Historical Musings #55: Lest we forget

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. As tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday, I thought it would be appropriate to devote this month’s post to historical novels which explore the impact and legacy of the First World War. I’ve always found this an interesting and moving period to read about and have come across books which cover almost every aspect of the war you can think of.

I’ve read books about wartime nurses (The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally and The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr), the horrors of life in the trenches (The Lie by Helen Dunmore) and men left suffering from shell shock (Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan), what it means to be a conscientious objector (The Absolutist by John Boyne and If You Go Away by Adele Parks), the class and social changes that came about because of the war (The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn and The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson), and even the bravery of the horses that served in the war (War Horse by Michael Morpurgo).

I’ve also discovered family sagas which are set at least partly during the war (Post of Honour by RF Delderfield and The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville), historical mysteries set during or just after the war (The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller) and fictional accounts of real people and their wartime experiences (Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud and Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore).

A good range of books there, I think, and although I can’t say that I loved all of them, I do think they all have something to offer and provide some insights into different aspects of the war. One thing I can say for certain is that reading about the war has helped me to appreciate the courage and resilience faced by both those on the front line and those left behind at home.

Now it’s your turn. Which books set during World War I would you recommend?

Historical Musings #54: Historical Highlights

This month – on Wednesday 16th October to be precise – my blog will be ten years old! To mark the occasion, I thought I would use this month’s Historical Musings post to look back at some of the best historical fiction I have read since I started blogging in 2009. I have listed a selection of highlights for each year and apologise to any books and authors I haven’t managed to include!

In 2009:

* This was not a full year of blogging – just two and a half months – and only a few of the books I read in that time could be classed as historical fiction, but I particularly enjoyed The Moonlit Cage by Linda Holeman.

In 2010:

* I read my first Georgette Heyer novel, The Talisman Ring, and couldn’t believe I hadn’t started reading her books earlier! I also read my first books by Sarah Waters, Tracy Chevalier and Lisa See and have gone on to read more by all of them.
* One of my favourite books of the year was The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman, a book which sparked my interest in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III.
* I also loved The Black Tulip, The Meaning of Night and The Saffron Gate.

In 2011:

* My first read of the year was the wonderful The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. Only part of the book is set in the past and the rest is contemporary, but I love the way the transitions between the two are handled.
* Andrew Taylor and Jane Harris were two authors I read for the first time in 2011 and still love. I read two books by each in 2011 and my favourites were The American Boy (by Taylor) and Gillespie and I (by Harris).
* Other books I particularly enjoyed were Jamrach’s Menagerie, Passion, The Sisters Brothers and Stone’s Fall.

In 2012:

* This was the year I discovered Dorothy Dunnett! Reading the six books that make up The Lymond Chronicles – and then later in the year, the eight books of The House of Niccolò – was the highlight not just of 2012, but of my whole ten years of blogging.
* I also loved Scaramouche, Here Be Dragons, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Wolf Hall. I read the first book in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series this year too.
* The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye was probably the biggest surprise of the year, as I didn’t expect to like it much but ended up really enjoying it.

In 2013:

* I started two new series that I loved but still haven’t finished: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings.
* New authors read for the first time in 2013 included Elizabeth Fremantle, John Boyne, Mary Renault and Anne O’Brien. I also read my first two books by Guy Gavriel Kay – Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan, fantasy set in worlds closely resembling real periods of history.
* Other favourites this year were The King’s General, Bring Up the Bodies, King Hereafter and Captain Blood.

In 2014:

* I started two new historical mystery series in 2014 – first I met Matthew Shardlake in CJ Sansom’s Dissolution – and then Thomas Hawkins in Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea. Another historical crime novel I enjoyed, sadly not part of a series, was The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes.
* I read my first book by Robert Harris: his excellent novel about the Dreyfus Affair, An Officer and a Spy.
* I also loved The Moon in the Water, Hild, Bitter Greens, Zemindar, Falls the Shadow and The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters. Another good year!

