News and Random Musings about Historical Novels

Do you prefer lopping off heads from horseback on the Mongolian steppes or delivering subtly devastating rejoinders over tea in a Victorian drawing room? This site features reviews of novels old and new to suit your taste. See below for the latest, or check out the Book Review Directory. Author interviews are featured from time to time. Those that no longer appear below can be found via the Articles page.

Mon., Dec. 17: Mysteries

Here are some more mysteries recently added to the listings:

The first two in a new series spun off from the Sherlock Holmes detective stories (will we ever get tired of Mr. Holmes and crew?) by H.B. Lyle, The Irregular (2017) and The Red Ribbon (2018), about a former member of Sherlock Holmes's group of street urchins, the "Baker Street Irregulars" who, now grown and an ex-soldier, agrees to serve as a spy for the British government.

Two more mysteries in Carola Dunn's "Daisy Dalrymple" series about an aristocrat married to a Scotland Yard detective in the 1920s: Superfluous Women (2015), and The Corpse at the Crystal Palace (2018).

The first in a planned series by M.R.C. Kasasian, Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire (2018), about a female police officer sent from London in 1939 to fill a post in the small Suffolk town where she grew up, where she must investigate the case of a dead man with puncture wounds in his throat.

And moving back, back, back in time to ancient Rome, the two newest "Flavia Alba" mysteries by Lindsey Davis: The Third Nero (2017), and Pandora’s Boy (2018).

Sun., Dec. 16: The 20th Century, Part II

America in the 20th century was a complex society. Newly listed novels on the website reflect that with their wide range of subject matter. The 1920s were not all flappers and jazz; the Great Depression of the 1930s manifested in different ways for different people. Here are some of the new listings set in the U.S. between the world wars:

Fiona Davis, The Masterpiece (2018), about a woman in 1928 who teaches art in a school at New York's Grand Central Terminal, and another woman in 1974 who works at the Terminal's information booth and stumbles across a painting there as plans to demolish the deteriorating Terminal move forward.

Nick Dybek, The Verdun Affair (2018), about two young Americans who have an affair in Verdun in 1921, a shell-shocked soldier with amnesia and a journalist they meet a few months later in Italy, and another chance meeting in the 1950s which finds them still grappling with the challenges of the post-WWI years.

Andrew Gross, Button Man (2018; titled The Last Brother in the U.K.), about three brothers in New York City in the 1930s whose lives take different paths after their father dies, but converge after one brother joins the Mafia.

Ann Howard Creel, The River Widow (2018), about a woman who in 1937 accidentally kills her abusive husband, and then makes a plan to save herself and her daughter from the man's cruel family, as she begins falling in love with a man crucial to her escape.

Meg Waite Clayton, Beautiful Exiles (2018), about the love affair between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

Kristina McMorris, Sold on a Monday (2018), about a newspaper reporter and the photograph he takes of two children with a sign offering them for sale on a farmhouse porch in 1931.

Suzanne Rindell, Eagle and Crane (2018), a mystery about an aerial stuntman whose Japanese-born partner's plane crashes, killing the two men inside, around the same time that the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.

Sat., Dec. 15: Review of Transcription

Having read Kate Atkinson's wonderful 2013 novel Life After Life, I was eager to read her new novel Transcription, which also revolves around the events of WWII. If Transcription is not as breathtakingly unique in structure as Life After Life, it's still a completely fresh take on the period that offers plenty of twists and food for thought. It's about an eighteen-year-old girl who joins an MI5 counter-espionage project in 1940. This superficial synopsis might suggest a genre romance about a plucky girl turning into a woman amid the pressures of wartime, but no one who reads much beyond the first line will continue to hold that impression. Transcription is a clever story devoid of cliché and rich with humor, tragedy and insight. For more about this superb novel, see the review of Transcription.

Thurs., Dec. 13: The 20th Century, Part I

Two World Wars and, in between, the Great Depression, made the second half of the twentieth century very different from the first half. These events still haunt us in the 21st century. Here are some new listings set during the 20th century:

Daniel Mason's WWI novel The Winter Soldier about an inexperienced Austrian medical student sent to a freezing outpost ravaged by typhoid.

