AtoZ, Blog Challenge, Books, Historical Fiction

Portmanteaus – 5 historical fiction that tell a bewitching tale


Portmanteaus- a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others | For eg, podcast comes from ipods + broadcast.| My interpretation of this prompt would be stories that blend the world today and combine real elements with fictional ones in their narrative. This would be historical fiction, where the writers set their timeline/plot in an actual historical event. The characters, events, settings and the story are then embroidered around this fact. 

I used to think that the best genre for reading is Fantasy Fiction as the imagery portrayed in this kind of fiction is boundless. But this was before I discovered Historical fiction. In today’s post for A to Z challenge, I am using the word portmanteaus to talk about books with plots based on and around history. Some of the most acclaimed fiction of late 20th and early 21st century have explored history in the most erudite fashion. And in doing so, these have delved into human emotions and baser instincts in the most literal sense.

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The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

I doubt if I have to talk about this book in depth seeing as it is one of the most memorable books where the tableau is set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. I found it to be an endearing read and happily confess to shedding copious amount of tears too. Bonus is the movie made on the book. Every actor has set Oscaresque standards for the character they enacted. I can’t re-read the book without envisioning the actor in my head every time.

Also read my review of The Book Thief here

All the Light We cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I believe we are soon going to be seeing the screen adaptation of this one and that enchants my bookish heart with gay abandon. Set in an extremely picturesque setting of French countryside, the imagery is made even more detailed as one of the protagonist is blind. She memorizes every step, nook, niche, turn, dip in the landscape to commit the route to her memory. The imagery is so fine that the reading takes on a pretty tactile flavor. The second protagonist has an extremely fine hearing and a love for radios. He becomes an asset for the Nazi army in locating secret radio sets. Both fall in love with and through a radio program.

Its an extremely well narrated and eloquently crafted tale of love and loss during the Nazi occupation. The settings, events and characters are so unique and memorable. I cannot wait for the movie – can you?

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Set in the harsh winter of Georgian England, The Foundling is a heart wrenching and extremely believable tale of two mothers of two very different social class. On the outskirts of London is the Foundling hospital which takes in children no older than 6 months, usually from unwed mothers. Bess Bright too leaves her day old daughter Clara with a vow to return for her soon. She returns 6 years later and is horrified to learn her daughter is no longer there. The worst shock was to discover that the records reflected that Clara had been claimed by Bess years ago. So begins a desperate search for her daughter which sees her gain employment as a nurse maid under false pretenses. Convinced that the 6 year old daughter of her employer is her daughter, she tries to spirit her away one night, only to be caught.

The setting of grim gray London winters plays the perfect foil to the class division and heartbreak. The Foundling is based on the actual fact of there being a Foundling hospital in London in the 1700’s which was set up to take care of abandoned babies. The mothers would leave secret tokens with their babies which could be identified by them whenever they could come in to claim their children.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Mcneal

Set in 1800 in Victorian England, the novel tells the tale of two extremely diverse characters who accidently meet and grow their acquaintance vis-a-vis a love for art. Iris and her twin sister Rose work at Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium painting dolls. But Iris chaffs to be more and secretly practices art at night. One day she has a chance encounter with a Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Banks who insists on painting her. She agrees to be his muse in secret if he promises to teach her how to paint. Our other character is the intrinsically strange Silas Reeds who is a taxidermist and crafts the dead animals into lurid creations to be sold to the artists. He employs the services of a cheeky young street urchin, Albie who has the luck of the devil in finding whatever Silas requires. Iris and Silas also have a chance encounter, where after the latter becomes obsessed with her.

I found the tale to be crafted in the most intriguing manner, borrowing motifs from Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the real life event of artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse Elizabeth Siddal. The novel is layered in the filth, grime, poverty, and prejudices of Victorian London in the 1800s. Its a starkly dark and sinister story, not to be taken lightly at all.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Set during the Bolshevik Revolution, the tale begins with the house arrest of the last remaining nobility in Russia. Count Rostov is a witty, articulate and erudite young man who is forced to move out of his grand rooms into a cramped attic room at the top of the hotel Metropol. The count accommodates as much of his bespoke belongings into this room and resumes his daily routine without losing a step. He conducts himself as usual, meets his friends and acquaintances, visits his barber and seamstress, and befriends a precocious little nine-year-old Nina, who is also a guest at the same hotel. She shows him a world through her eyes and reveals the secrets of the hotel to the count.

The tale spans some three-odd decades of the Count’s life and sees him go from being an illustrious guest to a detainee to a waiter in the same hotel. Politics, arts, history, espionage, romance, parenting, and gastronomy all go hand in hand in this book. And all throughout, the count is a silent observer who watches over the changing times and yet conducts himself with charm and wit. There is much charm, humor, and wit in this book and I just wish the  pace of writing was not so slow.

Also read my review of The Man on the Washing Machine by Susan Cox here

So there you have it. my top five favorite historical fiction books. Which ones from these would be on your list? Share you favorites in the comments below.

What did you think of the word Portmanteaus? And my interpretation of it? What would have been yours? And if you are stopping from A to Z, please do leave your links in the comments.

Coming up next is Q for Quean-Crazed!!!!

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For the uninitiated, AtoZ challenge is a blogging challenge wherein one has to write on every alphabet from A to Z and post on all days of April, except Sundays. Usually its better to devise a theme as it makes it easy to write the posts. Plus readers have a reason to stay hooked too.

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2 thoughts on “Portmanteaus – 5 historical fiction that tell a bewitching tale

  1. I think I am repeating this on your blog, Shalz, but The book thief is my all-time favourite. And I too shed bucketful of tears at the end (Hubby was anxious! :P)
    I haven’t read the other books you mentioned but I love the way you wrote about each book, in this post and in all the earlier posts. Tell me, did you specialise in literature back in college?

    1. Thanks so much Shilpa. I did study Literature in college and was always interested in writing since childhood.

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