Historical Fictionistas discussion

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Goodreads Author Zone > Writers, Which Books Do You Love?

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message 1: by C.P. (last edited Dec 19, 2012 06:54PM) (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) | 673 comments No one seems to want to take the plunge and start a new topic here, so I'm going to be the one. As writers, which of the HF novels that you have read recently (not your own) seem to you exemplars of craft?

To jump-start the discussion, I offer The Stockholm Octavo, a wonderful book set in Sweden at the time of the French Revolution and winner of the Indie Bookstore award in November 2012.

The author, Karen Engelmann, juggles politics, history, cartomancy, folding fans, potions, conspiracy, character, plot, and setting with aplomb. I can only watch in awe.


message 2: by Jackie (new)

Jackie (thenightowl) | 2231 comments Thank you C.P. for being brave ;) I look forward to seeing some good recommendations in this thread.


message 3: by Steven (new)

Steven Malone | 139 comments I'm in the middle of two real good ones now and they,re both by Goodreads authors. 'Soldier's Rest' - Kathryn Homann and 'On a Foreign Field' - Hazel B. West.

Soldier's Rest is sort of a departure for me. It's paranormal (is that how you spell it) historical fiction with civil war era ghostliness. 'On a Foreign Field' deals with Scotland and the life of William Wallace.

I believe that history is biography. And that is what I like best about these books. Both authors give art to character development. They are good reads.


message 4: by Rosalie (new)

Rosalie Turner | 40 comments I'm just starting "Someone Knows My Name" by Lawrence Hill and I'm loving it already. I can tell the research is extensive and authentic and the writing is vibramt.


message 5: by R.M.F. (new)

R.M.F. Brown | 52 comments The Remains of the Day


Great book. Can't say any more.


message 6: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn | 544 comments Judith Merkle Riley is my hero - everything she wrote is a lesson in clear sparkling prose, fun story-telling, and great characters. And she showed me that historical fiction can be funny. Sometimes this genre is so deadly serious!


message 7: by Bryn (last edited Dec 20, 2012 02:01PM) (new)

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 277 comments My 'exemplars of the craft' met this year are as follows:

The Last English King -- for creativity and experiment

A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury -- for telling Shakespeare's story with more psychology than him

Port Royal -- for depth of human portrayal and what I can only call his 'epic conversations'

These three are works for me to learn from. I'll sit at their feet.


message 8: by Gary (new)

Gary Inbinder | 155 comments Alyson Richman's "The Mask Carver's Son". Beautiful prose, great story-telling, engaging, complex protagonist, and an interesting art-world setting in Meiji Era Japan and 1890's Paris.The Mask Carver's Son


message 9: by C.P. (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) | 673 comments Gary wrote: "Alyson Richman's "The Mask Carver's Son". Beautiful prose, great story-telling, engaging, complex protagonist, and an interesting art-world setting in Meiji Era Japan and 1890's Paris.The Mask Carv..."

That sounds really interesting. Thanks for the recommendation!


message 10: by Gary (new)

Gary Inbinder | 155 comments C.P. wrote: "Gary wrote: "Alyson Richman's "The Mask Carver's Son". Beautiful prose, great story-telling, engaging, complex protagonist, and an interesting art-world setting in Meiji Era Japan and 1890's Paris...."
You're welcome!


message 11: by Bryn (new)

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 277 comments The Mask Carver's Son I thought it was OOP, but have noticed now, paperback due in Sept '13. That's a while to wait...


message 12: by Gary (new)

Gary Inbinder | 155 comments Bryn wrote: "The Mask Carver's Son I thought it was OOP, but have noticed now, paperback due in Sept '13. That's a while to wait..."

Actually, I got my copy awhile ago, but I re-read it recently. This was her debut novel, and the re-issue might be due to the success of her latest novel, The Lost Wife. Regardless, I hope they clean up the typos. The first edition of Mask Carver's Son had great writing, but way too many typos.

