August has been a banner month for historical fiction at the Field Library, and September promises to give us even more fascinating blasts from the past. So in case you’ve missed them, here are some of the best of August’s historical novels (some of which would qualify for one of the categories in the 2016 Read Harder Challenge, for anyone who’s interested).
Let’s start with the Tudors, who are always fun to visit, even if you wouldn’t want to live in their court in the real world. Philippa Gregory comes through again in her favorite era with the new book, Three Sisters, Three Queens, about Henry VIII’s two sisters, Margaret and Mary, and his first wife (their sister-in-law) Katherine of Aragon. Margaret married the king of Scotland, Mary was sent to marry the king of France, and of course Katherine married first Arthur, Henry’s older brother, and then, when Arthur died, Henry VIII himself. All of this is pretty well known (especially to people who are interested in this era and this court), but what Philippa Gregory brings to the table is her vast knowledge of the Tudor court and the world of that era, and her vast and in depth understanding of the people who lived in and around the court. The three women at the center of this book fight, each in her own way, against the limitations of their roles, the public perception of them as powerless pawns of the men in their lives. They see each other as rivals, allies, mirrors and always sisters, no matter where their public lives take them. If you think you know all there is to know about this era, rest assured that Philippa Gregory will show you something new and fascinating and bring this bygone world to life.
For a different kind of competition, why not turn to the late 19th, early 20th century and the “Battle of the Currents” between Thomas A. Edison and George Westinghouse, vividly chronicled in The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. Moore is the author of, among other things, The Sherlockian (a fun book in its own right), and the screenwriter for The Imitation Game, so you know he can write historical fiction, and here he has a cast of characters and a big canvas on which to portray the legal maneuverings and battles between Edison and Westinghouse, turn of the century New York, and people like Nicolai Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell and Sanford White appear and play their parts in the drama. A little-known but historically significant battle that determined the future course of electrical transmission, involving two of the more flamboyant scientist-inventors of the era: The Last Days of Night is a real eye-opener.
It seems a little strange to me to be talking about fiction set in the 1950’s as “historical,” though in fact it is, and The Dollhouse, by Fiona Davis, reminds us just how very different the 1950’s were from today. The book is set in the Barbizon Hotel in New York City, occupied at that time by young women who were either learning to become models and secretaries or who were already working as such, testing their independence and their roles in the Mad Men era. Darby, a young woman just starting secretarial school, moves into the hotel and feels wildly out of place among all the models there, but she befriends one of the maids and is introduced to an entirely different New York City, a world of downtown jazz clubs, the birth of bebop music, heroin and romance. Decades later, Darby is still living in the hotel, which is now condominiums, and her upstairs neighbor, a journalist, is fascinated by the scandal that lurks in the hotel’s, and Darby’s, past. The journalist can’t resist exploring, even though she may end up finding out more than she expected.