Great historical fiction Part II — international titles suggested by readers
Part II of Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn's reader-generated list of great historical novels, including titles by Umberto Eco, Ken Follett, Alan Furst and Patrick O'Brian.
Seattle Times book editor
I now know what sentient Seattleites are doing when they're not watching the Olympics — they're reading historical novels. My recent, offhand call to readers to nominate their favorites in this genre provoked so many responses I had to split the results into two columns; last week, books based in America; this week, novels set abroad.
For the "international" edition, I'm resorting to a print version and a longer online version. In print, you get the Miss Popularity winners — books that got multiple nominations. Online, you get all those plus titles with single nominations. And thanks to those who sent multipage lists of books; no, really, I mean it!
Here's the shorter list of books with multiple nominations, alphabetized by author:
"March" and "Year of Wonders" by Geraldine Brooks. Lots of Brooks fans out there; "March" tells the story of Mr. March, the absent father in "Little Women," a clergyman/abolitionist who joins the Union Army and learns firsthand the horrors of war. "Year of Wonders" is a novel of the plague in 17th-century London.
"The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco. This intellectual mystery set in a 14th-century Italian monastery is "so much more than an historical novel," said reader Rob Hutcheson.
"The Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End" by Ken Follett. Set in medieval England, these novels showcase Follett's way with character. "When you set either of the books aside after completing it, you emotionally feel as if you've just moved cross-country and will never see your loved ones again," said Tom Maher.
"The Polish Officer" and "The World at Night" by Alan Furst. You cannot go wrong with any of Furst's elegant, funny, suspenseful spy novels, set in Europe between the world wars.
The "Outlander" series by Diana Gabaldon. Readers can't get enough of these books, a combination of British history, American history and time travel, by an author with a master's in marine biology and a Ph.D. in ecology.
"The Glass Palace" by Amitav Ghosh. Bengali author Ghosh produced this superb panoramic novel, set in Burma during the English colonial period and during and after World War II, up to and including the story of Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Master and Commander" by Patrick O'Brian. Several readers recommended this 21-book series, set during the Napoleonic wars; the interplay between English sea Captain Jack Aubrey and his medical man/spy sidekick Stephen Maturin never fails to engage.
"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel. The Man Booker prizewinning saga of Henry VIII's early years, told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.
"Sarum," "London," "Russka," "The Princes of Ireland" and other books by Edward Rutherfurd. Several readers recommended just about any book by this writer (also author of "New York, " which made last week's list).
"Roman Blood" and other titles by Steven Saylor in the "Roma Sub Rosa" series. Set in ancient Rome, these books feature protagonist Gordianus the Finder, a sort of Roman private detective. "The research is first-rate, and the writing so good that if you read these books and then take a trip to Rome, as you walk through the ruins of the Forum Romanum you mentally use the books as a frame of reference," said Joel Parkes.
"Kristin Lavransdatter" by Sigrid Undset. This trilogy of books by a Nobel Prize-winning author, the saga of a woman's life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, was tops for several readers.
Additional recommended titles
"Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree" by Tariq Ali. Milt Krieger of Bellingham, an exceedingly well-read fellow, recommended this book, the beginning of the Pakistani writer's projected "Islam Quintet" novel set in Spain as the Catholics expelled the "Moors" (Muslims) in 1492.
"Inés of My Soul" by Isabel Allende. The novelization of the grand romantic saga of Doña Inés Suárez (1507-1580), Chile's founding mother.
"The Blood of Flowers" by Anita Amirrezvani. This book, set in 17th-century Persia, tells the story of a young girl in a family of rug makers. "What mesmerized me more than the story of marriage and social caste were the descriptions of carpet knotting, color dyeing and the rich cacophony of the ancient bazaar," said Paige Chernow, adult services librarian at Seattle Public Library.
"In the Time of the Butterflies" by Julia Alvarez. The story of four sisters (the aforesaid butterflies) who lived under the Dominican dictator Trujillo. "The story tells about the human cost of political oppression; the sisters sacrificed their safe and comfortable lives in the name of freedom," wrote IdaGay Nicolino. .
"Regeneration," "The Eye in the Door" and "The Ghost Road" by Pat Barker. "Nothing compares to Pat Barker's trilogy about World War I," said Louise Spiegler. "It's searing, funny, devastating, intellectually challenging."
"The Long Ships" by Frans G. Bengtsson. The bloody, salty, lusty story of the Vikings as they raided the coast of England in the 10th century.
"Guernica" by Dave Boling. Rita Requa liked this novel by Tacoma sports columnist Boling: "Not only was it very informative about the destruction of the Basque capital of Guernica in the late 1930s, but the book was character driven. Picasso's anti-war historical painting 'Guernica' is now much more meaningful."
