Archives for historical fiction

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.

My ‘Porridge & Cream’ read: JG Harlond

Welcome to the first in a new series in which one author chooses his/her ‘Porridge & Cream’ book. What is a ‘Porridge & Cream’ book? It’s the book you turn to when you need a familiar read, when you are tired, ill, or out-of-sorts, where you know the story and love it. Where reading it is like slipping on your oldest, scruffiest slippers after walking for miles. Where does the name ‘Porridge & Cream’ come from? Cat Deerborn is a character in Susan Hill’s ‘Simon Serrailler’ detective series. Cat is a hard-worked GP, a widow with two children and she struggles from day-to-day. One night, after a particularly difficult day, she needs something familiar to read. From her bookshelf she selects Love in A Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. Today I am pleased to welcome historical novelist, JG Harlond. “My ‘Porridge & Cream’ novels are the House of Níccolò series by the late Scots author Dorothy Dunnett. In the 1970s I became hooked on her 16th century Game of Kings series featuring the exquisite Francis Crawford of Lymond. Then in the 1980s, Dunnett began the 15th century House of Níccolò series about a flawed Flemish apprentice Claes, who becomes a Venetian banker
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: The Knife with the Ivory Handle

A black man takes shelter in a train carriage amongst the animals. He has been shot and has no tongue. Two children are travelling from a Brooklyn orphanage to Illinois to start a new life on a farm. All three are on the same train. And so begins The Knife with the Ivory Handle, a lyrical tale by Cynthia Bruchman of Illinois in 1900 which knits together the stories of Annette and Jonathan, Casper and priest Father Kelly. It is clear from the first chapter that the author has intimate knowledge of this period in history. The Brooklyn orphanage is a real place on the page – the nuns, daily routine and quiet corridors – as is St Bede’s Abbey later in the book. The Spring Valley Race Riot of 1903 did happen, and the locations from Bureau, LaSalle and Kane Counties are real places. Cynthia Bruchman [below] writes with confidence, placing her story and characters in a setting she researched for her Masters degree. But do not think I mean that the book is full of unnecessary historical detail, the research is not a heavy presence but colours the story of Annette, Jonathan, Casper and Father Kelly. It is the
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Categories: Book Love.

I agree with… Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore “For writers, wasting time is as vital as working, so it is essential to sit all day without doing anything.” [excerpt from Simon Sebag Montefiore’s column in British Airways ‘High Life’ magazine, March 2014] I totally get this, although I think non-writers will consider it a complete waste of time. Most writers I know are walkers in some form or another, all are dreamers. Where else do we get our ideas from? Read about my writerly wanderings around Wimbledon Common, my haunt while writing Ignoring Gravity, here. Read more about Simon Sebag Montefiore’s fiction and non-fiction here.   ‘Sashenka’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore [Corgi] Buy now If you agree with Simon Sebag Montefiore, perhaps you will agree with:- Deborah McKinlay – the lean years focussed me on what I really wanted Matthew Thomas – don’t deny the autobiographical Jeanette Winterson – writing never stops And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet: I agree with Simon Sebag Montefiore: #writers need time & space to think http://wp.me/p5gEM4-RQ via @SandraDanby
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Categories: My Novel: 'Ignoring Gravity' and On Writing.

Book review: The Quick

Predicted to be a smash hit, this gothic thriller by Lauren Owen is a mystery tale about a brother and sister from Yorkshire. The story moves between Aiskew Hall – where we first meet Charlotte and James as children – and London; both settings atmospheric, both drawn so clearly you can smell the air. This book will reward re-reading: only after I had finished the last page did I go back to the beginning and appreciate the menace of the first sentence, “There were owls in the nursery when James was a boy.” Aiskew is ever-present. When they are older and far from home, Charlotte reminds James “… how the air smelled green in spring, and smoke-grey in autumn, how on April mornings the mists would lift slowly, leaving a blue haze behind.” This book has a really slow build. It starts with a prologue, an excerpt from 1890, which I read and then immediately forgot. I enjoyed Part One about the childhood of James and Charlotte at Aiskew, their mother dead, their father absent, Charlotte teaching James his alphabet by chalking the letters onto flagstones, playing games in the secrets of the big house. When the siblings are parted
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Categories: Book Love.

Book Review: The Other Eden

This novel by Sarah Bryant is best described as a Gothic romance/horror story, interleaved with the American South setting in Louisiana and piano music it is an unusual mixture which produces quite a page-turner. I admit to finding the two sisters Eve and Elizabeth confusing at times but that did not interfere with my enjoyment of the story. By the end of the book I was still unsure which sister was which. The description of the two houses, Eden and the house on the hill, are luscious. My one quibble is that I found the characters oddly difficult to place in time. The prologue about the two sisters is dated 1905 which means the following story about Eleanor is set in the 1920s, but it seems more 19th century to me. Maybe that’s down to the old-fashioned Louisiana setting. I don’t think the cover of my edition helped that confusion, the style is oddly similar to Philippa Gregory. But don’t let my doubts put you off reading what is a rollicking Gothic mystery complete with faintings, dreams, symbolism, mysterious foreign men and beautiful piano music. If you like this, try:- ‘Summertime’ by Vanessa Lafaye ‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx ‘Housekeeping’ by
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Lady of the Rivers

Yet again, Philippa Gregory brings history alive. Her story of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, from her first encounter with Joan of Arc, kept me riveted. She is so attuned to the period and the language that her writing is seamless. At no point does the research show itself. And there is a lot of research, Gregory herself admits she does four months of solid research before starting to write. She also says that she often finds the idea for a different novel when she is researching another. It may seem to the outsider that Gregory re-invents the same story – ‘what another Tudor woman?’ But this could not be further from the truth. Witchcraft is an intriguing story thread throughout this book, something introduced in The White Queen about Jacquetta’s daughter Elizabeth Woodville. Women are obliged to hide their knowledge and skills in order to survive, knowledge that today we would think of as alternative medicine and gardening by the phases of the moon. My knowledge of the period, the Wars of the Roses, the various kings and factions, is definitely improving though I was concerned that the reverse-telling of the Cousins’ War series would eliminate some of the tension. After
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Categories: Book Love.

Great opening paragraph 10… ‘Sacred Hearts’ #amwriting #FirstPara

“Before the screaming starts, the night silence of the convent is alive with its own particular sounds.” ‘Sacred Hearts’ by Sarah Dunant  Amazon Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:- ‘A Farewell to Arms’ by Ernest Hemingway ‘Time Will Darken It’ by William Maxwell ‘Nineteen Minutes’ by Jodi Picoult And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet: A 1st para which makes me want to read more: SACRED HEARTS by Sarah Dunant #amwriting http://wp.me/p5gEM4-f0 via @SandraDanby
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.