Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Favorite Historical Fiction

If you held me down and twisted my arm I'd admit that despite my tendency to more literary avenues if given my choice I'd read historical fiction. I like mysteries, I like classics, I even like some good ol' fashioned hobbit-hoppin' fantasy but my true love is a story from long ago.

With the kids back in school and no supervision I'm afraid you'd find me wantonly crawled up on the couch by the fire, ignoring my housework and computer, with some of my favorite novels. Here are a few. And as I'm always looking for good recommendations feel free to leave yours--the pictures I'm including are all from movie versions of the novels. Seems like good historical fiction always finds its way to the screen and most of these are ripe for revival.

Queen Margot by Alexander Dumas Pere1. Queen Margot by Alexander Dumas (pere). I know Dumas is more famous for The Three Musketeers (also a great story) or The Count of Monte Cristo but I found the setting for this lesser-known novel more compelling, vivid and interesting than Louis XIV's France. Filled with the intrigue surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 Dumas has Catherine de Medici, the Duke d'Anjou, Charles IX of France and (of course) Margeurite de Valois in full technicolor to keep me reading. Good, good stuff.

There are assassinations, poisonings, political turmoil, persecution of the Hugenots (French protestants) and all sorts of juicy, juicy stuff that makes me glad to live in 21st century America. Safe and happy with my indoor plumbing, cold cereal and heated garage.

Ethan Fromme by Edith Wharton2. Ethan Fromme by Edith Wharton. Don't read this if you've got a prescription for Prozac lined up because it's not exactly good for what ails you but nonetheless it's one of my favorites and it's short enough to start and finish with a sniffle in one day (Don't forget the Kleenex). You might not think of it as historical fiction because it was written nearly a century ago but it still qualifies since it set much earlier than Wharton's time--New England in the mid 19th century--and it kind of reminds me that The Scarlet Letter is also technically an historical novel and was written long after the Puritan colonists were dead and gone, ditto for Silas Marner which is another short yet wonderful read.

The Sea Hawk by Raphael Sabatini3. The Sea Hawk by Raphael Sabatini. You like pirates? Well this one delivers. Sir Oliver Tressilian is a man's man who is dashing, handsome, great with a sword, fair and good to all--oh and did I mention he's rich? In short he has everything going for him including the scheming younger brother who's pretty much a waste of skin and a girlfriend who is as stupid/gullible as she is beautiful.

The Cornish knight gets sold into slavery and . . . I can't give away any more but it's a page turner that makes you want to sail around the Mediterranean on an old-fashioned schooner. As if I needed any more reasons to want to run away to the Mediterranean right now.

And then right up there with The Sea Hawk, Bellarion is another of Sabatini's novels set a little earlier and is a rags-to-riches story (rather than a riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches story) about a young medieval scholar who leaves his monastery and finds he's sharp as a tack when it comes to military matters. I like my heroes larger than life and Sabatini always delivers. The only flaw his characters have is a tendency to get involved with irritating Lois Lane-type women who can't seem to see the obvious. You know, the kind of woman who will stick by her evil, erring, infected villain of a brother despite all indications that he's a slime ball? A girl who refuses to believe that the monument of a man she's in love with is the more trustworthy of the two and that anyone with half a brain would believe her fiance over her idiot brother? Wake up and smell the coffee dear!

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone4. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. A historical novel about the life and art of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni. Yes, that Michelangelo. It follows him through his early apprenticeship with the great sculptors of 15th century Florence to his patronage by the scheming house of Medici and his struggles with contemporaries such as Raphael, DaVinci and Pope Julius II.

Not only is it fascinating it's well-written and informative and if you enjoy this novel you ought to try Stone's Lust for Life about Vincent Van Gogh. Stones novels remind me somewhat of the towering epics by Michener and Clavell yet they are more personal as they focus more on the individual rather than a cast of thousands.

The only time I've tried to read Michener was when I tackled The Source which is about an archeological dig in Israel where each excavated layer of dirt gets retold into its own epic story of the Hebrew people. It gets a little plodding and it has a hard time starting off with any kind of a bang. Maybe that's Michener's problem, starting with the Big Bang. He always seems to go back to the VERY beginning at the dawn of time and there never seems to be much happening at the dawn of time. It must have been a pretty boring time to live.

6. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson. Sometimes you forget that RLS was all about historical fiction. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Blackarrow--his most famous books are all period works full of swashbuckling adventure and intrigue. This one is about stolen fortunes and plots surrounding the Jacobite uprising of about 1750 and is so fun they've made it into several movies--my favorite was the one with Oliver Reed if memory serves.

