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.
The novel my book discussion group decided to read for this coming Sunday afternoon is the 1966 novel by Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. I'm expecting a fascinating discussion, because this novel so very different from the one that inspired it. Jean Rhys, who grew up in the Caribbean, was fascinated by the crucial but secondary character in Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester's first wife, the woman he met and married in the Caribbean. Her last and most critically acclaimed novel revolves around this character, sympathetically re-imagined. For more about this intriguing novel, see the review of Wide Sargasso Sea.
Listings for new historical novels published in February have been posted. A few that look especially interesting include:
Sharon Kay Penman, A King’s Ransom, about Richard the Lionheart's last years; sequel to Lionheart.
Marina Fiorato, The Venetian Bargain, about a young Turkish woman with medical skills who flees to Venice in 1576 on a ship carrying bubonic plague.
Marci Jefferson, Girl on the Golden Coin, about Frances Stuart, a beautiful Royalist exile who, after the Restoration, is sent to England by King Louis XIV orders to become the mistress of King Charles II.
Allison Pataki, The Traitor’s Wife, about Peggy Shippen Arnold, the wife of Benedict Arnold.
Nancy E. Turner, My Name Is Resolute, about a Jamaican woman captured by pirates and sold into slavery in New England in the years before the American Revolution.
Vivien Shotwell, Vienna Nocturne, a novel which imagines that young English soprano Anna Storace had a secret affair with opera star Francesco Benucci while she was working in Italy, and later fell in love with Mozart.
Phillip Margolin, Worthy Brown’s Daughter, about a bereaved frontier lawyer in Oregon who represents a slave whose master has backed out of a promise to free him and his daughter, unleashing a violent moral dilemma.
Eliza Granville, Gretel and the Dark, about a girl who becomes the patient of psychoanalyst Josef Breuer in 1899 Vienna, and a girl in Nazi Germany who escapes her troubles by remembering the fairy tales her nurse has told her.
James MacManus, Black Venus, about the French poet Charles Baudelaire and his lover Jeanne Duval, a Haitian cabaret singer.
Robin Oliveira, I Always Loved You, a novel which imagines the relationship American artist Mary Cassatt and French artist Edgar Degas might have had after meeting in Belle Époque Paris.
Kate Alcott, The Daring Ladies of Lowell, about a young woman who takes a job at a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1832 and after another mill worker is murdered finds herself torn between her allegiance to her fellow workers and her attraction to the mill owner's son.
Timothy Schaffert, The Swan Gondola, about a ventriloquist who falls in love with an enigmatic woman who plays Marie Antoinette in a guillotine scene at the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair.
Colleen McCullough, Bittersweet, about two sets of twin sisters, close friends, who train to become nurses in the 1920s.
Dermot McEvoy, The 13th Apostle, about Michael Collins and the struggle for Irish independence that began with the 1916 Easter Rising.
A rich, juicy read about a nineteenth-century woman who finds her niche in life studying mosses, The Signature of All Things is the latest book by bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert. I haven't read her blockbuster, Eat, Pray, Love, but for someone who loves historical novels about intelligent women who work around the social strictures of their times in order to live full, satisfying and even adventurous lives, The Signature of All Things has got to be Gilbert's masterpiece. For more about this exciting novel, see the review of The Signature of All Things.
By sheer coincidence, the last two historical novels I've read and reviewed have both revolved around bridges. Both bridges are wonders of engineering: the one in The Bridge on the Drina is a stone bridge (which really exists) constructed by order of a sixteenth-century Ottoman official. The one in The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a fictional bridge "woven of osier by the Incas more than a century before .... a mere ladder of thin slats swung out over the gorge, with handrails of dried vine." Thornton Wilder won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Ivo Andrić won the 1961 Nobel Prize for literature for his body of work including The Bridge on the Drina. The Bridge on the Drina is a long time-sweep novel covering several centuries. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a short novel, between 110-150 pages in most editions, which focuses tightly on a small group of characters who die on the same day. Read both, and you can easily come up with more similarities and differences. For more about The Bridge of San Luis Rey, see the review. See the post immediately below for more about The Bridge on the Drina.
The Bridge on the Drina, a time-sweep novel set in Bosnia, has been on my TBR list for a couple of years. Its author, Ivo Andrić, won a Nobel Prize in Literature. How often does a historical novelist win a Nobel? (More often than you might think, actually, but still...) And then, it was recommended to me by a friend who grew up in that part of the world. I finally squeezed it into my schedule, and I'm glad I did.
