The Best Historical Fiction of 2009

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

 

You could fly to London, drive to Hampton Court and glimpse Anne Boleyn in the palace’s shadows. Or you could open Mantel’s astonishing novel and be transported instantly to Tudor England as perceived by Thomas Cromwell, Royal enforcer and architect of the Reformation who growls “Believe nobody.” Mantel, however, makes us believe –- and see –- every detail.

 

 

 

Land of Marvels

Barry Unsworth

 

This slender, flawless novel places a flawed individual –- Somerville, an archaeologist excavating an Assyrian site in 1914 - in history’s path as the new Baghdad Railway encroaches, illegal oil exploration begins and World War looms. Sexual betrayal heightens the tension as Somerville’s tragedy fuses with that of the territory that Britain, in 1916, renames Iraq.

 

 

The Collector of Worlds

Iliya Troyanov

 

“He only did strange things,” one character says of Richard Burton, the 19th century explorer famous for mapping the source of the Nile and translating the Kama Sutra. Troyanov’s startling descriptions and sinuous narrative exercise a hypnotic hold as we follow Burton through India, Egypt and Africa on an imperial mission that becomes his spiritual education.

 

 

 

The Lieutenant

Kate Grenville

 

In 1788, a Royal Navy astronomer lands in New South Wales where, as tension between colonists and natives grows, he studies the alien sky and begins to document an aboriginal language that his very presence has doomed. Grenville’s economical lyricism conjures up the hallucinatory strangeness of this new continent and the human frailty that it mercilessly exposes.

 

 

 

The Elephant Keeper

Christopher Nicholson

 

Jenny, an elephant of the Enlightenment, passes into the care of a young groom tasked by his master with writing an account of the “half-reasoning Animal” in 1773. The subsequent adventures of Jenny and Tom may recall Dickens’ novels and the depiction of pre-industrial England Hardy’s, but Nicholoson’s subtle portrait of Enlightenment England is entirely his own.

 

 

 

Honorable Mentions:
Fatal Lies: A Max Liebermann Mystery, by Frank Tallis
Stone’s Fall, by Iain Pears
The Coral Thief, by Rebecca Stott
Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
A Girl Made of Dust, by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.

The Promise of Hope

Killed last year in the infamous terror attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall, Kofi Awoonor was a national treasure in his native Ghana.  His career began in 1964 with Rediscovery, and this magnum opus serves as a tribute to his entire long journey charting his beloved nation's course through his accomplished poetry.

Winter Mythologies and Abbots

A pair of linked stories finds that, as translator Ann Jefferson relates, "[Pierre] Michon's great theme is the precarious balance between belief and imposture, and the way the greatest aspirations can be complicated by physical desire or the equally urgent desire for what he calls glory."