Archives for historical fiction

#Bookreview ‘The Clockmaker’s Daughter’ by Kate Morton #historical #romance

Kate Morton is strongest when writing about houses, houses with history, atmospheric, beautiful, brooding houses. Birchwood Manor in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is haunted by what happened there. A death, a theft, a drowning. The truth is a complicated tale of twists and turns, Morton gives us numerous characters from slices of history from a Pre-Raphaelite group of artists to National Trust-like ownership today. The mystery starts from page one, the Prologue, told in the voice of an unknown woman remembering her arrival at Birchwood Manor with Edward. When the rest of the house party leave, ‘I had no choice; I stayed behind.’ Is she a ghost? Cut straight to today and archivist Elodie who unpacks an old leather satchel finds inside a photograph of a woman and an intriguing sketchbook. Leafing through the pages she stops dead, seeing a drawing of a house she knows though she has never been there. It featured in a bedtime story told by her mother. Is it a real place? Does it have magical powers as local tales suggest? ‘It is a strange house, built to be purposely confusing. Staircases that turn at unusual angles, all knees and elbows and uneven treads; windows that do
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Categories: Book Love.

#Bookreview ‘All Among the Barley’ by Melissa Harrison @M_Z_Harrison #nature

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison is set in a small world, the world of Wych Farm and the village of Elmbourne, in the inter-war years. The story is introduced by Edith June Mather, now an old lady, and transitions into the story of one summer when she was a teenager. Hanging over the first few pages is an unspoken warning that events so long in the past can be forgotten or recalled in error and that Edith may not be a reliable storyteller. But All Among the Barley  is more than a coming-of-age tale; it is a story of society adapting to change, a story which resonates today. It is 1933 in East Anglia and Edie Mather is thirteen years old, a clever well-read child who longs to fit in. She lives on the family farm where hardship is an everyday fact. Edie, balancing between childhood and womanhood, is unsure of what she should do with her life, unaware she has choices and at times overwhelmed by her seeming lack of power. Superstitions become real to her. This is a book combining the pragmatic facts of daily farm life, the looming presence of anti-semitism and fascism, with teenage volatility,
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Categories: Book Love.

#Bookreview ‘Call of the Curlew’ by @ManxWriter #historical #WW2

An elderly woman sees a sign she has been awaiting and prepares to take her last walk, across the snowy marshes and into the sea. She imagines the freezing water creeping up her legs, planning how she will use her walking stick, loading her pockets with stones from the garden wall. And then she realises she has the wrong day, it is New Year’s Eve tomorrow, not today and she is a day too early. When a stranger appears, her plans are disrupted and the past must be faced. Call of the Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks has the most fantastic sense of place. It is a haunting, atmospheric read that I didn’t want to put down. Tollbury Marsh is an ever-present character in the story too, quiet, empty, natural and ‘where a body could sink under that earth, slowly and inexorably, like an insect in a pot of glue.’ Virginia Wrathmell arrives at Salt Winds, a house on the edge of the marshes, as a newly adopted orphan when she is ten. It is New Year’s Eve 1939. Her new parents, Clem and Lorna, seem ill at ease together and Virginia watches them from the banisters, trying to understand the adult
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Categories: Book Love.

#Bookreview ‘The Sapphire Widow’ by @DinahJefferies #historical #romance

When Dinah Jeffries writes about Ceylon, you can smell it and sense it. The blossom, the flowers, the birds, she is excellent at evoking setting. The Sapphire Widow is not her strongest book, but it is nevertheless an enjoyable read. Whatever it may lack in plot – a weakness I think because the main character is the wronged one, rather than with a secret of her own to hide – it is a fascinating glimpse of mid-Thirties Ceylon and a beautiful seaside town. It is 1936 in Galle on the southernmost tip of Ceylon. Louisa Reeve and her husband Elliot seem to have it all except, after a series of miscarriages, a child. Louisa, who wonders if she will ever be a mother, is often alone as Elliot spends his spare time sailing with friends and on a cinnamon plantation in which he is an investor. But when tragedy hits Louisa discovers Elliot’s life, investments and hobbies were not as he told her. As she deals with one lie after another, Louisa continues to develop Sapphire, the retail emporium originally planned with Elliot and which provides the novel’s title. Given the title I expected the gemstone business of Louisa’s father,
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Categories: Book Love.

