We asked members of the Historical Writers’ Association which books were on their Christmas list, and which they were giving to others. The results include some sparkling fiction and non-fiction, from prize-winning novels to hidden gems.
Every year something jumps out of the TBR pile and makes itself noticed so that I remember it when the nights grow darkest and want to give it to all my friends to keep them warm – or at least, lost in another world – until the light returns. This year’s top pick is The Hoarse Oaths of Fife by Chris Moore. For obvious reasons, there’s been a veritable glut of WW1 novels in the past few years, and I truly didn’t expect to enjoy one more visit to the Battle of Loos, however unusual the viewpoint. But this book is remarkable in so many ways and the delight of the characterisation, the strength of the narrative and the joy of the language – and the learning of things I didn’t know – make it absolutely gripping in the truest sense: a book to pick up early in the day because you won’t be sleeping ‘till it’s done.
There’s an early chapter set in the present day, but the rest of the book is set mainly in the sixties with flashes back, mostly recalled in first person dialogue, of the war. It doesn’t sound appetising and when I tell you that a large bulk of the early part is set in potato fields of Fife and we learn far more than is healthy of how to plant and pick potatoes… it’s not sounding any better. But I adored this book. There’s something earthy about the connection with the soil, something so transparently genuine about the characters, something utterly poetic about the cadences of the prose that draw you into a depth of care what will leave you weeping. It’s a delight. I can’t recommend it too highly.
In my Christmas stocking, I would be very happy to find a copy of The Constant Soldier by William Ryan. I read a superb review in the Telegraph a few weeks ago.
The novel is set in 1944 near Auschwitz. A badly burnt German soldier, back from the front, is given work at a mess hut used by concentration camp guards, where he is reunited with a woman he loved and betrayed and whose life now hangs in the balance as a slave to the SS. Not having read the book yet, that’s all I know – but what a heart-rending, terrifying set-up for a story. If only I’d had the idea myself!
I’ve dropped lots of hints that I’d love Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art by scholar of cultural history, Aileen Ribeiro. This ravishing hardback examines changes in concepts of female beauty from 1540 to 1940 by way of portraits of history’s great beauties, fashion plates, cartoons, cosmetics, philosophy and hairstyles. Studying books like this is what makes me so very happy to write historical fiction.
I’ll be giving copies of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson to those I care for, thanks to a recommendation from fellow HWA member, Essie Fox. A novella of only 116 pages, it magically presents a vast sweep of early 20th century history in the American West. Following the life of itinerant rail worker, Robert Grainier, its haunting, myth-weighted prose reminded me of the best parts of Jack London haunted by the shamans of Joseph Campbell.
I’m hoping for a copy of Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs by Homer W.Sykes. It is an odd one, and I can’t tell you exactly how fascinating it is, because, of course, I’ve not read it, but in the course of my research into my own books I’ve been constantly interested and surprised by the strange mix of traditions – practical stuff like beating the bounds, magical stuff and religious stuff, too – that crop up to mark certain days of the year in certain parts of the country, and how and why those were arrived at and how and why they are still preserved. These photos were taken in the 70s and I imagine we’ve lost a few of the rites since, but I love these sorts of low level traditions, mostly organised by ordinary people and preserved unselfconsciously by example and word of mouth among small communities. It makes England seem very exotic and very, very peculiar, and long may that last.
As the head chef for more Christmas Days than I am prepared to count, I plan to give copies of The Devil’s Feast by MJ Carter to two of my festive guests this year. Not only is it a great book but there’s something very appealing about presenting a book about poison and a chef who may/may not have lost the plot just before serving a 3 course extravaganza it has taken hours and many ‘chef’s cocktails’ to get to the table. One of the two copies is actually a warning, I jest – actually I don’t, it’s been a lot of dinners. As for me, I’m hoping for Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor – a copy of that in my stocking should keep the gravy on the straight and narrow…
I’m giving Thin Air by Michelle Paver. This novel held me fast in its unrelenting icy grip. It has such an encroaching sense of dread, which stems from both from the dangers experienced when climbing at altitude, but also from past memories that haunt the main narrator’s mind. This is a novel that I’ll be buying for some mountaineering friends of mine, though I hope that they won’t find the ghostly elements too disturbing.
