Historical Musings #27: A new list…

I have almost reached the end of my Classics Club list – a list of 100 books I put together in 2012 and have been slowly working through for the last five years. I was officially supposed to finish in March this year but didn’t quite manage it – although I’m not too worried about that, as I think taking my time to enjoy the rest of the books on my list is more important than rushing to meet a self-imposed deadline. Over the five years, I have discovered lots of great authors and have tried different types of books that never really appealed to me before, such as classic science fiction and plays. However, you won’t be surprised to hear that I also read a lot of classic historical fiction!

The books I have read for the Classics Club which can also be considered historical fiction include:

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (and its sequels)
Mary Anne, Frenchman’s Creek and The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier
Romola by George Eliot
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
Scaramouche, Bellarion, The Sea-Hawk and Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott
Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

And a few others, including my current read, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. When I finish The Leopard, the only books remaining on my Classics Club list will be my long-anticipated re-reads of two of my favourite books, Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo. I have already started thinking ahead to creating a second list to begin later in the year – and I would like your help!

Can you recommend some classic historical fiction for my next list?

I know I asked a similar question a while ago, but that related to classics by women only. I received some interesting suggestions at the time, particularly these four:

The World is Not Enough by Zoe Oldenbourg
The Fortunes of Garin by Mary Johnston
Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

I have also been considering these:

Claudius the God by Robert Graves
The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse
The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
The Fifth Queen trilogy by Ford Madox Ford
Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger
Something else by Rafael Sabatini
Something else by Sir Walter Scott

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Do you have any more suggestions for me?

To decide whether a book is ‘historical fiction’, I use as a guideline the Walter Scott Prize definition: the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years before the book was written. Defining a ‘classic’ is more difficult, so I’ll leave that up to you to decide!

Historical Musings #26: Judging a book by its cover…

There was a recent Top Ten Tuesday topic on book covers which I would have liked to have participated in but already had another post scheduled for the same day. Better late than never, though, so for this month’s Historical Musings post I thought it would be fun to look at some of the various types of covers which tend to be used for historical fiction novels. There are only seven on my list rather than ten, but you will probably be able to think of more.

The ‘faceless woman in a pretty dress’ cover

Example: The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper

I didn’t have to look very hard to find some of these covers on my shelves! This design has become very popular in recent years and although there are some variations – sometimes we can see part of the face and sometimes we can see only the back of the head – the overall effect is the same. I have read that a lot of publishers like to use these covers because obscuring the woman’s face creates mystery and avoids the problem of readers complaining that her appearance doesn’t correspond to the author’s descriptions. However, this type of cover is usually associated with light, romance-focused historical fiction and, depending on reading tastes, might put some people off; there are exceptions, of course, so it’s not always fair to judge. As a separate issue, there’s the question of whether the dress is appropriate to the time period – I won’t go into that here, but you may be interested in this list of anachronistic covers on Goodreads.

The ‘swords and shields’ cover

Example: Insurrection by Robyn Young

These have the opposite effect to the previous type of cover, I suppose. When I see a cover with a shield, sword, helmet, flag or something similar, I expect the story to be action-packed with lots of battle scenes, not much romance and probably a male protagonist rather than female. Again, there are exceptions, but in general these novels have a very different feel from the headless women novels and will often appeal to different readers (although there are plenty of examples of both that I’ve enjoyed).

The distant lands cover

Example: The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

Many historical fiction novels have a strong sense of place as well as of time, and sometimes the publisher will choose to use that as the selling point for the book. One of my favourite historical fiction novels, The Far Pavilions, wouldn’t have worked if it had been set anywhere other than India and Afghanistan, hence the picture and the quote on the cover of my edition – “A Gone With the Wind of the North-West Frontier”.

The tie-in cover

Example: North and South by John Jakes

These are my least favourite types of cover, particularly if I haven’t already watched the adaptation in question. I prefer to form my own visual impression of the characters as I read, rather than have somebody else’s interpretation already in my head before I start, and I like other readers to be given that opportunity too. (I did love both the book and mini-series versions of John Jakes’ North and South trilogy, though, and must read/watch them again one day!) Tie-in covers are not specific to historical fiction, of course, and occur across all genres; although I don’t like them, I can understand the reasons behind their use. Here’s an interesting article from the Guardian.

