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Analyzing the ABBC: Historical Fiction 2011

Here are the top five vote-getters so far in historical fiction from the 2011 All-the-Best-Books Compilation. You can see all 91 titles in this genre that have received votes or review any of the other genres by downloading the full ABBC spreadsheet via Blogging for a Good Book at Williamsburg Regional Library.

Tied for fourth place with 10 votes is Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Its a stylish, shimmery debut novel set in the high society of 1938 Manhattan, where Katey Kontent, an up-and-coming charmer with her aim set on conquering the publishing world meets Tinker Grey, a wealthy, enigmatic, and handsome businessman as the new year begins. The events that follow have drawn comparisons to The Great Gatsby, Edith Wharton, and Truman Capote, exploring the many conflicts between social rules, the success of relationships, and personal happiness. It’s a jazz- and art deco-filled valentine to another time that would make an excellent book group selection.

Also with 10 votes to date is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Fans of the recent Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris might enjoy exploring this fictional study of Hadley Richardson Hemingway, Hemingway’s first wife, who endured the Lost Generation years with him in 1920s Paris. The book has plenty of “Hem,” F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce, but the real focus is Hadley, and her struggle to maintain a sense of self while caring for her narcissistic and moody husband. This might be a fun book to pair with Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises or A Moveable Feast. Shake up a few cocktails and your book group will be ready to go.

Number three in historical fiction with 14 votes to date is The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. It’s an 1850s western featuring two brothers sent by the shady Commodore to kill off a pesky prospector. Charlie Sister is a whiskey-swilling, bullying killer. The narrator Eli Sister is a much more gentle man, pudgy and melancholic, who doesn’t know any other way but is beginning to question his life choices. The book captures the rowdy atmosphere of the San Francisco area during the Gold Rush, utilizing ornamental language that contrasts with brute behavior. Pair it with other classics of wry Western humor like True Grit, Little Big Man, or Roughing It.

Alan Hollinghurst has received 15 best-of-the-year nods for The Stranger’s Child. The book takes readers to the end of the Georgian era, to an English country house where poet Cecil Valence visits for a weekend with his Cambridge friend George Sawle and his sister Daphne. He writes a poem that immortalizes Daphne, then goes off to die shortly thereafter in WWI, but whom is the poem really about? The story works forward through almost a century of history, following the fallout from that weekend and the changing ways in which it is viewed as attitudes toward homosexuality, culture, and literary taste shift over time. While the book will draw comparisons to Atonement, Brideshead Revisited, and Possession among others, it’s an original work that should draw further attention to Hollinghurst’s distinguished body of work, all of which deserves book group attention.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje has the most best-of-the-year votes of all in historical fiction (and is tied for the third most mentions overall), with 18 votes to date. The title table is the one reserved for the least desirable passengers on the ship that carries the 11-year-old narrator from Ceylon to a new life in London in 1953. Michael and two other boys have adventures as they ramble around the ship, a curious mix of boyish hijinks and witness borne to some very adult events. In particular, they view a prisoner in chains, and the fate of this man continues to haunt Michael as he later ponders those 21 days on ship from an adult perspective. Ondaatje captures the way in which a short, intense period can continue to have impact throughout a life in this page turner that captures a child’s sense of wonder with perfect pitch.

Books like Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Mary Doria Russell’s Doc, and John Sayles’ A Moment in the Sun are among those that follow these frontrunners in the ABBC results in what can only be described as a strong year for historical fiction.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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