Welcome to the next post in my Anticipated Books series for the first half of 2015. Like fantasy, there were too many historical fiction books that caught my fancy for one post, so they’ve been split in two. For some of these I already have an (e)ARC or review copy, so they’ll definitely be read and reviewed. And for the rest, I’ll have to see whether I get the chance to get my hands on them!
Esther Freud – Mr. Mac and Me (Bloomsbury USA)
It is 1914, and Thomas Maggs, the son of the local publican, lives with his parents and sister in a village on the Suffolk coast. He is the youngest child, and the only son surviving. Life is quiet – shaped by the seasons, fishing and farming, the summer visitors, and the girls who come down from the Highlands every year to gut and pack the herring.
Then one day a mysterious Scotsman arrives. To Thomas he looks for all the world like a detective, in his black cape and hat of felted wool, and the way he puffs on his pipe as if he’s Sherlock Holmes. Mac is what the locals call him when they whisper about him in the Inn. And whisper they do, for he sets off on his walks at unlikely hours, and stops to examine the humblest flowers. He is seen on the beach, staring out across the waves as if he’s searching for clues. But Mac isn’t a detective, he’s the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and together with his red haired artist wife, they soon become a source of fascination and wonder to Thomas
Yet just as Thomas and Mac’s friendship begins to blossom, war with Germany is declared. The summer guests flee and are replaced by regiments of soldiers on their way to Belgium, and as the brutality of war weighs increasingly heavily on this coastal community, they become more suspicious of Mac and his curious behaviour…
In this tender and compelling story of an unlikely friendship, Esther Freud paints a vivid portrait of a home front community during the First World War, and of a man who was one of the most brilliant and misunderstood artists of his generation. It is her most beautiful and masterful work.
Rashad Harrison – The Abduction of Smith and Smith (Atria)
In this harrowing and thrilling work of historical fiction, two enemies become the unlikeliest of allies as they fight to save their own lives aboard a hell ship headed into the dangerous unknown.
The Civil War is over, though for Jupiter Smith, a former slave and Union soldier, many battles still lie ahead. He returns to the plantation he worked on before the war in search of his woman, but rather finds his old master gone mad, haunting the ruins like a ghost. Out of pity for the now mentally ill Colonel, Jupiter strangles him and heads west to seek a new life in San Francisco.
When the Colonel’s son, Confederate soldier Archer Smith, arrives at home and finds his father murdered, he vows revenge upon Jupiter for all he has lost—following his former slave to the far reaches of the continent.
But things take a new turn as Archer’s desire for retribution is overwhelmed by his dependency on opium, and he ends up the target of a gang of “crimpers”…the very gang that Jupiter works for in San Francisco. When Jupiter fails in an attempt to save Archer, they both end up shanghaied aboard a ship headed on a dangerous mission and ruled by a merciless captain. Will the two Smiths work together to stay alive and return home, or will they become victims of the sea, the crew, and their mad captain?
Nellie Hermann – The Season of Migration (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Though Vincent van Gogh is one of the most popular painters of all time, we know very little about a ten-month period in the painter’s youth when he and his brother, Theo, broke off all contact. In The Season of Migration, Nellie Hermann conjures this period in a profoundly imaginative, original, and heartbreaking vision of Van Gogh’s early years, before he became the artist we know today.
In December 1878, Vincent van Gogh arrives in the coal-mining village of Petit Wasmes in the Borinage region of Belgium, a blasted and hopeless landscape of hovels and slag heaps and mining machinery. Not yet the artist he is destined to become, Vincent arrives as an ersatz preacher, barely sanctioned by church authorities but ordained in his own mind and heart by a desperate and mistaken spiritual vocation. But what Vincent experiences in the Borinage will change him. Coming to preach a useless gospel he thought he knew and believed, he learns about love, suffering, and beauty, ultimately coming to see the world anew and finding the divine not in religion but in our fallen human world.
In startlingly beautiful and powerful language, Hermann transforms our understanding of Van Gogh and the redemptive power of art.
Stewart O’Nan – West of Sunset (Viking Books)
In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to a mental asylum and his finances in ruins, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood. By December 1940, he would be dead of a heart attack.
Those last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, often obscured by the legend of his earlier Jazz Age glamour, are the focus of Stewart O’Nan’s gorgeously and gracefully written novel. With flashbacks to key moments from Fitzgerald’s past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on The Last Tycoon, and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and daughter, Scottie.
