Literary historical fiction
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Historical fiction is my favorite genre but it's very difficult to find books I like. Am I the only one who hates Philippa Gregory and her countless imitators? I don't want to offend anyone, but these authors have no idea about history and their writing style is terrible. The cardboard characters have absolutely nothing in common with their historical counterparts, they act and speak like characters in a 21st century soap-opera, their motivations and actions are ridiculous and anachronistic...
Literary historical fiction does exist but it seems to me few people actually read it.
#1 - no, many of us don't rate Philippa Gregory either due to her reputation for inaccuracy (though I must admit I have never even tried her books).
I'm not quite sure, though, what you mean by literary historical fiction. Is it purely the effort the author puts into accurate research and depiction? Or something else?
Relatively fewer readers gravitate to literary historical fiction for the same reason, I think, that relatively fewer gravitate to literary contemporary fiction. There's a reason why "popular fiction" is the term used to differentiate between literary and other types of fiction.
There's lots of good literary historical fiction. I just reviewed a novel by June Hutton called Underground, about a Canadian who fought in WWI and went on to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War (see review). It's an astute study of what we would today call PTSD, but also an exploration of the Canadian perspective on WWI, the Great Depression, the Communist movement of the 1930s and '40s and the international soldiers who volunteered in the SCW, so it's definitely a historical novel. Readers who prefer popular novels probably wouldn't care for it, though, because there is little surface plot of the sort that drives a "what-happens-next?" suspense thread - the plot is driven by what is going on within the main character's psyche as he struggles to recover, physically and emotionally, but especially emotionally, from being buried alive in a trench during WWI.
Thomas Mallon wrote an interesting novel called Henry and Clara which recreated the lives of the couple who sat with President Lincoln when he was assassinated.
Thanks for those links, margad, and for your informative reviews.
I read Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin last fall and loved it. The story is a retelling of Virgil's The Aeneid from Lavinia's POV. Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, not only for her stories, but for her writing craft. She writes with lyricism and insight. Le Guin is best known for her science fiction and fantasy, but her books transcend genre and have won awards in every area (National Book Award, Kafka Award, Pushcart Prize, etc.) I did an extensive interview with her a few years ago which you can read here (link on the right side): www.faithljustice.com/writers-resources.htm. I highly recommend Lavinia!
I am currently listening to Edward Rutherfurd's historical novel New York and I'm just in love with it. I don't know if this qualifies as the best of literature, but it is a wonderful book and the history that it is teaching me is fascinating. I haven't read an historical novel since I was a teenager and I am really falling in love with the genre again. I am just a few years before the American Revolution right now.
#11 - most people would not classify it as such, but I love his books also. Will read this when it comes out in PB in the UK.
I think there is a difference between fiction that takes place in the past and historical fiction. But after saying that i will add that i do not like history to read like someone's term paper. When it starts to load up with statistics or detailed descriptions of clothing, food, architecture or the like, i feel like I am reading a thesis.
Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors and one think you take away from her books is that there is very little in the way of describing clothing, physical traits or scenery - the books give the impression that there is but when you go back you see that it is very sparing. Yet you read some of the recent Jane Austen fiction and it is loaded up with gowns, sex, hairstyles etc
I really enjoyed 'Lady Vernon and Her Daughter' that is a reworking of an early Jane Austen work, 'Lady Susan' - very authentic in the tone and style, and the best of the 'new' Austen works. I thought 'Wide Sargasso Sea' was very good, and i also like non-English historical works like 'Shogun' and 'The Far Pavilions'
Has anyone read The Crimson Petal and the White?It's something I've wanted to read since it first came out, just never got around to it. Seems to have dropped off the radar lately. Another great literary historical novel is The Dress Lodger.It's about a prostitute in early 19th century England. Loads of fun.
#1 - I think this is an excellent topic, Athenais, and I totally agree with you. I think a most excellent example of literary HF is the current Booker winner Wolf Hall. But, I, too have struggled to find HF with gravitas and literary merit. Some other authors I've had success with have been E.L. Doctorow, Jeffery Lent, and Mary Renault.
Sharon Kay Penman's novels are really entertaining, and well-researched and I love them, but I would be hard-pressed to call them literary -- but much more so than Phillipa Gregory. Literary-lite, howabout.
The last book I read which I would describe as historical fiction and literary was The Known World by Edgar P Jones. It was set in the American Southern Antebellum period - a very good read.
I love Penman and Zimmer-Bradley too but would not describe them as literary.
#14 and 16 - Yes, and yes. Both good books but The Crimson Petal is without doubt one of my favourite books ever and could be exactly what this thread is all about. I really can't understand why so few people seem to know about Michel Faber, who is one of the great writers of our time. If you want literary fiction set in historical times (in this case 19th century London) then you have to give this one a try.
If you fancy a similar period in Australia Picnic at Hanging Rock is another example of gorgeous writing.
Other books I would recommend for the quality of the writing are: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Sacred Hearts and my current read Remarkable Creatures. John Fowles can be hit and miss but when he's good he's exquisite - try The French Leiutenant's Woman and A Maggot. If you are interested in history set n Greece or South America, both are admirably covered by Louis de Bernieres.
It occurs to me that it's about time I tagged all my literary fiction. If you give my library - http://www.librarything.com/catalog/Booksloth - a look from tomorrow onwards, the job should be done. I'll try and add some ratings too, to give you an idea of what is and isn't worth reading. Happy hunting!
My post at #17 was meant to refer to the book cited at #16, incidentally.
#19 - not sure I would class Picnic at Hanging Rock as gorgeous writing. I found it a bit disappointing after loving the film, which is one of my favourite films of all time. I think I found the book had too much back story about the characters that I felt detracted from the essential otherworldliness of the main plotline.
