Thursday, September 23, 2010

Books of a Lifetime: Katherine from Historical Fiction Notebook

Over the last couple of months, each of us here at Historical Tapestry has had a go at trying to make a list of our Books of a Lifetime. Now, we want to open that opportunity up to you - our fellow bloggers! If you would like to do a guest post about the books that made a difference at various times in your life, then email us and we will work out the details. We would love for this to become a sort of community event!

To get things started, we have invited a few people if they would like to participate so over the coming weeks we will have a few posts coming up. First up, we thought it would be good to highlight one of the newer historical fiction bloggers  - Katherine from Historical Fiction Notebook.

Welcome Katherine, and thanks for being our first blogger guest!


I interpreted this challenge as a chance to consider not the best books I've ever read or my favorite books but the books that were most important to me at a particular time in my life. It was great to look back and remember how much these books meant to me.

I know that even when I’m a little old lady, I’ll still be searching for used bookstores and looking forward to the thrill of opening up a book that’s completely new to me and holds the chance of becoming another book of a lifetime.


The “color” fairy books (age 9 & 10)

My father fondly recalls my early attempts at “reading” around age three or four, when I would open up a book of fairy tales and – working from the pictures and what I remembered of his bedtime stories – would pretend to read the stories. In reality, I was just making things up as I went along! As I got older, I graduated to these books which seemed to come in every color of the rainbow and with an inexhaustible supply of magical tales.

The Charles W. Morgan by John F. Leavitt (age 10 & 11)

A trip to Mystic Seaport – a recreation of a 19th century New England seaport – when I was ten years old triggered a year-long obsession with whaling and cemented my love of history. I never tired of reading about the whaling ship’s many voyages, its fake portholes painted on the sides to fool pirates and its eventual place of honor as the only surviving whaling ship. As a child, I seriously considered stealing this book from the library because I loved it so much and hated returning it!

Legacy by Susan Kay (age 11)

I have no idea how many times I've read this book since the day I was eleven years old and found it on the shelves of my little hometown library in Vermont but even now, I can see whole passages of it in my mind.

Oddly, Legacy isn't the most historically detailed novel but for me it will always be the truest to my idea of Elizabeth I. The novel is spot-on emotionally and became a kind of talisman for me during a difficult time in my childhood. I could open this book up and immediately be transported to Tudor England - where intrigue, spirit and intelligence have consequence and meaning. I felt completely enveloped in the author's vision of that world.

Teenage Years

Sharon Kay Penman Welsh Trilogy (age 13)

Before Amazon, eBay and Alibris made finding any book as easy as a mouse-click, I desperately searched used bookstores for a copy of Susan Kay's Legacy. My beloved grandmother made the greatest mistake ever and introduced me to one of my all-time favorite authors when she bought me this book for Christmas, confusing Susan Kay with Sharon Kay! Consequently, I read the last of Penman's Welsh trilogy first - although it didn't take me long to find the others. I clearly remember reading the end of "Here Be Dragons" because it was the first time I felt physical distress because of a character's situation. I had to remind myself that it was just a book!

I still have that copy of "The Reckoning" with my grandmother's inscription talking about the importance of thorough historical research!

Margaret George "Autobiography of Henry VIII" (age 12)

This is easily my favorite of Margaret George's enormous historical novels - although Memoirs of Cleopatra and Mary, Queen of Scotland the Isles come close. I think Henry wins out because he's such an incredibly vulnerable and likeable character - you feel like you know him inside and out. This book also has one of my favorite ending passages - when Henry's fool Will Somers leaves royal service after Henry's death. The emotion, the careful descriptions of grief and loss have stayed with me well into my adult years.

Jean Plaidy (age 11-16)

This list would not be complete without the great Ms. Plaidy! Her books were never the big presents for Christmas or my birthday - they were the reliable paperbacks, the ones I could buy for a buck or two at a used bookstore and collect to my heart's content. I loved studying the covers with their overdramatic queens in 70s and 80s hair and makeup. I loved sorting them out into their respective series - Queens of England, The Plantagenet Series. Even now, I suspect that I sort English history in my head according to Jean Plaidy series.

