Hiatus, nostalgia, TV

I haven’t published anything here for a while because I started reading Demon Copperhead, the new book from fave author Barbara Kingsolver, and it has been taking forever. I am enjoying the voice of the protagonist and the high quality of her descriptive writing and somewhat quirky scene-setting, but the combination of the length of the book and the depressing quality of the narrative finally got to me at about 83 percent, and I set it aside to take a quick refreshment break.

I re-read two books by Jenny Colgan—Meet Me at the Cupcake Café, and The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris—for their winning combination of positivity, romance, and recipes, and enjoyed them both. My plan was to go back to Kingsolver today, but instead I found myself picking up Dying Fall, the latest Bill Slider mystery by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, which has been in my pile for months. I will get back to Demon Copperhead at some point, but the mood isn’t yet right.

Meanwhile, Netflix made me happy this weekend, having come out with season one of Lockwood & Co., adapted, partially written, and directed by Joe Cornish, and based on the young adult paranormal mystery series by author Jonathan Stroud. This has been a favorite series of mine since I read book #1 with my middle school book club and eagerly perused all the rest as they emerged from his brain onto the page (there are five books and a short story in it).

The series is set in a parallel world where Britain has been ruled for 50 years by “the Problem”—evil ghosts that roam freely, but can only be dealt with by children and teenagers young enough to be in touch with their perceptive gifts. Adults can be harmed by them but can’t see or even sense them, while the youth still see, hear, and sense their presence and fight them by discovering their “source” (the place or object to which they are attached) and either securing or destroying it.

The mythology seems to have evolved at least partially from faerie, vampire, and werewolf lore: The main weapons are iron chains, silver containers, running water, salt bombs, lavender, and longswords! The ghost-hunting teens are most of them employees operating under the supervision of corporate, adult-run agencies, but Lockwood & Co. is independent of adult supervision. It’s a startup existing on the fringes, run by two teenage boys—Anthony Lockwood, the putative boss and mastermind, skilled sword fighter and ingenious planner, and George Karim, the brainy researcher who provides background for their cases from the city’s archives. The two have advertised for and just recently acquired a girl colleague, Lucy Carlyle, who is new to London and technically unlicensed, but more psychically gifted than anyone they have ever met. This renegade trio is determined not just to operate on their own but to outdo the agency blokes in all their endeavors, so they take risks no adult at the corporations (or at DEPRAC, the Department of Psychical Research and Control) would sanction, in order to gain both notoriety and clients.

Cornish and his colleagues have nicely captured both the flavor of the overwrought atmosphere of beleaguered London and the perilous camaraderie of the principal characters—Lockwood, George, and Lucy—in their series. Season one covers the events from books #1 (The Screaming Staircase) and #2 (The Whispering Skull), so one assumes there will be at least one and perhaps two more seasons, if viewers make it popular enough for renewal. I certainly hope they do! But in case that doesn’t happen (or even if it does), the books are out there, and well worth your attention (and I don’t just mean middle-schoolers!).

Interdependency

The empire in John Scalzi’s series by that name takes interdependence to new heights (pardon the pun, it’s set in space). As Wil Wheaton, narrator of the audiobooks, comments, “The Collapsing Empire [first book in the trilogy] works as a wonderful SF tale…but it also has important allegory, metaphor, and commentary on some things that are going on right now, for readers who are open to that sort of thing. For those who aren’t, it doesn’t beat you over the head with it, which is a neat trick.”

The few planets and many human habitats of various construction that are flung across the universe are connected by something called the Flow, which confounds natural physics by providing a river-like network between all the settlements. To use it for travel, spaceships must have a field that creates a “bubble” around them, whereupon they can onramp into the Flow, which carries their ship until they pop out at their destination, days, weeks, or sometimes months later—it’s somewhat predictable, but not reliably so.

