Some definitions of historical fiction state that the book needs to be set 25-50 years prior to when it is published and that most of the novel’s concept and background should be based on the author’s research of the time period. There is some debate over certain books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published 24 years after the time period and The Grapes of Wrath, in which the characters represent “nameless thousands.” I have always considered both historical fiction. What do you think? Are there any books on my list that don’t fit the definition? Check out the links below for further discussion.
I don’t know where to begin in gushing about this Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life.
Josef is twelve years old in 1938, living in Berlin, Germany. Hitler is driving Jewish families like his out of the country. To escape, he and his family leave their home and board the St. Louis for Cuba, where they hope to find safety.
Isabel is eleven in Havana, Cuba when her family climbs into a makeshift boat and heads for Miami, Florida. Extreme poverty and dangerous riots have left them no choice. The year is 1994 and Fidel Castro has just announced that anyone who wants to leave is free to go. But will they be welcomed in Miami?
Mahmoud is twelve, living in Aleppo, Syria. It is 2015 and his home has just been destroyed, the result of an ongoing vicious civil war. He and his family take what they can and depart for Turkey, the first of many stops, hoping to make their way to safety in Germany.
In alternating stories, Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud face unpredictable danger and catastrophe as they desperately try to keep their families together. They learn hard lessons on how to choose between being visible and invisible. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Not knowing when to hide and when to speak out, Mahmoud realizes, “good and bad things happened either way.”
All three children are forced to act as leaders, when family members are hurt or weakened. Gratz describes these heartbreaking transformations in which each understands that they must choose, often quickly, and act on their new-adult instincts in order to save their loved ones.
Although the children are from different times, Gratz has connected their stories through the shared experiences and emotions of leaving their homelands and traveling by boat and foot. Surprise connections make this story even more meaningful.
Refugee was published in 2017 and has gained momentum to be included in many middle and high school curriculums. It is a New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year. Although it is a Young Adult book, I highly recommend it for all readers because it shows, for all of us, the importance of understanding the desperate plights that refugees have suffered.
We Are All Good People Here by
Susan Rebecca White
What’s the best way to make things right? From within the system or something more drastic? This story about friendship and social change begins in 1962 when Daniella Gold and Eve Whalen become roommates at Belmont College in Roanoke, Virginia. Eve, a future debutante, is from a wealthy family in Atlanta and at home with the established southern ways. Daniella is half-Jewish and from a middle class family in Washington, D.C. Despite their differences, they become fast friends.
The girls begin their journey down widening paths when they learn about their dormitory maid’s hours and living conditions. Eve, despite having a black maid at home, is appalled and feels she must act immediately. Daniella, a careful thinker, thinks there are better ways to help. This is the first of many moments with surprise results that cause friction in the young women’s friendship.
We Are All Good People Here spans thirty years of ups and downs. Set in Virginia, New York and Atlanta, during a period of protests about racial inequality and the Vietnam War, Eve and Daniella both believe they can make a difference. While Daniella prefers to work through the system, Eve hooks up with groups that are ready to take action, and as time passes, becomes more radical in her beliefs as she aligns with violent revolutionaries.
Chasms widen and are then bridged as Eve and Daniella become mothers. Good times are peppered with tragedy and loss, with new pressures on their friendship. Throughout, White’s characters suffer, rebound and emerge in different ways.
While I enjoyed reading this historical novel, I felt the characters were flat and stereotyped, playing second fiddle to the author’s attempt at including as many historical references as she could. That said, I learned a few new things about this time period. I just felt it could have been better balanced.
I also thought the cover was misleading. I enjoyed the optical illusion and was attracted to the book right away, but I did not see how the image, which seems very modern, related to the story.
We Are All Good People is a fast read and highlights an important period of American history and social change.
Want more reviews? Here’s one reader who loved it and one who felt the same as I did. Check them out!
Summer reads have a certain feel about them and grabbing the right book can take you back to when you had long lazy days stretching out in front of you. Now, for many of us, it’s more a matter of creating the mood of an endless summer. So steal an hour, find a nice place in a park, in your yard or even at home with the windows open, and dig into a book that will grab you right away. Here are some recommendations to help you choose:
Dig Right In
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – light, entertaining historical fiction during the late 1800s when billionaire American families match their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes in need of American money.
If you’re looking for an entertaining historical mystery, you’ll enjoy A Duty to the Dead, a story set in England during World War I. This is the first book of the Bess Crawford Mysteries, written by a mother-son duo, who introduce Bess as a highly skilled young nurse aboard the doomed HMHS Britannic. Bess narrowly escapes death when the ship hits a mine and soon an unfulfilled promise to a soldier on an earlier ship assignment nags her. Arthur Graham, a dying English soldier, begged her to deliver a curious message: “Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.”
Bess knows it would have been her failure if she had died before trying to reach Arthur’s brother. And although her father, the retired Colonel Richard Crawford, is grateful she’s alive, he advises her, “But you have a responsibility not to put it off again. A duty to the dead is sacred. I needn’t tell you that.”