For anyone who wants to understand the history of Bosnia, it's a must-read. Beyond that, it's a deeply insightful look at the way war disrupts communities in which people of diverse religions and ethnicities were previously managing to get along pretty well. But it's not just an anti-war novel; it takes an ironic view of history itself and the way time tends to soften, if not entirely transform, symbols of brutality into beloved landmarks. If you like Michener's or Rutherfurd's time-sweep novels, this one should please you, but it will also please readers who prefer something a bit more literary than the typical time-sweep. For more about this novel, see the review of The Bridge on the Drina.
New novels published in January have been added to the website. Some that look especially interesting include:
Ella March Chase, The Queen’s Dwarf, about a young dwarf trained by the Duke of Buckingham to spy on King Charles I's French queen, Henrietta, in 1629.
Jennifer Chiaverini, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, about Kate Chase Sprague, the politically astute Washington society hostess who gained the enmity of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Alex Myers, Revolutionary, about Deborah Samson, an indentured servant who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
Valerie Martin, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, about the young Arthur Conan Doyle, author of a short story based on the mysterious disappearance of the entire crew of the ship Mary Celeste; a Philadelphia spiritualist; and a journalist who hopes to expose the spiritualist as a fraud.
Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings, about a slave girl and her owner, Sarah Grimke, a Charleston girl who would become an influential abolitionist.
Nancy Horan, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, the American woman who met and later married Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson after leaving her philandering husband.
James Scott, The Kept, about a midwife and her twelve-year-old son in upstate New York in the winter of 1897 who struggle to survive after a violent tragedy and confront the truth about their family.
Helen Dunmore, The Lie, about a young soldier who returns home to his Cornish fishing village after World War I, and is haunted by the consequences of a lie.
April Smith, A Star for Mrs. Blake, about four women who go to France to visit their sons' graves after the U.S. Congress passes a law in 1929 to fund overseas travel for mothers whose sons died in Europe in World War I.
Brian Payton, The Wind Is Not a River, about a Seattle journalist who while covering the war is shot down in the Aleutian Islands, where he struggles to survive, and his wife, who sets out to find him and bring him home.
Randy Boyagoda, Beggar’s Feast, about a boy born into poverty in Ceylon in 1899 who apprentices himself to a hustler and becomes rich, travels, and returns to Ceylon in a quest for respect.
Kader Abdolah, The King, about Shah Naser, who comes to the throne of Persia in 1848 and struggles with pressures to modernize.
The seventeenth-century French artist Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun led a remarkable life. She became a highly successful portrait painter in a time when women were not usually respected as artists. Because of how often she painted Marie Antoinette, she was associated with the French court and had to flee France during the Revolution. Sena Jeter Naslund's 2013 novel The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman is a dual-time novel about a present-day writer and Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. For more about this novel-within-a-novel, see the review of The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.
Belinda Alexandra's novels offer strong historical backgrounds laced with romance. Tuscan Rose, first published in 2010 in Alexandra's home country of Australia, is now available in the U.S. in paperback. It's the story of a convent-raised girl who must leave at fifteen to become governess on a wealthy estate, and finds herself unprepared for the harshness of life in Mussolini's Italy. For more about this novel, see the review of Tuscan Rose.
The best novels about poets should be poetic themselves, and Justin Hill's 2004 novel about the Tang Dynasty poet Yu Xuanji is, as reviewer David Maclaine describes it, "as direct and simple as the best Chinese poetry." It portrays a woman's life filled with obstacles and frustration in "a golden age built on a foundation of misery." For more about this intriguing novel, see David's review of Passing Under Heaven.
Coming soon: Reviews of Belinda Alexandra's Tuscan Rose and Sena Jeter Naslund's The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
One of the members of my book discussion group chose M.L. Stedman's 2012 novel The Light Between Oceans for our next meeting, and I'm very glad she did. I was riveted by this moving novel about a lighthouse keeper, his wife, and the baby who washes up on the shore of their remote Australian island in the 1920s. This is the first candidate for my "Best Historical Novels I Read in 2014" list. For more about it, see the review of The Light Between Oceans.
"The people at the great turning points in history did not know how things would turn out, and anyone who grapples with the past must have a firm hold on this truth," writes David Maclaine in his review of The Firedrake, Cecelia Holland's 1966 novel about the Norman Conquest. His reflections are especially apt in regard to this novel, since the Battle of Hastings is one of the more famous battles of history, its outcome determining, among other things, the nature of the English language so many of us speak today. But the novel remains suspenseful - for more about why, see David's review of The Firedrake.
Charles Palliser's latest novel, Rustication, is a Gothic mystery set in rural nineteenth-century England. It's an intricately plotted, atmospheric page-turner about a young man "rusticated" (sent home) from Cambridge Unversity to a home that is unwelcoming in almost every possible way. For more about this novel, see the review of Rustication.
