Tour’s Books Blog

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.

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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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