Best historical novels for this summer

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June 27, 2019
Revisiting human rationality
July 1, 2019

Best historical novels for this summer

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, Harper, US $26.99, Pp 366, May 2019, ISBN 978-0062851895
The Summer Country by Lauren Willig, William Morrow, US $26.99, Pp 474, June 2019, ISBN 978-0062839022
Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard, Algonquin Books, US $27.95, Pp 380, April 2019, ISBN 978-1616208479

Set in 1826 in London where Frannie Langton is accused of murdering her employer, renowned scientist George Benham and his eccentric French wife, Marguerite. This is the most talked-about news story in London and Frannie is being called “The Mulatta Murderess,” Crowds pack the courtroom at the Old Bailey when the hearing is held, the newspapers publish lurid stories about the killings. The damning testimonies say she is a seductress, a witch, a master manipulator, and a whore. One of the reasons is that the accused is a Jamaican servant and the victims were white employers. But Frannie pleads not guilty. Frannie does not even remember what happened on that day and how she ended up covered in blood – the victims’ blood. When her attorney pleads with her “For God’s sake, give me something I can save your neck with,” she decides to write her own story that may be put up in her defense. It is the story of her childhood on a Jamaican plantation where she was an apprentice under a debauched scientist who crossed all limits of decency. She starts her story from its beginnings on a West Indian plantation called Paradise where her master, John Langton, is criminally sadist. He uses Frannie to satisfy his sexual desire and use her skin and blood in a hideous experiment to study racial difference. When a fire destroys much of his plantation, Langton moves to London along with Frannie and hands her over to George Benham, a scientist who is engaged in the similar dubious race-science inquiries. Frannie becomes is fascinated with Benham’s beautiful French wife, Marguerite. The bond between Frannie and her mistress turns into love but later leads to a misunderstanding, deceit, jealousy, and, ultimately, death. Her testimony seals her conviction and the truth uncovers the real perpetrators of crimes that go beyond murder. In fact, the entire early-19th-century English society is indicted. Sara Collins’s debut novel graphically studies the relations between London and Jamaica. It is a brilliantly plotted historical novel that is highly entertaining.

About the author

Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent and grew up in Grand Cayman and studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years before doing a Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Writing.

*****

The Summer Country is set in 1854 in Barbados in the British West Indies where impoverished Emily Dawson lives among rich English merchant clan. Emily is a reform-minded daughter of a vicar. It is commonly expected that her cousin — Adam — is all set to inherit the family’s lucrative shipping business. But there is a huge surprise in store for Emily when her grandfather dies. She receives an unexpected and huge inheritance — Peverills, a sugar plantation in Barbados, a plantation nobody knew of as her grandfather — Jonathan Fenty — had kept it for Emily. Fenty had been a “Redleg” — the Barbadian term for poor whites — who he had escaped to England where he made his fortune. Accompanied by one of her cousins and his wife, she goes to Barbados where she finds the Peverills a burnt-out stretch of land. When Emily and Adam meet their grandfather’s wealthy business associate and a former slave, Mr. Turner and his nephew, Nathanial Braithwaite, a medical doctor, they tell them that a rising of slaves sent the island in flames in 1816. There is no shortage of rumors about the plantation. One rumor talks about ghosts on the plantation. She is surprised when she learns that the neighboring plantation owners — the Davenants — want to buy her plantation. She is unable to understand why her grandfather had left her a property in ruins. The other question that agitates her mind is the Davenants are interested in acquiring her inheritance. When she investigates these questions she learns that the answer lies in a tangled history of lies, greed, clandestine love, heartbreaking betrayal, and a bold bid for freedom. Instead of moving in chronological order, the action shifts back and forth between 1812 and 1854 as the complex history of the two plantations and the Caribbean unfolds. In 1812, Charles Davenant, the older son, had returned from England to inherit Peverills. His younger brother, Robert, resented this. Charles mollifies Robert by encouraging him to court Mary Anne, heiress to Beckles while Charles himself was attracted to Mary Anne’s enslaved maid, Jenny. Jenny was the mixed-race daughter of Mary Anne’s uncle. Jenny is torn between loving Charles and her struggle for freedom. The Summer Country is probably Lauren Willig’s most ambitious novel that will keep you mesmerized and spell-bound until the end. It will absorb all your attention as soon as you start reading it if you enjoy historical novels.

About the author

Lauren Willig is the New York Times and the USA Today bestselling author of the Pink Carnation series and several standalone works of historical fiction, including “The Ashford Affair”, “That Summer”, “The Other Daughter”, and “The Forgotten Room” (co-written with Karen White and Beatriz Williams). Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association’s annual list of the best genre fiction. After graduating from Yale University, she embarked on a Ph.D. in English History at Harvard before leaving academia to acquire a JD at Harvard Law while authoring her “Pink Carnation” series of Napoleonic-set novels. She lives in New York City, where she now writes full time.

*****

Courting Mr. Lincoln is a gripping historical thriller that tells that story of three historical persons — Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln, and his closest companion, Joshua Speed. Set in the second quarter of nineteenth century, this fictionalized story is built around young Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln first met in Springfield in the winter of1840, when Abraham Lincoln was just a country lawyer and Mary Tod was 21 years old. At that time, he was living above a dry goods shop without much money. He shared the room — and the bed — with Joshua Speed, who is one of the two narrators of the story, the other being Mary herself. This was not unusual in those days. Lincoln lacked elite manners but had a gift for oratory. Speed describes Lincoln in the following words, “I can only hope that his waters being so very still, they also run deep.” Mary was a self-possessed debutante political activist who had an interest in debates. She was too sharp-tongued and astute for the political class. In the beginning, Mary finds Joshua more handsome and attractive than Lincoln. Later, she is intrigued by Lincoln and became attracted to him. Later she discovers that Lincoln is an amiable and profound man. He might be a little awkward, but he had a gentle wit to match his genius. His political mind was impressive. As their friendship slowly turns into a romantic relationship, Lincoln had to rethink her friendship with her roommate Speed who has taught him how to dance, dress and how to be part of the polite society of Springfield. Courting Mr. Lincoln is inspired by historical events, but it is not a history book. It is about the psychology of three lonely young people. It talks about how politics and romance lead Lincoln into depression and how their romance blows up. It is an entertaining novel by a gifted storyteller.

About the author

Louis Bayard is a New York Times Notable Book author and has been shortlisted for both the Edgar and Dagger awards for his historical thrillers, which include The Pale Blue Eye and Mr. Timothy. His most recent novel was the critically acclaimed young-adult title Lucky Strikes. He lives in Washington, DC, and teaches at George Washington University.

Most of the biographical notes in our reviews are provided by the publishers.

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1 Comment

  1. Incredible points. Outstanding arguments. Keep up the great effort.

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