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Staff Picks Category: Historical fiction

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington []

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Laura Harrington’s A Catalog of Birds is a novel about a family in Geneva, NY and what happens when the youngest son, Billy, returns from Vietnam, a wounded veteran. It’s also about nature and listening, about trees and birds and lakes, about ambition, disappointment, loss and love. It is beautifully written and I would have happily continued to read about these people and this place had the book been twice as long, even though their story often brought me to tears.

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The Diviners by Libba Bray []

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An enchanting mystery that will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end! A dark story of the supernatural set in 1920s New York City. Speakeasies, theater, jazz and plenty of twenties slang to keep you giggling.

The story follows a young woman named Evie O’Neill who possesses a power she just can’t explain. After Evie’s brother dies, she is sent to New York City to live with her uncle, a professor of the occult. A chilling murder takes place and Evie’s uncle is called in to help the police investigate the mysterious circumstances. Could Evie’s power help solve this disturbing mystery?

Bray’s characters will stay with you long after you finish reading. Stay tuned for the second book in this series, Lair of Dreams.

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Hearts Made Whole by Jody Hedlund []

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This book is part of Hedlund’s Beacon of Hope Series and is the Sequel to Love Unexpected.  Set in 1865 Michigan, Caroline Taylor has helped her father tend to a lighthouse and care for her younger siblings.  When her father dies unexpectedly, she is forced to give up the job and their home. Ryan Chambers, a wounded Civil War veteran with alcohol and drug addictions and no experience arrives as the new lighthouse keeper.  This is a story of faith, hope, healing and romance.

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What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins []

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Kimberly Elkins’ What Is Visible is one of the best books I have read in a long while. I wept through its final chapters, and yet, upon finishing it I find myself already sorry that I had reached the end so soon. A work of historical fiction, What Is Visible tells the story of a number of celebrated figures at the Perkins School for the Blind in the mid-nineteenth century, including Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe, but most of all, the remarkable Laura Bridgman, who, at the age of two, lost her senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell. Although she relied almost completely on her sense of touch to perceive the world, Laura would learn English, and could read, so long as the print was raised so that she could feel the shape of the letters, could write, and conversed with others using a manual alphabet in which the two conversationalists would write or sign letters into each other’s hands.
A world without sight, sound, smell or taste is difficult for most of us to imagine, but, as this book shows, none of these senses are essential, and it serves us well to spend some time imagining a life without them. Each chapter of the novel is written from the perspective of a different character. Most are written from Laura’s perspective, but many are written from the perspective of Julia Ward Howe, the suffragist and poet, or from that of Laura’s teachers, including her most famous teacher, the abolitionist, educator, and phrenology devotee, Samuel Gridley Howe (who was also Julia’s husband). Elkins writes a compelling and moving portrait of each of these characters, and the story they tell together is both Laura’s story and a fascinating glimpse at a small portion of 19th century America life. The stories told here are full of hardship and melancholy, but also of hope and perseverance and occasionally even joy. They are the stories of remarkable people with remarkable ideas, and of how they did, and did not get along.
I loved this story and the way it was told, and I can say with confidence that this is a book I will want to reread. I don’t feel that way often.

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The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch []

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Whenever I go to New York City I make a pilgrimage to the Strand bookstore.18 miles of books, how could I not?! During my last visit I became overwhelmed, and after 45 minutes of wandering, snatched The Hangman’s Daughter from the “books everyone loves table.” To my surprise, the book was a lot of fun.

Originally written in German, this mystery novel set in 17th century Bavaria has both an interesting plot and a plethora of historical detail. When the body of a local child turns up in a river with suspicious markings, the townspeople assume dark magic is afoot. Despite the lack of tangible evidence, the town midwife is accused of witchcraft. Jakob Kuisl is an unlikely detective (oh, and the town hangman) who stands out as the voice of reason in a world that is ready to accept witch hunts and gruesome medieval medical practices. Can the hangman prove that the midwife is innocent before it’s too late?! You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Those critical of language and authenticity may find the translation too modern but I found it approachable. An engaging whodunit!

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The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker []

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Mythical creatures from Jewish and Arab folklore come alive in 19th century New York City when a Golem (a clay creature made only to serve another) and a Jinni (a fiercely independent being made of fire) trapped in human form find themselves living in adjacent neighborhoods.

The book begins with two separate plot lines… The Golem, though a fully formed woman, comes to life in the hull of a ship headed towards America and soon finds herself masterless in a world that she doesn’t understand. The Jinni on the other hand, awakes on the floor of a tinsmith shop in little Syria after a thousand years trapped in a bottle. As the novel continues the stories of the characters become entwined and, in a beautiful example of storytelling, all of the pieces of Wecker’s mythical world fall into place, leaving the reader satisfied yet sad to reach the end.