The Interdependency has a top-down, static structure of emperox (the non-gendered term for their emperor), noble houses, trade houses, and everybody else. To keep all these widely spaced settlements together and avoid interstellar war, both necessities and luxuries have been assigned to or co-opted by the “houses,” which have monopolies on certain goods and services, for which the other houses trade and bargain, to the extreme that there are built-in fail-safes to ensure no one impinges on the monopolies. For instance, if a particular kind of fruit is sold, one would imagine that the seeds from that fruit could be collected by the buyer and grown elsewhere, thus disrupting the monopoly; but in anticipation of this, the produce has been designed so that the seeds go sterile after a short period of time, preventing anyone else from benefitting. (Don’t ask me how, just go with it.) The monopolies are jealously guarded, and there is a certain amount of jockeying for dominance amongst the nobles, but the empire’s structure is mostly stable, and lends itself to centralized control.

This has all worked for millions of years, barring an occasional assassination of an emperox, or a change in fortune for one of the houses. But all of that is about to change, for the simple and terrifying reason that the Flow has become erratic and, in fact, is about to fail in spectacular fashion, according to one lone physicist on the planet End, the furthest planet in the universe from the Hub, the center of the empire. When it collapses, most of the human habitats will be isolated within their systems and, without the cooperative network of supplies and services set up and supplied by the Interdependency through the Flow, they will fail to support their populations in fairly short order, presenting a stark fate of death by starvation or faltering life support systems.

Compounding this, the emperox who commissioned the physicist to research and report on the Flow has just died and, contrary to his plans and those of one of the other predominant noble houses, his illegitimate daughter, Cardenia Wu, has succeeded to the throne. She is naive, inexperienced, and not a particularly willing heir; but when the physicist sends his son, Marce, from End to the Hub to report the problem with the Flow to the emperox, Cardenia realizes she must rise to the challenge of saving as many as possible of the billions of people dependent on her empire. The noble and trade houses, of course, have other ideas, including eliminating Cardenia and putting one of their own clever but venal people in her place, and saving themselves (and their money, goods, and dominance) first, while leaving the commoners to their fates.

This is the rather long set-up and partial story of The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox.

This has been deemed a “space opera” by many reviewers and readers; I tend to think of space operas as the wild west played out in space, with smuggling, chases, and shoot-em-ups being more prevalent than, say, the thoughtful dissection of an empire into its component parts and the contemplation of what will happen to it, should no one take responsibility. The books definitely have some aspects of space opera, as there is a lot of adventure, multiple coups and assassinations (both attempted and achieved), and various exploding ships (due to both battles and sabotage). But along with all that are some amazing characterizations of both heroic and nefarious figures, along with some truly labyrinthine plotting, so the trilogy is a pleasure to read for both adventure-seekers and philosopher-anthropologists. Along with the clever, sometimes laugh-out-loud triumphs of one character over another, there is also much to consider from both an intellectual and practical viewpoint, with parallels, as Wheaton noted, to many aspects of our own culture’s functionality and possible future.

Scalzi has pulled off a coup, himself, by managing to marry the level of detail contained within his Old Man’s War series with the humor and humanity of his more lighthearted works (such as my favorite, The Android’s Dream). The dialogue is witty, the descriptions are engaging, the world-building is thorough, and the group of main characters who tell the story—the Flow physicist, the new emperox, the trade representative of a major family, and the wannabe traitor—are quirky, endearing, and profane. (If crass language bothers you, this is not the series for you!) I thoroughly enjoyed this three-part story, and couldn’t wait to see what happened.

Mysteries need another name

I have been off the radar for a while because, when I bought the Sydney Rye mysteries, I bought them in an e-book omnibus of eight books, and I have spent the past two weeks reading all of them, which did a big favor to my Goodreads challenge for the year but didn’t do much for this blog!

They are specifically titled the Sydney Rye Mysteries (by Emily Kimelman), but after the first one, I have to disagree with that genre specification. Although in book #1 there is a dead guy whose killer must be discovered, and this puzzle leads to others within that volume, the subsequent books are not what I would characterize as mysteries. There aren’t specific crimes to solve, although there is a high level of criminality throughout; the books are much more like thrillers or suspense.

The events of the first book have awakened in Joy Humbolt, now rechristened Sydney Rye, a passion for justice, and her first step towards that, in book #2, is to go along with Detective Mulberry’s plan for her, which is to work with a Tai Chi and weapons master whose parallel expertise is teaching dogs to be fighting partners; Sydney and her dog Blue train with Merl and his dobermans, and turn into a couple of badasses practically unrecognizable to the friends and family of Joy Humbolt.

Subsequent to this training, Sydney basically looks around for injustices (or they arrive on her doorstep), from white slavery to organ harvesting, and goes after the people responsible, sometimes on her own but mostly aided by various people from her past, including Mulberry, her sometime romantic partner and computer hacker Dan, the aforementioned Merl, several imprisoned and abused women she rescued who decided they wanted to pass on the favor, and various well-met strangers along the way. And while there is a specific issue, bad guy or guys, and challenging task in each book, none of them could be characterized as mysteries. There are occasionally bigwigs behind the little guys who have to be discovered and ferreted out, but if you are wondering how to characterize these books, they have a greater resemblance to the Jack Reacher (Lee Child) franchise, for example, than to any traditional murder mystery series.

If you like that kind of thing, however, with a legendary protagonist and a lot of exciting action with a positive conclusion for the downtrodden, then by all means broach the Sydney Rye books…just don’t think of them as mysteries!

By the way, the eight volumes aren’t the end of this series—numbers nine through 15 currently exist, and who knows (besides Emily Kimelman) if there will be more?

Genre confused

I am a big fan of Peter Heller’s work. I have read all of his novels and haven’t disliked a one of them, although I do have favorites. So I was delighted to discover that he has a “new” book out (almost a year old, now).

The Guide has the trademark lyrical descriptions of nature that one expects from Heller. The theme is fly-fishing, and although I don’t fish and am not a fan of early morning activities, his narrative of the terrain was so lovely that it calmed my breathing as I read it, making me long for wide open spaces with the sound of flowing water in the background and the dawn vista of a still pool with mayflies rising and rings spreading outwards as the sun heats the surface and the fish rise to feed.

Although this book can certainly be read as a stand-alone, it is, in fact, a sequel to Heller’s book The River, in that the protagonist is Jack, a few years on from that tragic adventure. Although it enhanced the experience to know the back story referenced periodically throughout this book, it wasn’t such a direct continuation that anyone would feel the need to go back and review the previous story in order to feel caught up. It’s made plain that Jack has been damaged by an event in his past, and that he sees this term of employment as a guide at one of the most exclusive fishing resorts in the country as an escape from his everyday life, in which he suffers from silence and too much free time.

Jack is taken on by the Kingfisher Lodge, on a pristine stretch of protected waters near the town of Crested Butte, Colorado, to replace a guide who left abruptly. The resort caters to the über-wealthy and the camera-shy celebrity, and provides an all-encompassing interlude of comfortable quarters, gourmet dining, camaraderie, and sport. His first assigned client is Allison K., a woman Jack vaguely recognizes as a hugely famous country western singer (he’s not really into music). She also turns out to be gifted at and dedicated to fly fishing, and the two share what’s described as an almost spiritual out-of-body state as they roam up and down the river, casting their lures.

But there’s something weird going on in this paradise, and soon Jack is nervous and on the defensive as minor violations of some resort rules result in some out-of-proportion reactions and repercussions. He and Allison begin first to speculate and then to research what they’ve been told, as anomalies crop up and their status becomes ever more perilous.

Although I enjoyed this book over all, there seemed to be a profound disconnect between the scene setting and the behind-the-scene activities. Heller’s other books certainly contain elements of mystery and suspense, but for some reason this one didn’t feel organic. For one thing, the “nature documentary” aspect of the book dominates for about 80 percent of the book, with only small hints and incidents thrown in here and there to increase the reader’s feelings of disquiet, and then all of a sudden, in the last 20 percent, it becomes all about the alter ego mystery of the story. Nature buffs will enjoy the setting and melodic language about fishing, while thrill seekers will get their payoff with the bizarre back story, but the genre blending that took place here needed a few more spins of the Kitchenaid to work properly. I was still fairly happy with the book, however, until I reached the last few pages. There are few things I dislike more than a book that shows the entire story, only to punt at the end by “telling what happened” after the significant events occur, instead of taking the reader directly through them, and that’s sort of what happened here.

