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Failsafe historical fiction

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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Madeleine
Bibliomaniac
Currently reading: A Trail through Time by Jodi Taylor & Angel by L J Ross
Preferred HF: Plantagenets, Victorian, crime
Location: Essex/London

Postby Madeleine » Sat July 24th, 2010, 8:13 pm

"Lucy Pick" wrote:This is a fun game. I do like her idea of doorways, that most of us have a preference for setting, story, character, or language, and that for us to like a book it is easier if it enters through our particular doorway. So books with the most doorways ate those that are the most fail-safe. For HF, I think one important doorway is always going to be character --- in an unfamiliar world, we need characters we can empathize with and perhaps have already heard of.

With this in mind, I'll pick a few books I have recommended to very different epople who have all liked them:

Shadow of the Wind --- Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
Barcelona setting, gripping story, interesting characters, and beautiful use of language

The Thirteenth Tale --- Diane Setterfield.
Some may quibble at calling this HF because its time period is somewhat indeterminate. Strong on story and characters
and

Sacred Hearts --- Sarah Dunant
Well, I have recommended it to a number of people who have liked it! Innovative setting, unusual characters, interesting enough storyline.


I definitely wouldn't call this one HF, as you say, the exact dates are never mentioned, and it's really someone telling their private history, rather than a historical background - I'd say it's almost a pastiche of the gothic novel, with definite nods to the likes of Jane Eyre, Lady Audley's Secret and, if I remember rightly, The Woman in White - Margaret reads from these books so it's almost a homage to the gothic genre.
Currently reading "A Trail through Time" by Jodi Taylor & "Angel" by L J Ross

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Susanna Kearsley
Scribbler
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Postby Susanna Kearsley » Sun July 25th, 2010, 5:45 am

An interesting challenge, and it's fun reading everyone's suggestions.

Personally, I'd likely pick:

Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor
Shogun, by James Clavell
The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier

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Matt Phillips
Reader

Postby Matt Phillips » Mon July 26th, 2010, 8:25 pm

For historical fiction, I'd imagine a failsafe would not only have to come on the condition that the person is interested at all in a historical setting (as suggested above), but that the setting is a time and place that's likely to interest them.

It's entirely possible, of course, to discover a new historical interest through a novel, and it's a wonderful thing when that happens. But I think if you were to suggest a possible "failsafe" to someone new to and potentially interested in historical fiction, you might first ask what period and place in history interests them the most. So, for example, for the U.S. Civil War, I'd say Cold Mountain. The dual POV presents two very different journeys, and they can appeal to men and women, young and old, American and non-American, etc. For the Anglo-Saxon era, I'd say Cornwell's Uhtred of Bebbanburg series. For the early-ish Roman Empire, I'd say I, Claudius.

What's also interesting is historical subject matter that might not have a true failsafe. I can't think of one, for example, for the American Revolution. I've read plenty of novels set during the Revolution and enjoyed many of them, but I would not consider any of them likely to have universal appeal, even within the bounds of historical fiction fans.

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Michy
Bibliophile
Location: California

Postby Michy » Mon July 26th, 2010, 8:35 pm

"Matt Phillips" wrote: I've read plenty of novels set during the Revolution and enjoyed many of them, but I would not consider any of them likely to have universal appeal


Why do you think that is?

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EC2
Bibliomaniac
Location: Nottingham UK
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Postby EC2 » Mon July 26th, 2010, 8:58 pm


What's also interesting is historical subject matter that might not have a true failsafe. I can't think of one, for example, for the American Revolution. I've read plenty of novels set during the Revolution and enjoyed many of them, but I would not consider any of them likely to have [i wrote:
universal [/i]appeal, even within the bounds of historical fiction fans.


Yes, but the idea is that by selecting 3 novels, at least one is likely to appeal to someone. It's like giving someone a fabric choice of plain, stripes or flowers. I'm not familiar with the American revolution so I couldn't comment on titles, but for the American Civil War you could suggest say: Andersonville by McKinley Cantor, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchel, and Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Not that as a Brit my repertoire is that big on the American Civil War, but I enjoyed all of those titles and they each have different merits.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

www.elizabethchadwick.com

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Matt Phillips
Reader

Postby Matt Phillips » Mon July 26th, 2010, 9:53 pm

"EC2" wrote:Yes, but the idea is that by selecting 3 novels, at least one is likely to appeal to someone.


Ah, I see. I thought the three each had to have universal appeal. That's unrealistic, in retrospect. Well, I would say, for the American Revolution, maybe Arundel and Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke by Sally Gunning and Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. A wide range of POVs, specific settings and stories in those.

To answer Michy's question, I'm not sure why fewer "failsafes" seem to come to mind for the Revolution than perhaps the Civil War. It's probably because the Civil War is more heavily trodden ground to begin with. And as for the reasons for that, it's a discussion for another whole thread, but it seems to encompass movies as well as fiction. My guess is the causes of the Revolution are a bit more abstract - taxation without representation - than those of the Civil War - slavery and the right of states to set their own policies or secede. Also, although the United States was "born" in the Revolution, it arguably did not become a true nation until the Civil War. Before the Civil War, "United States" typically was a plural noun in common usage. Afterward, it became singular. Before, it was more of a loose confederation (culturally if not governmentally); after, people increasingly began to think of themselves as Americans first and citizens of a particular state second. And, of course, the issues at the root of the Civil War continued to roil the country for over a century, well into the personal experience of many readers alive today.

