Historical Fiction to Read This Spring
An excellent crop of historical fiction is being published by Canadian authors this spring, and we recommend these titles not just because of how they exemplify the best of the genre, but also for how they play with it, and with our notions of both history and fiction—making the past come to life and illuminating the present.
About the book: The Widow's Fire explores the shadow side of Jane Austen's final novel Persuasion, disrupting its happy ending and throwing moral certainties off balance. We join the action close to the moment when Austen draws away for the last time and discretely gives an overview of the oncoming marriage between heroine Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. This, it transpires in The Widow's Fire, is merely the beginning of a journey. Soon dark undercurrents disturb the order and symmetry of Austen's world. The gothic flavor of the period, usually satirized by Austen, begins to assert itself. Characters far below the notice of Anne, a baronet's daughter, have agendas of their own. Before long, we enter into the realm of scandal and blackmail. Anne Elliot must come to recognize the subversive power of those who have been hitherto invisible to her—servants, maids and attendants—before she can defend her fiancé from an accusation too dreadful to be named. Captain Wentworth himself must learn the skills of living on land; the code of honour and secrecy which has protected him on deck no longer applies on the streets of Bath.
Why we're taking notice: Such an intriguing premise for all Austenites. Butler's work has appeared on the judges’ lists for Canada Reads, the Relit Longlist for three consecutive years, and he was a winner in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards four times between 2003 and 2008
About the book: Joseph Burbidge is a young boy growing up in a small mining town in England. Eager to explore the world, headstrong and naive, he moves to Edmonton at the age of 20 to try his hand panning for gold in the North. Under the tutelage of "Stinky" Riley, and Isidore Chartrand—a Metis man from Northern Saskatchewan—Joe risks life and limb searching for his "big break" up North.
Following the advice of an elderly, blind First Nations woman, "Stinky" Riley and Joe follow a hand-drawn map that leads them to their biggest find yet—undiscovered gold, and lots of it. A rival, Buster Krahn, encroaches on their territory—and attempts to usurp their claim to the gold with his own. In the end, Joe is left stranded up in the Arctic barrens, with winter quickly approaching, no way for planes to land, and a dead body on his hands.
Carpenter brings a quick wit and deft hand to recreating the "gold fever" that swept the Northwest Territories in the 1930s. He imagines the era with incredible accuracy, creating a compelling backdrop for Joe's struggles, success, and redemption.
Why we're taking notice: The award-winning Carpenter was most recently a co-author of acclaimed The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir. We look forward to checking out what he's up to next.
About the book: From the author of Three Souls comes a new novel set in early-twentieth-century Shanghai, where, as an ancient imperial dynasty collapses, a new government struggles to life and two girls—one a Eurasian orphan, the other a daughter of privilege—are bound together in a friendship that will be tested by duty, honour and love.
Abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai, seven-year-old Jialing learns she is zazhong—Eurasian—and thus doomed to face a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. The Yang family, new owners of the estate, reluctantly take her in as a servant. As Jialing grows up, her only allies are Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for more than 300 years. But when a young English girl appears and befriends the lonely orphan—and then mysteriously vanishes—Jialing’s life takes an unexpected turn and gives her hope of finding her long-lost mother.
Instead, Jialing finds herself drawn into a murder at the periphery of political intrigue, a relationship that jeopardizes her friendship with Anjuin and a forbidden affair that brings danger to the man she loves. Ultimately, she learns that for years Fox has been preparing her for a very different sort of fate . . . should she choose to accept it.
Why we're taking notice: Janie Chang is a CanLit hero for initiating Authors for Indies. Plus, historical fiction superstar Jennifer Robson has described this book, Chang's second, as "simply one of the best novels I have read in a long time."
About the book: Sticks Angelica is, in her own words, "49 years old. Former: Olympian, poet, scholar, sculptor, minister, activist, Governor General, entrepreneur, line cook, headmistress, Mountie, columnist, libertarian, cellist." After a high-profile family scandal, Sticks escapes to the woods to live in what would be relative isolation were it not for the many animals that surround and inevitably annoy her. Sticks is an arrogant self-obsessed force who wills herself on the flora and fauna. There is a rabbit named Oatmeal who harbors an unrequited love for her, a pair of kissing geese, a cross-dressing moose absurdly named Lisa Hanawalt. When a reporter named, ahem, Michael DeForge shows up to interview Sticks for his biography on her, she quickly slugs him and buries him up to his neck, immobilizing him. Instead, Sticks narrates her way through the forest, recalling formative incidents from her storied past in what becomes a strange sort of autobiography.
