Historical Musings #34: Historical fiction to look out for in 2018

This time last year, I put together a list of upcoming historical fiction releases that I was looking forward to in 2017. For my first Historical Musings post of 2018, I’ve decided to do the same.

The publication dates I’ve given are for the UK only and may be subject to change. The dates for other countries could be slightly different – maybe you’ve already had the opportunity to read some of these! I haven’t provided a synopsis for each book, but the ‘find out more’ links will take you to Goodreads or other sites where you can find more information.

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
25 Jan 2018
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I’ve actually just finished reading this one but am still including it here as it hasn’t been published yet. You’ll have to wait to read my thoughts until later in the month.

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The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
1 February 2018
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This sounds like a book I should enjoy; a dark and atmospheric novel set in 1830s London. I have a review copy so should be reading it very soon.

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The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements
8 February 2018
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Having read Katherine Clements’ first two novels, I have been looking forward to her third one. A ghost story set in seventeenth century Yorkshire, it sounds a bit different from her others.

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Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick
1 March 2018
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Elizabeth Chadwick’s new novel is another to feature William Marshal, the hero of several of her earlier books. I still haven’t read The Scarlet Lion, so I’m planning to read it while I’m waiting for Templar Silks.

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The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor
5 April 2018
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Andrew Taylor’s latest historical mystery is the sequel to The Ashes of London. James Marwood and Cat Lovett are investigating a series of murders which take place in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, as the city is starting to rebuild.

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Circe by Madeline Miller
19 April 2018
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It’s been a long wait since Madeline Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, was published in 2011, but Circe is here at last. I’m expecting another combination of Greek mythology and historical fiction, this time telling the story of the witch Circe from the Odyssey.

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Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen by Alison Weir
3 May 2018
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The third book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series about the six wives of Henry VIII is, unsurprisingly, the story of Jane Seymour. I have read about Jane less often than Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, so I’ve been looking forward to this one. I’m not sure why Jane is ‘the haunted queen’ but maybe I’ll find out when I read the book.

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Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien
31 May 2018
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I have enjoyed several of Anne O’Brien’s previous novels, so I’m sure I’ll be reading her new one. Queen of the North will tell the story of Elizabeth Mortimer, great-granddaughter of Edward III and wife of Henry Percy (better known as Hotspur).

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The Poison Bed by EC Fremantle
14 June 2018
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This historical thriller seems to be a slight change of direction for Elizabeth Fremantle (author of novels such as The Queen’s Gambit and Watch the Lady), which must be why it’s being published under a different name. I can’t wait to read it, especially as the subject of the novel (the Overbury Scandal of 1615) is something I read about for the first time just last year.

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The Romanov Empress by CW Gortner
10 July 2018
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I love Russian history so I’m looking forward to CW Gortner’s new novel which is about Maria Feodorovna, mother of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II.

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The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola
26 July 2018
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This is Anna Mazzola’s second novel (I read her first, The Unseeing, last year) and it sounds fascinating: a “period novel of folk tales, disappearances and injustice set on the Isle of Skye”.

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Court of Wolves by Robyn Young
9 August 2018
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Not much information available about this one yet, but it will be the second in Robyn Young’s New World Rising series which began with Sons of the Blood and is set in Renaissance Europe.

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A Gathering of Ghosts by Karen Maitland
6 Sept 2018
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This sounds like a good one to read later in the year when the nights are getting darker. It’s described as a medieval thriller in which “Religious fervour meets pagan superstition”. Maitland is another author whom I have previously enjoyed, so I will definitely be looking out for this one in September.

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A few others I’m interested in reading:

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce – 5 April 2018
The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne – 19 April 2018
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson – 3 May 2018
The Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst – 3 May 2018
The House of Gold by Natasha Solomons – 3 May 2018
The Pharmacist’s Wife by Vanessa Tait – 4 May 2018
The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson – 31 May 2018
For the Immortal by Emily Hauser – 14 June 2018
The Dying of the Light by Robert Goolrick – 3 July 2018

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Are you looking forward to any of these books – or have you already had the chance to read some of them? Which other historical fiction novels coming in 2018 have caught your eye?

