Archives for historical fiction

Book review: The Western Wind

In 15th century Somerset, a village is isolated between high ground and a river. Various attempts to find funding and the skills to build a bridge have foundered, and with it the village’s hopes of prosperity. Then in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, the body of a villager is swept away by the river and everyone looks to the priest for answers. The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey is a contemplative, slow burn about John Reve, the priest, his care for the villagers of Oakham, and the persistent questions of his visiting rural dean about the death of Thomas Newman. The story timeline is chopped up and told backwards, which adds to the mystery. The novel starts with the sighting of the body and the finding of a green shirt in the bulrushes. This is a sign, Reve says, that Newman’s soul has crossed into heaven. Only at the end, do we find out the truth of what really happened. The dean is a threat; we never know his name, and only at the end are we given a physical description of him. He suggests to Reve that as this is the season of confession, a pardon be issued
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Julie Christine Johnson

Today I’m delighted to welcome novelist Julie Christine Johnson. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. “Several years ago I created an annual tradition for myself: in December, as the light fades earlier each day and I retreat from the expectations and demands of modern commercial holidays, longing only for the renewal of Solstice, I soothe my tired and cold spirit with a reread of a work by one of my most treasured authors, Jane Austen. Her six completed novels — Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion — form a canon of comfort and delight on my bookshelves. Among all these timeless treasures, it is that charming and soulful comedy of manners, Pride and Prejudice, I most anticipate. Truthfully, I rotate it in every couple of years. Each time I read the opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” my entire being relaxes into a smile of familiarity and joy. Pride and Prejudice is the story of intelligent, independent Elizabeth Bennet, the eldest daughter of five in a family of modest
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: The Wicked Cometh

In the dark alleyways of London, in 1831, people are disappearing; the vulnerable poor, children, elderly, homeless. Missing posters line the streets. But none are found. The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin is a 19th century crime thriller with two women, divided by class and background, who are determined to find the truth but who never once suspect the depth of wickedness they will uncover. When 18-year old Hester White is hit by a carriage, physician Calder Brock takes her to his London home. Cared for by his servants, he questions Hester about her birth. Ashamed of her bad luck – growing up at a country parsonage, she was orphaned and taken in by her parents’ servants whose own income declined so now they live in an East End slum – Hester hides her education with a deftly-adopted London accent. Brock rescues her as an experiment in educating the poor. He takes Hester to Waterford, his childhood home in the country, where he lives with his sister Rebekah and their Uncle Septimus. Rebekah is to be Hester’s tutor. What follows is a story of lies laid upon more lies, murder, theft, friendship and love. As the women set out to
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Highland Fling

First published in 1931, Highland Fling is the first novel by Nancy Mitford and the first I have read, determined to read them in order. What a breath of fresh air it was after reading two detailed historical novels, this light frothy concoction made me chuckle. An amusing observer of manners, Mitford excels at that peculiar type of incomplete conversation between two people gossiping about mutual acquaintances in which each completes the other’s sentences. This is a novel of its time, upperclass wealth, upperclass lack of wealth, centuries of families and traditions the roots of which have been forgotten, and the juxtaposition of bluff country old-timers with Bright Young Things from London. Highland Fling is set in a Scottish castle, a closed-room setting, loved by crime writers, which Mitford uses mercilessly to compare and contrast. It is a world with which the author knows well and at which she gently pokes fun. Young artist Alfred Gates returns from Paris to London and visits his newly-married friends Walter and Sally. Sally’s parents are called away and the three friends go to Scotland to host the parent’s shooting party. As well as the shooting guests, including stodgy old-fashioned military and aristocratic types,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Silent Companions

How to describe this novel? Spooky, mysterious? A tale of witchcraft and trickery or malicious exploitation and fraud? The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell starts with a woman in an asylum. Mute, she is given chalk and a slate with which to communicate. What follows is her account of the Bainbridge family and their country home, The Bridge. From the beginning until the end, we do not know who to believe. The story is told in three strands – a woman in an asylum, accused of murder; a young widow who arrives at her husband’s family home, pregnant and vulnerable; and a couple excitedly prepare for a royal visit by Charles I. What unfolds is a complicated story. Purcell handles the many threads well although I would have preferred a clear delineation with each new section marked by date. Elsie, the daughter of a match factory owner in London, is a survivor. She supported her mother after her father was killed in a ghastly workplace accident, she supported her younger brother Jolyon as their mother also fell ill. And when Jolyon brings a new investor for the factory the siblings, now jointly own, Elise marries Rupert Bainbridge. Odd things start
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Birdcage Walk

