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    Book Club in a Bag

    Houdini, History and More

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    Each title in the list below offers a bit of history, a bit of fantasy, or perhaps a combination of both. And if you're interested in Houdini and historical fiction, don't miss your chance to hear Steven Galloway read from his new book, The Confabulist, this Thursday evening!

    The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

    Themes: Historical fiction, Historical figures, Illusion, Memory, Spectacle, Spies

     

     

     

    The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin

    Themes: Historical fiction, Historical figures, Spies

     

     

     

    The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

    Themes: Historians, Spies, Romance

     

     

     

    The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

    Themes: Magic, Spectacle, Historical fiction, Romance

     

     

     

    A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

    Themes: Historians, Historical fantasy, Magic, Romance, Ancient texts, Alchemy

     

     

     

    The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

    Themes: Historical fiction, Romance, Spectacle

    Best Historical Fiction

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    If you're a historical fiction buff, this post is for you! There are so many recent releases that are generating a lot of interest, so how do you choose? I've compiled some lists to help you narrow it down:

    Or if you like to pick your books based on a beautiful or compelling cover, have a look at this Pinterest page.

    I haven't read any recent historical fiction, but there are a few fantastic novels I've read in the past that have always stayed with me. When I find a book like that, it creates that blissful experience: reading becomes like time travel, immersing me in the time and place and lives of the characters.

    I'll leave you with three of my all-time favourites:

    Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

    A graphic novel memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, this classic of the genre presents a window into a time of social and political upheaval. The bold black and white visual style is matched by the author's open portrayal of her childhood in that time and place. The story continues in Persepolis 2. If you've never picked up a graphic novel, you may surprise yourself by enjoying this as much as any other historical novel.

    A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

    This novel is both a window into India's past and a story of enduring friendship forged in difficult circumstances. The richness and complexity of the story is a match for that of its setting. From the catalogue summary:

    A Fine Balance , Rohinton Mistry's stunning internationally acclaimed bestseller, is set in mid-1970s India. It tells the story of four unlikely people whose lives come together during a time of political turmoil soon after the government declares a "State of Internal Emergency." Through days of bleakness and hope, their circumstances - and their fates - become inextricably linked in ways no one could have foreseen. Mistry's prose is alive with enduring images and a cast of unforgettable characters. Written with compassion, humour, and insight, A Fine Balance is a vivid, richly textured, and powerful novel written by one of the most gifted writers of our time.

    The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak


    Set in Nazi Germany of 1939, this story is narrated by Death. Leisel is drawn to the mysterious promise of books and reading, and sometimes can't help taking books. From the catalogue summary:

    The extraordinary #1 New York Times bestseller that is now a major motion picture, Markus Zusak's unforgettable story is about the ability of books to feed the soul. It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can't resist-books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement. In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

    What is your favourite historical novel? Leave a comment to share your suggestion!

    Off the Shelf: A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    When A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe opens, Wesley Case needs to “find himself”, although such terms were not used in the 19th century. He is not the son his father wants; his achievements as a military officer are middling; and, he isn’t particularly fond of his school friends as adults. He heads West.

    Case’s time working with Major James Walsh sets a theme for his life – the encroachment of the RCMP and neo-colonialists on the land and social structures of North American native peoples. After Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and his people took refuge near the Cypress Hills, the policies of the United States towards the Indian nations were enacted much more harshly than Canada’s.

    In Canada, the flow of history was moderated somewhat by Major Walsh who tried to interpret his duties in a manner respectful to local Indian tribes and individuals.

    Against Walsh’s advice about his somewhat disreputable partner, Joe McMullen, Wesley Case sets himself up as a rancher near Fort Benton in the US. Joe and Wesley suit each other through their common ethic of hard work and in their contrasting styles of social interaction.

    Ada Tarr is woman of spirit, initially married to a local tyrant. Despite societal norms, Wesley is hopeless in avoiding his attraction to her. Only his voluntary responsibilities as a go-between for Walsh and the American military officer, Major Ilges, draw him away from Ada’s charms. Another man has also succumbed to Ada’s charms, but his attentions she definitely does not welcome. Already an enemy from Wesley’s early days, and initially blinded by his peculiar moral stance, Michael Dunne comes to the realization that his dreams are being destroyed by Wesley Case. He devises a plot to rid himself of the destroyer and win the fair maid.

