Five Incredible Historical Novels

Historical Fiction

I always forget that I love historical fiction until I start reading a good historical novel, and I’m like, “Oh, yeah. This is my jam.”

I started reading Varina by Charles Frasier this week, and while I’m not terribly far into it, I’m enjoying it so far. Here’s the description:

Her marriage prospects limited, teenage Varina Howell agrees to wed the much-older widower Jefferson Davis, with whom she expects the secure life of a Mississippi landowner. Davis instead pursues a career in politics and is eventually appointed president of the Confederacy, placing Varina at the white-hot center of one of the darkest moments in American history—culpable regardless of her intentions.

Here are five more historical novels that I loved along with publishers’ descriptions.

  1. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

2. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer,” who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum

3. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Faber leads us back to 1870s London, where Sugar, a nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs. Castaway, yearns for escape to a better life. Her ascent through the strata of Victorian society offers us intimacy with a host of lovable, maddening, unforgettable characters.

4. Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Born to rough cloth in Hogarth’s London, but longing for silk, Mary Saunders’s eye for a shiny red ribbon leads her to prostitution at a young age. A dangerous misstep sends her fleeing to Monmouth, and the position of household seamstress, the ordinary life of an ordinary girl with no expectations. But Mary has known freedom, and having never known love, it is freedom that motivates her. Mary asks herself if the prostitute who hires out her body is more or less free than the “honest woman” locked into marriage, or the servant who runs a household not her own? And is either as free as a man? Ultimately, Mary remains true only to the three rules she learned on the streets: Never give up your liberty. Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told.

5. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem.

What are your favorite historical novels?

What I Read: August 2018

August reading.png

Farewell, August. I loved you and all the time you gave me to read.

I read twelve books in August. I’m listing them below along with my 1-sentence summary of each.

  1. Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin, 2015
    If you eat carbs, you probably suck and have no self-control. 
  2. The High Season by Judy Blundell, 2018
    Never be a social climber in a beach town; you’ll always lose. 
  3. I Love You, Michael Collins by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, 2017
    It’s hard to be a charming ten-year-old in the ’80s, so write poignant letters to an astronaut. 
  4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, 2010
    Informed consent matters. 
  5. The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton, 2017
    If you embezzle from the coffers of the private school where you send your kids–but can’t afford to send your kids–have a good exit plan and a passport. 
  6. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron, 1996
    It’s not just you: The world is definitely too loud and chaotic. 
  7. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, 2014
    Do what matters most; forget the rest (and almost everything is “the rest”). 
  8. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, 2000
    If you are fourteen and accidentally shave your eyebrows, don’t worry because they’ll grow back fast and the Sex God, Robbie, will totally be down for snogging. 
  9. On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God by Louise Rennison, 2000
    Once you get the Sex God, you must keep him away from Wet Lindsey. 
  10. The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall, 2016
    Sometimes you marry a sociopath; also, rape culture is a thing and we are all complicit. 
  11. Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent, 2017
  12. Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl, 2018
    If you’re going to die, die all the way; if possible, make sure your friends are willing to die for you.

4 Nonfiction
4 Contemporary Fiction
3 YA
1 MG

Publication Dates
2 Published in 2018
5 Published in last five years
5 Published before 2013

Happy reading in September!



Review: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

Genre: YA Fiction
Publication Date: 2018
Publisher: Delacorte

Elevator Pitch: Five friends at Darrow-Harker School are devastated when their friend Jim ends up dead. A year later, the classmates meet up once again. Beatrice Hartley is determined to find out happened to Jim, her first love. But a tragic car crash happens on a rainy night, and all five characters end up stuck between life and death. In order to stop living the same day over and over again, they have to unanimously vote on who lives and who dies. Only one of them can leave the Neverworld Wake alive.

My Tagline: Edge of Tomorrow (minus the Tom Cruise smarm) meets We Were Liars by E. Lockhart meets a very special episode of Scooby-Doo

The Good: I didn’t love this book, but I did find things to appreciate.

◊ It featured a boarding school, and I will read anything set in a boarding school, even a school catalog. (Unfortunately, the boarding school in this book is mostly tangential, but at least it existed.)

◊ The time travel element was creative and different from other books that featured something similar. Pessl doesn’t get bogged down explaining the physics of time travel. She just sets up an absurd situation and runs with it. I liked the idea of imagining a slip of time just between death and not-death.

◊ The plot is rather large and sprawling, and while I don’t think it necessarily came together elegantly, I do think the pacing was good. Books with this much plot structure can easily be weighed down by too much extraneous information. Pessl was strategic about showing only as much as we needed to know.