Fitzgerald’s orbit of literary fame and the Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel’s romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. A sympathetic and deeply personal portrait of a flawed man who never gave up in the end, even as his every wish and hope seemed thwarted, West of Sunset confirms O’Nan as “possibly our best working novelist” (Salon).
Priya Parmar – Vanessa and Her Sister (Ballantine Books)
In 1905, just a few years after the death of Queen Victoria signaled the beginning of a new era, Virginia and Vanessa Stephens and their brothers Thoby and Adrian moved to unfashionable, bohemian Bloomsbury. All in their twenties, orphaned and unmarried, they began holding “At Home” gatherings on Thursday evenings at 9, inviting Vanessa’s friends from art school, the brothers’ friends from Cambridge and Virginia’s literary connections into their unchaperoned, unconventional drawing room. Most of the young guests in that room would become famous, but as the novel opens they are all still in an uncertain, formative stage of their lives.
Against this background unfold the lives of Vanessa and Virginia and their brothers. Charismatic and brilliant, but manipulative and possessive, Virginia is verging on madness. Several years from publishing her first novel, frustrated and restless, she becomes increasingly jealous of Vanessa’s relationship with one of the men in their circle and tries to destroy it. Meanwhile Vanessa does her best to manage their chaotic household and keep Virginia in check. It is from Vanessa’s point of view at the center of this eccentric, charmed circle that this novel is told, in diary entries, love letters, postcards and train tickets, relating the lives of a handful of history’s most memorable characters.
Centurion Aurelius Castus – once a soldier in the elite legions of the Danuge – believes his glory days are over, as he finds himself in the cold, grey wastes of northern Britain, battling to protect an empire in decline.
When the king of the Picts dies in mysterious circumstances, Castus is selected to lead the Roman envoy sent to negotiate with the barbarians beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Here he will face the supreme challenge of command, in a mission riven with bloodshed, treachery and tests of his honor. As he struggles to avert disaster and keep his promise to a woman he has sworn to help, Castus discovers that nothings about this doomed enterprise was ever what it seemed.
Catherine Shepherd – Fatal Puzzle (AmazonCrossing)
1495: In the peaceful medieval city of Zons, on the banks of the Rhine, a young woman is found hanging from a parapet, raped and mutilated. A month later, another maiden falls prey. Bastian Mühlenberg, head of the City Guard, is determined to decipher the murderer’s gruesome code, unaware that he and the woman he loves are in the killer’s sights. With the help of an old psychic, a priest, and the stars above, Mühlenberg must solve the “fatal puzzle” before it’s too late.
Present day: Journalist Emily Richter is thrilled when she’s assigned a series of articles about the historic Zons killings. However, right before her stories are to be published, a young woman’s body is found hanging from a city tower-grossly maimed and wearing a linen gown, like her medieval predecessors. Detective Oliver Bergmann leads the investigation, tapping the knowledge of the attractive young journalist. Working together-and using Mühlenberg’s old notes-they race to stay one step ahead of the copycat killer.
In a villa on the shore of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and his young wife Mary, gathered for the summer. For three glittering months, this party of young bohemians would share their lives, charged with sexual and artistic tensions. It was a period of extraordinary creativity from which would emerge some of the masterworks of the Romantic period, including Frankenstein.
But there were two other guests at the villa that summer, for whom the season would not be so rosy. With Byron came his young physician, John Polidori, a man with literary aspirations of his own. And joining Mary was her step-sister, the beautiful Claire Clairmont. For Byron and the Shelleys, their stay by the lake would serve to immortalise them in the annals of literary history. But for Claire and Polidori, the Swiss sojourn would scar them forever.
Heather Webb – Rodin’s Lover (Plume)
As a woman, aspiring sculptor Camille Claudel has plenty of critics, especially her ultra-traditional mother. But when Auguste Rodin makes Camille his apprentice—and his muse—their passion inspires groundbreaking works. Yet, Camille’s success is overshadowed by her lover’s rising star, and her obsessions cross the line into madness. Rodin’s Lover brings to life the volatile love affair between one of the era’s greatest artists and a woman entwined in a tragic dilemma she cannot escape.
Andrea Chapin – The Tutor (Riverhead)
A bold and captivating novel about love, passion, and ambition that imagines the muse of William Shakespeare and the tumultuous year they spend together.
The year is 1590, and Queen Elizabeth’s Spanish Armada victory has done nothing to quell her brutal persecution of the English Catholics. Katharine de L’Isle is living at Lufanwal Hall, the manor of her uncle, Sir Edward. Taught by her cherished uncle to read when a child, Katharine is now a thirty-one-year-old widow. She has resigned herself to a life of reading and keeping company with her cousins and their children. But all that changes when the family’s priest, who had been performing Catholic services in secret, is found murdered. Faced with threats of imprisonment and death, Sir Edward is forced to flee the country, leaving Katharine adrift in a household rife with turmoil.