    In romance, A Good Man can win. In the politics of conquest, he cannot.

    - Judith Umbach

    Off the Shelf: Longbourn by Jo Baker

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    Upstairs, the almost desperate Bennet family seeks husbands for five charming daughters. Downstairs, the servants scurry through endless labour and winter mud. In Longbourn, Jo Baker successfully recreates life on the other side of the kitchen door, a life secreted from the readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

    Young Sarah is the senior housemaid; in reality, this means she has the assistance of the dreamy eleven-year-old Polly as they hasten to fulfill the orders of the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. Sarah’s hands are raw, both from prying mud from Miss Elizabeth’s petticoats and shoes and from using lye to restore the whiteness of the undergarments. (Lizzie does love to wander the fields whatever the weather.) And, the housemaid has the duty of carrying the full chamber pots down the stairs and across the muddy, rutted yard to deposit the contents in the “necessary”. She rises earlier than everyone else to light the fires so others will be warm, and sometimes she stays up late to help the gentry with their coats after a night out with friends. Sarah has no friends, no nights out, nothing.

    Three men come into Sarah’s constrained world. Ptolemy Bingley, assigned his employer’s name, of course, is a footman with a roving eye and plans for a smoke shop in London. His kiss has the expected effect on a completely innocent but desiring girl. James Smith (a suspect surname), new footman in the Bennet household, persuades Sarah that her efforts to decamp to London seeking Ptolemy’s dream may be misplaced. And, the charming but despicable Mr. Wickham, an upstairs man who too often invades the downstairs sphere, disturbs Sarah’s stultifying but safe world, just as he disturbs the family life of the Bennets.

    Jo Baker has written a novel not in the tradition of Jane Austen sequels but in an engaging parallel universe. The doings of the Bennets are seen from the perspective of how much work will be created for the servants and how events will affect their lives. The pressures that affect servants are much different than for the gentry: the militia, the miserable weather, the importunities of guests, and the gaining or losing of a penny. As ever with near-poverty, the servants can afford neither pride nor prejudice.

    - Judith Umbach

    Staff Picks: 47 Sorrows by Janet Kellough

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    Sometimes we pick up a book and have a totally different reading experience than we expected. I checked out 47 Sorrows: a Thaddeus Lewis Mystery because it was a Canadian historical mystery written by a Canadian author. What more could one ask for? Janet Kellough certainly delivers on those expectations, but there is a whole different element to this book.

    Her story starts with a body being discovered on the beach. It is set in southern Ontario in the mid-1800s. Young Luke Lewis is travelling from his brother’s homestead near Lake Huron to Montreal to train as a doctor. This is where the book becomes much more than I expected. Luke stops in Kingston to assist the doctors, nuns and volunteer workers who are dealing with the influx of Irish immigrants. Thousands have fled the potato famine, many of them suffering from typhus. Luke and his father Thaddeus do solve the mystery of the body on the beach, but this becomes secondary to the plight of the immigrants.

    I have often heard of the potato famine and the Irish immigration of that time, but this book raised my awareness of the plight of the immigrants as their lives and families are torn apart by the epidemic. I might have guessed that this would not be a happy read by the title – 47 Sorrows – but I am glad that I read it. This look at history brings a greater understanding of the dislocation suffered by the immigrants of that time and by the experience of many in modern times.

    - Pat

    Staff Picks: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

    by Sonya - 2 Comment(s)

    Halloween has come and gone, and for many, that means it will be a whole year before you have to think about witches or vampires again. If you enjoy reading historical fiction, though, let the season last a little longer by immersing yourself if this richly detailed debut novel by historian Deborah Harkness.

    Although populated by witches, vampires and other supernatural beings, this novel is not a typical fantasy tale. The vivid historical detail and complex plot, part fantasy, part romance, sets this novel (part of a trilogy) apart.

