6 Historical Fiction Recommendations

After several months of lukewarm reading, I may finally be breaking through to the other side of my gigantic reading slump. To celebrate, I thought I would share some recommendations from a genre that doesn’t always get a lot of love – historical fiction! I’ve tried to pick books from different times in history, with varying levels of complexity and characters, so hopefully there will be something mixed in that will appeal to you.

 

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

This novel follows a young woman called Nella shortly after she marries a wealthy merchant she barely knows in late 17th century Amsterdam. Her husband is cold and her sister in law, who lives with them, hates her, and she can’t figure out why. Not long after settling in to her new home, she begins receiving miniatures for her dollhouse – ones that she never ordered, and which eerily reflect her home and the people around her. This book is a page-turning, character-driven novel with little mysteries being revealed all the way through the book, with descriptions of Amsterdam so beautiful you’ll wish you could book a weekend away in 1682.

 

The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant

The narrator of this book is 85-year-old Addie, who is asked by her granddaughter how she became the woman she is today. The novel is a coming-of-age retrospective as Addie relives her upbringing in a Jewish immigrant household in Boston, her friends, education, and personal strifes in a way that is relatable and wise. There is a huge emphasis on the role of family and chosen family and how they shape you as a person, and brings to light the plight of immigrants in America in the early 20th century.

 

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Although I think at this point almost everyone has heard of The Book Thief, for those of you who don’t know this is a novel set in Nazi occupied Germany, following Liesel, a 9-year-old girl, and the books that she steals, narrated by death. This book has a winning combination of stunning narrative voice, believable characters, tension, heartbreak, and poignancy that has made is resonate with so many people all over the world.

 

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

This book is a retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus and the Trojan War, following the boys from childhood into lovers, and finally into battle. Miller brilliantly takes a story set thousands of years ago with characters from Greek mythology and makes it to tangible and heartbreaking, with beautiful prose and wonderfully flawed characters, and writes romance so beautifully it would sway any cynic.

 

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent follows Cora, a budding naturalist and science enthusiast, who when her controlling husband dies moves her and her somewhat odd son to Essex, on the hunt for the mysterious Essex Serpent which has said to have surfaced. Cora strikes up an unlikely but intense friendship with a Vicar, Will, and despite their completely opposite views on almost everything are drawn together in a town shaken by the supernatural. It’s a gripping but character focused story that somehow manages to be cosy and creepy all at once.

 

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Barbara Comyns

This is a very short but very impactful book, following a woman who rushes into an unfortunate marriage and straddles the poverty line in bohemian 1930s London, with a messy flat and an odd collection of pets. The novel follows her through babies, affairs, hunger and illness, with a very honest and straight-forward narrator, giving a unique perspective on life in the UK between the wars.

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Review: The Ashes of London, Andrew Taylor

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✮✮✮☆☆

 

London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer, and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated and his thumbs have been tied behind his back.

Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.

CONTENT WARNING: Rape and sexual assault.

 

Why I picked this book up:

I was in the midst of a reading slump when I decided to pick up this book on a whim in Waterstones last week. I tend to find that murder mysteries are great easy reads that I fly through, so I thought this book would be perfect to get myself excited about reading again. This period of British history is also something that I’ve read about and hugely enjoyed before, so I thought that the context I already had for the 17th century would help in getting myself through this a little quicker.

 

The bad: 

First and foremost, I really felt as though this book could have been severely trimmed down, by at least 50 pages. Some scenes gave a huge amount of unnecessary observations on behalf of the characters, and considering one of the two protagonists (James Marwood, possibly the wettest lettuce alive) didn’t ever seem to have anything interesting to say, it really dragged in places for me. I was also expecting something much more fast paced, whereas The Ashes of London ended up relying more on the historical fiction side of things than the murder mystery, which is the part I was most looking forward to. For the majority of the book, there was hardly any mystery at all, and only a small twist at the end seemed to give any excitement. I did enjoy the main female protagonist, Cat, who seemed to have much more personality than her male counterpart, but she still felt a little stilted. Her slightly feminist leanings and opinions seemed a little forced in, and the phrasing of them slightly too modern to be believable, but admittedly it did give her much more depth and motivation.

 

The good:

I think the aspect of the narrative that Taylor handled the best was his depiction of the aftermath of rape. The scene itself was not shown, but the raw emotion and gut reactions to the male touch afterwards were extremely heartfelt. Unlike other historical fiction and even fantasy I’ve read previously, this plot point did not seem throw-away in order to give some ‘edge’. Instead the act was pivotal to the main plot, and was handled delicately enough to be realistic and sympathetic without being too graphic or character defining for the victim. I also enjoyed the obviously excellently well-researched religious exploration that occurred throughout, and Taylor dealt with some complex issues surrounding how the beliefs and actions of parents can affect their children and legacy.

 

Overall rating: 3/5