The Lost Wife


message 13: by Donna (new)

Donna Thorland I always return to the books that hooked me on historical fiction: Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles starting with The Game of Kings and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series.

I once went to see Dunnett speak at a Waterstones, and during the Q&A three academics in the audience got up and prefaced their questions by saying that they had become historians because of her work. At the time, I hadn't yet been published, but I wish I had had the opportunity to tell her that she inspired me to become a writer.


message 14: by C.P. (last edited Dec 28, 2012 04:33PM) (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) | 673 comments I like the Lymond chronicles, too, especially Pawn in Frankincense and the books that follow it. I actually re-read the last three books with the sole purpose of studying her techniques as a writer—how she controls our impressions of Francis, in particular (and no, I won't tell you how she does it!). I learned a great deal from the experience.


message 15: by Zoe (last edited Dec 29, 2012 06:42AM) (new)

Zoe Saadia (zoesaadia) I finally got around to lay my hands on the last in McCullough's Roman series Antony and Cleopatra Antony and Cleopatra (Masters of Rome, #7) by Colleen McCullough . Looking forward to this read, as I really loved the rest of these series.

(I seem to be pitching McCullough everywhere in this group, but I swear I'm just a fan. I'm sure she is doing well without my support ;D)


message 16: by Gary (new)

Gary Inbinder | 155 comments Donna wrote: "I always return to the books that hooked me on historical fiction: Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles starting with The Game of Kings and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series.

I once went to..."


The Flashman series is brilliant. Fraser had a great idea; transform the cowardly, bullying antagonist of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" into a Victorian "hero" through inadvertence and circumstance . Plenty of sharp, ironic humor, period detail and historical accuracy coupled with a well-defined, engaging scoundrel/protagonist.


message 17: by Donna (last edited Dec 29, 2012 07:07PM) (new)

Donna Thorland "I actually re-read the last three books with the sole purpose of studying her techniques as a writer"

I always try to do this and then I just get swept up in the story!

"The Flashman series is brilliant."

Agreed. I also loved his non-fiction memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II, about the Burma Campaign.

And the screenplays he wrote for Richard Lester's Three Musketeers films are truly excellent. My day job is screenwriting, so now that I write novels as well I'm just awed by how MacDonald Fraser was able to do both so well. They're very different craft skills--storytelling and character and scene structure are the constants--but almost all the tools to effect these are different.


message 18: by Donna (new)

Donna Thorland I should add that I was sorry I read his late in life memoir, Lights on at Signpost CANCELED PRE CATALOG, which I did not warm to at all.


message 19: by Paul (new)

Paul (paullev) | 77 comments I started watching the Cadfael series - about a 12th century Benedictine monk with forensic detective acumen - and find it superb. I'm going to seek out the Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) novels.


message 20: by Sandra (new)

Sandra O'Briant (sandraramosobriant_) | 44 comments Isabel Allende's "The House of Spirits" was a major influence in my writing. Also, Ann Rice in "Feast of All Saints", "Cry to Heaven." Not fiction, but I love all of Antonia Frasier's work. Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose." "The Devils of Loudon" by Aldous Huxley. I'd have to go upstairs and scan my bookshelves for all of them. Risky, because I end up pulling down books and browsing them, instead of writing my own.


message 21: by David (new)


message 22: by Jennifer (last edited Jan 09, 2013 05:57PM) (new)

Jennifer Lafferty "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". This book is everything a novel should be. It completely takes you to another world. The descriptions and characters are so vivid. The story is engrossing and inspiring. It is tender, poignant and at times humorous. The lead character Francie is incredibly sympathetic. You're cheering her on the whole time. As a bonus you learn about early 20th century Brooklyn in way that is very entertaining.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith


message 23: by Hilda (new)