    Diana Bishop is a young historian who has rejected her magical inheritance and always tried to distance herself and her scholarly life from the Bishop family legacy. While studying in Oxford, Diana stumbles across a manuscript that seems to have magic imbued in it. Scholarship and research is her calling, and she wants nothing to do with magic, so of course she examines the manuscript, takes notes, and returns it to the archives. But unknown to Diana, her contact with the manuscript has caused wide ripples in the supernatural world. With mysterious events set in motion, she will no longer be able to avoid her magical heritage. From our catalogue summary: "Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense."

    A word of warning: once you start, you won't want to put this down! And while the second book of the trilogy, Shadow of Night, was published in 2012, the third book is yet to come, so you may be waiting in suspense until the third volume appears. And if you start reading and wonder when the "historical" part will begin... just keep reading! You won't be disappointed.

    Celebrate your Freedom to Read

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    In preparation for Freedom to Read week, which runs this year from February 24 to March 2, I've been looking at lists of banned and challenged books. Have a look through Freedom to Read's list of Banned and Challenged books for more details on specific challenges in Canada and the outcomes.

    The most interesting thing I notice about these types of lists is it's often those books that receive the widest critical acclaim that are also the most often challenged or banned. Incidentally, two of YOUR chosen favourites from "Calgarians Choose a Century of Great Books" are also titles that have caused complaints, requests for banning, and even a book-burning! (Well, book-cover-burning...) Since these two titles are also two of my all-time favourites, and both by fabulous Canadian authors, I'll feature them here with a few suggestions for further reading:

    The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

    This book is considered a modern classic, chilling and yet believable in its portrayal of a future in which infertility is reaching crisis proportions. And the fallout from this situation is horrifying for the average woman...

    From the book's description:

    It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now...everything has changed.

    We love dystopian fiction here in the Readers' Nook and have posted about it before. Read more from Atwood: Oryx and Crake (also a "Century" title) and The Year of the Flood both explore the same near-future world, a disturbing place in which "[t]he triple whammy of runaway social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event." (Publisher's Weekly)

    Oryx and Crake is told from the point of view of Snowman, who introduces the strange world he finds himself in, alone, starving and bewildered; the story gradually reveals how he came to survive, and what lead to the cataclysmic changes in the world. What is most fascinating to me is how Atwood builds a believable near-future in which we can recognize all the disturbing trends of our own world which have snowballed and grown until daily life is both unrecognizable and eerily familiar.

    The Year of the Flood revisits this before-and-after time again from a different perspective: a group of followers of a new religion, God's Gardeners. We are introduced to the characters in the "before" time, and then follow some of the same people years later, as they try to survive in the bleak "after" world. It's difficult to describe in detail without giving too much away... Both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood can be read as stand-alone novels, but plot points and characters overlap, and if you read them as a pair, each one enriches the other.

    Other great dystopian visions you might enjoy:

    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

    Seed by Rob Ziegler

    Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

    Lovestar by Andri Snaer Magnason

    The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

    This riveting work of historical fiction follows the life of Aminata Diallo from her childhood, through her life as a slave, and later as an associate and speaker for slavery abolitionists in London. It is the most powerful and memorable novel I've read in a long time, and it highlights some little-known corners of Canadian history, one example being the document from which the book takes its controversial title.

    From the book's description:

    Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle--a string of slaves-- Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic Book of Negroes. This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own. Aminata's eventual return to Sierra Leone--passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America--is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey. Lawrence Hill is a master at transforming the neglected corners of history into brilliant imaginings, as engaging and revealing as only the best historical fiction can be. A sweeping story that transports the reader from a tribal African village to a plantation in the southern United States, from the teeming Halifax docks to the manor houses of London,The Book of Negroes introduces one of the strongest female characters in recent Canadian fiction, one who cuts a swath through a world hostile to her colour and her sex.


    For more from Lawrence Hill, try his novels Any Known Blood and Some Great Thing.

    If you've already read these and are looking for other epic historical fiction that transports you to a time and place, I will recommend a few more favourites:

    What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

    The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin

    A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

    The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak