Historical Fiction Book Club
October 21, 2015 2:14 PM - Subscribe

Welcome to Historical Fiction book club! I've chosen nine months of books, touching on a variety of historical periods, tending towards the more literary end of the historical fiction spectrum but trying to include a variety of styles. We will discuss each book over the course of a month; on the first day of the month spoilers are permitted, be forewarned. The major selection criterion for the initial set of books is that I've read them in the last calendar year and so remember enough about them to discuss them, and I think they'll appeal to MeFites. (If I left out your recent favorite, I probably just haven't read it yet, and I'm happy to do so!) Within, find out our upcoming books!

For November, I've selected Kirkus-award winning 2014 novel “Euphoria” by Lily King, a fictionalization of Margaret Mead's anthropological work and sex life. It clocks in at a fairly brief 288 pages and makes for a nice weekend read.

December's book is 2014's blockbuster “Pioneer Girl,” an annotated autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. This is not historical fiction but has been of broad interest to historical fiction fans, who are all familiar with the “Little House” books. It provides a fascinating comparison between the historical fiction Little House books and the source material of the author's real life.

In January, we will be reading Hilary Mantel's “Wolf Hall.” If people enjoy talking about it, we can come back and pick up “Bring up the Bodies” and the final book of the trilogy when it's published.

February brings us Paul Kingsnorth's experimental, deeply weird, very dark “The Wake,” originally published via crowdsourcing before going on to become a finalist for the Man Booker. It's a “postapocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past,” about the effects of the Normal invasion in 1066 on the invaded. It is written in an ersatz Old English “shadow language” and is a challenging read, but (I found) very much worth the effort and unlike anything else I've read this year.

For March, we will read “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert, a moving portrait of a female botanist in the 19th century.

April features “The Chaperone” by Laura Moriarty, a lighter-weight novel about a Wichita housewife hired as a chaperone to a young aspiring starlet off for a summer in New York City in 1922, and how that summer changes them both.

In May we go for a classic with Robert Graves's “I, Claudius,” which remains as compulsively readable in 2016 as it was upon publication in 1934.

For June we'll journey to the Caribbean in “The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B” by Sandra Gulland, which fictionalizes the (totally insane) life of Napoleon's empress, Josephine. This book, the first in a trilogy, begins with Josephine's girlhood on Martinique before she goes to France for an advantageous marriage and takes us through her marriage, the birth of her two children, her widowhood, and the horror of the Revolution before she meets Napoleon. If the club enjoys it, there are two excellent sequels for later reading.

July features another, very different classic: 1944's “Forever Amber” by Kathleen Winsor, the story of orphaned Amber St. Clare sleeping her way to the top of English society in a 900-page romp through the Restoration that was both the best-selling and most-banned novel of the 1940s in the US. The Australian government banned the book with the claim that, “The Almighty did not give people eyes to read that rubbish.” Massachusetts helpfully listed its reasons for banning the novel as pornography: “70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men.” It is a perfect summer beach read.


We'll discuss in March or April our next batch of books (I'm a big believer in a long lead time on what's coming up to read in your book club), and see if people want to continue a broad-based historical fiction book club that reads broadly across the more literary end of the genre, and if so, what authors, eras, or places we might like to tackle next. (For example, I haven't included any Ken Follet or Phillipa Gregory or James Michener on this list, all quite popular and well-regarded, but I haven't read any of their stuff this year.) Since this is a list by one person, it biases towards things I'm interested – so it's pretty European-history-ish and fairly woman-oriented. I look forward to expanding that going forward! Another thing to consider, going forward, is the enormously rich world of Young Adult Historical Fiction, and whether that might suit our book club as an occasional read, or whether that merits its own book club. Feel free to add any suggestions for future books -- I will keep a running list!
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Historical Fiction Book Club (7 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Excitement, y'all: We are going to do a February crossover with the Apocalypse Fiction Book Club, when we both read "The Wake."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:15 PM on October 21, 2015

Aw, yes!
posted by matildaben at 3:28 PM on October 21, 2015

One of the reasons I picked Pioneer Girl for December, btw, is that since everyone's probably read Little House and has opinions on it, you can read, like, half of Pioneer Girl (a heavily-annotated edition of the autobiographical writing that underlies the Little House series) and still have lots of interesting things to discuss. So if Thanksgiving/Hannukah/Christmas/holiday preparations are overwhelming and you can't finish the book, you can still profitably join in the discussion having only read the first 60 pages and it's not like there are spoilers for Little House at this late date!

In general people should feel free to come into the discussion with their thoughts (whether you managed to finish in a timely fashion or not!), and anyone who wants to raise a particular question or write a long disquisition on a particular point should feel free to do so! I have no particular agenda for these discussions except talking about books we enjoy.

Later on I may ask for "discussion prompters" for particular books, who would take on the job of spurring discussion (when it happens to flag) for a particular month by asking provocative questions or raising interesting points. I'll do the first couple myself and see how it goes!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:28 PM on October 21, 2015

I've only read Robert Graves and Hilary Mantle, both recent rereads, and Kathleen Winsor about 45 years ago so I can't remember too much about that so hope to be reminded.
I think C J Sansom should make your list as well as the late great Ariana Franklin.
Historical fiction is a much maligned genre for many good reasons; but when it is good it it is often excellent.
But I'm preaching to the converted.
posted by adamvasco at 5:12 PM on October 21, 2015

Very exciting! Off to borrow the local library copy of Euphoria!
posted by halcyonday at 8:01 AM on October 22, 2015

I just picked up Pioneer Girl. Time to get my Laura on.
posted by bq at 6:24 PM on October 24, 2015

They all sound really enticing! (I finished the first book and am digesting my thoughts.)
posted by puddledork at 2:23 PM on November 6, 2015

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