Category Archives: historical fiction

Girl at War By Sara Nović

Girl at War

Sara Nović’s Girl at War is a debut coming-of-age novel about a girl growing up in the shadow of conflict. In 1991, Ana Juric is a carefree 10-year-old living with her parents in Zagreb, Croatia. When civil war breaks out, Ana’s daily life is altered by food rations, air raids, and ethnic tensions.

In 2001, Ana is a college student in New York. Although she has tried to move on from the events of her childhood, she is still haunted by her memories of war. Ana decides to return to Croatia to come to terms with her homeland.

Moving back and forth in time, Ana slowly unspools the story of how the Yugoslav War divides her household and destroys her idyllic childhood. As a young guerilla, Ana soon learns that even a child is not immune from war’s atrocities.

Girl at War is a dark, but moving, debut from Sara Nović. Only 29, Nović escaped Croatia with her family during the Yugoslav War. The author’s troubled history with her home country enriches this powerful novel.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby- Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book written by someone under 30.

Century Trilogy by Ken Follett

Century TrilogyA few weeks ago I was sitting at dinner in another state next to someone who works at a library, and I bemoaned the fact that Ken Follett’s Century trilogy – Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, and Edge of Eternity – had long been sitting on my bookshelf because I wanted to read them back-to-back. When I returned home, I realized that early August was actually a great time for binge reading. So reader, I read them – all 3023 pages. And the historian in me found them enthralling.

This series is a three-volume “sweeping family saga” that calls to mind Wouk’s Winds of War, although it focuses on eight decades of the twentieth century rather than simply World War II. Follett takes a great deal of license in placing key characters in the midst or at the edges of key world events, especially in the final volume. The persistent reader has to suspend reality as to the likelihood that one set of characters could possibly have had the good or bad fortune to be an eyewitness to, or a participant in, most of the major events of their lives. But that’s often the sub silentio deal you make when you undertake reading historical fiction.

What I enjoyed most about the trilogy was the degree of historical detail for events that serve as the platform for developing the characters. A reader may not be independently interested in Oswald Mosely and fascism in England in the 1930’s, the oppression of living on the East German side of the Berlin Wall, or the political machinations of the Soviet Politburo in the 1980’s, but you can’t follow the fictional characters without getting immersed in heavy doses of history. Follett reportedly had a team of historians he drew upon for accuracy, but my opinion of the accuracy of his work was bolstered the most when I learned from the end pages that his primary historical consultant was Richard Overy, one of the most preeminent historians on World War II and the twentieth century.

My favorite volume was Fall of Giants, in large part because of my interest in World War I.

Although it’s not necessary to binge-read your way through all three books at once, I do recommend that you read them in order

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Mary Hall
Rating:  Must Read

Grace By Natashia Deón

Grace“I am dead.” Natashia Deón’s luminous first novel Grace – which wrestles with the depredations of slavery and its aftermath – begins with those three words. Naomi, the novel’s central character, narrates her entire (far too short) life from beyond the grave. In a series of “flashes,” Naomi tells of how, at 15, she murders her master, who had systematically raped and “bred” Naomi’s mother. On the run, she finds refuge in a Georgia brothel run by Cynthia, with whom Naomi develops an uneasy and emotionally complex relationship. Just two years later, she must flee again, now pregnant with the child of a while man who abandoned her. Just after giving birth to her daughter, bounty hunters shoot Naomi dead.

Between the flashes, Naomi haunts her young daughter, Josey. Born blond, Josey is first adopted by a white woman and then later enslaved by her. Emancipation, when it comes, brings no relief from suffering. As a young teenager, Josey disassociates from reality after enduring rape at the hands of her mistress’s brother George. Meanwhile, Naomi, consumed with revenge, tries to avenge her daughter.

This book is not easy to read. Deón writes of a world consumed by suffering, grief, and terror; she has the rare ability to make readers experience these emotions along with Naomi and Josey. Grace is one of the best-written novels that I’ve read in some time. Both the plot and Deón’s prose are magical and harrowing.

Near the beginning of the novel, Naomi explains that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is being spared the bad you deserve, and grace “is getting a good thing, even when you don’t deserve it.” She explains that, had she lived, she would have named her daughter Grace. Deón’s novel explores a time in American history when justice, mercy, and grace were not easy to find. But Deón manages, in this outstanding novel, to deliver all three.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Book published in 2016. Book with a one-word title.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing

In the late 1700s, on the coast of Ghana, two young half-sisters (unknown to each other) meet undesired fates. Effia’s father sells her to James Collins, the new British governor of Cape Coast Castle. In the castle’s dungeon, Effia’s half-sister Esi waits with other enslaved women for transport to America. Yaa Gyasi’s illuminating first novel, Homegoing, is really a book of linked tales – moving back and forth to tell the stories of the sisters and their descendants, one generation at a time.

Gyasi, born in Ghana but raised in the American South, writes beautifully about both her homelands. Although the chapters set in the United States are compelling and important, I particularly enjoyed reading the sections focused on Effia’s family and the history of Ghana. Gyasi does not employ sentimentality and doesn’t airbrush history. In Homegoing, 18th-century Ghana is not an ahistorical rural fantasy but a complicated, multi-ethnic kingdom that enriches itself by kidnapping and selling humans into slavery. No one is completely innocent.

