Historical Fiction

The House at the Edge of Night – Catherine Banner

Posted in Debut Novel, Historical Fiction on March 16th, 2016 by admin – Be the first to comment

Publication Date – 19th May 2016

Publisher – Hutchinson

480 pages

Spanning almost 95 years, The House at the Edge of  Night is a vivid, absorbing family saga with the emphasis on great storytelling. Indeed, one of the main characters is described as a collector of stories and there are frequent references to and extracts from Italo Calvino’s wonderful collection of Italian folktales so you sense the author’s respect for storytelling tradition.

This is the story of four generations of the Esposito family as well as the stories of their friends and neighbours on the remote island of Castellmare, off the coast of Sicily. There is a great warmth to the writing and you feel fully engaged by the characters, from the convivial local priest, Father Ignazio to the supercilious Conte to the blind widow, Gesuina. Even though Castellmare is physically isolated from the mainland it cannot indefinitely prevent the outside world from impinging on their daily lives – war, technology and the banking crisis all take their toll.

I found it very difficult to tear myself away from this compelling story of island life and I read it in a couple of sittings. If you enjoyed Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Island, you will be charmed by this epic tale of stoical folk. Highly recommended.

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At the Edge of the Orchard – Tracy Chevalier

Posted in American Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 3rd, 2016 by admin – Be the first to comment

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Publisher – Penguin Group – Viking

Publication Date – 15th March 2016

In her latest novel, Tracy Chevalier returns to Ohio, the setting of The Last Runaway, except this story is not about quilts but trees,  from the humble apple tree to the majestic sequoia.

The story begins in 1838, with Sadie and James Goodenough literally stuck in the mud in the Black Swamp, Ohio where they hope to stake their claim by growing an apple orchard.  It is a truly bleak, inhospitable environment with bitter winters and the summer swamp fever ruthlessly claiming so many lives year in year out.  James and Sadie are passionate pioneers but unfortunately their passions collide with devastating consequences – James with his devotion to his beloved sweet apples and Sadie with her lust for applejack, the strong liquor made from the inedible “spitter” apples.

As well as this desolate Ohioan setting, we experience the excitement and wonder of Gold Rush California when, Robert, the Goodenoughs’ youngest son heads West but don’t expect a sudden reversal of fortune for the Goodenough offspring!

This is a story about family, sacrifice, determination and the need to set down roots.  There aren’t a lot of laughs but then the pioneers didn’t have an easy time of it.   As in other Chevalier novels, there’s an impressive amount of research with the inclusion of real-life historical figures and wonderful attention to detail. The characters are flawed and not very likeable but all the more compelling as a result.

Yes, this is a grim tale but amid the doom and gloom there is the tiniest glimmer of hope – a sense that those sequoia seedlings might take root and begin anew.

My thanks to Penguin Viking and Net Galley for providing a digital copy of this novel for review purposes.

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Poppy – Mary Hooper

Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs, YA Fiction on May 8th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

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Blurb from Good Reads

1914. Poppy is fifteen, beautiful and clever, but society has already carved out her destiny. There’s no question of her attending the grammar school – it’s too expensive and unsuitable for a girl. Instead, Poppy will become a servant at the big house. And she’ll ‘keep out of trouble’. But Poppy’s life is about to be thrown dramatically off course. The first reason is love – with someone forbidden, who could never, ever marry a girl like her. The second reason is war. Nothing could have prepared her for that. As she experiences what people are capable of – the best of humanity and the very worst – Poppy will find an unexpected freedom and discover how to be truly her own person.

Mary Hooper is one of my favourite writers of YA Historical Fiction.  She has the knack of combining strong young female characters and realistic historical settings which give readers a strong sense of time and place, whatever their age!  Quite a few novels are being released this year to tie in with the centenary of the outbreak of WWI but Poppy would be my standout choice for any young female teens wishing to acquaint themselves with the role of their early 20th century counterparts.

In a relatively short novel, 288 pages, we are shown the dramatic changes war brings about in everyone’s lives, from upper to lower classes, amongst men and women, and particularly for  young women like Poppy who find themselves in a position to alter previously rigid, mapped out destinies.  Poppy is no longer restricted to a life of servitude as she can forge her own path in life, working as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse but she will be tested both emotionally and physically in her new career.

The author doesn’t hold back in describing the brutal effects of war, especially the horrendous injuries of Poppy’s patients, some of them young boys bedazzled by the glory of war.  We see the early days of plastic surgery as doctors strive to improve the lives of young Tommies stricken by horrific facial injuries.  Likewise we see the deep psychological stress placed on these young men – PTSD is unheard of and those who can’t face the horrors of the trenches are swiftly court-martialled and executed.

If I have one tiny quibble about this novel, it’s that it ends on such a cliff-hanger and cannot be read as a stand-alone novel.  Poppy’s adventures will resume in the sequel, Poppy in the  Field, to be published in May 2015.  If you’re looking for an introduction to the role of young women in WWI, a sensitive read which treads the middle path between sentimentality and gore, then Poppy is the ideal place to  start.  For slightly older readers interested in this period, I would highly recommend Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s extremely powerful war memoir.

