Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is based on the almost mythic Icelandic true story of 34-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman beheaded in public in Iceland (in 1830). The author, Hannah Kent, was a teenaged Australian exchange student in Iceland when she first heard about the execution of Agnes, and became fascinated. She then spent many years visiting Iceland and researching the story of this woman through oral histories and government records. The jacket copy for this book is a little misleading: “Charged…

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Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler is best known as a science fiction writer—one of the few African American women science fiction writers, and the first science fiction writer to receive a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. However, she has written at least one book which combines historical fiction with time travel. Kindred was a best-seller when it was first published in 1979, and is still taught in schools and colleges today. I can easily understand why. It is an absolutely gripping novel:…

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The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

Before I read this book, I was familiar with the plight of the Japanese in North America who were forced into internment camps during World War II. But I had never given a thought to the situation in Japan after the war. The Translation of Love by Japanese-Canadian author Lynne Kutsukake shines light on the human story behind the American occupation of Japan after the end of the war. The story is told in third person through the eyes of…

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Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of the “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—the woman who was the first wife of Edward Rochester, Jane’s lover. According to Jane Eyre, this madwoman was Bertha Antoinetta Mason, born and raised in Jamaica. She inherited the madness that ran in her family. Rochester claims that he was not told of this inherited insanity before his marriage. Later in the book, we learn that she sets fire to the house and…

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Interview with Breena Clarke

Interview with Breena Clarke

Breena Clarke is the author of River, Cross My Heart (which I reviewed earlier), Angels Make Their Hope Here, and Stand the Storm. I was thrilled when Breena agreed to be interviewed about the writing of River, Cross My Heart and about writing historical fiction. River, Cross My Heart is about the African-American community in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC during the 1920’s. I know that you grew up in Georgetown, as did your parents. How much of your…

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Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

I first read Remarkable Creatures several years ago while researching books for a blog post on Women Scientists in Novels. It features two women fossil hunters in the small English seaside town of Lyme Regis in the early 1800’s. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it all over again. The novel is based on two real women fossil hunters: Mary Anning (a working-class woman who discovered complete skeletons of ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, and other ancient animals)…

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Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Although there’s not much of a plot in Women of the Silk, the appealing characters, detailed descriptions of setting, and themes of women’s independence and communal living, kept me reading. The novel follows Pei from childhood as she leaves her poor family and joins a “sisterhood” of silk workers in a village near Canton, China in the early 20th century. I enjoyed learning about the production of silk thread from cocoons, as well as the communal houses the girls and…

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River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

One would expect a novel that starts with the drowning of a child to be a tragic book. River, Cross My Heart is anything but. It takes place in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in the 1920’s, and is based on stories the author was told by her family about living in the African-American community of Georgetown at that time. One hot summer day, 12-year-old Johnnie Mae disobeys her parents’ rule and decides to go swimming in the Potomac…

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Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of March and several other historical novels. But it all started with her first novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, published in 2001. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy Year of Wonders because it is about a year filled with disease and tragedy. I’m glad I read it—it’s a beautiful, thought-provoking novel. It is narrated in the first person by Anna Frith, a servant to Michael Mompellion, a rector of…

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Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival was a surprise bestseller when it was first published in 1993. This short novel (140 pages) is based on an Athabaskan Indian legend handed down to the author from her mother. Velma Wallis is an Athabaskan Indian who grew up in a remote Alaskan village. The novel takes place above the Arctic circle near the Yukon River, in an unspecified time before the arrival of the Europeans. As the…

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