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor7. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I won't say too much about this one as I mentioned it earlier in my list of favorite banned books but it's set in 17th century London and follows Amber St. Clare through a slough of men she uses and abuses to sleep her way to the top of the social scene. It helps that she's smokin' hot.

Anyway, she's kind of got that Scarlet O'Hara thing going where she loves one particular guy who is really all wrong for her but she's too wrapped up in herself and too stupid to realize the obvious. The novel really is a lot like Gone with the Wind because it focuses on some of the social upheavals of the time: the great fire of London and the Black Plague for example. Howvever, the biggest difference in the two books is that Amber isn't as easy to like as Scarlet. That's saying something right there folks--this is one nasty, nasty lady.

I will add a side note here: I love historical fiction but I have little tolerance for fake sequels. You know, where someone writes an amazing achievement such as Pride and Prejudice and then some yokel off the street thinks Austen should have written more so they take it upon themselves to "finish" the story. I love a good story, I love it when a good story ends--and ends appropriately--but I don't love it when someone merely tries to prolong something that was completed by a master. It never works. Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice--why is it that publishers think the characters need finishing? Let alone finishing by an inferior? I'm okay with satire, I'm okay with retellings, I'm okay with cinematic versions but I refuse to read hackneyed sequels designed to make a buck. So there.

Wow. I never knew I had such strong feelings on the subject until I wrote that paragraph.

7. The Last Hero by Peter Forbath. I'm a little hesitant to include this one on my list but it's one of those books that is so amazing, so gripping, so WOW! that even though it loses steam two-thirds of the way through and gets into some very odd things (involving doped up young men in African harems that shall remain discreetly unmentioned here) that I have to at least give this a nod of acknowledgment. This is a fictional account of the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley who leads an expedition to save the Emin Pasha, ruler of Equatoria, who was the very last colonial hold-out against the invading Mahdi armies that were cleansing Africa from European invaders (all true).

The book opens with the infamous assassination of General Gordon during the fall of Khartoum in 1885 and Victorian England rising to call Stanley out of semi-retirement to lead the rescue party which he does by fighting his way through the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa up the Congo. The beginning paragraphs of this book are probably the most exciting and compelling paragraphs of any novel I've ever read, they hook you in immediately and by the time you've finished the first page you're stuck. As I mentioned, towards the end it gets a little dodgy and it falls apart in some ways but if nothing else read the opening chapter or until you get enough. That'll still satisfy.

Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge8. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge. On the Channel Islands between France and England lived a family with two beautiful daughters named Maguerite and Marianne. The girls fall in love with the same man who ships out to colonize New Zealand but who isn't very good with names because he writes home to request the hand of his One True Love . . . and mixes up her name with her sister's.

He gets a bride alright, but not the one he bargained for. The story, which I believe is losely based on a true story, is interesting and moving and at times quite profound as the relationships between the characters develop. There is crisis and battle, complete with Maorie wars, as the characters work to live in an untamed place and come to their own peace.

I've heard Goudge has written other wonderful books and I enjoyed this one so much that I've meant to read some of her other novels but haven't got around to it yet.

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye9. The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. I'm just about to finish this 1200 page epic for the second time. I read it as a teen and had forgotten most of what happened but even a second time around it did not disappoint.

It's about a boy, Ashton Akbar Pelham-Martyn, whose English parents die, leaving him orphaned in 19th century India to be raised by a Hindu woman. It's also about a girl, Anjuli-Bai, princess of Gulkote in northern India. Ashton is torn between his English family and his Hindu upbringing and his forbidden love for the beautiful princess (whom he saves from a horrific death) doesn't help him to sort his complicated life out any. Full of mutinies, uprisings, prejudice, tradition and sweeping scenery this love story definitely is a page-turner.

Chris at Book-a-rama recently posted her review of the novel and I've been waiting to see if I agreed with her assessment that the last half was slow and overly stuffed with political details (I just couldn't remember from my first reading) but I'm about 150 pages from the end and have found it just as interesting to follow the 2nd Afghan-Anglo war (1878-1880) as the love of Ash and Juli so I'll have to politely disagree.

Captain from Castille by Samuel Shellabarger10. Captain from Castille by Samuel Shellabarger. Somehow I manage to sneak this book onto nearly every one of my book lists--probably because it's a huge favorite of mine--and this time is no different. If all my hinting and talking about it doesn't convince you to give it a try then I'm doomed. Can't say anything else that might do the job. But if public burnings, the Spanish Inquisition, Hernando Cortez, the New World, theft, bribery and deceit don't convince you to read then maybe the promise of thousands of bloodthirsty Aztecs, a few bloodthirsty Spanish cardinals and a lot of gold might do the trick. A seriously good book.

