Amy Greene, Andrea Molesini, Barry Unsworth, book review, Chris Cleave, historical fiction, Julian Barnes, literary fiction, Mary Renault, Patrick O'Brian, Paul Goldberg, Pulitzer Prize, Shirley Barrett, Stewart O'Nan, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Winston Graham
Once more, thank you for visiting. Whether you’re a regular reader or just dropping by, I’m glad you’ve come and hope you take away something that stays with you. You’re the reason I do this; without you, there’d be no point.
As I did last year, I’ll briefly recap my favorite books from the last twelve months. They belong to different genres within historical fiction, but from each I’ve taken away something that stays with me.
In no particular order, I particularly recommend these:
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave, tells a marvelously observed, wrenching tale of a love triangle during World War II. Think you’ve been there, done that? You haven’t, until you’ve read this one.
Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth, explores Britain’s eighteenth-century slave trade to depict the human urge that puts profit before morality, decency, or empathy. So many novels have overdrawn, flat antagonists, but this book has two utterly real, compelling villains, one of many facets to this brilliant work of literature.
Stewart O’Nan’s thriller, City of Secrets, set in Jerusalem in 1945, portrays in elegant, tense economy the struggle to liberate Palestine, both against the British and among the Jewish organizations fighting them, with a political romance at the center.
Rush Oh!, Shirley Barrett’s delicate, lovely story about whaling in Australia around the turn of the twentieth century, surprises with its humor, compassion, and home truths about selflessness and its opposite.
Long Man, Amy Greene’s elegy for a dying town in 1936, tells how the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dam building raises issues of blood, land, and power. Greene’s rugged, potent prose and deceptively simple premise deliver a haunting novel.
You don’t have to like stories of wooden ships and iron men to appreciate Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, the first installment of the famous series about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Yes, O’Brian knows so much about the sea, it’s effortless, like breathing, but he shows the same touch with the English language and his main characters’ inner lives.
Andrea Molesini’s Not All Bastards Are From Vienna deals squarely with the First World War’s injustice, cruelty, and stupidity, yet is thoroughly engaging, thanks to the characters’ ingenuity, forcefulness, and mordant wit. They’re larger than life yet wholly plausible, the secret of great fiction.
Mary Renault’s classic, The Bull From the Sea, tells the story of Theseus, in such a way that the well-known myth becomes a deep, thought-provoking manifesto on the use of power and the virtue of forbearance. I wish our politicians were half as sensible.
Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, the first of many volumes in another famous series, tells about an eighteenth-century iconoclast in Cornwall who tries to reform his life and lands–and then meets a young girl who’s an absolute firecracker.
In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes re-creates the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer who just manages to escape’s Stalin’s purges and often wonders whether he made the right choice. A riveting, darkly funny story.
Paul Goldberg, in The Yid, also revisits the Stalin years, supposing that the Great Leader was planning a second Holocaust in the 1950s, and that his antagonist is a former actor from the state Yiddish Theater. Fiction doesn’t get any bolder–or more absurdly real–than this.
Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, and he deserved it. A riveting-to-the-eyeballs tale about the Vietnam War, told in flawless prose from the vantage point of a Communist mole within the South Vietnamese intelligence service, this novel skewers both sides and everyone connected with them. Superb.
Anything you particularly liked during the last year?