Historical Musings #64: My Year in Historical Fiction – 2020

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. For my first Musings post of the year, I am looking back at the historical fiction I read in 2020 and have put together my usual selection of charts and lists! I have kept the same categories as in the previous four 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 2019 post is here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here).

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Time periods read about in 2020

For the last four years, the 19th century has been the most popular time period for my historical fiction reading (in 2019, it was the setting for more than a third of the books I read). In 2020, there was a different winner: the time period I read about most often was the 17th century, with the 19th in second place, just ahead of the 20th and 16th.

I read 12 books in total set during the 17th century, with topics ranging from the Pendle Witch Trials (The Familiars by Stacey Halls) to the 1617 Vardø storm (The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave) and the Barbary pirate raid on Cornwall (The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson).

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32% of the historical fiction authors I read in 2020 were new to me.

This is down on 2019’s 54%, but I’m pleased that I still discovered a lot of new authors as well as reading books by favourite authors.

Three books I’ve read by new-to-me historical fiction authors in 2020:

The Almanack by Martine Bailey
Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin
The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

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Publication dates of books read in 2020

As usual, most of the historical fiction books I read were published in the current year. Not even a quarter of the books I read were published before 2000, which is disappointing for me as those older books are the ones I usually end up loving the most. I need to stop being tempted by all the new books on NetGalley!

The oldest one I read was The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883).

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10% of my historical reads in 2020 were historical mysteries.

This is lower than 2019’s 20% and 2018’s 14%.

Three historical mysteries I read last year:

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor
The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson
The Butcher of Berner Street by Alex Reeve

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I read historical fiction set in 19 different countries in 2020.

This is slightly more than the 16 different countries I read about in 2019, but I still want to make an effort to visit more countries in my reading this year, particularly African and Asian ones.

Three books I read last year set in countries other than my own:

The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies (Myanmar)
The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting (Norway)
Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten (Russia)

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Four historical men I’ve read about this year:

Bram Stoker (Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor)
Raphael (The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle)
Charles of Orléans (In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse)
Henry VIII (The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett)

Four historical women I’ve read about this year:

Eleanor of Provence (The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath)
Joan Vaux (The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson)
Aoife MacMurchada (The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick)
Belle Bilton (Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor)

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What about you? Did you read any good historical fiction last 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 #63: Books to look out for in 2021

Welcome to my (almost) monthly post on all things historical fiction!

Usually I devote my final Musings of the year to looking back at my previous twelve months of reading and putting together some charts and statistics, but I’ve decided it would really be better to do that in January so that the books I read in the last few days of December don’t get excluded. This month, then, I’m going to look forward instead to some of the upcoming historical fiction due to be published in 2021.

The books listed below are just a small selection that have come to my attention and are a combination of books that I’ve already received for review, books by authors I’ve previously read and enjoyed or books that just sound interesting. The publication dates I’ve given are for the UK and may be subject to change.

Blurbs are taken from Goodreads and Amazon.

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Nora by Nuala O’Connor (January 2021)

“Dublin, 1904. Nora Joseph Barnacle is a twenty-year-old from Galway working as a maid at Finn’s Hotel. She enjoys the liveliness of her adopted city and on June 16—Bloomsday—her life is changed when she meets Dubliner James Joyce, a fateful encounter that turns into a lifelong love. Despite his hesitation to marry, Nora follows Joyce in pursuit of a life beyond Ireland, and they surround themselves with a buoyant group of friends that grows to include Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and Sylvia Beach.

But as their life unfolds, Nora finds herself in conflict between their intense desire for each other and the constant anxiety of living in poverty throughout Europe. She desperately wants literary success for Jim, believing in his singular gift and knowing that he thrives on being the toast of the town, and it eventually provides her with a security long lacking in her life and his work. So even when Jim writes, drinks, and gambles his way to literary acclaim, Nora provides unflinching support and inspiration, but at a cost to her own happiness and that of their children.”

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The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (February 2021)

“PARIS, 1939
Odile Souchet is obsessed with books, and her new job at the American Library in Paris – with its thriving community of students, writers and book lovers – is a dream come true. When war is declared, the Library is determined to remain open. But then the Nazis invade Paris, and everything changes. In Occupied Paris, choices as black and white as the words on a page become a murky shade of grey – choices that will put many on the wrong side of history, and the consequences of which will echo for decades to come.

MONTANA, 1983
Lily is a lonely teenage desperate to escape small-town Montana. She grows close to her neighbour Odile, discovering they share the same love of language, the same longings. But as Lily uncovers more about Odile’s mysterious past, she discovers a dark secret, closely guarded and long hidden. Based on the true Second World War story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable novel of romance, friendship, family, and of heroism found in the quietest of places.”

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Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (February 2021)

“London, 1782, Caro Corsham finds a woman mortally wounded in the bowers of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

When the constables discover that the deceased woman was a high-society lady of the night, they stop searching for her killer – and it’s up to Caro to seek justice.

But the hidden corners of Georgian society are filled with artifice, deception and secrets, and finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous, than she can know…”

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The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (March 2021)

“1940. Three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes.

Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything—beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses — but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Awkward local girl Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles beneath her shy exterior.

1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter–the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together…”

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The Steel Beneath the Silk by Patricia Bracewell (March 2021)

“A breathtaking conclusion to Bracewell’s Emma of Normandy Trilogy, brimming with treachery, heartache, tenderness and passion as the English queen confronts ambitious and traitorous councilors, invading armies and the Danish king’s power-hungry concubine.

In the year 1012 England’s Norman-born Queen Emma has been ten years wed to an aging, ruthless, haunted King Æthelred. The marriage is a bitterly unhappy one, between a queen who seeks to create her own sphere of influence within the court and a suspicious king who eyes her efforts with hostility and resentment. But royal discord shifts to grudging alliance when Cnut of Denmark, with the secret collusion of his English concubine Elgiva, invades England at the head of a massive viking army. Amid the chaos of war, Emma must outwit a fierce enemy whose goal is conquest and outmaneuver the cunning Elgiva, who threatens all those whom Emma loves.”

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Ariadne by Jennifer Saint (April 2021)

“As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.

When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.

In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?

Ariadne gives a voice to the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, and speaks to their strength in the face of angry, petulant Gods. Beautifully written and completely immersive, this is an exceptional debut novel.”

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The Drowned City by KJ Maitland (April 2021)

“1606. A year to the day that men were executed for conspiring to blow up Parliament, a towering wave devastates the Bristol Channel. Some proclaim God’s vengeance. Others seek to take advantage.

In London, Daniel Pursglove lies in prison waiting to die. But Charles FitzAlan, close adviser to King James I, has a job in mind that will free a man of Daniel’s skill from the horrors of Newgate. If he succeeds.

For Bristol is a hotbed of Catholic spies, and where better for the lone conspirator who evaded arrest, one Spero Pettingar, to gather allies than in the chaos of a drowned city? Daniel journeys there to investigate FitzAlan’s lead, but soon finds himself at the heart of a dark Jesuit conspiracy – and in pursuit of a killer.”

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The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea (April 2021)

“Orkney, 1940. Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands. Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick.

Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artists swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea derbis, and something beautiful begins to blossom.

But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem.

Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters – their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire. A storm is coming…

In the tradition of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Metal Heart is a hauntingly rich Second World War love story about courage, brutality, freedom and beauty and the essence of what makes us human during the darkest of times.”

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The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor (April 2021)

“From the No.1 bestselling author of The Last Protector and The Ashes of London comes the next book in the phenomenally successful series following James Marwood and Cat Lovett during the time of King Charles II.

