TBR list

Sample Sunday: 3 historical fiction novels

I need your help to decide whether to keep three historical fiction novels I have had on my “owned but unread” shelves for more than five years.

As a reminder, Sample Sunday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

The Resurrectionist by James Bradley

Published in 2006, this novel is set in London in 1826 in a world of the resurrectionists who steal bodies for anatomists. The blurb says the main character finds himself in “London’s underworld, a place where everything and everyone is for sale, and where the taking of a life is easier than it might seem.”

It has an average rating of 2.8 stars on Goodreads with reviews that describe it as muddled with no real character development and only a sketchy plot. Although Goodreads ratings can’t always be relied upon, I’m not enthused by a novel that apparently jumps about without explanation,

The Verdict: Abandon

Winter In Madrid by C J Sansom

My first experience of C J Sansom was via his historical crime series featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Though some of the plot devices were highly implausible I did love the way Sansom depicted the power struggles and religious divisions of Tudor England.

His alternative history novel Dominion was less enjoyable. It was grounded in solid research (Sansom has a PhD in history) but unfortunately the novel was spoiled by clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue.

So now I am wondering whether Winter in Madrid is going to a repeat of the Dominion experience or will it be more akin to the Shardlake series. It’s a more contemporary historical period (the Spanish civil war ) and is a spy novel rather than mystery/crime.

I’m tempted to keep this because of the period and geographic setting. It takes place in 1940 when Madrid lies in ruins after the end of the Spanish civil war. The population is starving and there is a threat of a German invasion.

This is a long book at more than 600 pages so it’s going to have to be good to warrant the investment of time.

The Verdict: Keep

The Absolutist by John Boyne

“If you loved Birdsong, you’ll love this” is the message on the cover of my copy of The Absolutist. Well, I did love the Sebastian Faulks novel but I’m also wary of promotional messages that piggy back on the success of another novel.

What do the two books have in common? They’re both set during World War 1, are partly set in the trenches of France and involve “forbidden” love. The Absolutist depicts a relationship between two soldiers, who train in the army together in England and are dispatched to the fields of Flanders in the same squad. But then they find themselves on opposite sides of an issue of conscience.

The reviewer at The Guardian was less than enthusiastic about the novel, thinking it lacking in detail but Goodread reviewers have generally been more enthusiastic. I’m thinking it’s worth giving it a go.

The Verdict: Keep

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves this week. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached – if you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

12 thoughts on “Sample Sunday: 3 historical fiction novels

  • Ah, I can totally relate to your TBR struggles! Historical fiction isn’t always my go-to genre, but I’ve had some great discoveries. In your case, “The Absolutist” by John Boyne sounds intriguing, especially with its World War 1 setting and exploration of complex themes.

  • After reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne, I wanted to read The Absolutist by John Boyne for long. This post became a catalyst for my desire to read it. Now I’ll surely read it asap.

    Thank you.

    • this is part of the magic of blogging isn’t it – you get your memory jogged about a book that you always meant to read but somehow forgot

  • It’s a while since I read it but I remember enjoying Winter in Madrid. The other two I haven’t heard of but I would probably, like you, dump the first one.

  • I don’t read a lot of historical fiction but I’ve enjoyed John Boyne’s books in the past, so I’d keep The Absolutist.

  • I have had Winter in Madrid on my shelves for the longest time but haven’t ever actually managed to read it.

  • I’d keep the Sansom too… I’ve only read a couple of the Shardlakes but I liked them so I’d keep it on my shelves.
    BTW, some sad news… I came across the Shardlake series and bought them for my father as presents because they were reviewed by Tom from A Common Reader. Tom was a blogger who was part of my life for a long time, and his recommendations always turned out to be books that my father enjoyed. A while ago he closed down his blog to focus on painting, music and his grandchildren, but we were desultory friends on Facebook, which is where I learned that he had died, just a couple of weeks ago. He was such a wonderful man, I feel a real sense of loss as I’m sure many of his readers will too.

  • TBH I wouldn’t have kept any – particularly not the Sansom as I find his views on the concept of Scottish Independence worrying…

  • Although I haven’t read it, I agree with your decision to keep The Absolutist — only because I loved John Boyne’s last two novels (The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky).

  • I thought Winter in Madrid was dreadful, possibly one of the most poorly constructed novels I have ever read. It was the point at which I began to fall out of love with Sansom’s work. I do know people who have loved it but I am definitely not one of them.

  • I gave up on the The Resurrectionist – couldn’t empathise with any character at all. Actually couldn’t follow the story. I did quite like The Absolutist but nowhere near as Birdsong. Think I have Winter in Madrid on a shelf somewhere – but my vague memory tells me it might be one I started on and gave up. I’ll need to search for it ( or I might even have given it to a charity shop)


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