We asked eight authors to each recommend a historical book they’d love to receive for Christmas 2021, and one they would give as a Christmas gift. They include many of the best books published this year. We hope these suggestions inspire you, whether you’re looking for ideas for presents or planning to curl up in the warm with a good book, historical fiction or non-fiction.
The Tudors In Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty by Sarah Gristwood. This wonderful book should find its way into every history-lover’s Christmas stocking. Reading it feels like being given a cypher to decode this most famous – and often perplexing – of royal dynasties. The prose is as seductive as the subject-matter and the narrative is utterly compelling. Be prepared to fall in love.
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier. Set in 1930s Winchester, this wonderful novel follows the life of Violet Speedwell, whose fiance and brother were killed in the First World War. The hardship and prejudices that these ‘surplus women’ battled with to survive was astounding. Compelling and poignant, with exquisite period detail throughout.
Tracy Borman’s latest book, Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy, William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II, was published on 18 November, 2021
Not One of Us, published in September, is the fourth book in the splendid Teifi Valley Coroner series by Alis Hawkins. I may be biased because the books are set not that far from where I grew up, but the stories are superbly crafted, set against a backdrop of rapid change and social upheaval, and feature a particularly memorable protagonist. Harry Probert-Lloyd has inherited his impoverished family estate and also serves as coroner for the district despite being functionally blind, forcing him to rely heavily on two very different and multi-layered assistants. With intriguing ‘whodunnit’ plots and complex characters, all of the books are compulsive reading.
One of my best discoveries of 2021 was the Wyndham and Bannerjee series by Abir Mukherjee, of which the fifth title, The Shadows of Men, was published in November. I knew shamefully little about Indian history in the 1920s, when these books are set, but Mukherjee’s writing is wonderfully evocative of both the country and the time. Even better, though, is the developing relationship between the opium addict Captain Sam Wyndham and his Indian sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, whose name, seemingly impossible for the British to master, is usually mangled into ‘Surrender-not’. As Wyndham wrestles with his many demons, Bannerjee slowly develops from a timid, diffident and reluctant sidekick into an increasingly confident friend and equal. Marvellous!
JD Davies writes naval historical fiction and non-fiction. His Jack Stannard of the Navy Royal trilogy, Destiny’s Tide, Battle’s Flood, and Armada’s Wake, were published as paperbacks on 9 December, 2021.
My non-fiction recommendation is The Light Ages by Seb Falk, a sweeping exploration of the marvels of medieval science. Like many historians I get irritated by the frequent use of the word ‘medieval’ as a synonym for ‘crude/violent/unsophisticated’, and The Light Ages rebuts this brilliantly. Moreover, it’s beautifully readable and would make an ideal gift for anyone who would enjoy having their mind opened to these wonders.
My fiction choice is an uncharacteristic one for me: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. I’m not generally a fan of Austen spin-offs but this one is a remarkable and immersive tale of a girl (Mary Bennet, the middle one of the family in Pride and Prejudice) who slowly realises how little she is valued by those around her, and decides to do something about it by making her own fate.
Am I allowed to cheat here and sneak in a third book? Not a new one but an old favourite – Susan Cooper‘s The Dark is Rising. It’s full of evocative folklore, and beloved by many historians; I know I’m not the only one who re-reads it every Christmas! The midwinter setting and the evocative descriptions of snow and ice make it perfect for a dark afternoon by the fire.
Catherine Hanley‘s most recent biography, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior was published on 11 February, 2020. She also writes historical fiction as CB Hanley; her sixth Mediaeval Mystery novel, Cast the First Stone, was out on 12 June, 2020, and the next in the series, By the Edge of the Sword, will be published on 21 December, 2021.
The Children of Ash & Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price. He delves into not only the history and geography that shaped the people we now know as the Vikings, but he brings them to life by peeling back the layers of their religious beliefs and how they envisaged the world around them, showing us how they thought and making these distant and often maligned and mythologised people truly human and relatable. A must-read for anyone interested in who the Vikings really were.
The Charioteer: A Roman Adventure Story by Jemahl Evans. Better known for his wonderful Sir Blandford Candy novels, set during the English Civil War, in this new novel Jemahl Evans transports us to the final years of the Roman Empire in an exciting tale of daring and adventure of a quest to bring back the secret of silk from the Far East. Featuring the real-life characters of an ageing charioteer, a failed general and a religious zealot who believed the world to be flat, Evans’s sharp and often humorous prose propels the unlikely characters along at breakneck pace through all manner of obstacles along the way. Highly recommended for fans of action-packed historical fiction in the vein of David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell.
Matthew Harffy is best known for his Bernicia Chronicles series set in England in the seventh century. The latest, For Lord and Land, was published on 8 July, 2021, in hardback and comes out in paperback on 6 January, 2022. He’s recently begun a new series based on the earliest Norse attacks on England; A Time for Swords was released on 2 September, 2021, and its sequel, A Night of Flames, follows on 3 March, 2022.