At this time of unrest, a new schoolmaster arrives from Stratford, a man named William Shakespeare. Coarse, quick-witted, and brazenly flirtatious, Shakespeare swiftly disrupts what fragile peace there is left at Lufanwal. Katharine is at first appalled by the boldness of this new tutor, but when she learns he is a poet, and one of talent, things between them begin to shift, and soon Katharine finds herself drawn into Shakespeare’s verse, and his life, in ways that will change her forever.
Inventive and absorbing, The Tutor is a masterful work of historical fiction, casting Shakespeare in a light we’ve never seen.
The noble families of Europe are tearing themselves apart in their lust for power and wealth.
Emma, Queen of England, is in agony over the succession to her husband Canute’s throne … while the sons of her brother, the Duke of Normandy, battle in the wake of his death.
Robert, the younger son, has been cheated of Normandy’s mightiest castle and sets out to take it by force. He emerges from a bloody siege victorious and in love with a beautiful – and pregnant – peasant girl.
Robert’s child will be mocked as William the bastard. But we have another name for him
David Flusfeder – John the Pupil (Harper)
Set in thirteenth-century Europe, against the backdrop of a medieval world where beauty and violence, science and mysticism, carnality and faith, exist side by side, this is a masterful, mystery-laden novel from the author of The Gift, in the tradition of Umberto Eco, Barry Unsworth, and Michel Faber
Since he was a young boy, John has studied at the Franciscan monastery outside Oxford, under the tutelage of friar and magus Roger Bacon, an inventor, scientist, and polymath. In 1267, Bacon arranges for his young pupil to embark on a journey of penitence to Italy. But the pilgrimage is a guise to deliver scientific instruments and Bacon’s great opus to His Holiness, Pope Clement IV. Two companions will accompany John, both Franciscan friars: the handsome, sweet-tempered Brother Andrew, with whom everyone falls in love; and the more brutish Brother Bernard, with his secret compulsion for drawing imaginary monsters. Neither knows the true purpose of their expedition.
John the Pupil is a medieval road movie, recounting the journey taken from Oxford to Viterbo in 1267 by John and his two companions. Modeling themselves after Saint Francis, the trio treks by foot through Europe, preaching the gospel and begging for sustenance. In addition to fighting off ambushes from thieves hungry for the thing of power they are carrying, the holy trio are tried and tempted by all sorts of sins: ambition, pride, lust—and by the sheer hell and heaven of medieval life.
Erudite and earthy, horrifying, comic, humane, David Flusfeder’s extraordinary novel reveals to the reader a world very different and all too like the one we live in now.
Bruce Holsinger – The Invention of Fire (Harper Collins)
London, 1386: young King Richard II faces the double threat of a French invasion and growing unrest amongst his barons – and now there’s evil afoot in the City. Sixteen corpses have been discovered in a sewer, their wounds like none ever seen before. One thing is clear: whoever threw the bodies into the sewer knew they would be found – and was powerful enough not to care.
Enter John Gower, poet and intellectual whose ‘peculiar vocation’ is dealing in men’s secrets. Against the backdrop of medieval London with its grand palaces and churches, dark alleys and mean backstreets, Gower pursues his dangerous quarry. Seeking insights from his friend Geoffrey Chaucer and using his network of contacts, Gower comes to the shocking belief that the men have been killed by a new and deadly weapon of war.
Known as ‘the handgonne’, it would put untold power into the hands of whoever perfected its design. But who has commissioned this weapon? A man who would stop at nothing to achieve his secret goal.
Thomas Keneally – Shame and the Captives (Atria)
Based on true events, this beautifully rendered novel from the author of Schindler’s List and The Daughters of Mars brilliantly explores a World War II prison camp, where Japanese prisoners resolve to take drastic action to wipe away their shame.
Alice is a young woman living on her father-in-law’s farm on the edge of an Australian country town, while her husband is held prisoner in Europe. When Giancarlo, an Italian anarchist at the prisoner-of-war camp down the road, is assigned to work on the farm, she hopes that being kind to him will somehow influence her husband’s treatment. What she doesn’t anticipate is how dramatically Giancarlo will expand her outlook and self-knowledge.
But what most challenges Alice and her fellow townspeople is the utter foreignness of the thousand-plus Japanese inmates and their culture, which the camp commanders fatally misread. Mortified by being taken alive in battle and preferring a violent death to the shame of living, they plan an outbreak, to shattering and far-reaching effects on all the citizens around them.
