It’s a good year to plan your summer escape in the bookshop or library, since most of us will be taking our break at home or somewhere in these beautiful but rainy islands and may need books to journey any further. We asked historical writers, both fiction and non-fiction, for their suggestions for books for history lovers which they’ve enjoyed recently, as well as those they’re looking forward to reading this summer.
My summer reading list will include Square Haunting by Francesca Wade. It reveals the story of five female writers, including Dorothy L Sayers and Virginia Woolf, in Mecklenburg Square in Bloomsbury during the interwar period, where they each found inspiration and courage, along with frustration and desolation. The book tells the story of these five writers all aspiring to find their place in a world that was only just beginning to offer women wider opportunities and experiences beyond marriage and motherhood, and they all searched to find their place as writers and thinkers in a male dominated society. Their stories evolve, flourish, and unravel at different stages in their personal and work life, all of which encircles their time living in Mecklenburg Square, and set against a backdrop of the aftermath of one world war and the looming threat of another one.
My second reading list choice is Noble Ambitions by Adrian Tinniswood, due for release in September 2021, so it will be more of an autumn read, but no less fascinating, I am sure. It looks at the calamitous state of large country houses after the Second World War. These ancestral piles that had flourished for centuries through historic rule and landownership were crumbling under the weight of rising taxes and maintenance costs mixed with dwindling income and accompanied by drastic changes in the nature of politics and society. Many historic houses were demolished, while others managed to reinvent themselves taking on a new approach to their place and relevance in post-war Britain.
Melanie Backe-Hansen is a house historian specialising in researching the social history of houses. She has written three books, including House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door, and Historic Streets and Squares: The Secrets on Your Doorstep. Her most recent book, A House Through Time, was co-authored with David Olusoga and accompanies the BBC television series of the same name (for which she was also a research consultant).
Leanda de Lisle
I think readers can do a lot worse than look at the winners and shortlisted authors for the HWA’s annual Gold Crown Award. Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River (2019), Ralph Rothmann’s To Die in Spring (2018), and Ian McGuire’s The North Water (2017) are very different books but three of my favourites. I haven’t yet read Andrew Taylor’s The King’s Evil (2020) – it’s a period I have been researching for my own non-fiction book and I am not sure I want to ‘escape’ into that world on my holiday!
The book I am looking forward to reading, and which I have already bought, is Julian Sanction’s Madhouse at the End of the Earth… I think The North Water gave me a taste for horror stories with ships stuck in ice, though this one is non-fiction.
Leanda de Lisle won the HWA Non-fiction Crown Award in 2018 for The White King, her “quietly revolutionary” biography of Charles I. She spoke to Historia about winning the prize. Leanda has also written about one of the most memorable incidents in her book in Killing a king: the execution of Charles I. She is currently writing the biography of Charles’s queen, Henrietta Maria, and has given Historia some insights into her subject in Henrietta Maria: queen, warrior, politician, woman.
Oscar de Muriel
Hyde by Craig Russell. Because I, of course, love Victorian Edinburgh and a good dose of gothic creepiness. This book was deliciously eerie and atmospheric, and of course meticulously researched. Perfect for a stormy day, with a wee tipple.
The Apollo Murders, to be released in October 2021. I can’t wait for this one. A Cold War thriller involving space flight and penned by former astronaut Chris Hadfield (no ghost writer as far as I know). Basically all my favourite things crammed in a single book.
Oscar de Muriel is the author of the Frey & McGray series of historical mysteries set in Edinburgh at the end of the 19th century. He was shortlisted for the 2020 Gold Crown Award for The Darker Arts and wrote about the clash between Victorian science and superstition in The Darker Quacks – Between folklore and science. His latest book in the series, The Dance of the Serpents, was published on 21 January, 2021.
In Protector (book two of the Athenian series), Conn Iggulden takes on the great, sweeping events of Ancient Greece with relish, conjuring them in vivid colour and in all their enormous scale, whilst at the same time making them feel intimate and personal. Iconic figures from history, men such as Themistocles and Xanthippus, emerge fully fleshed, so that, although they died 2,500 years ago, they live and breathe again between the pages. If that wasn’t enough, there’s the prose itself, which is at once economical and beautiful. I felt the Mediterranean sun on my face, smelled the sea on the air, stood on the rocky outcrop of the Acropolis, watched the hustle and bustle of Athenian life.
A book I’m looking forward to reading is A Man at Arms by Steven Pressfield, set in the turbulent aftermath of the crucifixion of Christ. Although it’s been many years since I read Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, I remember it being an incredible book, written by someone who has delved deeply into the mind of the fighting man. It was an impeccably researched, exciting and brilliantly-written historical novel, so I’m hoping for the same with A Man at Arms.
Giles Kristian‘s books include the Viking adventure series (Wings of the Storm, Winter’s Fire and Gods of Vengeance), his English Civil War series and the Raven series. More recently he published Lancelot, a retelling of the Arthurian legend, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Gold Crown Award, which he talks about in his Historia interview. The sequel, Camelot, was published on 14 May, 2020, and comes out in paperback on 24 June, 2021.
