Books Books Books

What do all these books have in common? And no, the answer isn’t that I’ve read them all 🙂

five-novels

  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  • Tightrope by Simon Mawer
  • The Ten Thousand Things: A Novel by John Spurling
  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
  • Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  • The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
  • Day by A.L. Kennedy
  • The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
  • Restless by William Boyd
  • An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer
  • March by Geraldine Brooks
  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones
  • Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
  • On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry
  • The Long Song by Andrea Levy
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanigan
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  • Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
  • The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
  • In America by Susan Sontag
  • Pure by Andrew Miller

Yes, you’re right. All are historical fiction (although a few weave in present day portions). And yes, all have won major literary prizes including the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, the Pulitzer prize, the Man Booker prize, the National Book Award and the Costa Book Award.

What can they tell us about successful historical fiction? I’ll be working on that – just as soon as I finish the last round of edits on my current manuscript.

In the meantime, if you’ve read one, two or more of them, let me know why you think they were chosen for awards and what makes them successful.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

2015 Another Year of Reading

a year of reading40 books in 2015 – not as many as 2014, but still a decent number.

As with 2014, some were superb, others I did not finish. Most were historical fiction; a few were non-fiction. I read several in my capacity as book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and the Washington Independent Review of Books, and a few for feature articles in HNS.

I suspect I’m a ‘hard marker’. Here’s the rating system I used last year: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

The following are from January 2015 to May. I’ve included links to blog posts and reviews where appropriate. I’ll share the balance in a few days.

Jan Penelope Fitzgerald Hermione Lee DNF Biography – far too much detail
Firebird Susanna Kearsley GR Loved The Winter Sea, but I think Kearsley needs to try a new theme
Sisters of Heart and Snow Margaret Dilloway GR HNS feature; the tale of a female samurai; too much present day not enough history
Writing Historical Fiction Marina Oliver GR Much of the advice is very basic
Historical Fiction Writing Myfanwy Cook GR Lots of good advice, research ideas and useful reference sites
Feb The Glory of Life Michael Kumpfmuller GR WIRO book review; last years of Franz Kafka; rich in detail, light on drama
The Heroes Welcome Louisa Young ER HNS Review; A novel about the effects of WWI; highly recommended
Mar The Foundling’s War Michel Deon GR A look at WWII France; present tense and omniscient narrator detract from story
Hell and Good Company Richard Rhodes ER HNS review; non-fiction on Spanish Civil War
All the Light We Cannot See – Pulitzer prize 2015 Anthony Doerr OR A five star IMHO; could not put this WWII novel down
The Wild Girl Kate Forsyth GR A story about the brothers Grimm; pacing slow in parts
Apr The Sandcastle Girls Chris Bojalian GR Book club; blending of past and present did not work for me
The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent Susan Elia MacNeal LR Set during WWII; light mystery
Writing Historical Fiction Katharine McMahon ER A short, straight forward read with some excellent advice
The Historical Novel – post 1 and post 2 Jerome de Groot ER Have read this twice; Traces the roots and impact of historical fiction
Write Away Elizabeth George ER A second read of this book on the craft of writing
The Dinner Herman Koch NMT Book club; not one sympathetic character
The Stranger Harlan Corben LR Audiobook – tense mystery
May Cairo Olen Steinhauer LR Complicated mystery set in Cairo
Pompeii Robert Harris OR Superb story of Pompeii’s destruction
The First Five Pages (a second reading) Noah Lukeman ER Great practical advice for writers
Scent of Triumph Jan Moran NMT Book review; far too melodramatic
The Secret Life of Violet Grant Beatriz Williams ER Great voice; strong blend of present day and past
Personal Lee Child LR Audiobook; good mystery for a long drive

Two outstanding reads, seven excellent ones.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeMy husband recommended All The Light We Cannot See in January, and again in February. I began reading it then, but was waylaid by other reading obligations. Having fulfilled those, I escaped back into Doerr’s novel a week ago and COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.

