Few things are better than sinking into a lush, well-wrought historical novel. From 16th-century England to 1960s America, we've rounded up 15 of our recent favorites.
Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre
There's a price to be paid for beauty in this debut based on real events in King Charles I's early 17th-century court. The beautiful but aging Venetia Stanley is terrified that her looks are slipping away and turns to potions and creams to keep her youthful glow. But as the ladies of the court come to discover, beauty can be toxic.
At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen
The Water for Elephants author travels to Scotland during the height of World War II in her latest novel. Naive and kind-hearted Maddie sets out to join her rich husband and his friend in their search for the Loch Ness Monster and falls in love with the Scottish countryside. However, soon it dawns on Maddie how ridiculous her husband and his quest are, and things take a dark turn.
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
Ladies, let's get ready to rumble! We've been waiting for this book to land in our office since last fall, and it did not disappoint. Although, as a novel based on real events in women's bare-knuckle boxing in late 18th-century England, how could it?
The Tutor by Andrea Chapin
If you're a Shakespeare lover like me, The Tutor is right up your twisty London alley. The novel follows the relationship between the widow Katharine de L’Isle and William Shakespeare—a relationship that brings the Bard's writing to new heights.
The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak
Shafak, a Turkish native, explores the beautifully lush world of the Ottoman Empire in her latest novel. Arriving in court as a young boy, Jahan gradually finds himself in the inner-circle of the Sultan's premier architect, helping to build some of the most magnificent buildings ever seen. However, jealousy threatens to dismantle the two architects' accomplishments.
Into the Savage Country by Shannon Burke
In 1826, the American West was a rugged landscape filled with potential as well as danger. William Wyeth, a young man set on earning his fortune in fur-trapping, sees this firsthand as he delves deep into the territory, finding love, friendship and of course, encountering near-death experiences.
Driving the King by Ravi Howard
In a fictional account of the life of Nat King Cole's driver, Howard explores the tumultuous landscape of 1960s America. After saving Cole, his childhood friend, from an attacker during a performance in Montgomery, Alabama, Nat Weary is rewarded with a 10-year jail sentence. But upon his release, Cole offers him a job as his driver and a chance to travel through the changing country.
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
When you live in an isolated village in 1717 Finland, you really have to be able to rely upon your neighbors. Unfortunately for newly settled Maija and her family, one of these neighbors is discovered dead, a devastating winter is unfurling and things just get weirder from there.
Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan
England in the 1930s was not a hospitable place for a woman pregnant out of wedlock. When Alice finds herself in this predicament, her mortified parents ship her off to lonely Fiercombe Manor, where she will wait out her pregnancy and then give the child up for adoption. But there's something strange going on at the manor, and its secret history has disturbing implications.
The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister
Accused of murdering her husband (onstage, no less), the Amazing Arden, a famed magician in the early 1900s, must convince a young policeman that she is innocent. Or is her plea just smoke and mirrors? If you enjoyed Water for Elephants or The Night Circus, this book's for you.
The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday
Daniel Torday blends two coming-of-age stories in this powerful debut novel about truth and memory. As a teen, Eli Goldstein adored his Uncle Poxl, a Czech Jew who served in the British Royal Air Force during World War II and lived to write a best-selling memoir. But as Poxl's story unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that the past may not be as straightforward as he presents it. Torday excels at depicting the struggles of everyday people facing devastating airstrikes, and Poxl's unusual perspective makes the novel feel fresh.
West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan
Travel back to the golden age of Hollywood with a washed-up F. Scott Fitzgerald in this poignant novel from O'Nan. His former literary fame and fortune shattered, Fitzgerald heads to Hollywood to try his luck at screenwriting. There he rubs elbows with silver screen queens and kings, even as he spirals deeper into despair and the alcoholism that will eventually kill him.
Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy
The lives of a slave named Cow Tom and his granddaughter Rose unfold in this novel set in the 1800s American West. Cow Tom has an uncanny talent for mastering languages and is sold as a translator to the Creek tribe at a young age. Inspired by the strength of her grandfather, Rose is determined to keep her family together and thrive despite living in a hostile, violent world.
