There’s nothing like a good historical novel to open your eyes and give you new insight into an era or a place you thought you knew, and there are two new historical novels this month which bring into focus fascinating characters and periods of the past, from a female perspective.

The first, chronologically at least, is Carnegie’s Maid, by Marie Benedict (who also wrote The Other Einstein).  Starting in the 1860’s in Pittsburgh, the book follows the life and times of Clara Kelley, a young Irish immigrant who finds herself working for the famous Andrew Carnegie and his family. Clara comes from a poor farming family in Ireland, with nowhere to go and nothing to her name when she decides, out of desperation, to impersonate the experienced Irish maid who disappeared after being hired to work at the Carnegie house.  It would be hard enough for Clara to work as a maid anywhere, since she has no skills or experience, but her ruse is made much more complicated by the demanding lady of the house, who rules the place with an iron fist and has no tolerance for error.  However, Clara is tough and desperate (a dangerous combination) and keeps her head, working her way into the affections of the patriarch of the household, Andrew Carnegie himself. It’s not that she’s trying to worm her way into his bed, but first her business instincts and then her personality win him over. Clara, however, never forgets that she’s a fraud, and that if anyone in this household were to find out who she really is, it would mean disaster for herself and for her family back home. Her disappearance spurs Carnegie to look at the world differently, and to see that there’s more than just the making of money for its own sake.  A vivid look at a vanished world and the development of a ruthless industrialist (look up the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 if you want to see how ruthless he could be) into a great philanthropist.

And if the Gilded Age isn’t your thing (though it should be — it’s a fascinating period of American history), how about a trip through the earliest days of movie making in Hollywood?  The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin, brings to life the silent movie era, focusing on one of the earliest and most brilliant stars of the medium, Mary Pickford (known as “America’s Sweetheart”), and Frances Marion, a screenwriter who seized on the potential for “flickers” to become something huge and wonderful.  The two women were good friends, both working in the same industry, both ambitious and hardworking, and both running up against all the limitations that industry, and the society around it, placed on women in the teens and 1920’s. All the larger than life figures of the world of movies make their appearances in the book: from Douglas Fairbanks, who was romantically entangled with Mary, to Charlie Chaplin, to Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish and Louis B. Mayer.  It was a wild time and Mary and Frances reached the heights women could achieve, though not without heartbreak and trials.  If you’re a fan of silent movies or the 1920’s, check out The Girls in the Picture.



Bernard Cornwell is a well-known and well-respected author of historical fiction.  He specializes in English history, and has written series covering the Napoleonic Wars (the Sharpe series), the Arthurian legend (the Warlord Chronicles), the 14th century (the Grail Quest), and, most recently, the making of England from a group of warring countries (the Last Kingdom series).  Now he’s turned his keen eye and brilliant research skills to a different, but no less interesting period: Tudor England, and more specifically, the world of William Shakespeare, in his new book, Fools and Mortals.

While I have no doubt Cornwell could, if he wanted, make William Shakespeare himself the narrator and main character of a novel, he’s chosen instead to focus this book around Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard, instead. Shakespeare did in fact have a younger brother named Richard, but as is often the case with people in this era, not much is known about his life, which gives Cornwell plenty of latitude to create the man’s life to suit his purposes.

This Richard Shakespeare, like his more famous older brother, is living in London and working in the theater.  He’s handsome (one of the things he chooses to emphasize to distinguish himself from William), and so far in his career he’s been playing female roles. He wants to move up in the world and start playing men, but William is not being very helpful, for a variety of reasons.

If the book were just about Richard’s travails in the brutal world of Elizabethan theater, it would probably be entertaining, but there’s more going on: a priceless manuscript written by William has gone missing, probably stolen, and suspicion falls on Richard as the possible culprit. To clear his name, he needs to find the manuscript and the real thief.  But this is, of course, easier said than done, and all Richard’s skills, both legitimate and less legitimate, are going to be necessary as he navigates the world of betrayals and duplicity of the theater and of London itself, and at the same time the world premiere of William’s most famous comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is in the works.

