Historical Fiction Poll

Hi, readers!
We follow our cozy lit genre up with historical fiction, and quite the switch it will be! Thank you to everyone who submitted/recommended books for this poll. There were so many submitted (and all of them really great-looking books) that narrowing it down was super hard. It’s a problem I’m grateful to have. 🙂 All of those not included here will, as always, be considered if/when we revisit this genre. Remember that you can see all of the submitted books here, if you’d like to peruse them.
Please vote for up to 3 choices. I will announce the winners during our meeting this Saturday where we’ll be discussing Legends and Lattes. The winners for this poll will be discussed October 21st and November 4th.

Looking Forward

Our next theme is going to be “childhood revisited”. Think about which books you enjoyed (or hated!) as a child and might be interested in re-reading as an adult to see how well the story holds up, how much your perspective/opinions have changed, etc. You can submit whenever you’d like to, but I’ll send out another reminder to do so in a couple weeks. This will likely be our last theme for the year since December tends to get really busy for everyone. If interested, we could meet once in December to do a holiday-themed discussion. Let me know if you’d be interested in that. 🙂
We will be doing another Secret Santa event! Unless anyone has a better recommendation, I’ll be using Elfster like we did before. I will have everything put together in the next 2 weeks or so. I’d like to give you a month to (anonymously) chat with your giftee, shop, and get the items delivered. If this feels like not enough time especially since we have some international members, let me know and I can modify it. As before, our budget will be $25.00, and we’ll meet to collectively open our gifts and reveal ourselves (if you so choose) some time during the week before Christmas. All the details will be on the Elfster page which I’ll send out when it’s ready.
And on to the books!

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.

Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good–her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamourous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits–all the family has to live on–on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs.

Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her–even her beloved Shuggie.

A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Edouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.

Notable review by Paromjit

“Without doubt, Douglas Stuart has written one of the books of the year, a coming of age story, an unflinching, bleak and emotionally heartbreaking portrayal of a beaten dysfunctional family and Glasgow community, suffering the agonising pains and despair of the Thatcher era in the 1980s. To this day, despite Margaret Thatcher’s death, I have yet to forgive her for her divisive ideological policies and her all out war against Britain’s poor and working classes, highlighted by her notorious claim that there was no such thing as society, as she laid waste to large sections of society with the huge rise in unemployment and poverty, devastating communities and lives. She is the precursor to what followed in the UK, right through to the recent times with the Bullingdon boys, David Cameron and George Osborne, making the poor, disabled and vulnerable pay for the 2008 crisis through the disaster that was austerity, laying the ground for what is happening today.

With illusions of a better life, the beautiful Agnes Bain leaves her husband for a taxi driver, a poor excuse of a philandering human being who fails and abandons her. A firm believer in the importance of how things look as opposed to how they are, a proud Agnes puts up a good front with her false teeth as her world falls apart, and she begins to drink as a coping mechanism for the failures in her life, becoming a slave to her addictions. In this movingly profound story of the young Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain from the age of 6 to 17, Shuggie is neglected and abandoned, even by his siblings, Leek and Catherine, entrusted with the duties and responsibilities of caring for Agnes, believing and hoping that his love for his mother will be enough. His life is further plagued by not fitting in the ideals of masculinity, a misfit viewed as not quite right, bullied, in a relentlessly dark narrative of violence and abuse.

This is powerful, desperate, tragic and harrowing storytelling, taking its toll on the reader, there is nevertheless, amongst the grim realities of life, slight slivers of light and hope. Stuart is with his characters, so compassionate, and understanding of the all too important context, for example, as Agnes is failed, so like the domino effect, she in turn goes on to fail others. Even as my heart broke for Shuggie and the life and world that is his fate, I cannot regret reading this superb debut, it is remarkable, so beautifully written with its terrific dialogue, and absolutely unforgettable. A novel that captures a forgotten history and impoverished Glasgow that paid the price with the horrors experienced by people and communities for policies designed by politicians to promote the inequalities that blight our country. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for an ARC.”

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel

A stunning, lyrical novel set in the rolling foothills of the Appalachians in which a young girl discovers stark truths that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

“A girl comes of age against the knife.”