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Parmar explores a world of literary stars in her second novel. The Bloomsbury Group was a set of thinking elite in early 20th-century London, with Vanessa and her sister, Virginia Woolf, among the founding members. Basing her novel off of Vanessa's letters and diaries from the time, Parmar offers up a fascinating fictional account of these privileged, clever and troubled bohemians' lives.
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell
Although they seemingly have few things in common, a white woman named Hazel and a black woman named Vida are linked by the devastating deaths of their young children. As they grow closer through this tragedy in pre-Civil Rights era Mississippi, Hazel's eyes are opened to harsh realities about society.
The list of books to look forward to this fall just got a little bit longer: Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks will publish a novel based on the life of King David, The Secret Chord, on September 22 with Viking.
The novel will be narrated by Nathan, the biblical prophet Brooks has described as "the keeper of the king's conscience." Though it is impossible to call a choice of subject for a Brooks novel predictable—all four of her previous books have had vastly different settings—the theme of faith is a recurring one for the author. As she told BookPage in 2005, "I'm intrigued by people who have strong beliefs, because I don't."
David is an Old Testament figure who appears in Judiasm, Islam and Christianity, and it's a safe bet that Brooks—who has studied Arabic and worked as a Middle East correspondant for the Wall Street Journal in the 1990s—will draw from all three traditions for her portrayal of the legendary king. And of course, he's a popular subject in art, film and literature, from Dryden to Faulkner.
Will you read it?
RELATED CONTENT: More on 2015 releases here.
Samantha Norman didn't plan to be a novelist, but when her mother, the best-selling writer Ariana Franklin, passed away in 2011 and left a half-finished manuscript, Norman felt called to carry on her mother's legacy. In a guest blog post, she reveals what it was like to finish The Siege Winter.
Guest post by Samantha Norman
When my mother, the best-selling historical novelist, Ariana Franklin, died suddenly and unexpectedly four years ago, she left a great big hole in my life and a half-finished novel.
Although she’d always nagged me to start writing novels of my own—convinced somehow that I’d inherited her talent—I never got round to it. I’d written features, lots in fact, for newspapers and magazines but never anything longer than about 1,500 words and had no particular desire to, either. Writing is hard—I’d done enough of it to know that much—and, what’s more, I’d seen my mother—both parents actually, my father is also a novelist—sweating blood over their work and I just didn’t feel that that sort of hard labour was for me. And yet all of a sudden my Mum was dead and there was a novel to complete and I was suddenly imbued with a zeal I’d never felt about anything before, absolutely determined that I was to be the one to finish it.
It was an enormous responsibility. My mother had a large and devoted fan base whose members were vociferous in their admiration of her beautiful prose and unrivalled attention to historical detail and accuracy. Therefore, to do her justice—I should point out here that mum was an absolute pedant when it came to research and getting things absolutely right—and to continue her remarkable legacy without public outcries of “Shame!” I had to do a crash course in the medieval history she so adored, and in a matter of mere weeks—I had a fairly punishing deadline—assume a knowledge of 12th-century English history which she had carefully garnered over more than 35 years.
Not only that, but I also had to assume her writing style. I had always loved, envied even, the way she wrote, the seemingly effortless almost mellifluous way in which she strung words together, but could I emulate it? Well, only you can be the judge of that. The book’s out now and I’m terribly proud of it and I hope, I really, really hope that my mum would be too.
Author Jennifer Chiaverini is no stranger to research—she's included historical elements in many of her 23 novels. In her latest, Mrs. Grant and Madam Jule, she goes back to the 19th century to explore the life of First Lady Julia Grant and her slave, Jule. In a guest blog post, Chiaverini shares five of the most memorable tidbits from her extensive research.
guest post by Jennifer Chiaverini
In March 1865, only a few weeks before the end of the Civil War, the tempestuous Mary Lincoln accompanied her husband on a visit to General Ulysses S. Grant’s military headquarters at City Point, Virginia, where she had a very public meltdown. In the thankless role of Mrs. Lincoln’s hostess, Julia Grant tried to calm her, only to bring Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath down upon herself. Mrs. Lincoln angrily accused the general’s wife of coveting her place in the White House, a charge Mrs. Grant calmly denied—little suspecting that four years later, her husband would be sworn in as the 18th president of the United States and she would become First Lady.