#Book review ‘The Turn of Midnight’ by Minette Walters #historical #thriller

You just know when the book you’ve just started reading is going to be 5*. For me, not many are. I read lots of good 3* and 4* books. I reserve 5* sparingly for the special ones. The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters is one of those. It ticks so many boxes. Thriller, history, surprises, great characters and a tantalising bit of love from afar; Walters is a master storyteller. And this is a story of a grim period in British history. The Black Death. Medieval England. Gruesome detail, and yet I stayed up late to finish it. Why, because she makes me love the characters and manages that delicate balancing act of giving me just enough historical detail to be interesting but not too much that it becomes tedious. The Turn of Midnight is the sequel to The Last Hours which tells the story of the Black Death and its impact on the small Dorsetshire demesne of Develish. After the death of her husband from the plague his widow Lady Anne quarantines the demesne, introduces cleanliness routines and organises her healthy family, servants and serfs into a self-supporting and mutually-respectful society; unheard of in 1348. Woven into this story
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Categories: Book Love.

#BookReview The Indelible Stain by @wendy_percival #genealogy #mystery

When the key character of a novel goes on holiday or visits a picturesque place, you know something is going to happen. Genealogist Esme Quentin in The Indelible Stain by Wendy Percival goes to Devon to help a friend archive the records of a local charity for underprivileged children. Second in the Esme Quentin genealogical mysteries, this is an enjoyable story of convict history set in a beautiful Devon location. But beneath that beauty lurk fraud, lies and revenge. Hatred and bitterness reach from the past to the current day. Up early on her first morning, Esme takes a walk on the wild beach and finds a body. The woman, just alive, seems to have fallen from the cliffs. Her last words, spoken to Esme, are key to the mystery which follows. “I lied,” she says. Beside her body is an old sepia photograph. The police don’t take seriously Esme’s concerns that the woman’s last words combined with the mystery photograph indicate foul play, so Esme decides to identify the family in the photograph. Meanwhile, Neave Shaw is worrying about her mother who has disappeared after sending a confused, possibly drunken, email. Worried and not understanding her grandmother’s dismissive attitude
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Categories: Book Love and Family history research.

Book review: ‘The Burning Chambers’ by Kate Mosse

The story starts in winter, 1562, in the South of France. In a prison in Toulouse, a man is being tortured, while in Carcassonne a young woman awakes from a bad dream, a sad memory. The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse is heavy on atmosphere and historical detail and, like Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy, is slow to start. Despite my confusion, and I admit to being confused in parts for two-thirds of the book, I read on because Mosse is an expert storyteller who spins a tale and reels you in so you sit up late at night reading just one more chapter. Sometimes though, I wished she would cut some of the detail. This is a story of religious war, of prejudice and violence, of loyalty and love, and principally a woman and a man who find themselves on opposite sides of the religious divide. Minou Joubert is a Catholic, the daughter of a bookseller who believes in selling books of all faiths for everyone to buy freely. When she receives an anonymous letter, sealed with a family insignia she does not recognize and comprising only five words ‘SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE’, she is mystified. That same day, fate crosses
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Categories: Book Love.

#Bookreview ‘The Fire Court’ by Andrew Taylor #Historical #Drama

In order to fully appreciate The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor, you need to read The Ashes of London first. Otherwise, references and subtleties will pass you by. This is definitely a trilogy to read in order. The threats and risks are not always clear on the page and I had a couple of ‘oh, now I get it’ moments. But as with the first book, Taylor writes about post-Fire London with all the smoke, heat and rotting smells vivid on the page. The first chapter sets up the central mystery to be solved. James Marwood’s elderly confused father wanders in the city and follows a woman he believes to be Rachel, his deceased wife. He is brought home by a kindly roadsweeper. Marwood listens to his father’s confused ramblings and fears his wits are disappearing. The next day, Nathaniel Marwood is dead and his son attempts to recreate his father’s movements to see if there was truth in his ramblings; into the heart of the rookery at Clifford’s Inn to see if there really is a chamber of the ant and inside it, a sinful woman. Instead he meets an objectionable man called Gromwell. Two women are key to Marwood’s
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Categories: Book Love.

#Bookreview ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’ by @PhilippaGBooks #Tudor

‘What is the point of love if it does not make us kind?’ Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory is a story of three women, princesses all, who marry for duty, for their country but who long to marry for love. It is a not a tale of sisterly love, more of sisterly rivalry, envy and spitefulness. The three women become sisters of England, Scotland and France but each knows despair and great unhappiness, they are alternately supportive to each other and shamelessly selfish. The three women are Margaret, older sister of Henry VIII; Mary, his younger sister; and Katherine of Aragon, his first wife. All women have been raised to do their duty, to behave correctly, to smile when in pain, to nod to their husband when they disagree, and to always put themselves second. It is a story of English and Scottish politics, the switching of allegiances, the lies and flattery, the convenient silences. The story is told by Margaret, married young to James IV of Scotland, who is horrified after their wedding to be presented with a mob of children, his illegitimate sons and daughters. She appeals to Katherine for advice who tells her to swallow
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Ashes of London

1666 and a fire starts in London, soon to devastate the medieval City of London. Watching the flames, a young man notices a boy in a ragged shirt who is standing so close as to risk to his life. When he pulls the boy to safety, he finds it is not a boy but a young woman. She bites him and escapes, though he intends only to help. And so are introduced the two key characters in The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. But this is not a novel about the Fire of London, rather a political mystery involving murder in the turbulent years following the execution of King Charles I, the English Civil War, the Commonwealth and subsequent Restoration of King Charles II. In the ruins of St Paul’s a body is found, differing from other mortalities for its thumbs tied together behind the man’s back. This is the sign of those who committed Regicide by signing the death warrant of Charles I. Though in hiding, these traitors are still active, lurking in the shadows. The account of London burning is written vividly, so vivid I could imagine myself there, smell the charred timber and smoke. We see
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Our Friends in Berlin

Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn tells a story of London in World War Two seldom told. It is a spy novel but not a thriller. It focuses on the individuals concerned and has a deceptive pace which means the threats, when they come, are more startling. Jack Hoste is not who he seems to be. He is not a tax inspector; he is not looking for a wife. He is a special agent who tracks down Nazi spies. And at night he is an ARP warden. The juxtaposition of Hoste’s life of secrets is set nicely against that of Amy Strallen who works at the Quartermaine Marriage Bureau. Ordinary life does go on in London during the Luftwaffe bombing and Amy must match clients together, a matter of instinct rather than calculation. In order to be matched with the right person, clients are asked to tell the truth about what they are seeking, truths which may have been disguised or hidden until now. Client requests include ‘a lady with capital preferred’ and ‘not American’. Then one day she meets a new client who seems oddly reluctant to explain what he is looking for. The client is Jack Hoste and
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Tulip Fever

