Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Top Ten Historical Fiction Books Of All Time...For This Week At Least...

I love book lists, top tens, top hundreds, top worst, top whatever... So I thought it's time for my own inaugural Top Ten Listing for Book Lovers Melbourne, and, what better place to start for an aficionado of both history and reading, than Historical Fiction!

Now, other than the top three, I have to be honest and say these are not in any particular order of personal favour. One of the wonderful things about these pointless but fun lists is that they are only your personal favourites at the very moment in time you wrote the list. You could be only one new book (or re-read) away from a hasty reshuffle after all!

Obviously these are all books I've read, no "ought-to-reads" in here, no classics added for the purpose of demonstrating false erudition. I really love these books. I think you should give them a go, but totally respect your right to disagree, even if I know you to be wrong :-)

So, without further ceremony or unnecessary ado, here it is...


10: Winter, Len Deighton.


I've been a fan of Len Deighton's work for over twenty years, I don't tend to read a great deal of spy fiction these days but the Bernard Samson series of nine books, started in the early eighties with the trilogy, Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match are absolutely top class in the field. Winter is a prequel to the whole series, introducing the characters that form the background for the earlier novels. Set between 1900 and 1945, it tells the story of a German family and their lives against the backdrop of the turbulent years of the early 20th century in Germany. The central characters are brothers Peter and Paul whose lives take very different paths, in some part directed by the fact their parents are of mixed nationalities, one German, one American.


9: The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas.


Written in 1844, this is a novel truly deserving of the overused title 'classic', which has enchanted and excited readers since it was first serialized in the pages of the newspaper  Le Siècle in that year. For me the greatest of Dumas' works, this novel introduces the character D'Artagnan and his new found companions Athos, Porthos and Aramis, members of the elite fighting body that is the Musketeers. Swashbuckling adventure abounds as the heroes make much better use of their swords than the eponymous muskets, fighting for the honour of France and it's Queen. The fore-runner to numerous spin-off movies, cartoons and media appearances in the intervening one hundred and sixty years, The Three Musketeers is perhaps one of the best known tales of the modern world but it's original version is absolutely worth making the effort to enjoy. 


8: The Pillars of The Earth, Ken Follett.



Another much used title in the world of Historical Fiction is 'Epic' but it certainly applies to Ken Follett's tale of the inhabitants of the fictional town of Kingsbridge in the time of The Anarchy (1123-1174) in England. Spanning fifty years and a massive cast of characters, it runs to over 1000 pages in the paperback version so not for those of a physically weak disposition! Focusing on Tom Builder and his extended family, this novel gives the reader a wonderful sense of the hardships of the time period, as well as the social structure that existed in the world of the tenth century. Covering a period of massive change and long-term significance to English history, this is, for me Follett's best work. The sequel, World Without End, is less engrossing,  but is a nice companion piece to the earlier work. 




7: The Last English King, Julian Rathbone.


Perhaps less well known than the previous entries, this novel is a relatively new discovery for me. I read it only last year (2013) though it was written in 1997, sadly, (as seems to happen to me a lot) I discovered it after the author's death! Rathbone's skill lies in his ability to define people, their character and their personalities, regardless of time period. One cannot help but become absorbed with Walt Edwison, the story's main character, with all his pain, physical and mental, his anguish at his self-loathing, at his feelings of failure, but also with his feelings of love and desire. Giving an entirely plausible viewpoint of events of extraordinary historical import (to Britons at least) this novel manages to take you over a thousand years back in time and still see human feelings and relationships with the clarity of today.




6: Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Dafoe.



The oldest novel in my top ten, (first published in 1719) Robinson Crusoe, like The Three Musketeers, inhabits such a wide area of intellectual awareness that it is sometimes hard to put across just how important it is to read the original literature. Originally published under the false pretense of being a truthful account of a shipwreck victim, the Crusoe story has passed into legend and spawned many an imitator. Simplistic in it's narrative style, the book can be mistakenly thought to be aimed at a less mature audience, but this was a major turning point for realistic fiction in it's time and still holds it's head up high among the greatest pieces of fiction ever written. I'm the proud owner of a ninety year old copy of this wonderful book, but somewhere, out there, someone perhaps has a copy over 300 years old!