So begins the story of Betty Carpenter. Born in a bathtub in 1954 to a Cherokee father and white mother, Betty is the sixth of eight siblings. The world they inhabit is one of poverty and violence–both from outside the family, and also, devastatingly, from within. The lush landscape, rich with birdsong, wild fruit, and blazing stars, becomes a kind of refuge for Betty, but when her family’s darkest secrets are brought to light, she has no choice but to reckon with the brutal history hiding in the hills, as well as the heart-wrenching cruelties and incredible characters she encounters in her rural town of Breathed, Ohio.

But despite the hardship she faces, Betty is resilient. Her curiosity about the natural world, her fierce love for her sisters, and her father’s brilliant stories are kindling for the fire of her own imagination, and in the face of all she bears witness to, Betty discovers an escape: she begins to write. She recounts the horrors of her family’s past and present with pen and paper and buries them deep in the dirt–moments that has stung her so deeply, she could not tell them, until now.

Inspired by the life of her own mother, Tiffany McDaniel sets out to free the past by telling this heartbreaking yet magical story–a remarkable novel that establishes her as one of the freshest and most important voices in American fiction.

Notable review by Karen

“i enjoyed The Summer that Melted Everything a bunch, but Betty; a standalone with spillover into TSTME, has so much more weight. i remember bits and pieces from The Summer that Melted Everything—i remember the language being striking, i remember the framework and a few details in particular, but this one is going to stay in my brain for a lot longer, and there are specific scenes i know are with me for life; not as fond memories of a book i enjoyed, but as straight-up reader scars.

for me, that’s a good thing, but some people’ll be too gentle for this book, and they will read it and low-star it because it made them too sad or uncomfortable but when you consider it’s a family saga inspired by the life of mcdaniel’s own mother, it becomes like that joke about the man and the boy walking through the woods, where the boy says “hey mister, it’s getting dark and i’m scared.” and the man says “how do you think i feel, i have to walk back alone.”

[‘course, in this case, it would be a girl—there are so many ways a girl can hurt. and if A girl comes of age against the knife isn’t just begging to be tattooed across all the clavicles of lilith fair, i don’t know what is.]

in any event—i don’t know what is hand-on-bible truth here, or what has been inflated for dramatic effect, but even if everything in this book was conjured up out of the clear blue sky, day after day this world reminds us it is full of horrorshows and people who have survived things others are too lily-livered to even read about. and that, to me, seems insensitive.

this book is sad. it is SAD. it is beautiful and broken and filled with tenderness and love and cruelty and neglect and it is SEARING. i cannot emphasize enough that, like life, it is a mixture of sad and lovely. although, also like life, for every sad you see coming, there’ll be two that’ll catch you off guard.

i will admit, it took me a minute to get into it. the language isn’t as engorged as it was in The Summer that Melted Everything, but there was something a little fiddly and twee to the beginning that didn’t grab me right away but once it did, i was thunderstruck, rapt, unable to look away &etc. i belonged to it.

mcdaniel has excellent control of the narrative, handling foreshadowing and discovery like a boss, and making you care about (almost) every member of this family, even at their least sympathetic.

a loud recommend for this book. it did things to me.

”God hates us.”

“The Carpenters?” I asked.

“Women.” She dabbed the lipstick against my lips, using her pinkie to smooth it into the corners. “He made us from the rib of man. That has been our curse ever since. Because of it, men have the shovel and we have the land. It’s right between our legs. There, they can bury all their sins. Bury ‘em so deep, no one knows about ‘em except for them and us.”

With a delicate step back she looked at me, her eyes cutting where they landed.

“My, my, Betty girl.” she smiled. “Red is not your color, darlin’.”

oh and p.s—whatever landon’s “pudding pie” is; this wondrous magic of “multicolored gelatin cubes suspended in pink gelatin,” i want the recipe.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously—and at great risk—documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

Notable review by Lora

As soon as I saw this video, I knew I had to read this novel. Between Shades of Gray isn’t the type of book I’d normally read, but I’m extremely glad that I decided to read it.

Lina is a very strong and courageous character. Despite the situation Lina is placed in at the young age of fifteen, she audaciously chooses to write about the terrible cruelties the Soviets are doing to those around her as well as her family and herself. Lina is an artist, and she uses this talent to depict the ghastly scenes she’s forces to witness on a daily basis. She then hides her drawings where the NKVD, hopefully, won’t find them. In this she hopes that, one day, someone will find the proof of what really occurred, and make sure that it never happens again.

