The Best of 2013: Second Half

Monday, December 30, 2013


It's that time of year again - when I take a look at the best fiction and non-fiction that I've read in the past six months. You can read about my picks for the first half of 2013 here.

Click on the link for my review: 

Diary of an Ordinary Woman by Margaret Forster  (A woman records her life in 20th century Britain)
Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster (Elizabeth Barrett Browning's life as told by her maid)
The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley (Time-slip novel partially set in 18th century Russia)
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey (An update of Jane Eyre set in 1960s Scotland)
A Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb (Dual time mystery/family saga set in 1930s Dorset)
The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre  (Diplomatic and political thriller set in Africa)

The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley  (How people survive disasters - from plane crashes to terrorist attacks)
The Assassination of the Archduke by Peter King  (The romance and assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie)
The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England and The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer  (A daily life "guidebook" - covering food, law, travel and everything in between)
Jane Austen's England by Roy and Lesley Adkins  (Daily life in Regency England)
Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill  (A collection of essays on loving books)
Crossing the Borders of Time by Leslie Maitland (I just finished this on Christmas Day and will try to post a review in the new year. A journalist retraces her mother's doomed romance in Nazi Germany and France)

Biggest Disappointments:
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole (A Scottish poet and an American doughboy write to each other during WWI. This one had some obvious plot twists and severe tonal difficulties due to the letter-writing conceit the novel is based on). 
The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn  (An overblown WWI romance with a plot fueled by absurd misunderstandings). 

Some of my favorite books of the year were books that haven't even come out yet. I don't know whether to count them on my best of 2013 or best of 2014 list! Either way, these three novels were highlights of my reading year:

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger (A gritty and unusual setting - Richard II's England - and intriguing real-life characters - Chaucer and Katherine Swynford - made for an unforgettable historical thriller.)
I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveirea (The tortured relationship of Impressionist artists Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt in a brilliantly realized Belle Epoque Paris). 
Empress of the Night by Eva Stachiniak (Catherine the Great tells her own story in this follow-up to one of my favorites The Winter Palace). 

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on my blog in 2013. In my fourth year of blogging, I finally hit on a good pace of posting (an average of more than one post per week) and really enjoyed mixing in author events, museum visits and book sale hauls. 

Best wishes for very happy reading in 2014!

Christmas Book Haul

Saturday, December 28, 2013

It's that time of year again! My Christmas book haul had a lot of nice variety this year - from cookbooks and travel narratives to history and a few novels. With apologies for the poor quality pictures, let's get started:

I received a 1909 Baedekers Guide to Italy; a beautiful big book about the life of ballerina Anna Pavlova; The Longest Winter, an older novel set in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution; Natasha's Dance; a Cultural History of Russia; Reveille in Washington a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Washington, DC during the Civil War. I also received a great set of books by Liza Picard - about life in Elizabethan, Victorian and 18th Century London

In my second stack, I have the pocket book Life as a Victorian Lady; The Best Womens' Travel Writing 2013; The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of World War I; historical travel guide Strolling through Istanbul; historical novel The Typewriter Girl and a highly rated new book The Boys on the Boat about the 1936 Olympics. I also received two cookbooks I wanted - Mad Hungry Cravings and the amazing King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion

Incredibly, a couple of my gifts didn't ship in time so I still have more book presents on the way! I'm writing this post from home in Vermont where I had a wonderful Christmas with family. The house was packed with my brother's two dogs, my dad's cats and Historical Fiction Notebook's own feline intern. Unfortunately, most of the snow melted so we didn't have a White Christmas until one day later when we were hit with a very pretty snowstorm! 

Now on to work on my Best of 2013, Second Half post. 

Reading Updates

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Today is the first snow of the season here in Washington, DC - the view out my apartment windows looks just about as different from the view above as possible. But on the other hand, who would ever get any reading done in a place that sunny? So I am holed up inside today with a sleepy cat, lots of tea, homemade mint fudge and the snow rushing past outside.

I haven't read any history or historical fiction in the past week or so. Instead, I've managed to read two very enjoyable works of non-fiction and a thriller.

I was thrilled to find this on the library book sale cart a couple weeks back for 50 cents. I've been interested in reading it for a couple years but it's a bit expensive on Amazon and isn't carried by my library.

It's a very simple premise - basically, an English novelist and critic goes looking for a book in her book-stuffed house and - when she can't find it - comes to the realization that we've all had at one time or another. She has too many books. So she resolves to spend the next year reading just the books she already owns and this resolution forms a jumping-off point for a series of short essays reconsidering everything from favorite childhoods stories to classic authors to types of books that Hill has never been able to enjoy. If all of this sounds stuffy - it's not. Hill is full of life and curiousity and writes as though she's sitting across from you at a kitchen table and wants to share her passion for reading.

One of the great things about owning a Kindle is the access it allows to e-libraries. "Making Masterpiece" is the kind of book that I definitely wouldn't buy and probably wouldn't even check a physical copy out of the library. It just happened to be on the front page of the DC Library's eBook page and with a few swipes and clicks, it was mine. I found myself truly enjoying this memoir from the woman who has been the Executive Producer of Masterpiece Theatre on PBS for the last 27 years. 

There were all sorts of bits and pieces to enjoy: what was it like to be a TV producer in the 1970s and 1980s? What is it like to work as a producer for public television and on mini-series? Obviously, this was particularly interesting for me due to my TV production background and may not enthrall everyone equally. But there are plenty of interesting tidbits on how classic novels are adapted into mini-series, behind-the-scenes info on the making of Downton Abbey and glimpses on set as historical dramas are filmed. All-in-all, a very enjoyable read!

This book is one of my "take a chance" reads - a cheap paperback picked up used because I'd heard great things about the author. I chose this Le Carre because I remembered enjoying the Academy Award-winning movie a few years back and thought that the setting of the diplomatic and international aid communities would be more accessible than some of his other stories about spies. I've been at the very fringes of these communities during my trips to Afghanistan and Tunisia and I think Le Carre did an incredible job of laying out the hypocrisy and the insanity while still maintaining empathy for his characters. I suspect that if I read this book again the plot would not hold together quite as well and the whole thing seems to rev up to a pace that never fully pays off. Instead, I enjoyed the book for the quality of Le Carre's writing and his devastatingly accurate character sketches. So now I'm hooked and have some of his earlier Cold War-era spy novels and we'll see if they hold up just as well.

That's my week in reading. If you're in the Eastern United States, stay warm and out of this storm!