The illustrated cover

Example: Cashelmara by Susan Howatch

This could overlap with some of the other sorts of cover listed above, but I thought I would still include it (and it gives me a chance to mention another book which is on my must-reread-soon list, along with some of Susan Howatch’s others). Do you prefer books with old-fashioned illustrations on the cover rather than the stock photographs and images that are more popular these days? What about covers with portraits or reproductions of famous paintings (like Girl With a Pearl Earring)?

The ‘what were they thinking?’ cover

Example: Lion of Alnwick by Carol Wensby-Scott

Not too much to say about this one, other than that whoever designs the covers sometimes doesn’t get it quite right. I thought Lion of Alnwick was a good book which deserved a much nicer cover!

The simple but striking cover

Example: The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

Sometimes a publisher will avoid all of the above options and go with something basic and neutral. This makes it difficult to judge the book by the cover and to decide at a glance whether it’s something you want to read or not, but the advantage is that it’s not immediately off-putting to readers. (If you’re wondering, I’m reading The Winter Isles now, so haven’t posted my thoughts yet!)

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What do you think of the covers pictured above? Would they make you more or less likely to pick up the book?

Historical Musings #25: Ancient Greece

Historical Musings As discussed in a previous Historical Musings post, despite my love of historical fiction I have never really felt drawn to novels set in the ancient world. I’m not sure why this should be, but I have certainly read very few books set in Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt or other ancient cultures, and feel much more comfortable with settings from the medieval period onwards. Since that previous post, when I specifically asked for suggestions of Roman novels to try, I have read Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy (which I loved and can’t recommend highly enough), Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, and my current read, I, Claudius by Robert Graves, so I think I’m over my aversion to Ancient Rome! Now I need some help with Ancient Greece…

Thinking about books I’ve already read that are set in Ancient Greece, there are some but not many. I have read Homer’s Odyssey (in a translation by TE Lawrence), though not the Iliad yet – it’s debatable whether you would consider those to be historical fiction, I suppose, but they’re obviously a good starting point for exploring Greek history and myth.

Based, like the Iliad, on the Trojan War, there’s The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which tells the story from the perspective of Patroclus, and Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston, this time retelling events through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is also one of the main characters – the other is Chryseis – in Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful, which I read last year and enjoyed. I’ve recently received a review copy of the next book in the series, For the Winner, a book about Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.

The books I’ve mentioned so far are all inspired by Greek mythology, some of them including appearances by gods or other mythological beings. Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart is a bit different, concentrating on the life of Sappho, the Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos.

Finally, I must mention Mary Renault, a beloved author of many readers when it comes to historical novels set in Ancient Greece. So far I have only read The King Must Die, the first of her two novels telling the story of Theseus in a way which gives plausible explanations for elements of the Theseus myth. I enjoyed it, but didn’t fall in love with it the way I’d hoped to, and still need to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

What are your favourite books set in Ancient Greece? Have you read any that I’ve mentioned here?

Historical Musings #24: Ireland

Historical Musings

With St Patrick’s Day less than a week away – and to join in with the Reading Ireland Month being hosted by Cathy and Niall – I thought I would devote this month’s post to a discussion of historical fiction set in Ireland.

The first books to come to mind when I think of Irish historical fiction are two very big novels by Edward Rutherfurd – Dublin and Ireland: Awakening (published in the US as The Princes of Ireland and Rebels of Ireland), two books taking us through the entire history of Ireland from the year 430 to the 20th century. I read these books years ago and they gave me an excellent overview of Irish history.

Another novel set in the distant past – and fitting perfectly into the St Patrick’s Day theme – is Joan Lesley Hamilton’s The Lion and the Cross, a novel about the life of Patrick himself.

I love a good family saga and I can think of two set in Ireland. The first is Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier; although the name of the country in which it is set is never actually named, it’s obviously supposed to be Ireland. The second is Cashelmara, one of several novels written by Susan Howatch which I read a long time ago and remember loving. The story is set in 19th century Ireland, but the lives of the characters cleverly mirror the lives of several Plantagenet kings. This – along with Howatch’s Penmarric and The Wheel of Fortune – is on my list for a re-read.

