Books I’ve Read This Week: The 19th and 20th Centuries in Historical Fiction

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 44: The 19th and 20th Centuries in Historical Fiction: In recent weeks, I have been reading historical fiction (reviewed today) and histories of Southeast Asia (to be reviewed tomorrow) as well as a few biographies and memoirs (to be reviewed at a later date). The historical novels are all set in the 19th and 20th centuries and there is a strong wartime focus, especially the First World War. I read books by authors whose work I have enjoyed before, such as Jacqueline Winspear and C. W. Gortner and discovered some new authors as well. Here are this week’s reviews:

#302 of 365 The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 28-November 2, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 44 minutes

Review: I enjoyed listening to the prose of this novel, which is filled with evocative descriptions of the Essex landscape and insightful turns of phrase. Perry captures the atmosphere of Victorian science and culture including the fossils catalogued by Mary Anning and the medical discoveries of the time. I did not find the story itself to be a page turner though and it was easy to step away from this audiobook and start listening again later in the day. The characters were also not especially memorable. Beautiful writing and interesting historical context but the events of the novel made little impression. The audiobook is well read by Juanita McMahon.

#303 of 365 The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 2-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 39 minutes

Review: An engaging coming of age novel set in the early 20th century that includes the social issues of the times such as the obstacles faced by women and immigrants, child labour and orphan trains. The novel is structured as a grandmother telling her life story to her granddaughter and therefore works especially well in the audiobook format. The main character, Addy Baum, tells interesting stories of her life and highlights the social change that has taken place over the course of the 20th century but she seems to overcome obstacles relatively easily and I was surprised that she was able to achieve her personal and professional goals in such a straightforward manner. The novel would have been more interesting if the narrator had faced more complicated challenges during her youth. If one of her sisters had been the central character, the tone of the novel would have been very different. A good read but the novel would have been more compelling with a less predictable storyline.

#304 of 365 Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 39 minutes

Dates Listened: November 3-8, 2018

Review: The first installment in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey&Maturin series set during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is rich in historical detail and includes brief appearances by historical figures. Aubrey describes the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV), who was a sea captain by the age of 21 as “that singularly unattractive, hot-headed, cold-hearted, bullying Hanoverian.” Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith, nicknamed “Queeney” is presented as a childhood friend of Aubrey whom he remembers with admiration. The nautical setting is beautifully rendered and gives a real sense of what it was like to be on a British naval vessel in the early 19th century. The story sometimes gets lost in all the nautical detail, however, and the novel is more difficult to follow than, for example, the first installment in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. The audiobook is well read by Patrick Tull.

#305 of 365 The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 8-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 4 minutes

Review: The fascinating early life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria is reduced to a generic romance in this historical novel. There are a few details that suggest the setting such as the beer and bratwurst in Bavaria and references to the Alps and schnitzel in Austria but the famous palaces of the Hofburg and the Schonnbrunn in Vienna are not described in any detail. Only the final chapters engage in depth with the events of the time such as the Austro-Prussian War or Hungarian demands for autonomy. Most of the book is focused on Elisabeth’s feelings for Emperor Franz Joseph and her conflict with her mother-in-law with the occasional pause for a diplomat to explain the eastern question or Archduchess Sophie to discuss Habsburg geneology.

The book would have been more interesting if the historical context was integrated into all aspects of the story and informed the personal decisions of the characters to a greater degree. There is also little evidence of Elisabeth’s unique personality and interests until the final quarter of the book. Instead, she spends her courtship blushing and her marriage grinding her teeth. Only after an extended separation during her marriage does she take control over own image and devote more time to her interests including poetry and fashion. A passable novel that could have been much better considering the interesting historical figures and political turmoil of the 19th century Habsburg Empire.

#306 of 365 Goodnight From London by Jennifer Robson

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: November 12-15, 2018

Acquired: Complimentary Copy from the Author

Format: Paperback, 365 pages

Review: A heartwarming novel about an American journalist in London during the Second World War, inspired by the author’s grandmother. Robson holds a PhD in British economic and social history from Oxford and her in depth research, including interviews with British women who lived through the war, informs the novel. Goodnight From London is filled with fascinating historical details about London in the 1940s including fashions, food, office culture and the Blitz with an emphasis on the cultural differences between the United Kingdom and United States at the time. The characters are likable and there are some interesting developments in the plot as their backstories are slowly revealed. While most of the characters are fictional, there are a some memorable scenes featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth make a cameo appearance toward the end of the novel. Recommended for readers of history and historical fiction.

#307 of 365 Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: November 16-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 10 hours and 19 minutes

Review: The second book in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series focuses on a missing woman and a series of mysterious deaths. The mystery is set in 1930 but like the first book in the series, the focus is the lingering trauma caused by the First World War on British society. As Maisie’s former employer Lady Rowan observes, “That’s one more thing that I detest about war. It’s not over when it ends. Of course, it seems like everyone’s pally again, what with the agreements, the international accords and contracts and so on. But it still lives inside the living, doesn’t it?” Winspear’s novels are filled with historical detail and Birds of a Feather devotes particular attention to women’s roles both during wartime and afterward. I look forward to reading more of the series.

#308 of 365 Marlene: A Novel of Marlene Dietrich by C. W. Gortner 

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: November 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 403 pages

Review: An enjoyable novel about the actress Marlene Dietrich from her childhood to the end of the Second World War. The opening and closing chapters are especially well done. The novel begins with the young “Lena” living in genteel poverty. Her mother was from a distinguished family but obliged to become a housekeeper during her widowhood, remarrying a lieutenant in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s grenadiers during the First World War. Dietrich is determined to transcend the social conventions enforced by her mother and forge her own career as an actress. The final chapters focus on Dietrich’s work for the USO during the Second World War and her estrangement from her sister, who made very different choices in war time. In between the world wars, there is a strong focus on Dietrich’s personal life, which becomes repetitive at times, but Gortner’s depiction of the cultural life of Weimar Germany then Hollywood is interesting throughout the book. An engaging read.

One thought on “Books I’ve Read This Week: The 19th and 20th Centuries in Historical Fiction

  1. Pingback: Books I’ve Read This Week: Biography and Memoir | Carolyn Harris

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