This astonishing altercation between Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant has gone down in history thanks to the many eyewitness accounts recorded in letters and memoirs, but most people today don’t know these five other surprising things about the famously friendly and admired First Lady Julia Grant:
1. Julia Grant was afflicted with strabismus, more colloquially known as crossed eyes.
Her vision was so impaired that she could read, write or sew only briefly before the strain exhausted her, so Ulysses often read aloud or wrote letters for her. She was self-conscious of her appearance, and whenever she was photographed, she almost always sat in profile in an attempt to disguise her condition. As Ulysses’ fame grew and Julia became more of a public figure, she inquired about corrective surgery so that she “might not be so very, very plain.” She was disappointed to learn that nothing could be done, for the operation could have succeeded only if it had been performed in childhood.
2. Julia claimed to experience prophetic visions and dreams
She was correct so often that her family learned to trust her intuition. In her memoirs, published 73 years after her death, she describes several unsettling premonitions that she later learned coincided with moments her husband had been in grave danger on the battlefield. In Washington a few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, she was seized by such intense, overwhelming dread that she begged Ulysses to depart for their home in New Jersey immediately. A few hours after their train left the capital, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.
3. Although Julia and Ulysses enjoyed a long and happy marriage, when they first fell in love, their families did not want them to wed.
Although Julia’s mother thought highly of Ulysses and supported the match, her father argued that Julia’s constitution made her poorly suited for the arduous, roving life of a military wife and suggested Ulysses marry her younger sister instead. When Ulysses rejected this proposal, Julia’s father insisted on a long engagement while the enamored lieutenant was off serving in the Mexican War. For their part, Ulysses’ staunchly abolitionist parents were appalled that their son intended to marry the daughter of Missouri slaveowners, and they refused to attend the wedding.
4. Throughout the Civil War, rather than remain safe at home, Julia often lived with her husband at military headquarters.
Ulysses hated to be away from his family, and as the army moved, he would summon Julia to join him as soon as he established a secure location. According to historian Candice Shy Hooper, during the four years of the Civil War Julia traveled more than 10,000 miles to be with her husband, sometimes through enemy territory. In an era when long-distance travel was difficult and exhausting even when the trains ran on time, the weather was fair, and the roads weren’t thick rivers of mud, Julia—and her four young children, who often accompanied her—risked disease, death and capture whenever they journeyed between home and headquarters.
5. Although Julia was married to the commander in chief of the Union armies in the war that would end slavery in the United States forever, she herself kept slaves.
Her favorite maid—a woman also named Julia but usually called Black Julia or Jule—often accompanied her mistress when she joined Ulysses at military headquarters. Both women risked certain danger as they journeyed to and from the field of war, but for Jule, the hazards of travel also brought knowledge and opportunity, and she eventually made a daring bid for freedom. Though historians debate whether Julia or her father was actually Jule’s legal owner, there is no doubt that the future First Lady benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of other human beings for almost 40 years.
author photo by Steven Garfinkel
It's Oscar Season, and if you have Hollywood on the brain, it's the perfect time to dive into Kate Alcott's new novel. In A Touch of Stardust, the author of The Dressmaker turns back the clock to the 1930s and puts readers on the tension-filled set of Gone With the Wind.
We see through the eyes of Julie Crawford, a would-be screenwriter who's still somewhat starstruck by the personalities she encouters during her work at the studio's publicity offices. But when Carole Lombard—who is currently involved with Clark Gable—hires Julie as her PA, the Midwestern girl starts seeing celebrities in a whole new light. But the magic of the movies persists.
Each morning, she pulled herself from bed and joined the cleaning ladies and the plumbers and other sleepy travelers on the 5:00 a.m. bus to get to the studio early. That way, she could step onto the back lot alone and be in the old South and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. In front of Tara, the trees that had been fashioned over telephone poles looked real, and if she hadn't known the dogwood blossoms were made of white paper, the illusion would have been complete. It just took believing. She loved watching it grow—over fifty building façades now, and two miles of streets. It didn't matter that she walked in a landscape of glued plasterboard, a place of fake structures held together by little more than Selznick's frenzied dreams. It was vividly real.
What are you reading this week?