Staying in the 19th century, why not try The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes, a dark and atmospheric historical crime novel about a young student at Dublin’s Trinity College who comes up with a very dubious solution to his money problems. I am currently reading Hughes’ second novel, The Coroner’s Daughter, which is also set in Dublin and, so far, is a great book too. I can also highly recommend The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric, only partly set in Ireland but featuring a wonderful set of Irish characters. And you may have seen my review last week of The Good People by Hannah Kent.

Moving forward into the early decades of the 20th century, there’s The Secret Scripture by Irish author Sebastian Barry. Like all of Barry’s novels, it’s worth reading for the beautiful writing alone. Of the other books of his that I’ve read, On Canaan’s Side and The Temporary Gentleman are set partly, but not entirely, in Ireland.

There’s also Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor, a novel written in the second person (which is quite unusual) and telling the story of the actress Molly Allgood and her relationship with the playwright John Millington Synge.

Another Irish author whose books I enjoy is John Boyne, but most of his are not actually set in Ireland. However, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I’ve recently read but haven’t reviewed yet, takes place in Ireland as well as in several other locations around the world, and spans several decades from the 1940s to the present day. Finally, I want to mention The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce, in which a mysterious stranger arrives in a small town in 1930s Ireland – and also Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, which gives some insights into the life of a young Irish immigrant in 1950s America.

Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend any more historical fiction set in Ireland? If not, I hope I’ve given you some ideas for future reading here!

Historical Musings #23: Time Travel

Historical Musings

I have always loved the idea of being able to travel through time so with my interest in history it’s not surprising that I enjoy reading fiction with an element of time travel. My recent read of The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick (in which a young woman from Tudor England travels forward to the present day) made me think of other time travel – or time-slip – novels I’ve read over the years. Before I start to list them, let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about the difference between time travel and time-slip:

The difference is that in time slip stories, the protagonist typically has no control and no understanding of the process (which is often never explained at all) and is either left marooned in a past time and must make the best of it, or is eventually returned by a process as unpredictable and uncontrolled.

It would seem, then, that time travel is deliberate and time slip is accidental, but thinking about the books I’ve read, it’s not quite as simple as that – sometimes a book doesn’t fit neatly into either category or is a mixture of both.

The first time travel books I can remember reading as a child were Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. The one that stands out most in my memory is Many Waters, in which twins Sandy and Dennys travel back to Biblical times – the days of Noah’s Ark – in a world populated by supernatural beings such as the Seraphim and the Nephilim. I also read Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, probably at around the same age, although I can remember very little about that book now. Most of my time travel reading has been as an adult.

The House on the StrandThe House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite time travel novels. Interestingly, I found that with this book it was not so much the historical storyline (14th century Cornwall) which interested me as the method of time travel, the fascinating questions it raised and the impact it had on the life of the person doing the travelling.

Then there’s Anya Seton’s Green Darkness, a book I read years ago, before I started blogging The movement between time periods in this novel takes place not as physical time travel but through reincarnation: a modern day American girl, Celia, relives a previous existence as a servant in Tudor England. Although most of the plot has faded from my mind, I still remember the atmospheric descriptions of the manor house, Ightham Mote.

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine is a similar story about a woman from the 1970s who undergoes hypnosis and is regressed to a former life as Matilda de Braose, a 12th century noblewoman. Sleeper’s Castle, published to mark the 30th anniversary of Lady of Hay, is the story of a woman in modern-day Wales who begins to have vivid dreams taking her back to the 1400s and Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the English.  Erskine has written a lot of other time-slip novels, although I haven’t read many of them yet.

MarianaI can’t talk about time-slip novels without mentioning Susanna Kearsley, whose books have impressed me more than Erskine’s. Not all of them involve a form of time travel, but those that do include Mariana (which takes us back to the 17th century), The Rose Garden (18th century Cornwall) and The Firebird (18th century Scotland and Russia). I think Kearsley makes the time travel in her novels feel quite natural and believable; the transitions between one period and another are very smooth.

