Tag Archives: historic fiction

Hiding From Summer (But Not From Summer Reading)

Heat and I are not friends; ditto humidity.  With apologies to the beachgoers, picnickers and other outdoorsy folks, I think I’m just going to cut up some fresh fruit, whip up some cold drinks, and spend my summer inside, sprawled in front of a fan, reading.  If you’re inclined to copy my example, here are a few books you can sink your teeth into while you hide from the weather.


The Paris Wife, Paula McClain.  The waiting list for this novel is awfully long, but if you’re a fan of either literary fiction or tragic romance, you should place a hold now, because it’s definitely worth the wait.  McClain’s lush tale of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage brings 1920s Paris to life through the eyes of Hadley, a timid fearful woman whose life revolves around her soon-to-be famous husband.  The Hemingways’ fictionalized courtship, sojourn to the City of Lights, and subsequent break-up (due as much to incompatibility as to expatriate American morals) are both compelling and haunting.  If your heart doesn’t break just a little for Hadley by the end of the novel, you might want to make sure you haven’t died from heatstroke.

Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones.  A bigamist’s two daughters both live in Atlanta, but only one is aware that the other is her sister. Born only four months apart, but as different as night and day, Dana and Chaurisse both love their father.  Chaurisse, however, has never been told about Dana, while Dana knows all about Chaurisse.  In fact, Dana’s been spying on Chaurisse since she was a little girl, with her mother’s help; will the secrecy that’s dominated Dana’s life lead her to make irrevocable choices?  This is a darkly delicious meditation on the nature of deceit and desire, and how they can lead people down paths they never thought they’d take.  Crank up the fan while you turn the pages–this one’s a psychological scorcher.

Witch Child, Celia Rees.  Recapture the feeling of “school’s out for summer” by making a foray into teen fiction via this historical novel. The story unfolds via the diary of Mary, an English teen whose grandmother was executed for witchcraft, forcing Mary’s flight to the new world.  Matters don’t improve there, however, as the witch craze seizes New England, and anybody who doesn’t quite fit the proper social mold is accused of unnatural deeds…including our solitary, introverted heroine.  Will Mary survive and thrive in the colonies?  Or will she meet her fate at the hands of the Puritains? If you enjoy this story, you can then move on to Sorceress, the sequel, in which a contemporary teen finds and reads Mary’s journal.


When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present, Gail Collins. New York Times columnist Collins offers a breathtaking micro-history of the feminist movement that will appeal to readers looking for a balanced history amongst all the heated rhetoric. Readers under forty, especially, may find themselves alternately fascinated with and horrified by pre 1960 cultural conditions and the struggles that led to benefits said readers currently enjoy.  Collins, however, pulls no punches when it comes to describing setbacks, unforseen consequences, and other wobbly patches in women’s liberation.  A clear-eyed, well-researched read for anybody interested in contemporary women’s issues.

33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs From Billie Holiday to Green Day, Dorian Lynskey.  Music buffs and casual listeners alike will find something to love in Lynskey’s collection, which begins by defining the term “protest song,” then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the cultural circumstances under which some of America’s hardest-hitting tunes were composed.  Beginning with “Strange Fruit,” Lynskey winds through the tumultuous events of twentieth-century history, highlighting artists such as Woody Guthrie , Dead Kennedys, and the recently deceased Gil Scott-Heron.  If you’re curious about the stories behind some of your favorite songs, or just want to learn more about protest music in America, this collection will engross and absorb you!

 Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton.  When it’s too hot to do anything useful, why not try an imaginary life on for size?  Thornton’s in-depth exploration of what it’s like to be part of the contemporary art world allows you to do just that, so if you’ve ever fantasized about working at Christie’s, going to art school, or participating in an international exhibition, this is the book for you.  Thornton’s seven chapters provide a fly-on-the-wall view of what it’s like to occupy a different role in the visual arts, from creator to teacher to buyer, delivering an experience that’s sure to both educate and entertain.  If you love reality television, why not switch off the set for a second and see how the “warts and all” experience of behind-the-scenes reporting translates into book form?

Hot as it may get, you won’t want to hide from the 11th annual Summer Reading Extravaganza coming up on June 12th.  Even I will be there, slathered in sunscreen, and probably wearing a ridiculous hat.  And if the reclusive librarian with the sunshine phobia will be there, you have no excuse not to join the fun.  Pre-register today so you can dive right into the festivities, or sign up that day and tell the registration staff about all the great books you’ve been reading thus far.  And if you happen to catch me before I vanish back into the shadows?  We can swap book suggestions and smoothie recipes!  Definitely cool, in multiple senses of the word.

Leigh Anne
pale, pedantic and proud


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What if Napoleon Had a B-52 at Waterloo?

That skit — and I don’t remember which of the SNL cast were in it* — may be one of the best one-sentence summations of that offshoot of fiction:  alternative history.

In 30 seconds or less, what distinguishes AH from regular fiction and its close relative, historic fiction?  Well, fiction is fiction.  In 1851 George Payn Quackenbos wrote, in First Lessons in Composition:

Fiction is a species of composition in which events are narrated that have no foundation except in the imagination of the writer.

For historic fiction, take that definition, add your storyline and characters, and deposit them into an event or events that are matters of historic record — Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, Columbus sailing from Spain, Gettysburg, the Soviet blockade of Berlin, etc. — and make them part of the story. Even as characters and plot are added, the outcome of history isn’t altered, nor do the facts change. Leon Uris, James Michener, Herman Wouk, Michael Shaara and James Jones come to mind as examples of great authors of the genre.

What is alternative history?  Take the formula for historic fiction and bend history.  Use the characters and plot to alter events and change the outcome: Pickett doesn’t charge, Lincoln goes to bed early, Napoleon gets a B-52, etc.  For me, good AH needs to be plausible and believable, without compelling me to suspend belief.  The change in the course of events or in the flow of history has to be logical . . . but that’s just me.  There is certainly excellent AH that borders on (or is outright) science fiction, but that sets my “plausibility meter” going.

Recently several authors’ works have drawn me in. Among them are:  

Robert Conroy, whose books take the titles of the years he’s altering: 1862, Conroy 18621901, 1942, 1945, and Red Inferno: 1945.  They are dominated by war, but they aren’t techno-thrillers.  The circumstances are very credible, the characters are sympathetic, but all too human; they could be us. Conroy’s historic twists are well thought out and compelling.  In one or two cases he has to line up a copious quantity of ducks to have events fall into place as he intends, but he’s the author, and he gets to do that.

GettysburgNewt Gingrich, collaborating with William Fortchen, has also written an enjoyable and plausible set of novels that include a civil war trilogy: Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, and Never Call Retreat.   They also collaborated on an equally well-written pair of books, Pearl Harbor and Days of Infamy, which explore the emerging diplomatic crisis between the United States and Japan and culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As in Conroy’s 1952, Hawaii doesn’t remain uncontested.

Harry Turtledove, one of the deans of AH, and perhaps its most prolific How Few Remainwriter.  Turtledove has published over 50 books ranging from true AH to regular sci-fi.  He’s not as conventional as Conroy or Gingrich & Co., but can easily draw the reader in. 

Turtledove has written several series that cross over each other, covering almost 100 years of history from the Civil War through the mid-1940s.  In How Few Remain, the work that introduces this combination series, the Confederacy is victorious over the Union, and both U.S. and world history going forward are radically changed. Utah and Quebec are independent republics, and Imperial Germany is the ally of a rogue United States, while the Confederate States of America are allied with Britain. The next sets of series, the Great War and American Empire trilogies and the Settling Accounts tetralogy, provide a thorough and well-planned century of angst and patriotism, as well as the rise of a Nazi-like movement and unmitigated efforts by the stronger but unsuccessful North to reunify the two Americas.

Turtledove stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but also presents the most disturbing scenarios that ask hard questions in the guise of literature.  Could Americans be just as susceptible and guilty as the Germans of two generations ago were of “just following orders?”

The Plot Against AmericaAnd — last, but certainly not least — Philip Roth, who asks the same questions Turtledove does in his pseudo-autobiographical work of fiction, The Plot Against America.  In Roth’s case, the backdrop is an America confronted by a Europe at war, domestic politics dominated by America Firsters, and Charles Lindbergh as president.  Like Turtledove, Roth wonders if American democracy and its traditions of liberty and individual belief could withstand everything thrown at it.  Roth portrays a U.S. dominated by the isolationist sentiments that were very prevalent in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. His projections for what could have been aren’t wholly unwarranted.


*Editor’s Note:  According to this transcript, both Jane Curtin and John Belushi were involved.

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Historic, Mystery, Science Fiction

If you enjoy a good audio book now and then but just don’t feel like sorting through the 1,600 (really!) or so titles that we have in stock at any given time, check out our display of historic, mystery, and science fiction titles. Each of the books on these shelves is lovingly hand chosen by yours truly, using an exactingly scientific process and a roll of cheerfully colored stickers. And here’s how I do it.


Historic – To me, historic fiction is written in the present but set in the past, where the book’s time period is almost as important to the story as the plot and the characters. For example, although Suite Francaise is set during WWII it’s not historic, because that’s when it was written (it’s just a book that no one bothered to translate right away). But these books have made it into my historic fiction section.

  • Heyday by Kurt Andersen – America, gold rush, blah blah blah. It’s really really long and I couldn’t finish it. Definitely historic, though.
  • The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery – You get two fires in this book, which is about an American orphan in Kyoto in the mid 1800s.
  • The Good German by Joseph Kanon – Don’t misplace your mistress, especially in Berlin, especially in 1945.

Mystery – The easiest way to find a mystery is to look for dead people, or if you’re me, look for the word “mystery” on the CD case. Those who write mysteries tend to keep writing mysteries, so if you find yourself fancying a particular detective you’ll often have many titles to choose from.

  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – Highlight the text between the brackets for a spoiler. (Everyone did it.)
  • Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith – You could argue that this one’s a western (due to the blatant use of cowboys) but it does say mystery right on the cover. So there you go (plus, I don’t have western stickers).
  • Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear – Okay, this one does border on historic since it’s set in the years after WWI. The main character is a charming female private investigator and former army nurse with a tragic love life, intriguing scar, and a sporty little car. What else could you want?

Science Fiction – If there are robots, spaceships, strange planets, hot green alien babes, stuff like that – you’ve got science fiction. Stay away from dragons, though, as that puts you into fantasy territory and I don’t have any fantasy stickers either.

  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – I will lose a little librarian street cred here by freely admitting that I’ve never read the book, but I’ve seen the movie.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert – Okay, I’m really bad at science fiction. You’ve got me. But Scott likes Dune. So you can go talk to him about it, right?
  • Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan – This one sort of veers into mystery territory, since the main character’s a UN investigator. But he’s also doing his detecting in a) the 25th century, and b) a replacement body. That covers the sci-fi requirements nicely.

And there you have it, the three genres that I’ve managed to label. I’m still campaigning for more stickers (Vampire Porn and Manly Adventure come to mind), but that may take a while. Until that glorious stickery day, you can always ask a librarian.

– Amy

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Shelf Examination: Historic Fiction

Ready to do the time-warp again?  Part three of this ongoing series whisks you around the world, by way of the wayback machine.

The Book: The Religion, Tim Willocks.

The Setting:  Malta, 1565

Check this out if you like:  Rogues, ruffians, and adventurers; extensive descriptions of bloody battles, religious or political intrigue, occasional touches of earthy eroticism, or subplots fueled by secrets and scandal.

book jacket

 The Book: The Sister, Paola Kauffman.

The Setting:  19th-century America.

Check this out if you like:  Domestic fiction, sisterly love, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, tales of quiet sacrifice, family secrets, courtroom drama, a restrained tone, or a heavy reliance on historical documents for background information.

 book jacket

The Book:  Saturnalia, Lindsey Davis.

The Setting:  Rome, 76 A.D.

Check this out if you like:  Hard-boiled mysteries, women on the lam, dry wit, races against time, competition between arch-rivals, or descriptions of ancient festivals and customs.

book jacket

The Book: China Star, Bartle Bull.

The Setting:  Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the 1920s.

Check this out if you like:  Transcontinental chases, scandalous love affairs, spies seeking revenge, reckless aristocrats with crisp manners, exotic locales, culture clashes, or detailed descriptions of lavish clothing and parties.

book jacket

 Can’t get enough of bygone eras?  See our extensive array of additional booklists.

And with that, this entry is history! As ever, happy reading.

–Leigh Anne


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