I love history. I was my third favourite subject at school (after English and Drama), I did it for my A Level (along with, you guessed it, English and Drama) and am a massive massive fan of historical fiction (especially when it is on the telly, thus combining English, History and Drama, at which point I promptly pass out in glee).
I was also very fortunate to be born in just the right generation to appreciate possibly my favourite series of non-fiction books of all time; Horrible Histories by Terry Deary. Starting with Terrible Tudors, these fun and easy to digest reads navigated the events of the period using cartoons, short snappy poems and jokes, including ‘horrible’ facts such as how people died, diseases and cures that were used to treat them, and what people ate and use to wash and cloth themselves with. I was recently introduced to the TV series currently showing on CBBC, which is a sketch show covering all the books and if you haven’t seen it, do because it is the best children’s show since Maid Marion and deserves the multiple accolades it is receiving.
As an adult, I love how I have discovered historical fiction, from being wussy and romantic Georgette Heyer style nonsense to literary classics. This week I’ve been reading Wolf Hall by Hilary mantel and I would recommend it highly. I know the Tudor period has been done to death, but it really is an excellent book about one of the founders of capitalism, Thomas Cromwell, who was Henry VIII’s advisor,who came from ‘nothing’ at a time when aristocratic blood meant everything. The book covers the first 45 years of his life, and I eagerly await the next installment. Meticulously researched it was a pleasure to read from a semi-Tudor-buff’s perspective. The best thing about reading historical novels for me is going ‘ooo that’s so and so from that other book I read’, or when an event that you have studied occurs you get a little warm feeling from already knowing all about it.
Other historical novels I would recommend include, obviously, the Shardlake series, which is just so good I can hardly speak, and the historical novels of Rosemary Hawley Jarman, especially Crown in Candlelight. Of course, one can’t mention historical fiction with out saying ‘Philippa Gregory’ in the same breath, but I’d read Alison Weir above her (sorry, sorry!) as I find Weir’s characterisations of royals a lot more interesting. Though I have to say Gregory’s The Queen’s Fool is one of my fav beach books. Whatever you do, though, do not read The Wise Woman as
I did nearly fall asleep about a third of the way through (and the first few chapters are so good as well!).
Through book club I’ve discovered Karan Maitland, Company of Lies and The Owl Killers are both great (though the ending of COL disappointed me, and the rest of Book Club massively so be warned) and Carola Dunn, who write the Daisy Dalrymple books you may have noticed we all have a slight obsession with at the moment, but are so good, witty and entertaining, as well as thought provoking and full of historical (1920s still counts) nuances that really make you think ab out the past being a another country and how differently they do things there.
And last but not least, Forever Amber. Oh God Forever Amber. The story of a illegitimate, beautiful women growing up in the time of the Restoration, who starts out the adopted daughter of a poor country farmer and ends up the mistress of Charles II, I was given my mother’s copy of the book when it was re-printed sometimes in the early naughties and she treated herself to it and I just love it. It is approximately four inches thick, but you are so incredibly engrossed for the entire thing that you whizz through it. I’ve lent it to about four other people, all alas women, and each one has come back with the same tired expression of ‘Oh God Forever Amber’. No One Can Put This Book Down. Read It. Read It Now…..
This month I’ve also been reading America Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, which has made me angry, engrossed and, like We Need To Talk About Kevin, absolutely terrified. Good stuff.