I have already mentioned The Phantom Tree; I haven’t read Nicola Cornick’s previous novel, House of Shadows, but I’m looking forward to it. I think readers who enjoy Cornick may also be interested in Pamela Hartshorne’s novels. The one I read – The Edge of Dark – follows the story of a present day woman who begins to experience the memories of a woman who lived in the Elizabethan period.

And finally, there’s Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series in which World War II nurse Claire Randall walks through a circle of standing stones to find herself in 18th century Scotland. There are eight books in the series so far; I loved the earlier ones, but was slightly less enamoured with the last two.  I’ve reviewed the most recent books, An Echo in the Bone and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, on my blog, but I strongly recommend starting at the beginning and reading the series in order.

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The titles above are the ones which came instantly to mind when I started to write this post. I was sure I must have read more, so I had a look back through my blog archives and was reminded of a few others:

The River of No ReturnThe River of No Return by Bee Ridgway – set partly in the modern day and partly in the Regency period. This would be a good choice for readers who are interested in the actual mechanics of time travel; I noted in my review that this is a novel “where the manipulation of time forms a big part of the plot – jumping forwards in time, jumping backwards in time, freezing time, speeding time up and slowing time down”.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness – the second book in the All Souls Trilogy, in which our two main characters – a witch and a vampire – travel back in time to the year 1590.  I remember finding the time travel aspect a bit confusing in this one.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler – this is a great novel about a black woman in the 1970s who is pulled into the 19th century and finds herself on a Maryland plantation where she meets one of her ancestors, who happens to be a slave owner.

The Map of Time by Felix Palma – an unusual novel made up of three separate but interlinked stories which pull the reader backwards and forwards in time.  HG Wells, author of The Time Machine, even appears as a character in this book.

Now it’s your turn.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned above?  What are your favourite time travel/time-slip novels?  Which methods of time travel do you find most convincing?  I am particularly interested in hearing about books which involve travel to or from the past, but if you prefer books which take us forward to the future – like The Time Machine – feel free to recommend those too.

Historical Musings #22: Books to look out for in 2017

Historical Musings

As I mentioned last week, I’m beginning 2017 with no real reading plans or targets for the year ahead. I’m sure I’ll be reading plenty of historical fiction, though, and as usual I would expect to be reading a mixture of older books and new releases. For my first Historical Musings post of the year, I thought I would highlight some books being published in 2017 which have caught my attention.

The publication dates I’ve given are for the UK only and may be subject to change.  The dates for other countries could be slightly different – maybe you’ve already had the opportunity to read some of these!  I haven’t provided a synopsis for each book, but the ‘find out more’ links will take you to Goodreads or other sites where you can find more information.

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the-good-people

The Good People by Hannah Kent (UK publication date: 9 February 2017) – Find out more

I enjoyed Hannah Kent’s first novel – Burial Rites – so I was pleased to see that she has another book coming out soon.  As with Burial Rites, her new one is inspired by real historical events but otherwise it sounds quite different, being set in Ireland in 1825.

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the-coroners-daughter

The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes (UK: 23 February 2017) – Find out more

A few years ago I read Andrew Hughes’ debut novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt. I loved it enough to give it a place on my list of top books of 2014 and have been eagerly awaiting his next book. Like the first one, this new book is set in 19th century Dublin and sounds like another dark and mysterious read.

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the-witchfinders-sister

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown (UK: 2 March 2017) – Find out more

Set in the 17th century, this is a novel about Matthew Hopkins, who was known as the ‘Witchfinder General’.  I’ve had a review copy of this one for a while but have been waiting until nearer the publication date to read it.  I’m looking forward to it!

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the-confessions-of-young-nero

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George (UK: 9 March 2017) – Find out more

I’ve only read one of Margaret George’s historical novels so far – Elizabeth I – but I did enjoy it and have been wanting to read more of her work. Her new book is about the Roman Emperor, Nero, and should be fascinating.

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crimson-and-bone

Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato (UK: 18 May 2017) – Find out more

This dark tale by Marina Fiorato is set in London in 1853 and is being compared to Fingersmith and The Crimson Petal and the White. I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s previous novels, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.