"In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden" by Kathleen Cambor. Cheryl McKeon of Third Place Books recommended this book: "Few west of the Mississippi know of the devastating flood that destroyed Johnstown, Penn., a direct result of the hubris of the Pittsburg Carnegies, Frickes, et. al., who created their summer playland with disregard for the impact on the land. Even if you aren't engaged in the history, the novel is a beautiful story of the town and its people," said McKeon, who also recommended these books, all connected to the history of Germany and Europe during World War II: "A Thread of Grace" by Mary Doria Russell; "Skeletons at the Feast" by Chris Bohjalian; and "Stones from the River" by Ursula Hegi.
"Eaters of the Dead" by Michael Crichton. A 10th-century Muslim travels north with the Vikings and finds Beowulf-esque monsters, among other unexpected surprises.
"The Madonnas of Leningrad" by Debra Dean. An aging Russian immigrant living in Seattle lets go of the present and remembers the most vivid time of her life: the World War II siege of Leningrad by the Germans. By a local author.
"Satan in St. Mary's," "Prince of Darkness," "Demon Archer," "Corpse Candle," "Magician's Death" and other novels in the Hugh Corbett series by Paul Doherty. These novels, set in the 14th century in the time of Edward I, are written by an English headmaster who has produced this series and a dozen or so others (series, not books!), in his spare time. "He uses details from daily life of the time in such a way that you feel you have visited the time and place" said Morreen Hansen.
"The Gift of Rain" by Tan Twan Eng. Set in Malaysia before, during and after World War II, this novel follows the life of the scion of a British trading company. "Nominated for the Man Booker Prize and a wonderful read," said Tracy Salter.
"Earthly Joys" by Philippa Gregory. This book, set in 17th-century England, tells the story of John Tradescant, master gardener. "Tradescant becomes an informal confidant to those in power, exhibiting loyalty, honesty and love to all he comes in contact with, while planning acres of exquisite gardens. The sequel to this novel, 'Virgin Earth,' followed the story without skipping a beat," said Evie Chestnut. Another reader recommended Gregory's "The White Queen," about Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV.
"Aztec" by Gary Jennings. "Aztec" is a fictional biography of an Aztec man who lived at the time of the Spanish invasion: "It's more an experience than just a book; I found myself thinking about it at work and dreaming about it at night," said Michael Speyer. Speyer also recommends "The Source" by James Michener, a history of Judaism based on a fictional archaeological dig in Israel.
"The Knight, Death, and the Devil" by Ella Leffland. Terrel Kaplan nominated this fictional biography of Hermann Goering, which follows Goering's life from a young and idealistic boy to his embrace of Nazi ideology. "This novel is fascinating, both as history and as biography," said Kaplan.
"When Christ and his Saints Slept," "Time and Chance" and "Devil's Brood," by Sharon Kay Penman. Sheila Bukowski recommended this trilogy, about Henry the Second, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children: "The characters in these books are so real that they really seem contemporary. I think the last one, titled 'The Devil's Brood' kind of sums up the family!" said Bukowski.
"The Spanish Bow" by Andromeda Romano-Lax. Based on the life of cellist Pablo Casals, this novel is "great for anyone interested in music, Spain, the intersection of art and politics, or life!" reported Sidney Parker.
"Katherine" by Anya Seton. "Wonderful story of a woman's life in 1300s England ... Lots of English history of the Plantagenet era. I've read it six times as of last counting," said Dianne Parker.
"The Terror" by Dan Simmons. This novel, based on the lost arctic expedition of John Franklin, "blends historical fiction & supernatural elements, but I was most interested in the parts of the book that dealt with life on board (and on ice) for the mid-19th century sailors that signed on for the doomed Arctic expedition to find the Northwest Passage ... I still feel cold just remembering the descriptions of sleeping under frozen blankets, while the wooden hulls of the ice-locked ships are battered by storm after storm," said Jim Bohm.
"The Volcano Lover" by Susan Sontag. Based on the scandalous love affair between Lord Nelson and (the married) Lady Emma Hamilton, this novel is set in Naples in the 1790, with Vesuvius and the French Revolution threatening to blow. "A surprise and delight to me," said Susan Cole.
"The Tokaido Road" by Lucia St. Clair Robson. A novel of feudal Japan, "about the daughter of an assassinated samurai traveling along the Tokaido Road from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto seeking to avenge her father's death. It is a tale of adventure, love, honor and tradition in feudal Japan in about 1700 AD. It is amazingly well researched and transports the reader back in time," said Mary Simon.
"Memoirs of Hadrian" by Marguerite Yourcenar. An astute psychological portrait of the Roman emperor Hadrian, told through a long letter written by Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius.
"The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck; "Shogun" by James Clavell; "Count Belisarius" by Robert Graves; "Lost Empires" by J.B. Priestley; "The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows; "The Agony and the Ecstasy" by Irving Stone; "The Prince and the Pauper" by Mark Twain; "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy; "The Winds of War" by Herman Wouk.