Cornwell writes the best kind of historical fiction: well-plotted, with realistic characters and so strong a sense of place and time that you feel you’re actually there.  If you have any interest in Shakespeare or Tudor England or just want to immerse yourself in another world and time, check out Fools and Mortals.


Elizabeth Miles is a woman living in the early twentieth century, a woman living by her wits, a con artist who specializes in separating men from their money.  She’s also the protagonist of City of Lies by Victoria Thompson, new historical fiction at The Field Library, and she’s going to take you on a wild ride.

Elizabeth has many names and many identities and up till now she’s been pretty successful as a grifter, but at the beginning of the book she discovers to her horror that she’s badly misjudged her mark.  Oscar Thornton, it turns out, is not just some stupid, easily befuddled rich man but a powerful criminal in his own right, and he is NOT pleased to have some young woman steal from him.  He is, in fact, so displeased that he and his minions are chasing Elizabeth down after having already caught and beaten up (and possibly even killed) her fellow con artist and brother.

What can she do?  Well, being a young woman of quick wits, Elizabeth discovers a Suffragist march outside the White House, and insinuates herself among the rich women marching for their rights, hoping she can join them in getting arrested.  Not that going to jail would be a good thing, but it would be better than getting caught by Thornton and his men.  And the authorities are quite annoyed at the ruckus the Suffragists are making, so they are all arrested, Elizabeth among the true believers, and sent to jail and then to the workhouse because there isn’t room for them in jail.

The one thing Elizabeth doesn’t anticipate is that she will find herself treated like a sister and a friend by these women whom she would ordinarily consider just potential marks, slow and stupid. She doesn’t expect to start admiring their intensity, their passion, their determination, and for the first time in her life, she’s finding friendships among women of her age.  When two of the women bring her with them to their home in New York, she even begins to find people who are attracted to her (without, of course, their knowing what she really is).

Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Thornton knows these women, too, and is able to track her down in her new residence, and her new life is becoming more and more dangerous, to her and to the women who have taken her in.  Will she be able to stay a step ahead of her enemies?  Will she fall back into her old life?

City of Lies is filled with vivid depictions of the Suffragist movement (don’t call them Suffragettes; just don’t) and what the women in it were willing to do and endure to win the right to vote. It’s one of those historical novels that makes an era come alive while giving you three dimensional and complicated characters to root for.  If you’re at all interested in the Women’s Suffrage movement or the period between World War I and World War II in America, or if you’re interested in feisty, surprising women, check out City of Lies, which happens to be the first book in a projected series (something to rejoice about).


In a way, it’s hard to remember that Ken Follett got his start writing thrillers (The Eye of the Needle was his breakthrough book back in 1978, and he won an Edgar Award for that as best novel), since his most recent books, all of which have been bestsellers, have been huge historical novels (most recently the Century Trilogy, following a cast of characters from World War I through World War II and into the 1980’s).  He first broke away from the thriller vein with a wonderful and absorbing book about the building of a cathedral in the middle ages, The Pillars of the Earth.  He followed this up, years later, with World Without End, set in the same English town but two centuries later, with the descendants of some of the characters from the first book.  Now, nine years after World Without End, Ken Follett has returned to that world with his newest book, A Column of Fire.  If you’re the sort of person (as I am) who loves to dive into a different world (whether it’s a real historical place or something created wholly from the author’s imagination) and live there for a while, then set aside some time for A Column of Fire (set aside a fair amount of time, since the book is 916 pages long).

We are back in Knightsbridge, home of the cathedral in Pillars, and scene of the action in World Without End, but now it’s two hundred years after the last book, and Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne of England, though not as securely as she would prefer.  The Reformation in England is still in its early days, and Catholics and Protestants are struggling for power, creating an almost insurmountable divide between people in the two groups. Ned Willard, the protagonist of A Column of Fire, is prevented from marrying the woman he loves because of religious differences, and instead he goes to work as a secret agent for Queen Elizabeth.  As violence erupts through the country and across Europe, Ned finds himself in the middle of endless intrigue and danger, both to himself and to the queen he’s pledged to protect.  Assassination plots, invasion plans and uprisings are common, and Elizabeth, to stay on the throne, needs to stay abreast of all the possible problems that could topple her reign and send England into civil war.  The spy system created by Elizabeth and her people became the basis for the British Secret Service in modern times.

