Today I released the second of three editions of the All the Best Books Compilation (ABBC) at my other blogging home, Williamsburg Regional Library’s Blogging for a Good Book. The spreadsheet now includes mentions of over 2200 books, compiled into 12 genre and subject categories, noting all of the books mentioned by 120 different authoritative sources. The final edition will be released at the end of the month. Today, I’ll continue discussion of the results, taking a look at which books in the historical fiction category have been recognized most often.
The leader in this category is Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, with 38 mentions to date. The sequel to 2009’s top book, Wolf Hall, this novel follows Thomas Cromwell on through the years of Henry VIII, although here in a much tighter time frame, just one year from the middle of 1535 to the middle of 1536. This time the focus is on the weeks during the fall from grace and trial of Anne Boleyn. This is an easier book for book groups to take on than Wolf Hall, it’s shorter and less complex, however to fully appreciate it, one should read the longer book first. That’s not such a bad thing: both books one the Booker Prize, along with piles of other awards.
Second in this category is Adam Johnson, with 20 recognitions of The Orphan Master’s Son. It’s the story of Pak Jun Do, a young North Korean who gets to decide which of the orphans at the work camp his father runs get to eat first, which have to go on work details. Thus begins a rise to power which takes him to kidnap Japanese citizens and onward into increasing violence, danger, and political manipulation, culminating in association and rivalry with “Dear Leader” Kim Jung Il himself. There has been plenty of great fiction and nonfiction about North Korea in the last few years, and many reviewers think this is the best of the bunch.
Third with 17 mentions to date is Ian McEwan’s latest, Sweet Tooth. Taking place in 1972, it follows the recruitment of a bookish Cambridge student, Serena Frome, by MI5 to try to manipulate the cultural agenda in Cold War Britain. She’s assigned to scout out the politics of a young professor and writer, Tom Haley. If he’s suitably anti-Communist, MI5 will secretly promote his career by sending money his way through channels. When Serena falls in love with him, she finds herself facing many moral quandaries.
Amanda Coplin takes the fourth spot (11 mentions) with The Orchardist. Set in the rough scrabble foothills of the Cascade Mountains, it follows a man name Talmadge who has carefully tended an orchard of fruit trees for almost half a century. Having previously lost his mother and sister, his life is quiet until he impulsively decides to take on two wild pregnant girls who steal from him at the market. His kindness and patience begin to tame them, but when some nasty men passthrough the orchard, Talmadge must risk his pastoral existence to try to save the girls, and in the process exorcise the demons from his own past. The spare landscapes Coplin depicts and quiet life of the early 20th-century are well matched to the lyricism and emotional rawness of her story.
These books are closely followed by five competitors with nine or ten mentions so far: Ron Rash’s The Cove, Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues (which received almost as many mentions last year when it first debuted in an English edition), Eowyn Ivey’s debut The Snow Child, M. L. Stedman’s The Light between Oceans, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.
Get the last edition of the ABBC at the end of March to see which climb to the top rungs of the list.