Hilda Reilly | 161 comments I'm still looking for the perfect examplar of a biographical novel so that I can learn from it. This is my own speciality. I've found lots of historical novels which I think are pretty good but that's not the same thing. With a biographical novel you're constrained by the known facts about the person so it's much more difficult to create something which works as a novel, ie with a plot and conforming with all the other requirements of fictional narrative. On the other hand you can learn just as much, if not more, from bad, or even just imperfect, examples of any given genre.


message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

Jennifer wrote: ""A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". This book is everything a novel should be. It completely takes you to another world. The descriptions and characters are so vivid. The story is engrossing and inspiring...."
Yes!! I came here to say the same. Plus, I remember there's a moment in the story where she talks about how she embellished a story for the sake of entertainment...I could definitely relate as a writer!


message 25: by Maggie (new)

Maggie Anton | 211 comments Hilda wrote: "I'm still looking for the perfect examplar of a biographical novel so that I can learn from it. This is my own speciality. I've found lots of historical novels which I think are pretty good but tha..."

Gore Vidal is one of the best at this genre. I personally love Julian because it takes place during the time I'm researching. But I think his novels "Burr" and "Lincoln" are better known. You will certainly learn a lot from any of these.


message 26: by Maggie (new)

Maggie Anton | 211 comments Jennifer wrote: ""A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". This book is everything a novel should be. It completely takes you to another world. The descriptions and characters are so vivid. The story is engrossing and inspiring...."

Thanks for reminding me. I loved this book when I was in middle school, reading it over and over. Now I'm inclined to read it again as an adult, and as a historical novelist.

Maggie Anton


message 27: by Sandra (new)

Sandra O'Briant (sandraramosobriant_) | 44 comments "Like Water for Chocoloate" "Interview with the Vampire" "Cleopatra." Most, but not all, of Isabel Allende's work. I read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" around the same time that I read "The Egg and I" and all of Raymond Chandlers books. Inspired by late night tv movies, my babysitter as a kid.


message 28: by Yangsze (new)

Yangsze Choo | 47 comments Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red", set in 16th century Istanbul, has some beautiful writing. Also Isak Dinesen's "Winter's Tales" and "Last Tales". I also loved Shan Sa's "The Girl Who Played Go".


message 29: by Leonide (new)

Leonide Martin | 87 comments Just about anything by Mary Stewart, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Barbara Diamont. The "Shikasta" series by Doris Lessing. Isha Schwaller de Lubicz "Her-Bak" series, take note you Egyptian HF lovers, her books seem the most authentic I've read in this genre.


message 30: by Bryn (last edited Jan 22, 2013 11:51PM) (new)

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 277 comments @Yangsze Isak Dinesen's tales are marvelous. Marvelously told. Yes, I remember thinking I'd kill to write just like her. She turned my head...

Have My Name is Red sitting here await, glad to have your vote.


message 31: by Diane (new)

Diane Lewis Jennifer wrote: ""A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". This book is everything a novel should be. It completely takes you to another world. The descriptions and characters are so vivid. The story is engrossing and inspiring...."

I loved this book. My mother gave it to me as a child, and so much of the story has stayed with me over the years. I kept my old paperback copy.


message 32: by Pasky (new)

Pasky Pascual | 13 comments Jennifer wrote: ""A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". This book is everything a novel should be. It completely takes you to another world. The descriptions and characters are so vivid. The story is engrossing and inspiring...."

Definitely! I first read ATGIB when I was about 10 years old. I then re-read it every summer until I turned 20. I've passed it on to many of my friends. The ending still haunts me.


message 33: by Hilda (new)

Hilda Reilly | 161 comments One of my all-time favourites is Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Familyby Thomas Mann. I was taken by surprise by this book. I didn't expect to like a long family saga set in 19th century Germany and only decided to read it as I thought it would be helpful to me in creating the appropriate cultural setting for a novel I was researching. Within the first few pages I was captivated and remained caught up in the story to the very end. The most astonishing thing about it is that Mann finished it by the time he was 26. How someone so young could have the maturity of vision to create and sustain his characters from youth to old age, could have grasped and conveyed the intricacies and impact of societal changes over a period of decades, before he was even born, is a mystery to me.