Deforge's witty dialogue and deadpan narration create a bizarre yet eerily familiar world. Sticks Angelica plays with autobiography, biography, and hagiography to look at how we build our own sense of self and how others carry on the roles we create for them in our own personal dramas.
Why we're taking notice: Award-winner DeForge plays with ideas of history and (non-)fiction in ways that are most intriguing. This one sounds fun.
About the book: These 35 brief stories—and the found photographs that inspired them—are by turns realistic and surreal, bloody and tender, delightful and appalling. Award-winning author Cary Fagan has created a mesmerizing series of narrative tales, giving readers a vivid peek into lives of strangers.
A man hangs onto a runaway horse. A woman paints in the nude. A shop window advertising a sale on blankets hides much more behind it. A lone tombstone on a hill speaks of a years-long feud. The stories—capturing portraits, objects, moments in time—while dizzyingly varied, form a single image that, in the words of the author, "belong to one history, found in an album that might belong to any of us."
Deftly marrying vision and language with memory and imagination, Fagan paints an intimate portrait of forgotten lives that is profound, generous, and highly entertaining.
Why we're taking notice: While Fagan is best known for his books for children, his last book of stories for grown-up children was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize—you can read our Q&A with him here.
About the book: Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.
Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners—a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked”—she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved—as well as her own past — in the process.
Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best. A time-bending novel that delves into the origin story of the Girl with No Past, Sputnik’s Children explores what it was like to come of age in the Atomic Age.
Why we're taking notice: Because how fun does this one sound? A comics writer herself, Favro is also author of the award-winning novella, The Proxy Bride.
About the book: Summer 1755, Acadia. Young, beautiful Amélie Belliveau lives with her family among the Acadians of Grande Pré, Nova Scotia, content with her life on their idyllic farm. Along with their friends, the neighbouring Mi’kmaq, the community believes they can remain on neutral political ground despite the rising tides of war. But peace can be fragile, and sometimes faith is not enough. When the Acadians refuse to pledge allegiance to the British in their war against the French, the army invades Grande Pré, claims the land, and rips the people from their homes. Amélie’s entire family, alongside the other Acadians, is exiled to ports unknown aboard dilapidated ships.
Fortunately, Amélie has made a powerful ally. Having survived his own harrowing experience at the hands of the English, Corporal Connor MacDonnell is a reluctant participant in the British plan to expel the Acadians from their homeland. His sympathy for Amélie gradually evolves into a profound love, and he resolves to help her and her family in any way he can—even if it means treason. As the last warmth of summer fades, more ships arrive to ferry the Acadians away, and Connor is forced to make a decision that will alter the future forever.
Heart-wrenching and captivating, Promises to Keep is a gloriously romantic tale of a young couple forced to risk everything amidst the uncertainties of war.
Why we're taking notice: Because nobody does historical fiction like bestseller Graham (and oh my gosh, don't miss her list "Quintessentially Canadian: From Oddball to Awesome.")
About the book: Called the most promising artist of his generation, handsome, modest, and affectionate, Richard Dadd rubbed shoulders with the great luminaries of the Victorian Age. He grew up along the Medway with Charles Dickens and studied at the Royal Academy Schools under the brilliant and eccentric J.M.W. Turner.
Based on Dadd’s tragic true story, Mad Richard follows the young artist as he develops his craft, contemplates the nature of art and fame—as he watches Dickens navigate those tricky waters—and ultimately finds himself imprisoned in Bedlam for murder, committed as criminally insane.
In 1853, Charlotte Brontë—about to publish her third novel, suffering from unrequited love, and herself wrestling with questions about art and artists, class, obsession and romance—visits Richard at Bedlam and finds an unexpected kinship in his feverish mind and his haunting work.
Masterfully slipping through time and memory, Mad Richard maps the artistic temperaments of Charlotte and Richard, weaving their divergent lives together with their shared fears and follies, dreams, and crushing illusions.
Why we're taking notice: As Richard Dadd's first cousin-in-law five times removed (apparently?), Krueger is uniquely qualified to tell this madcap, epic tale which makes story out of history in the best possible way.
