We asked members of the Historical Writers’ Association which books are on their Christmas list, and which they are giving to others. The results include some sparkling fiction and non-fiction, from prize-winning novels to hidden gems.
I am very lucky that as a judge for the 2017 HWA non-fiction prize I have already received 55 excellent history books this year. I was so impressed with the shortlist that I shall be giving different friends (new copies!) of Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead; David Bellos’ The Novel of the Century; Jerry Brotton’s This Orient Isle; Lara Feigel’s The Bitter Taste of Victory, Alex von Tunzelmann’s Blood and Sand, and Frances Wilson’s Guilty Thing! On top of which I am giving David Olusoga’s excellent Black and British, and some Christmas socks so it’s not all books this year!
The book not among these that I would like to receive is Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us, which I think will be exactly my cup of post-war tea!
I’m looking forward to reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I’ve recently enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Tracey Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard, so I’m continuing the American theme.
My recommendation is Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk, a haunting and exquisitely written historical novel, set in Bristol at the time of the French Revolutionary Wars. Her portrayal of the feisty but naïve heroine, Lizzie Fawkes, is pitch perfect and the setting absolutely convincing. The growing realisation of the appalling danger she faces makes it a real page turner. The characters lived on in my mind afterwards, the sign of a truly great novel.
Lately, I’ve been watching some documentaries about the actor, comedian and raconteur, Kenneth Williams. A fascinating character. So much talent, wit, and great sadness too. So… a not very distant historical past, but nevertheless quite a different time and place than the world we live in now is contained within his diaries. The Kenneth Williams Diaries is what I hope to be reading this Christmas.
The book I’d gift to someone this Christmas is Sugar Money by Jane Harris. Set in 1765, this is a story based on fact. It follows the adventures of two slaves, Emile and Lucien, the brothers who are sent away from their island home of Martinique to Grenada, with the secret task of smuggling 42 stolen slaves back to their original master; the Frenchman, Father Cleophas. The novel is vibrantly alive with a cast of engaging characters, but throughout it is narrated in the voice of the younger Lucien, whose bawdily unique language is as joyous as his spirit, albeit with a naivety that eventually will be addressed – because Jane Harris is not an author afraid of pulling punches. How could she be when the theme of this novel is slavery, theft, brutality? This is the scenario in which some dreadful horrors are endured. But what endures above all else is the humanity, love and hope, the instinct for survival. For freedom, also dignity. That message is as important now as it was 200 years ago. Black Lives Matter. This book matters.
The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert Wilton is on my xmas list this year. Traitors Field and Treason’s Tide were both fantastically written spy stories; clever and engaging. I love the idea of one government department through history, and Wilton’s knowledge of his subject really shines through the delightful prose.
Matthew Harffy’s Serpent Sword is one I’ve got for a friend – the first book in a great series that is going from strength to strength, set in the 7th century heptarchy. Antonia Senior’s The Tyrant’s Shadow is another, particularly if you’ve read Treason’s Daughter as it revisits some of the characters from the first book whilst still standing on it’s own.
The Tudor Book of Days, published by Tudor Times is a beautifully designed diary, or it can be used as a personal day book. The pages have each week in a double page spread, it denotes daily Tudor events. It includes a special section with biographical details of important Tudor figures.
The book is inspired by the Book of Hours, which was prized in the Tudor and Renaissance periods. The linen effect hardback cover is absolute perfection! It features images of Tudor roses and flowers embroidered on a chasuble from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It is a visual and tactile treat for yourself or the history lover in your life.
I’m such a slow reader that I always have a huge list of books I’d love to read but never get to. As editor of Historia I get sent lots of great historical fiction, so this year’s list is as long and as varied as ever, but I’m hoping to spend a few days catching up over the holidays. I’m very much looking forward to Ian McGuire’s The North Water, which won the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown, and which I’ve been longing to read ever since it came out. I’ve also heard very good things about Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I’d be happy if Santa dropped a copy of that in my stocking this year.
One of my favourite reads this year was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s an unusual glimpse of New York’s history which employs a unique voice that manages to capture a sense of period but feel modern and immediate too. It’s a great example of what can be done with historical fiction and I’d recommend it as a great gift for any histfic fans out there.
