Historical Musings #66: June 2021

It’s been a few months since my last Historical Musings post, so I thought I’d start by taking a look at what’s going on in the world of historical fiction and then give an update on my own current reading.

First of all, the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been announced. Congratulations to Hilary Mantel and The Mirror and the Light!

There were five shortlisted titles this year and I’m sorry to say that so far I have only managed to read one of them…

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte
A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The one that I read was Hamnet and I’m quite surprised that it didn’t win. I wasn’t really a fan (I know I’m in a minority there) but I thought it was the sort of book the judges would go for.

Although I haven’t read The Mirror & the Light, I’m sure it’s a deserving winner. I did actually start to read it last year and enjoyed what I read, but it was a victim of my pandemic-induced reading slump at that time and I found it impossible to concentrate on such a long and complex novel. I have every intention of picking it up again soon!

This means that Hilary Mantel has now won the Walter Scott Prize twice, with two of the books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy: Wolf Hall in 2010 was the other, although Bring Up the Bodies lost out in 2013 to Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.


Last week also brought some more sad news for historical fiction readers; not only did we lose Sharon Penman earlier this year, the family of Lucinda Riley announced on 11th June that Lucinda had died following a four year battle with cancer. Not all of her novels were historical, but most featured dual timelines covering a wide range of historical periods and settings. I recently reviewed her latest novel, The Missing Sister. For those of you who have been following the Seven Sisters series, here’s a recent interview in which Lucinda talks about her research for the new book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrzJyFMOjxQ


My current historical reading:

I have just finished The Wrecking Storm, the second book in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant mystery series set in 17th century London during the events leading to the Civil War, and am now reading Alison Weir’s Katherine Parr, the Sixth Wife, the last of her Six Tudor Queens novels. The next book I’m planning to start is Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram, which is on my 20 Books of Summer list. I think it’s already safe to say that I’m not going to read all twenty books on that list before September, so I’m going to focus on the ones I’ve been most looking forward to reading.

New to my historical TBR this week:

Mrs England by Stacey Halls (set in the Edwardian era) which was published earlier this month, and The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters (set in the 1640s), via NetGalley, due to be published in November.


Have you read any good historical novels lately? Which book do you think should have won the Walter Scott Prize?

22 thoughts on “Historical Musings #66: June 2021

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I’ve read a few poor to bad historical novels recently. But one stellar read was ‘Ship of Force’ by Alan Evans. It was written in the late 1970’s and took place during WW1 with the main character in commander of two ships based in the English Channel. It was a bit ‘Boy’s Own’ at times but was a cracking and crackling read overall. His books are reasonably difficult to acquire but I’m finding it very worth the effort.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve never come across Alan Evans, but I will have to look out for his books now that you’ve brought him to my attention. I sometimes struggle with naval fiction but I’ve been enjoying Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series so I think I’m starting to find it easier!

      • Cyberkitten says:

        I’m a huge fan of anything ship based so I’ve spent a fair bit of time hunting them down. BIG fan of O’Brian too. Only read two of his so far but there will be many more to follow. The Evan’s books are difficult to get in hard copy but I think they’re all available on Kindle.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t love Hamnet the way a lot of other readers have done, but it was beautifully written and I was sure it was the sort of book that would impress the Walter Scott Prize judges!

  2. BookerTalk says:

    I read Mirror and Light during lockdown = it took me nearly three months because I could concentrate only in snatches of 20 pages at a time. So glad she won though the competition was tough.

    I’m listening to Tombland by CJ Sansom – the crime fiction element is ok but it’s the historical context that is so well done. This one has a background of the uprising in Norfolk by the peasants and common people against enclosures,

    • Helen says:

      Tombland has been on my TBR since it was published, but I can never seem to get round to starting it. I agree that the historical context is the real attraction of the Shardlake novels rather than the crime element.

  3. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I could have taken or left Hamnet to be honest, but thought it would probably win this award. That’s sad news about Lucinda Ryley, I’ve recently started Seven Sisters 1, as one of your recent reviews jogged my memory about the series.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad it’s not just me who wasn’t all that impressed with Hamnet. Yes, it was very sad to hear about Lucinda Riley, especially as I had just finished reading her latest book when the news was announced.

  4. whatcathyreadnext says:

    You’re definitely not alone in thinking Hamnet was likely to win even though, like you, it left me a little underwhelmed. And I too have The Mirror & The Light sitting on my bookshelf waiting for suitable space in my reading schedule to appear. I think I noticed in the Walter Scott Prize rules that an author may not now be awarded the prize more than twice so I hope Hilary Mantel’s not too disappointed it may be her last win.

    • Helen says:

      That seems a shame if an author writes a third book that deserves to win, but I suppose it gives other authors a chance. I’m determined to start The Mirror & the Light again soon! I got about 100 pages into it on my first attempt, but the time has never seemed right to go back to it.

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    As you know my most recent historical-fiction read was Anna of Kleve: The Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir, which was a bit of disappoint, well in comparison to the previous books in the series. So I do hope your enjoying the Katherine Parr instalment better. 🤞 Thankfully not long before this I read and loved Justice Hall by Laurie R. King another nostalgic murder-mystery with Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes. 😊

  6. Lory says:

    I’m reading The Corner that Held Them for the other Helen’s Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week. It’s brilliantly written and quite a unique window into the world of a 14th century convent.

    • Helen says:

      I still haven’t read anything by Sylvia Townsend Warner, although I’ve been meaning to for years. The Corner That Held Them sounds fascinating – thanks!

  7. Jennifer says:

    I’ve read all five of the short-listed novels and while they are all well written, my favourites would be The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. Then I’d have The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams.

  8. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    I haven’t read any of the nominated novels just yet, so I can’t say which one deserved to win. I was also sad to hear about the news of Riley’s death. She was still so young and finally had some success with her novels (I read in an interview that she had a poor youth and it was difficult for her to get published, how different things can play out sometimes…).

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t know that about Lucinda Riley’s youth. I’m glad she did manage to get published and had so much success with her novels later in life.

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