Two young girls plot a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards a government clerk dies painfully in mysterious circumstances. His colleague James Marwood is asked to investigate – but the task brings unexpected dangers.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Hakesby is working for a merchant who lives on Slaughter Street, where the air smells of blood and a captive Barbary lion prowls the stables. Then a prestigious new commission arrives. Cat must design a Poultry House for the woman that the King loves most in all the world.

Unbeknownst to all, at the heart of this lies a royal secret so explosive that it could not only rip apart England but change the entire face of Europe…”

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Katharine Parr: The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir (May 2021)

“A WOMAN TORN BETWEEN LOVE AND DUTY.

Two husbands dead, a boy and a sick man. And now Katharine is free to make her own choice.

The ageing King’s eye falls upon her. She cannot refuse him… or betray that she wanted another.

She becomes the sixth wife – a queen and a friend. Henry loves and trusts her. But Katharine is hiding another secret in her heart, a deeply held faith that could see her burn…

KATHARINE PARR. HENRY’S FINAL QUEEN. HER STORY.

Renowned, bestselling historian Alison Weir reveals a warm, clever woman of great fortitude who rose boldly to every turn her life took.”

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Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal (May 2021)

“1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.”

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China by Edward Rutherfurd (May 2021)

“China in the nineteenth century: a proud and ancient empire forbidden to foreigners. The West desires Chinese tea above all other things but lacks the silver to buy it. Instead, western adventurers resort to smuggling opium in exchange.

The Qing Emperor will not allow his people to sink into addiction. Viceroy Lin is sent to the epicentre of the opium trade, Canton, to stop it. The Opium Wars begin – heralding a period of bloody military defeats, reparations, and one-sided treaties which will become known as the Century of Humiliation.

From Hong Kong to Beijing to the Great Wall, from the exotic wonders of the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, to squalid village huts, the dramatic struggle rages across the Celestial Kingdom. This is the story of the Chinese people, high and low, and the Westerners who came to exploit the riches of their ancient land and culture.

We meet a young village wife struggling with the rigid traditions of her people, Manchu empresses and warriors, powerful eunuchs, fanatical Taiping and Boxer Rebels, savvy Chinese pirates, artists, concubines, scoundrels and heroes, well-intentioned missionaries and the rapacious merchants, diplomats and soldiers of the West. Fortunes will rise and fall, loves will be gained and lost.”

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Mrs England by Stacey Halls (June 2021)

“West Yorkshire, 1904. When newly graduated nurse Ruby May takes a position looking after the children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners, she hopes it will be the fresh start she needs. But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, it becomes clear there’s something not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious Mrs England.

Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby is forced to confront her own demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there’s no such thing as the perfect family – and she should know.

Simmering with slow-burning menace, Mrs England is a portrait of an Edwardian marriage, weaving an enthralling story of men and women, power and control, courage, truth and the very darkest deception. Set against the atmospheric landscape of West Yorkshire, Stacey Halls’ third novel proves her one of the most exciting and compelling new storytellers of our times.”

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The Women of Troy by Pat Barker (June 2021)

“Troy has fallen. The Greeks have won their bitter war. They can return home victors, loaded with their spoils: their stolen gold, stolen weapons, stolen women. All they need is a good wind to lift their sails.

But the wind does not come. The gods have been offended – the body of Priam lies desecrated, unburied – and so the victors remain in limbo, camped in the shadow of the city they destroyed, pacing at the edge of an unobliging sea. And, in these empty, restless days, the hierarchies that held them together begin to fray, old feuds resurface and new suspicions fester.

Largely unnoticed by her squabbling captors, Briseis remains in the Greek encampment. She forges alliances where she can – with young, dangerously naïve Amina, with defiant, aged Hecuba, with Calchus, the disgraced priest – and begins to see the path to a kind of revenge. Briseis has survived the Trojan War, but peacetime may turn out to be even more dangerous…”

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Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies (September 2021)

“Deep in the river valley of the Dordogne, in an old stone cottage on the edge of a beautiful village, three sisters long for the end of the war.

Hélène, the eldest, is trying her hardest to steer her family to safety, even as the Nazi occupation becomes more threatening.

Elise, the rebel, is determined to help the Resistance, whatever the cost.

And Florence, the dreamer, just yearns for a world where France is free.

Then, one dark night, the Allies come knocking for help. And Hélène knows that she cannot sit on the sidelines any longer. But bravery comes at a cost, and soon the sisters’ lives become even more perilous as they fight for what is right. And secrets from their own mysterious past threaten to unravel everything they hold most dear…”

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A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick (September 2021)

“England, 1238

Raised at the court of King Henry III as a chamber lady to the queen, young Joanna of Swanscombe’s life changes forever when she comes into an inheritance far above all expectations, including her own.

Now a wealthy heiress, Joanna’s arranged marriage to the King’s charming, tournament-loving half-brother William de Valence immediately stokes the flames of political unrest as more established courtiers object to the privileges bestowed on newcomers.

As Joanna and William strive to build a life together, England descends into a bitter civil war. In mortal danger, William is forced to run for his life, and Joanna is left with only her wit and courage to outfox their enemies and prevent them from destroying her husband, her family, and their fortunes.”

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Are you tempted by any of these? What else have I missed? Are there any other new historical fiction novels being published in 2021 that you’re looking forward to reading?

Historical Musings #62: World War II

Welcome to my (almost) monthly post on all things historical fiction.

This month, I have taken inspiration from one of my current reads, V2 by Robert Harris. I won’t say too much about that book here, as I will be reviewing it later in the week, but it’s set during the Second World War and follows the stories of a German engineer launching V2 rockets at London and a British WAAF officer on a mission to stop him. Unless something happens in the final few chapters to change my opinion entirely, it’s going to be a very positive review. I’m finding it fascinating as it looks at several aspects of the war I haven’t read about before – and that has made me think about some of the other novels I’ve read set during the war and the many different ways in which authors decide to approach the subject and the different things on which they choose to focus.

For those of us interested in reading about the roles of women in the war, for example, Kay in The Night Watch by Sarah Waters drives an ambulance, Constance in Lucinda Riley’s The Light Behind the Window is an SOE spy working in Occupied France, and in Carolyn Kirby’s When We Fall, Vee flies planes for the Air Transport Auxiliary and Ewa carries out secret missions for the Polish Resistance. On a more light-hearted note, Emmy in Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce answers letters for the problem page in a women’s weekly magazine!

Some books concentrate on one single event or episode, such as The Report by Jessica Francis Kane, about the bombing of the Bethnal Green tube station, or The Conductor by Sarah Quigley and The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons (read before I started blogging), about the Siege of Leningrad, while others, like The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, which follows the story of three Hungarian Jewish brothers, cover the whole span of the war.

Although most of the books I’ve read have been concerned mainly with the war in Europe, I have also read some set in America (The Postmistress by Sarah Blake and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford) and North Africa (Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson and Tapestry of War by Jane MacKenzie).

The Holocaust and the challenges faced by Jews during the war tend to feature strongly in wartime fiction. Far to Go by Alison Pick looks at the role of the Kindertransport and Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman focuses on the Hungarian Gold Train. There’s also Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, which is not about the Jewish Holocaust but the Gypsy Holocaust, which made an interesting change. And Japanese internment camps feature in Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover and Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff.

There are plenty of historical mysteries which have the war as a setting too: Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler, the first book in the Bryant and May series, deals with a murder in a London theatre during the Blitz, and Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie is the first in a quartet of mystery novels set in Occupied France.

The books I have mentioned here are all historical fiction, published many years after the war ended. Of course, there are also lots of wonderful contemporary novels written during or just after the war, but that would be a topic for another post, I think!

Have you read any of the books above or would you be interested in reading them? Are there any others you would recommend? Which aspects of the war do you find most interesting to read about?

Historical Musings #61: Art through the ages

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction.

The winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced on Friday: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to read all of the shortlisted titles (I posted the shortlist back in March) but I hope to catch up with them eventually. The Narrow Land is about the American artists Edward and Jo Hopper and the summer they spent in Cape Cod in 1950, so I thought it would be interesting this month to look at other historical fiction novels which feature famous artists.

Most recently, I have read Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin, which explores the relationship between James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his model and muse, Maud Franklin. I’m currently working through a backlog of books I need to review, so you will be able to read my thoughts on that one eventually!

Thinking of others I’ve read, the first that comes to mind is Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Set in the Netherlands in the 1660s, it tells the story of a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. There’s also The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan, a fictional memoir of the 15th century artist, Hans Memling.

Novels about early female artists are particularly interesting as they have received so little attention throughout history. The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen is a book about the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, who spent many years painting portraits at the Spanish court, while Michelle Diener’s In A Treacherous Court features Susanna Horenbout, a Flemish artist who worked as an illuminator at the court of Henry VIII. And although she’s not the main focus of the novel, Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle is written partly from the perspective of Levina Teerlinc, another female artist working during the Tudor period and best known as a painter of miniatures.

I’m sure I must have read other books about artists but these are all I can think of at the moment (I have read plenty of books with fictional artists, but that would be a topic for a separate post), so now it’s your turn. Have you read any fiction about the lives and work of artists – of any nationality and from any time period? I would love some recommendations.

Top Ten Tuesday – and Historical Musings #60: Ten reasons I love historical fiction

It’s been a while since I took part in Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) so I decided I would join in today. This week’s topic is: “Reasons Why I Love…[a favourite book, genre, author etc]”. I didn’t get round to putting one of my Historical Musings posts together for this month – I’m finding that even though I’m on furlough with all the time in the world to read and blog, I somehow seem to be getting less done than ever before – so I’m combining the two here by listing 10 reasons to love historical fiction.

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1. It provides the perfect opportunity to learn about other times and places.
When I read a good historical fiction novel, I am left with the feeling that not only have I been entertained by a great story, I’ve also learned something new. If a subject particularly interests me, I sometimes look for a non-fiction book so that I can add to my knowledge with some factual information, but in many cases my initial introduction to a new historical period or historical figure has been through fiction.

2. I find it much easier to retain facts gained through reading fiction rather than non-fiction.
For some reason, no matter how hard I try and no matter how fascinating the subject, I often seem to struggle to concentrate when I’m reading non-fiction. By the time I reach the end of the book I find I’ve forgotten a lot of the information I’ve just read. I am much more likely to remember names, dates and facts if they are given to me in the form of historical fiction.

3. It’s a great way of escaping from modern life for a while.
Although I do sometimes like to read contemporary fiction, I am usually much happier reading books set in the past (both classics which were actually written in the past and historical fiction). I live in the modern day, so I like my reading to take me somewhere – and sometime – different, especially at the moment with everything that’s going on in the world!

4. Reading historical fiction can be a thoroughly immersive experience.
I love books where the author has clearly gone to a lot of effort to create a complete and believable historical world – and yet the very best authors make it seem so effortless! My favourite historical fiction books often contain maps, family trees, character lists, authors’ notes and other material all of which adds to the world building. I really do like to feel as though I’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back in time.

5. Understanding the past can help us to understand the present – and maybe even the future.
Just because a novel is set in the past doesn’t mean it can’t incorporate themes which are universal and timeless. When I read Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, I was struck by the similarities between modern politics and the politics of the Roman Republic, while Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer draws parallels between the extreme weather of 1816 and the climate change the world is experiencing today.

6. There’s so much variety!
Historical mysteries, historical romances, historical adventure novels, quick and light reads, long, challenging or ‘literary’ reads, books set in Ancient Greece, books set at the Tudor court, family sagas, classic novels such as A Tale of Two Cities, Romola or The Three Musketeers…the term ‘historical fiction’ encompasses such a wide range of different types of book that it should always be possible to find something to suit your mood.