Historical Musings #33: My year in historical fiction – 2017

Last year, for my December Historical Musings post, I put together a summary of my year in historical fiction. This December I’ve decided to do the same, thinking it would be interesting to make comparisons and see if there have been any significant changes in my reading choices since last year.

I know there are still a few weeks of 2017 left, but I don’t expect to finish many more books before the end of the year – not enough to really have any effect on these statistics anyway!

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Time periods read about in 2017

Books set in the 19th and 20th centuries made up almost half of my historical reading this year, with the 15th-18th centuries also quite popular. As usual, it’s the earlier time periods that are under-represented in my reading; I read two books set in Ancient Greece, two in Ancient Rome and one – The Serpent Sword – in the 7th century.

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47.3% of the historical fiction authors I read this year were new to me.

Three books I enjoyed by new-to-me historical fiction authors this year:
The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick
The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull
Widdershins by Helen Steadman

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Publication dates of books read in 2017

This category shows a similar pattern to last year, with most of the historical fiction I’ve read being published in the 21st century. However, this year I have only read one historical fiction novel published earlier than 1900 – The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas.

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9.6% of my historical reads in 2017 were historical mysteries.

Three historical mysteries I’ve enjoyed reading this year:
The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes
Heartstone by CJ Sansom
Soot by Andrew Martin

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I’ve read historical fiction set in 21 different countries this year.

Like last year, nearly half of the historical novels I’ve read have been set in my own country, followed by France and Italy again. However, I have increased the number of different countries I’ve read about from 13 to 21 and hope to continue improving on this in 2018.

Three books I’ve read not set in England:
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Australia)
Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft (Egypt)
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Switzerland)

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Five historical men I’ve read about this year:

Nero

Jasper Tudor (First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson)
Nero (The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George)
The Marquis de Montespan (The Hurlyburly’s Husband by Jean Teulé)
Somerled (The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior)
Thomas Keith (Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff)

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Five historical women I’ve read about this year:

Mata Hari

Marie Antoinette (The Empress of Hearts by E Barrington)
Joan of Kent (The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien)
Lucrezia Borgia (The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner)
Mata Hari (Mata Hari by Michelle Moran)
Mary Seton (The Queen’s Mary by Sarah Gristwood)

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What about you? Have you read any good historical fiction this year? Have you read any of the books or authors I’ve mentioned here?

Historical Musings #32: Exploring South America

While I was reading The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have read very few books set in South America, historical or otherwise. The Bedlam Stacks involves a mission to 1860s Peru in search of quinine and is the only book about Peru I can remember reading. And it’s not just Peru, because Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and all the other countries that make up South America have also featured rarely or not at all in my reading.

A quick search of the historical fiction reviews on my blog brings up only one result: The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley, which tells the story of a young woman who lived in Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s and played a part in the creation of the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Expanding the search to include reviews of any genre, I also found Little Black Lies, a crime novel by Sharon Bolton set in the Falkland Islands, and Three Singles to Adventure, Gerald Durrell’s account of an animal-collecting expedition to Guyana. And that’s all. I can’t think of many examples from my pre-blogging days either, so clearly there’s a big gap in my reading that needs to be filled!

Do you have any good books to recommend that are set in South America? For the purposes of this post I would particularly like to hear about historical fiction or non-fiction – anything that will help me to understand the histories of these countries – but contemporary suggestions are welcome too.

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Added to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* The Queen’s Mary by Sarah Gristwood
* Shadows and Strongholds by Elizabeth Chadwick
* The Marsh King’s Daughter by Elizabeth Chadwick
* Voice of the Falconer by David Blixt
* The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw
* Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
* Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon
* The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today by Alison Weir

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

Historical Musings #31: Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction! This month I thought it would be interesting to look at one of the most basic questions people often ask about historical fiction – and to which there seems to be no right or wrong answer. That is, how long ago does a book need to be set for it to be considered ‘historical fiction’?

There is no definitive set of criteria to say what is historical fiction and what isn’t, although it seems quite obvious to me that for a book to be described as historical it needs to be set not just in our past, but also in the author’s past. I sometimes see books like Pride and Prejudice mentioned on lists of historical fiction and, in my opinion, those books don’t belong on that sort of list as they were contemporary at the time when they were written. Other people must disagree, so there is clearly some confusion over what ‘historical’ means and how it should be defined.