The Not Good: The book fell apart for me in a few ways:

◊ I get that this is YA, but the characters were so melodramatic (the level of angst about writing musicals–egads!). They were often inconsistent, which made them feel unknowable. Does Bee love Jim or hate him? Does she go back to see the others because she still likes them? Was the vote unanimous or not? Does Kipling know what an annoying little turd he is every time he calls someone “child”? I’ll stop there lest I ruin the plot for you.

◊ The end is where things got a little Scooby-Doo. Characters are madly tying up plot points by conveniently explaining everything in detail to each other. All that was missing was an elderly haunted amusement park proprietor.

◊ I think there may have been two separate books in here. On one hand, there’s the story of Jim’s death. Was it murder or suicide? On the other hand, there’s the story of being stuck in time. (And the possible third book is why Kipling isn’t immediately voted into death for his personality, child.)

◊ The problem with setting Jim’s death in the past is that everything that led up to it was off the page for readers. It was hard to care about how and why a character died when we don’t know him. Bee is pretty inscrutable, which means we aren’t getting much from her either.

◊ A Goodreads reviewer sums up the other problems quite nicely. Check out her amusing post if you want to hear from someone who really didn’t like it.

Verdict: If you like YA and have a high tolerance for annoying teens, then I say read it. I give Pessl huge props for tackling time travel and a murder mystery all rolled into one. I was entertained, but I can’t say that I would ever want to spend time with these people again. 


Morning Reading

White Hot Mug on Book Near Linen

I’ve been trying to establish the habit of reading (for fun) for 10 or 15 minutes in the morning before I go to campus or start work. It’s been two weeks since I decided to begin Project Morning Reading.

Status update: zero days of success.

Reading for a few minutes every morning isn’t a new activity for me. I did it religiously as a kid–for as far back as I can remember. My favorite time at school was the silent reading portion of the day, so I decided to implement my own silent reading before school. It was heavenly. Later, when I was teaching class at 7 am–a schedule I got stuck with many times in grad school–I would arrive on campus 10 minutes early and hide out somewhere where nobody could find me. Reading for fun was sort of like meditation for me. It centered me and made me feel calm enough to walk into a classroom with the energy and focus I needed.

Somewhere along the way I lost the ability (but not the desire) to read for just a few minutes before starting the day. I realized why: Because now I use 10 extra minutes to check email, answer text messages, read headlines, watch Instagram stories, etc. Technology has ruined me!

Even if I do manage to turn off my phone and focus, I find that my brain is racing all the time. It’s like my focus muscle is broken. And that’s all the more reason to read at the beginning of the day. It’s all part of slowing down and preparing my brain for work that extends beyond Instagram.

So I’m committed to starting morning reading again. I’ll just start tomorrow…



We Aren’t Too Busy to Read (If We Really Want to Read)

Person Holding 

Person Holding Kobo E-reader

I’m a Reader, a capital-R reader. For me it’s an art, a sport, a hobby, a calling—it’s a way of life. So nothing irks me more than people who say, upon learning I am a Reader, that they would love to read, but they simply don’t have time. If they didn’t have a kid/a poodle/a spouse/a lawn/a job, why, they’d be reading up a storm, too. This is the same type of person who will raise an eyebrow skeptically and wonder aloud what it must be like to have all that free time to engage in something so decadent as reading, as if I had just admitted I fly in fresh lobster for lunch each day or that I use five-dollar bills as toilet paper. The person may say that one day—maybe in retirement—he’ll read books too. But until then, he has too much to do; in fact, he’s so busy he doesn’t have time to even tell me how little time he has to read books!

The “I’m-too-busy-to-read” argument is really quite bizarre because no other activity warrants the same response. I recently met someone who was traveling to Antarctica on a polar expedition. I couldn’t imagine saying to him, “Well, I’d hike polar icecaps myself, but I’ve simply used up all my personal days at work.” Likewise, I’ve never once played the no-time card to explain why I don’t run marathons or carve butter sculptures or have a PhD in physics. I don’t do any of those things because I lack the motivation, commitment, and/or desire to do them. Why don’t the same rules apply to reading?  If we think we are too busy to read—let’s face it—it could be that what we really lack isn’t time. It’s the motivation, commitment, and/or desire to do it.