When Bess delivers the message, Jonathan Graham acts strangely. She’s fulfilled her duty, but she can’t let go. A medical emergency delays her departure and soon Bess is caught up in the Graham family affairs. Her nursing skills prove helpful, but her curiosity leads to hints of a chilling family secret. There’s only one person who can explain, but he’s locked in an asylum.
I enjoyed this mystery as much for the story as for its cast of characters. The Graham family has a lot to hide and although the people in the small town of Owlhurst can’t figure things out for themselves, they help Bess put the pieces together. And it becomes clear that her duty to the dead extends way beyond her promise to Arthur Graham. Interesting side stories enhance this mystery as the reader sorts out facts and events.
A Duty to the Dead is a fast and light read, but it also includes serious themes such as the damaging effects of war on both soldiers and families left behind, as well as the young men deemed unfit to serve. In addition, the author challenges the reader to think about responsibility for a crime. Does the blame lay on just one person, or do conspiracy and complicity make others just as guilty?
I liked how the author used this time period to show what people do during wartime and how their perceptions of danger change. Bess Crawford, barely out of her teens, has developed a courageous, confident and independent character, which serves her well as both a nurse and an amateur detective. I expect she will handle many challenges in the next books with the skills she shows in her first adventure. A Duty to the Dead was published in 2009 and there are eleven more for fans to enjoy. You can see the full list here.
Juliet Armstrong is eighteen years old when signs up with the MI5, a department of Britain’s Security Service, to help fight the infiltration of German and Fascist sympathizers. It’s 1940 and her job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations of informants who think they are meeting with a German Nazi. Agents have rented two London apartments and installed recording devices in a shared wall. In one apartment, Godfrey Toby poses as the German. In the other apartment are Juliet, Toby’s handler and a technician, recording, transcribing and writing reports.
Soon, in addition to transcribing, Juliet takes on an alias and heads out to the Russian Tea House to befriend an English matron whose husband is in prison for being a Nazi sympathizer. Juliet must get information about the Right Club, a group of powerful sympathizers and get her hands on the club’s Red Book of members.
That’s the set-up of Transcription, a sort of light historical spy novel, in which Juliet moves among agents and counteragents, never completely sure who’s on what side and leaving the reader to guess.
The story jumps between 1940 and 1950, where Juliet works at Schools Broadcasting, part of the British Broadcasting House. Something happened in 1940 that has caused Juliet’s group of spies to scatter and her secret past begins to haunt her when she sees the enigmatic Toby walking down the street. She will soon confront others from her spy days and try to make sense of her involvement during the war.
I was looking forward to reading this book because of how much I loved Life After Life and A God in Ruins, but I did not like the story as much. There were too many characters to keep track of and the complicated plot did not hold my attention, despite the story’s sometimes light and farcical tone. I kept waiting for something more to happen. I liked reading about the Security Service, however, and imagining the life of secret agents. I also enjoyed the author’s writing style, which is full of meaningful phrases that tie the story and characters together. That is also the author’s style in Life After Life and A God in Ruins.
I especially liked when Atkinson used one of my favorite lines from Life After Life, “You’d better come in,” spoken several times in that story when trouble arrives at the door. At two different times in Transcription, Juliet says the same thing. I love that kind of dialogue. I only hope I could be so calm! But I just didn’t care much about what happened in Transcription. Maybe it’s because Juliet’s character is hard to know and the mystery that surrounds her a little silly, leaving me to wonder if that’s what the author intended. I couldn’t decide, so I’m calling this one just an okay read.
How exciting to choose a book you know nothing about and immediately love it! I had seen Manhattan Beach on display at the library where I work, and the other library book club had already read it, but I never asked my work friend what it was about. And I blindly selected it for my own book club. Talk about being a pantser!
Manhattan Beach has a 3.8 star average rating on Amazon, with over half of the reviewers giving it a 4 or 5, but the rest of the reviews are 1-3 stars. This book is a winner with most and not so much with others. Well, it’s a winner with me! It’s full of complex characters, twisting plot lines and overlaid with the conflict between doing the right thing and doing what you have to do, with heavy consequences on both sides.
Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins in 1937 with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl. In these early years, Anna has a strong bond with her father, Eddie and she shadows him on mysterious work errands. At home, her mother cares full-time for Anna’s crippled younger sister, Lydia, a source of guilt, shame, resentment and love in different measures for each of them. On one errand, Anna meets the powerful Dexter Styles and without knowing why, senses an important connection between the men.
Eight years later, Eddie is missing and Anna has a job measuring parts at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the hub of wartime repairs and preparations. And then she meets Styles again at one of his nightclubs. Determined to understand his relationship to her father, Anna sets off on a dangerous course in both her personal life and at work, where she has become the first female civilian diver. In this section, Egan includes interesting descriptions of how divers trained and worked, a dangerous activity and much different from resort dives of today!