I’m going to warn you, a good deal of this book is very grim and Sepetys doesn’t cover up the horrors that were committed against these innocent people with euphemisms. There are quite a few shocking, disturbing, and graphic scenes in this. You’ll probably want to read something light and fluffy after finishing it.
But much like the title of the book and the fledging plant sprouting up from the ice covered landscape on the book’s cover signifies hope, the author does a wonderful job of incorporating snippets of hope even through the most grim of times for her characters.

Interspersed with Lina’s time in the slavery camps, there are bittersweet flashbacks to Lina’s life before her and her family were taken by the Soviets. I think they helped to break up the scenes of abuse and heartache, making the novel more palatable to the reader.
There is also a light romance in this that is both sweet and a welcome addition to a story such as this.

“I shut the bathroom door and caught sight of my face in the mirror. I had no idea how quickly it was to change, to fade. If I had, I would have stared at my reflection, memorizing it. It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade.”

Ruta Sepetys’ writing is erudite, yet simple, and it flows very well. I just hope that this isn’t one of those one-hit-wonder cases where the author has one story to tell and never writes anything again. I’d really like to read more from Sepetys, whether it be more stories such as this, or something completely different.

On a side note, the finished, physical copy of this (I say it in this way because some people probably have an ARC or an ebook) is quite gorgeous. The jacket seems to be made of recycled paper, so it has a very natural, rustic look and feel to it. And it has deckled edges, my favorite. 🙂

I think this is one of those books that will be highly praised by some (like myself), and sadly overlooked by others. It’s easy to be distracted by the deluge of YA paranormal novels with the pretty covers and the pomp and heavy promotion, but, I assure you, Between Shades of Gray is more than worth your reading time.

This book reminds me just how fortunate I am to be born in the era and country that I was, and I found it very humbling. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read it, and I highly recommend it.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller 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.

Notable review by LeeAnne

“This book has haunting, beautiful prose. It’s brimming with metaphors, painting gorgeous images. I didn’t want it to end, but I couldn’t put it down.

“”In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France was almost destroyed by fire….Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.”” -Philip Beck

Two Parallel Stories
Two parallel stories about two children during WWII, a young girl in France, a young boy in Germany.

Story 1. Nazi Germany,
In Nazi Germany, a young orphan boy named Werner lives in a sparse children’s home with his sister. He is exceptionally bright and curious with a knack for fixing electronics. After fixing an old radio he becomes spellbound by a nightly science program broadcast from France. His talents in math and science win him a coveted spot in a nightmarish Hitler Youth Academy. This is his only chance to escape from a grim, dead-end life working in the same deadly coal mines that killed his father so he enrolls in the school.

Story 2. Paris, France
In Paris, France a shy, freckled redhead named Marie-Laure is intuitive, clever, and sensitive. She lives with her locksmith father who works at a local museum. When she goes blind from a degenerative disease at the age of six, her father builds her a detailed miniature model of their neighborhood so she can memorize every street, building, and corner by tracing the model with her nimble fingers. When the Germans attack Paris, she and her father flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with a great-uncle who lives in a tall, storied house next to a sea wall.

What does the title mean?
The author explains in his own words: “”The title is a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.”” – Anthony Doerr”

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.

FRANCE, 1939

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says good-bye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaëtan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

Notable review by Emily May

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Isabelle. Paris is overrun. The Nazis control the city. What is an eighteen-year-old girl to do about all of that?”

What, indeed.

I really didn’t know what to expect going into The Nightingale. Given the quote about love and war in the blurb, I kind of thought it might be an historical romance set during the Second World War – like the world really needs another The Bronze Horseman – but it turned out to be so much more than that.

There are love stories in The Nightingale, but that’s not really what the book is about. It’s about women in wartime, and it’s an interesting, moving portrait of the Nazi occupation of France and what this meant for all the wives, daughters and widows left behind. We’re told in the book that men always assume war is about them – it’s true – so this is the untold story of the home front.

These are the women who are forced to house Nazi soldiers, the women who are manipulated into betraying their friends, the women who wish they could fight for their country and the women who secretly do. The main story is about two very different sisters – Vianne and Isabelle – who are trying to survive during wartime.

Vianne is older and misses her husband (who is in a Nazi war camp); she must deal with her rebellious younger sister and the Nazi soldier living in her home, whilst also making sure her daughter doesn’t starve. Isabelle is one of those borderline insufferable characters that also inspires affection. She reminds me of fiery, annoying, but ultimately lovable heroines like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and Kitty from The Painted Veil. The best thing about her, though, is her growth. She starts out a naive 18 year old who falls in love with handsome young men instantly, and she later grows into someone wiser. I loved the way her characterization was handled.

