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.


Weds., August 19: Review of Evergreen Falls

Kimberley Freeman's latest novel, Evergreen Falls, spans two time periods: the present day and 1926, and during the historical story features a massive snowstorm at in the "Christmas in June" season at a resort hotel in Australia's Blue Mountains. It's an unusual setting and a sweet story with enough suspense to keep readers turning the pages. For more about this novel, see the review of Evergreen Falls.

Tues., August 11: Review of The Anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader's novel about a woman immured in a tiny, doorless room attached to a church is surprisingly full of human interactions and challenges. The fictional Sarah - the anchoress of the title - grows over the course of the story in some interesting, not always expected ways. She's a very different person than the anchoress in Mary Sharratt's 2012 novel Illuminations, based on the historical anchoress Hildegard of Bingen. Sarah makes her own decision to seek enclosure, acting on what she considers to be very good reasons. Both novels make fascinating reading and shed light on the strange world of medieval Europe - a world less distant from our own than we might wish to think. For more about them, see the review of The Anchoress, and our earlier review of Illuminations.

Mon., August 10: Review of The Poisoning Angel

The Poisoning Angel by French author Jean Teulé is definitely off the beaten path. If the historical novels you've been reading are starting to feel like carbon copies of one another, and if you enjoy a bit of dark humor, this novel should perk you up. It's based on the true story of Hélène Jégado, a Breton cook who, from time to time, added poison to her recipes. For more about this novel, see the review of The Poisoning Angel.

Sun., August 2: Cats on Books

Many of us who love historical novels have cats who also love historical novels in their own special way. Sarah Johnson of Reading the Past, a fabulous historical fiction blog, caught her Tortie living dangerously on a pile of them. Thanks, Sarah, for sharing your photo! See more bookish cats at the Cats on Books page.

Cat on Books

Fri., July 31: Review of The Flying Circus

Not too many novels have been written about the daredevil stunt pilots and barnstormers of the 1920s, so Susan Crandall's new novel The Flying Circus offers an unusual tale. Each of the three main characters is hiding a trauma in his or her past from the other two, so the humorous tone as the novel begins eventually takes a serious turn. For more about this novel, see the review of The Flying Circus, which includes a link to historic film footage of some similar daredevils.

Tues., June 16: Review of Servants of the Map

Really good historical short stories are difficult to write. They need to evoke the time and place of their setting without overburdening the story with the lengthy passages of description and explanation that readers will tolerate or even enjoy in the longer form of a novel. Andrea Barrett's historical short stories are graceful, insightful and evoke the many time periods about which she writes with wonderful economy and vividness. Her 2002 collection Servants of the Map is a treat for anyone who loves historical fiction of high literary quality. To learn more about it, see the review of Servants of the Map.

Mon., June 15: Review of The Fair Fight

Anna Freeman's The Fair Fight is a novel about an unusual subject: female prizefighters in eighteenth-century England. Women did engage in this sport in the 1700s, when the sport was far more physically brutal than today. Freeman makes her characters tremendously believable and memorable in a similarly well-drawn setting. For more about this novel, see the review of The Fair Fight.

Thurs., June 11: Review of Tin Sky

Tin Sky by Ben Pastor is one of those rare mystery novels that works on the mystery level but that also works as a thoughtful and serious novel well worth the attention of readers looking for something more than a light beach read. The fourth in the Martin Bora series about a German military officer during World War II, it's a complex and believable character study of a man caught between his sense of responsibility and his conscience. It's a unique novel that takes a completely fresh angle on the moral dilemmas of German life in the Nazi era. For more about this novel, see the review of Tin Sky.

Fri., May 29: Review of The Anatomy Lesson

The first painting Rembrandt signed his name to (instead of just his initials) showed a guild of Dutch surgeons at a lecture on the dissection of a human arm. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp," in Rembrandt's hands, became a masterwork. What made it such a fine painting? Not just brushstrokes. Nina Siegal's novel "The Anatomy Lesson" tells the painting's story through the men and women whose lives are interwoven with its creation. For more about this well-researched and thoughtfully written novel, see the review of The Anatomy Lesson.

Coming soon: reviews of Tin Sky, The Fair Fight and more

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

"The Texas Wife" complete online

The online magazine Fabula Argentea has published my short story "The Texas Wife," about a young German who immigrates to Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. He 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