What I liked best about Manhattan Beach is the way the author allows the reader inside the heads of her characters. I understood them much better, knowing how they made their decisions and I sometimes liked the ones with questionable morals more, because I could see their predicaments. Several of them grapple with the ethics of their work, and a few will do whatever it takes to protect their family. I particularly liked the slow reveal of Eddie’s character, who travels with many of the wrong people, but has a lifelong desire to do what’s right.
I also enjoyed the way Egan describes New York during this time period. It’s loaded with regular people, gangsters, bankers, and laborers, trying to get by in any way they can and, even when they are at cross purposes, there’s a sense of unity to win the war. Who gets by and who has the upper hand can quickly change, and that’s what kept me happily reading to the finish.
I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.
Someone should have warned the elegant and famously wealthy socialites of New York not to reveal their deepest secrets to the famous author and scandal-loving gossiper, Truman Capote! Years earlier, Capote had been welcomed into their fold and became their treasured confidante. The result was a story that shook high society and ended close friendships. “La Côte Basque 1965” was published in 1975 by Esquire magazine as a preview chapter of Answered Prayers, Capote’s last and unfinished novel. Capote had been gathering material for years about this social set and in it, he held nothing back.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue is the fictionalized account of Capote’s friendship with six women, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Pamela Harriman, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness and CZ Guest. Capote arrived on the New York social scene in the fifties and became fast friends with these ladies, especially Babe Paley, who was married to CBS founder, Bill Paley. High society did not know what to think of Capote’s unusual and flamboyant style, but they took to him because he was so much fun. And the husbands didn’t mind because his homosexuality made him a safe companion. But, although Capote was often the life of the party, he was also a well-respected author of short fiction and several novels, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s. His masterpiece, In Cold Blood, was still to come.
The women were known as Capote’s swans, and spent their days shopping, having luncheons, attending galas and retreating to vacation homes. Wherever they went, they were impeccably dressed and ready to be photographed at any angle. Many of the swans, especially Babe, considered it their jobs to look perfect. It was serious business being a trophy wife: the women had no earning power other than being bred to marry a rich husband.
In particular, Benjamin portrays Babe as a lonely and insecure woman, whose husband, a notorious womanizer, valued her beauty, but only as a means to elevate his status. Separate bedrooms underscored their lack of intimacy and, desperate for his affection, Babe was intent on being perfect and creating the perfect home. She left no detail to chance, anticipating her husband’s every need, even when he hardly noticed. For Babe, Truman came at the right time, filling a painful void.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a highly entertaining account of a period of time in New York that hit its peak just as Capote did. And as Capote began his slide into alcohol and drug abuse, the swans became matrons and had to move aside for a new generation. Benjamin feeds the reader’s need to admire the fashion and lifestyles of the super wealthy, while also showing its emptiness and sadness. Marriage is never till death do us part, and while Babe stays married to Bill, the other swans have affairs, marry, and divorce several times over.
Of course, the swans spent money like no one else and so the question is: how much can the average reader feel sorry for them? They certainly enjoyed the power and attention that their status gave them and the many pictures from the society pages suggest they knew exactly what they were doing, even Babe.
In addition, Benjamin presents a fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante as well as a serious writer. I highly recommend The Swans of Fifth Avenue to readers who enjoy character studies and stories about the New York upper class.
What’s it about? A fictionalized account of the author’s family in Poland and Europe during World War II. In 1939, the Kurc family lived in Radom, Poland. Sol and Nechuma had five grown children, just starting their lives. Everything changed when Germany invaded Poland. The parents were given jobs working in a German cafeteria. One brother was in France. Two others joined the Polish army. Mila Kurc’s husband disappeared and Halina’s new job was hard labor at a beet farm. The family was eventually forced out of their home and into a designated Jewish ghetto. The oldest son and his wife were sent to Siberia. For six years, the family was scattered, with little information about each other. They witnessed executions and faced brutal treatment and persecution by both the Germans and the Soviets. They endured unthinkable conditions, took innumerable risks to survive and resist, sometimes with the aid of Halina’s husband who was involved in the Underground.
Nearly six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and although the Kurc family suffered many losses, they all survived the war. When the war was over, some came to America, others settled in Europe, but they all left Poland. Georgia Hunter’s grandfather was the middle son, Addy, who was in Paris when Germany invaded Poland. He escaped and spent time in Spain, West Africa, Casablanca and Brazil, and had no contact with his family until after the war. When he arrived in America, one of the first thing Addy did was change his name, which was short for Adolf, to Eddie.
How did you hear about it? My book club friend selected it.
Closing comments: An incredible story of perseverance. The Kurc family survived a horrible period of history. Their courage and resolve—and, as the author says, luck—is a story that should be read and remembered.
On a side note, from a stylistic point of view, separate from the serious and important record of history, I felt that the book could have been shorter. While not a difficult read, it is over four hundred pages and the accounts are sometimes wordy and repetitive. In addition, it was sometimes difficult to keep the characters straight, as they did not possess enough distinct traits. The book often reads more as a wholesome Young Adult book, with an occasional scene that seems unbalanced with the overall style.
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