Birdcage Walk is the last novel by the incomparable Helen Dunmore who moved between subjects and periods with ease, setting the dramatic minutiae of people’s lives against the huge social events of the time. War, spies and, in Birdcage Walk, the French Revolution and how its impacts on a family in Bristol. The novel opens as a walker and his dog discover a hidden grave in the undergrowth of a derelict graveyard. He reads the inscription to Julia Elizabeth Fawkes but subsequent research finds no information about her. This is followed by a short night-time scene in 1789 of a man burying a body in woods. We do not know the location, his identity or that of the body. How are these two things connected? For the first half of the book, I forgot these two short scenes until growing menace made me recall it and read faster. It is 1792. This is the story of young wife Lizzie Fawkes, new wife of Bristol builder John Diner Tredevant and daughter of writer Julia Fawkes. Diner, as he is known, is developing a grand terrace of houses on the cliffs at Clifton Gorge, a development for which he specifies the best,
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Julie Stock

Today I’m delighted to welcome romance author Julie Stock. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. “My ‘Porridge and Cream’ book is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. The first time I read it was at secondary school, when I was about 14 years old, in the late 1970s. I went to a girls’ school and romantic love seemed very elusive and also illusory. What captivated me about the story was that it seemed so real. My school was nothing like Jane’s experience, thank goodness, although I might have felt like it was at the time but I appreciated the truth of the story, like the author was treating the reader with respect by drawing characters to whom life had not been kind, who were quite ordinary in their way, but had the potential to be extraordinary by their actions. It was many years before I picked the book up again but I find myself moved to reread it regularly these days, especially when the real world becomes a bit too superficial and I need an escape to a world where people rose above their suffering and survived despite it because of the power of love. I
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: The Slaves of Solitude

Patrick Hamilton is a new author for me. The Slaves of Solitude, published in 1947, is a novel about wartime in which war is deep background. The setting is Thames Lockden, a small town in the Home Counties, which Hamilton based on Henley-upon-Thames. It tells the story of Miss Roach – Enid, though hardly anyone knows this is her first name – and her life at a boarding house, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. This is a war novel with a difference, focussing on the people at home, not fighting but getting on with their lives in a world turned upside down, managing on a day-to-day basis, life is dreary and bare. Miss Roach, former schoolmistress, is single, 39, and fiercely independent. She has been bombed out of her London flat and has fled from the bombing. Life is dark. ‘The earth was muffled from the stars; the river and the pretty eighteenth-century bridge were muffled from the people; the people were muffled from each other. This was war late in 1943.’ Hamilton is a wonderful observer of human behaviour, he shows the nasty politeness between the residents at The Rosamund Tea Rooms, the bullying, the toadying, the power struggles and
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: How To Stop Time

How To Stop Time is another hugely inventive novel by Matt Haig with a thoughtful message about identity. Tom Hazard is a history teacher with a difference. He can talk authoritatively about the Great Fire of London, because he was there; about Shakespeare, because he met him; about witchfinders, because he was terrorised by one. Tom Hazard is 439 years old but he looks forty one. When he was thirteen, the process of ageing slowed down. Tom and his mother are protestant Huguenot refugees in England when their life falls apart; his impossibly youthful looks draw accusations of witchery. We see snapshots of Tom’s past life as he teaches history to bored teenagers in London. And all the time he struggles with the past, so much so that he is unable to live in the present. So he exists, rather than lives, changing his identity to survive and losing sight of who he is. This is a fascinating study of humankind, our development through history and inability to learn from what went before. Tom encounters threats and suspicions in the 21st century. Is he safe? Is a sinister bio-tech company searching for albas – short for ‘albatross’, ie long-lived –
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Margaret Skea

Today I’m delighted to welcome historical novelist Margaret Skea. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. “When I was a child, the lady next door had a wonderful library of children’s books and I could borrow as many as I wanted. So over about 18 months I read lots of full sets, including all 12 Swallows and Amazons and the 10 ‘Anne’ books. Both series have remained favourites, but if I have to make a choice of just one it has to be the first of the ‘Anne’ books. “We used to foster children, and Anne of Green Gables was a wonderful story either to read to them or watch with them. It has so many resonances for their circumstances and such a positive ending. I vividly remember one child stopping me half-way through, saying, ‘Please tell me this ends well, or I can’t bear to hear any more.’ The plot involves an elderly couple who, intending to adopt a boy to help on their farm, are sent a girl instead. Despite their initial misgivings and her capacity for getting into scrapes, they keep her. I usually re-read the book or watch the film
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: The Blue Flower

