In three weeks time, I will file my April round-up of historical fiction books for The Times. It will be five years exactly since my very first round-up appeared. In that time, I have reviewed some 300 works of historical fiction.
I have been a judge for the Historical Writers Association twice, adding at least 50 books to that running total. (We tend to get 80 odd entries; of which I have read some, but not all.)
My background is in financial journalism. A chance encounter with a job advert when I was a broke graduate led me to Pensions World, a magazine for the pensions industry. Fun times. From there to The Times, where I covered pensions and insurance companies, before eventually becoming deputy business editor.
I did other jobs at The Times, including becoming editor of the Science magazine. But five years ago, after I had left the paper to concentrate on writing books and raising children, I got the historical fiction gig. I got it because the literary editor knew that historical fiction was my utter passion. As a reader, as a writer, as a human: the books that have been making my heart sing for thirty-five years have been historical. Blame Rosemary Sutcliffe.
On the five year anniversary of my first column, I thought I would indulge myself with an unscientific round-up of some of my favourites.
The ones that made me sob:
The Book of Aron, Jim Shepard. Aron, a nine year old Jewish boy, lives in the Warsaw ghetto. Lice, typhus, brutality and hunger rule the streets. Aron works as a smuggler of black market goods. He finds himself under the wing of Dr Korczak, the director of an embattled orphanage, and a true-life hero of the ghetto. Told through Aron's eyes, this is a masterful depiction of ghetto life and the demands of heroism. The conclusion, although inevitable, is devastating.
The Constant Soldier, William Ryan. Ryan's inspiration for this powerful, nuanced book was a collection of photographs showing a rest hut for the SS officers who worked at Auschwitz. This was where perpetrators of genocide spent their downtime, drinking and relaxing. In Ryan's version, a German soldier goes to work at the hut, after recognising one of the prisoners who act as servants. Her name is Judith, a woman he loved when they were both involved in the domestic resistance against Hitler. The Russians are advancing, and the Germans know that the game is nearly up. Taut as a thriller, and utterly compelling.
The ones I wish I'd written:
The North Water, Ian McGuire. In 2017 I was chair of the HWA Gold Crown awards. The top prize went to The North Water, McGuire's dark tale about murder aboard a nineteenth century whaling voyage. Patrick Sumner, a disgraced doctor, signs on to the ship and becomes a reluctant detective when a young boy is found murdered. Murderer Henry Drax is a force of nature: evil and unrepentant. This book is brutal, unsettling and brilliant.
Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant. These two books about the Borgia family are extraordinarily good. The first covers Rodrigo Borgia's elevation to the papacy in 1492, and the first decade of his time as pope. The second follows the Pope and his family until his death. Dunant succeeds in bringing Rodrigo and his children, Cesare and Luzrezia, brilliantly to life. Dunant has a storyteller's instinct for both the broad sweep of history and the telling detail, all written in glorious, muscular prose.
The best one in translation
All for Nothing, Walter Kempowski Translated for the first time from German, this modern classic follows the fortunes of a Prussian family at the end of World War 2. The Soviets mass on the border, the Third Reich is crumbling, and members of an old aristocratic family attempt to carry on as usual. Migrants fleeing the Soviets pass through their loves. When do they abandon all they have and join the exodus? A superb exploration of complicity with evil.
The one I can't believe is a debut:
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Original and dazzlingly good, this debut is set in a vivid eighteenth Century London. A sea-captain returns home from a voyage with a mermaid, much to the dismay of the owner of his ship, Mr Hancock. But the mermaid proves wildly popular with the fashionable set, bringing staid Hancock into the orbit of celebrated courtesan, Angelica Neal. Compelling to the last perfect sentence.
The one I missed first time round:
His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I missed this one when if first came out, and read it when it was included on the Man Booker Prize shortlist in 2016. Set in 1869, this purports to be a collection of documents relating to a brutal triple murder in a remote Highland community. The main narrative strand is written by the boy accused of the murder Roderick Macrae. He is plausible and articulate; and his tale of his dysfunctional family's suffering at the hands of a local tyrant is miserable. But is he telling the truth? Unsettling and unforgettable.
The best ones with swords.I adore so-called swords 'n sandals fiction. Eat it up. Read it by torchlight in the dark, under the duvet. There are a number of people currently writing sword heavy fiction whose work I really, really love - notably, Robyn Young, Harry Sidebottom, Ben Kane, Justin Hill, Robert Low, Christian Cameron, Angus Donald and, of course, Bernard Cornwell. But the series I have loved best in the past five years has been Giles Kristian's trilogy, Sigurd's Saga. A story of Vikings, revenge, treasure and death - which ends with the best battle scene you could ever wish to read. Glorious.
The best one with a love storyI tend to prefer ones about swords and death to ones about love. Let's not dwell. But I adored This Black Earth by Philip Kazan. In 1922, a young Greek girl fleeing the Turkish occupation of Smyrna has a chance encounter with a young English boy. Years later, Zoe Haggitiris and Tom Collyer meet again in Athens amid the horrors of World War 2. They fall in love and are then torn apart. Zoe struggles with the fallout from the Nazi occupation, while Tom is forced to fight his way across Europe. Will they meet again? I'm not telling, just read it. (Incidentally, I bang on about Philip Kazan's books so often that someone at a literary event called me out on it. So for the record, no, I've never met him. And no, he's not bribing me, not even with baclava. I just bloody love his books.)
The ones I couldn't reviewI am, however, good friends with the lovely, brilliant and talented Anna Mazzola. So I don't review her books in the paper - a sadly high price for being friends with me. If I didn't know her, I would still love her books - particularly the latest. The Storykeeper is based on the Island of Skye, a place I know well and love deeply. Audrey Hart is there to collect folktales. But, in the wake of devastating clearances, the locals are suspicious and hostile. Then young girls start to go missing. Is there something supernatural at play? This book is utterly transporting and oozes with atmosphere.
If you are wondering about the absence of Hilary Mantel, it is only because I have never reviewed her. The Mirror and the Light, the conclusion of the Cromwell trilogy, is due out later this year. I will clear my diary, and stop the clocks and ship the children to their Grandparents.
It is an incredible privilege to review these books, and there are many more in the 350 that I have loved and recommended to friends, and kept copies of in my ever expanding bookshelves. Keep them coming, History Girls.....