There, got that off my chest. Now that you know how much I enjoyed this novel, perhaps a few words about why.

As Goodreads reviewer Melinda said so succinctly, All The Light We Cannot See is about “A blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”

The intricacy with which the novel is constructed contributes to its success as Anthony Doerr builds our interest, raising the tension chapter by chapter while switching back and forth between Marie-Laure and Werner with occasional stops with other characters. I never lost the thread, even though the story also switches time periods as it unfolds.

Let’s have a look at the 7 elements of historical fiction as a frame for commenting on the novel.

Characters: characters should “behave in keeping with the era they inhabit” which includes the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. Werner is an orphan sent to a German school training boys to be soldiers. He’s smart, intellectually curious, and a whiz with anything electronic. We see the German military regime and fanaticism through his eyes and his journey to understand his purpose in life and the goodness life offers. Daughter of an expert locksmith, Marie-Laure is defined by her blindness, yet sees so much. Trapped in St. Malo with her reclusive great-uncle, his housekeeper and a secret some would kill for, it is Marie-Laure who learns how to survive and is brave enough to participate in the fight against Germany.

Beyond these two, other characters are illuminated: von Rumpel, Frederick, Etienne, Volkheimer, Madame Manec.

Dialogue: Anthony Doerr dispenses dialogue sparingly and effectively. He spends much more time on the inner dialogue of Werner, Marie-Laure and others.

Werner: “Why, even at the moment of his escape, must some inexplicable warning murmur in a distant region of his mind?”

“Every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong? But here it is right.”

“Open your eyes and see what you can see with them before they close forever.”

Sergeant Major von Rumpel: “Waiting, thinks von Rumpel, is a kind of war. You simply tell yourself that you must not lose.”

Frederick” “Your problem, Werner, says Frederick, is that you still believe you own your  life.”

Marie-Laure: “Who knew love could kill you?”

Setting: Ive read and written about WWII. Doerr creates not only scenes of war unfolding in all its gritty devastation, but he also immerses the reader in the atmosphere of living the hell of war as both soldier and citizen. The siege of St Malo is one set, another is the inside of a vehicle designed to find enemy radio transmitters, and a third is Etienne’s house where Marie-Laure lives on rue Vauborel.

Theme: Doerr explores themes of love, power, destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, patriotism, redemption. A huge canvas compressed into 531 pages.

Plot: step by step, the plot unfolds. Relentlessly Doerr guides us to the climax. Back and forth in time, back and forth between characters, yet we are never lost. Each scene comes alive. Tension builds.

Conflict: and there is so much conflict. At several points I wondered how the characters could possibly handle another day without falling apart.

Asked why he reveals much of what happens in August 1944 intermingled with the main storyline progressing from 1940 to 1944, Doerr said in an interview with Publishers Weekly:

If I have dinner with you and then at the end I pull out a gun and shoot you, that’s surprise; if I put the gun on the table at the beginning of the meal, that’s suspense.

World Building: an aspect that deserves specific mention is Anthony Doerr’s ability to make us see and feel the life Marie-Laure experiences in blindness. We are with her every step as she taps her way along the streets of St Malo. We feel what she feels, hear what she hears and taste what she tastes. A remarkable feat. Beyond that world, is that of World War Two, seen from both German and French points of view. The school Schulpforta is another part of the world Doerr constructs and here we experience the deviancy of training young boys to be German soldiers. Evil reigns in this world and few refuse to go along.

Beyond these seven elements, I should comment on the author’s superb imagery and prose.

My only caveat — you knew there would be something, didn’t you? — is the ending. To this reader, the novel should have ended soon after the siege of St Malo. The chapters in later years detract from the impact of the main story.

A great read. Highly recommended.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE HISTORICAL FICTION, subscribe to A WRITER OF HISTORY (follow button on the left margin)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.