I am a fairly obsessive tagger, but not sure about the literary fiction idea, or indeed the whole concept of literary (as opposed to other) fiction. When we say a particular work of fiction is literary fiction, and another non-literary fiction, isn't that perhaps just another way of saying that we prefer the writing style of the former (assuming we identify ourselves as liking this so called genre). Most concepts of book classification are not watertight, but this seems particularly nebulous.
Okay - I went through and did a lot of tagging. My star ratings are a bit hit and miss - eg. no stars might mean I hated it or just haven't got round to reading it yet. As I went through, so many others sprang to mind - various works by John Boyne, Isabel Allende, Umberto Eco, Margaret George, Charles Palliser, Sarah Waters, Caleb Carr, Victoria Hislop, C J Sansom, Sebastian Faulks; a couple of real old classics - Forever Amber and Gone With the Wind (perhaps both a little too 'popular' to count as literary though the writing is a million times better than certain modern 'historical fiction' writers).
You don't say whether there is any particukar country or time period that interests you especially but you are welcome to PM me if I can tell you any more about any of these books. I know how you feel about the Philippa Gregorys of this word but don't despair, there are some very good writers out there who love the genre.
ETA - when you search for my tag 'Historical fiction' LT seems to throw in an extra handful of books that I haven't tagged that way - still it shouldn't be too hard to find your way through those.
Historicalnovels.info is a fabulous source for literary historical fiction -- another site to check out is the Key West Literary Seminar's 2009 program, which featured many fabulous writers of historical fiction (including Barry Unsworth, Andrea Barrett and many more. Some podcasts from that session are also available online if you want to hear from the writers themselves. http://www.kwls.org/lit/sem_2009/
Dorothy Dunnett wrote excellent literary historical fiction. I only wish she had written more!
I just finished Music and Silence by Rose Tremain, which I found to be a gorgeous literary novel based in 17th C. Denmark.
What about translations of literary historical novels? There have been new translations of War and Peace and Kristin Lavransdatter. Umberto Eco is translated and Marcel Proust. A good or poor translation makes a difference in how we perceive the novel. Does anyone have favorites or really bad examples?
I read Pope Joan a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. Well researched and decently written. I was a little disappointed in the ending. I thought it felt a little forced.
(Now I find the edit button!)
Oops! I was referencing Pope Joan above. I thought I was replying to message 16, but it appended the message to the end of the thread. Sorry, still getting used to the software here! Here's the message again:
I read it a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. Well researched and decently written. I was a little disappointed in the ending. I thought it felt a little forced.
I think Forever Amber and Gone With The Wind are not well-written enough to be considered 'literary' although they are both grand reads. I grew up reading the dreaded Jean Plaidy, compared to whom Philippa Gregory is erudite, well-researched and wonderfully written, not to mention open-minded.
I have just finished Wolf Hall and am encouraged that such a fluidly written and interesting historical novel has won the Man Booker prize because I infinitely prefer her to Byatt, whose Possession must surely also qualify on some levels as literary fiction?
Lisa See's Shanghai Girls is one of those rare historical novels that I would consider both "literary" and well researched in its historical detail. It also struck a chord with me on a personal level (you can read more at my blog www.the-reading-list.com, if you are interested).
I find Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! a fascinating "literary" historical novel, but it takes a great deal of patience to work through his complex, convoluted writing style and non-linear storytelling technique. Not a beach read.
Edith Pargenter wrote historical fiction under her name & also under the name of "Ellis Peters". She was awarded the honor "Dame of the British Empire" for her writing. So it seems that her books would be accurate as well as interesting.
Hi! We've just reissued The Crimson Petal and the White (in the UK) with discussion questions in the back. It really is an amazing book - even if I do say so myself.
And to unashamedly big up other historical fiction novels Canongate Books has published, there is The Secret River by Kate Grenville (which won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (the NSW Premier's Prize), the Community Relations Commission Prize, the Booksellers' Choice Award, the Fellowship of Australian Writers Prize, the Publishing Industry Book of the Year Award, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin prize) and The Lieutenant, which is actually set before The Secret River takes place.
I am currently reading a new book of historical fiction, Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. The novel is about New York City in the early seventies, and deals with a group of characters who witness the high-wire crossing of the World Trade Centre. I find the book dulll and tedious. I have no idea why critics raved about this book, it just doesn't engage me.
I love the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. The first title is A Morbid Taste for Bones. The series is historical mystery (genre), not what I'd consider literary historical fiction.
Here are a couple of literary historical fiction titles that I enjoyed:
o Mary Sharratt's The Vanishing Point, set in Colonial America.
o Sandra Gulland's The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., set in Martinique and France
Thank you for this thread! I'm always looking for well-written and well-researched historical fiction, and it's so hard to find.
But I did love Wolf Hall and The Known World as well as The Crimson Petal and the White.
Has anyone read A Mercy, or The Book of Night Women?
I can also recommend The Children's Book and The Little Stranger.
#35/36 When you type your comments, full instructions for creating links (touchstones) come up in the box to the right of what you are typing. A single set of square brackets for titles, double brackets for authors.
Unlike GCPL, I thought A Mercy was a big disappointment. Well below the standard of most of Morrison's other books and over-hyped but then I didn't like Wolf Hall either so it's probably just a matter of different tastes.
If WWII counts as "historical", A Fierce Radiance fascinated me. A novel about the drive to mass produce penicillin for WWII, with some romance and mystery also.
I loved A Mercy and thought it was a superb piece of literature. The first chapter is very confusing, but is completely explained by the end. It helps to go back and reread the first chapter after finishing the book.
I second MarianV ~ Edith Pargeter is amazing. Heaven Tree and A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, set in medieval England, are two of the best novels of historical fiction both from the viewpoint of interesting as well as literary that I've ever read. You can't go wrong with them. Two writers I'd classify as literary historical fiction authors are Allende (Spanish and Central and South American from the conquistadors to as recent as a decade or so ago) and Eco (medieval), as booksloth noted above. (Allende's a personal favorite.) Penman's Sunne in Splendour, another medieval novel, is literate, well-written, and well-researched, though a bit romanticized in its treatment of Richard III (I loved it, though), as is an hf novel I recently read, The Wet Nurse's Tale by Erica Eisdorfer (Victorian), though that one is much shorter than the others. If you don't mind historical mysteries, then C. J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels (15th century England) starting with Dissolution are well-written and literate, as are the mysteries of Steven Saylor set in ancient Rome during the late Republic. I could go on and on.