This genre bending novel has elements of historical fiction and fantasy. Wecker has clearly done a lot of research and paints a vivid picture of New York’s little Syria and Bowery neighborhoods during the turn of the century. Lovers of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Night Circus will enjoy the rich detail and intricate plot line.

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Dodger by Terry Pratchett []

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Dodger is the latest novel by Sir Terry Pratchett, best known for his satirical Discworld series of fantasy novels. Pratchett’s usual wit and love of language shine through in this historical piece set in Victorian London and with a cast of characters that includes Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts, and Queen Victoria.

Dodger takes place above and below London, with the city’s ancient Roman sewers playing a prominent part. Much of the drama comes from the meeting of the upper and lower classes, the rich and poor, and the politics of the street vs. the politics of the state.

Pratchett has, very consciously, taken liberties with the setting and refers to the work as a historical fantasy, not a historical novel. The most obvious example is the inclusion of the almost certainly fictional Sweeney Todd. Less noticeable to most readers will be the the adjustment to the lives of Sir Robert Peel and John Tenniel whose careers did not, in fact, overlap as suggested in the novel. These changes may bother some, but if you take them in stride you will find Dodger to be a very enjoyable adventure story brought to life by its rich setting and colorful language.

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Birth House by Ami McKay []

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This book made me think about the births of my children as well as family tales I’ve heard from my mother and grandmother about their very different birth experiences. The clash between midwifery and “modern” medical care is at the center of this engaging story. The author does a great job of weaving in historical events and of setting the story during the nineteen-teens in a remote Nova Scotia village.

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Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay []

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This emotionally laden story starts off with two alternating voices. Julia Jarmond is an American-born journalist, who has been living in Paris for 20 years, complete with a French family, and a marriage that is increasingly unstable. She is tasked with writing the story of the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Jewish roundup by the French police on the 60th anniversary of that difficult but little known episode in French history. We also see the roundup from the perspective of Sarah, a 10-year-old who is taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver with her family, but without her younger brother. The stories of these two lives converge, with a key unlocking many long-buried secrets. This is a story that will stay with you.

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Murder Your Darlings by J.J. Murphy []

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First in a new cozy series, Murder Your Darlings features Dorothy Parker and her Vicious Circle of friends at the Algonquin Round Table. Real people mingle with fictional characters in a historically-based setting. Not to worry, liberties are taken to make it more entertaining, and you don’t have to be bothered with the facts unless you choose to read the historical note at the end.
When a drama critic is found stabbed with his own fountain pen under the legendary Round Table, Mrs. Parker and Robert Benchley, together with the police and a team of bootlegging gangsters, chase down the murderer while spewing sarcastic quips, puns, and one-liners all over New York. William Faulkner makes a delightful cameo. The parody is hilarious and my only quibble is that some of the punch lines are too obviously set up. Still, I’ll be gleefully anticipating the next Algonquin Round Table Mystery.

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Widow’s War by Sally Gunning []

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Set on Cape Cod (in the area which is now Brewster), in the year 1761 we meet Lyddie Berry, whose husband drowns while whaling. She defies convention and chooses not to live with her son-in-law (and who could blame her), and holds onto the law of being able to use (but not own) 1/3 of her husband’s property. She defies social, legal and religious strictures of her time, and makes her way through a world that is not made for independent women. Throw in some romance and intrigue with the details of daily life and you have a very captivating story. The author was led to the subject by her own historical research into her family, and her familiarity with the area is clear in the book.

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Winter in Wartime [, ]

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This beautifully shot period film follows 13 year old Michiel, a small town boy in Nazi-occupied Holland in the Winter of 1945.  Michiel’s childhood innocence and restless desire for adventure lead him into increasingly dark and morally ambiguous territories when the realities of war,  resistance and adulthood collide and converge upon his small town life. He is apprehensive about his father’s uneasy cooperation with their German occupiers and looks up to his uncle Ben, a resistance fighter whose connections, gifts and attitude intrigue Michiel. When an allied fighter pilot crashes near the village, Michiel and his sister, a young nurse, are drawn into the search for the pilot and must debate whether to take action or remain silent, and question who they can truly trust. The film, while somewhat conventional in some of its WWII era plotlines, offers enough twists and intrigue to keep the viewer’s attention, but its real appeal is grounded heavily in the films setting. The scenes are filmed beautifully and the village, woods, snow, bicycles, knitwear and natural light combine to give the film an enchanting sense of place, and ground the viewer in Michiel’s conflicted world, caught between action and fear, occupation and resistance and childhood innocence and the risks of adult responsibilities. This film is one of several Forbes films now added in Blu-Ray and DVD (both discs are included in one case, so patrons will not mistakenly get home and find the film unplayable), and the Blu-Ray is especially recommended for its crisp picture, which captures the film’s setting wonderfully.

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