Summer holidays are for summer reading. Time to catch up with those history books on your to-be-read pile, or get away from the rain and the squabbling kids with some immersive historical fiction. Historia asked a number of HWA authors to recommend books for summer reading, whether you’re lazing on a beach, taking a long journey, relaxing on a warm evening or stuck indoors during a staycation downpour.
Now we shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller
An astonishing and wholly gripping novel set in the aftermath of the British army’s retreat to Corunna that explores crime and punishment, freedom and responsibility, love and friendship by way of pastoral comedy, and properly chilling horror. Although the whole is a triumph, each sentence is a minor work of art, and only Hilary Mantel can match Miller for such sinuous and surprising prose.
Malory: the life and times of King Arthur’s Chronicler by Christina Hardyment
Published in 2006, Christina Hardyment’s biography of Sir Thomas Malory is a wide-ranging labour of love that plucks the knight, author, and jailbird out from his quaint obscurity and gives his complex life the full-blooded treatment it deserves. It is impossible to understand anything about England’s foundation myth without understanding the man who defined it for us.
Toby Clements is the author of the Kingmaker series of novels about the Wars of the Roses.
Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhil Plokhy
I am in the middle of reading Serhil Plokhy’s Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy. Great for a long journey or a rainy day. It is as gripping as a thriller, a real life horror story, and a book I will pass on to my children, who were born after the accident and knew nothing about it.
Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood
For a sunny day? Something to amuse perhaps. John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky (The Talented Mr Ripley meets the literati), or Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood. Someone lent this last book to me while I was on a beach. It is a novel about a writer and those who love them, in this case the four long-suffering wives of Ernest Hemingway. Rather like the wives of Henry VIII, there is something to sympathise with in each of them and they come to seem far more interesting than the husband.
The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend by Joseph Goering
This is a good one for a quiet evening. It covers all the usual territory of the Holy Grail, but towards the end has an intriguing and plausible suggestion about the existence of a real, physical Holy Grail that may well still be in existence somewhere. Well, I believed it and I used it as the basis for the overarching plot in two of my Robin Hood books: Warlord and Grail Knight. The book is not very long and could comfortably be read in an evening.
Somme by Lyn Macdonald
For a rainy day, when you are feeling a little bit sorry for yourself, read Somme. It totally puts all your petty 21st-century problems into perspective when compared with the horror of trench warfare in 1916. Almost every family in the UK was affected by the battle and had one or more relative injured or killed. Lyn Macdonald’s writing is spare, unemotional; she doesn’t overdo the terrible blood and carnage, but it is all the more powerful for that reason. Plus, it has loads of great maps.
Rubicon by Tom Holland
I keep rereading this narrative history of the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Caesars. I think I’ve read it three or four times now. It is as gripping as a novel and just as fluidly written. A story of power and greed, blood and honour, of ruthless men and women struggling for supremacy – it is kind of like Game of Thrones, and just as edge-of-the-seat exciting, which considering that the story is so familiar is some achievement. I’d like to read this on a sunny day lying under a tree or on a beach or beside a pool.
Angus Donald’s new book in the Holcroft Blood series, Blood’s Campaign, will be published in November 2019.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (sunny day read)
I have very happy memories of Easter holidays in Tuscany when I was a great deal younger. The temperature was perfect, not too hot and not too cold, and the greenery of the countryside was dotted with crumbling villas, many of which were adorned in the fragrance of wisteria and rambling roses.
These days, to recreate that bliss, I would reach for Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, a novel written in 1923, in which a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera is listed in The Times as being available for rent during the month of April, particularly for those applicants “who appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine”.
This is a joyful charming novel, but it is very much of its time. There are occasions when ardent feminists may not find themselves in harmony with the desire of our holiday heroines to achieve the greatest happiness in the arms of the male sex. However, it is a period piece, and for those who can sink into the sweet enchantment of the story, I promise a summery delight of sunshine, smiles – and wistaria.
The Disappearance by Katherine Webb (quiet evening in)
Katherine Webb has the rare gift of being able to create wholly convincing period settings and characters for whatever book she writes. Her latest title, The Disappearance, would be the perfect story for a quiet evening in, when the reader can fully immerse themselves in the intimacy of the novel’s world.