A bunch of WWI mysteries: Two novels in Edward Marston's "Home Front Detective" series, The Enemy Within and Under Attack, about English police detectives investigating murders amid the anxieties of war; the four most recent in Charles Todd's "Bess Crawford" series about a former WWI nurse, A Pattern of Lies, The Shattered Tree, A Casualty of War, and A Forgotten Place; and the three latest in Jacqueline Winspear's "Maisie Dobbs" series about a former WWI nurse turned psychologist, Journey to Munich, In This Grave Hour, and To Die But Once.

Novels set between the two World Wars are haunted by memories of the first and shadowed by the impending second:

Louis de Bernières's So Much Life Left Over revolves around a flying ace and a war nurse whose marriage falters after WWI.

Cressida Connolly's After the Party is about a woman who, during a party at her sister's country house in the late 1930s, makes a slip that connects her to a British fascist organization.

Anna Lee Huber's new "Verity Kent" mystery series is about a young woman widowed during WWI; in the first novel, This Side of Murder, she receives a letter suggesting her late husband may have committed treason; in the second, Treacherous Is the Night, she attends a seance during which a murder occurs.

Set during WWII, David Gilman's spy thriller Night Flight to Paris is about a French code-breaker recruited for a dangerous mission in occupied Paris.

Steven Uhly's Kingdom of Twilight is about a young Jewish woman in occupied Poland who shoots an SS officer whose commander orders the execution of thirty-seven Poles as retaliation.

Two WWII murder mysteries are both, coincidentally, written by authors named Kelly (no relation, so far as I know): In Jim Kelly's The Great Darkness, a Cambridge police detective takes a dip in the River Cam during the first blackout of WWII, and in the morning a corpse appears on the shore; in Stephen Kelly's Hushed in Death (#3 in the Inspector Lamb series), a rural police detective investigates murder at a manor house serving as a hospital for shell-shocked officers.

For more, check out the 20th Century pages.

Weds., Dec. 12: Warfare, Murder, and Terror on the Water

A number of novels newly listed on the website are set on the water. Modern ships are large and stable, so much so that ship travelers may even, from time to time, forget they're on the water. But in past centuries, people who set to sea were constantly aware of how small and fragile their wooden ships were compared to the vastness and unforgiving depth of the ocean. Moreover, the creatures who swam below them could seem impossibly strange. Here are some novels evoking those fears:

Elizabeth Lowry's Dark Water, about a ship's doctor and a hero who saved men from a mutiny, and the terrifying 1833 voyage around Cape Horn that drives one of them insane.

Imogen Hermes Gowar's The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, about an 18th-century London merchant whose life takes a strange turn after one of his sea captains trades his ship for a dead mermaid.

Susanna Gregory's latest Thomas Chaloner mystery, Intrigue in Covent Garden, about a government official in January 1666 who must simultaneously investigate a physician's death, the sinking of a man-of-war, and a courtier's disappearance, amid a growing threat of war with the Dutch.

The three latest in Anne Perry's William Monk series, in which Monk is now a commander in the London River Police, investigating drownings and other crimes and disappearances in and around the Thames: Revenge in a Cold River, about the murder of a master forger; An Echo of Murder, about the apparently ritualistic murder of a Hungarian immigrant; and Dark Tide Rising, about a case of kidnapping.

Tues., Dec. 11: Ancient and Medieval Settings

Several new listings have been added in the last few days of novels set during ancient and medieval times:

A novel about the Trojan War: Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, about the fall of Troy from the perspective of Briseis, once a queen, now an enslaved captive of Achilles in the Greek army camp.

The two most recent novels by Douglas Jackson in his Gaius Valerius Verrens series about a Roman military commander, Glory of Rome, #8; and Hammer of Rome; #9.

The first two novels in the "New World Rising" series, thrillers by Robyn Young set during the English Wars of the Roses and following its main character to Spain and Italy: Sons of the Blood and Court of Wolves.

The first two novels in a trilogy by Linnea Hartsuyker about a Viking warrior and his sister, The Half-Drowned King and The Sea Queen.

Fri., Dec. 7: The Black Experience

For many years, publishers shied away from novels about the black experience. This was a disservice to readers both black and white. Happily, not only are these being published now, many of them are becoming bestsellers. The range of style and subject matter is as varied and exciting as with any other type of novel. Here are some historical novels centering on black characters, added to the website in the last couple of weeks:

Wayétu Moore's She Would Be King, historical fantasy about three people whose magical gifts help ease the conflicts between African-American settlers and native Africans during the founding of Liberia.

