Tour’s Books Blog

March 16, 2016

Who is your favorite……….?

I’m on a number of Good Reads forums where this question invariably comes up? What’s your favorite book? Who is your favorite author? What’s you favorite series?

You know, that hard to say because even in a single genre you have sub-groups and then mashups and …….. well, you get the picture.

But it got me thinking about some of the best reading  – mostly because my doctor needed some ideas for books that she and her sister, someone with very different taste in tropes, would like.  That’s not easy.  I have very strong ideas about what makes a book memorable.

I looked at some lists of the ‘Greatest Historical Fiction of All Time’ and most made me cringe.  I thought Wolf Hall was – meh.  So did my brother.  Now Anya Seaton’s Kathrine – yeah that was brilliant.  George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman was there as well, and though I loved it – and the series in general -not sure it belongs.  Many choices were written long ago, like Tolstoy and Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities (Oh, just kill me now.  I hate Dickens.)  I, Claudius by Robert Graves, I can kind of get behind that one.  The Name of the Rose by recently deceased Umberto Eco was not that good for me despite it often being named to the top 20 of the mystery genre as well.  Most of the others, not so much.

It seems when I was growing up there were many great choices for historical fiction.  Thomas B. Costain was at the end of his career, but for a man who didn’t start writing till his 50’s, he did some remarkable work.  His 4 book non-ficion history of the Plantagenet kings starting with Henry II to Richard III is just excellent.  Then he wrote The Black Rose, later made into a film starring Tyrone Power, Jack Hawkins and Orsen Wells.  Set in the time of  The Three Edwards (the third book of is Plantagenet history) it is just a great historical adventure read.  For my brother, Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo will always be a favorite along with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

But my favorite historical fiction these days tends to run to mysteries and SteamPunk – which is any alternate history paranormal genre often done with a mystery trope.  But in plain old real world history, I was impressed by Mary Miley’s Roaring Twenties series, The Impersonator and Silent Murder (the better of the two by far).  A third book is due this year, and another complete for 2017.  A history major, she writes very well and has created a terrific character with Jessie Carr blending in real life people in Vaudeville and silent movies.

Agatha Christie was married to an archeologist and spent a lot of time in the Mideast and other locations.  This led her to write Death on the Nile, Murder in Mesopotamia (set at an archeology dig site), and Evil Under the Sun (movie filmed on various island locations off Spain, but the book is set on an island off of the south of England) set in the 20’s and 30’s as part of her Poirot series.  In retrospect, it’s amazing how good she was with plots that involved various ‘isolated’ groups as well as standard locations.  She was light years better than the typical cozy writer of today.  She also wrote one true historical mystery, Death Comes at the End, set in ancient Thebes.

Lindsey Davis sets her Falco series in Vespasian’s Rome and is a favorite for me.  She aged  out Falco (which was overdue) and his daughter, Flavia Alba has taken up her father’s private informer business.  John Maddox Roberts, better known in the fantasy genre, wrote his terrific SPQR mysteries set at the time of the rise of Julius Ceasar.

A big favorite among historical fiction fans is the adventure series Outlaw Chronicles that’s a spin on the legend of Robin Hood by Angus Donald.  They can be hard to find as he no American publisher, but I get them used or new from Book Depository, an Amazon-owned company, in the UK.  Best read in order, Outlaw is book 1 and The King’s Assassin is the most recent publication.  The last book in the series is due out next year.  His following is a mix of male and female readers, so give his stuff a try.

Bernard Cromwell is most famous for his Sharpe’s Rifles series that was made into a BBC series starring Sean Bean as Sharpe, but he writes non-fiction including Waterloo: 4 Days 3 battles 3 armies.  Jeri Westerson is another British author who sets her stories around a disgraced knight, Crispin Guest.  Described as Medieval Noir mystery, it has the same edgy sardonic humor as Lindsey Davis and John Maddox Roberts.  Book 7, Silence of the Stones, was just released in Feb, but all mysteries, the main story arc wraps up in a single novel, but to follow the origins of the lead character, read the first few in order.  Two other reliable historical mystery fiction authors are Ruth Downie who writes the Gais Ruso series set in Roman Britain, Gaul, and Rome.  The other is Rosemary Rowe who uses Roman Britain for her Libertus series.  Both can be expensive and hard to find, but are available.  Like Angus Donald, most are published by Severn House and no US publisher picks them up, hence buy used, get ebooks, or get it from your library.

Tasha Alexander does the Lady Emily mysteries set in Victorian London and throughout Europe.  (Her husband is English born action thriller author Andrew Grant.)  Deanna Raybourn has two series out – her famous Lady Julia Grey, which I was not crazy about until book 4, Dark Road to Darjeeling.  I really liked that one.  She’s started a new series featuring Veronica Speedwell, a female physician in London.  Like the Julia Grey series, it’s set in the 1880’s.  It is sitting on Mt TBR.  Set in Regency England are the Sebastian St Cyr books by C.S. Harris.  I tried the first few and was bored, but friends like them.  Too angsty for me.  Anna Lee Hubler’s Lady Darby books are a big favorite of my sister-in-law while my brother loved loved Steven Hockensmith’s Amlingmyer Brothers Holmes on the Range books set out west in the late 1800’s.  He ended the series at the famous Chicago Exposition.