William Klaver – The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell (St. Martin’s Press)
At a time when women did not commonly travel unescorted, carry a rifle, sit down in bars, or have romantic liaisons with other women, Lucy Lobdell boldly set forth to earn men’s wages. Lucy Lobdell did all of these things in a personal quest to work and be paid, to wear what she wanted, and love whomever she cared to. But to gain those freedoms she had to endure public scorn and wrestle with a sexual identity whose vocabulary had yet to be invented. In this riveting historical novel, William Klaber captures the life of a brave woman who saw well beyond her era.
This is the fictionalized account of Lucy’s foray into the world of men and her inward journey to a new sexual identity. It is her promised memoir as hear and recorded a century later by William Klaber, an upstream neighbor. Meticulously researched and told with compassion and respect, this is historical fiction at its best.
William Nicholson – The Lovers of Amherst (Quercus)
August 1881: An attractive young married woman, Mabel Todd, arrives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband David, recently appointed assistant professor at Amherst College. The treasurer of the college is Austin Dickinson, the most respected citizen of the town, a married man with three children. Austin’s sister Emily lives as a recluse in the Homestead, the house next-door to Austin’s family. Over the months that follow the Todds’ arrival, Austin falls passionately in love with Mabel, and she with him.
October 2013: Alice Dickinson, 24 years old, is struggling with her failure to find a boyfriend. At the same time she wants to escape her copy-writing job and make a living as a screenwriter. She takes time off work to research a screenplay on a story that has fascinated her since college days, where a love of Emily Dickinson’s poems was triggered by the coincidence of her own surname.The story is the illicit love affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd.
The novel interweaves the stories of these two love affairs: the unfolding one between Alice and Nick, an older man she meets in Amherst, and the original love affair between Austin and Mabel, observed by Emily.
Carrie Snyder – Girl Runner (Two Roads)
Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder’s debut novel, is the story of Aganetha Smart, a former Olympic athlete who was famous in the 1920s, but now, at age 104, lives in a nursing home, alone and forgotten by history. For Aganetha, a competitive and ambitious woman, her life remains present and unfinished in her mind.
When her quiet life is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of two young strangers, Aganetha begins to reflect on her childhood in rural Ontario and her struggles to make an independent life for herself in the city.
Without revealing who they are, or what they may want from her, the visitors take Aganetha on an outing from the nursing home. As ready as ever for adventure, Aganetha’s memories are stirred when the pair return her to the family farm where she was raised. The devastation of WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic, the optimism of the 1920s and the sacrifices of the 1930s play out in Aganetha’s mind, as she wrestles with the confusion and displacement of the present.
Part historical page-turner, part contemporary mystery, Girl Runner is an engaging and endearing story about family, ambition, athletics and the dedicated pursuit of one’s passions. It is also, ultimately, about a woman who follows the singular, heart-breaking and inspiring course of her life until the very end.
Alison Weir – The Marriage Game (Ballantine Books)
He is her dashing Master of Horse. She is the 25-year-old newly crowned English Queen, a title she holds only because there is no male heir to inherit it. Yet in spite of her tenuous hold on the throne, young Queen Elizabeth begins a flagrant flirtation with the handsome but married Lord Robert, taking long unchaperoned horseback rides with him and constantly having him at her side. Many believe them to be lovers, and over time the rumors grow that Elizabeth is no virgin at all, and that she has secretly borne Lord Robert’s child. When Robert’s wife is found dead, lying at the bottom of a staircase with her neck broken, there is universal shock followed by accusations of murder.
Picking up where Alison Weir’s bestselling novel to date, The Lady Elizabeth, left off (but standing completely alone), The Marriage Game tells the dramatic story of the “Virgin Queen’s” reign, framed by Elizabeth’s long and tumultuous relationship with Lord Robert. Did they or didn’t they? Rivers of ink have been spilled in determining the answer to this burning historical question, and you can be sure Alison Weir has strong opinions about Elizabeth’s questionable virginity, based on a lifetime of research! But fiction gives her a free hand to explore this intriguing love affair in its every colorful detail, and the resulting novel is one of her best.
C.W. Gortner – Mademoiselle Chanel (William Morrow)
Born into rural poverty, Gabrielle Chanel and her siblings are sent to orphanage after their mother’s death. The sisters nurture Gabrielle’s exceptional sewing skills, a talent that will propel the willful young woman into a life far removed from the drudgery of her childhood.