What's your favorite historical period(s)?
#19:Booksloth, I thought The French Lieutenant's Woman Fowles' one unforgivable novel. Yet I can't tell you why, unless it was simply too sentimental - and too much a filmscript. I felt the ending particularly false (though I must admit that I read it about twenty years ago). But then I prefer my historical fiction to be more mythic, Lawrence Norfolk's The Pope's Rhinoceros being a good example of what I like. I am deeply enjoying Marguerite Yourcenar's classic Mémoires d'Hadriene, however, though I read French at a glacial pace.
One of Frederik van Eeden’s (1860-1932) greatest works Van de koele meren des doods is now available again in English under the title: Hedwig’s Journey published by Holland Park Press.
It is an intriguing study of a woman’s mind that still rings true today, made even more special because it was written by a man in the early 1900s.
I received The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss as part of the Early Reviewers program and have since read all of his books except for the last one (it's on my TBR list) and his only non-historical novel, The Ethical Assassin. He is one of my favorite authors now because I love the his style of writing, especially the Benjamin Weaver books. They are full of fascinating facts and rich historical detail. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction (and non-fiction) novels and I highly recommend any one of his books.
Thank God there are others out there who want to look beyond Philippa Gregory and her ilk. I was beginning to think I was the only one.
For me, the epitome of literary historical fiction is (are) Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles - in particular Checkmate, the last of the series. Set in mid-16th century Britain and Europe; impeccably researched; written for the intelligent reader, in that she does not feel that she has to stop and explain everything. Like James Clavell she has that knack of taking her readers into an alien world and getting them to understand what made it tick.
Another such is Charles Palliser's The Quincunx which is a highly complex mystery set largely in Victorian London, and like the above, bears re-reading a few times.
More recently I came across May 1812 by M.M. Bennetts which does a remarkable job of evoking the period of the Napoleonic Wars from the perspective of the home front. Again, the history is impeccable and Bennetts is an articulate and engaging writer, obviously steeped in the literary canon but conveying his knowledge with a nice light touch. According to his publisher's website there is a sequel coming out in October - the opening chapter (online) looks extremely promising.
I must admit I DO like Philippa Gregory and her ilk - doesn't make me a 'lesser' person. I also read non-fiction history, which I guess would make me a 'greater' person. So if my maths serves me correctly - add a lesser to a greater you get average - and that's me to an absolute T :)
PS - Am a fan of Dorothy Dunnett too :)
>47 I agree, there is no lesser or greater when it comes to reading books (including graphic novels). It all depends on one's tastes at any given time. I personally enjoy pretty much everything, including "literary" historical novels, historical romances, historical mysteries, and alternate historical fantasies. My only real criteria are decent research (no anachronisms), good writing (good grammar, punctuation), an appealing writing style, and a good cast of characters and/or good storytelling (much of which is subjective).
To my way of thinking (and this is also just subjective), it's watching TV that's the "lesser" activity. :)
BTW, I was thinking that Atwood's The Penelopiad is another historical novel that is also quite literary.
47: I never suggested that those who enjoy Philippa Gregory and her ilk were 'lesser' people; I did not even use the word in my previous post. It is simply that there is an irritating tendency, in my country at least, to hold her up as the height of achievement in historical fiction - which (as far as I am concerned) she is not.
I tried one of her books some time ago, but discarded it after 100 pages or so as I found the writing mediocre and the characterisation bland. That is my taste and I will happily concede that she has given pleasure to thousands of other readers. She can obviously create a plot-line good enough to be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, but plot is not everything in a novel; there is also characterisation, description, creation of atmosphere or of the sense of place and time through use of language, all those things which might be described as 'style'.
I do not wish to imply literary snobbery; I will happily read John Grisham or James Patterson when I am in the mood, but I would not describe them as 'literary'.
I agree with post 48 that there is no 'lesser' or 'greater' in the READING of books, but I do believe there are 'greater' and 'lesser' AUTHORS: those who will achieve popularity in the short term, and those whose work will change the way we think and will be read decades after their death. One has only to look at the works of Mrs Radcliffe and other near-contemporaries of Jane Austen to see that this has always been the case.
My real concern with Miss Gregory, whose popularity rests at least in part on a blockbuster movie rather than on the intrinsic quality of her writing, is that, given the economic pressures in publishing today, the major publishing houses have set her as the benchmark for historical fiction - the dictionary definition of historical fiction, if you will - and are short-changing those of us who want something more than she has to offer.
To post 48 may I say that I agree wholly with your comment about TV; may I also thank you for your recommendation of The Penelopiad. I have had something of a mental block about Margaret Atwood but will certainly seek it out.
>48 I will also bump your Atwood recommendation up higher on my tbr list. I've really been enjoying a lot of myth based fiction this year with Ransom, a companion to The Iliad, being top on my list.
>49 well said, grump!
#50 If its myth-based fiction you're after, The Penelopiad is one of a whole series of books that update or retell myths from all over the world. The Canongate Myths Series includes stories by such luminaries as Michel Faber, Karen Armstrong, Salley Vickers, Alexander McCall Smith etc and as far as I know, is still being added to. As a series, it's maybe a bit hit and miss (there are some real goodies in there, mixed with a few turkeys) but it's a great addition to any library and covers myths from China, Australia and various other countries as well as a good sprinkling of Greek myths.
Sloth, thank you for the Canongate suggestion. I found it on Wikipedia and now know that my library has 2 of the titles: Dream Angus : the Celtic god of dreams and The fire gospel . Gonna start with the Faber one! Is that the same Michael Faber that authored the Crimson Petal?! oooooooh, can't wait!!