Rhys Bowen has three series, her Evan Evans, Molly Murphy, and Her Royal Spyness.  I know the Molly Murphy series and liked quite a few, but prefer Her Royal Spyness, even though her lead character, Lady Georgiana, can get on my nerves, but Ms Bowen does a nice job weaving real people though her stories – from Noel Coward, to Edward VII (her cousin), to Charlie Chaplin.  Her prose really is a pleasure to read.

Historical mystery is a rich and broad genre moving across thousands of years and lots of fine authors.  Pick a period and you’ll likely find something.  Here are some other authors you might enjoy:

Will Thomas – Barker and Llewelyn series set Gaslight London; Collin Cotterill – Dr Siri series set in 1970’s Laos;  Laura Joh Rowland – Sano Ichiro series set in Edo in 1600’s Japan; Ellis Peters – her famous Brother Cadfael series set in 12th century England (also a BBC series); Gary Corby – Nicolaos series set in ancient Athens/Greece in 460BC; C.J. Samson – Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, in mid-1600’s England; Carol Nelson Douglas – Irene Adler, opera star, in mid 19th century Europe; Alex Grecian – Murder Squad set in late 1800’s London (but a bit uneven in quality); Dennis Wheatly – Roger Brook special agent for British PM Pitt late 1700’s to early 1800’s.

There are simply too many to name and more all the time.  Those who like both historical fiction and mystery – like me – are delighted at the growth in this area.  Like all other genres, some are good, some not.  Find one that suits you and enjoy!

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July 16, 2014

Beach Reads 4 – International Part 1A – Historical Fiction/Non-Fiction

Filed under: Favorite book,General,Historical fiction,non-fiction — toursbooks @ 2:33 pm
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Historical fiction is not what it used to be.  There were a lot of truly excellent authors writing in this genre when I grew up, now, not so much at all.  Many historicals are romance or mystery, and some are really well researched and written, but most aren’t.  But really well done true historical fiction is a glorious treat.  Well written non-fiction is just as good.  These take place in the same regions as I just covered for mystery and romantic suspense.

Asia/Southeast Asia – You cannot even think about historical fiction or even modern fiction in Asia without thinking of James Clavell.  Sho-gun is his most famous, but Tai Pan and Nobel House are just as good, though completely different.  By the way, his first book was also made into a movie …………… King Rat, a WWII prisoner of war camp drama.  Another gem is Mika Waltari’s The Wanderer, one of 2 books on Marco Polo worth a read.  The other one Gary Jennings’, The Journeyer.  And for those who love non-fiction, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air about the tragic assault on My Everest.  It’s short, but great.  And who can forget M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions set in India, and for non-fiction, The Peacock Throne: The Drama of Mogul India.  (By the way, M.M. Kaye wrote a number of mysteries set in India, Asia, and Africa as well.)  And for those who love the period, The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott.

Australia/New Zealand– You MUST read The Thorn Birds if you’re heading this way.

Mid-East – Naturally for anyone traveling to Greece/Turkey, Mary Renault’s books are a must, especially her 3 book series on the legend of Theseus (The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, The Last of the Wine) and her 4 books following the short, but dramatic life of Alexander the Great.  Non-fiction is C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Grave, and Scholars.   Separated into easy to read, discrete sections, you can learn about the excavations of Troy by amateur Heinrich Schliemann or Howard Carter’s vindicating success in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.  Each tale is told almost like an adventure, and each is separate.  Great for beginners or people with limited, specific interests to certain periods or locations.   Ben Hur was a book by General Lew Wallace long before Charleton Heston’s great abs and legs made it an award winning movie.  (That raft scene where he rescues Jack Hawkins wearing just a loin cloth is burned my memory banks.)

Africa/North Africa – The first book I think of is The Egyptian by Mika Waltari.  It was banned in Boston (Who knows why.  They were all nuts.), but it’s a great read.  For non-fiction that’s short and painless, in addition to C.W. Ceram’s book above, read a reprint of The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter himself.  (Yes, a copy sits on my keep shelf along with the Ceram book.)  Also, an easy intro to all of Egyptian historical sites is Leonard Cottrell’ s The Lost Pharaoh’s.  The Assyrian by Nicholas Guild is also recommended.  For Africa in general, Wilbur Smith’s excellent family epics and stand alone historicals  are good fiction choices.  And if you’re looking for a fun, fluffy romance, try Loretta Chase’s Mr Impossible set in 1800’s Egypt.  And for a mystery that combines historical sites and dead bodies, Janice Hamerick’s Death on Tour, or the classic Christie book, Death on the Nile.  