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Robin said...

Both Queen Margot and The Sea Hawk sound great, I'll have to look for them.

calicobebop said...

I love Alexander Dumas - he writes incredibly compelling stories. I'll have to check out Forever Amber, that one sounds intriguing to say the least!

Right now I'm reading the Twilight Saga. I can't believe I got roped in, but there you have it. I'm a sucker through and through.

Chris said...

I guess it's ok to disagree with me. I has happened ;) I'm glad you enjoyed it the second time as well.

I'll be reading Ethan Fromme with my bookclub in December. I enjoy Wharton so I'm looking forward to it.

Mrs. Brownstone @ XBOX Wife said...

Great list ~ I am always looking for good books to read. I loved the wonderful lists that our High School English teacher used to assign books. There were many historical fiction books on the lists, as well as some great biographies. As an adult, I tried to get a list from her but was unsuccessful. This will be a great start!

Maddy said...

I've heard and or read all of them except 7!

If we're talking 'classical' it really runs the gamut in recommendations. Oddly, I find that Dickens always hits the mark. The first few chapters are a struggle to get into the lilt of his writing but after that they're still real page turners.

karen said...

I'm taking your list to the library with me!

You should check out "Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon. It's the first book in a great historical fiction/time travel (1945/1745) series so riviting my husband calls it literary crack.

JackieD said...

I picked up a used copy of 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' after returning from a trip to Italy, but it's a massive tome, and I've been too intimidated to read it :-p Looks like it'll be worth the attempt, thanks!

Mandy said...

Historical fiction are my absolute favorite! If I ever get through this Twilight series (and can be friends again with all my Twilight lover friends) I will have to check some of these out.

Octamom said...

Loving this list--some I've read, some I'm going to hit the bookstore, list in hand--excited to find the Dumas--love, love him.

And, yes, hear hear on the rant of sequels to classic books--come on! I remember the Scarlett debacle in the early '90's when some well-intentioned soul was going to fill us in on Mizz O'Hara's life after "Tomorrow is another day"--seriously...leave it alone....


anneglamore said...

LOVE The Agony And the Ecstasy but it may be because I have a Michelangelo thing.

And then to see the work in person-- GAH!

ps - not sure if I've commented since BlogHer, so HI!

Stephanie said...

I love history! I will be referring to this list the next time I get on the library's reservation page. I kind of lost my love of reading somewhere in college and then having kids.

Pamela said...

*sighs* Ethan Frome. I cried for hours after reading that. I might cry now just thinking about it and I haven't even read the book in ten years. I just love that Edith Wharton.

Anonymous said...

Just passing through - but I thought I'd recommend my favorite historical fiction writer of all time - Dorothy Dunnett. She has two series, one six books and one eight, and one stand alone (a retelling of Macbeth).

And I agree with your choice of Elizabeth Goudge - her other books are every bit as absorbing as Green Dolophin Street.

Carinne said...

Gone with the Wind is of course my very favorite historical fiction. I would have given the exact same review to Forever Amber - interesting, fun, very similar to GOne with the Wind only she's just not as likeable. I wanted her to fail, whereas I was rooting for Scarlet. I love historical fiction and its most of what I read. I also really liked MM Kaye's other book about India - Shadow of the Moon. Its been awhile since I read it, but I almsot liked it better than Far Pavillions. I liked Girl in Hyacinth BLue a lot. I sent Mom a copy of The Twentith Wife - about India, and she said it was really good. I've read Girl with the Pearl Earring and Memoirs of a Geisha and they were both marginal - Memoirs being the better one(that's not saying much).

JENNIFER said...

I adore historical fiction and sadly all the "chickies" at bookclub are on to me and never vote any of my historical fiction books in so I am left to reading it on my own.

Thankyou for the list.

Liz said...

You have some great picks here! Probably my most favorite historical fiction author is Gwen Bristow -- she's written several books (she's long dead, by the way), but two of my all-time favorites are "Celia Garth," set in Charleston during the Revolutionary War, and "Calico Palace," set during the San Francisco Gold rush. I re-read them periodically, and my brother even managed to get me signed copies of them -- those are precious possessions.

I'm looking forward to reading a book about to be released, Bedlam South, set in the heart of the South during the Civil War. I've seen the web site, and this is really speaking to me. The book begins in an insane asylum outside Richmond, Va. (Interestingly, part of the book takes place near Fredericksburg, Va., which is where the brother who gave me the Bristow books lives! I just find that comfortingly circular."

