Historical Musings #57: Historical fiction to look out for in 2020

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction.

As has become a tradition here, I am devoting my first Historical Musings post of the year to a preview of some of the new historical fiction being published this year. This is by no means a complete list – simply a selection of books that I personally am interested in reading or that have caught my attention for one reason or another. Publication dates are for the UK and could change.

January

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson – Joanna Hickson’s latest Tudor novel tells the story of Joan Vaux, one of Elizabeth of York’s household. I have already started reading this one which was published on Thursday. [9th January]

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau – Having enjoyed all of Nancy Bilyeau’s previous novels (the Joanna Stafford trilogy and The Blue) I have my copy of Dreamland ready to begin. Set in Coney Island in 1911, this is a very different time period and setting for Bilyeau, but is already getting good reviews. [16th January]

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende – I wasn’t very impressed with my first Allende book, The Japanese Lover, but I thought I would give her another chance and try her new one, set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. [21st January]

February

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – I have to admit, it was the cover that drew me to this book, but the setting – 17th century Norway – and the plot, ‘Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials’, both sound appealing too. [6th February]

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd – I loved Glasfurd’s first book, The Words in my Hand, about the mistress of Rene Descartes, so I was excited to find that she has another book coming out soon. This one is about the eruption of an Indonesian volcano in 1815. [6th February]

Requiem for a Knave by Laura Carlin – I had mixed feelings about Laura Carlin’s previous novel, The Wicked Cometh, but I still want to read her new one, about a 14th century pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, as it sounds so interesting. [6th February]

March

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – This, the final part of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, will surely be one of the most anticipated new releases of the year for many people. Not much longer to wait now! [5th March]

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey – Another book that I was initially drawn to by the cover and title, but the plot sounds intriguing too. It’s the story of a woman tasked with the evacuation of a collection of stuffed animals from the Natural History Museum during World War II. [5th March]

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson – I enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s last novel, The Sealwoman’s Gift, and this one sounds equally fascinating – a story woven around the building of the Loch Katrine waterworks in 19th century Scotland. [19th March]

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry – This is the sequel to Barry’s hugely successful Days Without End, which was actually my least favourite of his books so far. Barry’s writing is always beautiful, though, and this one, which focuses on one of the characters from that novel – the Lakota orphan, Winona – sounds more appealing to me. [19th March]

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – I haven’t read any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other books, but where better to start than with this new book about Shakespeare and the loss of his son, Hamnet. [31st March]

April

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor – I love Andrew Taylor’s books and have been enjoying his Marwood and Lovett series, set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. This is the fourth in the series and I’m sure it will be as good as the first three. [2nd April]

The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick – Nicola Cornick’s latest time slip novel moves between the present day and the 1560s, following the story of Amy Robsart, wife of the Elizabethan courtier Robert Dudley. [30th April]

May

When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby – I loved Carolyn Kirby’s first novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns, so I’m pleased to see she has another book out this year – although this one, set during World War II, sounds completely different! [7th May]

Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir – This fifth novel in the Six Tudor Queens series will focus, unsurprisingly, on Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katheryn Howard. I have read all of the first four books, so I will be reading this one too. [14th May]

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain – Rose Tremain’s new novel takes us from ‘the confines of an English tearoom to the rainforests of a tropical island via the slums of Dublin and the transgressive fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.’ Sounds intriguing! [28th May]

June

Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson – Following last year’s Blood & Sugar, this is another historical mystery set in the 18th century and featuring the character of Caro Corsham. In this book, Caro is investigating the death of a woman found in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. [25th June]

July

The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies – This sounds like a very different setting for Dinah Jefferies, whose previous novels have all been set in Asia. This one is about an Italian woman in 1940s Tuscany. [23rd July]

August

The Coming of the Wolf by Elizabeth Chadwick – This is a prequel to Chadwick’s first medieval novel, The Wild Hunt, which was published thirty years ago and which I still haven’t read. I will probably read this one first and then read The Wild Hunt and its sequels. [6th August – No cover for this one yet]

The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson – The next book in Antonia Hodgson’s wonderful Thomas Hawkins historical crime series. It seems like such a long time since the last one! [6th August]

September

China by Edward Rutherfurd – I’ve been waiting for this for years, but the publication date keeps being pushed back, so I hope it’s true that it’s finally coming in September. Like his other books, it will tell the story of a particular place – in this case, China – over a period of many years. [3rd September]

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett – This is set at the end of the Dark Ages and is described as a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth. I will probably read it, but I hope it will be better than the last book in the series, A Column of Fire. [15th September]

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Do any of these interest you? What have I missed? Are there any other new historical fiction novels being published in 2020 that you’re looking forward to reading?

Historical Musings #56: My year in historical fiction – 2019

It’s my final Historical Musings post of 2019, which means it’s time for my annual summary of my year in historical fiction! I have kept the same categories as in the previous three years so that it should be easy to make comparisons and to see if there have been any interesting changes in my reading patterns and choices (my 2018 post is here, 2017 here and 2016 here).

I know the year is not quite over yet, but I have a lot of other posts to fit in before the end of December and I don’t think I’ll read enough historical fiction in the final two weeks of the year to significantly affect these statistics anyway.

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Time periods read about in 2019

The 19th century has been the most popular time period in my historical fiction reading for the last three years and yet again it’s the clear winner.

I’ve only read two books set earlier than the 12th century this year and they were The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff and The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis.

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54.2% of the historical fiction authors I read this year were new to me.

This is up from 31.2% last year (and higher than 47.3% in 2017 and 26.4% in 2016 too).

Three books I’ve read by new-to-me historical fiction authors in 2019:
Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss
The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan by Cynthia Jefferies
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

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Publication dates of books read in 2019

No big surprises here. Most of the historical fiction novels I’ve read this year have been new releases with the rest spread evenly across 1950-2018 and only a few published earlier than that. The earliest was from 1810 – The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter.

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20.8% of my historical reads in 2019 were historical mysteries.

Up from 14.3% in 2018.

Three historical mysteries I’ve read this year:
The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve
The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor
Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

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I’ve read historical fiction set in 16 different countries this year.

Sadly, this is down from 22 countries in 2018 and 21 in 2017 – I’ll have to make more effort next year! As usual, I have read more books set in my own country (England) than any other, which is not a deliberate choice but more a reflection of the subjects and time periods I tend to be drawn to. France and Scotland were in second and third place this year (the opposite way round from last year).

Three books I’ve read set in countries other than my own:
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (South Korea)
Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop (Greece)
The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (Iceland)

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Four historical men I’ve read about this year:

Sir James Simpson

Richard II (A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle)
James Simpson (The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry)
William Wallace (The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter)
Casanova (Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon)

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Four historical women I’ve read about this year:

Grace Darling

Constance of York (A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien)
Grace Darling (The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor)
Isabella of France (The She-Wolf by Maurice Druon)
Nest ferch Rhys (The Drowned Court by Tracey Warr)

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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 and have you noticed any patterns or trends in your own reading?

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?