Sherlock Holmes, from the Adult Shelf

The House of Silk– Anthony Horowitz.  (Hachette, 2011, 295 pages.) Spooky atmosphere and satisfyingly suspenseful plot twists would make this a good Victorian mystery, even if Sherlock and Watson were not at the center of it all. Weaving together two seemingly disconnected cases, and hinting at a much larger conspiracy, Horowitz tells an exciting and engrossing tale. The best part about this, though, is how well he captures Doyle’s Victorian prose style and language, and the characterizations of Holmes and Watson.

The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, by Caleb Carr. (Carroll & Graf, 2005,256 pages.)  No surprise that the author of The Alienist has a terrific ear for recreating Conan Doyle’s language, while telling a story that could fit into Doyle’s world. Ghostly, Gothic touches and a very nice haunted mansion idea.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon. (Harper Collins 2004, 175 pages.) Here, Holmes is an older gentleman, but still as sharp as ever. He meets Linus, a young boy who is a Jewish refugee, staying with the neighbors. Linus’s parrot has a fondness for rattling off number sequences in German. When the parrot goes missing, and one of the neighbor’s boarders is found murders, Holmes agrees to come out of retirement. There’s something nostalgic and sweet about this story. Whether it’s the way Holmes gruffly befriends the young boy, or the inclusion of the parrot, it’s a gentler atmosphere than most Holmes-inspired tales.

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, by Larry Millett (Penguin, 1999, 336 pages). It took a while to get used to the idea of Sherlock Holmes visiting America, or in the sparse, somewhat frontier setting of Minnesota. I picked this up at the library by chance. (And had the entirely unworthy thought of comparing it to the Book of Mormon, in that it took literary figures far from their accepted setting, to construct a wholly new mythology.) The mystery and characterization grabbed me, though. I had no idea there were others in Millett’s series. I might read them.

The Art of Detection- Laurie R. King (Bantam, 2007 459 pages). Detective Kate Martinelli investigates a murder within a community of Sherlock Holmes-obsessed enthusiasts. I wish Laurie R. King would write more Kate Martinelli books. I know she’s done extensive volumes of her own Holmes adaptation, starring Mary Russell, but I find the idea of Married!Holmes decidedly creepy. It verges on fanfiction.

Sherlock and Watson, image from the BBC.

And then of course, there’s the BBC Sherlock, bringing Sherlock and Watson into the 21st century, with text messages, riffs on classic cases, and of course Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. They’re so good, it’s hard not to picture those actors when I’m reading anything Holmes


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Arthurian Legends

Do the Arthurian legends have a place in historical fiction? Or are they fantasy? There are certainly geographic connections in various versions, steeped in the landmarks and lore of the British isles.

There’s a strong tie to fantasy novels as well, with a rich landscape of castles and magic.

For the rich tapestry (sometimes I can’t resist puns) of a medieval historical setting, full of magic and betrayal and battles, here are some books and series to explore.

Arthur: The Seeing Stone, by Kevin Crossley Holland. Reading this borders on a prose poem, it’s so perfectly lovely. It’s hard to find, but well worth tracking down. The story continues in At The Crossing Places, which is also gorgeous, and concludes in King of the Middle March. I haven’t read the last volume. Yet. I should.

Here Lies Arthur, by Philip Reeve. Presents Arthur as a rough and barbaric warlord, the legend of his greatness entirely constructed by Myrddin’s stories.

Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga begins with The Crystal Cave, and continues into The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment and The Wicked Day. I read these in high school and college, and loved the story, particularly the aspects of Merlin discovering the possibilities of magic. Also, they’re beautifully written.

And I’ll round out the list of Arthurian favorites with a total guilty pleasure: Merlin, the British television series. Merlin and Arthur are teenagers in a Camelot that fears and forbids magic. The antics of Merlin trying to hide his powers while assuring Arthur’s royal destiny are a wonderful blend of humor, adventure and outrageous cheese.