message 34: by C.P. (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) | 673 comments That is impressive. On a lighter note, it reminds me of Georgette Heyer's The Black Moth—not her best book by any means, but unbelievably good for a novel written at 15 and published at 18. It's enough to make one believe in reincarnation!


message 35: by Harold (new)

Harold Titus (haroldtitus) | 106 comments Here's another endorsement for "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." I read it for the second time several months ago as I did another excellent novel featuring a fascinating young female character: "Cress Delahanty" by Jessamyn West. Two excellent historical novels I also read recently that also plumb the depths of human relationships are "Plainsong" by Kent Haruf and "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" by Wallace Stegner.


message 36: by Bryn (new)

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 277 comments On Thomas Mann, and hf, I was enthralled by the early parts of his Joseph and His Brothers when I was too young -- too young to finish the 1200 dense pages. I only ever got 3/4 through. Besides I suspect it goes on the slide. But I shall never forget chapters such as 'The Red One' on Esau (it's a bit like Melville on the whiteness of the whale) or 'The Primordial Bleating' where Issac in a moment of atavism on his deathbed bleats like a sheep. It's freaky and profound.

After that became a fan of Death in Venice, which is much shorter.


message 37: by R.M.F. (new)

R.M.F. Brown | 52 comments No disrespect to people, but are you making these books up :) I haven't heard of half of them!


message 38: by Hilda (new)

Hilda Reilly | 161 comments Bryn wrote: "On Thomas Mann, and hf, I was enthralled by the early parts of his Joseph and His Brothers when I was too young -- too young to finish the 1200 dense pages."

I must track this down. I've never heard of it. Although I enjoyed Buddenbrooks very much I couldn't really get into Mann's best known book, The Magic Mountain. I thought it dragged on rather.


message 39: by Bryn (new)

Bryn Hammond (brynhammond) | 277 comments @Hilda: I've failed to ever start other Thomas Manns, though I've meant to try Doctor Faustus for half my life.


message 40: by J.S. (last edited Feb 07, 2013 11:08AM) (new)

J.S. Dunn (httpwwwjsdunnbookscom) | 27 comments R.M.F wrote: "No disrespect to people, but are you making these books up :) I haven't heard of half of them!"

*smiles* Just shows that the commercial or "bestseller" titles don't often have staying power.

Notable authors: Dunnett, Geraldine Brooks, Mary Renault, for example, stand the test of time. They also feel no need to Grab And Startle The Reader unlike much of the drivel coming from the Big 6 these days.

And let's mention males also, like Mika Waltari, and Edw. Rutherfurd. Not the swordsandsandals writers whose characters mostly belch and sweat for a few hundred pages, but the more cerebral sort of authors. Yes, and Gore Vidal as mentioned above.


message 41: by David (new)

David Hill | 15 comments Donna wrote: ""The Flashman series is b..."

I, too, love the Flashman novels. I can't decide which is my favorite ... "At the Charge" or "In the Great Game" or "Flashman's Lady". There never was such a charming rogue. Thank God he put to rest the hoary adage that only the good die young. If only Fraser could have lived as long as good old Harry!


message 42: by C.P. (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) | 673 comments R.M.F wrote: "No disrespect to people, but are you making these books up :) I haven't heard of half of them!"

If we can link to them, prob'ly not. ;)


message 43: by R.M.F. (new)

R.M.F. Brown | 52 comments C.P. wrote: "R.M.F wrote: "No disrespect to people, but are you making these books up :) I haven't heard of half of them!"

If we can link to them, prob'ly not. ;)"


Probably has more to do with me being a Philistine!


message 44: by Hilda (new)

Hilda Reilly | 161 comments Maggie wrote: "Hilda wrote: "I'm still looking for the perfect examplar of a biographical novel so that I can learn from it. This is my own speciality. I've found lots of historical novels which I think are prett..."