#53 It is, but try not to get too excited. As everyone in the world now knows I am besotted with his work (especially The Crimson Petal) but this isn't one of his best. Nice as an addition to either a Faber collection or the myth collection but you'll be disappointed if you're expecting anything close to his finest work.
I am not against Philippa Greggory but I am not a big fan either... but i have to defend her this time that apart from the other Boleyn Girl, her other books are well researched...
If you like the tudors histories.. try also Alison Weir's 'The Lady Elizabeth'
If you really want to look for accuracies, try non-fictions
I would consider the following worthy of being considered literary:
Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles
The World is Not Enough by Zoe Oldenbourg
Anything by Barry Unsworth
A Scots Quair and Spartacus by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The latter seems to be a forgotten work (the touchstones don't even work for it), and my memory of it is that it was remarkable, especially for its time.
Finally, A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening.
For anyone interested in Bloomsbury writers, there is a book giveaway for one free copy of Katherine's Wish, a literary historical novel based on the life of Katherine's Mansfield written by Linda Lappin- currently being organized by The Reading Life Book blog. Click here to participate. The contest ends on Sept. 17, 2010 and is open to contestants world wide.
Katherine's Wish won a gold medal in the IPPY awards for historical fiction 2009 and was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year in fiction .
I'm a huge fan of James Michener, I just read his book The Source this year and it is awesome.
Rose Tremain's Restoration and Music and Silence are quite wonderful. I'd also recommend Pat Barker's triology, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, which are set in and shortly after World War I. And I greatly enjoyed The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt.
(Touchstones don't seem to be working.)
I have just stumbled upon this group and am so excited to read all of your posts!
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Genre: FICTIONAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Title: A CARNIVAL OF LIES
Author: VERNON L. ANLEY
I’m going to put it right out there: this book about Nazi atrocities should be required reading for everyone. Period. Frankly, it’s just that good, that informative, and mines some previously untapped sources to reveal facts that will shock, mesmerize, and overwhelm you — no matter how much you think you know about the Holocaust. In order to receive my highest rating of HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, a book must be truly outstanding — heads and shoulders above the others I’ve reviewed. This book easily falls into that category. Not only is it meticulously researched, but poignantly well written, a real heart-rending page-turner. The author, by choosing to write it autobiographically in the first person, puts us right there in the death camps, even though he admits that a person “can describe what they saw but cannot CONVEY the experience.” Well, that might be the usual case, but this author comes awfully close and certainly did a hell of a job eliciting my emotions.
Our protagonist’s WW II assignment: to go undercover in National Socialist Germany in order to ferret out where they relocated their factories in order to avoid Allied bombing. Arrested for having a Jewish girlfriend, he’s then propelled on a nightmare journey from Dachau to Auschwicz, even as the love of his life is caught up in the system. I cannot begin to summarize the author’s brilliantly written account of those horrendous years in the death camps. With chilling descriptions, the narrative reveals atrocities worse than any I’ve ever heard. As the author so aptly puts it: “In five years, Auschwicz metamorphosed from a locus of terror into a universe of horror.” Nonetheless, like SCHINDLER’S LIST, it’s counterpart, A CARNIVAL OF LIES ends up on a high note of unparalleled courage along with a profound statement on the power of love to endure. In all honesty, the only thing I could take issue with in this novel was the title choice. To me, A CARNIVAL OF LIES seems a little light. I think the book would’ve been better served using the author’s own words, “Despotism of Darkness”, for a title. But that’s just me.
The book jacket tells us that the author, Dr. Vernon L. Anley, was educated in Australia and England and has traveled the world. He’s an expert on such things as linguistics and travel and his visits to Hitler’s death camps in Germany, Poland, and Austria tells me that’s where he was able to employ such meticulous research involved in order to produce such a compelling novel. My advice? Pick up a copy of this book right away. You won’t be sorry
Highly Recommended, reviewer: Jan Evan Whitford, Allbooks Reviews, 22 October 2010
Published by: OakTara Publishers ©2010
Trade paperback, 226 pages
For more information and purchase details:
One of my favorite 'literary' historical fiction novels is "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters. The term, "Dickensian" gets thrown around way too much, but this novel truly lives up to the works of Mr. Dickens and has one of those startling, wonderful, "Oh, my God! moments in it.
Also, the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels written by Patrick O'Brian are truly superlative in their literary quality and could easily be confused with novels written 200 years ago; his style and knowledge of the period and subject are THAT GREAT! Some readers find them difficult due to the style and all the sailing vernacular....I find them challenging and extremely interesting.
After rereading my previous post, I can hardly believe I failed to mention Mary Renault's books. Shes an astonishingly fine writer, and her evocations of ancient Greece are remarkable.
What this thread has been calling "literary" historicall fiction I've always thought of as "sink-or-swim"; There are historical novels that treat the reader as if they were a kind of tourist, and guide them by the hand through whatever era and culture they are set in. Pointing out the oddities, oohing and aahing over the differences.
Then there are the historical novels that....don't. That dump their readers in the era and leave it to them to sink or swim. They show, but don't feel inclined to explain, trusting instead that the writing is good enough, and the reader intelligent enough, to understand what they are looking at based on context.
I love sink or swim historical fiction, but tend to get bored by the touristy ones.
Some of my favorite sink or swim fiction writers are Barry Unsworth, like Morality Play, Pat Barker, especially Regeneration, Iaian Pears, Instance of the Fingerpost, John Banville's Kepler and Doctor Copernicus, Julian Barnes's Arthur & George, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. . . and oh, I suppose I could go on and on and on.