Arthurian Retellings I Haven’t Finished: I haven’t read some of the more famous Arthurian stories. I’ve read bits and pieces of The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, but it never grabbed me. I’ve also given Malory’s Morte d’Arthur a shot, struggled through a few pages before I gave up. In both cases, I keep promising myself I’ll go back. But as long as I have other options like the ones mentioned above I think it’s pretty likely, I’ll read them instead.

I also read about halfway through The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It was a summer in high school. I don’t remember exactly where in the story I stopped, or why. Possibly just the sheer endlessness of it.


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Out Of Print (But Really Good) Historical Fiction

The process by which books go out of print mystifies me. While compiling lists of book recommendations for the subgenres featured here, I turned to my own bookshelf for inspiration. And I found that several of my very favorites are out of print. (Or, at least, lists them as “available from these sellers,” which is a pretty good indication.) So, if you see these books at a library, or a secondhand book store, snap them up!

Quest for A Maid, Frances Mary Hendry, Image from GoodReadsQuest For a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1992, 288 pages) Meg Wright is nine years old when she sees her sister, Inge, kill the King of Scotland. Who is several miles away. Witchcraft, a sea and shipwreck adventure. Also great characters: Meg, whose perspective captures the historical details, her sister’s magic and decidedly gray-area morals, adorable young Davy Spens, and the Maid of Norway, a young girl at the center of all kinds of scheming and conspiracy, just because she’s born to be queen.


Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park (Puffin, 1981, 204 pages) The setting and plot alternate between present day New Zealand Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, Cover image from GoodReadsand Victorian England, so this novel gets bonus points for time travel. Sullen and awkward, Abigail Kirk knows she doesn’t fit in with her classmates. She’s a shy loner, and she likes to make her own dresses. A piece of antique lace she sews onto a dress transports her to Victorian England, into the lives of the Bow family, who won’t let her leave, because they think she’s the “Stranger” destined to save the family. The way Abigail resists, and then, is drawn into their lives, is beautifully written. I remember reading this in sixth grade, and being completely in love with Jonah Bow, one of the characters from the past. It also stands up to rereading.

A Witch Across Time by Gilbert B. Cross (Athenaeum, 1990, 224 pages).  Spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard while recovering from an emotional breakdown, Hannah encounters the ghost of a young woman who was falsely executed as a witch in 1692. The lines between the past and Hannah’s present begin to blur, as Hannah gets haunted by this girl. I remember Hannah hallucinating, and her family worried that she was crazy. I also remember being scared out of my deliciously shivering tween mind. In high school, I was in a one-act play that had more or less exactly this “girl haunted by a witch, people think she’s crazy” ghost plot. Crossroads, I think it was called.

Doing research for this site, I ran across dozens of enticing books I haven’t read, only to check at the NYPL, and find them, yep, out of print! Boo! Hiss! Or maybe British-therefore-hard-to-find-in-bookstores-here. That also happens.

Some hard-to-find-books I haven’t read yet:

Gatty’s Tale– Kevin Crossley-Holland. I think this is less out of print than it is British.

More to be added… what are your out of print or hard to find favorites?

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What’s your favorite setting for historical fiction?

What, and when, do you enjoy reading most? Do you like adventure? Mystery? Romance?

Got a favorite author?

Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

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TBR List

Prisoners in the Palace- Michaela McColl.

Interview with McColl here

The Montmorency books by Eleanor Updale

I should probably read more of the books on this GoodReads list.

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The Appeal of Young Adult Historical Fiction… in particular

Saricks’ appeal framework of historical fiction only goes so far. Also, it does a disservice to some of what appeals the most to teen and young adult readers about historical fiction.

Writing about historical fiction as a genre that can appeal to teens, librarians and authors often comment on the bad reputation historical fiction can get among teens. Because titles show up on school reading lists, or covering historical events that might also be covered in their dry and tedious history textbooks, teens can often assume that historical fiction will be a chore to read. Saricks’ description of the genre’s appeal doesn’t sound terribly appealing.