In 2015:

* I read Elizabeth Goudge for the first time in 2015 (The Child from the Sea) and I also enjoyed Alias Grace, The Sea-Hawk, Gildenford, and the Ibis trilogy.
* After avoiding books set in Ancient Rome for most of my life, two of my favourite books of the year turned out to be Imperium and Lustrum by Robert Harris, the first two books in his Cicero trilogy.
* Here on the blog I announced my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project (something I have sadly neglected in recent months and need to get back to). In April 2015 I also started my monthly Historical Musings posts. In the very first of these posts I asked a simple question: Do you read historical fiction?

In 2016:

* I read a lot of classic historical fiction in 2016 including Lorna Doone, Mauprat, Kristin Lavransdatter and Redgauntlet – and I finished Alexandre Dumas’ d’Artagnan series this year as well.
* The Classics Club Spin gave me Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger. A great result as I loved it!
* I also enjoyed reading Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy, Restoration and Merivel by Rose Tremain – and my first of Rosemary Sutcliff’s adult novels, The Rider of the White Horse.

In 2017:

* 2017 got off to a good start with The Red Sphinx and His Bloody Project and continued to be a good year for historical fiction. Some of my favourites of the year included Golden Hill, Wintercombe, Towers in the Mist and A Gentleman in Moscow – and two books by Rebecca Mascull, The Wild Air and Song of the Sea Maid.
* I read Shadow of the Moon for a summer readalong. As an MM Kaye fan, I don’t know why I hadn’t read it earlier, and of course I loved it.
* I also enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale, the first in a fantasy trilogy grounded strongly in historical Russia, and I started Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles (yet another series I still need to finish).

In 2018:

* I enjoyed re-reading Penmarric by Susan Howatch and really don’t know why I do so little re-reading these days.
* Some of my favourite historical fiction novels in 2018 were about real historical figures such as the Brontë sisters (Dark Quartet), Elizabeth Mortimer (Queen of the North) and William Marshal (The Scarlet Lion).
* I loved meeting Emmy Lake in AJ Pearce’s wartime novel Dear Mrs Bird, a book I thought was the perfect combination of light and dark.

In 2019:

* Well, 2019 isn’t over yet but so far some of my favourites have been The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop, Things in Jars by Jess Kidd and The Devil’s Slave by Tracy Borman.

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I hope I’ve convinced you to try some of these books, if you haven’t already! What are your own historical highlights of the last few years?

September Quiz – The Answers!

Thanks to everyone who took part in my historical fiction first lines quiz last weekend. As promised, here are the answers:

1. I was down in Surrey, on business for Lord Cromwell’s office, when the summons came.
Dissolution by CJ Sansom

2. It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.
Outlander/Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

3. His children are falling from the sky.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

4. Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn was born in a camp near the crest of a pass in the Himalayas, and subsequently christened in a patent canvas bucket.
The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye

5. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

6. When the east wind blows up Helford river the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

7. On the step of her new husband’s home, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

8. Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods.
The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

9. On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of Romance of the Rose was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

10. The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

11. My father is Sir Richard Woodville, Baron Rivers, an English nobleman, a landholder, and a supporter of the true Kings of England, the Lancastrian line.
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

12. When the year one thousand came, Thorkel Amundason was five years old, and hardly noticed how frightened everyone was.
King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

13. In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster.
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

14. In the tender green time of April, Katherine set forth at last upon her journey with the two nuns and the royal messenger.
Katherine by Anya Seton

15. At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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I hope you all had fun with the quiz. I think every book apart from The Three Musketeers and Days Without End was correctly guessed by at least one person. Well done everyone!

Historical Musings #53: A quiz for September

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction.

This month I thought I would do something slightly different and put together a little quiz for you. I’ve listed below the opening lines from fifteen historical fiction novels, ranging from classics to recent bestsellers to some of my personal favourites. If you think you can identify any of them, leave a comment with your guesses and I’ll post the answers next week.

Have fun!

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1. I was down in Surrey, on business for Lord Cromwell’s office, when the summons came.

2. It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.

3. His children are falling from the sky.

4. Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn was born in a camp near the crest of a pass in the Himalayas, and subsequently christened in a patent canvas bucket.

5. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

6. When the east wind blows up Helford river the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores.

7. On the step of her new husband’s home, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud.

8. Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods.

9. On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of Romance of the Rose was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it.

10. The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.

11. My father is Sir Richard Woodville, Baron Rivers, an English nobleman, a landholder, and a supporter of the true Kings of England, the Lancastrian line.

12. When the year one thousand came, Thorkel Amundason was five years old, and hardly noticed how frightened everyone was.

13. In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster.

14. In the tender green time of April, Katherine set forth at last upon her journey with the two nuns and the royal messenger.

15. At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.

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How many of these do you know?

Historical Musings #52: Medicine through time

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

The history of medicine is something I’ve always found fascinating and clearly there are many historical fiction authors who find it fascinating too, given the number of historical novels which feature doctors, nurses and healers from times gone by, doing their best for their patients despite the limited equipment, medicines and knowledge available to them. I thought I would mention some of them here, and then, if you can think of any others, I would love to hear your recommendations.

The first books that come to mind are three novels by Noah Gordon which I read before blogging and loved (or two of them, anyway – the third was slightly weaker). The Physician is set in the 11th century and follows the story of Rob Cole, a Christian boy from England who disguises himself as a Jew so that he can travel to Persia and study medicine with the great Ibn Sina. In the second book, Shaman, which is set in 19th century America, we meet one of Cole’s descendants, another Rob J. Cole and his son, a deaf boy known as Shaman who is determined not to let his deafness prevent him from carrying on the family tradition and becoming a doctor. The final book in the trilogy, Matters of Choice, has a contemporary setting and a female protagonist (Roberta J. Cole), but I remember feeling disappointed by it. The first two books are on my list for a re-read so I can see what I think of them now.

Thinking about books which aren’t specifically about medicine but have characters who are doctors, there’s Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series. Stephen Maturin, one of the two main characters, is a physician and ship’s surgeon during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. One of the things I love about O’Brian’s portrayal of Stephen is the way he only allows him the knowledge that would have been available to him in that period and avoids any irritating anachronisms. There’s also Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. The books are narrated by Claire, a 1940s nurse who travels back in time to the 18th century, which provides an interesting perspective as Claire’s more advanced medical knowledge and skills mean that she is able to save people who would otherwise have died – but at the same time arouse suspicions that she is a witch.

It didn’t take much for a woman to be described as a witch in less enlightened times. A reputation as a healer and an interest in herbs and remedies was usually all that was needed. Some examples are Froniga in The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge, Frances Gorges in The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman or the title character in Corrag by Susan Fletcher. Ariana Franklin, in Mistress of the Art of Death and its sequels (set in the 12th century), tells us that her protagonist Adelia Aguilar studied at the medical school in Salerno which accepted female students, and in Margaret Skea’s 16th century novel By Sword and Storm, Maggie Munro is given an opportunity to study medicine in France, although not quite in the way she would have liked. But they are exceptions and usually, in historical fiction set in those early periods, if women had a gift for healing and wanted to use it, it was difficult for them to do so without leaving themselves open to accusations of witchcraft.

By the 19th century, things have improved, although still not enough. Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss is the story of Ally, a girl from Victorian Manchester who is among the first group of women to attend the first medical school in London to take female students. This book made me appreciate how challenging it must have been for these early female medical pioneers to enter a field dominated by men.

This post is starting to get very long and I still have a few more books I want to highlight, so I will just give them a brief mention:

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – the story of twins, Marion and Shiva, who grow up in and around a hospital in 1950s Ethiopia after the disappearance of their father, a British surgeon.

Restoration and Merivel – Robert Merivel is an aspiring physician in Restoration London, but not a very successful one, as he discovers when he is made ‘Surgeon to the King’s Spaniels’.

The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas – a fictional look at the lives of three trainee nurses at a teaching hospital in 1930s London.

