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ATTN: History Buffs!

by Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department

You probably already know about the huge quantity of great, nonfiction history books at the library. But when you get to wanting something a little different that still scratches that historical itch, where do you turn? I’d like to suggest that Historical Fiction is the genre for you. Whether you’re a voracious reader of historical accounts, or a fiction lover who prefers facts taken with artistic license, this long-established genre is broad enough to hold something for everyone.

Historical Fiction has a few debated definitions, but it is not a work written around the time of the book’s events. For example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, though now over 200 years old, is not “Historical Fiction,” as it takes place around the time Austen wrote it. (Some critics disagree on that anti-definition.) Wikipedia does a great job of defining the genre in this article, and from it I’ve compiled a working definition for us:

“An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions[,] and other details of the period depicted,” and is “written at least fifty years after the events described,” with “the author … writing from research rather than personal experience.”

Why read Historical Fiction? Why mess with facts? (Assuming the facts as we know them were recorded accurately and without bias in the first place.) Simply put, a good work of fiction can illuminate real-life truths. Fiction allows the freedom to process real issues in an abstract way, while maintaining distance from real, multi-faceted, potentially overwhelming events. A work of Historical Fiction can explore the thoughts and emotions of larger-than-life heroes and villains – those who have become so lauded or reviled, they no longer seem human – , and obscure commoners – forgotten by history, but transformed into composite characters who demonstrate the state of the world in the time they lived. For some readers, this is the best way to make an emotional connection to the past and gain fresh insight.

Let’s look at some great examples of historical novels you can find at the Williamson County Public Library. Because I love classics, I’ll list some classic examples first; then we’ll move on to more modern selections.

The Classics

Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) deals with characters and events in England and France around the time of the French Revolution of 1775. Dickens often included members from all strata of society, but he did not necessarily sketch them in black and white. Wealth did not always equal virtue; poverty did not always equal ignorance; and the powerless did not always stay that way. A Tale of Two Cities features sympathetic characters, diabolical villains, and some of English literature’s most well-known passages. The description of the storming of the Bastille left me breathless with its intensity. In addition to the book, you can find READS eBooks and audiobooks, children’s adaptations, and DVD versions.

Other classic, historical works available in a wide variety of adaptations and formats are Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (set around Scotland’s 1715 Jacobite uprising), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (taking place during the 1757 French and Indian War), and Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (though we don’t carry the chocolate adaptation of that one at our library – sorry!).

The Middle Ages

A popular setting for Historical Fiction is medieval Europe, which covers the 5th to 15th centuries AD. Series abound, which means plenty of reading material in your new favorite genre! Here are some popular medieval historical series to check out. Series titles are in bold. The first novel in the series follows in italics. While not every book in a series may be available at this library, you can always request books through the Inter-Library Loan program!

  • Paul C. Doherty, Hugh Corbett, Satan in St Mary’s. Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, The Nightingale Gallery (under pen name Paul Harding). Doherty is a highly regarded historian, educator, and writer. He uses various pen names. He has also written about ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, first century Rome, and more.
  • Ken Follett, Kingsbridge, The Pillars of the Earth.
  • Margaret Frazer, Dame Frevisse series, The Novice’s Tale.
  • Philippa Gregory, The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels, The Other Boleyn Girl (first published) or The Lady of the Rivers (first chronologically). Gregory’s popular novels have inspired controversy in historical circles.
  • Michael Jecks, Knights Templar Mysteries, The Last Templar. The Medieval Murders series, The Tainted Relic.
  • Sharon Kay Penman, Welsh Princes, Here Be Dragons. Plantagenet, When Christ and His Saints Slept. When researching for a book, Penman keeps in mind the saying, “History is written by the victors.” She scours new and alternate sources and uses deductive reasoning to come up with versions of events you may not have heard before, but may yet approach the truth.

Selections from Other Periods

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun — Nigeria’s struggle for independence in the late 1960s.
  • Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord — The life of King David from the prophet Nathan’s point of view.
  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See Occupied France during WWII.
  • Emma Donoghue, The Wonder Mid-1800s Ireland, shortly after the official “end” of the famine.
  • Robert Graves, I, Claudius A pseudo-autobiography of misunderstood Roman emperor Claudius.
  • David Liss, The Whiskey Rebels Post-revolution America.
  • Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove 1870s Texas: the Wild West.
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved An escaped slave’s memories and experiences after the Civil War.
  • Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine A Japanese-American family is held in an internment camp during WWII.
  • Shyam Selvadurai, Cinnamon Gardens 1920s Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
  • Sherri L. Smith, Flygirl A light-skinned African-American woman has to make choices about her identity as she tries to become a pilot in WWII-era America.
  • Markus Zusak, The Book Thief Germany during WWII.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest, or given you some new authors to check out. Is your favorite book missing from this list? Leave a comment below!

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Mind-bending Monsters in Literature

By Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department

It’s October, and what better time of year to pick out a book that will give you the creeps? Today we’re going to look at five works of fiction that feature terrifying creatures. (Sticklers may feel that some of these descriptions contain spoilers, but I’ve tried not to include any details that aren’t already well-known by horror buffs or pop culture aficionados.)

When it comes to monsters, what frightens me most is a sense of inevitability. A monster doesn’t have to be hideous or enormous to cause you to lose control: think the fatal allure of Dracula, or the overwhelming numbers of a zombie invasion. And what about a creature that can cause you to descend into madness, living — perhaps eternally — after having lost the essence of who you are?

