Happy Tuesday everyone! I hope your week is going great. Otherwise, I hope that it will start looking up in the coming days. It is my fervent hope that it will usher in positive energy, blessings, healing, and forgiveness for everyone. As it is Tuesday, it is also time for a Top 5 Tuesday update. Top 5 Tuesday was originally created by Shanah @ the Bionic Bookworm but is now currently being hosted by Meeghan @ Meeghan Reads.
This week’s topic: Top 5 Books Set in the Past
This week’s prompt is definitely tailor-made for me. I have always loved works of historical fiction; although I understand that the books to be featured are not necessarily works of this particular genre. Historical fiction makes up nearly two-thirds of the books I read in the past five years. Before I meander, here are books set in the past that I loved. Happy reading everyone!
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
Kicking off this list is Anchee Mins’s Empress Orchid., a book I did not expect I would love. At the heart of the novel is the fictionalized account of the last Chinese monarch who held residence in Beijing’s grandiose Forbidden City, Empress Dowager Cixi. My first encounter with Empress Dowager was when I was younger. While browsing through encyclopedias, I came across her but I did not probe further until I came across her again through Min’s novel. Empress Orchid chronicled the Empress’ long and arduous journey from living in the countryside to her ascent to the pinnacle of the Qing imperial family. She did have traces of royal blood coursing through her, hence, her selection as one of the Emperor’s consorts. I did love the novel’s historical contexts, particularly the process of selecting an Empress. I also found the vivid portrait of the Forbidden City astounding. Min wrote a vivid account of The Empress Dowager’s story and her character, both what I imagined and what I had not imagined. I enjoyed the exploration of this part of Chinese history, the prelude to the downfall of the empire.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
While the Chinese imperial family was slowly descending into chaos following the influences of the west, the Russian imperial family was also having concerns of its own. Czar Nicholas II’s reign was undermined by the Bolsheviks, ultimately leading to his and the imperial lineage’s, particularly the Romanov’s, downfall. Some of the events that ensued after this was captured by Amor Towles in his sophomore novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. At the heart of the novel was Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who was born to an affluent family but his forbearance did little to protect him from the Bolshevik tribunal. Because of his social status, he nearly found himself being executed had a “revolutionary” poem not been attributed to him. Bypassing execution, he was meted with a punishment of a lifetime of house arrest at the Hotel Metropol. To a casual spectator, this shows how the mighty have fallen. But Count Rostov understood better; he stayed true to his nature and gracefully embraced his new life. What unfolded was a heartwarming story that kept me riveted.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
A towering achievement of historical fiction was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Without a doubt one of the most renowned titles out there – I mean, who hasn’t heard of the book? – it was Mitchell’s only novel but it earned her the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. The novel is set in the antebellum South prior to, during, and after one of the most seminal events n American history, the American Civil War. The Civil War is a contentious part of American history that many a fictional book has been written about it. In Gone With the Wind, we first meet the novel’s main character, Scarlet O’Hara as a fiery young lady who was forced to flee her comfortable lifestyle due to the War. As the war escalates, she started blossoming into a woman brimming with determination and tenacity uncharacteristic of her era. The war formed a vivid backdrop to the story but it was Scarlet who propelled the story. She was a daunting and complex character worthy of a character study. Providing a perfect balance was Rhett Butler, with their on-and-off romance a searing element of the story.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
It has been over a decade since I read my first novel by Kristin Hannah, On Mystic Lake, a book I randomly picked up. I was unimpressed by the story so Hannah was pushed back to the recesses of my mind. The next time I encountered her, over a decade later, I didn’t realize that her literary career has blossomed. Fellow readers were singing songs of praise for her works. Still, I was a little ambivalent even when her latest novel, The Four Winds, kept getting positive recommendations. I finally relented; I wanted to know what I missed the first time. The fact that it was a work of historical fiction helped ease my worries. It transported me to Depression Era Midwest through the story of Elsa. WIth elements of family dynamics and romance, I have to admit, I was impressed this time around. It was beautifully held together by Hannah’s writing. It also provided me more insights into the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl which was not captured by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Elsa will certainly be a memorable character. Now, I want to read more of Hannah’s work and The Nightingale seems to be an interesting prospect.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
It was through a Facebook friend that I first learned about Tan Twan Eng. My friend has nothing but praises for the Malaysian writer’s debut novel, The Gift of Rain. This naturally piqued my interest. A couple of years later, I would reencounter Tan while browsing through the bookstore catalog. The Garden of Evening Mists immediately captured my interest, hence, I did not hesitate to obtain a copy of the book which I also included on my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. When I decided to immerse myself in the works of Asian literature, including the book in my reading journey was a no-brainer. At first, I was a little reluctant about the story. I had reservations about the main character. Nevertheless, I pushed through and I am thankful because as the story moved forward, I found myself losing in the narrative. I loved the details of Malaysian contemporary history woven into the tapestry. The sensitive and dark subjects were also adeptly handled by Tan; these are parts of history I have rarely encountered in literature, particularly in works related to the Second World War. The Garden of Evening Mists, with its beautiful language and heartbreaking story, is one of my favorite reads this year. However, it has been a decade since Tan released a novel. I hope he gets to publish a new one for I would also devour it.
I enjoy good historical fiction and I did certainly love Garden of Evening Mists. Like you I had very little familiarity with this section of the world especially not Malaysia. I think I read The Gift of Rain first – I don’t remember now. Those books were so beautiful – it reminded me a bit of Kazuo Ishiguro.
LikeLiked by 1 person
A Gentleman in Moscow nearly made my top 5. I really loved it.