Photo courtesy of The Broadmoor resort, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Primarily as a result of that ending, I would have to recommend Heller’s other books over this one, although the prevailing narrative was the verbal equivalent of the glorious imagery experienced in the 1992 film A River Runs Through It; if you are susceptible to words that so graphically paint a picture, you will enjoy this book no matter what.

Dragonback

Well, the proclivity for the devouring of extensive series does wreak a little havoc with a regular reviewing schedule!

I continued reading Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series through all six books and am finally back to report that it remains a charming and well wrought story arc that will appeal to lovers of science fiction, people who like a coming-of-age story, and those who are craving the adventure, hijinks, drama, and excitement of a “space opera.”

The parts are perfectly played by the humans—Jack and Alison—and the K’da—Draycos and, latterly, Taneem. The former are clever and wily, ingenious at dodging and weaving their way through a seemingly infinite number of challenges, yet also vulnerable and with the tendency to despair that young people who haven’t quite found their feet will fall into if left entirely to their own devices. But in this story, they are not—Jack has the poet/warrior K’da riding his back like a big golden dragon tattoo, and K’da is, in addition to being strong, resourceful and a heck of a song-writer, a stable, positive role model for Jack to emulate, in contrast to Jack’s Uncle Virgil, the good-hearted but self-serving conman who raised him.

Alison’s resources are a little more mysterious at first, and we’re never quite sure of either her motives or the identity of her allies as she and Jack meet and part during this complicated plot. While the only truly obvious bad guys are the sinister Vahlagua, operators of the Death ray and enemies of the K’da, there are a lot of other combatants in this field, emerging from the wealthy class, the government, from groups of mercenaries and land- and slave-holders, all of whose interests are somewhat aligned but none of whom can be trusted, and several of whom seem too familiar with Alison! Once she teams up with the innocent but fierce Taneem, however, Alison’s aspect begins to soften slightly, and the reader obtains glimpses of who they hope she will be in amongst all the trickery, as she and Jack draw closer.

The books are: Dragon and Thief, Dragon and Soldier, Dragon and Slave, Dragon and Herdsman, Dragon and Judge, and Dragon and Liberator, with Jack playing all those roles in his quest to save the K’da. Thus, in addition to the long-term goal there are many short-term ideas pursued as part of the solution, with Jack in turn learning how to be a mercenary, coping with capture and enslavement, shepherding some innocent bystanders while attempting to remain hidden from his foes, and acting as both arbiter and liberator.

The twists and turns that set up each book are beautifully structured to further exhibit both the evolution of the human characters and their strengthening bonds of empathy with their friends, mentors, and symbionts. The strategizing sessions amongst the characters are clever and lead seamlessly to the next adventure. And although the story occasionally bogs down just a little in the details of an individual episode, the momentum never fails to pick up again and carry the characters forward towards their goals. There are also plenty of exciting scenes of battle, both personal/physical and also using their weapons and ships in space to outmaneuver the conspiracy mustered against them.

Altogether, I have seldom read a more satisfying example of story-telling that will engage its intended readers. Librarians, booksellers, and parents, put this series on your list to especially recommend to your teens ages 12-16. (Add it to the books of Anthony Horowitz and D. J. MacHale as a great alternative for reluctant boy readers.) And fantasy lovers of any age, check it out when you want something clever, fun, and action-driven to read.

NOTE: Art is by https://kaenith.tumblr.com/ ©2017.

Trilogy the third

I have spent the past couple of weeks immersed again in the land of the Six Duchies, the cities of the Elderlings, the oceans sailed by the liveships, and the mysterious white island of the Servants, origin of the enigmatic character known variously as the Fool, Lord Golden, and Lady Amber. Yes, I am referring to the third and last trilogy by Robin Hobb that details the story of FitzChivalry Farseer and all his many friends, enemies, family members, and connections. The end of the tale was a fascinating, unexpected, breathless pleasure to read—at the same time as I dreaded its conclusion.

