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.

Tues., April 7: Review of The Forest Lover

Writers and artists have a lot in common, which may be one reason why so many novels have been written about artists. Susan Vreeland's 2004 novel The Forest Lover is about the early twentieth-century Canadian artist Emily Carr, whose work was inspired by the Native American culture and the natural landscape of British Columbia. Art critics either ignored or panned her work so persistently that she finally gave up painting. Today, she is considered to be one of the most important Canadian artists of the twentieth century. How that happened is the story Vreeland tells. For more about this interesting and moving novel, see the review of The Forest Lover. More novels about artists are discussed in a special section on this website, Historical Novels about Artists.

Mon., April 6: Review of Enemies at Home

Arthur Conan Doyle famously attempted and failed to kill off his popular detective Sherlock Holmes. Mystery writers know better now. After writing 20 mysteries featuring the fictional Roman informer Marcus Didius Falco, Lindsey Davis freshened the series by focusing instead on Falco's adopted daughter Flavia Albia. As witty as her father, Flavia Albia will no doubt make her father's fans happy. Enemies at Home is the second Flavia Albia mystery, and is a baffling mystery as full of insights about ancient Rome as any reader could desire. For more about this historical mystery, see the review of Enemies at Home.

Weds., March 18: Review of An Appetite for Violets

Martine Bailey's An Appetite for Violets is one of those novels that borrows a historical setting to make a confection out of it rather than to illuminate a real past that led to our present. That's not to say Bailey's research isn't thorough and full of fascinating details - just that the whole point of this novel is to entertain. And as entertainment, it succeeds lavishly. For more about the story, see the review of An Appetite for Violets.

Tues., March 17: Review of Conspirata

If you're interested in politics, you'll find plenty of it in ancient Rome, which makes a fascinating - perhaps disturbing - comparative study with politics today. Over a relatively short period of time, the Roman Republic became a dictatorship. At the center of this transition, struggling against it, was the Roman orator Cicero. Conspirata (titled Lustrum in the U.K.) is the second of three novels in a trilogy (Imperium is the first) that tells Cicero's story from the perspective of his slave and confidential secretary, Tiro. Though ancient Roman politics could be complex, Harris writes about it with great clarity. It was also extremely personal, making the drama especially stark. Annis's review of Imperium was posted a few years ago, shortly after the novel appeared. I've just posted my review of Conspirata, which I found thoroughly absorbing. Now I'm eager to read the third novel in the trilogy, Dictator, which is due out this fall.

Thurs., March 5: Review of Girl on the Golden Coin

Many novels have been written about women who were the mistresses of kings. Girl on the Golden Coin is about a woman who refused to become the mistress of a king. No, not Anne Boleyn. Marci Jefferson's 2014 novel, newly published in a paperback edition, is about Frances Stuart, who was known as a great beauty in her time and for resisting the advances of King Charles II. For more about this novel, see the review of Girl on the Golden Coin.

Sat., Feb. 21: Review of White Gardenia

Belinda Alexandra's novel White Gardenia, just published this month, is for readers who enjoy exotic settings, the World War II period, and plots that veer from hair-raising to heartwarming. It's about a young woman born and raised in China, the daughter of upper-class Russians who fled during the Revolution. The violence in her rural village at the close of World War II forces her to flee to Shanghai - and that's only the beginning of her troubles. For more about this novel, see the review of White Gardenia.

Thurs., Feb. 5: Review of Saint Brigid's Bones

Saint Brigid's Bones, Celtic scholar Philip Freeman's debut novel, is an entertaining, easy-to-read jaunt through early Christian Ireland. A mystery without a murder, the story revolves around a young nun's search for the stolen bones of Saint Brigid. The bones, believed to have healing powers, are the financial mainstay of the monastery Brigid founded at Kildare, and the community is desperate for their return. For more about this novel, see the review of Saint Brigid's Bones.

Weds., Feb. 4: Review of The New Countess

Downton Abbey fans addicted to tales of upstairs-downstairs life in Edwardian England may enjoy Fay Weldon's Habits of the House trilogy. It's set a few years earlier than Downton Abbey, beginning in 1899. The final novel in the trilogy, The New Countess, closes in 1906 before the approach of the First World War. Even so, the flavor of the novels is similar to that of the TV series, portraying a once-entrenched aristocracy buffeted by the changes of modern life: the younger generation is turning away from tradition, and servants no longer reliably know their place. For more about the final novel in this trilogy, see the review of The New Countess.

Coming soon: a review of Saint Brigid's Bones

Sat., Dec. 6: The Best Historical Novels I Read in 2014

Some wonderful historical novels were published this year, and a couple are on my list of the ten best historical novels I read this year. I wasn't able to get around to everything (who can?), so some of this year's best novels may appear on next year's list - just as a couple of novels from 2013 and 2012 appear on my list this year. I also ranged back in time to read some outstanding twentieth-century novels.

See this year's list

Fri., Dec. 5: Review of Hild by Nicola Griffith

In time for Christmas, a paperback edition of Nicola Griffith's Hild, published in hardcover last year, is out. This is a novel for historical fiction fans who love a good, long, in-depth exploration of what a remarkable woman's life might have been like in the early medieval period. Saint Hilda, who founded Whitby Abbey in 657, did not begin life as a Christian, and this novel explores how an unusually intelligent woman might have gained a reputation as a seer and why she might have accepted baptism as a Christian. For more about this novel, see the review of Hild.