I have tuned in because I am a new historical fiction writer, and I am interested to see what people are reading in my favorite genre. But quite frankly I will not think to plug my book here, mainly because I would be afraid to have you people read it. I am an educated man but I must say I feel a bit intimidated by the collection of knowledge and experience here. I will promote my book to a lesser audience. ha. My feeling on literary historical works is about vocabulary, use of literary devices, and depth of characterization as opposed to "pop" historical fiction which is shallow and simply written. Am I close? Literature begs to be analyzed and digested.
Plugging your book here would be against the rules, but there are groups and places for that on the site that you should take advantage of, so poke around.
Thanks. I have not looked carefully into the site. I am likely to be a follower more than a contributor here. I have not read as much, but I can say I have not read any better work than The Frontiersman by Allan Eckhart(?). I think these books are out of print. Are you familiar with his novels?
>66 gdhuff--check out these groups for promoting your work
Hobnob With Authors (http://www.librarything.com/groups/hobnobwithauthors)
Writer's Brag and Rag Bag (http://www.librarything.com/groups/writersbragandragbag)
Back to the thread--finished Gene Wolf's Latro in the Mist a few weeks ago and definitely categorize it as literary. An amazing piece of work that really made me think; sort of "Memento" meets "The Sixth Sense" in ancient Greece.
Not sure I'd classify any of them as writers of "literary" historical fiction though, Katava. Not that I think "literary" is better, just different. I happen to find both literary historical fiction (ala The House of the Spirits) and popular historical fiction (like The Mistress of Death) greatly enjoyable.
I just finished Mistress of the Art of Death and really did not like it at all. It felt to me like the "mistress" in the title was some modern woman plopped down in the middle ages.
Maybe I was just in a bad mood when I read it? I don't know, but I can't add it to any list of favorites.
#72 You weren't alone in that, tiffbelinda, I read it (or, I seem to recall, read half of it then hurled it across the room) a couple of years ago and it still resonates as one of the worst books I've read in many a long year. At the risk of getting banished to the Literary Snobs group I'd have to take issue with Storeetller's comment that 'literary' isn't 'better'. Surely the whole thing that makes it literary is the fact that it IS better? I'd have to very quickly add that I don't think that makes the readers of literature necessarily any 'better' than readers of popular fiction, that's purely a matter of taste , but it's quite possible to hate a book while admitting that it is well written or to enjoy one while recognising it as trashy - (I'm very fond of Valley of the Dolls but I wouldn't pretend it has a great deal of literary merit; on the other hand, I loath and detest Heart of Darkness but I have to accept that, for the quality of the writing, it deserves its place in the canon. I'm not criticising anyone's taste here or trying to start a squabble, just suggesting that if it is possible to make a qualitative judgement of a novel, that is surely what the distinction between 'literary' and 'popular' is all about?
Oh, well, to each their own! Makes life interesting.
Briefly, just to clarify, I was using the word "better" not to refer to the stylistic properties of a work of fiction that makes it "literary" as opposed to well written popular fiction but rather to the choice of a reader whether to read one or the other.
#75 As you say - life would be very boring if we all liked the same things and I think we completely agree on one choice not necesarily being 'better' than another - sometimes it's just a case of what mood we happen to be in. :)
I may be still smarting from having recently seen Middlemarch described on LT as a 'bad' book. Dislike it by all means (I love it) but when the majority of the literate world agrees that it may well be the best novel ever written in English, please don't try and tell the rest of us that it's bad. (I'm naming no names here - if you've ever said it was bad then I mean you - regardless of whether or not you are the person I'm thinking of.)
Agreed, Booksloth ~ just because one doesn't like a book personally doesn't necessarily mean it's 'bad.' It just means one didn't like it. I mean, I loathed and despised (and still do) Dreiser's An American Tragedy when I was forced to read it in my freshman year of high school, but I would not call it bad. Just loathsome and despicable. lol
As an aside, haven't yet read Middlemarch so put it on my list of things to read this year.
No-one's mentioned naval fiction yet - Patrick O'Brian is excellent. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, he uses his main characters Aubrey and Maturin to explore their world and ours.
CatherineCL - check out post #63. The O'brian series is my favorite and absolutely readable a 2nd, 3rd or 4th time!
One man's trash is certainly another man's treasure and that applies to the literary world as well. "Bad" as a term is subjective and means absolutely nothing. The grammar could be bad, the storyline bad, the continuity bad, etc.
As a high school history teacher and adjunct professor of history, I love my historical fiction--and I'm very picky! I like to be able to follow the story historically and then enjoy it with dialogue and personal relationships. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely detest the "romance" that is oft times passed off as historical fiction. Margaret George is one my favorite authors. I have read George's Cleopatra, Mary of Magdalene, and Mary, Queen of Scots. I have found them to be very historically accurate as well as entertaining and informing. I also am fond of James Michener, although I know some don't consider him a historical fiction writer, but rather a novelist. However, I have found nobody like him when it comes to telling a story from the beginning of the primordial ooze of a location to modern day. I've also found that Colleen McCoullough does an excellent job with her books on Rome, Ireland, and Australia.
#78--I have read several of Patrick O'Brian's works and found them quite enjoyable.
I just finished The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber about settlers in the Dakota Badlands and really loved it!
Just ran across a literary book Eromenos by Melanie McDonald (touchstones don't seem to be working, which is a shame because I know Eromemos was in ER program last month.) It's a lovely little book about the relationship between Emperor Hadrian and his doomed lover Antinous. Beautifully written. I have an interview with the author on my blog (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/mcdonald-interview/). Highly recommended for folks who like to think about the story and love beautiful language.
I don't think anyone has mentioned The Confessions of Nat Turner by Styron, a book I read in college.
I concur with the preceding posts on Patrick O'Brien. His series of twenty Jack Aubrey novels are first and foremost great stories with great human characters. His portrayal of the times and his use of language is absolutely authentic.
It has to be novel first, historical second. Who wants to read about facile, one dimensional characters in the past or the present? The biggest pitfall for historical novelists is they understand their periods better than they understand novels, and their products often reflect this weakness. This is why, in my opinion, so few historical novels satisfy the critical reader looking for "literary" satisfaction.
