Books to Love: Transport Me Historically

 

Having spent the last two weeks largely immersed in 1920s Africa with A Spear of Summer Grass (see here and here)- which led down a rabbit hole of immersion in 1920s/30s music (see here)- I found myself thinking about books that have carried me away to different times and places so entirely that I had to take a moment to readjust to the the here and now when I was finished. 

Couple that with the conversation I had with one of my readers- shout out to Susan for kindling this idea- I thought I would devote an entire post to a few of my favorite books that thoroughly transported me. The reasons for loving these books so much vary. However, what they all have in common is the author’s ability to fully capture the setting in which they are set. Yes, for the historical novels included here- which, let’s be honest- they’re all historical- the authors have a handle on the time, but in each of these offerings, the places in which they are set are thoroughly rendered. Like with Raybourn’s book, if I closed my eyes, I could envision the landscapes of each novel. Some of these I have not read in years, yet, in remembrance, the feelings and images still linger. That’s a hallmark of a great read. 

Published a century after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, M.M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon is a sweeping epic up there with the likes of Gone with the Wind. She takes her time setting up the epilogue to set the ground work once she introduces the main characters. To be honest, the beginning of the book was a bit difficult for me to get in to. Thank God for good friend who encourage you to keep going- Jo Ann, that one’s for you. I stuck with the book, pushing through the first hundred pages or so and then I was hooked (so much so, I read it cover to cover in the course of one day- all 800 pages). 

The heroine, Winter, who is a bit difficult to like at first because of her naivety, is an excellent starting point for any reader unfamiliar with the nuanced tensions of Colonial India in the 1850s. As a reader, we experience all the grandeur, majesty, and exoticism of India through her eyes. When Winter became enamored of the colorful saris and the saffron laden air and the birds calling in the jungles that surround her new home, I was right there with her. And there’s the tiger. I’d tell you more about that magnificent creature, but I fear you’ll have to read the book for yourself. 

M.M. Kaye juxtaposes Winter with Captain Alex Randall. He’s a worthy hero to grace the pages of any epic. What I particularly appreciate about him is that he sees all the foibles of the British as well as the natives. He understands the complexities of the land he hails from and the land he now calls home. His loyalties are split until the final moments before the mayhem of mutiny descends. Through him, the reader becomes grounded to the reality of India in all its beauty and terror. By the end, I felt I had cut open the land and drained her of her essence. 

If you’re interested in a more comprehensive plot synopsis, The Land of Lost Books has an excellent one.

How many of you know about the Boxer Rebellion? (If you don’t, let me just say it has nothing to with - ahem - unmentionables.) I possessed a cursory understanding of the events that led  to the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the last century. However, I did not understand them fully. Madeleine Brent’s Moonraker’s Bride brought them to life in a profound manner through the eyes of the heroine, Lucy Waring- an orphan who, though English by birth, has spent her entire life in a missionary orphanage in China. Culturally, she’s Chinese. However, through a series of unlikely events, she finds herself heir to a fortune in England. Hop, skip, and jump across the world, and you traverse the quagmires of culture clashing through her eyes.

Then there’s the adventurer Nick Gresham, who has all the bustling and bravado of a swashbuckler. I love a swarthy, debonair hero with the perfect balance of confidence and humility. Add to that, a buccaneer’s spirit and you might have the makings of the best sort of man. That would be Nick Gresham. He’s rapscallion by reputation, but at his core, he’s loyal and honorable in the truer senses of those words. 

You fall in love with these two, and by degrees, the fraught landscape that seems to conspire against them while simultaneously clasping them to her bosom. China comes alive through their eyes, as does the brutality of the civilized British culture. Brutality, it seems, has very little to do with where you're raised as much as the spirit you harbor. Loving thy neighbor as thyself, dear readers, can never be overdone. And this book traverses cultures to display that truth is a truth regardless of what culture you come from.  

Lady of the Forest was the first Jennifer Roberson book that I read. I picked it up because I adore all things Robin Hood. (True story. Ask my parents who I was going to marry when I was six. It was none other than that foxy Disney knave, all bright eyed and bushy tailed.)  At first I was put off by the length of the book. I don’t know why because I have read a great many books that are longer than this one. I can only assume it was because I had the hardbound addition and I shied away from it because I didn’t want to carry such a heavy tome in my purse for the length of time I would be reading it. (I always have a book on me- although, one of the reasons I applaud the Kindle/e-reader is because I can access it from my smart phone in the event that I want to use a clutch, which always fails to accommodate any of the physical books I read. I’ve tried, truly. I’ve tried. The purses are just too small.)

This book is exceptional. Hooked from the first lines, I gobbled it up- which solved that pesky problem of having to tote it too many places. Roberson unfolds the plot from the perspectives of numerous characters, which is an achievement in itself.

I saw the impressiveness of Huntington Castle with its heavy portcullises and topless towers through Marian’s eyes. (Topless towers, you say. How apropos. After all, it’s Marian’s face that galvanizes Robin to a love as strong as that which once launched a thousand ships and burnt those topless towers of epic acclaim.) The harshness and hardness of the Earl of Huntington seats itself perfectly within his defensive and impenetrable castle, as though his character was so potent it exuded itself into the very stone and timber that fashioned his abode.

Robin’s despair and disillusionment manifests in his voracious quest for something more. It drives him to the woods, to the refuge of his mother deep in the heart of the forest, to the door of his love at Ravenskeep, to the stones worn smooth by supplicating knees in the chapel. 
 
And anywhere Guy of Gisbourne chances to be instantly transforms into a dank, dark, dangerous dungeon. The landscape evokes the characters so entirely, you are woven into the warp and weft of the plot through the places as well as the emotions. Honestly, just writing this makes me want to take the book up again and lose myself in it. 

Of all the novels listed here, this one is the one that I remember the least, plot wise. However, it bears mentioning because even the most cursory of memories prompts such strong images and tastes to my mind; the hot Spanish air, the faintest trace of salt kissing my lips from the sea, the saffron sun on my skin. Colors are gilded and glorious, auriferous hues of sunlight captured in steel and lamp light in ambrosial cognac. Not to mention the majesty of the dangerous dance of fencing. The passion of Flamenco, the sensuality of Tango, the danger of Paso Doble. This book is evocative and beautifully written. You want España conjured to life on the page, I give you Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master

What books have taken you so entirely out of yourself and your environment that you didn’t want the story to end? 

Have any of you read any of the books listed above? Which one(s) and what's your opinion?