Reading some of what librarians and historical fiction authors have written about the genre points to some much more promising explanations of why historical fiction appeals to teen readers.

After paraphrasing Saricks, Melissa Rabey adds that historical fiction appeals to teens because it focuses on some central conflict, or an authority struggle.

In The Distant Mirror: Reflections on Young Adult Historical Fiction, Brown and St. Clair sum up the emotional appeal of historical fiction beautifully:

“the past has an innate psychological appeal… the known past provides a comfort not available from the unknown future… to immerse oneself, however briefly, in a past world where conflict and strife occur and are resolved may provide comfort in an increasingly chaotic world.”

Also, they draw an important connection between historical fiction and another genre driven by world-building and detailed setting, fantasy:

“Just as high fantasy involves a struggle between the forces of good and evil, historical fiction is marked by a clash between opposing socio-political power,” pitting forces of reaction against forces of progress, and highlighting the tension between them.”

In the best historical fiction, characters, whether famous names or ordinary, everyday people who could have lived during that time, are fleshed out and emotionally real. Some stories show them dealing with ordinary and commonplace lives, where sweeping historical events have varying degrees of impact. But most of all, they’re teens and kids and young adults, thinking and feeling and hoping and dreaming in some universal way, playing a part in an engrossing story.

And that is the most important appeal of historical fiction, by any author, or set in any time period.



The Appeal of Historical Fiction


References and Resources

Add in Katherine Paterson’s description of historical fiction characters as those who kick at the walls of their societies, and historical fiction starts to sound more… appealing!


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Saricks’ Appeal Factors in Historical Fiction

Frame/Setting: The setting can be the most important and unique aspect of historical fiction, rich in details to anchor it in time and place. Descriptions of physical setting and geography, historic events, and social culture and customs can be part of the appeal, along with well-researched facts about historical events. Ideally, in the best historical fiction, facts blend seamlessly into the story. Saricks emphasizes accuracy of historical detail as part of the appeal, but questions of authenticity and accuracy get slippery in historical fiction.

Tone and Mood: Tone and mood can vary immensely across the wide scope of historical fiction time periods and stories, even incorporating appeal elements from other genres. The mood the reader happens to be in is also part of the picture. What this appeal factor doesn’t necessarily map out is more about the emotional affect of reading historical fiction, of connecting to the past through narrative. But more on that later.

Story Line: Generally, will either hinge on a specific historical event or time, and its effect on characters (emphasizing the details of the historical event, rather than its impact on characters’ lives), or might follow characters through a period of time (emphasizing character, through their actions and relationships, with the historical frame as a backdrop).

Catherine, Called Birdy, Cover Image from GoodReads

A number of articles pointing out anachronism in YA historical fiction mention Catherine, Called Birdy.

Characterization: According to Saricks, the ideal historical fiction character “must fit within the times. Glaring inaccuracies of language, behavior or straight-forward fact distract, and sometimes cause the reader to distrust the author’s research.” (Saricks,  page 96) There is room for debate about this statement, with regard to both adult and YA historical fiction and its appeal. Especially regarding female characters.

Katherine Paterson famously said “The characters in history we remember are those who kicked against the walls of their societies.” For engaging, interesting characters, readers are willing to excuse a certain amount of anachronism.  Outspoken, defiant characters who rebel against the social order, even characters learning to read, would be aberrations, not encouraged or accepted. And yet, for characters to grow and change, or be brave enough to have adventures, there’s a certain amount of letting historical accuracy relax a little, in the service of a good story that will engage the reader.

But more on that later.

Pacing: According to Saricks, “historical novels are usually longer books,  (almost always more than three hundred pages), and they are not generally referred to as fast-paced, even if they include Adventure elements…. creating the detailed background often makes the books slow starting.” (Saricks, p 297.) That makes historical fiction sound plodding and not like a fun and engrossing popular read. But it gets better… as the characters and their world get more familiar, the action picks up, getting the reader immersed and enthralled by strong characters, and the chance to get close to history.