Coming soon: A list of the best historical novels I read in 2014.

Tues., Nov. 18: Review of The Angel and the Sword

Cecelia Holland's historical novels are consistently superb in evoking the times and places about which she writes. Her 2000 novel The Angel and the Sword is no exception. At the same time, it's a departure from her previous novels, because of the way it incorporates supernatural elements. Readers who have enjoyed her "Soul Thief" series (written after The Angel and the Sword), which also employs the supernatural, may find it especially interesting for the similarities and differences in style and setting. For more about this novel, see the review of The Angel and the Sword.

Thurs., Oct. 30: Review of Falling Angels

Tracy Chevalier's 2001 novel Falling Angels could not be more different in tone than the last novel I reviewed, The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones. Falling Angels is written in spare, clean prose about early twentieth-century characters whose passions are rigidly controlled. Chevalier is a fine writer, and her story about two families who meet in a graveyard on the day of Queen Victoria's death is insightful and absorbing. For more about this novel, see the review of Falling Angels.

Tues., Oct. 28: Review of The Sharp Hook of Love

The story of Heloise and Abelard still has the power to shock: a thirty-year-old tutor seduces the young woman he has been hired to teach, right in the home of her guardian, who sends thugs to castrate him in revenge. Sherry Jone's new novel about these twelfth-century lovers, The Sharp Hook of Love, just published this month, tells their story with romantic gusto and a feminist angle. For more about it, see the review of The Sharp Hook of Love.

Mon., Oct. 20: Review of The Whistling Season

If you've enjoyed stories about one-room schoolhouses, you will most likely find Ivan Doig's 2006 novel The Whistling Season an enthralling read. It's a coming-of-age story about a boy in 1909 Montana, with the insight, subtlety and humor to captivate adult readers. For more about this novel, see the review of The Whistling Season.

Sat., Oct. 18: Review of Shadows on the Rock

Willa Cather's historical novels have become classics, but her novel about French Canada in the seventeenth century, Shadows on the Rock, is less well known than her others. Reviewer David Maclaine offers an introduction to this worthwhile novel. For more about it, see David's review of Shadows on the Rock.

Coming: a review of Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season

Fri., Oct. 3: Review of Dubh-Linn

Reviewer David Maclaine finds James L. Nelson's self-published novel Dubh-Linn about Vikings in Ireland worth reading despite some rough edges. To learn why, see his review of Dubh-Linn.

Weds., Sept. 24: Review of Juliet's Nurse

As a teen, Franco Zeffirelli's sumptuous film of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet impressed me so much that I used to dream of getting married someday in a gold-embroidered red dress just like Juliet's in the film. I was almost as impressed by the bawdy banter between Mercutio and Juliet's nurse. So it was a treat to read a whole novel imagining a rich, full life for that bawdy, good-natured nurse. For more about Lois Leveen's novel Juliet's Nurse, just published yesterday, see the review of Juliet's Nurse.

Coming soon: back to the Viking age with a review of James L. Nelson's Dubh-Linn

Tues., Sept. 23: Review of Gutenberg's Apprentice

Every avid reader owes a debt of gratitude to Johann Gutenberg, but when he first developed the printing press, not everyone was a fan. Alix Christie's novel Gutenberg's Apprentice, hot off the press today, is about someone who had good reason not to be a Gutenberg fan - Peter Schoeffer worked for the short-tempered inventor. For more about this well-researched, well-written novel, see the review of Gutenberg's Apprentice.

Coming tomorrow: a review of another excellent novel just published today, Lois Leveen's Juliet's Nurse

Mon., Sept. 22: Review of Bernard Cornwell's 1356

Bernard Cornwell is known for his vivid fictional recreations of historical battles. His 2012 novel 1356, about the Battle of Poitiers, a decisive English victory in the Hundred Years' War is a standalone novel that can also be read as part of the "Grail Quest" series featuring English longbowman Thomas of Hookton. For David Maclaine's take on this novel, see his review of 1356.

Coming tomorrow: a review of Gutenberg's Apprentice

Mon., Sept. 8: Review of Lisette's List

Susan Vreeland's latest novel, Lisette's List, is about a young woman who in 1937 very reluctantly gives up the opportunity to apprentice for an art gallery in her beloved Paris in order to move with her husband to a small town in Provence. It's more likely to please fans of popular mainstream novels than readers who enjoyed the elegantly literary stories in Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Lisette's List offers an introduction to post-Impressionist art for readers who enjoy it but don't know much about it. For more about this novel, see the review of Lisette's List.

Coming this month: reviews of novels about Gutenberg, the developer of the printing press, and the nurse in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Tues., April 1: "The Texas Wife" complete online

The online magazine Fabula Argentea has published my short story "The Texas Wife" in its April issue. The story is about a young German who immigrates to Texas in the mid-nineteenth century and finds it's not what he expected from reading Karl May's Wild-West tales of "Old Shatterhand." You can read the complete short story online at Fabula Argentea