5: Sharpe's Eagle, Bernard Cornwell.



This was the toughest decision of the list so far, deciding which of the Sharpe series to include. These were the books that first inspired my interest in historical fiction and over the 24 book series, it has consistently given me pleasure. Eagle was the first in the series, (and indeed the first novel written by Cornwell as a way to pay his way when he moved to the US to be with his partner but lacked a work visa in 1981).

It introduces us to Richard Sharpe, an officer in the Rifles, the much vaunted elite troops of Wellington's Peninsula war campaign. Set in 1809, thanks to the time-travelling wonder of historical fiction writing, the novel is the 8th in chronological order, as Cornwell has filled out Sharpe's back-story over the years, as well as moving the story forwards to 1821. I've re-read this book perhaps a dozen times over the years, a sure-fire indicator of quality for me, and not once considered it inferior to the later stories.

4: The Time Of Terror, Seth Hunter.


This is a recent read for me, the first of a short series of novel about a British Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars, a genre that has been done to death, but that is still extremely entertaining. The big difference for me with this novel is the believably of the main character Nathaniel Peake. Combined with the author's habit of having historical figures in walk on parts, (a pet-hate for some but I think very enjoyable if done well). The research level is very high, blended with exciting action story lines and lots of plot twists and turns. I've read a lot of this genre over the years and  I think this novel rates up there with the best.


3: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel.

Read the BLM review of Wolf Hall.

I actually gave the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies more stars on my Goodreads review but Wolf Hall has made it into the top ten because I personally see the sequel as an extension of the original. Reviews of this Booker winner have been polemic to be sure, but for me the personalizing of an historical figure for fiction purposes does no harm at all. I'm a grown-up, I get that this is not necessarily what Thomas Cromwell was like, but supposing for a brief time that it might be helps the reader to have an understanding of the Tudor period, full of real people with real drives and ambitions not a dusty old lesson from a text book. The use of present-tense narrative is worth the effort to get used to in my opinion, and gives an entirely different feel to the genre. Ignore the naysayers, read it.


2: The English Monster, Lloyd Shepherd. 


If you like your historical fiction fully laden with accuracy, with characters that ooze realism, mixed in with a very large portion of, frankly, very dark violence and trauma, Lloyd Shepherd's first novel, "The English Monster", is definitely for you. This is not always an easy book to read, though the fictional horrors within pale into insignificance when compared with the actual real life murders in 1811 that the story has as it's backbone. I recently read "The Maul and the Pear Tree", PD James's historical account of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, and was gratified to find Shepherd had used that book as a research source.The ending is not, sadly, the best bit of the book. It's good enough, but not, in my opinion as stunningly well constructed as the rest of this tale, but for all that, this is my favourite piece of new fiction so far this year.



And, Number 1 in the list is....

London, Edward Rutherfurd.

I first discovered this book in 1997, soon after it was published and immediately fell in love with it. I re-read it so many times over the years that I went through two paperback copies (at nearly 1400 pages, any paperback has a limited amount of spine-breaking re-usability) before finally picking up a hard-back first edition for my collection. Covering over two thousand years of the history of my favourite city, through the eyes of a series of characters linked by family ties and events, it is truly epic in scale. With his other novels focusing on other locations in the same style, Rutherfurd has essentially created his own genre, the historical city biography. It's a formula that works, I've gone back over some of his earlier works, Sarum and The Forest, and enjoyed more recent ones, New York, Paris, and love the style. Historical fiction for history buffs, that gives a continuity of narrative that is wonderfully evocative of the passing of time. If I could get someone to read only one book in their lifetime, this would be it.


I hope you enjoy reading this list as much as I've enjoyed compiling it, it has been like meeting old friends again after many years. Your comments are, as always welcome.