I was weaned on historical non-fiction, and I have to say there are more well written books in that category than in all the historical fiction ever produced. Compare A.J.P Taylor or Adam Zamoyski with Bernard Cornwell, or Kenneth Wellesley with Ben Kane. No contest. But then neither category is everybody's cup of tea. Of course that's the beauty of literature, everybody gets to choose their own.
"It has to be novel first, historical second."
I've been testing the water of the historical novel recently, particularly historical crime fiction novels, and it's only now - having read your comment above - that I realise what it is that disappoints me in my admittedly limited experience of the genre (and sub-genre): There's often a wonderful sense of authenticity in the authors' presentation of their historical periods, but the central characters'..... well, 'characters' are missing or under-developed.
Thanks for that insight. (I wouldn't say I 'understand' novels and often wonder why I didn't enjoy a particular work, so one of the things I like about LT is that I can benefit from the observations of its better-informed denizens.)
One very positive thing about historical novels is that they can provide insights about periods of history the really interest you in a way that is different from non-fiction history. I'm a Roman history geek, so I've read a lot of lame sword and sandal stories, but often enjoyed new insights the authors were able to provide. I just read, or tried to read, Harry Turtledove Give Me back My Legions. Couldn't finish the book, (rare for me) but at one point he has a Roman officer talking to a German and the latter didn't understand the officer's use of sarcasm. I thought this was a beautiful idea. I have no idea if 1st Century Germans would or would not have the use of sarcasm, but Turtledove found a nice way of conveying that the cultural differences between Romans and Germans would have been fundamental. I'm currently reading Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem. I can strongly recommend this book because his central character,Paulinus Gaius Maximus, is very compelling, in a stoic sort of way. When I decided to write my own historical novel (shameless marketing follows) Stephen Lorne Bennett Last of the Ninth I was very preoccupied with the problem of how to create a central character that a reader would care about, when my understanding of that character's culture was based on text-book knowledge. It's quite a challenge. I think a writer like Patrick O'Brien has more to work with because the early 19th century European mind is much more accessible than the 2nd Century Roman. I'm working on a non-historical novel at the moment and I have to say being able to immediately touch base with one's own culture is very empowering and a heck of a lot easier.
Just now jumping into this thread, now that I have time to wade through all the previous posts. Great suggestions! I'm trying to see what literary historical fiction is out there because I'm tired of so many recently published books that I run across looking like just another excuse for romance books, albeit with historical settings. One reason why I've stuck to mostly children's/YA historical fiction books, though it sometimes seems like the YA ones are heading in the same direction.
Would Geraldine Brooks be considered literary?
Looking through my shelves, Emma Brown, The Dovekeepers, Island Beneath the Sea, and The Sojourn are the only ones that appear to possibly be considered literary, though The Sojourn is the only one I've actually read so far.
Some excellent recommendations here.
Possibly my favourite book is Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. It's set during World War I and its aftermath in Western Turkey. Some of the passages are the most beautiful I have ever read. You will catch your breath.
The characters are superb too - a huge cast, all memorable. It's a very complicated narrative, but he weaves it skilfully, I can't even begin to imagine how he wrote it. A true work of art, and a great story.
Oh, I think I will have to read it again now.
#88 That's the first time I've ever heard of anyone prefering BWW to Captain Corelli's Mandolin so I'm going to assume that you haven't yet read CCM (probably wrongly as that seems to be everyone's intro to de Bernieres). Although it's a completely different story it does feature Drousoula later in life and if you love 'Birds' I can't imagine you wouldn't also love that one. Come to that, his South America books are pretty amazing too (Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord etc); he doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the terrible things that happen to some of his characters but that just makes the books tear even harder at your heart. A lot of people find his writing style difficult but you've already overcome that so you're missing a real treat if you haven't inverstigated the other books yet.
My Dad is a big fan of Patrick O'Brian and the history of sailing, the navy, pirates, anything nautical really. For his upcoming birthday I was considering buying him Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh which I spotted in a book shop, it was shortlisted for the Booker, but I don't know anything else about it. Has anybody read this? How would you rate it?
I've read all of his except for "Red Dog" and "Notwithstanding". The only one I didn't enjoy to the same level was "A Partisan's Daughter". I found it tough to sympathise with the characters, but there were moments in it I enjoyed, even if the language isn't at the same level of his earlier work.
I loved CCM with a passion, and his South American trilogy (which is a clear homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez).
I think with CCM he stepped out from under Garcia Marquez's shadow and really developed his own unique style. It's a fantastic book, and one that will be read and enjoyed by whole new generations many, many years from now. Timeless.
However, I think "Birds Without Wings" is superior (and the author himself considers it his "masterpiece"). It's a more difficult book than CCM, and I fully accept that there are parts of the novel that don't work (especially the sections with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the curious epilogue starring the author).
But the parts where it does work are so stunning that I often stop breathing while reading it. I think its peerless, maybe the best I have read. The only other author, for me, who is able to write at this level, is Garcia Marquez.
I know it's not for everyone, but it's what I like, and I make no apologies for it!
90> I haven't read the book but just took a look at a few of the reviews, and it looks good; take a look yourself. This book was on my wish list, but I removed it because I was under the impression that it was just about opium runners. After looking at the reviews here, I'm putting it back on.
Thanks Cariola I have been reading reviews and they all seem positive and it definatly sounds like the sort of book my dad would like so I think I'll go Amazon it now :)
I read Sea of Poppies and enjoyed it. Lot's of interesting South Asian cultural material as well as a good characters and a decent plot. He's writing a trilogy. (It's nothing like O'Brian.) I will read the sequel when it comes out.