Homegoing is an ambitious first novel. Gyasi, who is only 26, effortlessly pulls off the novel’s conceit. She is able to capture both the heartbreak and joy of her characters, while also subtly shifting the novel’s tone and prose to fit each time period and location. Homegoing is an emotionally difficult, but very powerful, read.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: A book written by someone under 30. Book published in 2016

Everyone Brave is Forgiven By Chris Cleave

Everyone Brave is ForgivenThe day war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school and signs up with the War Office. A spoiled daughter from a wealthy London family, Mary is dismayed when the War Office assigns her work as a schoolteacher for unwanted children (sick, slow, and children of color) who were not evacuated from the city. Mary begins a relationship with her boss, Tom Shaw, who falls deeply in love with her as he tries (in vain) to ignore the war. Tom’s friend Alistair Heath enlists immediately – and steals Mary’s heart. Set in London and Malta between 1939 and 1942, Chris Cleave’s new novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, tests the lives, friendship, and love of Mary, Tom, and Alistair. War changes all three in irrevocable ways.

Many novels have focused on the London Blitz, but this was the first novel of WWII that I have read that also devoted itself to describing the Siege of Malta. With so many novels already written about the period, it was refreshing to read about a slice of the war that has been forgotten by many. In addition, Cleave focuses a portion of the novel to a discussion of the popularity in twentieth-century London of racist black minstrelsy shows. I never knew that these existed – or were popular – outside of the United States.

Possibly because the novel is based in part on his own grandparents’ experiences during the Seige of Malta and the Blitz, Cleave successfully writes Mary, Tom, and Alistair as real, three-dimensional characters. They are often daring and defy the status quo. But they are also weak, and not always brave. I’m still contemplating Cleave’s ending. With the war only half over, so much has already changed. Can the narrators move forward? It’s unclear, and the last sentence’s clever inversion of the title phrase only gives the reader a little dash of hope.

I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed this novel until I reached the end. Like Cleave’s earlier novel, Little Bee (The Other Hand in the UK), I believe that Everyone Brave is Forgiven will stick with me for quite some time.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Book published in 2016

Barkskins By Annie Proulx

Barkskins

In the late 1600s, two young men – René Sel and Charles Duquet – disembark as indentured servants in the wilderness of New France. Annie Proulx’s magnificent new novel, Barkskins, follows the adventures, triumphs, and hardships of Sel and Duquet’s descendants over the next three hundred years.

René Sel, an experienced woodsman, marries a Mi’Kmaq woman. His children and grandchildren eke out a living cutting trees as “barkskins” in the Canadian Maritimes and, later, across the continent. Even as the Sel family contributes to the destruction of their own forests, the Mi’Kmaq people face poverty, hunger, discrimination, and forced assimilation. Haunted by their work, later generations try to find solace in a subsistence lifestyle that is no longer possible.

Charles Duquet escapes his indenture and becomes a voyageur, trading for furs that he sells as far away as China. Duquet marries into a wealthy Dutch shipping family and adopts several sons to help him run his growing timber and fur business. Anglicizing the family name, Duke & Sons soon owns stands of timber across North America and as far afield as New Zealand. In the late nineteenth century, Charles’s great-great granddaughter becomes a formidable businesswoman, commanding a timber empire from the company’s headquarters in Chicago.

Although Proulx’s novel runs longer than 700 pages and includes hundreds of characters (don’t worry, there are family trees at the back of the book), the story was incredibly engaging. I found myself wishing that I could spend more time with some of Sel and Duquet’s colorful descendants. Readers, don’t worry if you don’t understand all of the French, German, Dutch, and Mi’Kmaq words – this fascinating novel will carry you along. Proulx also expertly interweaves famous historical events and inventions, without losing focus on her characters.

Proulx certainly has a moral to convey in Barkskins. She condemns the destruction of North America’s forests and constructs the novel as a conflict between those who believe that “forests are infinite” and those who understand that both forests and cultures cannot last to greed and rapacious appetites. Barkskins is not just an environmental novel, but also the story of how North America must reckon with its history of annihilation and exploitation.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating: Must Read
Challenge: Book published in 2016

The Summer Before the War By Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War

In the summer of 1914, Beatrice Nash arrives in the village of Rye in Sussex to begin work as a Latin teacher for the local grammar school. She immediately falls in with the wealthy, eccentric Kent family, including their two charming nephews – one a doctor, the other a poet. As one might imagine, a romance develops between Beatrice and the young, idealistic doctor, forcing her to confront her hopes for independent spinsterhood and a literary career.

Rye is changing as well. Villagers take in Belgian refugees, confront bicycles and suffragettes, and struggle to overcome both their class and their neighbors’ gossip. As summer ends, young men leave the pastoral beauty of Rye for the trenches of France. Simonson’s vivid descriptions of trench warfare contrast sharply with the peace of life in Sussex and help to strengthen the novel.

In many ways, Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War reads as an episode of Downton Abbey. There are garden parties, country dances, and lots of witty dialogue. However, the looming threat of war, and its reality, elevates the book from imitation to original voice.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: Book published in 2016