To use Charles Dickens as an example, Oliver Twist was written in the 1830s and set in the 1830s, whereas A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859 and set in the previous century, during the French Revolution. From the perspective of the modern day reader, both of these books may feel historical, but there is a difference: in one Dickens is writing about his own time period, while in the other he is writing about a much earlier period he has not actually experienced for himself. Of the two, only A Tale of Two Cities is historical fiction.

So, back to the question of how far into the past a book has to be set before you can call it historical fiction. If a novel set in the 1990s is published today, would you say it’s historical? I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that, as it feels much too recent…but what if it is set in the 1980s…1970s…1960s? What if the author is younger than I am and is writing about a period within my own lifetime but not theirs? What should we use as the cut-off point?

Here are some definitions from other sources:

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction:

Reflecting the subtitle ‘Sixty Years Since’ of Scott’s most famous work Waverley, the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years ago.

The Historical Novel Society:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

What do you think? How ‘historical’ does historical fiction need to be?

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Books added to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker
* Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell
* A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
* The Governor’s Ladies by Deryn Lake
* Munich by Robert Harris

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

Historical Musings #30: Exploring Australia

In a comment on my last Historical Musings post – on the subject of nautical fiction – Yvonne mentioned that books set in Australia often feature a sea voyage, which is understandable as transportation (the relocation of prisoners) played such a big part in Australian history. I hadn’t read any of the books Yvonne referred to – and this made me think of how few historical fiction novels set in Australia I have actually read!

I have searched through my blog archives and it seems that the only Australian historical novels I have reviewed are The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally, about two sisters from the Macleay Valley who serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War, and The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife living on a remote island off the coast of Australia in the 1920s. There’s also The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, but that book is only partially set in Australia and not entirely historical either, although it does include some wonderful 19th century ghost stories!

Thinking of books that I read in the years before I started blogging, the only ones that come to mind are Colleen McCullough’s family saga, The Thorn Birds, and All the Rivers Run by Nancy Cato (of which I can remember nothing other than that I enjoyed it at the time). I obviously need to read more Australian novels! I found an interesting list at Goodreads but I’ve only heard of a few of those books…so where should I start?

Can you recommend any good historical fiction set in Australia?

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New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
* The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick
* The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn
* The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
* Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer
* The Last Hours by Minette Walters
* The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley
* The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

Historical Musings #29: All at sea

After last month’s post in which I discussed my feelings about battle scenes in historical fiction, this month’s is on a similar topic: scenes set at sea – which may or may not include sea battles! With air travel being a relatively recent invention, it’s obvious that travel by ship or boat is going to play a significant role in many historical fiction novels. This is something I have often struggled with, but that is starting to change, thanks largely to my decision to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. This is the beginning of my review from February 2013 of the first book in the series, Master and Commander:

I do not usually like books set at sea. However hard I try, I just can’t seem to keep track of the nautical terms and as soon as I see words like ‘mainsail’, ‘fo’c’sle’ or ‘bosun’ my brain just seems to switch off. As a fan of historical fiction, I have been unable to avoid this entirely – after all, until the 20th century the only way to cross the sea was by ship and many historical fiction novels do involve a sea voyage or two – but the thought of reading a book where seafaring forms a major part of the plot is always quite daunting for me.

Four years later, and I am now in the middle of the sixth book, The Fortune of War. Although I still can’t claim to understand all of the naval terms or to follow everything that is happening in the sea battles, I feel that I can understand and follow as much as I need to!

Some other historical novels I’ve read with strong nautical elements:

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

She Rises by Kate Worsley

The Time of Terror by Seth Hunter

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Some of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels also feature passages set at sea, as do Diana Gabaldon’s – as well as The Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull, which I read a few months ago and loved, and the book I have just finished reading, Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye. In books like these though, the sea travel arises naturally from the story, as a way of getting the characters from one point to another, rather than the author sitting down to specifically write a nautical novel. As I said in last month’s post on battles, if I have already formed a connection with the characters and care about what happens to them, I will be interested in reading about any situation they find themselves in, even if it’s something I might otherwise find boring or challenging.