I’m currently reading Emma Donaghue’s The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, a collection of stories based on episodes from obscure little corners of history, and particularly giving voices to ordinary women. They’re so vivid and imaginative and she explains the sources she’s based them on.
I’m hoping to receive A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge. I loved The Lie Tree and am beguiled by the idea of this spooky tale set at the outset of the English Civil War.
After having had a brilliant year of novels reading for the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown, I’m keen to sink into a non-fiction binge over Christmas and I’ve been looking forward to reading Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann since it came out. If it doesn’t appear under the tree, I’ll be fetching it myself. It’s had fantastic reviews, and I think will give me a unique and important perspective on the period.
It’s very hard to recommend only one book as a present! I’ve been pressing great novels on friends all year. Aside from the Crown shortlists though, I really think every fan of historical fiction would love Elizabeth Buchan’s The New Mrs Clifton, a compelling, moving and beautifully realised story of a family coming to terms with old wounds and the new world emerging in the wake of World War II.
I’m hoping for The Man on the Donkey, by Hilda Frances Margaret Prescot. This was recommended to me by the bookseller in Bailey Hill Bookshop in Castle Carey (HIGHLY recommended) and having read a bit more about it, I am utterly ashamed never to have heard of it before. It is based around the dissolution the monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace, and from my dips into it, I can already see I am going to love it. The poet and playwright Helen Waddell described it as ‘a great and shattering book, and it has the power of translating anguish into vision … There is terror, as Milton said, in love and beauty… but there is also homely peace and quiet thinking, and children fishing for minnows in the brook.’
As for the present, hmmmm. Well this is for my wife, who loves trees and woodlands, and hedgerows and the British landscape, so it is perfect for her: Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape: a Complete History of Britain’s Trees, Woodlands and Hedgerows, by Oliver Packham. Different strokes for different folks!
Since this is a year of immense gloom and worry, over Christmas I will revisit Annemarie Selinko’s Desiree, as I remember being intoxicated by it as a teenager, and Oliver Manning’s The Fortunes of War which also entranced me. They will give comfort!
On my Christmas list is None So Blind, by Alis Hawkins. I heard Alis talking about this Victorian mystery at CrimeFest. Her passion for the book shone, as she discussed how the encroaching blindness of her main character led her into exploratory writing territory. This passion also illuminated a part of Welsh history I’d never heard of, reflecting the social unease I’m so interested in back in the mid-Victorian cities.
The book I recommend as a gift is The Unseeing, by Anna Mazzola. Anna’s portrayal of the period is gripping, deftly shaping the interaction between social classes and critiquing the treatment of criminals. Relationship crises are as much a problem for the lawyer unravelling the mystery as for the convicted murderess awaiting transportation. We root for her, while agonising over her refusal to come clean, until the elegant twists of the finale.
Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya by William Carlsen. Forget Japan! This is the book at the top of my Christmas list. It’s the story of two extraordinary men, one American, one British, who trekked through the jungles of Central America in 1839 and unearthed the amazing civilisation of the Maya. Their own books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), written by Stephens and illustrated by Catherwood, were described by Edgar Allan Poe as ‘perhaps the most interesting books of travel ever published’. They revealed that the Mayans had a sophisticated culture at least as early as the Greek and Roman civilisations, thus undermining old assumptions about the superiority of the west. This is a retelling of their story by William Carlsen who has done massive amounts of research and also followed their footsteps. As a traveller, once and future explorer and lover of history I can’t wait to read it.
Rain and other South Sea Stories by W. Somerset Maugham, first published 1921, republished 2005. Somerset Maugham was my big discovery this year. I realise he’s not the most fashionable, but anyone that avoids reading him because they fear he may be colonialist or unPC is missing out. He is a master of prose and of exploring what it means to be human. He takes his time to evoke complex, sometimes vile, sometimes pitiable, always fascinating characters. Rain is a wonderful collection of short stories, set in French Polynesia – Tahiti, Samoa, that area. Each of his stories has a twist in the tail, so much so that after I have finished reading each one I have to go back and read it again. These stories are seductive, unforgettable. They make the works of contemporary writers seem rather shallow. But watch out. If you want a settled life don’t read these stories. He depicts the extraordinary heart rending beauty of the islands so powerfully that you’ll be yearning to buy a plane ticket and go there immediately and never come back.