Esi Edugyan's Washington Black, about a slave who, as a boy in Barbados, is made the assistant to a scientist, and later must flee northward with him after a tragic accident.

Sarah Bird's Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen (2018), about Cathy Williams, a former slave who became the only woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier.

Sherry Jones's Josephine Baker’s Last Dance (2018), a biographical novel about the American performer Josephine Baker, who moved to Paris in the 1920s, joined the French Resistance during WWII, and was active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and '60s.

Two novels by Kirby Williams, Rage in Paris (2014), about a jazz musician from New Orleans who lives in Paris, and his detective work in the 1930s when he is hired to find the missing daughter of a wealthy American; and its sequel, The Long Road from Paris (2018), about a jazz musician in Paris and his efforts to escape to America with his Jewish lover in 1940 as the Nazis close in on them.

Weds., Dec. 5: Review of The Blood

The Blood is the second I have read of E.S. Thomson's vividly rendered "Jem Flockhart" mystery series, set in mid-nineteenth-century London. The main character is intelligent and sympathetic, and the author's descriptive flair makes the drippy dockside streets of the Victorian waterfront so present one can almost smell them. These mysteries are not for the squeamish, as corpses are also made present for the reader. But if you're more interested in learning about the masses of less fortunate people peopling nineteenth-century London than in imagining yourself in a frilly ball gown, these are the books for you. For more about the story, see the review of The Blood.

Tues., Dec. 4: World War II Novels

World War II is not so very far in our past. The death, this last weekend, of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush reminds us that the generation who fought WWII is only now passing into history. At the same time, the 1940s was a very different time from the one we live in today. No internet, no cell phones, newspaper help-wanted ads that separated men's jobs and women's jobs . . .

Here are some of the newly listed historical novels set in that world:

A new Kate Atkinson novel, Transcription, about a young woman who does espionage work for the British government during the war and, ten years later, must cope with consequences of choices she made then.

Three novels about life under the Nazis: Olivia Hawker's The Ragged Edge of Night, about a German friar whose school is seized by the Nazis and his marriage-of-convenience to a widow with three children; Heather Morris's The Tattooist of Auschwitz, about a Slovakian Jew forced to work as a tattooist in the Auschwitz concentration camp; and Ellen Keith's The Dutch Wife, about a Dutch woman who, sent to a different concentration camp than her husband, joins the camp brothel in order to survive.

Two novels set in France during WWII: Abigail deWitt's News of Our Loved Ones, about a French family in Nazi-occupied Normandy and how the Allied bombings on D-Day affect them; and (set only partly in France) Natasha Lester's The Paris Seamstress, about a young seamstress who flees Paris in 1940 to begin a new life in New York City.

A novel about the man who developed the atomic bomb: Louisa Hall's Trinity, about Robert Oppenheimer from the perspective of seven different fictional characters.

And the latest in a WWII mystery series: #13 in James R. Benn's "Billy Boyle" series featuring his Boston-cop-turned-soldier: Solemn Graves, in which Boyle investigates the murder of an American officer in a manor near the front lines a month after D-Day.

Sun, Dec. 2: Many, Many Mysteries

Mystery authors seem to be among the most prolific, and I have a hard time keeping up with all their new books! Here are some recent additions to the website:

Sherlock Holmes pastiches by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, both of which feature Sherlock's brother Mycroft as a young man whose best friend grew up in Trinidad: Mycroft Holmes and Mycroft and Sherlock.

Another new Holmes pastiche, this series by Sherry Thomas and reimagining Sherlock as Charlotte, a young woman who assumes a male identity in order to clear her family of a murder accusation: A Study in Scarlet Women (2016), A Conspiracy in Belgravia (2018), and The Hollow of Fear (2018).

Three more in Tasha Alexander's "Lady Emily Ashton" series: A Terrible Beauty (2016), in which Emily's first husband, long believed dead, reappears (or seems to) while she is on holiday in Greece; Death in St. Petersburg (2017), in which she investigates the murder in Russia of a famous ballerina; and Uneasy Lies the Crown (2018), which finds her investigating a complicated case of murders in which the dead men are arranged to resemble the infamous murders of Henry VI and Edward II.