Coming: a review of Cecelia Holland's The Firedrake
Happy New Year! May you discover many enthralling new historical novels and rediscover some cherished favorites this year. I would wish you enough shelves to hold and organize your book collection, but don't want to sound ridiculous!
Here's a review of a highly recommended novel by Cecelia Holland, a historical novelist for connoisseurs. David Maclaine thoroughly enjoyed The Belt of Gold, a story revolving around the eighth-century Byzantine Empress Irene, a woman who seems to have relished wielding power. For more about this novel, see his review of The Belt of Gold.
Merry Christmas! May your holiday season be just the way you like it.
Colm Tóibín's novel The Testament of Mary is not a traditional Christmas story - perhaps it's more of a Good Friday story for the spiritual doubters among us - but it's well worth reading in a season when people might want to consider the gospel story more deeply. Instead of questioning the factual nature of the miracles Jesus performs in the gospels, Tóibín's somber and thoughtful novel questions the meaning behind them. For more about this novel, see the review of The Testament of Mary.
Reviewer Annis enjoyed Jo Baker's novel Longbourn, set in the Bennet household of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - but in the "downstairs" world of the Bennet servants. Among the many novels which borrow characters from Austen's classic novels (often to disappointing effect), Longbourn is one that offers a fresh, well-written read. For more about this recommended novel, read Annis's review of Longbourn.
When I posted my "Best I Read in 2013" list at the end of November, I had not yet read Kate Atkinson's exceptional novel Life After Life, about a girl who dies at birth in 1910 - but gets the chance to start over and survive, repeatedly. That means two books I had mixed feelings about dropped off the list (Booker-award-winning The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón's hugely popular The Shadow of the Wind - see review), replaced by Life After Life. For more about this absorbing, wonderful novel, see the review of Life After Life, and my "Best of 2013" list.
Cecelia Holland is one of the premier historical novelists, known for the authenticity of her settings. A goal of mine is to have every one of her novels reviewed on the website. It's come one review closer to fulfillment today with David Maclaine's review of her 1969 novel Until the Sun Falls, an exceptional portrayal of life among the Mongols after the death of Genghis Khan. For more about this novel, see David's review of Until the Sun Falls.
Would you have guessed that in 1795 the twenty-six-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte wrote a love story? He did. More than 200 years later, his novella Clisson et Eugénie finally found a publisher in France. An English edition from Gallic Books has just been published, as well. What kind of a writer was Napoleon? See the review of Clisson and Eugénie for my humble opinion.
This was the year I moved to a new city with my true love, set up an AirBnB guest cottage, got involved in starting a new Arts Center, and began working once again on a novel I've been trying to write for several years. So I didn't have quite as much time for reading as I've had in some years past. I did, however, manage to squeeze in some excellent historical novels.
This year's list, The Best Historical Novels I Read in 2013, is as varied as past years' lists, including everything from literary novels to a mystery, a novel for teens, and a couple of historical romances. It includes novels newly published in 2013 as well as some novels published in the past. They're all well worth reading!
Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series covers a period of Roman history otherwise neglected by historical novelists - the third century, when Rome's eastern Empire came under attack by a variety of other peoples and almost fell. In The Wolves of the North, the threat which the novel's hero must contend with comes from horse warriors from the steppes. For more about this novel, see David Maclaine's review of The Wolves of the North.
This week, James McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird, won the U.S. National Book Award. The novel, set in the Kansas Territory in 1857, is about Henry, a young slave, who joins abolitionist James Brown after Brown and his master get into an argument that turns violent. Henry is still with Brown in 1859 during the raid on Harper's Ferry, one of the turning points in history that led to the Civil War.
This is not the first historical novel McBride has written. Song Yet Sung is the story of a slave woman who escapes into Maryland's swamps, where she uses a code to communicate with other runaway slaves.
Novels about witches are not always beautifully written, but Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate is a genuinely literary novel that subtly guides readers to share - at least while immersed in the novel - some of the more eerie imaginings of early seventeenth-century England. The characters are based on real people, most of them either the persecutors or the persecuted in the 1612 witchcraft trials in Lancashire County, England. For more about this short, intense novel, see the review of The Daylight Gate.
A goal of mine is to have reviews of all of Cecelia Holland's historical novels on this website. David Maclaine, another reader who appreciates her work, is helping me move toward that goal. Today's new review is of The Earl, one of Holland's earlier novels, set during the war between Stephen and Matilda for England's throne, and published in 1971. I read it decades ago and can still vividly remember my impressions of certain characters. For more about this novel, see David's review of The Earl.