If ever there is a book to persevere with, to have patience with, and to go back and re-read again, it is The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. When I bought it, I didn’t realize it was the last novel by the Booker prize winner; published five years before her death in 2000 aged 83. For someone about to read it, it can seem a trifle intimidating. Set in 18th century Germany, Fitzgerald tells her imagining of the teenage story of real German poet and philosopher Fritz von Hardenberg, later called Novalis. He is a young man so self-contained, so absorbed in his thoughts, that I wondered where the drama would arise. But it does, because he falls in love. The Blue Flower is a short novel, 223 pages. The chapters are concise [mostly only two or three pages each] and this encouraged me to ‘just read another’ and so, gradually, almost without realizing, I fell into the story. Fitzgerald recreates this particular time in German history with a delicacy that, despite the language and sometimes confusing names, makes the people become real. It is 1794 and Fritz, an idealistic and passionate student of philosophy and writer of poems, stays
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Walworth Beauty

From the first page, I knew this was going to be one of those reads rich in historical scents and sensations, a story to lose yourself in. The Walworth Beauty by Michèle Roberts is set in the London district of Walworth, just south of the River Thames and part of the Borough of Southwark. It tells the story of Joseph Benson in 1851 and Madeleine in 2011, 160 years apart but experiencing so many similar things. Madeleine loses her job as a lecturer of English literature, as a result she moves to a garden flat in Apricot Place, Walworth. She is delicately attuned to the history of London, walking its streets and seeing Virginia Woolf walking ahead of her, Hilda Doolittle passing her by, and, in a basement kitchen in Lamb’s Conduit Street, a mistress instructing her new housemaid. Just how closely Madeleine is connected to the past becomes clearer in the second half of the story as she explores Walworth, researching its local history and meeting her new neighbours. Joseph and his family live in a rented house in Lamb’s Conduit Street. He works for sociologist Henry Mayhew, researching the working conditions and social backgrounds of prostitutes in Walworth.
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Garden of Evening Mists

This is another enchanting novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng. The Garden of Evening Mists focuses on the post-Second World War period in Malaya. The Japanese occupiers have gone and local communist fighters are challenging British rule. In the hills of the Cameron Highlands, next to a tea plantation, lies a delicate Japanese garden created by Nakamura Aritomo, a man who was once gardener to the Emperor of Japan. Decades later when Yun Ling Teoh retires as a Supreme Court judge in Kuala Lumpur, she re-visits the garden at Yugiri. This is her story. In the 1950s Emergency, the people who lived in Malaya’s hill villages grew to fear the communists. Homes were raided and destroyed, people killed, women raped. This is the setting in which Yun Ling first visits Yugiri to ask Aritomo to build a traditional Japanese garden in memory of her sister Yun Hong. This is a novel about memory, things remembered and things denied, and about loyalty. Yun Ling’s loyalty to her sister who was killed in a Japanese labour camp and her guilt that she could have done more to save her, and loyalty to Arimoto who she loved and thought she knew. Judge
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Catherine Hokin

Today I’m delighted to welcome historical novelist Catherine Hokin. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Wise Children by Angela Carter. “I am not a great re-reader of books, I have enough trouble keeping up with the growing list of ones I still haven’t got round to, but Wise Children is a wonderful exception. I first encountered Angela Carter when someone gave me a copy of The Magic Toyshop at university and I fell in love with her off-centre way for looking at the world. When Wise Children came out in 1991 I was newly at home with my first child, somewhat in shock and needing an escape route to a world very different from the one I was muddling my way through.The novel focuses on the twin Chance sisters, Dora and Nora, their mad theatrical family and their romp through musical hall, early Hollywood and aging disgracefully. It combines fairy tales, Shakespeare, magical realism and brilliant characters and is funny, sad and wicked in equal measure. I have read it many times, it is so multi-layered there is always something new to find, and am usually drawn back to it when I want to be reminded how good writing can
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Categories: Book Love, On Writing and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: The Good People

The Good People by Hannah Kent is a powerful second novel from a writer whose debut was outstanding. It is a tale of rural people in a poor community where superstition and folklore become entangled with one woman’s grief, with tragic results. Conflicting systems of thought come into play – folklore, religion, medicine and legal – and fail to make sense of what happens to Nóra Leahy. The power of the story lies not in black versus white, or logic and education versus peasant superstition, it lies in its characters. County Kerry, Ireland, 1826. An isolated village, where gossip goes around and around, where people survive on milk and potatoes and burn turf on the fire. A place where petty grievances are not forgotten, there is no money to pay the doctor, but there are still random acts of kindness. In such a poor community, what happens when the unthinkable happens, where the doctor and priest have no explanation or solution? The Good People is based on true events, a court case which did happen. In the same year in which her daughter died, Nóra’s husband drops dead in the field leaving her alone to care for her four-year-old grandson
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Witchfinder’s Sister