The latest seven (whew!) in Edward Marston's "Railway Detective" series: Peril on the Royal Train; A Ticket to Oblivion; Timetable of Death; Signal for Vengeance; The Circus Train Conspiracy; the just-published A Christmas Railway Mystery; and due in December, Points Of Danger.

Erin Lindsey's Murder on Millionaires’ Row, in which the amateur detective is a housemaid in a posh Manhattan brownstone in the 1880s.

The first in a new series by Shelley Noble, Ask Me No Questions, about a wealthy English widow in 1907 Manhattan investigating murders with her butler and maid.

The first two in another new series imagining the Mitford sisters as amateur detectives, by Jessica Fellowes (the author of five "Downton Abbey" companion books): The Mitford Murders; and Bright Young Dead.

Plus, something to look forward to in January: a new novel in C.J. Samsome's superb Matthew Shardlake mystery series, Tombland, in which Shardlake chases down a mystery for Princess Elizabeth during a peasants’ revolt.

If all that doesn't keep historical mystery lovers happy this winter, I don't know what will!

Fri., Nov. 30: Strong Women

Women readers: Has your life been enriched by reading novels about strong (or learning-to-be-strong) women overcoming tough obstacles? Here are some new additions to the website centered on women and how they face challenges:

A novel by Kerri Maher about a sister of JFK, Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, The Kennedy Debutante, which explores her love for a Protestant man she meets in London while her staunchly Catholic father is serving as Ambassador.

Three novels by Amy Stewart continuing her series about Constance Kopp, a real historical woman who, a century ago in New Jersey, was one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the US. The series started in 2016 with Girl Waits with Gun, in which a silk magnate in an automobile crashes into Miss Kopp's buggy, she sues for damages, and he responds with a vicious campaign of persecution. The new additions to the website are Lady Cop Makes Trouble (2016), Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions (2017), and Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit (2018).

Two novels about working women in America during WWII: Marjorie Herrera Lewis's When the Men Were Gone, about Tylene Wilson, a Texas schoolteacher became Texas’s first female high school football coach; and Hillary Tiefer's Lily’s Home Front, about a young Jewish woman working as a Liberty Ships welder in Portland, Oregon, while her husband is away on the battlefield.

And a novel set in Portugal by Ines Pedrosa, In Your Hands, about three generations of Portuguese women, beginning in 1935 during Salazar's authoritarian regime.

Weds., Nov. 28: Recent Additions

With winter closing in, I'm looking forward to settling down with a bunch of satisfying historical novels. Some recent additions to the listings include:

The two most recent novels in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales series: The Flame Bearer and War of the Wolf.

Two novels by Minette Walters set during the Black Death: The Last Hours and The Turn Of Midnight.

Sarah Perry's occult novel Melmoth.

The five most recent naval adventures by Julian Stockwin, including his forthcoming A Sea of Gold.

Three novels by the Estonian writer Jaan Kross, including The Czar's Madman, about a 19th-century Estonian nobleman swears to always tell the truth to the Russian czar.

A prequel to the Anne of Green Gables novels, Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy.

William Boyd's Love Is Blind.

And Kate Morton's latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter.

Happy reading!

Sun., Nov. 25: Review of A Murdered Peace

Candace Robb is a veteran author of historical mysteries who has published sixteen novels in three different series. Her latest, A Murdered Peace, is the third in her Kate Clifford series about a young widow in York at the turn of the 15th century. This mystery novel, set just after the Epiphany Uprising against the usurping King Henry IV, is full of both historical detail and peril for its characters. Readers who enjoyed the first two Kate Clifford mysteries will not want to miss this one. For more about it, see the review of A Murdered Peace.

Thurs., Nov. 15: New Listings

It's been shamefully long since I've caught up on all the newly published historical novels. I'm trying to begin remedying that this month, in time for holiday sales. Here are some listings added in the last few days:

Margaret George's pair of novels about the Roman Emperor Nero, The Confessions of Young Nero, and The Splendor Before the Dark.

The four novels in Matthew Harffy's "Bernicia Chronicles" series about a 7th-century Northumbrian princeling: The Serpent Sword, The Cross and the Curse, Blood and Blade, and Killer of Kings.

The first three novels in David Hingley's suspense series about a woman in the time of the English King Charles II, Birthright, Puritan and Traitor.

