Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Top 10 on Tuesday: March is Women's History Month!

I realize I'm a little late to the party on this one, as March is rounding the bend and heading for April, but since March is Women's History Month, I thought this would be a great opportunity to share a few of my favorite historical novels featuring female protagonists.  I love reading about history, but I also really enjoy reading fiction, so well-researched historical fiction is one of my go-to genres and I have lots of favorites to choose from.  Here are my top 10 (subject to change as I read new ones!). 

1. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks.  It's 1996 when Australian book conservator Hanna Heath is called upon to analyze the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a 600-year-old Jewish prayerbook that has been salvaged from a destroyed Bosnian library.  As Hanna works to conserve this piece of history, she also uncovers mysteries hidden within its bindings, unwittingly involving herself in an intrigue of fine art forgers and international coverups.  Based on a true story, a beautiful read.  Bonus: the audiobook is a true delight. 

2. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.  Vida Winter, reclusive author famous for a collection of twelve enchanting stories, has made a habit of never telling the same story twice, a habit which has held true in interviews and in the telling of her own history.  Storyteller meets biographer when Ms. Winter chooses young, unworldly bookseller Margaret Lea to transcribe her true, tragic history.  A gothic tale of two women facing pasts they'd prefer to forget, with pitch-perfect details.

3. Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood.  Based on the true story of one of the most notorious women of the nineteenth century, Alias Grace follows the story of Grace Marks, who has been convicted for her involvement in the murders of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress.  She is now serving a life sentence, though she claims no memory of the murders.  Dr. Simon Jordan, a specialist in the burgeoning field of mental illness, has been engaged by reformers and spiritualists who hope for a pardon for Grace.  The story follows Dr. Jordan's sessions with Grace as he draws her closer and closer to the days she cannot remember, seeking to discover what happened, and what kind of woman Grace really is.  Fascinating and brilliantly told.

4. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.  1962 Mississippi.  Three very different women, three extraordinary voices.  Skeeter, a recent graduate from Ole Miss, has aspirations of writing for a living, but her mother won't be happy until Skeeter is married off.  Aibileen, a black maid, wise and regal, raising her seventeenth white child even as she mourns the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way.  And Aibileen's best friend Minny, whose sass and lip have cost her job after job, until she finds herself working for a woman who has secrets of her own.  Their lives are drawn together by the need to share their stories.  The audiobook is phenomenal.  The movie is also very well-done.

5. The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani.  In 17th century Persia, a father dies and leaves his young daughter with no dowry.  She lives by her skill in designing and weaving intricate carpets, and hopes this will be enough to maintain her dignity.  The story is as complex and the details as fine as one of the protagonists carpets. 

6. The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant.  Told in the voice of Dinah, whose existence is only hinted at in the Bible, but whose father, Jacob, and twelve brothers are chronicled in the Book of Genesis.  Diamant pieces together the turmoil and traditions of the world of women in such a society, their existence surrounding the red tent.  Intimate and affecting.

7. Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier. Mary Anning, poor and uneducated, lives near the English coast and is in possession of a rare gift--she can spot fossils that others cannot see.  When she discovers an unusual fossilized skeleton near her home, it throws her community into chaos even as it sets the scientific world alight.  As cruel as the elements and her neighbors can be, Mary finds hope and friendship with two very unlikely people.

8. The Lady Elizabeth, by Alison Weir.  Before turning her writing prowess to novels, Weir first made a name for herself as a historian and biographer.  Here she uses her deep knowledge of Tudor England, its politics, culture, society, and people to reconstruct the youth of one of England's most famous monarchs, Elizabeth I.  The result is a richly detailed illustration, set within the confines of known history and embellished only where facts are absent, but in Weir's beautiful style, this is anything but dull history.

9. One Thousand White Women: The Journal of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus.  One Thousand White Women is the story of May Dodd and a colorful assembly of pioneer women who, under the auspices of the U.S. government, travel to the western prairies in 1875 to intermarry among the Cheyenne Indians. The covert and controversial "Brides for Indians" program, launched by the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, is intended to help assimilate the Indians into the white man's world. Toward that end May and her friends embark upon the adventure of their lifetime.  It has been years since I read this, and the story still continues to resonate with me.

10. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare.   I realize that this Newberry Award Winner is a children's book, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the historical novel that first caused me to fall in love with the genre as a young reader many years ago.  Kit Tyler is sixteen, alone and desperate when she sails from her beloved home of Barbados in 1687 for the unfamiliar shores of Connecticut to live with family she has never met.  Kit struggles to fit in with her new surroundings, but there are so many rules and restrictions compared to her cheerful, colorful upbringing in the islands.  When she finally finds a kindred spirit in Hannah Tupper, the friendship with a woman who the colonists believe to be a witch proves taboo and forces Kit to choose between her heart and the duty she owes to family.  I'm actually reading this one again--it's just as good now as I remembered. 

I'll be back on Thursday to share what else I've been reading this month.  In the meantime, happy reading!

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