Kate Atkinson's stellar Life After Life was one of the best books of 2013. So the news that the Scottish author is returning with a companion story is most welcome to this fan. In A God in Ruins, which Little, Brown will publish on May 26, Atkinson tells the story of Ursula's brother, Teddy, the RAF pilot who played a key role in Life After Life.
From the catalog:
"For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge is facing the difficulties of living in a future he never expected to have. A God in Ruins explores the loss of innocence, the fraught transition from the war to peace time, and the pain of being misunderstood, especially as we age."
Author Sarah Kennedy set her thrilling new series during one of the most intriguing eras of British history—the Tudor era. It stars an "everywoman," Catherine, a former nun who has lost her vocation due to Henry's shift from Catholicsm to Anglicism. More than 400 years after this dynasty died out, why do they continue to fascinate? In a guest blog post, Kennedy—who holds a PhD in Renaissance poetry—explores this idea.
Guest post by Sarah Kennedy
Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn. “Bloody Mary” Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare. Who doesn’t love the Tudors? Or love to hate the Tudors? Lust, power, betrayal, the church, the state—they embody it all. The Tudor era still looms large in our imaginations, from The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall to Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous. We love to follow the intrigues, romances and betrayals of these glamorous historical figures. But why?
Henry VIII’s six wives have always intrigued us, partly because there were so many of them and partly because each woman was different and had her own impact on the politics and religion of the time. How many times have we watched Anne Boleyn win the king then lose her head? We know what has to happen, but those of us who admire her pluck and daring are usually hoping, somewhere deep inside, that she’ll make it this time, that she’ll have that son or that she’ll somehow escape to the countryside with her daughter. Those who favor Katherine of Aragon see her as the tragic heroine who led her people into battle and tried valiantly to be a successful queen over a foreign country—and with a husband who grew to despise her. Jane Seymour, of course, died providing the desired heir, who didn’t live to be an adult, and she was followed by poor Anne of Cleves, destined to be known as the “mare of Flanders” because the king found her unattractive. Catherine Howard, the girl-queen who clearly didn’t know what she was getting herself into, was summarily executed for misbehavior that the court seemed to wink at, and Catherine Parr, that strong-minded widow, managed to survive by playing to the aging king’s ego.
It’s the very stuff of drama—human personalities clashing and contending while the country reels from one religion to another. The royal characters of the Tudor era are both larger than life and real. They fight and they kill and they lie . . . and they love and dedicate themselves fiercely to their beliefs and their families.
And then there is the second generation: Edward the son, who suddenly falls ill in his teens and tries to “give” the crown to the tragic Jane Grey. The outcast older daughter, Mary Tudor, or “Bloody Mary,” was the first real queen regnant in England, and her half-sister Elizabeth ruled over the island’s “golden age”—but refused ever to marry.
The Tudor era was a time of massive change in Europe, but the family didn’t last long, which is another reason we go back to them. The 16th century in England is dominated by Tudors, but after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, they’re gone. In a hundred years, everything has changed, and the Tudors almost immediately become the family of legend. Henry’s break from Rome caused an upheaval in his country that rocked the very foundations of everyday life: the Church. Like us, people in Tudor England struggled with fundamental questions of belief and authority. What is the right relationship between religion and politics? What moral authority does the king have? What moral responsibility do people have to follow a leader they see as ungodly?
My first novel, The Altarpiece, tried to provide some possible answers, and the Cross and the Crown series follows a young woman who tries to make sense of her world and her God as she navigates the tricky waters of the Tudor court. Catherine Havens is a kind of everywoman. Like us, she wants to follow her conscience . . . and she wants to live a “good” life. And like us, she is trying to figure out what that life might . . . or must . . . or can be. Will her own intelligence be her guide? Or will she follow the dictates of her king?
It’s a question we all still ask ourselves, and the Tudor era continues to offer a dramatic stage on which writers, filmmakers, and playwrights can play out these human spectacles. I also wanted to consider the particular problems for women, who were seen as inferior to men—but who governed and taught and led both king and country. My Catherine is strong-willed and educated: a true Renaissance woman. But she is still a woman, who must take care not to seem smarter than the men close to the king—or than the king himself.