This summer I’m looking forward to catching up with two of my favourite historic serials. I’ll be reading A Death at Fountains Abbey from Antonia Hodgson’s terrific Thomas Hawkins series, and dipping into Abir Mukherjee’s latest Wyndham and Banerjee outing, Death in the East. I loved his debut, A Rising Man, and then his second, A Necessary Evil, so I’m looking forward to spending some time in the company of his protagonists – and seeing what he will throw at them this time and how they’ll adjust.
Likewise, I find the subterranean world that Hodgson creates in 1720s London is intensely compelling – horribly human, but somehow time spent with Hawkins and his society delivers enough light to make the ride a sunny, as well a thrilling, pleasure. Now he’s out of London, it will be fascinating to see country life in 1728 and what trouble Hawkins can get himself into.
Alec Marsh is the author of the Drabble & Harris historical thriller series. The second, Enemy of the Raj, was published on 17 September, 2020, and the next, Ghosts of the West, is out on 9 September, 2021.
There have been so many brilliant historical books already this year, that it’s really hard to choose only two. If you haven’t yet read it, get your claws on a copy of Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den. It’s a fascinating story about what women do to survive set in Pompeii’s most famous brothel, the Wolf Den. With perfect prose, this brilliant and unflinching novel draws us into the world of an enslaved prostitute, Amara, and her fellow she-wolves. Loved it and delighted to see it become a bestseller.
And if you’re looking for something a bit different and a bit racy, I highly recommend Neil Blackmore’s The Dangerous Kingdom of Love, which is out on 15 July. Smart, witty and wickedly good fun. Sex, power games and intrigue in the court of King James I. Just make sure you’re not broadcasting to the whole beach if you’re listening to the audiobook. (Then again, your fellow sunbathers might thank you!).
Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical thrillers and Gothic fiction which explore the impact of crime and injustice. Her last book, The Story Keeper, was published in 2018 and her new novel, The Clockwork Girl, will be out in January, 2022. She has looked at novels based on true crimes (and why we’re so fascinated by them) for Historia in Read All About It! and compiled our feature Gothic writers choose their favourite chilling books.
I am much looking forward to reading Abir Mukherjee’s latest novel Death in the East. If you are yet to discover this series, set in the days of the British Raj, then run to the shops and buy it. It has a wonderful sense of time and place, and powerful political storylines combined with clever murder mysteries that keep you guessing.
Abir is one half of the fabulous Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, and his co-conspirator, Vaseem Khan, also writes wonderful historical crime fiction set in India, this time against the backdrop of the post-war, post-independence, post-partition period. I have a proof copy of The Dying Day (out in July), the second novel in his Malabar House series, and I am dying to get my teeth into it. A female detective, an ancient manuscript, murders, Nazis and puzzles. If we ever get any sunshine again, this is going to be my garden read!
Laura Shepherd-Robinson is the author of Blood and Sugar, which won the HWA Debut Crown Award in 2019. To find out more about the background to this book, read A respectable trade in brutality: Blood & Sugar. Laura also spoke to Historia about writing historical fiction and gave her advice to new authors. Her second novel, Daughters of Night, was published on 18 February, 2021, and is one of the books recommended by Andrew Taylor, below.
This year I’ve particularly enjoyed Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s second novel, Daughters of Night. Set in the late 18th century, it’s a complex, layered novel that digs deep into the grimy depths beneath the surface elegance of the period. Shepherd-Robinson really is an author to watch.
I’m currently galloping towards the end of Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water. This is an extraordinary novel that insouciantly straddles several genres, including both historical and crime fiction, with more that a dash of the occult. Set sometime in the 17th century, the plot concerns an epic voyage from the East Indies, doomed from the very start. The novel shouldn’t work, but it does – which is largely due to Turton’s ability to tear up the rule book, throw the pieces in the air and magically reconfigure the falling fragments into a compelling narrative, crammed with the unexpected and the frankly weird.
The historical novel I’d like to read next is Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den. If the reviews are anything to go by, it gives us a glimpse of Pompeii like no other, seen through the eyes of an angry woman forced into prostitution. Some things never change…
Andrew Taylor is the Sunday Times bestselling author of the James Marwood and Cat Lovett series of crime novels set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. His latest, The Royal Secret, was published on 29 April, 2021. Andrew won the 2020 HWA Gold Crown Award for The King’s Evil. Read his Historia interview about winning the award. Andrew has written about the historical background to his winning book in The monarch with the magic touch.
Firstly, one which I’ve just finished reading is the newly-published The Poison Keeper by Deborah Swift. A story of murder, intrigue and revenge, with a wonderful sense of place and historical context, it’s based on the true story of the life of Giulia Tofana, a notorious poisoner in seventeenth-century Italy. It has lots of plot twists but is character-driven. A great read.
One that I’m looking forward to reading is an old one that was recommended by a friend – The Golden Bird: Two Orkney Stories by George Mackay Brown. The stories are set in Orkney at the end of the nineteenth century when traditional island life was becoming threatened. I’ve picked up a paperback copy of this and am looking forward to being taken back to a gentler pace of life!
Annie Whitehead is a historian and author who specialises in the Anglo-Saxon period. She has written three novels set in Mercia, which was also the subject of her first history book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. Annie’s next non-fiction book was Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, which was published on 30 May, 2020, and is released in paperback on 31 August, 2021.