Historical Fiction

West by Carys Davies

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West

Chasing shadows in the Wild West

I have a soft spot for anything Wild West (yes, I did watch a fair bit of The Little House on the Prairie as a kid), so when West by Carys Davies came along I wasn’t hard to convince. It’s the short story of widower Cy Bellman who sets out from Pennsylvania in 1815 to find rumoured gigantic beasts after reading about the discovery of ancient bones in a newspaper. Left behind, in the care of strict Aunt Julia, is his 10-year-old daughter Bess. Like many a mid-life crisis, this one doesn’t end well.

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

Be careful what you wish for

Now, a book about a mermaid might sound a bit ridiculous, but suspend belief and dive into the sumptuous, sexy and exuberant historical novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar and enjoy! Despite its 486 pages and tome-like appearance, I raced through this light, entertaining read and loved every second of it.

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The Shardlake Series by CJ Samson

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The Shardlake Series

Page-turning series featuring a 16th century detective

Set in Tudor England, The Shardlake Series by CJ Sansom is a series of (currently) 7 books featuring the lawyer Matthew Shardlake and a cast of both real and fictional characters. Packed with mystery, murder and intrigue and a wealth of fascinating historical insights, I admit I have become a bit obsessed. Forget taxing literary fiction, here is your new guilty pleasure.

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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

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The Silence of the Girls

A riveting recount of The Iliad, by the other half

Hot on the heels of Madeline Miller’s fabulous novel Circe comes another stunning book based on Greek myths and the Trojan War. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a recount of Homer’s testosterone fuelled Greek epic poem The Iliad. This time, from the perspective of the other half, the long suffering women. An absolutely riveting read. Go get it!

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Circe by Madeline Miller

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Circe

A spellbinding retelling of the story of the witch from classical mythology

Circe. If you cast your mind back to school you may remember her as the witch on whose island Odysseus and his crew washed up on their long journey back from the Trojan War, and wasn’t there something about turning men to pigs and, um, did Odysseus have an affair with her? If you have ever wondered why she lived alone on that island, what made her a sorceress, what happened to her after Odysseus left her to go back to his wife – indeed if you have ever wondered about the reality behind the headline story of any woman who plays a bit part in the (hi)story of men – you have an absolute treat in store with this book.

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Pachinko

Faltering family saga

Han Kang’s quirky Booker Prize winning The Vegetarian opened my, and I suspect many other’s, eyes to South Korean literature. I was curious, then, when Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a Korean-American, came out to rave reviews. Especially, as I have a soft spot for epic family sagas, the kind that sucks you in and makes you cry when you finish as you feel you’ve become a part of the family. However, Pachinko has turned out to be a tricky book to write about. It has many strong points but almost as many faults. I learned about the immigrant experience, Japanese racism towards Koreans, but missed some more historical context. There were characters in this book I really felt I got to know while others remained like card-board cut-outs. All in all, an uneven reading experience but one which still, somehow, managed to keep me going.

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Alias Grace

A chilling true-life murder mystery

Hot on the heals of a successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes a Netfilx adaptation of Alias Grace, another of Atwood’s best-selling novels. I’d take any excuse to re-read this excellent book, which is still as good today as it was in 1996. It’s based on the true story of Canadian domestic servant Grace Marks who in 1843, at the age of 16, was convicted of murdering her employer Mr Kinnear and fellow housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood’s interest in the case go beyond the murder, of course, and into the dark depths of women’s, particularly poor women’s, standing in society; the prejudices held against them, the sexual abuse and innuendo, the back-street abortions and the assumption that they are all liars. An absolutely riveting read.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

A Tsarist Count surviving in revolutionary Russia

It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.

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Golden Hill

A brilliant debut novel about New York in its infancy

New York, a small frontier town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746. One rainy autumn night, a mysterious, handsome stranger, fresh off the long Atlantic crossing from England, turns up at a counting house on Golden Hill Street in Manhattan. The enigmatic young man has a suspicious yet compelling proposition. From his pocket, he produces what seems to be a promissory note for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. An enormous sum of money in 1746, this bill has the power to shake the whole local economy as well as the political establishment. And, amiable and charming though Smith is, he won’t explain who he is or where he comes from, let alone what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money.

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One Night in Winter

If your children were forced to testify against you, what terrible secrets would they reveal?

The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore is well known and highly respected for his award-winning non-fiction bestsellers such as Jerusalem, The Romanovs and Stalin. However, this gripping historical novel also proves his expertise as a writer of fiction. A quicker, slimmer read than many of his other works, it is just as involving and darkly exciting.

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