When a child in the city of Bath disappears in a night of panic during the Blitz, the search to find him safe and well is interspersed with other memories of what led to the loss of different child that occurred some years before. Clues are gradually exposed in this intriguing family mystery. A heartbreaking story of letting go, of love, and of redemption.
Essie Fox is the author of The Last Days of Leda Grey and of three Victorian novels: The Somnambulist, Elijah’s Mermaid and The Goddess and the Thief.
The Bone Fire by SD Sykes
There’s no law that says a summer read should be, well, summery. So with that in mind I’d like to recommend SD Sykes’s brilliant new book The Bone Fire, which is set in the winter of 1361. I adore the Oswald de Lacy series, which began with Plagueland, but you honestly don’t have to have read the previous three to enjoy this one. It is magnificent – her best yet. It’s set in an incredibly spooky and remote castle, where all the inhabitants are shut in together to escape a new plague sweeping England. And then, once they’re all trapped, there’s a murder… See? How can you resist that?
Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach
As for me, I’ve just started Sophie Hardach’s new novel Confession with Blue Horses. It’s set in East Berlin in the 1980s, leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and also in 2010. I’ve found it instantly compelling – I was pulled straight into her world. It’s full of mystery and tension, but it’s also very witty in places too. So that’s my current summer read, rain or shine. (Rain, at present.)
Antonia Hodgson’s next Thomas Hawkins book, The Silver Collar, comes out in May, 2020.
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
If you live in Scotland as I do and are staycationing this summer, excursions have to be planned with one eye on the rapidly shifting skies and a ready supply of thermal blankets. The weather is currently so changeable we can shift from sunshine to gales in a morning so I have planned my holiday reading accordingly. For indulgent afternoons, I want a family saga with a rich cast of characters and a spread across time periods. Any Kate Morton will fit the bill, but this year I’m plumping for her wonderfully evocative The Secret Keeper.
Guernica: A Novel by Dave Boling
For the evenings, and mornings, that drive us into firesides, my choice is Guernica by Dave Boling. This beautifully written novel centres on the Luftwaffe’s experiment in total warfare and the devastating impact on the people whose lives it shattered. It demands time and quiet and will cause tears. Keep the whisky handy.
The first in Catherine Hokin’s new series of historical novels set in Berlin during the Second World War will be published in January, 2020.
Killer of Men by Christian Cameron
My sunny day book is Killer of Men by Christian Cameron, the gateway volume to a rewarding series of stories (The Long War) featuring Arimnestos, a Plataean farm boy who discovers himself to be a born warrior (and much else besides) in the course of fighting in the war between the Greece states and the Persian empire. As a book standing on its own the story is a strong one with a likeable and deadly protagonist looking back at his early life from the comfort of his dinner table a lifetime later, but as the introduction to a series that will see him sail the Aegean (and much further afield) as both slave and pirate captain, fight at every major battle of the First and Second Persian Wars and generally put himself about in an age when characters from classical history spring from every page. Hugely recommended. In fact it’s so good that when I get on the plane to Croatia for a week away tomorrow I’m going to download the first book in the Tyrant series just to see if the same cornucopia of entertainment awaits me there as well!
Dans la Rome des Cesars by Gilles Chaillet
And for a rainy day? You have to LOVE Rome to buy a book written in French if you’re not fluent, but trust me, this one will fill the hours with the wonder of what it’s believed ancient Rome looked like. It’s called Dans la Rome des Cesars, (In the Rome of the Caesars), and it’s a map book of Ancient Rome constructed, like the plaster model Plastico di Roma Imperiale that can be viewed in the Museum of Roman Civilisation, on the basis of the archaeological record of the city.
Yes, it’s a bit impenetrable to those of us whose French only stretches as far as getting fed and going places, but the maps…the maps! They fold out, one per Roman district, and the detail is just stunning. Trust me, if you’ve ever been to Rome, or plan to do so sometime soon, buy this book and you’ll thank me for introducing you to the closest picture we have of what the place really looked like. Not sure whether I fancy a scratch and sniff version or not…
Anthony Riches is the author of Retribution, the third novel in the Centurion series.