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry – the first in a new series of historical mysteries set in 19th century Edinburgh. The protagonist, Will Raven, is a student apprenticed to the famous Scottish obstetrician Dr James Simpson. I have the second book, The Art of Dying, on the TBR.

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Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Do you have any other novels about medicine through time to recommend?

Historical Musings #51: The Long Take – and a question of perspective

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

Let’s start with the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, which was announced yesterday at the Borders Book Festival. Congratulations to Robin Robertson who has won the prize with The Long Take, a book written in a combination of prose and verse. I haven’t managed to read this book yet, but here is what the Walter Scott Prize website has to say about it:

Walker is a Canadian veteran of the Normandy Landings and this extraordinary and exceptional prose/verse narrative tracks the progress of this damaged but decent man through the bleak and violent streets of post-war America. While New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are in a state of constant change and reinvention Walker is trapped by his searing experiences; his devils too present for him but to remain an outsider. Illustrated with grainy black and white photographs and inviting comparison with cinema The Long Take defies conventional literary boundaries but is a moving, memorable and wholly original work of writing.

The other shortlisted books were:

After the Party by Cressida Connolly (my review)
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (my review)
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (my review)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (not yet read)
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (not yet read)

The Long Take was probably the book that sounded least appealing to me from this year’s list, so I will be interested to see what I think of it when I get around to reading it. If you have read it, did you enjoy it and do you think it is a deserving winner?

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On a different topic, I came across this interesting quote in one of my recent reads, The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie:

Mr Quin shook his head gently. “I disagree with you. The evidence of history is against you. The contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting the true perspective, of seeing things in proportion. If you like to call it so, it is, like everything else, a question of relativity.”

Alex Portal leant forward, his face twitching painfully. “You are right, Mr Quin,” he cried, “you are right. Time does not dispose of a question – it only presents it anew in a different guise.”

What do you think? I think the opposite argument could be made – that it could be the contemporary historian who writes a truer history because they are actually experiencing the period and events which they are writing about and will understand them in a way a later historian can’t. On the other hand, somebody in the modern day writing about an earlier period will be able to look at that period in the context of what happened afterwards, has a wider range of sources to study and can draw on research and information that has come to light more recently (such as the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in 2012).

To give an example from the world of fiction, would we learn more about the Regency period from reading Jane Austen, who lived and wrote during that time, or from an author like Georgette Heyer, who was writing in the 20th century but researched the Regency thoroughly? Which gives us a more accurate idea of Victorian society – Bleak House by Charles Dickens or Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters?

What are your opinions on this?

Historical Musings #50: Presidential Historical Fiction

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I got the idea for this month’s post when my blogging friend Judy commented on one of my reviews that as an American she knows a lot more about American history than British history. I’m sure most people would say the same – that we have a better knowledge of our own country’s history than any other – and it’s certainly true in my case, which is why I’ve been making an effort over the last few years to branch out and read more historical fiction set in places I’m less familiar with. In previous posts I’ve asked for some suggestions of novels set in Japan, Australia, India, China and Wales, to give just a few examples.

But Judy’s comment reminded me that there are also some areas of American history than I know very little about – not so much the major events (I’ve read quite a lot of fiction set during the Civil War and Revolutionary War, as well as books that span several centuries of history like New York by Edward Rutherfurd) but the people. I’m ashamed to admit that there are many presidents and First Ladies who are little more than names to me.

This month, then, I’m looking for your recommendations of historical fiction about US presidents and/or their wives and families. I’m sure some of you will have read non-fiction books about the lives of presidents and I’m happy to hear about those too, but when I don’t know much about a subject I often find it easier to learn through fiction at first. The only one which comes to mind that I’ve read so far is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; apart from that, I’ve read some books where presidents make brief appearances, but I can’t think of any others where they have been the main focus of the story. Here are some lists I found that might provide a starting point, but as I don’t know anything about any of these books I will need some advice!

Historical Fiction about Presidents or Their Wives (Goodreads)
Presidential Historical Fiction Books (Bookbub)
Historical Fiction Books about First Ladies (Bookbub)

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Have you read any Presidential/First Lady fiction? Which books would you recommend?