The historical novel that I’d recommend giving this year is Ian McGuire’s The North Water. It’s set on a Yorkshire whaling ship that sets sail for the hunting waters of the Arctic and is filled with a colourful, foul-mouthed cast of characters, including a murderous harpooner called Henry Drax, and Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation. It’s not long before a murder is committed and the crew of the Volunteer find themselves in very deep water. To tell you anything more would spoil it but it is without doubt the best novel that I have read this year or even in the last five. It’s not for the faint hearted. It’s savage and brutal and will leave you bruised but it’s also beautifully written, stuffed to the gills with memorable characters, relentlessly gripping, and provides a fascinating picture of life on a whaling ship. If that’s not proof enough of a good read, Hilary Mantel called it ‘brilliant,’ it was long-listed for the Booker (and, quite frankly, should have won) and the Independent said it made Leonardo diCaprio’s blockbuster (which is similar in some of the storyline and tone) “look like something out of A A Milne”. As for me, the book I’m hoping that someone will buy me is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. It looks bonkers and yet brilliant; and, of course, it just won Waterstones’ Book of the Year.
For Christmas I would love to be given, and may well give, Lara Fiegel’s The Love Charm of Bombs. I have her second book, The Bitter Taste of Victory, in which she examines the diverse responses of artists and writers to the aftermath of Nazi Germany with both sensitivity and outrage. It’s a great book. I now want to go back and read this one. Could I also be given the time to read it please?
The book I’m buying everyone for Christmas is To the Bridge Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey. It’s a novel that transports you to another time and place entirely, and I think we all need a bit of escapism at the moment.
Set in Alaska at the end of the 19th century, and told mainly (and very cleverly) through letters, notebook and diary entries, Bright Edge follows Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester as he and his team attempt to navigate the Wolverine River. But this is also the story of Forrester’s spirited young wife, Sophie, who is confined by her pregnancy to the military barracks in Vancouver and needs to summon bravery for very different reasons to her explorer husband.
Bright Edge glistens like the Arctic landscape it describes, and manages to be both lyrical and compelling. It has snow, ice, love, magic and pictures. A beautiful book in every way.
I’m recommending The Ballroom by Anna Hope. It is a beautiful book, poetic, lyrical and harrowing. It throws a light on a subject about which I knew very little: the vast lunatic asylum at Menston in the West Riding which becomes Sharston Asylum with two thousand patients. It is a story of loneliness, cruelty, courage and the power of love which endures and transcends the horror. Moving and unforgettable.
I’m really happy to recommend Past Encounters by Davina Blake. It’s self published and almost bound to vanish into obscurity, but it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read all year. It’s a novel of World War II, although it is far from a war story. We see the events of the war through the eyes of Rhoda, struggling with rationing and the perpetual threadbareness of wartime life in Carnforth, and also the experiences of Peter, taken prisoner before he fires a shot and struggling to survive in a Nazi labour camp.
The war changes both of them but when Peter returns, he tries to pick up his pre-war romance and marries Rhoda. It’s a disaster, of course. Yet, back in the 1950s, Rhoda must make her marriage work by being “a good wife”. It’s not a notion we warm to nowadays. Peter, surely, should have been abandoned to a counselling service and Rhoda should have found a more fulfilling, if less “respectable” partner. But this was then and they seem stuck with each other.
Davina Blake captures the social attitudes of the period with a sharp, and not unsympathetic, eye. This is a much more layered book than you might expect and definitely as worthwhile as many much more visible novels.
I’ll be giving Bodies of Water by VH Leslie. Victoria Leslie’s first novel explores similar territory to her short story collection Skein and Bone, which thrilled and chilled me last year: the domestic, the liminal, thresholds between real and delusional, between land and water, between stereotypes and archetypes.
The historical half of the novel presents the water cure, one of the Victorians’ many treatments promised to cure mind and body. But the modern half of the story also twists in historical research of femininity. VH Leslie has a way of luring us in with warm relationships and comfortable settings then unveiling the uncanny, the ghostly and the visceral beneath the surface layers.