If you really want to be a Reader, here are four things you can do to read more:

Set readings goals and determine a training schedule. Readers treat reading like a polar expedition. You can’t just decide to do it without planning and careful training. Go ahead. Set your goals right now. How many books a year do you want to read—1, 10, 50, 100? Pick a number and write it down. Be careful not to pick an outrageous number. If you haven’t run since you were eleven, you wouldn’t get on a treadmill and run for five miles at full speed. Reading works the same way. If you haven’t finished a book since high school, start small—maybe a book a month. If you’ve already been in training, you can set more audacious goals.Once you have your number in mind, let’s do some math. Let’s say you read at an average speed (300 words per minute—go here to test yourself) and you intend to read typical-length books for adults (about 100,000 words). If you settled on one book a month, you will need to read about an hour and twenty minutes a week to finish your book by month’s end. That’s about twelve minutes a day. That’s it! The average adult spends fifteen minutes a day on Instagram. You can read for twelve minutes and still have three minutes a day leftover for Instagram. And let’s face it: That’s all you really need on Instagram anyway.

Block time on your calendar for reading the same way you block time for any other important task. Then turn off your phone, step away from your computer and other devices, and immerse yourself for your daily training time. Set a timer so you aren’t tempted to cheat.If you aren’t used to focusing for more than a few minutes at a time, you’re going to struggle at first. The average office worker switches tasks or is interrupted about every three minutes, so you may be used to letting your brain off the hook. Your brain probably doesn’t focus for very long in its day-to-day work, which means reading will feel like a serious workout. Don’t give up. Gently prompt your brain to get back to reading.

You may discover that your brain focuses better at certain times of day. Experiment. If you are reading at night and find yourself falling asleep, get up a few minutes earlier and read right after you get up. Or take a few minutes in the middle of your workday (if you can). Read during your commute. Read while you eat or while you cook. Listen to audiobooks at the gym. The point is to set a time that works for you and then stick to it.

If you reach the end of the day and you haven’t done your reading, you know what you need to do before you go to sleep.

Recognize that reading is a valid use of your time.You’ll be tempted to convince yourself that you have more important things to do than read. That’s because in our culture we tend to treat reading as leisure time. That’s why the “I’m-too-busy people” respond as they do. They are not telling you anything about the time they have in a day. They are telling you that they are too productive to have leisure time. Your reading, they think, is evidence that you aren’t producing as much as they are. But reading, whether its leisure or not, is a valuable use if your time if you decide that’s the case.If you really want to make the case to Mr. I’m-Too-Busy, you can tell him about all the research that points to the value of reading for increasing empathy, building fluid intelligence, and improving your memory. But it’s also perfectly fine to read because you want to read—whether you consider it leisure or not. It’s valuable if we believe it is.

Embrace that saying yes to reading means saying no to other things. I frequently hear non-Readers say that they don’t read because they don’t want to give up TV, exercise, or time with friends and family. The truth is that reading does require time and that time has to come from somewhere.To be a Reader is to commit to devoting at least some of your free time to your books.

But reading doesn’t have to take all your time. It can co-exist with the other activities you want to do. You can shave a few minutes from your evening TV time. You can read with your friends and family—either out loud or silently. Turn off the TV and tell the family that everyone is going to read for a half hour. Meet a friend at a coffee shop and bring books to read. You can listen to audiobooks on the treadmill or while you walk the dog. Reading can be incorporated into your life in all kinds of ways.

Reading is a choice I make every day. I read because it fills me in a way nothing else does. I’m not reading because I have so much spare time than everyone else. I’m reading because that’s how I actively choose to spend time, it’s a way of life for me.

I’m never too busy to read because I’m never too busy to live.

The Tyranny of Meetings

Executive Boardroom

My reading schedule has suffered this week (already) because it’s the first week of school. If you are a professor–or a human being with a job–you probably get invited to a lot of meetings. A lot of soul-sucking meetings.

For that reason, I decided to return to my regular and impassioned rant against meetings. A well-run meeting with a clear agenda and defined outcomes can be useful. But many (most?) meetings are not just a waste of time, they are a waste of money and energy.  Let’s look at three ways meetings may be costing you more than you realized.

  1. If you spend an hour in a useless meeting, you’ve just wasted an hour of energy and time. Was it worth it? Meetings drain time and energy that could be spent in creative work that’s far more valuable than the meeting itself.
  2. Given that half of any workforce is likely introverted, meetings may very well be making half of those in attendance stressed out, more distracted, and less likely to use their non-meeting hours productively. Extroverts like meetings because they need the stimulation. Introverts die a little inside
  3. Meetings beget more meetings. Meetings are a habit, and just like any other habit, the urge to meet may overrule our critical thinking skills. How many meetings are absolutely necessary? How many meetings could be an email or a post on office discussion app, like Slack?

So let’s all try an experiment right now. Go to your calendar and select one meeting this week. Cancel it. Don’t reschedule it. Just cancel it. Ask yourself how much you—or anyone else—will miss if you don’t attend the meeting. 

If the sky doesn’t fall, take your message to the streets. Make meetings a strategic choice, not a habit.

Now let’s go read a book.