7. I love to see how different authors portray the past and how they tackle some of history’s greatest mysteries and controversies.
Some people may wonder why I enjoy reading about the same topics over and over again. Well, no two books are exactly the same and every author has a different approach and a different way of interpreting the same historical people and events. One of my favourite periods is the Wars of the Roses and no two novels I’ve read set in that period offer the same opinion on Richard III or the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. Only by reading as much as possible can you begin to put together a balanced picture and to start to form your own views.

8. Historical fiction can give a voice to women who were unable to tell their own story.
History has often been described as written ‘by men, about men’ and fiction can help to redress the balance. For example, I knew nothing about women like Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli until I read That Lady by Kate O’Brien or Lizzie Burns until I read Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea.

9. It’s a chance to get to know historical figures who have been forgotten or ignored.
Following on from reason 8, I have already mentioned some of the lesser-known women who have been subjects of historical fiction; there are also lots of men who have played important roles throughout history but whose names have been largely forgotten. How many people have heard of the Scottish soldier Thomas Keith and yet he had a fascinating life and career which is recounted in Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff.

10. There are just so many great stories to be told.
From the Thomas Overbury scandal to the Gunpowder Plot, from the Affair of the Poisons to the Pendle Witch Trials, the possibilities are endless!

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Do you enjoy reading historical fiction? Can you think of any other reasons to add to this list?

Historical Musings #59: What are you reading?

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. I hope everyone is having a good Easter – or as good as it can be under the circumstances. I’m pleased to report that, after struggling to concentrate on anything for the last few weeks, I seem to be out of the reading slump I was in and am starting to write reviews again as well, but I still haven’t been in the right frame of mind to put a long post together in time for today’s Historical Musings. Therefore, I’m keeping things simple this month and asking you to share your current and upcoming historical reads.

I am currently in the middle of two very different historical novels. First, I am still working through Hilary Mantel’s third and final Thomas Cromwell novel, The Mirror and the Light. I bought my copy in the first week of its publication but didn’t start reading it immediately because I wanted to wait until I felt slightly less stressed and distracted and would be able to give it the attention it deserved. I am now completely absorbed in it, but it will still be a while before I’m finished.

My other current read is A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley, a reissue of her 1988 novel which was the first in the Margaret of Ashbury trilogy, set in medieval England. Despite some very dark topics, it’s an easy, entertaining read and I’m enjoying it so far.

The next two historical fiction novels I have lined up are The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor and Royal Flush by Margaret Irwin, both from NetGalley and both authors I have enjoyed before, so I’m looking forward to reading them.

Are you reading any historical fiction at the moment? If not, do you have any coming up soon on your TBR? I’d love to hear about your historical reading, particularly if you have something good to recommend!

Historical Musings #58: From the TBR…

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I haven’t had much time to put a post together this month, so I thought I would just take a quick look at some of the books I have waiting on my TBR. On Friday I reviewed The Brothers York by Thomas Penn, a non-fiction account of the Wars of the Roses, which is one of my favourite periods of history. I have already read a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, set in that period and have listed them here, but there are a few others I’ve acquired over the last few years and haven’t had a chance to read yet. Here are some of them (with descriptions taken from Goodreads):

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The Seventh Son by Reay Tannahill (2001)

Reay Tannahill’s enthralling novel is a family saga in the grand tradition, a tale of brother against brother, cousin against cousin, of love, hate and intrigue, of women inescapably entangled in the fates of their men, and of a mystery that has exercised people’s minds for more than five hundred years. At the heart of it all is the complex human being known to history as Richard III, a king whose reign is darkened by the murder of the young Princes in the Tower, but who also found a touching love with the woman he married, and possessed immense courage. Here, brought vividly to life in this most moving novel, is a man who inspired loyalty and hatred in almost equal measure, until at last the implacable enmity of one woman brought about his downfall.