Amsterdam in the 17th century was a time when commerce was king and the sale of tulip bulbs made some people very rich and others bankrupt. This is the setting for Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, when Rembrandt and Vermeer painted some of the most-recognised art of our time. Sophia’s husband Cornelis is rich, thanks to tulips, and he celebrates his wealth by commissioning a joint portrait to be painted. It is a decision which changes their lives. The deft switching of viewpoints – and each chapter is a single voice, Sophia, Cornelis, Jan [the painter], Maria [their servant] and Willem [Maria’s lover] – allows for a new take on each situation. The plot moves quickly, things are hinted at and passed over but relevant later. It is the sort of novel which seems simple but has hidden depths. The language can be so sensual. “Jacob van Loos is not painting the old man’s mouth. He is painting Sophia’s lips. He mixes pink on his palette – ochre, grey and carmine – and strokes the paint lovingly on the canvas. She is gazing at him. For a moment, when the old man was talking, her lips curved into a smile
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding is another between-the-wars comedy of manners by Nancy Mitford. With scathing observation at times as sharp as Jane Austen, Mitford introduces a new character, Lord Lewes: ‘He was tall, very correctly dressed in a style indicating the presence of money rather than of imagination, and had a mournful, thin, eighteenth-century face.’ This is her second novel and features some of the personalities featured in her first, Highland Fling, though familiarity with the first is not essential for enjoyment. The action takes place over one month around Christmas, the pudding of the title refers to Mitford’s mixture of personalities in two house parties in the Cotswold countryside. Paul Fotheringay, whose debut literary novel has been heralded as a comic farce, is desperate to escape London and find inspiration for his next book. Wanting to be taken seriously as an author, he settles on a biography of Victorian poet, Lady Maria Bobbin. When he is refused access to the diaries by the current Lady Bobbin he conjures a plot with her teenage son Bobby to masquerade as Bobby’s tutor over the Christmas holidays and so gain secret access to the diaries. And so Paul becomes part of a love triangle
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Poor Caroline

I can’t help but think this novel would be helped by a better title. Poor Caroline is such a negative sounding title for this, the fourth novel by Yorkshire author Winifred Holtby. From the first page, it is clear this is a fond but sharp satire of the inter-war years showing how the expectations of people can on the surface appear aligned but in reality are self-serving. Caroline Denton-Smyth, honorary secretary of the Christian Cinema Company, works hard in the belief that her company is doing good. But the people on the board of directors each have their own reason for being involved with the company, reasons that are not admitted and which diverge hugely from Caroline’s intentions. One hopes to leverage connections with the chairman to gain entrance for his son to Eton. Another wishes to sell his new type of film. Caroline has so many ideas but little success. At the age of 72 she has no money and is dependent on loans from long-suffering relatives. But she is always hopeful. This is the story of Caroline, her fellow directors, and the Christian Cinema Company. Holtby tells the story of each person in turn so the full picture, and
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Categories: Book Love.

Book Review: Days Without End

There is not a word out of place in this harrowing and beautiful tale of love, war, duty and sacrifice. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry deservedly had award success in 2016/2017. I already knew Barry could write about war, having read and loved A Long Long Way set in the Great War. What is different about Days Without End is the relationship between Thomas McNulty and John Cole. Barry tells the epic story of the Indian and Civil wars in America, combined with a heart-stopping tale of love. The story is the first person narrative of Thomas, an Irish émigré fleeing the Irish famine. He arrives in a young America with so many disparate groups, contrasted and never seeming to connect: men, women; officers, foot soldiers; gay, straight; white, black; American, Irish immigrant; army, native Indian; north, south. Barry does not shy from telling the reality of the American wars, the brutality, the atrocities of army against Indians and vice versa; but also the comradeship and solidity of men fighting alongside each other. There is betrayal on both sides, brutality on both sides, and soldiers hating and turning on each other. At the core of this though is the story
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Beneath an Indian Sky