How do you feel about historical fiction set at sea? Do you have any good ship-based books to recommend?

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New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* Circe by Madeline Miller – I’ve been waiting for another book from Madeline Miller since reading The Song of Achilles in 2012. This won’t be published until 2018 (I got a copy from NetGalley) but it’s the story of the witch from the Odyssey and sounds intriguing!
* The Tudor Heritage by Lynda M Andrews – This is a reissue of a book about the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign, originally published in 1977.
* The King’s Bed by Margaret Campbell Barnes – I’ve read a few other books by Margaret Campbell Barnes so couldn’t resist this one about an illegitimate son of Richard III.
* The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements – Having enjoyed Katherine Clements’ previous two novels I was delighted to receive this 17th century gothic ghost story from NetGalley too.

* And one non-fiction book: Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir – I know very little about most of the medieval queens featured in this book, so I’m expecting to learn a lot!

Have you added any new historical fiction (or non-fiction) to your shelves recently?

Historical Musings #28: Battle scenes – love them or hate them?

It’s an unfortunate fact that war and conflict have played important roles in shaping the history of just about every country in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that they also have a big part to play in many historical fiction novels. From Viking invasions to medieval sieges to the trench warfare of World War I, it can be difficult to avoid battle scenes of one sort or another when reading books set in the past.

I wouldn’t necessarily complain about books containing too many battle scenes – obviously, as I’ve said, the impact of war throughout history is something which can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, and it would be hard to write about certain time periods without covering at least some of the military history of that period. However, I don’t always find battle scenes particularly interesting to read and often find myself becoming confused, no matter how hard I try to concentrate and follow what is happening. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions: I will sometimes comment in a review that “I even enjoyed the battles”, which is high praise from me! I remember being completely gripped by Sharon Penman’s portrayal of the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in The Sunne in Splendour – and while I much preferred the peace sections of War and Peace, I found that some of the most powerful and memorable moments occurred in the war chapters.

In general, though, it’s fair to say that I am not really a big fan of battle scenes, which is why I tend not to be drawn to authors like Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden very often. It’s not just the battles themselves that I sometimes struggle to engage with – it’s everything else that goes with them: discussing military tactics, planning campaigns, learning to use weapons etc. Again, there are exceptions and some authors still succeed in holding my attention with these scenes, but I would usually prefer them to be just one aspect of a novel rather than the main focus.

Sword fighting is a different matter. I love a good fictional duel! Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche has some great duel scenes – and there’s one in The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett which has to be one of the most tense and exciting scenes I’ve ever read, partly because by the time the scene appears in the novel we are so emotionally invested in the two participants that it would be impossible not to be on the edge of our seats. And actually, I think that is why, in terms of larger-scale combat scenes, some of them work for me and some don’t – it’s all down to the emotional connection. If I can be made to feel that I’m there on the battlefield with a character I already care about and want desperately to survive, then I’m probably going to enjoy reading that scene.

Then, of course, there are sea battles – but I think that’s a topic for another post!

How do you feel about battle scenes in historical fiction? Do you love them or hate them? Which authors do you think write the best battle scenes?

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New to my historical fiction shelves this month:

* Widdershins by Helen Steadman – I can’t wait to read this new novel about the 1650 Newcastle witch trials.
* Glendower Country by Martha Rofheart – The kindle version was free on Amazon last week and as I’ve enjoyed some of Martha Rofheart’s other books I couldn’t resist this one, set in Wales. (Also published as Cry God for Glendower.)
* The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – This one sounds fascinating so I was pleased to receive a review copy from NetGalley, but the publication date is not until January 2018 so you’ll have to wait a while to hear my thoughts on it!
* Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault – I’ve been interested in reading Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy for a while and was lucky enough to find a copy of the first book in my favourite bookshop, Barter Books, yesterday.
* The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas – Another one from Barter Books. I have read and loved two other books by Elizabeth Loupas, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.

Have you added any interesting historical fiction to your shelves lately?