#91 Happy to know you weren't missing out on some great stuff. CCM will always have a place in my heart as it's set in one of my favourite places on earth and has a great sense of place - to the extent that I reread it every couple of years just to take me back to Greece. I actually found 'Birds' a much easier read but that may be because I was so used to de Berniere's style by then. And I agree with you about The Partisan's Daughter which, to me, just felt a bit like a publisher saying 'C'mon Louis, just give us something quick while the Corelli buzz is still in the air', likewise Notwithstanding, though Red Dog is an excellent book if you like that kind of thing. I just long for another full-length work of the quality of the Greek/Turkish/S. American books. Any idea what he's working on at the moment?
Thanks Stephenlorne. It doesn't need to be like Patrick O'Brian as such, just a good book with nautical themes. Anyway it is winging its way to the house now via Royal Mail so no going back, just hope he likes it :)
He is working on another "big" book. I saw David Frost interviewing him on Al-Jazeera (oh my, how the world has changed) and he spoke about that.
He seemed quite hurt that CCM is read so much more than BWW, and quite flummoxed by it. He said that while he loves CCM he really feels that BWW is a better, bigger book (but does see a couple of flaws in it now looking back). It was an interesting discussion, but might have been better if the interviewer was a little more familiar with his work.
He did hint that his next "big" book would be the last one of that type.
#97 Thanks for the info. Not sure I'm terribly happy about that 'last one of the type' idea :(
98> I'm pretty sure he said something similar about BWW.
I'll believe it when I see it!
Thanks for the nudge! I'd rather forgotten about de Bernières (I think I found Capt. Corelli a touch too sentimental, and that put me off) but Birds looks interesting. I managed to grab a copy when I was on charity shop duty last night, so I'll hold you jointly responsible for the 2 euros it cost if it's no good... :-)
>101 and >87
I would call Geraldine Brooks literary, although if People of the Book is the only one of hers you've read, I can understand your feelings. Try her latest Caleb's Crossing. Here's a short review that will show you why it's "literary" http://www.judithstarkston.com/reviews/review-of-caleb%E2%80%99s-crossing-by-ger....
Yes, People of the Book is the only one of Brooks's books's that I have read, but thanks to your interesting review I shall read Caleb's Crossing. My knowledge of USAn history is almost non-existent so I hope Caleb's Crossing will be educational for me and also prove as entertaining as your review suggests. Thanks.
>103 I'm just noticing your nice comment, Thrin, a long while later! I hope by now you've read Caleb's Crossing and liked it. My actual favorite of Brook's is The Year of Wonders. It's quite different from either People or Caleb. That's one of the things I find impressive about Brooks--that she has such a wide repertoire.
My most recent read is fascinating Death Comes to Pemberley. Instead of contemporary England, P.D. James has set her latest book at Pemberley estate in 1803, six years after Miss Elizabeth Bennet has married Darcy. That is, P.D. James takes the prose of Jane Austen as her setting. James plus Austen is a fascinating combination, although there are some difficulties in the marriage. Here's my review.
I just started it and I am in awe. I swear if the man had never written anything in his life but the description of the beach in the opening, it would have been enough.
About a fifth of the way through Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund and would definitely categorize it as literary. Enjoying it so far.
One of my favourites is The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell. It's set in the Indian Mutiny and is beautifully written, gripping, witty and moving. It's literary fiction that's readable and wonderful.
#1: You can count me in where it concerns Ms. Gregory and her imitators.
Allow me to introduce myself: I'm Ellen Ekstrom, a Berkeley, California clergywoman in the Episcopal Church. You can find me on other groups here at LT. My favorite historical fiction authors are Dorothy Dunnett and Nino Ricci - Mr. Ricci wrote a beautiful story of Jesus of Nazareth told from the perspective of four people. The novel is called "Testament." I learned to love history and historical fiction from, please don't shudder, Jean Plaidy. I used to check out all of her books from the library during the summer and devour them. I've also enjoyed Penman, too, and Margaret George.
I did too, Ellen--and although I can't read Jean Plaidy now (I tried), I'm still grateful my library had so many of her books when I was a young teen. I wouldn't be writing historical fiction today without her, I don't think.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
Young Henry of Navarre by Heinrich Mann
Henry, King of France by Heinrich Mann.
At the moment I consider myself to be a beginner at learning the full range of what historical novels to pick from, because I have read so few. The ones listed above are 3 of my favourites.
I have one friend who recommends Patrick O`Brian every time I see him, so, needless to say, he is on my TBR list, although I am open to any suggestions about what would be the best first work to pick.
I also have tried to follow the debate about literary and non-literary. When I read Poland by James A. Michener, I could recognize that the style was a lot different from current historical novels that I am reading, but it made no difference to try to determine which was better, as I was totally wrapped up in the story. I have been sitting on my Dad`s copy of The Drifters for about 25 years or more, and reading the Poland book has given me strong incentive to learn more about hippies and the 60s.
Marissa: Yes! Plaidy inspired me to write historical fiction, also, along with Thomas Hardy. I've just finished Vanora Bennett's "Figures in Silk," which could have had better editing in the finished novel I read, but the depth of detail the author took was wonderful. I wish the main character could have been a bit more three dimensional.
Hermit, I'd suggest for Patrick o'Brian to start at the beginning of the series and work your way chronologically. The first is Master and Commander. I'm up to The Letter of Marque and highly recommend all of them.
Thank you varielle. There have been a few examples where I accidentally picked up book 2 of a trilogy as my first book to read, and messed up the whole order. I have resolved to go in chronological order as much as possible, even though I am intrigued by those who suggest that a new work of art, or at least a different experience of the same work of art, is achieved by jumbling the order of a multi-volume series.
Starting with the second book (Post Captain) would also be fine for PO'B, but you could get a bit lost if you started any later.
I was at the bookstore on Sunday and saw 2 choices: each novel as a single volume, or a boxed set of 5 or 6 volumes with 3-5 novels per volume, by my estimate. I know which I would pick: the second choice. Complete, and cheaper, and easier to keep in order.