Women’s ambition, women’s capability to lie and manipulate, and women’s ability to love, cherish and recover. Beneath an Indian Sky by Renita D’Silva is the cautionary tale of Sita and Mary and how their lives, from childhood to old age, are entwined in India. It is a symmetrical story, but the permutations of its angles and consequences are not clear until the end. Be patient, relax into the story, because the ending is worth it. 1925, India. Sita’s parents despair of her acting like a girl so, to encourage more restrained behavior, they arrange for her to become friends with Mary. Mary’s parents encourage individuality, freedom and learning, but Mary secretly envies the rules and ordered life of Sita’s home. And so the two girls become friends. Until in 1926 something happens which splits them apart. This is a tale of opposites; two little girls who, despite being different, become friends. What happens when they grow up turns into a darker more difficult story about friendship, honesty, betrayal, loss, anguish and regret. Renita D’Silva takes you to another world, India pre- and post-partition, with all its scents, colours, flavours, wealth and poverty. She is a magical writer of the setting
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Quite a few things in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar are not as they seem. The mermaid, which may or not be real, is actually dead and quite gruesome. And the story starts with shipping merchant Mr Hancock, not Mrs. He is a widower. This story about London in 1785 is a full-on feast for the senses and at first is a bit overwhelming: wind ‘sings’, raindrops ‘burst’, skin is ‘scuffed and stained’, a face is ‘meaty’. But then I fell into the life of Jonah Hancock and wondered when the mermaid, and Mrs Hancock, would appear. Soon the captain of the Calliope, one of Jonah’s ships, returns homes without the ship but with a mermaid. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock overflows with contrasts: Deptford and Mary-le-Bone are villages outside London, whales are dismembered and rendered beside the river but in nearby Blackheath the air is to be treasured. It seems unlikely that the path of Jonah, conservative, hard-working, will intersect with Angelica Neal, a former upper class prostitute. But thanks to the mermaid, they meet and their lives take different turns as a result. Gowar juxtaposes sumptuous silks, satins and pearls of the girls at Mrs
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: White Chrysanthemum

It’s not often that I find myself using the words ‘delightful’ and ‘harrowing’ in the same book review, but here they are. White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht is the harrowing story of two Korean sisters separated during World War Two; one snatched to become a ‘comfort woman’ for Japanese soldiers, the other saved by her older sister’s actions. It is difficult to read of the violence, the arrogance, the misuse of power and the humiliation of this piece of war history – still being publicised and discussed – but this is leavened by the magical water sequences. Sixteen-year old Hana is a haenyeo, a female diver of the sea, she is taught by her mother, in the family tradition, to dive deep, hold her breath and withstand the cold. When she is abused, she retreats to her memories. She is a tough cookie. One day, she and her mother are diving, their father is away fishing, and her younger sister Emiko sits on the beach, guarding the buckets that contain their day’s catch from interested seagulls; then Japanese soldiers arrive. Desperate to stop them taking her sister to a life of captivity, Hana races out of the water and
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Last Hours

I cannot remember when I last read a novel by Minette Walters although her psychological crime thrillers occupy a considerable section of my bookshelf. As soon as I read the blurb for The Last Hours, I was fascinated. What could  Walters do with a historical drama based on the Black Death of 14th century England? I wasn’t disappointed. The Last Hours tells the story of the Develish demesne in Devon in 1348 when infectious illness spread rapidly and threatened to wipe out the 200 bonded serfs, servants and family. What did take me by surprise is that The Last Hours is only the first instalment of the story, so there is the unexpected anticipation of the next book now to enjoy. The first character we meet, pre-infection, is Eleanor. The only daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Anne of Develish, she watches preparations for the departure of her father and his retinue as they travel to meet the neighbouring lord to whose son Eleanor is promised. Eleanor seems at once fascinated by and repelled by a serf, Thaddeus Thurkell, who she distains for his illegitimacy. As a first chapter it sets up the relationships and future action in such a
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Cursed Wife

London 1590. The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne starts with two un-named women in a room; one alive, one dead. And then follows the story of two women who meet as children, Cat and Mary, mistress and maid. Page by twisting page the story of Cat and Mary unfolds as, you can’t help but wonder, which one dies and which lives. Mistress Mary Thorne sometimes forgets she is cursed. It is 1590 and she steps out into the rain to buy herbs for an ill maid, little knowing her life will be changed. Two stories are told in parallel; from 1562 when the two girls first meet, and 1590 when their paths cross again in London. There is a tug of power between the two as fortunes rise and fall; Cat is envious of what Mary has, while Mary feels guilt at every small slight she has made in her life. In 1562, Mary is a gentleman’s daughter; orphaned by sickness, she is put into a cart to be taken to the house of a distant cousin where she has been offered shelter. Her solace is Peg, the small wooden doll given to her by her father. When a mob
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Categories: Book Love.