My favorite? Oddly, it’s one of her novels written under the name of Victoria Holt – “My Enemy the Queen” - the story of Lettice Knollys, second wife of Elizabeth I's favorite Robert Dudley. I remember it was the very first book I read from beginning to end in one day - sitting out on the porch in the summertime, with no where to go and nothing else to do but read.


I've kept a notebook listing every single book I've read since the Christmas I was fourteen years old. As I look back, I can see a sharp drop-off in the amount of my historical fiction reading as I started college, dipped into more current events and literary fiction reading; then moved on to DC and completed grad school. You could say that life got in the way - I feel like I blinked and it had been several years since I had read a historical novel.

An Unexpected Light by Jason Elliot

This was one of the first books I read about Afghanistan and it remains my favorite. I picked it up when I was just becoming interested in the topic that would eventually become my undergraduate thesis, provide my interest in journalism with a focus and lead me to my current job. I’ve read this book probably four or five times and each time I scribble thoughts all along the margins – it’s a book I constantly “talk” to. Eliott is a compassionate, sensitive writer who understands the emotions that imbue a place with meaning.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The summer after I graduated from college, I decided there was no better time to take on a major reading challenge. This book followed me from my old life in Vermont to my new life in Washington, DC. I read this book everywhere – on breaks from waitressing, in my tiny little rented bedroom and by Lake Champlain looking out to the Adirondack Mountains. Everyone tells you this is a great book but you have to experience it for yourself – Tolstoy manages to touch on almost every aspect of human existence with a clear-eyed compassion and a boundless curiosity regarding human nature.


After I finished grad school and found a job in my chosen profession, I felt like I was finally able to return to the historical research and writing I loved. I started to look online and realized that while I was gone historical fiction had undergone a renaissance - it was no longer the shameful cousin of paperback romances, it was a booming industry with hundreds of options. Consequently, I challenged myself by starting to read in different eras and from different points of view.

I enjoyed the brilliant mix of page-turning suspense and in-depth historical inquiry of Toby Lester’s “The Fourth Part of the World” – the story of the first map to depict America. One old novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith and one new novel “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel are the kinds of books everyone says you should like – I read them and loved them apart from their considerable reputations.

With Sally Gunning's Satucket novels (Widow's War; Bound; Rebellion of Jane Clarke) - I experienced a kind of immersion reading that I haven't felt since I was in my teens, curled up with Margaret George and Sharon Kay Penman. I think it has a lot to do with Gunning's pacing and use of detail - unlike other authors she isn't afraid to give a character time to wander around in their own world. She also has a brilliant command of historical detail - you never feel overwhelmed by research but each character thinks, talks, writes and acts in a way that is true to their time.


  1. I loved the "Color Fairy Tale Books" when I was growing up! Those would definitely be on my Books of a Lifetime list too.

  2. Great post, Katherine! I haven't read Legacy yet but I intend to. So many people recommend it. The Reckoning really struck a chord with me and I can't think of another book that made me cry so much. And I like Sally Gunning, too.

  3. Legacy is the one that I really want to read! I have heard such good things about it, and for a while there it was so difficult to obtain! I need to go and buy it!

  4. Oooh, so many books, so little time. Sigh. Thanks for the awesome suggestions!

  5. Speaking of the color fairy books, Little Gray Bungalow's blogpost today is an illustration from the Grey Fairy Book. Check it out:

  6. Oh, this whole project sounds like such fun. I definitely have books that were significant to certain periods of my life and I am looking forward to expanding my TBR list through others' reminiscences.

  7. Like Marg, Legacy is on my TBR. It was really hard to find. Thank goodness Sourcebooks just re-issued it!