Set in a tumultuous period of English history, with all the attention to detail and fascinating characters, historical and invented, A Column of Fire is the kind of book that draws you right in and makes you forget, for a while at least, what century this is.  If you’re a historical fiction fan, or a Tudor history buff, come in and pick up A Column of Fire.


One of the cool things about historical fiction is the way a well-written novel will bring to life a period or an aspect of history you might never have heard of otherwise.  Lisa Wingate’s new novel, Before We Were Yours, does just that, turning as it does on the real-life horrors of an infamous adoption scheme from Tennessee in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The book follows the stories of two different women, Rill, who starts out with her poor family living on a houseboat on the Mississippi River in 1939, and Avery, a successful lawyer living in present-day South Carolina, two people who wouldn’t seem to have anything in common, though of course they do (they wouldn’t both be in the book otherwise, right?).  

Rill is keeping an eye on her four younger siblings when her mother goes into labor and her father has to accompany her mother to a hospital on the mainland.  Then everything goes wrong for the family.  The children are dragged off their houseboat home by official-looking people and put in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society Orphanage, for what they are assured is a short stay until their parents can come and pick them up again.  This is a lie; they have fallen into the clutches of Georgia Tann, who sees the children who come into her custody as resources, to be stolen from their biological families and, if they’re desirable, sold to rich families.  If they’re not desirable, they are left to starve or to suffer other horrible kinds of abuse.  Rill is desperate to keep her family together, but she’s just a 12 year old herself.

Avery, in modern day America, goes home to Tennessee to help her Senator father with some health issues.  In the course of visiting a nursing home, she discovers a completely unrelated older woman who somehow has a picture of Avery’s grandmother.  Avery’s grandmother is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s and her memory is going, so for Avery to find out what the connection is between her grandmother and this other woman, she’s going to have to work hard and dig deeply into whatever information is available.  The answers she finds, though, shake her to the core, making her question everything she thought she knew about her family and her background.

Based on actual heartbreaking records of the wrongs done to poor families by a sociopathic woman with connections to the state and the law, Before We Were Yours is a great example of how to do historical fiction right.



If you’re feeling disgusted with modern day politics and all the dysfunction in government, reading history, including historical fiction, is an excellent way to gain a little perspective.  However bad things are these days, for the most part they were worse in the past.  And if you’re a fan of the kind of betrayals and intrigues that fill shows like Game of Thrones, then you’re going to love The Half Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker, which takes us to the 9th century world of what would become Scandinavia, and puts us in the midst of the dynastic struggles of the Vikings, in countries made up of numerous little fiefdoms with petty kings all warring against each other.  The book is based on some real life history and a lot of research on the part of the author.

Ragnvald Eysteinsson is the son and grandson of kings and expects to take his father’s place as leader of the clan when his father dies.  However, his stepfather, Olaf, has other ideas.  When Ragnvald is on his way home from a trip to Ireland, he is betrayed and left for dead by men in his stepfather’s employ.  Rescued by a fisherman, Ragnvald is out for revenge against his stepfather (naturally enough). He also wants to reclaim his birthright, rejoin the woman he loves, and protect his sister, Svanhild, the kind of things any reasonable Viking would have as goals.  To accomplish these goals, he pledges his sword and his loyalty to Harald of Vestfold, who some people have prophesied will become the king of all the north.  


Meanwhile, back in Ragnvald’s home country, his sister, Svanhild, is supposed to make an advantageous marriage to the betterment of her clan, whether or not she wants something more, something that lets her see more of the world. Her stepfather, Olaf, has chosen a man for her, but she wants nothing to do with him.  When she has the opportunity to escape from her stepfather via her brother’s mortal enemy, she’s faced with a cruel choice: family or freedom.  It’s an especially tough decision in the Viking world, where women’s options were extremely limited.