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anne-boleyn-a-kings-obsession

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir (UK: 18 May 2017) – Find out more

Following last year’s Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen, Alison Weir continues her Six Tudor Queens series with a novel about Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. I have read about Anne many times before, but I found the first book in this series interesting and I’m curious to see how Weir approaches Anne’s story.

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The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett and King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (UK: September 2017; No cover images available yet) – Find out more

Great news for Dorothy Dunnett fans and for those yet to discover her work – Dunnett’s six-volume series, The Lymond Chronicles, and her standalone, King Hereafter, are being reissued in September with her other series, the House of Niccolò, to follow in 2018.  A TV deal with Mammoth Screen has also been announced, although I’m not sure how I feel about that!

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China by Edward Rutherfurd (UK: 7 September 2017; No cover image available yet) – Find out more

Each of Edward Rutherfurd’s novels tells the story of a particular country or city over a period of time.  I loved his earlier books, which include London, Sarum and Russka, but had mixed feelings about his more recent ones such as New York and Paris. I’ve been wondering since finishing Paris where his next book was going to take us and now it has been revealed that it’s China!

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a-column-of-fire

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett (UK: 21 September 2017) – Find out more

This will be Follett’s third novel set in the cathedral city of Kingsbridge, this time moving forward by several centuries to the Elizabethan period.  The first in this series, The Pillars of the Earth, seems to be the sort of book people either love or hate, but I’m one reader who is already looking forward to book three!

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What about you?  Are you excited about any of the books I’ve mentioned above?  Are there any other new historical fiction releases or reissues you’re looking forward to in 2017? 

Historical Musings #21: My year in historical fiction

Historical Musings December is always a busy time in the book blogging world, with people reflecting on their year’s reading, choosing their favourite books of the year and announcing plans for the year to come. For this month’s Historical Musings post, then, I thought this would be a good opportunity to look back at my year in historical fiction.

I know the year isn’t quite over yet and I will finish more books before 2016 comes to an end, but not enough to significantly affect the statistics below. I’ve had fun putting these charts, graphs and lists together – I hope you’ll find them interesting!

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Time periods read about in 2016

time-periods-pie-chart

As you can see, most of the books I’ve read are set between the 14th century and the modern day (the 16th, 17th and 19th centuries being particularly popular), with very few set earlier than that.

My favourite book read this year set pre-1300: Dictator by Robert Harris (set in Ancient Rome)

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26.4% of the historical fiction authors I read this year were new to me

Three books I enjoyed by new-to-me historical fiction authors this year:
The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff
Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
Succession by Livi Michael

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Publication dates of books read in 2016

publication-dates

Perhaps not surprisingly, I have read a lot of books that were published in the last few years, with most of the others having publication dates spread across the 20th century.

Here are four historical novels I’ve read this year that were published before 1900:
Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore
Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas
Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
Rupert, by the Grace of God by Dora Greenwell McChesney

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12.5% of my historical reads in 2016 were historical mysteries

Three of the best historical mysteries I’ve read this year:
Revelation by CJ Sansom
The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter
The Revelations of Carey Ravine by Debra Daley.

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I’ve read historical fiction set in 13 different countries this year.

countries-chart

About half of the historical fiction I’ve read this year has been set in my own country, England. I do love reading about the history of other countries, though, and have been collecting recommendations of books set in other parts of the world (see Historical Musings #7: Exploring Africa, #16: Exploring Europe and #20 – Exploring Japan).

Three books read in 2016 set in a country other than my own:
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (Norway)
The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer (Japan)
The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen (Italy).

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Francesco de' Medici
Francesco de’ Medici
Five historical men I’ve read about this year:

Francesco de’ Medici (The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas)
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (Alathea by Pamela Belle)
St Patrick (The Lion and the Cross by Joan Lesley Hamilton)
Thomas Chippendale (Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker)
Geoffrey Chaucer (The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett).

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Lizzie Burns
Lizzie Burns
Five historical women I’ve read about this year:

Joanna of Navarre (The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien)
Julia Pastrana (Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch)
Penelope Devereux (Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle)
Sappho (Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart)
Lizzie Burns (Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea).

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Now it’s your turn! Have you read any of the books or authors I’ve mentioned here? What are the best historical fiction novels you’ve read this year?