And check the binding, weight, and typesize of the omnibus editions: there's not much point having something super-compact if it's uncomfortable to read or liable to fall apart after the first time you open it.
Thank you 120 and 121. Those are helpful suggestions which I will remember when I go shopping again.
Don't forget the historical fiction in translation! Norwegian writer Thorvald Steen has a book on Richard I coming out this summer that my bookselling friends are very excited about.
From the publisher's website:
Lionheart is the story of a man living in the shadow of his own myth, also a fanatic general who wants to conquer the world’s greatest sanctum and a king that is suddenly vulnerable. At the age of fifteen he leads an army against his father. Fourteen years later he is the Pope’s obvious choice to lead the third Crusade. But the Richard of Steen’s novel is less sure of himself and his role—is it true that he is God’s chosen one, like his mother says? Built on extensive research, Steen paints a dark and conflicted, yet credible and convincing, portrait of a man who has engrossed historians, poets, novelists and readers for centuries.
123 - That sounds really interesting, I will have to look out for it in translation, thanks for the tip.
Many excellent suggestions here. To 111's recommendation of The siege of Krishnapur -which I heartily endorse - I would add the other 2 volumes of Farrell's Empire trilogy Troubles and Singapore Grip. I would add another Barry Umsworth book Pascali's Island, a tale intrigue and deception on an island under Ottoman rule. My favorite historical novel which I don't notice as being mention is Augustus by John Williams.
Underground Jeff - I've got this on my list. And the Kristen Lavransdatter series by Sigrid Undset should be added to the category.
As a literary-leaning author myself, who writes stories set in the past, there seems to be something of a divide between the popular Historical Fiction (i.e Philippa Gregory) and that which is more literary in terms of the writing style being as integral to the novel as story and characters (which I certainly believe are important). A reviewer from the Historical Novel Society just refused to review my recently published novel, A House Near Luccoli (about the obscure 17th century composer Alessandro Stradella), because it was too literary and her readership wouldn't get it. But I am sticking to my style, as it is my voice, and appreciate that many authors have and continue to do the same, producing work of intellectual quality that can be as if not more entertaining than writing for mass appeal, and that there are many readers who value something 'different'. I am also grateful for the reading suggestions here!
#127: I received that comment from a reviewer about my first book The Legacy and I have to say, the writing in that book is flawed. It was my first work, but it's my style. I wish reviewers would let people make their own decisions about what they 'get' or 'don't get.' Please, keep your style and your voice!
For more recent historical literary fiction, there's A Child out of Alcatraz by Tara Ison about '50s and '60s on Alcatraz Island and the families that lived there. Penetrating, insightful mother/daughter drama played against background of the guards and harsh life on The Rock. Those who lived there voluntarily were imprisoned on some level and yearning escape. Tara is holding Author Chat right now for two weeks on LibraryThing for those who might be interested in learning about her research. This was a finalist in LA Times First Fiction Book Award in 1997. Great debut novel!
The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer is a wonderful literary effort about an imaginary meeting of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert when they both sailed the Nile (before either became famous.) Great characters, lush language, meticulous settings, little plot.
Hilary Mantel does it again with Bring Up The Bodies, 2 Booker Prizes for the series.
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May I humbly suggest that you take a look at You, Fascinating You?
You, Fascinating You
#133 Not here you may not. Please read the rules for authors here - http://www.librarything.com/about/authors - especially the bit that begins "Do not post messages in Talk advertising your book".
I just looked at some of the early comments recommending literary HF. I loved all of Willa Cather's bks, Edward Rutherfords, & Geraldine Brooks. I also like the ones by Mary Doria Russell.
The work of David Liss fits in this category, especially The Coffee Trader or A Conspiracy of Paper.
I'm always on the look-out for literary hf. At the moment I'm knocked flat by Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings -- anyone??
Over the past year or so:
Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch, heavy duty but an Experience. Took most of a year.
Porius by John Cowper Powys, the one he though his culmination. Arthurian even. Mixed results on this.
Wasn't so taken with The Last World though gorgeously written. Ovid in exile. Also let down by My Name is Red.
I used to worship Kristen Lavransdatter and just started that again in the new translation.
Thanks for Thorvald Steen Lionheart as mentioned in the thread, but doesn't seem to be much feedback on this. That is, a paucity of reviews. Has anyone tried?
I like William Vollmann's: Argall, The Ice-Shirt, Fathers and Crows -- that I've tried so far in his Seven Dreams.
And a personal favourite: William Watson, Last of the Templars. Sigh. I've got his single other hf (I think) to follow up, The Knight on the Bridge.
I found Julian Rathbone The Last English King exploratory in ways to write historical fiction.
And two indies that I feel worth mention: Port Royal and Arauco.
I've enjoyed many books by Jack Whyte, but most especially his first pre-arthurian book The skystone." I also really enjoyed Colleen McCulough's series on Ancient Rome, the more so in that Steven Saylor's excellent historical mysteries kept coinciding, period wise, with McCulough's books. I saw these hadn't been mentioned previously. My favorite historical fiction writer is and probably will always be Dorothy Dunnett.
I enjoyed the Irish Century series by Morgan Llywelyn. Not sure about 'literary', but a good sense of the Ireland's history in the 20th century.
I also have enjoyed Lincoln and Burr by Gore Vidal, part of his Narratives of Empire series. Most either love these works, or hate them. They are certainly different from the routine history or historical novel.
Having looked quickly through of the thread, I didn't see mention of Susanne Alleyn, whose historical novels (mystery and straight history) are very well written and researched.
Currently rereading Doc by Mary Doria Russell, a ficitonal account of the life of John Henry Holliday aka Doc Holliday through the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral, this time on audio. I'd consider Russell's historical fiction (including A Thread of Grace and Doc) to be literary as well as really good reading.
One of my favorites is "Perfume" by Patrick Süskind; not only a work of historical fiction, but a literary work that crosses genres and works on many levels for any time period.
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