Whatever this unusual summer may bring us, a good book can be an uplifting delight – or a comfort during difficult times. Historia has asked nine historical writers to suggest a new or recent book that has excited them as well as an old favourite to return to. Enjoy their summer reading recommendations!
A new read that excited me: Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts is another fascinating read by Kathryn Harkup.
I first came across her writing a couple of years ago in A Is For Arsenic, which was a scientific analysis of deaths in the books of Agatha Christie. This latest book draws on Kathryn’s background as a chemist as well as the history of science to place the deaths in Shakespeare’s plays in their historical context. It’s written with wit and erudition and is a most entertaining and scholarly read.
An old favourite I’d return to: Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill is a timeless classic historical novel and a book that has been on my favourites list ever since I first read it as a teenager. In this story based on the seventeenth century case of the Pendle witch trials, Robert Neill conjures a brooding atmosphere of superstition set against a vivid historical backdrop. It’s a cracking story, beautifully told.
Nicola Cornick‘s latest novel, The Forgotten Sister, was published on 30 April, 2020. It’s the latest of her bestselling dual timeline stories. Nicola talks to Historia about her writing career, taking risks, research and the importance of history in a recent interview.
I recently read Hollow Places: An Unusual History of Land and Legend by Christopher Hadley. This takes the legend of the medieval Hertfordshire dragon-slayer Piers Shonks, and uses it as the basis for discussions of the nature of storytelling, the making of the landscape, how what we call ‘history’ gets shaped and distorted, and what local myths and legends can tell us. It is indeed a very unusual approach, as the subtitle claims, and although Hadley digresses at length from time to time, it’s definitely worth sticking with it.
I always go back to my favourite historical novel, A Sailor of Austria by John Biggins. This follows an unusual protagonist, an Austro-Hungarian submarine commander in the First World War (based loosely on Captain von Trapp of Sound of Music fame). He and his polyglot crew have some extraordinary adventures – if you’ve ever wanted to know what it would be like to have a camel in a submerged submarine (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?), then this is the book for you.
The story plays out against the backdrop of the terminal decline of the Habsburg Empire, which is brilliantly evoked. It’s also a masterclass in how to include a huge amount of extraordinarily well researched factual detail without having it overwhelm the narrative. Most importantly, though, it’s a rattling good read, as are the other three books in the series. It should even appeal to those who claim not to like ‘naval fiction’ and don’t know their futtocks from their bowsprit!
JD Davies is a naval historian and novelist. His new trilogy, Jack Stannard of the Navy Royal, sees him move away from the Stuart period so familiar in The Journals of Matthew Quinton and his bestselling non-fiction books. He tells Historia about swapping centuries while staying aboard naval fiction.
My summer recommendations are: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, which is, fittingly, a story told in a time of plague. In it she imagines the life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, his mother, siblings and wider family, painting a picture of a provincial town.
This is rural domesticity, far far from the metropolitan life of the unnamed playwright who hovers at the edges of the text. With elements of fairy tale, Hamlet is poignant, lyrical and beautifully written.
A novel I return to often is Fingersmith, to marvel at Sarah Waters’ extraordinary gift for storytelling.
Elizabeth (EC) Fremantle is the critically-acclaimed author of a number of novels set in the 16th and 17th centuries. Her new book, The Honey and the Sting, is published on 6 August, 2020. Elizabeth has written several pieces for Historia, including James I & VI: King or Queen?
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1985, Mythago Wood is one of the most haunting, evocative works of fantasy I have ever read. I suppose it does not strictly belong on this list of historical fiction, but as it is set in late 1940s England, I decided I could bend the rules.
The protagonist, Stephen Huxley, discovers that ancient woodland that grows beside his family home holds incredible secrets and is a nexus for strange, mythical powers and beings. It is hard to describe Mythago Wood without giving too much of the story away, but it is one of the few books I have read more than once and would be happy to read again many more times. It is haunting and evocative, conjuring up the primaeval forest as if it were another character. In this time of lockdown and quarantine, when so many are trapped indoors, allow Robert Holdstock’s earthy and poetic prose to transport you along with Stephen into the tangled depths of Ryehope Wood in search of answers to questions he barely understands. You will not be disappointed.
A Burning Sea is the third novel in Theodore Brun’s The Wanderer series. As with my first choice, this book strays into the fantastical and mystical, but at no point does it stray from its historical roots, which are firmly embedded in the Viking Age. Brun effortlessly takes us back to the eighth century, where his richly detailed and believable characters travel from the snow-wrapped mountains of Scandinavia all the way to the greatest city in the world: Byzantium.
Erlan, the single-minded warrior, is in search of redemption, while Lilla, Queen of Svealand, is looking for the man she loves and also a means to reclaim her kingdom from a treacherous usurper. Byzantium is a teeming hive of intrigue and betrayal and both Erlan and Lilla quickly find themselves embroiled in plots and treachery as the city is besieged by an implacable enemy that threatens not only the city, but the future of the very continent.
Theodore Brun’s writing is filled with nuance and humanity, jeopardy and violence. A Burning Sea is a dark and twisted journey into a distant time, where the only commodity that could not be bought was honour. This is epic historical adventure at its very best.
Matthew Harffy is best known for his Bernicia Chronicles series of novels set in 7th-century Anglo-Saxon England. His most recent novel, Wolf of Wessex, moves a century later to introduce the wearied warrior Dunstan and was published on 5 March, 2020, with the paperback scheduled for 6 August. We’re delighted that he has agreed to write about his work in Historia later this year.
I’m currently in lockdown in Scotland where it is too cold to sit in the park and I can’t honestly imagine taking up fishing just to extend my hours outside, so reading is doubly important for keeping me sane. In the absence of my much-loved local library, I have turned to my overflowing bookshelves and my newly-beloved Kindle which is welded tighter to my hand these days than my phone.