On that note about falling in love, this book throws up a number of red herrings. When Isabelle instantly falls for Gaetan, I was rolling my eyes and thinking “oh great. It’s that kind of book.” But don’t worry, that isn’t the story being told here and Isabelle has a lot to learn. It’s a multilayered book and none of the relationships are straight forward.

And it’s also incredibly sad and moving in parts, as a book about war generally is. Children in wartime are forced to grow up so fast in order to survive. Take, for example, this exchange between Vianne and her daughter:
“Vianne cupped Sophie’s thin face in her hands. “Sarah died last night,” she said gently.
“Died? She wasn’t sick.”
Vianne steeled herself. “It happens that way sometimes. God takes you unexpectedly. She’s gone to Heaven. To be with her grandmère, and yours.”
Sophie pulled away, got to her feet, backed away. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“She’s Jewish.”
Vianne hated what she saw in her daughter’s eyes right now. There was nothing young in her gaze—no innocence, no naïveté, no hope.”

You really get a sense of how the Nazis took over the lives of the French people. How it was subtle and manipulative, built on fear. They gradually caused divisions within communities, scaring people into betraying their friends.

It wasn’t a perfect book, if there is such a creature. There were some slow parts that could have been shortened or edited out all together. And I wish the author hadn’t used a bunch of American terms and measurements. For example, a “cup” measurement is not used in France. But whatever, I enjoyed it a lot.
In the silence between them, she heard a frog croak and the leaves fluttering in a jasmine-scented breeze above their heads. A nightingale sang a sad and lonely song.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

Notable review by Emily May

“What I know now, my son: Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.”

4 1/2 stars. Homegoing is an incredible and horrific look at history, colonialism and slavery in Ghana and America, across 250 years. How the author managed to create such rich characters, cover so much history, and tell such a complex, but compelling story in only 300 pages, I do not know.

I recently said in my review of East of Eden that I love family sagas. Those epic tales spanning generations and pulling you into the lives of so many interesting characters… yeah, they are some of my favourite kind of stories. Spending so long with the same family, watching them grow through the years and seeing their children face their own problems – it just feels so personal. I feel like I’ve grown with them.

This book, however, is possibly the most ambitious family saga I have ever read. Most books like this feature three generations. Homegoing follows seven generations, fourteen perspectives in total. It all begins with two half sisters – Effia and Esi – who will never know each other. One’s experiences lead her and her family to slavery in America, the other’s family find themselves mostly in Ghana.

Each chapter is from the perspective of a new character; first Effia and Essi, and then six of their descendants, as the story tracks the cultural changes in both Ghana and America – through colonialism, racism, and attitudes to slavery. Through the characters, we experience life during the tribal wars of the 1700s, the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, the ways in which prominent leaders in Ghana aided British and American slavers, the fear created by the Fugitive Slave Act, and much more.

I can’t quite reconcile the knowledge that I’ve read only 300 pages with the amount of history and rich characterization I’ve just experienced. Considering that I usually grumble when a book has more than two perspectives, it’s quite something that none of these fourteen perspectives felt lacking. Gyasi is just a great storyteller; she takes important subjects like slavery and colonialism, and peppers them with perfect little conversations and insights into human nature.
“All people on the black continent must give up their heathenism and turn to God. Be thankful that the British are here to show you how to live a good and moral life.”

Also, the British really sucked back then. Thank god we got over that, pulled our heads out of our arses, and started embracing other cultures.

Oh, wait.

As is to be expected, there’s a lot to be disgusted about in this book. True to history, it is full of blood, whippings, racist language, British superiority and other scenes that will turn your stomach. However, Gyasi handles it with sensitivity for her subject, ensuring that the violence is a honest portrayal of history, not gratuitous.

A gritty, detailed story about the long-standing effects of the colonization of Africa and the slave trade. A real accomplishment to cover so much history in so few pages without feeling rushed.

Vote Here

What shall we read next? (Choose up to 3)

  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (24%, 6 Votes)
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (20%, 5 Votes)
  • Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (16%, 4 Votes)
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (16%, 4 Votes)
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (16%, 4 Votes)
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (8%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 9

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