I'm putting some of yours on my 'to-read" list.

Hazel said...

You will be the first to know when my LibraryThing selection finally makes it into the public arena -- with Elizabeth Goudge at the top of the list and Georgette Heyer a good second (not for her Regency romances but the other historial novels she's written).

J at said...

I'm not a huge historical fiction fan, but I do love Scarlett O'Hara, and I'll confess that I've read and enjoyed all of the sequels and retellings. The worst of the lot was Scarlett, and the best was The Wind Done Gone, which was a retelling from the point of view of Scarlett's half sister, who is a slave on the plantation. It's pretty full and rich for such a short book.

My daughter is reading a book you might like about Eleanor of Aquitaine, titled A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E.L. Konigsburg.

Maya's in 7th grade, so I'm guessing it would be an easy read, though I think it's kind of long, so perhaps not super quick.

I read Ethan Fromme last year. I liked it, but I didn't love it. I've enjoyed some of Wharton's other work more.

Angela Fehr said...

Haven't read any of those - will put them on my list!

Motherhood for Dummies said...

I would so have to put The Scarlet Pimpernel on there.

Kathy G said...

I haven't read ANY of these...I'll be adding some of them to my list!

Lilibeth said...

The Agony and the Ecstasy has always been one of my favorites. After I read it, my junior year of high school, I had to pore over every sculpture book I could get my hands on; I felt I knew each one of his statues. The only Elizabeth Goudge I've read was "Child from the Sea" (also in high school),but I still vividly remember it as being excellent. The main character has a phrase--I can still see it written--in Welsh--but not pronounce it. It means: "Dear God, this happiness is more than I can bear."

I also enjoy Georgette Heyer, although I confess that I like her regency romance best.

NosyNancy said...

I bought the Captain from Castile book a couple of months ago because of your suggestions. I haven't started it yet, but I wanted to let you know what a bargain I got. At first, on Amazon, all the used copies were listed for $30 and up, and then I got lucky and got a used one, hardback, in perfect shape, second edition, for $1.00 on amazon!

Anonymous said...

Liz who posted above, I love Gwen Bristow too! Jubilee Trail is my favorite, but just read Celia Garth and it was great.

Another fav I return to a lot is 'The Virginian' by Owen Wister. Supposedly about the first Western and very charming.

PS: I'm a new Alaskan, do you have Alaska historical book recommendations? I've read Tisha.

Becky said...

what a great list of books. I haven't read a one of them. I am going to have to get started!

Right now I have been reading an exciting new book that hasn't even been released to the public yet- will be released October 6th. The book is titled, "Letters Between Us," by Linda Overman. It is a great book. You can read more about it by going to

jchevais said...

Maybe I should try and read La reine Margot in French. Hmm.

Tamie said... just added enormously to my reading list....i'm always on the look-out for a great book to read, and i just so happen to reallylike historical fiction...thanks for all those suggestions!

Kelly @ Love Well said...

Fantastic list. I'm going to have to add some of these to my library list.

I'm woefully ignorant about literary classics. (I somehow managed to get through high school and college without a single literature class, owing to the skipping around I did.) But I did recognize Raphael Sabatini. "Scaramouche" is one of Corey's all-time favorites, so I read it a few years ago.

page2 said...

Thanks again for another list of good books. I think I'll start with "Forever Amber." I love a great historical fiction. And I'm with you about hating hackneyed sequels.

ChiefFamilyOfficer said...

In my teens, I loved Victoria Holt books - romance novels set in the 1600's or thereabouts. I haven't read one in ages, so I can't exactly recommend them, but they might be worth checking out of the library if you want t a quick read.

More recently, I read The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl for my book club - the first 100 pages were excruciatingly slow, but after that it really picked up and was quite fascinating. It's set in 1800-something in Boston, with famous poets as the main characters.

luckyzmom said...

Historical fiction is also my favorite reads. And, the longer the better if they are good! I've read some that you listed and will be checking out the ones that I haven't.

Forever Amber was one of my all tme favorites that I read about 1967 when I lived in Guam, where. at the time, you could get banned books.

Anyway, nothing was ever her fault, she just kept falling (sometimes literally) into these situations with men.

Janet said...

I love historical fiction. Right now I'm reading Sarum, by Edward Rutherfurd (written around 1986). It's about the Salisbury Plain in England, beginning just after the Ice Age. He skips a few millennia between chapters, but it's been very interesting.
I'll try to find these after I'm done with it.