I've now got hold of Julian, which you recommended, Maggie. My library tracked it down in their archives. I'm only on page 2 but I've a feeling I'm going to enjoy it enormously.


message 45: by Prue (new)

Prue What a fabulous list of books... I read across all timeframes but prefer the Renaissance and Middle Ages.

I can't ever go past Dunnett for quality and iconic style, but am currently reading Angus Donald's Warlord which whilst fast and furious with blood and gore, sits effortlessly in its timeframe. I also recently read Colin Falconer's Harem about Suleiman the Great and Hurrem and quite enjoyed that for a similar reason. I would also add Posie Graeme Evans for her trilogy about Anne de Bohun and also her standalone novel, The Dressmaker.

I'm not adverse to any of Mary Hoffman's YA hist.ficts either: Troubadour, The Falconer's Knot and David.


message 46: by C.P. (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) | 673 comments Ooh, thanks for the Falconer recommendation. That looks good, and it's $2.99. Worth a splurge!


message 47: by J.G. (new)

J.G. Harlond (jgharlond) I'm fascinated by how Dorothy Dunnett has cropped up in this thread. I still judge all hist fict against her books, and she has been a huge influence on my own writing. However, I wonder if she'd get passed go with an agent or publisher today: each novel has a huge cast (although they do include a who's who list), classical and literary allusions abound - all written using a erudite vocabulary . . . Few authors ever match up for me. And as others have said above - a whiff of lazy research sends me straight back to my old Dunnett collection. Nevertheless, there are some excellent books available - try Sarah Dunant or Jean Gill's Troubador series - they aren't anything like Dunnett, but they are well-written and obviously very well researched.


message 48: by C.P. (last edited Mar 17, 2013 05:22PM) (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) | 673 comments Prue wrote: "I ... am currently reading Angus Donald's Warlord which whilst fast and furious with blood and gore, sits effortlessly in its timeframe. I also recently read Colin Falconer's Harem about Suleiman the Great and Hurrem and quite enjoyed that for a similar reason."

That's a good description of the Falconer book. I started it last night and agree that it's a rollicking read, very compellingly written. But oh man, I haven't seen that many historical howlers in one place since I ditched Conn Iggulden's Empire of Silver on p. 40. Falconer makes mistakes that 5 minutes on Wikipedia would have exposed.

For example, Hurrem was not Crimean (Crim, Krym) Tatar. If she had been, she would have been Muslim from birth, whereas her conversion is a big part of her story (how she persuaded Suleiman to marry her, supposedly). The Tatars did supply concubines and young men for the harem, but those were mostly Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Russians captured during raids. Hurrem was one such Ukrainian, née Alexandra Anastasia Lisowska and known as Roxelana (the Russian or the Ruthenian). She was, therefore, Christian, probably Orthodox Christian. Her only connection with the Crimean Tatars was that they captured and sold her.

Still, thanks for the recommendation. The book's a hoot, so long as people rid themselves of the idea that it has anything to do with Hurrem. She had a fascinating history, for sure, but this ain't it.


message 49: by Marie (new)

Marie Macpherson (goodreadscommarie_macpherson) | 53 comments Hi Jane, nice to see you here. I too am a great Dunnett fan and as you say she'd probably never get taken on by a publisher nowadays. Her novels are so well-wrought they need more than one reading.

I also look to Reay Tannahill's historical novels, confident that she has done her research as she has also brought oout non-fiction titles:
Food in HistorySex in History

For Scottish historical fiction Nigel Tranter is factually accurate but but his characters - for me at any rate - lack psychological depth.


message 50: by R.M.F. (new)

R.M.F. Brown | 52 comments Marie wrote: "Hi Jane, nice to see you here. I too am a great Dunnett fan and as you say she'd probably never get taken on by a publisher nowadays. Her novels are so well-wrought they need more than one reading..."

His books about the Bruce are very good, though.


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