Ancient Greece and Rome – This overlaps heavily with the Mid-East thanks to Alexander in Greece and Julius Caesar in Rome.  The Bull Of Minos by Cottrell weaves the story of the excavations of Heraklion with the legend of Theseus that Mary Renault spun into such a brilliant book.  (Her Mask of Apollo is another book that captures a different facet of Greek life many years after the legendary Theseus.)  Once again author Leonard Cottrell tells an easy to ready story behind the non-fiction account of the Minoan civilization and what is thought to be their capital city on Crete.  A larger Minoan city has since been unearthed on Santorini, but is not nearly as well known.  C.W. Ceram does a more professional job, but Cottrell is more accessible for those with only a passing interest.  For fiction, well, there’s a HUGE number of books to choose from.  Robert Harris wrote Pompeii to great acclaim, but I found it so-so.  I’m pretty harsh on judging historical fiction.  Mika Waltari again comes through with a brilliant book of the people who settled what is now Italy long before the Romans, The Estruscan.  He also wrote The Roman.  The downside is his books are VERY hard to find and so far have NOT made it to ebook.  See if your library has a copy of any of his works.  Actual print books are very valuable.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves became one of the first BBC series that garnered a strong US following on PBS, thanks to the sex and nudity.  Ah, those Romans were a randy bunch!  Seriously, any good book on ancient Rome, from Thomas Costain’s The Silver Chalice to Kate Quinn, to Ursula K LeGuin, to Conn Iggulden, give it a shot.

I would also highly recommend Edith Hamilton’s books on Greek and Roman Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, and her non-fiction The Roman Way and The Greek Way.  If you are touring any of the ancient sites in either country, this helps a lot to understand and enjoy what you’re seeing.  Looking at the excavated graves of Mycenae that Schliemann thought to be those of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, is a lot more meaningful having read Ceram’s and Hamilton’s books.

April 24, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

Every so often I read a book that gets excellent reviews, great word of mouth and is hugely popular and I find myself far less enamored of it than I expected.  Perhaps my expectations are too high, or maybe the style just does not suit me.  Whatever the difference in perception is, I find myself in that position with this review.  I wanted to love this book, be enthralled, swept away, but I was not.  The sharp wit that opens the book only visits off and on thereafter.

Silent in the Grave has a brilliant opening:

To say I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate.  Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.

Unfortunately, the next 100+ pages were remarkably tedious before the story got interesting again.  As it turns out, that became something of a pattern in the book.   Long breaks of introspective self analysis were followed by a flurry of activity and progress by inches. (more…)

March 3, 2009

Favorite Books, Authors and Series – Historical Fiction

Filed under: Editorial,Favorite book,Historical fiction — toursbooks @ 9:09 pm
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Every reader has favorite books and favorite authors. I thought I’d just make a list of some of my favorites of the past and present. The first in this occasional list is for writers and books that are historical fiction. It doesn’t include books that are period romance or mystery, though to some extent both are present in these titles. Historical/period romance and mystery will have their own lists. Hey, feel free to tell me your favorites as well!

Historical Fiction: There doesn’t seem to be as much quality stuff out there as there once was. Most of the books on this list are OLD. But, hey, the stories are set in the past, so who cares?

Mary Renault – One of my favorite historical fiction authors, she set most of her books in ancient Greece. I cut my teeth on her Theseus trilogy – The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, and The Last of the Wine. It was these three books that sent me on a journey to read Edith Hamilton’s books on Greek mythology and also books on archeology. Renault went on to write many stand alones, like Mask of Apollo, and a trilogy on Alexander the Great as told by his male companion.

Gary Jennings burst onto the literary scene with an amazing first book – Aztec. Phenomenal! It remains one of the very best pieces of historical fiction ever. His Journeyer about Marco Polo was just as good. He lost me with Raptor and I gave his Spangles series a pass. He came back to the Aztecs, but I haven’t read his subsequent books that spun off from his first.

Thomas Costain made his living as an account. Late in life he became a writer, and a good one. He’ll be listed twice, once here in fiction for his wonderful book The Black Rose and again in non-fiction. Costain wrote many historic fiction books, but none more famous than The Black Rose. It was made into a pretty good movie starring Tyrone Power, Jack Hawkins and Orson Wells. His book, The Silver Chalice, also very good, became a movie as well. Very readable, but not in the same league as Jennings, Clavell or Waltari.

This list could not be complete without James Clavell and his amazing Shogun and equally impressive Tai-Pan and Gai-Jin. I burned more than one dinner because I got so caught up in the story I lost all track of time. Clavell also wrote King Rat, his first book, which is far better known as a movie starring George Segal. Alas, he wrote very few books and the story of the Nobel House went unfinished. But read and enjoy the gems he did give us.

A book that got the infamous ‘Banned in Boston’ label was The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, a Finnish novelist. It too was made into a movie this time starring Jean Simmons and Victor Mature. (He always looked good in skirts.) The Wanderer and The Etruscan are also excellent. Wonderful books.

I’m sure many will be surprised to see one author absent from my list – James Michener. I read 4 or 5 of his books and frankly, never really a fan.

Now it’s your turn, tell me what author or book you like best.

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