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Mon July 26th, 2010, 10:05 pm

Maybe Bernard Cornwell's forthcoming novel The Fort will eventually make the cut for the American Revolutionary era :) He has general appeal and is an author enjoyed by both men and women.
http://www.bernardcornwell.net/index.cfm?page=2&BookId=51

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Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
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Postby Margaret » Tue July 27th, 2010, 3:54 am

To answer Michy's question, I'm not sure why fewer "failsafes" seem to come to mind for the Revolution than perhaps the Civil War. It's probably because the Civil War is more heavily trodden ground to begin with. And as for the reasons for that, it's a discussion for another whole thread, but it seems to encompass movies as well as fiction. My guess is the causes of the Revolution are a bit more abstract - taxation without representation - than those of the Civil War - slavery and the right of states to set their own policies or secede. Also, although the United States was "born" in the Revolution, it arguably did not become a true nation until the Civil War. Before the Civil War, "United States" typically was a plural noun in common usage. Afterward, it became singular. Before, it was more of a loose confederation (culturally if not governmentally); after, people increasingly began to think of themselves as Americans first and citizens of a particular state second. And, of course, the issues at the root of the Civil War continued to roil the country for over a century, well into the personal experience of many readers alive today.


Part of the problem here, I think, is the seeming obligation to write about the American Revolution from a patriotic American perspective which never questions the rightness and greatness of the Revolution, enshrining it in a haze of rag-tag majesty and sacrifical glory. This sort of thing tends to quash true literary depth. I'd love to see a Wolf-Hall style treatment of the Revolutionary War that would plunge us back into the time period so effectively that, while reading, we might almost forget who ultimately prevailed. Taxes, I think, were just one of many issues that upset American colonists, but then as now, anger tends to crystallize over money as one of the more concrete symbols of oppression, real or imagined. I think many colonists felt disrespected by the English government over a broad range of issues, and disrespect can often arouse a fury that would seem out of proportion to the actual monetary impact of a tax. Anytime an issue arouses enough passion to lead to a war, there should be the potential for a humdinger of a good novel - if a writer approaches it with the freedom to portray the characters and the issues unhampered by what amounts to a hallowed origin myth.

With the Civil War, by contrast, Americans continue to have differing perspectives over the war, so writers are to a great extent freed from having to hew to a particular standard in how the war "ought" to be interpreted - which opens the field wide for interpretations that discard the hallowed myths of both sides.

One potential candidate for a Revolutionary War failsafe list might be Edward Rutherfurd's New York which, although it's a time-sweep that covers the city's history right into the 21st century, largely focuses on the Revolutionary period and includes the perspective of both British loyalists and American rebels. (See review.)

I agree with Annis that it will be interesting to get Bernard Cornwell's take on this period. As a transplanted Englishman who has lived in the U.S. for many years now, he's liable to have a more objective perspective than many American writers.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

Chris Little
Reader
Location: Going back in Time

Postby Chris Little » Tue July 27th, 2010, 4:41 am

Failsafe recommendations:

Being one of the old-fashioned book oriented librarians, I particularly liked the “Can you recommend …” challenge. But, of the various genres, I think HF, my favorite, was the most difficult. Getting one out of three with mysteries, westerns, thrillers, science fiction or Christian would have been more probable than hitting over 300 with HF. Definitely, there are no failsafe books for HF every reader.

HF authors that patrons generally came back for more included Clavell, DeBlasis, Gabaldon, Gedge, Noah Gordon, P Gregory, V Holt … Wilbur Smith, Wouk … (Sorry for having Binchy on the original post, and Crichton, too. I combined a couple lists and then got careless.)

Of the HF/Western hybrids, Elmer Kelton and Will Henry were authors most likely to get repeat patronage
Last edited by Chris Little on Wed July 28th, 2010, 5:24 am, edited 2 times in total.
Reason: Apologizing for error

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favorite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Postby MLE (Emily Cotton) » Tue July 27th, 2010, 4:48 am

I have to say, I would be stumped to recommend fail-safes. I can tell a reader what I liked; but that won't mean that my tastes are anywhere near theirs. Before I recommend a book, I always ask what the first three fiction books that they liked which pop into their heads are. Then I try to go from there.

Of course, if I loathed every one of their choices, I'd be a pretty poor reference for things they would enjoy.

If you want general choices, I say the best-sellers give you a clue. The Other Boleyn Girl is a good recommendation, and much better than many of PGs other novels, and has the advantage that the newcomer would be able to find many other people who had read it. Being able to discuss what you are reading always intensifies the experience.

For men, the Hornblower books seem to hold up well, even after many years. Cornwell also.

I loved books like Shogun and Gone with the Wind, but they are very long, and if the idea is 'gateway', then I'd keep it shorter rather than longer.

I think Wolf Hall's appeal is too limited to make it a gateway. But then I found the present-tense writing contrived, so my personal opinion colors that.

Some YA HF is still a good read for adults; I'm thinking of the Witch of Blackbird Pond and, for the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain. Or Mark of the Horse Lord.

And as long as we are on early post-Roman Britain, I would recommend Carla Nayland's Paths of Exile as a gateway. It has almost everything in a nice balance: a little warfare, a little adventure, a little romance, a little personal angst.

For eastern locales, I think the Good Earth can still grab the reader. And it's almost a classic. Didn't it win a Pulitzer or something?

I wouldn't suggest Dorothy Dunnett as a gateway. She's downright hard to read, and unless the reader is really into it, most newbies to HF put her books down cross-eyed.

Most of the older novels that I love, like Katherine and Prince of Foxes, start too slowly to be good gateways for the current taste.


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