Historical Fiction

The Best Book I Read This Month: The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

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The best book I read this month was a historical mystery, my favorite genre. The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry is set in Edinburgh in 1847, and it’s as much about the history of medicine as it is about murder. The story centers around the household of Dr. James Simpson, who popularized the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic; the mystery around the deaths of a prostitute and a housemaid. The “detectives” are Simpson’s apprentice, Will Raven, and housemaid, Sarah Fisher.

I loved many things about this book, but the giddiest thrill came from recognizing so many of the street names and locations from my visit to Edinburgh this past fall. Knowing I’d walked along some of the same streets as the characters gave special life to the setting and the story. (And speaks of a city that preserves its past instead of destroying it.)

The writing, too, was pitch perfect—the language reflective of the mid-19th century setting of the story, not just in the dialogue but in the descriptions, as well. The characters—Raven and Sarah, in particular—are complex and not caricatures. If this becomes a series, I look forward to seeing how their partnership develops.

The plotting and mystery were also well done. This was not a typical serial killer mystery, and I liked that the murders were not so straightforward. I also found the killer’s comeuppance especially creative. (The foreshadowing for what happens to the killer is very subtly done, but it works.)

My hope is that this becomes the first in a series, because Parry—in reality, a husband and wife team—has the goods when it comes to writing engaging mysteries and I wouldn’t mind spending more time hanging out in the Simpson household.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Henna House by Nomi Eve

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The best book I read this month was an unexpected pleasure. I'd never heard of it before it was chosen by my book club to be our July read. What a gem I would have missed if they hadn't!

Henna House by Nomi Eve was a little slow to start but ultimately proved to be a rich, engaging read. It took me a while to get through the first 70 pages. I raced through the last 70.

Henna House tells the story of a Jewish girl growing up in Yemen in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, starting with her youth in a rural Yemeni village and ending with her immigration to the new state of Israel.

While the Holocaust does figure in the story's epilogue, it is not a central component of the story. That in itself was remarkable. So many works of literature about Jewish characters are stories of the Holocaust, and while it is important to remember the Holocaust,  the Jewish experience is so much more than that one event. It was refreshing to read a book that not only reflects part of that broader experience but also speaks to the diversity of the global Jewish population.

Bonus Recommendation: Savage Liberty by Eliot Pattison

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This month, I was equally transported by another book, too: Savage Liberty by Eliot Pattison. Liberty is the fifth book in Patterson's Early America mystery series, and by far the best. Set a few years before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Savage Liberty incorporates many historical figures who made their names during the Revolution--including John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Ethan Allen. But at the center of the story, as in the rest of the series, is Highlander Duncan McCallum and his Haudenosaunee friend, Conawago. (The first book in the series, Bone Rattler, explains how their paths crossed and their friendship formed.) Together, they seek answers about the sabotage of a merchant ship and the murders of rangers who served during the French and Indian War.

What I especially love about this series is that Pattison shows the diversity of the colonial population. His stories are populated by more than just white men.  And while I would like to see more women in these stories, I am grateful for the inclusion of a variety of Native American cultures and colonial settlers, including, in this story, a Jewish character.

The Best Book I Read This Month: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

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I had a hard time getting back into reading this month, what with all the house sale/moving drama going on at the moment. I usually manage a book a week, roughly, but in the past 5-6 weeks, I’ve read a grand total of 2 books. Thankfully, one of them was a spectacular read: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein. 

The Pearl Thief is a prequel to Code Name Verity, one of my all-time favorite books. I love and adore Verity, and I was worried Pearl Thief wouldn’t live up to the promise of its sister. Thankfully, it did. I was just as swept away as when I read Verity.

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Code Name Verity is the story of two friends, Queenie and Maddie, as their friendship develops and is tested during World War II, when one of them is captured by the Nazis. Each friend narrates half the book, so we get the story from two different perspectives. It's a stunning work, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Pearl Thief tells the story of Queenie's life before the war--when she's a teenager in Scotland in the 1930s. She's just as high-spirited, this time teaming up with local Travellers to solve a murder mystery on her grandfather's old estate. (That sounds far more Nancy Drew than it really is.) We even find out how she came to be known as Queenie.

The book combines three of my favorite things: a mystery, Scotland, and Julia Beaufort-Stuart (Queenie). It's a fun read, far more escapist than Code Name Verity, but a worthy companion, nonetheless.