This is the first book in a projected trilogy, following the fortunes of these characters, their real world counterparts, and their descendants.  Lose yourself for a while in the world of the Vikings, the sea kings and the land kings, with The Half Drowned King.



Whether you’re an aficionado of a particular historical period or you’re always looking for new information on a new area of history, you’re going to find something to interest you in the new historical fiction coming out this month at the Field Library, from the French Revolution to the Soweto Uprising in South Africa, with authors you know and authors you’ll be meeting for the first time.

Allison Pataki needs no introduction to historical fiction buffs. Her last three books (Sisi, The Accidental Empress and The Traitor’s Wife) were New York Times bestsellers, and her newest novel, Where the Light Falls, will almost certainly join them on the list. This book takes characters from different walks of life in France during the later part of the French Revolution (a lawyer moving his family from Marseilles to Paris because that’s where he feels he can do the most good, a young man from an aristocratic family who wants to turn his back on his heritage and join the army instead, and a young woman who is seeking her own kind of independence) and through their struggles and sacrifices illuminates the chaos that turned the ideals of the Revolution into the blood and horror of Robespierre and Danton and the Reign of Terror. If you’re well-versed in the ins and outs of the French Revolution (so different in many ways from the American one that preceded it, but not unlike the Russian Revolution that followed it), you’ll want to read this gripping fictional account. And if you aren’t that sure about the details of the French Revolution, beyond knowing something about guillotines and storming the Bastille and Napoleon, this is a great place to get your feet wet and to spur you to do a little more reading into this most fascinating period of history.

Or, if you’re interested in something a bit more recent, though still in the realm of history, you could read Bianca Marais’ Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, a book set in the 1970’s in a South Africa still living under apartheid.  Robin Conrad is a ten year old white girl in Johannesburg, unaware of how very privileged she is.  Beauty Mbali is a Xhosa woman living in the Bantu homeland attached to South Africa (and treated by that country as a puppet state), a widow trying to raise her children in a rural village; she’s entirely aware that her life is shaped by her race and that there are few if any ways for her to escape her situation.  The Soweto Uprising in 1976, led by black students and brutally repressed by the police, bring these two unlikely people together.  Robin’s parents are killed, and Beauty’s daughter disappears in the aftermath of the uprising. Robin is sent to live with her irresponsible aunt, and Beauty comes to live with her as a caretaker, while Beauty is still looking for her lost daughter. Robin’s emotional connection with Beauty and her blindness to their respective positions in the society leads to tragedy, and Robin must find a way to make amends, as she learns more and more about the rules of the society that she took for granted.  If you’ve read and enjoyed The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, you’ll see parallels in Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.


This month we have a great breadth of new historical fiction, ranging in location from Korea to the American West to Siena, Italy, to England, and ranging in time from the 14th century through the 1950’s, so whatever your taste in history, we’ve probably got you covered.

the scribe of siena

There probably are purists who turn up their noses at the device in which a person from the present travels through time to a point in the past, though there’s no reason for snobbery.  Many excellent historical novels (Anya Seton’s Green Darkness, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Diana Gabaldon’s entire Outlander series, to name a few) have used that device to fine effect. The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer, starts in the present but then brings its main character back to 14th century Siena, where most of the story is set. Beatrice Trovato is a brilliant neurosurgeon who’s starting to crack under the pressure of her own empathy when her brother dies unexpectedly, and she travels to Siena, Italy, to resolve his estate and deal with her grief.  She discovers evidence of a 700 year old puzzle, a possible conspiracy to destroy the city of Siena.  One of the central figures in the plot is Gabriel Accorsi, an artist, and as Beatrice sees her own face in one of his paintings, she’s transported back in time to Siena in 1347, just before the Plague hits and devastates the city.  When she actually meets Accorsi, she falls in love with him and with the world in which he lives.  Now it becomes even more essential for her to find out who’s behind the plot to destroy the city, in the shadow of the oncoming Black Death.