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Originally serialized in a periodical of boys’ adventure fiction, The Black Arrow is a swashbuckling portrait of a young man’s journey to discover the heroism within himself. Young Dick Shelton, caught in the midst of England’s War of the Roses, finds his loyalties torn between the guardian who will ultimately betray him and the leader of a secret fellowship, The Black Arrow. As Shelton is drawn deeper into this conspiracy, he must distinguish friend from foe and confront war, shipwreck, revenge, murder, and forbidden love, as England’s crown threatens to topple around him.

The King’s Grey Mare by Rosemary Hawley Jarman (1973)

The King’s grey mare was Elizabeth Woodville, Queen and wife of Edward IV. Beautiful beyond belief, with unique silver-grey hair, she had once known joy of a marriage based on love—only to see it snatched away on the battlefield. Hardened and changed by grief, Elizabeth became the tool of her evil ambitious mother—the witch, Jaquetta of Bedford—who was determined that her daughter should sit on the throne of England. By trickery, deception, and witchcraft, Jaquetta’s wish was fulfilled. But even a witch could not have known the tragedy which lay in store for the King’s grey mare.

Queen of Silks by Vanora Bennett (2008)

This novel brings together the silk business of fifteenth-century London and the personality of King Richard III, suspected throughout history of having murdered his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower. The story begins with silk merchant John Lambert’s decision to marry off his two beautiful daughters at the end of the Wars of the Roses. Elder daughter Jane starts a notorious liaison with King Edward IV – Richard’s older brother – while her sister, Isabel, as the new silkworker to the court, becomes privy to its most intimate secrets. Could the sisters hold the keys to power at this time of uncertainty?

The Lodestar by Pamela Belle (1987)

For Christie Heron, ruthless ambition is the lodestar of his destiny. Determined to break free from his humble origins in the border country of Northumbria, he enlists in the household of Richard of Gloucester, rising with his lord to the dangerous pinnacles of power. Tangled in Richard’s web of treason and tragedy, Christie learns the full price that his destiny demands, Meg his beloved sister and only friend, rejects him. Julian, daughter of a knight of Oxfordshire, bears him undying enmity. And the long shadow of the Welsh adventurer Henry Tudor falls dark over Bosworth Field….

The King’s Bed by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1961)

For seventeen-year-old Tansy Marsh, life centres upon her father’s inn, The White Boar, in Leicester. Richard III sits upon the throne of England, and all seems well. But the threat of the would-be usurper, Henry Tudor, looms like a gathering storm and soon the eye of that storm is uncomfortably close to Tansy, disrupting her reassuringly ordinary life. Once King Richard is defeated, that life becomes even less ordinary for Tansy has met Dickon Broome, the man who will change her existence forever. And while life goes on under the Tudors, Dickon has particular reason to bear a grudge.

Non-Fiction

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou by Amy Licence (2018)

He became king before his first birthday, inheriting a vast empire from his military hero father; she was the daughter of a king without power, who made an unexpected marriage at the age of fifteen. Almost completely opposite in character, together they formed an unlikely but complimentary partnership. Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou have become famous as the Lancastrian king and queen who were deposed during the Wars of the Roses but there is so much more to their story. The political narrative of their years together is a tale of twists and turns, encompassing incredible highs, when they came close to fulfilling their desires, and terrible, heart-breaking lows.

Blood and Roses by Helen Castor (2004)

The Wars of the Roses turned England upside down. Between 1455 and 1485 four kings, including Richard III, lost their thrones, more than forty noblemen lost their lives on the battlefield or their heads on the block, and thousands of the men who followed them met violent deaths. As they made their way in a disintegrating world, the Paston family in Norfolk family were writing letters – about politics, about business, about shopping, about love and about each other, including the first valentine. Using these letters – the oldest surviving family correspondence in English – Helen Castor traces the extraordinary history of the Paston family across three generations. Blood & Roses tells the dramatic, moving and intensely human story of how one family survived one of the most tempestuous periods in English history.

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If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought. Which ones do you think are worth reading and which aren’t? What are your favourite books set in this period?