My non-fiction choice would be CJ Schüler‘s The Wood that Built London – A Human History of the Great North Wood. A beautifully-illustrated and richly-researched exploration of the relationship of humanity and nature from the earliest times to the present day as evidenced in the history of this wood so crucial to London. Schüler calls on an astonishing range of sources spanning disciplines from arboriculture to poetry and a great deal in between, to tell the story of this wood, and demonstrates as he does so that much we have forgotten in the name of progress would do well to be re-learned.
My fictional choice is Rose Nicolson, the latest novel from poet, musician, and novelist Andrew Greig. It’s not too much to say that this book, which accompanies 16th-century Scottish poet William Fowler as he discovers himself and dances in and out of the chaos of Scottish history as it unfolds around him, is a triumph – of language, of insight, and of storytelling. On almost every page there is a phrase or an idea I wanted to talk to someone about. It is a triumph too for its publisher, Riverrun, in having the courage to back a book where much of the dialogue is in Scots, and much of the history unfamiliar. The first novel in a very long time that has made me want to go back to the beginning and read again.
SG MacLean is the author of the Damian Seeker and Alexander Seaton historical crime novels. The last book in her Seeker series, The House of Lamentations, was published in paperback on 10 June, 2021. She moves into the mid-18th century with The Bookseller of Inverness, out on 4 August, 2022.
I’ve read so much brilliant historical writing over the past year that it’s very hard to narrow it down. However, as our lovely editor is restricting me to two books, here are the three [See what I have to put up with? Ed] I’d particularly recommend as gifts:
Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine And Myth in a Man-Made World by Elinor Cleghorn. A fascinating and enraging investigation into how women’s bodies have been misunderstood and misdiagnosed throughout history. Will get the arguments flowing around the Christmas dinner table.
Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson. Stunning writing, stunning cover. A complex and rewarding murder mystery set amid in the glittering houses and dark alleyways of Georgian London. Perfect Christmas reading.
The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee – the latest and the best in this brilliant series set in 1920s Calcutta. Hugely entertaining and gripping, but also taking on important social issues. Buy your relative the whole series and you might get some peace and quiet for a week.
As well as flagrantly defying Historia’s editor, Anna Mazzola writes dark historical crime fiction. The Story Keeper, her last book, was published in paperback on 10 January, 2019. Her third, The Clockwork Girl, will be out on 3 March, 2022.
Judging the HWA non-fiction crown 2021 means that I have had the immense joy of reading almost 100 books this year. As well as the 12 wonderful books on the longlist, there were many others that I loved… so some further recommended reading for Christmas would include Wendy Moore‘s very engaging Endell Street, about the inspiration women who ran the First World War’s most remarkable military hospital – the sort of courageous women you hope to find when researching your family history!
Chris Bryant‘s The Glamour Boys tells an important but little considered piece of Second World War LGB history with panache. And since it is Christmas, how about AN Wilson‘s The Mystery of Charles Dickens. I don’t think AN Wilson can write a dull paragraph, and Dickens gives him plenty of great material to play with.
Clare Mulley writes biographies of 20th-century women whose remarkable achievements had previously been overlooked. Her latest, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, was published in paperback on 8 March 2018. A new book, Agent Zo, has been commissioned by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
I’ve read some excellent historical novels this year, but two in particular have lingered in the memory. Both throw an unfamiliar light well-known periods, and both gave me the sense that the fiction is underpinned by solid historical foundations.
Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den vividly recreates a prostitute’s life in Ancient Rome. The protagonist, Amara, has been sold into prostitution in the vibrant, vulgar world of first-century Pompeii. She and her colleagues, the ‘She Wolves’, are desperate to find a way out. The book has it all: drama, humour, strong characters you care about, and contemporary detail that feels wholly authentic yet strangely modern.
Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass is set in England in the 1790s. The plot immerses us in the dangerous world of espionage and politics. The central character, the hugely sympathetic Jago, is entangled in other people’s dangerous intrigues, somewhat hampered by his addiction to the eponymous ‘black drop’. Refreshing glimpses of historical characters, unfiltered by hindsight, add to the pleasure.
Andrew Taylor is the author of the Marwood and Lovett crime novels set in post-1666 London. His latest, The Royal Secret, was published on 29 April, 2021. He won the HWA Gold Crown Award in 2020 for The King’s Evil.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our suggestions for Christmas books and/or winter reading.
These authors have an impressive number of awards and best-sellers to their names. They’ve generously taken the time to write features for Historia. If you’d like to see more about them and their writing, go to these links:
Thank you to all of them. Shona MacLean has recently joined the HWA, so she hasn’t been subjected to the usual mixture of cajoling, begging and sinister threats used to extract features from authors. Yet.
In the New Year Historia will list books by HWA members to be published in 2022. So if your bookshelves, Kindles, and TBR list aren’t already collapsing under the pressure, watch out!
In the meantime, have a bookishly happy holiday season.