After having gone missing for many years without a word to “Tom Badgerlock,” the Fool makes an abrupt and unexpected re-entry into FitzChivalry’s life that spells disaster for all. Fitz’s little daughter, Bee, is kidnapped from her home in her father’s absence, and borne away to the white island of the Servants, who believe she is the “Unexpected Son” of their prophecies and wish to exploit her talents and control her dreams. Given the almost insurmountable challenge of retrieving her (not to mention the two men’s intention to slaughter every single Servant and raze their city to the ground), Fitz and the Fool seek out all the allies they can muster, including visiting the descendents of the fabled Elderlings, engaging with the Traders who sail the sentient vessels known as liveships, and even entreating the aid of dragons.

I didn’t think I could love anything more than the last trilogy, but with the intriguing introductions of new characters and the rediscovery of old ones in this, it just blew me away. I definitely haven’t been getting enough sleep, because I haven’t been able to put it down! 

The adventure is convoluted, the personalities ever more compelling, the confrontations fizzing with action. I dare to say that this is the best extended fantasy tale I have ever read, with this trilogy being the perfect conclusion, and I know I will return to it someday to re-experience the pleasures of this exquisitely detailed saga.

I am somewhat consoled for its ending by the fact that there are other books by Hobb set in this universe, including The Liveship Traders books and the Rain Wild Chronicles. I am reluctantly pulling away from it for a while, because I need to read and review more for this blog after having neglected it so shamelessly for weeks while I indulged my fantasy binge. But I will definitely go there sometime in the near future.

Tender

When I ran across the quote in This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, after which the book was named, I thought the reference too slight to justify calling it that. But there are, in fact, many tender and poignant moments in this book to be enjoyed and appreciated, not the least of which is expressed in the beautiful narrative of the natural world through which the characters pass.

I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but my pulse beat a little faster when I saw the description of four children traveling downriver by canoe; ever since having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child, I have loved the adventurous nature of travel by water, somewhat in control of your vessel but ultimately subject to the whims of the ever-changing river. And yes, I know that Huck Finn has fallen out of fashion since its reexamination for egregious racism but, despite that, the central narrative of a couple of disadvantaged people at the bottom of the rungs of society encountering others supposedly more elevated along their way but themselves turning out to be the more ethical and compassionate is a powerful theme, repeated in this tale by Krueger.

Odie, 12, and his brother Albert, 16, are the only two white children at one of the notorious “training” schools for Indian children, this one in Minnesota. Albert is stolid and even-tempered, an engineer by talent as well as by nature, but the more volatile Odie is constantly in trouble for one reason or another, and at this school under the reign of Superintendent Brickwood (the Black Witch, as the boys call her), the last thing you want to do is stand out. The brothers have a best friend, Moses, an Indian boy about Albert’s age, whose tongue was cut out when he was too small to remember; due to the brothers’ having had a deaf mother, they are able to teach him American Sign Language and he is thus able to communicate.

The boys survive an existence marked by ragged clothes and and shoes with holes, too little food and too much labor, and constant persecution from the staff of the school by focusing on the good: They have a champion in two of their teachers—Herman Volz and Cora Frost—and Mrs. Frost does her best to ensure they spend carefree time in her company, helping out at her farm and playing with her beloved daughter, six-year-old Emmy, while Volz tries to protect them from the worst of the punishments inflicted upon them by Mrs. Brickwood and her henchman. But disaster comes calling, and the boys decide their only option is to run away from the school. Rather than take to the roads or the railroad—both almost guaranteed routes to recapture—they hit upon the idea of rowing Mrs. Frost’s canoe downstream from the small tributary near her house to a larger river within a few days’ travel, ultimately hooking up with the mighty Mississippi. They also, against their better judgment, take Emmy along with them, knowing that the charge of kidnapping will bring more avid pursuit.

The helpless and downtrodden yet stubbornly optimistic outlook of the main protagonist, Odie, is endearing and captivating. Likewise the natures of his three companions—his brother Albert, a realist with a soft heart; their friend Mose, unspoiled despite the terrible treatment he has received at the hands of multiple offenders; and the small but immensely matter-of-fact Emmy, with her weird fit-induced pronouncements—immediately draw the reader in and engender commitment to their fates.