About the book: It begins with a chance encounter at the top of the world.
Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada, about 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Both are in search of answers about a family member: Nelson for his estranged older brother, and Fay for her vanished grandfather. Driving Fay into town from the airport on a freezing January night, Nelson reveals a folder left behind by his brother. An image catches Fay’s eye: a clock she has seen before. Soon Fay and Nelson realize that their relatives have an extraordinary and historic connection—a secret share in one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of polar expedition. This is the riddle of the “Arnold 294” chronometer, which reappeared in Britain more than a hundred years after it was lost in the Arctic with the ships and men of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. The secret history of this elusive timepiece, Fay and Nelson will discover, ties them and their families to a journey that echoes across two centuries.
Why we're taking notice: Irish author O'Loughlin has Canadian roots—he was born in Toronto. His first novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009. And this new book sounds fantastic.
About the book: A daughter’s search for her mother reveals her family’s past in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War.
Lily Takemitsu goes missing from her home in Toronto one luminous summer morning in the mid-1980s. Her daughter, Rita, a high-school art teacher, knows her mother has a history of dissociation and memory problems, which have led her to wander off before. But never has she stayed away so long. Unconvinced the police are taking the case seriously, Rita begins to carry out her own investigation. In the course of searching for her mom, she is forced to confront a labyrinth of secrets surrounding the family’s internment at a camp in the California desert during the Second World War, their postwar immigration to Toronto, and the father she has never known.
Epic in scope, intimate in style, After the Bloom blurs between the present and the ever-present past, beautifully depicting one family’s struggle to face the darker side of its history and find some form of redemption.
Why we're taking notice: When her first book came out five year ago, Shimotakahara wrote a beautiful piece for us about learning how to read again after years in academia. We're really excited about her debut novel.
About the book: Men Walking on Water opens on a bitter winter's night in 1927, with a motley gang of small-time smugglers huddled on the banks of the Detroit River, peering towards Canada on the opposite side. A catastrophe has just occurred: while driving across the frozen water by moonlight, a decrepit Model T loaded with whisky has broken the ice and gone under—and with it, driver Alfred Moss and a bundle of money. From that defining moment, the novel weaves its startling, enthralling story, with the missing man at its centre, a man who affects all the characters in different ways. In Detroit, a young mother becomes a criminal to pay down the debt her husband, assumed dead, has left behind; a Pentecostal preacher brazenly uses his church to fund his own bootlegging operation even as he lectures against the perils of drink; and across the river, a French-Canadian woman runs her booming brothel business with the permission of the powerful Detroit gangsters who are her patrons.
The looming background to this extraordinary story, as compelling as any character, is the city of Detroit—a place of grand dreams and brutal realities in 1927 as it is today, fuelled by capitalist expansion and by the collapse that follows, sitting on the border between countries, its citizens walking precariously across the river between pleasure and abstinence. This is an absolutely stunning, mature, and compulsively readable novel from one of our most talented and unique writers.
Why we're taking notice: Because Emily Schultz wrote The Blondes, which was such an incredible book, and now we'll follow her anywhere. But especially to 1920s' Detroit.
About the book: Teetering on the edge of gentile poverty, Englishwoman Susanna Moodie agrees to leave her behind her growing career as a writer to follow her husband from her beloved Suffolk to the backwoods of Canada. John Moodie is an ebullient man with a weakness for money-making schemes, and he is convinced that riches await them in the New World. It is the 1830s, and despite their dreams, Susanna is woefully unprepared for life in the wilderness. Her true story of hardship and survival in a log cabin deep in the bush is part of our national mythology. Now, respected writer and editor Cecily Ross “gives us an unprecedented fictional portrait of Susanna—the sister, the wife, the mother, the writer, a woman confronting both the wilds of Canada and the wilderness of her own heart. Told through imagined “lost diaries,” the novel explores Susanna’s complex inner life from childhood through the worst challenges of pioneering in a harsh and unforgiving landscape with her devoted but hapless and often absent spouse. Part love story, part coming of age narrative, this captivating novel brings to vivid life Moodie’s courage, wit and strength, as well as her moments of despair. The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie shows how one woman, against all odds and adversity, prevailed and made this savage and beautiful land her own.
Why we're taking notice: You're likely familiar with Ross's award-winning journalism, but this is something new and different, and it ties in nicely with Canada's 150th birthday celebrations.
