The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane – Lisa See

The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane - Lisa SeeAlthough this novel is relatively contemporary (begins in 1988), the focus is on an isolated ethnic minority in China, the Akha hill tribe. Because of isolation, this group follows old traditional ways; the Chinese cultural revolution has almost completely missed these people. Their traditional way of life is described impeccably, and then the halting transition to more modern ways of living. Contemporary identity issues of Chinese children in America adds to the richness of the story telling. This is the best of Lisa See’s novels so far.

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Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach - Jennifer EganEgan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From The Goon Squad, and this new historical novel is a gem. Set in the depression-era 30s in New York and then in the naval shipyards in Brooklyn during World War II, the details of place and context are impeccable. The human relationships are a rich blend of secrets, lies and desertion, of love and lust. The writing is dramatic – part of the book describes so clearly the claustrophobic and oppressive world of diving which is also liberating. But it is the complex human dynamics the drive the story, with a very satisfying ending. This is a must-read book, in my opinion.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing - Yaa GyasiTwo parallel lineage stories of two African half-sisters (who never meet). One storyline is Ghana, the other a slave story that leads to America. There is impressive historical detail, especially when describing the Ghana experience of collusion in the trafficking of slaves. The book is Michener-like in using storylines of successive generations, and yes, there is a useful family tree included in the text.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad - Colson WhiteheadA powerful book about the cruelty of American slavery. The horrible physical abuses are terrible to read, but the psychological abuses are equally horrific. The White belief tin the inherent savagery of African slaves led to eugenics experiments. A slave catcher who refers to his quarry as “it” rather than “s/he”. This is a disturbing but important book to read.

The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian - Elizabeth KostovaThis fascinating book has a Dan Brown-like plot (but with much better writing). Academics search for clues to find missing persons and to research Vlad Dracula’s life (is he still living?). This research is conducted in medieval libraries (yay!) with much travel: Oxford, Istanbul, Budapest and Bulgaria. Actions happen in three times: the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, often with parallel stories so the complex plot with much historical detail requires the full attention of readers. This is a really enjoyable read; thanks Steph, for this recommendation.

The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni - Helene WeckerA second recommendation from Steph, so thanks again. This book is another example of a remarkable first novel, notable both for its imagination and context. A golem is created from clay and brought to life by her master who then promptly dies, leaving her adrift in New York. A jinni is accidentally released from a copper container. Much of this book is about alienation – how to fit into a human population. And the context is glorious: New York in 1899 with detailed descriptions of Little Syria and the Jewish enclave with some fantastic trips to Central Park. And yes, there is a wicked villain! This is a very entertaining book.

By Gaslight – Steven Price

By Gaslight - Steven PriceGenerally I read mostly contemporary fiction but the historical fiction presented in this book is fascinating and entertaining because of a vivid description of context: the American Civil War with violence and sickness and cruelty, and London in 1885 with orange-yellow fog and a trip into the sewers! The book describes an intricate cat-and-mouse conflict between two men over several decades: a master and mysterious thief and an obsessed detective (a Pinkerton). The back story unfolds in many flashbacks, the classic slow reveal of motives and actions. Very enjoyable.