“The Call of Cthulhu”

“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

“Cthulhu and the Ninth Wave,” by DeviantArt user “fantasio.”

One creature with such terrifying powers is Cthulhu, first introduced in horror writer H. P. Lovecraft‘s short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” Portrayed as an ancient, dead-but-waiting god, his giant form a strange combination of octopus, bat, and human, Cthulhu embodies a powerful evil. One look at him will drive anyone insane, simply because the human mind cannot comprehend such terror. Unsurprisingly, he is a favorite subject of death metal bands! And you poetry scholars might recognize that Lovecraft seems to have been inspired by Tennyson’s sonnet, “The Kraken.”

Lovecraft’s knack for capturing dread has inspired an entire genre known as “Lovecraftian horror,” described by Wikipedia as “a subgenre of horror fiction that emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (and in some cases, unknowable) more than gore or other elements of shock.”

The Hound of the Baskervilles

“I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralyzed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog.”


“The Hound of the Baskervilles,” by Adam Burke.

Sherlockian scholars consider this Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s perfect novel. The tale has been adapted, riffed on, referenced, and parodied dozens of times, taking new forms in every kind of media, including comic books, plays, radio dramas, video games, and more.

How has this story stood the test of time? Sherlock Holmes is, of course, one of literature’s most fascinating characters. But the spectral hound is the real draw. Tied to local legend and a family curse spanning generations, it is an unearthly beast that glows in the dark, pursuing members of the Baskerville family across the moors until they drop dead from fright. But the hound leaves the dead bodies alone. Therefore, the beast doesn’t hunt for food, making its motives inscrutable, but undeniably evil.

Life on the moor is full of secrets and intrigue, both stimulating Sherlock Holmes’ mind and hampering his investigation. Holmes, a man of science, remains skeptical about the supernatural hound’s existence, but he can deny neither the enormous paw prints left in the sodden ground, nor the chilling howls heard in the night. Doyle perfectly paces this novel, increasing the suspense until the climactic moment: the terrifying appearance of the hound!

“The Birds”

“Then he saw them. The gulls. Out there, riding the seas. What he had thought at first to be the white caps of the waves were gulls. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands…”

Book cover for Pan Books edition of The Birds and Other Stories, artist uncredited.

You’re probably aware of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film The Birds, but did you know he based it on a short story by Daphne du Maurier? While not a “monster story,” this is one of my favorite works of suspense. For me, the premise is all the more terrifying for being within the realm of possibility, especially as we see a growing occurrence of natural disasters in real life.

In remote, rugged Cornwall, a wounded war veteran named Nat becomes increasingly aware of flocks of restless birds. The flocks increase in number, and the birds grow more violent and daring. At first, Nat attributes this behavior to the unusual weather, but takes the threat more seriously than do his neighbors. Soon, however, the entire country is under siege, and it’s no longer safe to go outdoors. The tension mounts beautifully, as the narrator gradually comes to understand the enormity of the event: the birds are inescapable, and this isn’t a fight he can fight alone.

What I love most about this short story, as opposed to the film version, is how it activates my imagination. (The same could be said for every good book, I suppose.) Visualizing the growing threat, the brutal attacks, and the despair of the survivors leaves me breathless and full of adrenaline.

Bird Box

“It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces.”

Promo photo for Bird Box, from Harper Collins Canada.

For a more modern look at the toll horror takes on a human mind, we turn to Bird Box, Josh Malerman‘s debut novel. No one can say what the creatures in this story look like, because anyone who glimpses them is driven to immediate, deadly violence, culminating in suicide. The victims lose their minds, as well as their humanity, before losing their own lives. A mother and her young children have survived by covering the windows in their isolated house, and learning to navigate blindfolded when they go outside. Now, they are driven to leave their home behind, and they set out on a blindfolded quest to find other survivors. Who can they trust? And what is following them?

Be warned: this intense novel doesn’t shy away from the disturbing, graphic descriptions of the victims’ deaths.

IT

“Want a balloon?”

Tim Curry as Pennywise in ABC’s 1990 miniseries, IT. Owned by Warner Bros.; photographer unknown.

When you think “scary clown,” you probably picture Pennywise, the creature Tim Curry played in the 1990 TV adaptation of Stephen King‘s novel, It. The thought of a creepy guy in white makeup who wants to eat children is sufficiently scary for most people, but IT is more than that: the clown is only one of the forms IT takes.

Ancient, malevolent, and powerful, IT comes from an unknown dimension. It lies slumbering until atrocious acts of human violence awaken it (unfortunately, this happens fairly regularly). When it comes to earth to feed, IT can take the shape of anything it chooses, in order to lure its victims. Sometimes IT appears as a victim’s loved one; other times, IT appears as a victim’s worst fear. But, as with Cthulhu, if a person were to see IT’s true form, the absolute horror would so baffle his mind, that he would go insane.

In 2015, British costume company MorphCostumes voted Pennywise the scariest creature in literature. The clown trumped Dracula, The Lord of the Rings’ Nazgûl, and Harry Potter’s Dementors, among other classic horror standards, based on “appearance, powers, and evil intent.”

 

Did your favorite creature make my list? Leave a comment below! And if you’re looking for history on some of the most famous undead creatures, check out this blog post from last year, “How Monsters Are Born,” by reference librarian Sharon Reily.

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