Why the Tudors? They are close enough to us to show us versions of ourselves, but also far enough away in time that the picture comes more sharply into focus. We know what they should do, but we also know what they will do, and our pleasure come both from hoping that things will go better this time around and watching the tragedies and triumphs play out as we know they must. And when we close the book or turn off the film, we’ve learned more about our past—and more about ourselves here in the present day.
Thanks, Sarah! The second book in the Cross and the Crown series, City of Ladies, goes on sale today (BAM | B & N | Indiebound | Amazon) and the third book will be published in 2015. Find out more on her website.
I've seen a LOT of mash-up book descriptions in my time at BookPage. "Eat, Pray, Love meets A Year in Provence!" "The Da Vinci Code meets Gone Girl!" Etc.
And just when I thought I was far too jaded to be sucked in by one, along comes a debut novel whose "meet" comparison is truly something I've never seen (and would be extremely curious to read). Are you ready?
"The Crimson Petal and the White meets Fight Club: A page-turning novel set in the world of female pugilists and their patrons in late eighteenth-century England."
Say what? Yes, that's right, Faber + Palaniuk = Anna Freeman's debut, The Fair Fight (Riverhead, April 2015). When a lifelong female street fighter born in a brothel meets a manor-born lady eager to escape the confines of her sheltered life, both women might have a chance to fight their way to the top. Best of all, this is based on a true story: The author has worked as a bartender at the Hatchet Inn in Bristol, England, the city's oldest pub—a hotspot for pugilism in the 18th century.
I've put a BOLO on the galley for this one! Will you read it?
Anita Diamant is known for her thought-provoking novels about women's lives, from Biblical times (as in her 1997 bestseller The Red Tent) to the present day (2005's The Last Days of Dogtown). She's returning this December with her first novel in five years, The Boston Girl (Scribner).
The novel tells the story of Addie Baum, born in 1900 to Jewish parents who have recently arrived in Boston. Though the Baums came to America to get a better life for their three daughters, the precocious Addie's world is almost unrecognizable to them. Told in the voice of the 85-year-old Addie, who is looking back on her life, The Boston Girl becomes the story of the 20th century and the ever-changing roles of women within it.
Will you read it?
RELATED CONTENT: Don't miss our previous coverage of Anita Diamant.
Pablo Picasso is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century. He is also remembered as a notorious, and often cruel, lover of women. Anne Girard's Madame Picasso explores the relationship between Picasso and his beloved muse, Eva Gouel (also known as Marcelle Humbert, a name she adopted in an attempt to sound more Parisian).
After defying her provincial parents' wishes and moving to Paris, Eva Gouel is delighted when she lands a job as a seamstress at the Moulin Rouge. A naive but genuine lover of art, she is also thrilled—and baffled—when the controversial and alluring artist Pablo Picasso takes an interest in her. As her affair with Picasso evolves and she is ushered into the decadent world of elite Belle Époque Paris, Eva struggles with insecurities and self-doubt. Little is known of Gouel, the women many consider to be Picasso's truest love, but Girard revives their tumultuous relationship, as well as its tragic demise, with skill.
Eva had fallen asleep on the windowsill, but the giggles and whispers out in the corridor woke her suddenly. When she opened her eyes, she could see that the sky had cleared. It was such a lovely cerulean blue day.
"It's him, I tell you! I've seen him before! Look down below there, in the lane!"
"He's so handsome, and famous! What the devil would he want with Marcelle?"
The voices carried through the paper-thin walls between the small rooms. Eva glanced down then and saw Picasso standing outside the door of the dormitory, wearing a proper dark suit, hat and read silk necktie. He was holding a bouquet of flowers: daises, daffodils, lilies of the valley and white roses, tied with a bright yellow ribbon. The ribbon was the color of her mother's silk kimono. She was too stunned, at first, to think. Even after everything, it seemed slightly unbelievable that he might be here for her.
Eva skittered onto her feet and glanced at the mirror on the wall beside her bed. She pinched both cheeks, which were already flushed from the sudden shock of seeing him. Then she slipped on her shoes, and pulled open the door with such force that it sprang back and crashed against the wall. The giggles and whispers stopped as Eva tumbled out into the hall and past the catty girls gathered there.
What are you reading?