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.

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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.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Burial Rites - Hannah KentA young Australian woman was on a Rotary Exchange to Iceland, where she discovered a story of Agnes who was beheaded in 1828 for alleged murders. This was the last execution in Iceland. The story is all context, life in Iceland in the early 19th century and the place of an independent woman, with issues of poverty and religion. HK was a participant in a Vancouver Word Fest session on archival research about 2 1/2 years ago that I attended. She talked about the issue of cultural appropriation, for example. This is an excellent debut novel, and my enjoyment was enhanced by the fact that I read this book in Iceland!

Making History – Stephen Fry

Making History - Stephen FryWhat if you had access to a “Temporal Imaging Machine” and could send a male contraceptive back in time to a village in Austria in June 1888, to prevent the birth of Adolf Hitler? This would be a good outcome, right? What could go wrong? This inventive novel shows that the Law of Unintended Consequences is diabolically operative and so history should not be tampered with. Thanks Amy for this recommendation. Although sometimes Fry’s writing is too cute, this is a very entertaining book.