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.


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.



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.



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.



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!



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.



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.



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.


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!


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!



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!


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!


Time periods read about in 2016


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)


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


Publication dates of books read in 2016


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


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.


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


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).


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).


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).


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?

Historical Musings #20: Exploring Japan

Historical Musings In previous Historical Musings posts, I’ve confessed to a lack of knowledge of the histories of certain African and European countries and was pleased to receive so many intriguing suggestions for future reading. This month’s post is on a similar topic, but much more specific as this time I’m asking about just one particular country rather than a whole continent!

shogun I’ve recently finished reading Lesley Downer’s The Shogun’s Queen, one of a quartet of novels set in nineteenth century Japan. The book tells the story of Atsu, the wife of Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa Shogun. I have yet to post my full thoughts, but for now I can say that I found it all fascinating; everything that happened in the novel was completely new to me and as I read, I couldn’t stop thinking about how little knowledge I have of Japan’s history. In fact, the only other historical novel I can think of that I’ve read set in Japan is Shogun by James Clavell (set much earlier than the Lesley Downer book, in 17th century feudal Japan).

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I read Shogun a few years before I started blogging in 2009, and I was convinced that, surely, I must have read something else set in Japan since then! A search through my blog archives, however, shows that I haven’t – although I have read some books that touch on various aspects of Japanese history and culture. For example, the gardener Aritomo in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists is Japanese and the story is set partly during Japan’s occupation of Malaya. China Dolls by Lisa See and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford both explore the fate of Japanese Americans during World War II, while Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff features the story of a character who was interned in a Japanese camp in Java. Other than these few books, Japan doesn’t seem to have featured in my reading at all in recent years.

So, my question this month is:

Which books would you recommend to someone who knows almost nothing about Japan’s history? Fiction, non-fiction and classics…any suggestions are welcome!

Historical Musings #19: The Halloween edition

Historical Musings October is here and has brought with it (in my part of the UK at least) a change in the weather, longer, darker nights and a distinctly autumnal feel. With Halloween just a few weeks away, I thought it would be fun to give this month’s Historical Musings post a seasonal theme! I would love to hear about any historical novels you’ve read which deal with any of the following subjects:

  • Witches and witchcraft
  • Magic (black or white)
  • Ghosts and hauntings
  • Vampires/zombies/werewolves/monsters or other supernatural beings of any kind

My suggestions:

The Vanishing Witch Karen Maitland is one of the first authors to come to mind when I think about this type of historical fiction. The Vanishing Witch is set during the time of the Peasants’ Revolt and features both ghosts and witchcraft; at the beginning of each chapter is a spell, a piece of folklore or a superstition, which I thought was a nice touch! The Raven’s Head, set in the early 13th century, is a darker novel with a strong supernatural element. I haven’t read her other books yet, but am about to start her new one, The Plague Charmer.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy it, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (also published as The Lost Book of Salem) deals with the Salem witch trials. It’s a dual time-frame novel but is set at least partly in the past so I’m including it here.

For those readers who are interested in witches and witchcraft but prefer a gentler read, I can recommend The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge and Thornyhold by Mary Stewart. The first is set during the English Civil War while the latter is set in the 1940s (but published in 1988, which is why I’m classing it as historical here). There’s also Susan Fletcher’s Corrag (also published as Witch Light), a beautifully written novel about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692; the main character and her mother have both been accused of witchcraft due to their knowledge of herbs and healing.

Vlad the Last Confession C.C. Humphreys has written a novel called Vlad: The Last Confession, which tells the story of Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia who is thought to have provided at least part of the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is not actually a vampire novel, but because of the Dracula connection and the dark atmosphere I’m including it here anyway.

There are also two ghostly novels by John Harwood that come to mind: The Séance, a gothic mystery set in Victorian England, and The Ghost Writer, which includes four genuinely chilling short ghost stories supposedly written by a fictitious author in the 1890s.

Finally, there’s Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, in which our hero and heroine are a vampire and a witch. The first book, A Discovery of Witches, is set in the present day but in the second, Shadow of Night, we travel back in time to 16th century Europe. I’m not sure about the third book as I haven’t read it yet.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Can you think of any other historical fiction novels with a ghostly/witchy/magical feel?

Historical Musings #18: Castles!

Historical Musings One of my current reads is Rebellion by Livi Michael, the second in a trilogy of novels set during the Wars of the Roses. A few chapters in, I came across the sentence “My Lord of Warwick lies at the castle of Warkworth and he rides daily to all these castles to oversee the sieges”. With my interest in history, you won’t be surprised to hear that I enjoy visiting castles! Warkworth Castle is one of my ‘local’ castles (less than an hour’s drive away) and I have visited it more than once, the first time as a ten-year-old on a school trip. As someone who reads a lot of historical fiction, castles feature regularly in my reading but I haven’t been to most of them so it’s always nice to see a mention of one that I am familiar with.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle

Like Warkworth Castle, most of the other castles I have visited are in Northumberland. Bamburgh Castle is surely the most dramatic; as you drive along the coast, you just seem to turn a corner and there it is, almost on top of you. Lindisfarne Castle is atmospheric too, due to its location perched on a hill on Holy Island. Then there’s Chillingham Castle, famous for its ghosts, and Alnwick Castle, still the home of the Dukes of Northumberland and better known to Harry Potter fans as Hogwarts. I’ve also been to Belsay Castle (for an English Heritage ‘Knights Tournament’) and to Newcastle Castle – yes, there’s a castle in Newcastle upon Tyne!

