10 Books to Recommend

A Writer of History is NOT a book blog – however, I have written reviews from time to time on books I’ve chosen to read or books selected by one of my book clubs. Below are ten to recommend with links to each more detailed review.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate – I powered through this novel in two and a half very satisfying days. The story is “based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country.”

Educated by Tara Westover – Book club unanimously endorsed Tara Westover’s well-received novel of growing up in a survivalist Mormon home in the hills of Idaho.The words used to describe it included: compelling, horrifying, unbelievable, shocking, inspiring, and head shaking.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan – author Patti Callahan has written a poignant and clear-eyed story about these two well-known writers and I had the pleasure of reading the novel for an article published by the Historical Novel Society.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin – This compelling look at two famous women – actor Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion – entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – the verdict at book club was resoundingly in favour of this powerful novel of memory and forgetting, war and peace, love and hate, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie Beginning in 1777 with a victory against the British at Saratoga, My Dear Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton through the eyes of his wife Eliza. Superb historical fiction.

Mary – Tudor Princess by Tony Riches – I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII. The history is fascinating and Tony’s superb writing brings Mary’s character to life with a strong and sympathetic voice.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson – This work of non-fiction “chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change … That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn – In the two years since reading The Alice Network, I’ve recommended it to dozens of people. Why? Because it grabbed me from the very start and wouldn’t let go. And what special ingredients does it have? Flawed, heroic, and intriguing characters – check. Tension that builds and builds – check. A superb sense of history and setting – check. Strong writing – check. An immersive experience – check. A flawless weaving of two timelines – check. What more could you ask for?

I hope some of these add to your reading piles! If you have feedback on any of them, please add your voice to the comments.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Perfect Summer – not quite perfect

I reread Juliet Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer last week as research for my current WIP. This work of non-fiction “chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change … That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing.”

In chapter 6, I jotted a margin note – “parallels to today” – and thought I would share it to see what you think.

“In the summer of 1911 a schoolmaster from Farnham in Surrey named George Sturt was writing a book, Change in the Village, under the pseudonym George Bourne. It was based on conversations with his gardener, Bettesworth, which Sturt felt perfectly illustrated the problems the countryside was experiencing in adapting to the advances of the new century. Innate suspicion combined with inertia in the older generation inhibited change and caused deep distress. Many could not understand the need to alter a way of life that had worked well enough for centuries.

Farnham was a place where the names of different varieties of potato – the red-nosed kidney, the magnum bonus – were more famous and regarded with more revenence than the names of any politicians. The heath-land provided robust turf from which to cut sods for thatching, delicious warm smokey flavoured bread was baked in the cottage ovens, the bees in their hives produced plenty of honey, and the small plot of hops at the bottom of the garden provided all the beer a man could drink.

No one minded too much about personal hygiene, or that the men smelt of their cows, and there was usually enough water left in the well for washing. If it rained, it was ‘good for the ducks’; if a pig fell sick it was an opportunity for a big feast. The work was hard and relentless but, as Sturt realised, ‘patience and industry dignified the hardship’. Money was barely relevant since goods were frequently paid for in kind, and expenses were minimal as in general people were ‘wanting no holiday, independent of books and newspapers, indifferent to anything that happened farther off than the neighbouring town.

Above all, George Sturt concluded that the experience of living ‘dignified lives of simple and self supporting contentment’ meant that Bettesworth’s generation never knew what it was to feel unfulfilled …

Change was threatening this rooted contentment.

Nicolson illustrates some of those changes:

  • The common heath had become tennis courts for the rich
  • Visitors brought strange city ways and condescension
  • Motorcars brought dust and noise
  • Land prices were increasing as city folk purchased country getaways
  • New technologies such as milking and shearing equipment made many jobs on the farm redundant
  • The advent of refrigerated ships meant that meat need no longer come exclusively from Britain
  • Corn from North America was cheaper than locally grown corn
  • Chicken rearing – previously a source of income – was no longer profitable on a small scale
  • New crops such as cucumbers and grapes were being grown under glass

Farm incomes fell creating a mood of anxiety. Pressures began to show.

England’s circumstances a little more than a hundred years ago seem to parallel changes that have occurred and continue to occur today.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.