The four Vagabonds, as Odie calls them in his made-up stories told around multiple campfires, go from bad to worse to better in the course of their journey. Ultimately, each is looking for “home,” whatever that means to them, and each finds a version of this waiting for them, although it may not be what they expected when they set out. This is a beautifully told odyssey of privation (it takes place during the height of the Depression, in 1932) and the powerful bonds of love and friendship that overcome all hardships. The epilogue, of which literary device I am usually not a fan, gives a look at how this significant period in their lives impacted everyone who participated, and brings the journey to a satisfying conclusion, once more along the banks of the Gilead River. I’m so happy I took this trip with the Vagabonds.

Bonus feature: Odie’s talent (other than storytelling) is that of playing the harmonica, and the author mentions a Spotify playlist (This Tender Land, by Jen Hatmaker Book Club) that enables the reader to experience the songs he (and other characters) played in the book, popular in that era and location in history.

Glacial thrills

No matter where she takes you or what unlikely scenario into which she drops you, Sharon Bolton never disappoints. I first discovered her when I picked up one of her stand-alone novels from the new books shelf at the library a few years ago, and I haven’t missed one since. I equally enjoyed her four-book (and two-novella) series starring Detective Inspector Lacey Flint.

I recently received a notice from Goodreads that Bolton had published a new novel, but when I went to check out the e-book from the library, it was a three-week wait. Undeterred, I put it on hold and decided, while I waited, to reread the Lacey Flint foursome plus novellas. I managed to read books one and two and the first novella, but received book four while waiting for book three and didn’t want to go out of order, so I read something else. Then The Split, her new one, became available, so I enthusiastically jumped over to that.

splitThe story begins with Dr. Felicity Lloyd, a glaciologist (yes, there is such a thing) who has been living in Antarctica on the remote island of South Georgia for the past nine months. She is part of a research team there to study flow and the draining of lake waters as the precursor to the breakup or “calving” of glaciers. Although this research is the dream job of her career, Felicity has an additional reason for retreating to this forbidding landscape: Her ex-husband, Freddie, who abused her terribly while they were together, has written to tell her that he is out of prison and wants to see her. Although Felicity feels fairly secure at her post at the end of the world, cruise ships do arrive from time to time, and she watches their manifests scrupulously. When the Storm Queen faxes over a list of passengers with Freddie Lloyd’s name on page five, Felicity knows she has to take drastic action to escape him. She packs up and heads for a deserted mining town on the other side of the island. Freddie follows, but is foiled in his attempt to get to Felicity by a woman named Bamber, who confronts him, gun in hand…

At this point, we are transported back 10 months to Cambridge, England, where Felicity lives and works at the University, and where she has just received the offer to go to South Georgia. Only one impediment stands in the way of accepting the job: She has recently been attacked, but has no memory of who hurt her or why, and the University has mandated that she see a therapist. Unless she can convince the therapist to sign off on her good health, she will lose this amazing opportunity, which is also the perfect hiding place from her past. Dr. Joe Grant, her therapist, realizes she is trying to manipulate his diagnosis, and the better he gets to know her, the more troubling her problems become. Dr. Grant is, himself, recovering from the loss of a woman with whom he was working as part of his pro bono community service, while his mother, Delilah, a police officer, is pursuing the killer of two homeless women.

During the next six weeks red herrings abound, and ultimately you don’t know who to suspect of what, and why. Bolton does her usual good job of keeping her reader breathless with anticipation at each turn in the road, and provides the unexpected at every one. Fast-paced, well written, and exciting, this is a twisty thriller made even better by its vivid descriptions of its unusual landscapes and the careful delineation of each character. Sharon Bolton, as I discovered when I read her last published book—Dead Woman Walking—can get you to believe practically anything, no matter how unlikely, and The Split reinforces that assessment.

 

Fresh look: old books

If you are like me, when you are in an uncertain mood (as we all certainly are during our current enforced retirement from daily life) you don’t necessarily thrive: I see posts on social media from people who say, I should be using all this free time to get to my stalled projects, clean out my house, exercise more, cook complete meals, read the classics, but instead I’m binge-watching Netflix and Hulu and surviving on Oreos and Cheetos.