The horror which man can visit on his fellow man, or woman, on anyone slightly different or strange, is explored in this richly-written debut novel. The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is a fictional telling of a real seventeenth century witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, and his invented sister Alice. It is a novel steeped in historical fact, with excerpts of documents including real people and trials. It is 1645 and the Civil War in England is into its fourth year. There is a sense of brooding danger from the very beginning, and not just because of war. It is a time of religious fervour. A short prologue contains a list of women named as witches, their descriptions and accused crimes. Then in chapter one we meet Alice who is confined to one room. This novel is the account of her life. When Alice’s husband dies in London in a work accident, she returns home, newly pregnant, to the Essex village where she grew up. Upon entering the home of her younger half-brother Matthew, she discovers he has become obsessed with punishing women for witchery. As her worry about his activities turns into fear, she is unable to escape his influence and
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Penny Heart

This is the sort of novel which creates a world into which you can sink. It is a story of revenge, cookery and two women in 18th century England, connected by one man. The story of The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey is told by the two women, who cannot be more different. It is about the nature of truth, the passage of time and the difficulty of deciphering the lies hidden within truth. In 1787 when Mary Jebb is caught playing a confidence trick on a young man, she is sentenced to the colonies. Before she leaves, she sends two pennies, each engraved with a promise, to the two men she blames for her fate. These are the penny hearts. In contrast, virtuous and timid Grace Moore marries handsome Michael Coxon in a property deal arranged by her father and husband. She soon learns that her husband is not what he seems. At the isolated and rundown Delafosse Hall she is lonely but finds a friend in her new cook, Peg. By halfway through I really didn’t want to put the book down and the last third runs along with an ingenious ending that was impossible to foresee. Whose
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Categories: Book design.

Book review: Orphans of the Carnival

What to say about this unusual novel by Carol Birch? First, I loved part of it. Second, I didn’t realize until I got to the end that it is loosely-based on a true story. If you loved Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, try this. A young veiled woman travels by train from Mexico to New Orleans. She is disfigured but we don’t know the exact details until quite a way into the book: this is a novel which rewards patient reading. Julia Pastrana becomes a music hall attraction – singing, dancing, playing a guitar – while undergoing examinations by doctors who proclaim her part-human. Her successive managers make the most of the doctors’ pronouncements. This is a linear narrative, Julia’s life story, driven by her search for unconditional love. The real Julia Pastrana had large ears and nose, irregular teeth and straight black hair all over her body. Despite her obvious intelligence – she spoke three languages – the myths continued until her death. It is an indictment of the way people not considered ‘normal’ were treated in the 19th century, seeing them as attractions rather than people with feelings. The modern-day storyline of Rose, a young woman who collects unwanted items,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Barkskins

This story of the North East American forests begins with two men who arrive in New France from Europe. It is 1693 and they find work wielding axes, chopping down trees. Barkskins ends in 2013 with their English, French and Indian descendants learning about the disappearance of the native trees and plants. It is a chastening story but throughout, Annie Proulx’s descriptions of trees enable you to see and smell them. Proulx’s reputation precedes her: the Pulitzer Prize, Brokeback Mountain, The Shipping News etcetera. For me she is one of the classic American authors but refuses to be pigeonholed. Barkskins is a huge tome, starting with René Sel and Charles Duquet’s struggles to survive, their contrasting stories and the subsequent lives of their families. Barkskins is more the story of the forests than of the Sel and Duquet/Duke families and their subsequent timber business. The natural world has a huge part to play in this novel. The trees breathe on every page, as the settlers fight the forests and the native Indian tribes struggle to understand the newcomers. It ticks so many boxes: indigenous culture, sea voyages, logging, trade with China, herbal remedies, Dutch merchant vessels, the plundering of nature
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Master of Shadows

Master of Shadows starts with a historical note about 1453 and the advance of the Ottomans on the eastern Christian empire of Constantinople. Rumoured to be among the city’s defenders was a Scot called John Grant. Neil Oliver – historian and TV presenter – takes the real life Grant and fictionalizes him in this, his debut novel; a novel rich in detail, historical context, colours and smells. It starts with disparate snapshots: a boy lies in a meadow and feels invisible; a stranger arrives at a Scottish village; a woman, chopping wood, feels threatened; a young girl leaps from a high wall, expecting to die. A Moorish solider, tall and imposing with his curved blade, arrives in Scotland at the castle of a Lord. Secretly he is seeking a specific woman. He had fought in wars alongside her husband and promised to keep her and their son safe if he should die. Badr becomes a surrogate father to the boy and teaches him everything he knows, later they fight side-by-side in battle. Leña lives amongst nuns. Given her name – which means ‘firewood’ in Spanish – I thought was a Spanish woman but in the memories of her childhood we
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Categories: Book Love.