Coming soon: a review of Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate
It's a sad fact that the best of a year's crop of historical novels are not necessarily sent to me as review books. That was the case with a novel that will appear near the top of the forthcoming "Best Novels I Read in 2013" list. The Son, by Philipp Meyer, dives into Texas history with a ranching family stemming from a man whose natural survival instinct was honed by captivity and adoption by a band of Comanches. The novel dissects the Texas way of life - and by extension the American obsession with rugged individuality - as a product of its decidedly unromantic frontier history. For more about this novel, see the review of The Son.
That notorious family of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy, the Borgias, are at either the center or the periphery of numerous historical novels. David Maclaine reviews what must surely be one of the best: Cecelia Holland's City of God. Holland is a novelist for connoisseurs of historical novels who care more about the characters being true to their time and place than sympathetic to modern sensibilities. Ruthless, amoral characters often figure in Holland's novels, and it would be hard to find anyone more ruthless or amoral than Rodrigo Borgia, the man who was Pope Alexander VI. This novel views him through the eyes of an ambassador's secretary who reports home to another celebrated figure of the time, Niccolo Machiavelli. For more about this novel, see David's review of City of God.
Coming soon: More reviews and an annotated list of the best historical novels I read in 2013.
The Châtelet Apprentice is the first in a mystery series originally published in France which now includes ten novels, six of which have been translated into English and published in the U.K. Now Gallic Books has published The Châtelet Apprentice in the U.S. The series has been popular in France, but reviewer David Maclaine found the novel lacking. See his review, check out the novel's opening pages at Amazon.com (along with the very mixed reviews there), and judge for yourself whether this mystery is likely to turn you on or off.
One of the more intriguing episodes of the early Middle Ages is the gift of an elephant from the Caliph of Baghdad Haroun al-Rashid to the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne. Tim Severin's second novel in the Saxon series, The Emperor's Elephant, just published this August, is a tale of travel, discovery and suspense crafted around that episode. Reviewer David Maclaine finds a "great charm" in its "look into the mentality of a bygone age, when creatures now extinct walked the earth, but wild fantasy still crowded the received knowledge of natural history." For more about this novel, see his review of The Emperor's Elephant.
Author Anthony McCarten proves historical novels don't have to be 500-page doorstoppers to be intensely imagined and thought-provoking. Brilliance portrays inventor Thomas Edison and the moral quicksand he becomes mired in after joining forces with financier J.P. Morgan to market electric light. The novel was just published last month by Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts of Portland, Oregon. Readers wondering if today's small presses are all just fronts for exploiting writers and readers for a quick buck can rest assured that small presses do still exist which are committed to publishing high quality literary works in a polished manner that respects both author and reader. For more about this superb novel, see the review of Brilliance.
With the new "Pacific Northwest" page, the "Travel by Novel" section now includes seven destinations. Whether you're planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest area - Oregon, Washington, and parts of Idaho and Montana in the U.S. and British Columbia in Canada - or simply want to visit vicariously through the pages of a novel, this new page features a handy list of historical novels set in the Pacific Northwest. For many, there are links to reviews so you can get a better idea whether the book suits your reading fancy.
Other pages in the Travel by Novel section are: Austria, Ireland, Morocco, New Orleans, Paris, San Antonio and Washington D.C. Readers - if you're planning a trip to somewhere rich in history, please let me know via the contact form - time permitting, I may be able to create a "Travel by Novel" page for your destination.
Some historical novels beg to be taken seriously as cautionary tales for our own time. Reviewer Annis finds that Jim Crace's Harvest is one of these, a beautifully written tale of the disaster that ensues when the landowner in a small village (probably in the Tudor era, a time of widespread enclosure of what had previously been common grazing land) breaks faith with old custom and the needs of his tenants. For more about his novel, see Annis's review of Harvest.
Just published today, Caribbee is #14 in Julian Stockwin's Kydd series about a British seaman during the Napoleonic Wars. Reviewer David Maclaine finds "a special glow to the author's recreation of the Caribbean Islands as they were in the early nineteenth century." Readers with a craving for sweets will appreciate the importance of the Caribbean sugar trade to the British at the turn of the nineteenth century - and it's Napoleon's effort to disrupt it that occupies Captain Kydd in this novel. For more about it, see David's review of Caribbee.