Auckland Castle
Auckland Castle

In Cumbria, I enjoyed visiting Carlisle Castle (being close to the border with Scotland it has apparently been under siege more times than any other castle in England) and Muncaster Castle in remote Ravenglass, of which my abiding memory is not so much the castle itself as the Hawk and Owl Centre and the birds of prey display in the castle grounds. In County Durham, among others, there’s Auckland Castle, which was the seat of the Bishops of Durham. I can also highly recommend Raby Castle, with its coach house, deer park and walled gardens (this is the castle I have used in my ‘Historical Musings’ image which is displayed at the top of this post).

I’ve been to Edinburgh Castle and have seen Cardiff Castle from the outside, but I sadly haven’t managed to visit any of the other castles in Scotland and Wales yet, which is something I would like to change. I’m hoping someone can tell me which ones I should put at the top of my list! There are still many, many more castles for me to see in England too, as apart from Leeds Castle in Kent and the Tower of London, most of my castle-visiting so far has been restricted to the north. And of course, there are castles all over Europe and beyond just waiting to be explored as well.

Hazlewood Castle
Hazlewood Castle

A few years ago I had the opportunity to stay for two nights at Hazlewood Castle in North Yorkshire, which is now a hotel but also has an interesting history and overlooks the site of the Battle of Towton. The bedrooms are accessed through a secret passage behind a bookcase in the library (you can see the door handle in my picture).

Visiting a castle today, as a twenty-first century tourist, it can be difficult to imagine what it would have been like to actually live or work in the castle when it was newly built. Apart from the castles like Alnwick which are still inhabited, and the ones which have been kept largely intact and furnished by private owners, many of the others have fallen into ruin and are now not much more than empty shells. Historical fiction can breathe new life into these ancient buildings and help us to picture what they were like when they were still in use.

At the beginning of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, her time-travelling nurse, Claire Randall, sees a ruined castle restored to its former glory:

Castle Leoch. Well, at least now I knew where I was. When I had known it, Castle Leoch was a picturesque ruin. It was considerably more picturesque now, what with the sheep huddling under the walls of the keep and the pervasive smell of raw sewage. I was beginning to accept the impossible idea that I was, most likely, somewhere in the eighteenth century.

Leoch is a fictional castle, but there are plenty of real castles which appear in historical fiction. I have already said that Warkworth Castle is mentioned in Rebellion (and so are lots of other castles), while Raby Castle was referred to in Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson, a novel about Cicely Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III, known as the Rose of Raby:

Dominating the upper reaches of this fertile basin was Raby Castle, the ancestral home of the Neville family – my family. Renowned as one of England’s great northern fortresses, Raby’s nine massive towers sprawled below me like the giants of legend; they loomed over the meagre mud-plastered cotts of the village beyond its moat. I had lived most of my seventeen years within those soaring walls. To my mother it was a palace, a great haven of security and splendour demonstrating infallibly the enormous wealth and power of the Nevilles, but to me it had become a prison.

Edinburgh Castle with Nor' Loch in foreground
Edinburgh Castle with the Nor’ Loch in the foreground

In The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett brings Edinburgh Castle to life in one perfect sentence:

Tonight the Castle on its pinnacle was fully lit, laying constellations on the water.

Moving away from castles I have actually visited, there are far too many other examples of castles in historical fiction to list here. Castles always feature strongly in the medieval novels of Sharon Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick, for example: I remember there were some great scenes involving trebuchets in Chadwick’s To Defy a King. Mary of Carisbrooke by Margaret Campbell Barnes is the story of Charles I’s imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, and in Robyn Young’s Robert the Bruce trilogy, castles are constantly being attacked or besieged. As I’ve said, there are so many castles mentioned in historical novels that I would be here forever if I wanted to talk about all of them!

My questions this month, then, are:

Have you visited any castles? Which ones? If not, would you like to? Which books have you enjoyed that are set in castles or with memorable scenes involving castles?

I have concentrated on British castles here because they are the ones I know most about, but I would love to hear about castles in other countries too!

*All pictures used in this post are my own, apart from the painting of Edinburgh Castle which is in the public domain.

Historical Musings #17: The historical mystery

Historical Musings I’ve been so badly organised recently that I had no idea what this month’s Historical Musings post would be about until yesterday, when I sat down to start reading Sovereign, the third book in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake mystery series, set in Tudor England. I enjoy reading historical mysteries for the same reasons that I enjoy reading historical fiction in general (escaping into the past, learning through fiction etc) but also because I like to see mysteries being solved through traditional methods – questioning witnesses, making observations, searching for clues – without the use of modern technology.

Sovereign I loved the first two Shardlake novels, yet it has taken me more than a year to get round to picking up this third one; the problem with historical mysteries is that they all seem to be part of a long series! I can’t think of many standalones that I’ve read; The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is one, The Unburied by Charles Palliser is another, and then there are some of Andrew Taylor’s books (The Anatomy of Ghosts and The American Boy) – but historical mystery series are in abundance! Although I seem to be very good at starting them, I’m not so good at remembering to continue with them.

Here are a few that I have in progress at the moment:

Crocodile on the Sandbank Shardlake series by CJ Sansom (Tudor) – read the first two books and currently reading the third
Sebastian St Cyr series by CS Harris (Regency) – read the first book
Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters (19th/20th century, Egypt) – read the first two books
Mary Russell series by Laurie R King (early 20th century) – read the first two books
Justin de Quincy series by Sharon Penman (medieval) – read the first book
Charles Horton series by Lloyd Shepherd (19th century) – read the first two books
Adelia Aguilar series by Ariana Franklin (medieval) – read the first book
Thomas Hawkins series by Antonia Hodgson (18th century) – read the first two books and starting the third soon

As you can see, I’ve got a lot of reading to do!

This month, then, I’d like to hear your thoughts on historical mysteries. Do you enjoy reading them? Which are your favourites?