Style and Language: Each author, and each time period, is probably going to navigate the balance of language and style differently. Some authors construct language closer to what could have come from the past, sometimes even including a glossary of terms to help the reader visualize the details of a past that might seem alien and remote. Some authors choose more contemporary language, relying on description and a few subtle touches to set the time period apart.

Saricks’ appeal factors are all well and good, but they leave out some of the ways teens can connect to historical fiction.

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Rationale for Subgenres

Have you ever been working on a project, and then stumbled across a paragraph that perfectly sums up exactly what you were trying to say? Confession time: I picked my genres because, well, these are periods in historical fiction I like to read. Building a recommendation list, I recognized their crossover appeal with other genres.

I had been thinking that historical fiction, especially for teens, had to work against a mental image of it being staid, and scholastic and nutritious. But that there’s a lot of historical fiction out there that appeals, because it’s a good story!

And then I read this for class: It’s an excerpt from “The Death of Genre: Why the Best YA Fiction Often Defies Classification.”

For the genre enthusiast, historical novels offer a variety of complex issues. The kingdom-and-the-castle story found in works like Megan Whelan Turner’s The Thief, Gerald Morris’ The Squire Tales, and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Seeing Stone blend medieval settings with magic and legend. Donna Jo Napoli’s retold fairy tales (Beast, Bound, Breath) borrow much from traditional literature but abound with rich historical details. Napoli’s novels are clearly fantasy titles; they also have much to offer to readers of historical fiction. Time-slip and time-travel novels present a similar dilemma—historical fiction or fantasy/science fiction? Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, Susan Cooper’s The King of Shadows, Susan Price’s The Sterkarm Handshake,and Edward Bloor’s London Calling are filled with history yet are based on the premise of traveling back in time. One would be remiss to classify Philip Pullman’s trilogy about Sally Lockhart and Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency series as simple Victorian mysteries.

One cannot deny the historical qualities found in these novels.

What about speculative fiction, those historical novels that ask the difficult question of what if? In The Year of the Hangman, Gary Blackwood proposes the dilemma of what if the British had won the Revolutionary War. Finally, in which genre does one place Aiden Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land? Chambers masterfully intertwines two narratives—one set in the 1990s and the other set during WWII—into his award-winning novel. Historical fiction or modern realistic? Neither or both?

Although time constraints prevented me from getting into alternate history as a subgenre of historical fiction, it absolutely is one. Sarah, a classmate in YA Genre Drama, found a great website: Uchronia: The Alternate History List

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Debates about Historical Fiction

There are a few questions that linger about how to define historical fiction.

Melissa Rabey explains the conundrum beautifully:

The phrase “like nailing  Jell-O to a wall” takes on a particular significance when we try to define historical fiction. On the surface it seems easy: any novel set in the past. But like any simple definition, upon further consideration, it’s not so clear-cut. How long ago is “the past?” In a novel identified as historical fiction, how much should be based on fact and how much can be imagined by the author? And just how does the definition change when the novel is written for young adults? (Rabey 2012 p. 1)

The things that make defining historical fiction so slippery are:

How long ago counts as historical fiction? Thirty years ago? A generation? Sarah Johnson cuts it off at 1950.  Melissa Rabey cuts her timeline for historical fiction off at 1980. The Teen Readers Advisor includes a couple of books using events of the mid-90’s as historic touchstones. What matters is that the reader feels a connection to a time that is definitely past, beyond their own experience.

How fictional is historical fiction allowed to be? Making sure to do research to the dates of battles right is one thing, but talking about historical fiction as a genre also raises questions about accuracy in a more general way, capturing the overall culture of the place in a way that makes sense. “The characters in history or fiction that we remember are those who kicked against the walls of their societies,” author Katherine Paterson has famously said. The question of accuracy and  anachronism particularly comes up in YA literature around questions of girls’ independence and level of learning, and even girls’ safety while having exuberant adventures. (Anne Scott MacLeod casts a chilling shadow over the historical inaccuracies of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, who emerges “unsullied” from a high seas adventure.)

