Okay, well, first things first!

Happy Christmas Eve Eve! I’m taking a welcome break from trying to get my flat into a fit state for the arrival of my family tomorrow, especially to bring you the last installment of the Louloureads Awards 2022. This time, the panel has been considering the entries for historical fiction, and also for Book of the Year.

I’ve not read that much historical fiction this year, but that which I have read was largely excellent, so that made choosing my shortlist tricky. One last recap of my inclusion criteria – I must have read the book between December 2021 and November 2022. (Books read in November 2022 but not reviewed yet might be eligible for next year’s awards instead). Entries aren’t limited to the ones that I gave 5 stars on Goodreads, because there are many books that grow on me over the weeks after I finish them, or that I keep thinking about over the course of the year – but I only include books on the list that either received five stars at the time, or that I’m still thinking about (or both). Books will be categorised wherever I think they have the best chance of winning – after all, I have all the votes! And with no more preamble, the nominees for the Louloureads Historical Fiction Award 2022 are…

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I imagine that people have in general heard of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a historical mystery set in a 14th century abbey, but just in case I’ll summarise. It has a brief framing narrative – an opening “foreword” of sorts from a character (whose name currently escapes me, or who is perhaps not named at all) who found and translated the manuscript for publication in the 1980s. The main body of the work concerns a mystery (or perhaps a cluster of mysteries) that occur in a wealthy and renowned Benedictine monastery in medieval Italy, known for having one of the most extensive libraries in Christendom. Adso of Melk is the first person narrator of the main body of the story. He’s a young Benedictine novice who is apprenticed to the Franciscan monk William of Baskerville. By the time Adso is writing, he’s elderly and approaching the end of his life, but he’s reflecting back on a time when he was in his late teens (the bulk of the novel is set in 1327). The story recounts Adso and William’s stay at the monastery where the mystery is occuring, and their attempt to solve it. Click through to read the rest of the review.

Rose Nicolson: Memoir of William Fowler of Edinburgh: student, trader, makar, conduit, would-be Lover in early days of our Reform by Andrew Greig

Rose Nicolson: Memoir of William Fowler of Edinburgh: student, trader, makar, conduit, would-be Lover in early days of our Reform by Andrew Greig, is a fictionalised version of the young adulthood of William Fowler, a Scottish makar (or poet), set in the 1570s and 80s in the aftermath of the Scottish Reformation. It begins when he sets off from Edinburgh to St Andrews to attend university in his mid-teens, and I’d guess that the narrative spans about ten years in total, though either there weren’t any dates given towards the end, or I didn’t write them down. William Fowler was a real person, though I hadn’t heard of him until this book crossed my path. In fact, I believe almost all the key characters were real people, with the exception of the Nicholsons. Tom Nicolson is a brillian fellow scholar at St Andrews, though unlike William he is a poor student from a fishing family. His sister Rose immediately captures William’s lonely adolescent heart, and while the story is told from William’s first person point of view and follows him throughout, his friendship with both Nicolsons is integral to the story. This is certainly one of my favourite books of the year so far – in fact, I think it’s some of the best historical fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Click through to read the rest of the review here.

The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola is a fascinating alternate history of Paris in 1750, during the reign of Louis XV. At the start of the novel, the central character, Madeleine, lives and works in the brothel run by her abusive mother, as has been the case since she was forced into this work as a child. Understandably, she hates her life, but she endures for two reasons: firstly, she loves her now-orphaned young nephew Emile and has promised she will look after him; also, she can’t imagine where or how she would run to if she tried to escape. When her mother’s powerful client, the Chief of Police, recruits her as that most hated of creatures, a police informer, Madeleine knows it’s foolish and dangerous – but the opportunity to leave the brothel, and to be paid enough to help both herself and Emile escape to a better life, proves too tempting to resist. Her task is clear: she is to infiltrate the household of Dr Reinhart, surgeon and clockmaker, by posing as his daughter Véronique’s maid. Reinhart is a brilliant man, particularly skilled at making animal automata, but is suspected of unnatural experiments and inventions – perhaps, some people are whispering, even black magic. Madeleine is to investigate these claims and report whatever she finds to the police. Click through to read the rest of the review here.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Well. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a very weird book. Let’s see if I can manage a more detailed post than that. I think the premise of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel is pretty famous: on St Valentine’s Day in 1900, the hot summer weather in Victoria is perfect for a picnic by the Hanging Rock. A small party of girls from Mrs Appleyard’s Young Ladies College, along with two teachers, welcomes the break from Mrs Appleyard’s rather oppressive and restrictive routine. After lunch, some girls go for a walk into the undergrowth around the Hanging Rock. Despite previous warnings about how dangerous the Rock is, and the fact that they have no intention of going far from the group, somehow they find themselves compelled to climb up and up towards the peak – further and higher than they had ever planned. They never return. Click through to read the rest of the review here.

Look. Look. This is an unreasonably difficult category. Rose Nicholson, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Name of the Rose are three of the best books I’ve read this year – maybe among the best I’ve read in many years – and The Clockwork Girl is also excellent. T. Why have I made this rod for my own back? (I originally had The Betrothed in here too, before moving it to Classics – that made it even harder!) After much deliberation, I have to pick the one I remember with most affection, which is…

Rose Nicholson by Andrew Greig

Really a superb book – one I have been thinking about ever since I put it down. Historical fiction, much as I love it, has common pitfalls – exposition dumping, characters that read too modern, preachifying, and a sort of chronological snobbery that assumes we are currently at the pinnacle of human history – but this avoids them all. It’s a remarkable adventure story, a romance, and a fascinating analysis of the connection between the Reform and politics all at the same time. (Also, I apologise to the author for the fact that I have spelt both “Nicolson” and “Greig” incorrectly at least five times each since the start of the year). All of the books above are excellent, and any could easily have won in another year. This just happened to be an excellent year for historical fiction reading for me!

And now, the moment that you’ve all been waiting for (right?): the Louloureads Book of the Year 2022. As a reminder, the contenders (each outstanding in their fields) are: War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott, Municipal Dreams by John Boughton, Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac, and Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig.

This came down to a straight fight between Rose Nicholson and War Among Ladies, two books which felt as though they were written for me. (What a privilege! Normally you get one book like that in a year if you’re lucky, and this year I got two!) Ultimately, I had to pick the one I’ve been thinking about for months, so drumroll please – the first ever Louloureads Book of the Year is…

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

I promise I had already picked this when I saw that FF had also selected it as her Book of the Year! It’s really just that good. This has been a great reading year for me, but this was the absolute highlight. As she says in her post, it felt almost written for me – but for completely different reasons (and isn’t that the mark of a truly great book – that many different people have many different reasons for loving it?). The nuanced and thoughtful look at Will trying to decide what he believes in the context of his parents’ different creeds, the look at an area of church history I know little about, and the look at early education for working-class women in Scotland (including its perils and pitfalls) – all targeted directly at my head and heart! Recommended very highly indeed.

Well, this has been a great reading year for me – I hope it has been for you too. Have a very Merry Christmas, all!