A lot of people are also saying they don’t have the focus for reading that they normally do (myself included), and have been flailing around a bit trying to find the right thing to fully occupy their imaginations. I finally realized that for me, going back to books that I have read before that are familiar and yet have such a scope and depth that new things can always be discovered between their covers is the thing to do to get me reading again. Let me share a few of these with you, most of which are long, involved, and completely immersive. If you have read them before, you may want to revisit them; and if you have never heard of them or always meant to read one, then you have a treat in store.

Susan Howatch is best known for her long-running series (Starbridge, and later St. Benet’s) pairing the sacred and the profane, revealing the crises of faith and the ruthless power struggles of priests in the Church of England. This began with Glittering Images in 1987 and continued through 2003 with The Heartbreaker, but although I enjoyed these quite a lot, I prefer some of Howatch’s earlier works.

richMy favorites are a duology that links the same ruthless and charismatic cast of characters over a period of years spanning the two World Wars in England and America, called The Rich Are Different and Sins of the Fathers. Howatch is a master of the dysfunctional family saga, and she leaves no psychological trauma unturned. But these are also a wonderfully complete and entertaining look at the historical period spanning the post-WWI economic boom on Wall Street and the Roaring ’20s right through to the invasion of Normandy, contrasting English and American lifestyles of the era. They are character-driven, intriguingly narrated in several voices and, despite having been written in 1977, are both modern and relevant in their tone, and have been re-released
multiple times.

AmberForever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor (1944), is THE classic historical novel you can’t not read during your lifetime. Think Gone With the Wind, but set in Restoration England (and equally lengthy, at 972 pages!). Amber St. Clare, the naive but intelligent and independent heroine, goes from simple country wench to Cavalier’s mistress, from wife to jailbird to actress and courtesan. She lives and loves through the English Civil War, the Restoration of the monarchy, and the Plague of London, and it is both her personal story and also the vivid historical details that capture the imagination so completely. Winsor is also credited with having written with this same tome the first ever historical romance novel, which was quite racy for its time.

GeneralOn the shorter side compared to the others on this list (but still a compelling read) is The King’s General, by Daphne du Maurier (1946), set during the English Civil War of the 1640s. It is romantic, mysterious, and tragic. It details a lesser known bit of Cornish history regarding Sir Richard Grenville, the king’s general in the west, in the battle between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Part civil war history and part love story, it follows Grenville’s romance with the young Honor Harris, who is engaged to Sir Richard until a tragedy separates them. Later in the war, they reconnect to share a passionate but ultimately perilous relationship. Fun fact: Menabilly, the real-life house of the Rashleigh family (relatives of Honor’s), was also the setting for du Maurier’s best-known novel, Rebecca, in which it is transformed into Manderley.

taipanIf you managed to make it through the late ’60s or early ’70s without reading Tai-Pan, by James Clavell  (1966), you have missed out on one of the best-told tales ever. You can’t strictly call it historical; it’s a fictionalized account of the first year of the British colony of Hong Kong (1841). The characters and their trading companies are only loosely based on actual people, but what characters they are! Pirates, opium dealers, and thieves, who maintain a surface appearance of “simple” Scottish, English, and American tradesmen, run Hong Kong from the offices of their companies and from the decks of their ships, fighting for their lives and fortunes in a foreign land that they conquer (or think they do) without necessarily understanding it at all. This is a blockbuster of a novel, written by a guy who also had a big career as a Hollywood screenwriter and knows how to set a scene, draw out the suspense until you want to scream, and give you
what you want in an epic saga: larger-than-life characters on an intriguing stage.

Reviewing this list, I realized that not only are these books mostly historical fiction, but it is almost exclusively British in nature (although the Howatch novels are half American, and Tai-Pan is set in China). I’ll review my reading lists to see if I can come up with an equally compelling group of books that are neither British nor history-based, and share those soon. Perhaps fantasy and science fiction will yield a good array….