid many of the perils of historical fiction I wrote about a few weeks ago.
Narrated by Jamie, the illegitimate son of Charles II, this book guides you through a tumultuous time of English history with ease and assurance. It gets the slang and the social attitudes absolutely right (though I’m sure that a genuine scholar of this period would be able to poke a few holes in it) and makes you care desperately about battles whose outcomes you already know. It’s a difficult job to make a modern audience care about the distinction between Catholic and Protestant Kings, but Morgan manages it – and does it without turning his characters from real people into academic studies.
Time and place: England, 1860’s.
My husband gave me this book for Christmas one year while I was writing A Merry Requiem, and I went on a month-long writing strike as a result. There was no point, as I’d never be able to evoke the nineteenth century as well as Sarah Waters did. I might as well just throw my laptop off a cliff and be done with it.
Luckily, I recovered, helped a bit by the fact that when I read Waters’ later work The Little Stranger, I was not at all impressed, and nothing cheers you up as much as finding those people who can kick your ass at everything have their own Achilles Heels.
But anyway – this book is set in 19th-century England. Young Sue Trinder has grown up among the petty thieves of London, and when she receives an offer to be a lady’s maid to a genteel young lady, to help local rogue “Gentleman” scam her out of her fortune, she doesn’t really have a choice in the matter.
But not everything is as it seems, and this book has one of the best mid-novel twists I’ve ever read (Gone Girl has the other). My jaw literally dropped when I read it.
In sum, it is atmospheric, has an incredibly sense of time and place, an amazingly twisted plot, and characters you really care about. Read it!
Time and place: Greece and its environs, approximately 12th century BCE
Departing from the girl-on-girl action of Fingersmith, we now have some Ancient Greek boy-on-boy lovin’ as Madeleine Miller gives poignant new life to the story of Achilles and Patroclus.
Again, you know how it ends and you know it ain’t pretty. And it’s an odd journey there, with mythical creatures and gods and goddesses included in what reads like a fairly straightforward historical novel – not fantasy or sci-fi. But that’s part of the point; the world of The Iliad is one in which gods and goddesses do get involved in human lives, and centaurs do exist, and so to leave that part out, or distill it into some rational explanation like, say, hallucinogenic drugs, would be dishonest to the world Miller is creating.
Time and place: England and Jamaica, 1940’s
Apparently loosely based on the author’s parents’ experiences, Small Island tells the story of two couples in postwar England – Queenie and Bernard, who are English, and Hortence and Gilbert, who are Jamaican. The book effectively conjures up a changing world, still scarred by the war. But what it does even more effectively is garner sympathy for all its characters, even the ones who have done less than honourable things, or who have unlikeable opinions. The book’s narrator shifts from chapter to chapter, taking time, at various points, with all four main characters. The reader is shown how easily misunderstandings can happen, as the same event is told twice, from two different points of view. Along the way, we begin to gain some understanding of how the Britain that we live in today came to be the way it is, as well as getting to read a terrifically good story.
Time and place: Mississippi, early 1960’s
I talked about this book in my post on stereotypes and the author’s responsibility towards minority characters. Like Small Island, it shifts narrators throughout, this time alternating between Abilene and Minnie, who are Black domestics in a small Mississippi town, and Skeeter, who is a White college graduate keen to write about Abilene and Minnie’s lives.
The pacing of this book is tremendous. It’s slow, it’s detailed, and every sentence is full of impending crisis. I know it’s an overused metaphor, but it really did feel like watching the ripples of a pebble dropped in a pond. You felt why these little things mattered tremendously, and that’s an incredibly difficult thing to pull off. There was one scene when Skeeter left her handbag at the house of the leader of the Mean-Girls brigade, and it contained a pamphlet about Jim Crow laws, and your heart sank along with hers when you realised what had happened – even though in our day, that wouldn’t seem at all important. Stockett accurately recreates that feeling of claustrophobia and strict unspoken social codes, with an overarching sense of menace on top of it all.
Time and place: South America, New Zealand, and London, 1830’s to 1860’s
This book is a commitment. Seriously, buy this book dinner before you take it home. You’ll be in for the long haul. Weighing in at 768 pages, this book begins with the famous Captain Robert Fitzroy and some unknown scientist named Charles Darwin on board HMS Beagle, bound for South America. It ends with the two men, decades later, completely changed by what happened on that voyage.
Thompson expertly draws the reader into the scientific and theological debates of the day, the social norms, and the attitudes towards foreign cultures. He draws the complex friendship between Darwin and FitzRoy with sympathy and depth, and shows how destiny can be a combination of character and of chance. An absorbing read.
Time and place: Ireland, 1916
More hot boy-on-boy action, this time against the backdrop of the Irish struggle for Home Rule. Jim and Doyler are from different backgrounds – one is the son of aspirational shopkeeper Mr. Mack, the other of Mr. Mack’s ne’er-do-well army buddy. They become friends and make a pact on Easter Sunday 1915 that in a year’s time they will jump of Forty Foot rock and swim across the bay. As the year unfolds, and Ireland becomes more and more troubled, a complicated relationship begins between the two boys.
Time and place: Rome, 1st century BCE
Steven Saylor has written a series of books centreing around the character of Gordianus the Finder, a detective for hire in ancient Rome. They were recommended to me by my friend Catherine, who will be doing a fabulous guest post on this blog in a few weeks, and she only found them because she was looking for a Dorothy L. Sayers novel, and these were right next to them.
Lucky she did, because they’re fantastic, but this is one of the best.
The murdered body of the overseer of the slaves on a wealthy estate is found in the atrium of the villa, and the owner suspects his slaves. According to Roman law, he is allowed to execute all his slaves if the murderer is not found within five days. Enter Gordianus the Finder.
This is so much more than a slaves-and-sandals mystery romp – it is an amazing recreation of Roman society, from the aristocrats to the slaves. Saylor’s attention to detail is legendary – he’s a scholar of Roman history in real life, and it shows. He once dared a blogger who specialises in finding historical errors in novels to have a go, and the only thing the guy found was a pomegranate being eaten a few years before they were introduced to Rome. That’s IT. So you can be pretty darn sure that what you’re reading here is as close as we can get to what it really would have been like.
Which is not to say that it feels scholarly – it doesn’t. It feels like a bloody good read that happens to have excellent historical detail, and makes you understand the society it’s written in. What more can you ask for?
(Warning: the scene on the slave boat is genuinely upsetting.)