Transforming herself into Coco—a seamstress and sometime torch singer—the petite brunette burns with ambition, an incandescence that draws a wealthy gentleman who will become the love of her life. She immerses herself in his world of money and luxury, discovering a freedom that sparks her creativity. But it is only when her lover takes her to Paris that Coco discovers her destiny.
Rejecting the frilly, corseted silhouette of the past, her sleek, minimalist styles reflect the youthful ease and confidence of the 1920s modern woman. As Coco’s reputation spreads, her couturier business explodes, taking her into rarefied society circles and bohemian salons. But her fame and fortune cannot save her from heartbreak as the years pass. And when Paris falls to the Nazis, Coco is forced to make choices that will haunt her.
An enthralling novel of an extraordinary woman who created the life she desired, Mademoiselle Chanel explores the inner world of a woman of staggering ambition whose strength, passion and artistic vision would become her trademark.
Aislinn Hunter – The World Before Us (Hamish Hamilton)
The World Before Us is Aislinn Hunter’s haunting novel of trauma, loss, history and memory – set in a Victorian asylum and a quirky London museum.
Jane was fifteen when her life changed for ever. In the woods surrounding a Yorkshire country house, she took her eyes off the little girl she was minding and the girl slipped into the trees – never to be seen again.
Now an adult, Jane is obsessed with another disappearance: that of a young woman who walked out of a Victorian lunatic asylum one day in 1877. As Jane pieces together moments in history, forgotten stories emerge – of sibling jealousy, illicit affairs, and tragic death . . .
Karen Maitland – The Raven’s Head (Headline)
Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head.
Any attempt to sell the head fails … until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain – unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest. Once more Vincent’s life is in danger because Sylvain and his neighbours, the menacing White Canons, consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.
Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural, The Raven’s Head is a triumph for Karen Maitland, Queen of the Dark Ages.
Francine Mathews – Too Bad to Die (Riverhead)
A tense and enthralling historical thriller in which British Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming attempts to foil a Nazi plot to assassinate FDR, Churchill, and Stalin.
November, 1943. Weary of his deskbound status in the Royal Navy, intelligence officer Ian Fleming spends his spare time spinning stories in his head that are much more exciting than his own life…until the critical Tehran Conference, when Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin meet to finalize the D-Day invasion.
With the Big Three in one place, Fleming is tipped off that Hitler’s top assassin has infiltrated the conference. Seizing his chance to play a part in a real-life action story, Fleming goes undercover to stop the Nazi killer. Between martinis with beautiful women, he survives brutal attacks and meets a seductive Soviet spy who may know more than Fleming realizes. As he works to uncover the truth and unmask the assassin, Fleming is forced to accept that betrayal sometimes comes from the most unexpected quarters—and that one’s literary creations may prove eerily close to one’s own life.
Brilliantly inventive, utterly gripping and suspenseful, Too Bad to Die is Francine Mathews’s best novel yet, and confirms her place as a master of historical fiction.
When young artist Will Turner arrives at Harewood House at the invitation of aristocrat Beau Lascelles, his intention is to do no more than sketch the house and grounds, receive his commission, and return to London.
But Will is not the only artist here: he is one of two men that will make up a Cockney Project. His fellow artist? Childhood friend and now rival, Tom Girtin, dressed up as much as his meager wallet can allow, billing and cooing amongst the esteemed guests. But Will is not so easily distracted. He wants to get the job done and get out.
As neither servant nor hallowed guest, Will finds few allies, but is content to be cloistered in his room with no distractions – ensuring the expedience of his work. But the servant halls are alive with whispers of scandal and when Will ventures to sketch the local ruins he instead witnesses something that will threaten both his commission and his friendship.
Alive with intrigue, artistic rivalry and society scandal, Will & Tom is a glimpse into the life of the infamous artist J.M.W. Turner, and a story of how we are liberated from the shackles of our masters at a time when England is awakening to its crimes of slavery and servitude.
Hans Holbein, King Henry VIII’s portrait painter, died in the autumn of 1543. A century later a chronicler reported that the artist had succumbed to plague, yet there is no contemporary evidence to support this. Suspicions have been raised over the centuries, but the mystery of what actually happened remains unsolved to this day.
Young London goldsmith Thomas Treviot is awaiting a design for a very important jewellery commission from Hans Holbein. When the design fails to turn up, Thomas sends a servant to track Holbein down, only to discover that the painter has disappeared. In his hunt for Holbein and the lost design, Thomas is led into a morass of dangerous political intrigue, French spies and courtiers that is more treacherous than he could ever have anticipated…