Carrie Callaghan's A Light of Her Own, about 17th-century Dutch artist Judith Leyster.

Popular novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford's Master Of His Fate, the first in a new Victorian series about a self-made-man struggle to rebuild his fortune after tragedy strikes.

Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, about a pious eleven-year-old Irish girl who remains healthy despite refusing food, and the journalist sent to cover her story; based on the history of the 19th-century "Fasting Girls" who claimed to live on air.

Four more Victorian mysteries in Will Thomas's prolific "Barker & Llewelyn" series, Anatomy of Evil, Hell Bay, Old Scores and Blood Is Blood.

Karen Odden's mystery A Dangerous Duet, featuring an amateur detective who has disguised herself as a man in order to pursue a career as a pianist.

And finally, three more mysteries in Boris Akunin's series about a gentleman detective in pre-Revolutionary Russia: The Diamond Chariot, All the World's a Stage (in which detective Fandorin falls in love) and Black City (set in the Crimean oil city of Baku).

Weds., Nov. 14: Review of Unsheltered

Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful novelist who has turned her hand to both historical and contemporary novels. Unsheltered, her latest, is both. It tells the stories of two families in Vineland, New Jersey, separated by over a century, but with much in common.

For readers struggling, like the families in the novel, to make ends meet against the odds, it's a reminder that they're not alone. There's some comfort in that. And there's comfort in losing oneself in a novel as absorbing and well-written as this one.

Plus, Unsheltered introduces readers to some strikingly interesting historical figures: Charles Landis, the less-than-fully-admirable founder of a community of utopian ideals; and naturalist Mary Treat, who lived and worked in Vineland. For more about this highly recommended novel, see the review of Unsheltered.

Tues., Nov. 13: Review of The Thirty-One Kings

Alfred Hitchcock's classic film "The Thirty-Nine Steps" was based (very loosely) on a 1915 novel of the same name by John Buchan. Like Richard Hannay, the wise-cracking detective of his novel, Buchan was a Scot who had lived in Africa. Published during WWI, The Thirty-Nine Steps was a big hit with British soldiers in the trenches, and Buchan wrote four more Hannay novels before his death in 1940 (in Canada, where he served as Governor General from 1935 until his death).

Published this September, Robert J. Harris's thriller The Thirty-One Kings revives Hannay and locates him in France in the early part of WWII. Harris's Hannay, like Buchan's, is a whiz at surviving narrow escapes. To learn more about this historical thriller, see the review of The Thirty-One Kings.

Mon., Nov. 12: Review of Where the Fire Falls

In Karen Barnett's Where the Fire Falls, two characters struggle their way toward emotional healing and love in a setting of spectacular natural grandeur that gives them a sense of God's presence. For more about this novel, published in June 2018, see the review of Where the Fire Falls. And keep your eyes open for several more new reviews which I'll post in the coming days.

Tues., July 10: Review of Dear Mrs. Bird

London during the Blitz is a great setting for a novel, offering the life-and-death suspense of a city under the constant threat of bombs, along with the everyday courage of the men and women who endured this rain of terror, often with extraordinarily upbeat attitudes. Dear Mrs. Bird offers this and something more, with a plucky heroine who is also humorously naïve and finds herself unexpectedly working as the typist for a grouchy advice columnist. For more about this delightful and genuinely touching novel, see the review of Dear Mrs. Bird.

Sun., July 8: Review of A Necessary Evil

With publication of his first mystery novel in 2017, A Rising Man, Abir Mukherjee became a rising author. His second novel, A Necessary Evil is proof that his excellent first novel was no flash in the pan. Mukherjee writes about British Colonial India with such impressive authority, skill and texture, you'd think he had himself been a police officer in Calcutta in the early decades of the 20th century. The novel succeeds both as a gripping mystery/thriller and as an insightful historical novel. For more about the setting and story, see the review of A Necessary Evil.

Weds., May 23: Review of Murder on Union Square

Victoria Thompson's Gaslight Mystery series, set in Victorian New York, is up to 21 titles now, with the publication this month of Murder on Union Square. This time around, former midwife Sarah Malloy and her policeman husband investigate a mystery in the pre-Broadway theater world of Union Square. It's a romp-style detective novel, and you can read more about it in the review of Murder on Union Square.