anne boleyn a king's obsession

Alison Weir is an expert in the ins and outs of medieval England, so when she writes about the Tudors, you know you’re in good hands.  Her newest book, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, part of her Six Tudor Queens series, takes us into the world of a famous (or infamous) woman who changed the course of history.  Anne’s family was noble and ambitious; she knew from a very young age that she would be a pawn in their schemes for power.  However, she saw how Henry VIII used and discarded Mary, her older sister, after he’d taken Mary as his mistress, and when Henry turned his attentions to her, she had no desire to follow in her sister’s footsteps.  She refused to be Henry’s mistress and insisted on his divorcing his queen, Katherine, and marrying her instead.  Was she a heartless monster who didn’t care about anything other than the fulfillment of her ambitions, or was she instead an intelligent woman, ahead of her time, doing her best to survive in dangerous circumstances?  There have been many portraits of Anne (check out Wolf Hall  and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, for a start), but if you’re at all interested in the Tudor era, you owe it to yourself to check out Alison Weir’s version in Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession.

dragon teeth

The late Michael Crichton and a previously undiscovered book concerning dinosaurs?  Sounds like a recipe for a wild read, and Dragon Teeth promises to be a wild read.  Unlike Jurassic Park and its sequels, this one is based on real history, and covers an amazing period in scientific history, the late 1870’s in the Western United States, known as the Bone Wars, when two of the major paleontologists of the 19th century crisscrossed the West in search of dinosaur fossils, each one trying to outdo the other.  The Wild West was still pretty wild during this time, the Indian Wars still underway and frequent gold rushes adding to the lawlessness of the frontier.  Not, you would think, the sort of place for an effete and arrogant Yale college student to be looking for work, but William Johnson lands a job with Othniel Charles Marsh to fulfill a bet and then finds himself in more trouble than he expected. Marsh is paranoid about his rival, Edwin Drinker Cope, and when he decides that William is secretly working for Cope, he abandons William out in the middle of Cheyenne, Wyoming, a scary place.  William finds Cope for real and joins his expedition, making a major discovery of historic proportions.  Naturally (this is a Crichton book, after all) this puts William in great danger from some of the most notorious characters of the Old West.  Crichton clearly did a lot of research into a historical period that’s full of fascinating characters and situations, and he applied his brand of bestseller page-turner writing to produce a historical novel that’s sure to be a hit.

the frozen hours

Anyone can name famous novels from most of America’s wars, with the exception of the Korean War, which doesn’t seem to have found its version of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  Now Jeff Shaara, son of Michael, is trying to remedy that lack with his new book, The Frozen Hours, which focuses on one particularly terrible battle in the Korean War, the battle of Chosin Peninsula in November, 1950. The American forces were caught completely off guard by both the brutal winter weather and the Chinese forces that surrounded them on the Chosin Peninsula, outnumbered by 6 to 1 and in danger of annihilation. Shaara takes us inside the people caught in the middle of this nightmarish situation: the commanding general of the American forces, a Marine veteran of WWII facing the battle of his life, and the Chinese commander, always aware that his actions are being watched (and judged) by Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, who does not tolerate failure.  If you want to know more about the Korean War than you learned from watching seasons of M*A*S*H*, The Frozen Hours is a great place to start.




Some of the best historical novels are the ones that illuminate an event or place or period you knew nothing about, so you feel you’ve learned something new.  Three of the newer historical novels at The Field Library this month do just that: take you to a new experience and bring it to life.

the stars are fire

Anita Shreve’s newest book, The Stars are Fire, starts with an ordinary young woman living in Maine in 1947.  Grace is married, not unhappily, and has two young children and is pregnant with a third.  She has a close friend, Rosie, also a young mother, living nearby, and Grace is more or less content with her life, until her whole world is upended by the largest fire in the history of Maine, which changes nearly everything in Grace’s life: her husband leaves her to join the other men in attempting to stop the fire, her home and Rosie’s home burn to the ground, along with most of their town.  It’s all she and Rosie can do to keep themselves and their children alive, and in the aftermath of the fire, Grace has to start over: penniless, homeless, facing devastation all around her, but also discovering new strengths and new freedoms.