The Officer's Prey is the first in a series of detective novels by French author Armand Cabasson featuring an officer in Napoleon's army as sleuth. A new English edition in paperback of The Officer's Prey appeared this month from Gallic Books in London. This is not a typical murder mystery - as Napoleon's army pillages its way across Europe toward Moscow, the irony of looking for one murderer among an army of conscripts and volunteers with orders to kill is a strong theme. For more about this mystery novel, see the review of The Officer's Prey.
Betrayal, #13 in Julian Stockwin's Kydd naval adventure series, takes readers to South America during the Napoleonic Wars. Reviewer David Maclaine says it will "keep readers hooked." So if you're as hooked on this series as David, you'll be glad to know the next novel in the series, Caribbee, is coming out next week - David's review will be posted Friday. Meanwhile, here's his review of Betrayal to keep your appetite whetted.
I just answered a serious survey about how readers approach historical fiction. Author M.K. Tod designed it in collaboration with Richard Lee, Founder of the Historical Novel Society. It's a thoughtful survey that's fast and easy to respond to. If you're interested, the link is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/JCG7NYP.
It's hard to imagine having a more difficult job than Charles Sanson, chief executioner of Paris in the years leading up to the French Revolution. By all accounts, he was a compassionate man who gained a surprising amount of respect in a time when there was little to respect about the French legal system. Susanne Alleyn's latest novel, The Executioner's Heir, is about his early life, from the time he had to take up his father's profession as a young teenager into his late twenties. This is a skillfully written self-published novel by an author whose past work has been published by New York houses like Minotaur and Soho, and it compares favorably with other traditionally published novels, both in the quality of the writing and in the high standard of the publication values. For more about it, see the review of The Executioner's Heir.
October is a good time of the year for those of us in northern climes to travel closer to the equator. Thanks to website visitor Fiona Hurley, who compiled a list of novels set in Morocco, our new "Travel by Novel: Morocco" page offers reading for travelers (by air, sea, land or the pages of a book) planning a visit to this fascinating country. It's our seventh "Travel by Novel" page, joining pages on Austria, Ireland, New Orleans, Paris, San Antonio and Washington D.C. Readers - if you're planning a trip to somewhere rich in history, please let me know via the contact form - time permitting, I may be able to create a "Travel by Novel" page for your destination.
Fans of Viking fiction will not want to miss this: David Maclaine's list, with links to reviews, of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age. An interesting twist is that several of these novels were written during or shortly after the Viking Age - Icelandic sagas which David recommends as some of the best Viking fiction around. Modern classics also appear on the list, from Edison Marshall's 1951 novel The Viking, to Cecelia Holland's two novels about the eleventh-century conflicts between the Irish and invading Vikings, to Robert Low's 2012 novel Crowbone, the latest in his "Oathsworn" series.
Two new reviews have been added to the website, both in David Maclaine's Viking series. Fin Gall is an adventure tale by a modern author, James L. Nelson. Heimskringla is a collection of sagas by the medieval Icelandic bard Snorri Sturluson. David recommends both for readers who enjoy Viking adventure tales. For more about these works, see David's reviews of Fin Gall and Heimskringla.
Coming soon: The best 45 novels to read for an overview of Viking history
A guest post two weeks ago by author Frances Kazan (scroll down to read it) explored her memories of Turkey in the 1980s during a visit with her husband, noted film director Elia Kazan, who was born in Turkey. Her novel The Dervish explores an earlier period in Turkish history, the time immediately following World War I, when Turkey was under British occupation and the Turks under Kemal Atatürk were fighting for independence. It's a sequel to her previous novel Halide's Gift, about a remarkable Turkish woman, Halide Edib. For more about Kazan's new novel, see the review of The Dervish.
Have you seen the campy 1964 adventure movie "The Long Ships" with Richard Widmark as a mischievously daring young Viking and Sidney Poitier as his Moorish sidekick? The movie was based on a novel published in the 1940s by Swedish author Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. Reviewer David Maclaine says that if you could read only one Viking novel, The Long Ships would be the one to read. For more about it, see his review of The Long Ships.
The 12th-century Celtic "history" The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill is really an early novel, almost as long as Wolf Hall and as partisan toward its hero, the Irish high king Brian Boru, as any classic Western toward its gun-toting, law-upholding marshal. For more about this story of Brian Boru's struggle against Viking invaders, see David's review of The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill.
David Maclaine's series of reviews of novels set in the Viking era continues with Poul Anderson's 1997 novel War of the Gods, based on the medieval saga of Hadding. Anderson, a celebrated writer of science fiction who won seven Hugo and three Nebula awards, shifted toward historical fiction later in his life. War of the Gods is a hybrid which incorporates both supernatural elements borrowed from Norse sagas and a realistic historical setting. For more about this novel, see David's review of War of the Gods.