Preoccupied with an analysis of historical fiction as a genre in terms of its social contexts and characterizations, The Distant Mirror, by Joanne Brown and Nancy St. Clair delves more deeply into these questions about context and authenticity.

Ultimately, beyond questions of accuracy and timing, what matters most is a good, engrossing story, that draws the reader fully in to its setting and its context.

The plot grows out of that setting. Whether evoking or invoking famous names from a history book, or concentrating on capturing an ordinary life in a historical context, what matters is that the setting is engrossing enough to draw the reader into a world beyond their experience, with enough research and description to make it immediate and real.

Yeah, that about nails it.


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Spotlight on: Recent History

How long ago does a book have to be set to count as historical fiction? It’s one of the questions that makes historical fiction slippery to define. Some might argue that the Vietnam War is too recent to count. Some might put the dividing line at the 1970’s or even 80’s. And indeed, there are fewer examples of more recent historical fiction, but it’s still interesting to explore.

To appeal as historical fiction, the details of a book’s setting and plot should anchor characters’ behavior firmly in a time that is different from the writer’s present or the reader’s present. One of the ways that can be done is to tie to a major historical event, one that the writer and the reader might not have experienced.

Tying plot and setting elements to major historical events helps make a recent history story work as good historical fiction. While a teen or tween reader might not remember the 1980’s, the details of the time period don’t always share the dramatic change that creates the sharp contrast between then and now that makes historical fiction so appealing.

The Fire-Eaters cover Image from GoodReadsThe Fire-Eaters, by David Almond (Delacorte 2004, 224 pages), is set in a coastal England town, anxiously watching news of the growing hostility between the US and the USSR, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s.  Bobby is a young teen in a tense family, forging friendships with a circus fire-eater named McNulty and a young illusionist named Ailsa Spink. His father, a WWII veteran, is suffering from a mysterious illness that is putting a strain on his family. Viewing the events of American history through Bobby’s British eyes and context  contributes to the distance-across-time feeling of Bobby’s world that makes this work as historical fiction.

Under the Sun image GoodReadsUnder the Sun by Arthur Dorros (Amulet, 2004, 224 pages), tells the story of  Ehmet, a 13-year-old boy and his experience during the war in Bosnia. He is separated from his parents, and trying to travel through the war-torn country to find his way to a village where children have made a peaceful place for themselves. Although I haven’t read it, reviews make it look promising and well-researched, a fit for middle-grade readers.

Framed more as a time travel novel, Stuck in the 70’s is also a historical novel evoking the 1970’s as a historical frame. It’s more about pop culture than major events, but the level of detail makes it work.

Novels dealing with the aftereffects of 9/11 are starting to emerge. Is that too soon to be historical fiction? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it is definitely recent and immediate history, especially for teens growing up in New York. However, for a younger teen, or a teen living far away from the city, books about the impact of September 11th might offer the appeal of historical fiction, a way to understand and bridge the emotional gap.

Love is the Higher Law Image from GoodreadsLove is the Higher Law, by David Levithan (Random House, 2009, 176 pages) traces the way 9/11 has an impact on an ensemble cast of teens. Panic, love, loss, and the immediacy of how their lives are interrupted in these interconnected vignettes take readers to the day itself. Jasper’s parents are in Korea, calling him frantically to know he’s okay. Claire has to go get her brother from school. Peter has to find his way back to school, as everything happens around him. (Teen readers, but read with caution, in case it’s not historical enough yet.)

Backtracked, by Pedro Alcantara, is primarily a time travel novel focused on fifteen-year-old Tommy, whose subway ride rockets him back in time in a coming-of-age story. As the story begins, Tommy is mourning the death of his older brother, a fireman who died on 9/11. Dealing with his grief, he ditches school to ride the subway. And then a subway trip takes him backward in time, offering a glimpse of a younger New York. This is more of a time travel novel, offering that shift in perspective, than it is a recent history novel.

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