the last neanderthal

There are two women protagonists in The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron. Though they are separated by 40,000 years and never actually meet each other, their lives are joined together by some experiences they have in common.  Girl, the Neanderthal of the title, is trying to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment that has already killed off most of her people, when she finds herself alone with a foundling of unknown origin, whom she calls Runt, and the two of them have to figure out how to survive the winter storms that could kill them both.  In the modern era, Rosamund Gale, a paleoanthropologist, discovers the bones of a female neanderthal buried with a homo sapiens male, a find that could answer questions she’s been struggling with about the extinction of the neanderthals and the possible role homo sapiens played in that extinction.  The two women have more in common than either of them could imagine in this novel that speculates about what it could have been like for our ancestors and what it is that makes us human.

salt houses

The Palestinian family in Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, is about to be swept away by the tides of history. On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, Salma, the family matriarch, reads the dregs of a coffee cup to discern her daughter’s future: she sees an unsettled life, travel, and luck.  Not exactly the best things to tell a bride on the verge of her wedding, so Salma keeps her predictions to herself, but they come true when the Six Day War uproots the family and scatters them from their home in Nablus.  Salma’s son is drawn into a militarized world he can’t escape from, and Alia, the bride, and her gentle husband move to Kuwait City to build a new life for themselves.  Unfortunately, when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait , Alia and her family lose everything: their home, their land and their story.  Her children end up in Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond, learning the hard way that assimilation is never easy and you really can’t go home again.



Maybe it’s because the last survivors of World War II are dying off and our society is realizing that a lot of information and personal experiences of that shattering time in world history are disappearing forever, or maybe it’s just a new trend that’s arisen for no other reason than that it’s trendy, but I’ve noticed a lot of World War II related historical novels in the last couple of years, looking at the war from many different perspectives.  In just the last few weeks, two new books have come to the Field Library, each offering a different perspective on the war, from Germany to the home front.

cave dwellers

It’s always at least a little heartening to learn about attempts to assassinate Hitler, even though they (unfortunately) didn’t succeed (and of course it’s a classic time travel trope that someone wants to go back in time and assassinate Hitler; in the excellent Last Year the twist was that a time traveler from the future wanted to assassinate Hitler’s father to keep Adolf from ever being conceived).  The new book Cave Dwellers, by Richard Grant, focuses on one such effort, and even though you know the attempt isn’t going to succeed (this is a historical novel, not an alternate history book), the author still involves you with the characters and turns up the suspense. In late 1937, just before the war officially started, Oskar Langwell is recruited into an effort to kill Hitler by one of Germany’s best counterintelligence officers, who knew Oskar from a patriotic youth league in which they were both involved.  Oskar is sent on a dangerous mission to Washington, D.C., but he is compromised and has to make his way back into Germany without being caught or even noticed.  Crossing the Atlantic with a Socialist expat pretending to be his wife, Oskar is surrounded by Nazis and fellow travelers, his situation becoming more dire and hazardous as he gets closer to Germany.

the liberators of willow run

Turning from the intrigues just before the war to the American home front during the war, we have The Liberators of Willow Run by Marianne K. Martin, which focuses not so much on the B-24 bombers that made such a difference in the aerial battles of the war, as on the lives of the women who left behind the lives expected of them in 1940’s America to work in the factories building those bombers.  The book focuses on the experiences of three women working in the Willow Run Bomber plant in 1943, and how Audrey, a patriotic young woman seeking her own independence as well as Allied victory, Ruth, a single mother formerly working as a waitress, and Amelia, a 15 year old rape victim forced to live in dangerous surroundings, come together and demonstrate their own strength, ingenuity and courage as they do their part for the war effort and help change their own world in the process.


By the way, both these books count in the 2017 Reading Challenge as books about war, and The Liberators of Willow Run also qualifies as a LGBTQ+ romance novel.