Historical Fiction

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

In An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro gracefully explores the experiences and memories of a disgraced artist living in post-war Japan. The novel is seductive and haunting, but I was also impressed by its substance and depth.

Mansuji Ono, the novel’s protagonist, was once a great artist whose paintings commanded respect throughout Japan. Following the end of World War II, however, Ono experiences a surreal displacement. From Ono’s perspective, the former order he was a part of has not only been abandoned, it has been rejected and renounced as the epitome of disaster. Instead of enjoying the power and prestige that accompanied his former reputation, Ono finds himself adrift, an aging man who wanders through a crumbling house, where all traces of his past life have been “tidied away.”

Swing by Rupert Holmes

Swing, by Rupert Holmes

Rupert Holmes’ Swing has more than a touch of noir—and its own soundtrack. Set in San Francisco in 1940, vagabond jazz musician Ray Sherwood has been made a very interesting proposition. A beautiful, young Berkley music student wants him in a most peculiar way. She’s won an international contest for composers, and her piece needs to premiere at the Golden Gate Exposition in just a few weeks. What she needs from Ray are his talents to orchestrate her music for many instruments. Ray is enchanted by Gail’s breezy joie de vivre and her snappy patter even as his own troubled past makes him hesitate. But the tenor veers from sweet romance to dangerous liaison when a lovely woman plunges to her death mere feet from the happy couple, changing this composition’s theme from serenade to police siren.

A Trace of Smoke

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

Berlin, 1931. A grim police station hallway, lined with photographs of unidentified victims of murder, accidental or unattended deaths. This is the Hall of the Unnamed Dead, and where crime reporter Hannah Vogel is horrified to discover a picture of her brother, Ernst. Delving into his murder, Hannah discovers that her cross-dressing, cabaret singer brother had a complicated and secret life involving high-level Nazis, stolen treasures – and a 5-year-old orphan who insists that Hannah is his mother.

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell reads like a black and white movie, but explores every shade of gray. Trains and fog and endless cigarettes cast a pall of smoke over everything. It evokes the shifting loyalties, fears and grim weariness of every day Germans trying to keep their heads down as the Nazis rise to power.

As Hannah digs deeper into her brother's death, she is pulled into a web of lies, deceit, and deadly secrets.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paris retains an eternal allure for the creative. And the gifted expatriates who flocked to the City of Lights in the 1920s often felt the hallowed pursuit of their individual muses justified unconventional personal behavior. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain chronicles the courtship and subsequent marriage of Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway—a relationship strained and eventually damaged by their friends’ hedonistic lifestyles.

Hadley, who was seven years his senior, met her future husband in Chicago. Although quite the ladies’ man, Hemingway was immediately drawn to her wholesome beauty, even temperament, and courage. Hadley’s unconditional support bolstered Hemingway, a man already plagued by multiple demons, and gave him the companionship he needed to wholeheartedly pursue his writing.

The Cypress House by Michael Koryta

The Cypress House by Michael Koryta

When you read a book at night until it unnerves you so much that you have to put it down to go sleep and then you dream about it, you know you have a great book!  The Cypress House takes place in 1935 and focuses on Arlen Wagner. As a veteran of World War I, he develops the ability to tell when someone was about to die. 

After the war, he is working as a CCC worker and is asked to take a train down to the Florida Keys to help build the bridge out to Key West. Unfortunately, when the train reaches Florida, Arlen can tell that everyone on that train is about to die. He attempts to convince everyone on the train to get off, but the only one who listens to him is a teenage boy, Paul Brickhill, who has been traveling with him.

Funeral in Blue by Anne Perry

Cover to Funeral in Blue

Dr. Kristian Beck is known to be a man selflessly dedicated to the healing arts, so why is he being accused of murdering his very beautiful wife? Granted it was whispered that they lived separate lives, and she was so exquisite that men of all sorts were drawn to her side. To murder one’s wife in the throes of jealousy is considered a crime of passion, and the punishment for that might be less than for a straight-out, cold-blooded killing. As the woman featured in the haunting painting, A Funeral in Blue, Elissa Beck could have excited that kind of emotion.

But then there is the other murder victim to consider. An artist’s model, pretty Sarah Mackeson had been born into a hard life just as Mrs. Beck had enjoyed a privileged one. Yet different as their fortunes were, they shared the murder scene between them—an artist’s studio in the dead of night. Surely one was the intended victim, and the other was a victim of circumstance. For private investigator William Monk and his wife Hester, time is running out to discover who killed both women and why.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Revolution Jennifer Donnelly

Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly, spans both time and social status. In the present there is Andi, a musical prodigy who is about to get kicked out of her prestigious New York City school. She’s mad at her father for the divorce and at her mother for retreating into her own private shell. But mostly she’s in pain over the death of her younger brother, for which she blames herself.

In the past there’s Alexandrine, living through the bloody days of the French Revolution. Alex is a struggling actor who serves as nanny to Louis-Charles, the lost prince of France, and an unwilling spy for Duc d’Orleans.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

For the past month I have enthusiastically embraced each commute and school pick-up queue because it gives me the opportunity to listen to Lisa See’s amazing novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, narrated by the talented Jodi Long. See’s saga transports the listener to 19th-century rural China, tracing the relationship between Lily, from a peasant family, and Snow Flower, from a wealthier family in a neighboring village.

            Upon preparation for binding Lily’s feet at the age of six, a matchmaker takes notice of their exquisite shape. Because of the promise of perfectly beautiful bound feet – in a culture and time where the ideal female foot was three inches long – the matchmaker senses that Lily could make an excellent marriage with a family whose social standing is much higher. To facilitate this, the matchmaker makes a laotong (“old sames”) match between Lily and Snow Flower, a girl from a neighboring village whose upbringing educated her as to all of the etiquette and cultural things that Lily would be expected to know as a married lady of a more wealthy house.
 

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Dateline: Hampstead, London, 1851

Twenty-something drawing master William Hartright was passing a pleasant evening en route to his next assignment as a live-in tutor for two young ladies at Limmeridge House when he was accosted by a young woman oddly garbed all in white who begged for his help. She refused to tell him her name, from whence she came or to where she was going. Being a gentleman, he escorted her, as was her design, to the nearest cab stand. Along the way, they chatted—The Woman in White, oddly intense and excitable, and he, curious to find out what he could about this very determined lady in distress.
 
What he did discover was that she knew the family who had hired him but, warm as her feelings seemed to be to the Fairlies, she was sufficiently troubled by another horror to bolt into the procured cab and race off towards her unstated destination. A few minutes later, Mr. Hartright saw another carriage driving recklessly and pulling up short near a policeman. The men in the carriage shouted to the officer—had he seen a woman in white? She had just escaped from their private insane asylum.

Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire, by Ruth Downie

Gaius Petrius Ruso has just arrived for duty in the Britain, a far backwater of the Roman Empire. He’s been assigned to the Valeria Victrix Legion as Medicus, serving the legion and the natives living in the town surrounding the barracks. When the only other doctor on staff is poisoned by a plate of oysters at the local bar/bordello, Ruso works on alone. Tramping the town in an exhausted stupor, he encounters an odious merchant beating an unconscious slave girl—who clearly has a badly broken arm.

Ruso wants to forget he ever saw the girl. He doesn’t have the money to buy her. He has no use for her. But it’s clear that if she stays as she is, she’ll die. So Ruso does buy her, with the plan to heal her and put her to work.  But pretty and clever Tilla has other plans. As a point of honor, she wants to die, and there’s very little Ruso can do about it as she has no plans to tell him.