My most recently read and loved treat on my Kindle is the WWII bestseller The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. This is a stunning story of the impact of the German invasion on a small town near Orleans and, more particularly, on two very different sisters. It is a sweep of a book, and, yes, there are inaccuracies here and there but it is such a beautiful read that, for once, I didn’t care.
I have a go-to novel at home which I have gone back to again – the wonderful Legacy by Susan Kay. This is my gold standard for books about the Tudors – an exquisite psychological portrait of Elizabeth I which looks at the impact of her mother’s murder by her father and the shadows that tragedy leaves. Its descriptions of a woman turning herself into an icon and the richness of the details of daily life at the court have, in my opinion, never been equalled. Trust me – whether you have a garden at your command, or a park or a sofa, pick either of these and you’ll be transported enough to stop caring how good your eyesight is or how long it takes to drive to Barnard Castle.
Catherine Hokin is a bestselling author of fiction set during the Second World War. Her latest book, What Only We Know, was published on 21 May, 2020. She has written several features and reviews for Historia, including the highly topical Concentration camps and the politics of memory, about the background to her new novel; The ‘hidden’ Nazis of Argentina; and An appearance of serenity: the French fashion industry in WWII.
The more recent book that has excited me is Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It was a gift from a friend who’d read and enjoyed my novel Scourge of Rome, which features the sack of the city and I loved reading about the history of the places I’d written about, which were already ancient in the first century AD. Sebag Montefiore gets to the heart and soul of one of the world’s most pivotal centres of religion and a melting pot of different cultures. At close on 2,000 pages it’s a long book, but I was hooked from start to finish.
My old favourite would be Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. It was first published in the UK fifty years ago and I’ve read it many times, but the growing relationship between his two protagonists, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and his depiction of naval life during the Napoleonic Wars is as fresh and vibrant as ever. It’s also the first of 20 novels featuring the same characters, so it’s also the start of a fascinating journey.
Douglas Jackson writes historical thrillers set in Ancient Rome, including the Gaius Valerius Verrens series, the latest of which, Hammer of Rome, came out on 11 July, 2019. A new departure for him is an ebook, Blood Roses, set in Warsaw in 1939.
My new pick? I’ll have two, thanks! Ben Kane’s Lionheart is a foray away from Rome that earns its place on any fan of the genre’s bookshelf, bringing Ben’s grit and historical accuracy to the story of Richard the First. And Giles Kristian’s Camelot (I so want to do the Monty Python song) is a superb follow up to Lancelot, brimming with the same lyrical prose and bloody action as the previous book. Both thoroughly recommended!
My old favourite book that I go back to time and time again will be familiar to readers of ancient world military fiction, Killer of Men by Christian Cameron. As a piece of world building you’d have to go a long way to find a better account of the clash of civilisations between the Persian empire and the Greek states in the early 5th century BCE.
And as a descriptor of the terror and glory of ancient world combat I’d say it stands shoulder to shoulder with other greats like Gates of Fire, with the advantage that it’s the lead into a six-book series spanning the entirely of the Mediterranean and more besides, seeing its protagonist variously as warrior, slave, pirate and oligarch. Massively enjoyable, exactly the treat you’ve been promising yourself!
Anthony Riches is the author of the Empire series and the Centurions trilogy, both set during the Roman Empire. His most recent book, The Scorpion’s Strike: Empire X, came out in 2019 and River of Gold: Empire XI is published on 6 August, 2020. His The Invitation appears in the Rubicon collection of short stories and interviews set in Ancient Roman times (16 July, 2019).
I particularly enjoyed Liberation by ‘Imogen Kealey’, a recent novel based on the exploits of Nancy Wake, an Australian-born heroine of the French Resistance in World War II. It’s not just a cracking good read. The novel skilfully holds the balance between the confines of the historical record and the competing demands of being a film tie-in. Altogether, it’s a fascinating story, well told.
My second choice is a classic of the genre, The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. First published nearly seventy years ago, it’s a jewel of a novel about a Sicilian prince, set mainly during the struggle to reunify Italy in the mid-nineteenth century.
The narrative unfolds in a series of tableaux, which provide windows on a country during a period of immense change. It’s one of the few historical novels I know that seems entirely of its time and yet for all time. I’ve read it at least a dozen times over the years. This time I listened to it (for the second or third time), and again found something new.
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 Last Protector, was published on 2 April, 2020. Andrew has written about the inspiration for his previous novel, The King’s Evil, for Historia.
Recent: Circe by Madeline Miller. Someone recommended this book to me by saying, “I can’t really properly explain what it’s about, but you just have to read it.”
Circe, the daughter of the sun god, Helios, is exiled and tells her story. The book is a great mix of myth, magic, and human emotion, but the main thing I loved about it was the way it was written. Ms Miller simply has a way with words that carries you into the very heart of her story.
An old favourite: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter. I’m cheating a tiny bit here, but my copy is one complete volume, honestly! I have a ‘thing’ about North Wales and Welsh history, and this fictionalised account of the last prince of Wales is a ‘keeper’ for me. It’s a chunky read which allows you to stay in the world of this thirteenth-century family for plenty of time. I’m always reluctant to rejoin the modern world after reading it.
Annie Whitehead is the author of several books, fiction and non-fiction, set in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly in Mercia. Her latest is Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, in which she takes us chronologically through the queens, abbesses, witches and murderesses who influenced pre-Conquest history. It was published on 10 June, 2020. She has written about some of these outstanding women for Historia.
Reading on the garden path by Albert Aublet: via Wikimedia