About the book: In The Midwife of Venice, set in 1575, Hannah Levi was forced to flee Venice with the baby of a Venetian aristocratic family whom she rescued. Roberta Rich followed that action-packed adventure with The Harem Midwife, which exiled Hannah and her beloved husband Isaac to Constantinople—only for Hannah to become enmeshed in the shady politics of a sultan's harem. And now, with A Trial in Venice, set five years later, Hannah is forced back to Venice—both to opulent yet crumbling villas and the Jewish ghetto known as Veneto. Her beloved adopted son Matteo has been kidnapped and is in danger once more. And this time, so is Hannah.
A rollicking and evocative read, peopled with beguiling, unforgettable characters (including the epic return of the troublesome and winsome Foscari and Cesca), this novel is a breathtaking follow up to The Midwife of Venice and The Harem Midwife, certain to shock and delight fans of the series and solidify Rich's reputation as one of Canada's most loved historical fiction authors.
Why we're taking notice: Because Roberta Rich's series has been been huge, and readers are looking forward to finding out how things end up.
About the book: From their earliest days, the Nijinsky siblings appear destined for the stage. Bronia is a gifted young ballerina, but she is quickly eclipsed by her brother Vaslav. Deemed a prodigy, Vaslav Nijinsky will grow into the greatest, and most provocative, dancer of his time. To prove herself her brother's equal in the rigid world of ballet, Bronia will need to be more than extraordinary, defying society's expectations of what a female dancer can and should be.
The real-life muse behind one of the most spectacular roles in dance, The Rite of Spring's Chosen Maiden, Bronia rises to the heights of modern ballet through grit, resilience and fervor. But when the First World War erupts and rebellion sparks in Russia, Bronia—caught between old and new, traditional and ground-breaking, safe and passionate—must begin her own search for what it means to be modern.
Why we're taking notice: Bestseller Stachniak's latest has already got great reviews. We loved her previous novels, and this one is meant to live up to all expectations.
About the book: 1940s Vancouver. The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbour and racial tension is building in Vancouver. The RCMP are rounding up "suspicious" young men, and fishing boats and property are soon seized from Steveston fishers; internment camps in BC's interior are only months away.
Daniel Sugiura, a young reporter for the New Canadian, the only Japanese-Canadian newspaper allowed to keep publishing during the war, narrates The Three Pleasures. The story is told through three main characters in the Japanese community: Watanabe Etsuo, Morii Etsuji and Etsu Kaga, the Three Pleasures. Etsu in Japanese means "pleasure"; the term is well-suited to these three. Morii Etsuji, the Black Dragon boss, controls the kind of pleasure men pay for: gambling, drink and prostitution—the pleasures of the flesh.
Watanabe Etsuo, Secretary of the Steveston Fishermen's Association, makes a deal with the devil to save his loved ones. In the end, he suffers for it and never regains the pleasures of family. And there is Etsu Kaga, a Ganbariya of the Yamato Damashii Group, a real Emperor worshipper. His obsession becomes destructive to himself and all involved with him. He enjoys the pleasure of patriotism until that patriotism becomes a curse.
The Three Pleasures is an intimate and passionate novel concerning an unsightly and painful period in Canada's history.
Why we're taking notice: Because while we're celebrating 150 years of Canada, let's not forget that not all of that history is something we should be proud of. The past also offers lessons we can heed right now.
About the book: On a snowy day in December 1946, Lane Winslow—a former British intelligence agent who’s escaped to the rural Canadian community of King’s Cove in pursuit of a tranquil life—is introduced to the local hot springs. While there she overhears nearby patrons speaking Russian. When one of those patrons is found dead in the change room, Lane’s linguistic and intelligence experience is of immeasurable value to the local police force in solving the murder.
The investigation points to the Soviet Union, where Stalin’s purges are eliminating enemies, and the reach of Stalin’s agent snakes all the way into a harmless Doukhobor community. Winslow’s complicated relationship with the local police inspector, Darling, is intensified by the perils of the case—and by the discovery of her own father’s death during the war.
The case comes to a frantic and shocking end with a perilous nighttime journey along treacherous snow-covered roads.
Why we're taking notice: Because the Globe and Mail's crime columnist has called Whisaw "a writer to watch," and—let's face it—Russian intrigue is starting to feel timely all over again.