Poppy by Mary Hooper is published on 8th May 2014 by Bloomsbury Childrens.

You can follow Mary Hooper on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

My thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for providing a review copy.

 



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Only Time Will Tell – Jeffrey Archer

Posted in Historical Fiction on April 9th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

13518131I think I was about 15 when I read my first Jeffrey Archer, Kane and Abel.  In the 80s we didn’t have the wonderful range of YA titles we have now and I moved from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Jeffrey Archer.  Archer’s early novels were great fun with gripping storylines and larger than life characters so I was quite intrigued at the prospect of revisting his writing 35 years later.

Only Time Will Tell is the first of a pentology, The Clifton Chronicles so be prepared for a sweeping saga.  The first novel covers the first 20 years of the life of Harry Clifton, born in Bristol in 1919.  He’s always thought his father died as a war hero but things are not quite as they seem.  His early years are tough but thanks to a series of serendipitous events (more on that later…) he manages to secure a scholarship to St Bedes where most of the pupils come from an extremely privileged background.  We follow the sometimes dizzying swings and roundabouts of Harry’s early years, never quite knowing what’s coming next.

Jeffrey Archer is a master storyteller and I whizzed through this novel in a couple of sittings.  Is it great literature?  Will it change my life?  Is Harry destined to oust Heathcliffe from my affections?  Nope to all of the above but it was sheer mindless entertainment, extremely readable and filled with ridiculous plot twists and fortuitous events – ideal for your sick bed or sun lounger.  It reminded me of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, another saga which I enjoyed immensely.  I’m not sure if the bookseriesphobe in me will allow me to follow more of Harry’s adventures but you know,  he’s quite addictive so a library reservation might be in order.

Pure escapism – switch your brain off and enjoy.

PS Book Four in the series is already out.  Published by www.panmacmillan.com

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Frog Music – Emma Donoghue

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 30th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Frog Music

Published
27/03/2014

Publisher
Picador

Source
Amazon Vine

My Rating
3 stars

Frog Music is an unusual and, at times, discordant composition, hopping from one event to another, revealing the underbelly of San Francisco in 1876.

Based on a true unsolved crime, this is the story of  Blanche and Jenny, two women striving to scrape a living in a turbulent and violent city.  Blanche, former equestrienne with the Parisian Cirque d’Hiver, is now an exotic dancer living with her “maque” (pimp) Arthur and his close friend Ernest.  Jenny is a cross-dressing frog-catcher of no fixed abode who supplies the French and Chinese communities.   Somehow, Jenny and Blanche’s paths cross and it is Jenny who sews the seeds of doubt in Blanche’s mind re the wisdom of placing her son P’tit in a baby farm.  Blanche’s resultant struggle to embrace her maternal side causes havoc in her relationship with Arthur and cracks quickly appear in an already fragile liaison.

Whilst Emma Donoghue’s novels are eclectic in their subject matter and genre, what they do have in common is the author’s knack to capture the essence of true-life stories from any era and to make them vividly accessible to the modern reader.  In Frog Music, we see San Francisco in the midst of a sweltering heatwave and a smallpox epidemic – it’s a city on the edge, pushing itself to its very limits.  There is rising tension between the whites and the expanding Chinese community – tension which spills over onto already impoverished streets.  Even though this is the seedier side of the city,  I loved its vibrancy and lust for life despite the constant threat of death from the escalating epidemic.

Unfortunately I found the other characters less engaging than San Francisco and I felt that I was viewing them through the city’s famous fog.   I just couldn’t get a sense of who the main characters were and why they acted the way they did. Perhaps that was the idea, that they put up a facade, “the show must go on” etc, but it left me feeling cold and distanced.

It took me around 120 pages to get into the story, for the pace to pick up to a level which made me want to “pick up” the book again and continue reading.  Thereafter I was truly engaged but if it hadn’t been a review book  I wouldn’t have persisted after 50 pages.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book as the last two thirds of  the narrative highlight the author’s skill as a storyteller but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed as I thoroughly enjoyed Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter and expected more of Frog Music.

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A Love Like Blood – Marcus Sedgwick

Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs, Thriller on March 27th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Marcus Sedgwick is already established as a gifted, award-winning author of YA novels but A Love Like Blood marks his first venture into the adult market.  So is it a tentative dipping of toes in the water or all-out submersion?  A bit of both, I would say,  as the narrative displays the same intelligence and curiosity of Sedgwick’s YA work whilst eschewing the typically teen Twilight approach  to vampire stories.

Our narrator Charles Jackson has been haunted by what he witnessed in 1944 shortly after the Liberation of Paris.  In a bunker in Saint-Germain he thinks he saw a man crouched over the body of a young woman, drinking her blood.  He tries to put the horrifying sight out of his mind but seven years later, during a return visit to Paris, he sees the same man and feels compelled to investigate further.  What ensues is a gripping, psychological thriller which spans 24 years as Charles hunts for and is hunted by the mysterious stranger.

Charles specialises in haematology, the study of blood, and this story also focuses on blood, Charles’ and indeed humanity’s obsession with blood.

I learned at medical school how the colour of  blood  changes with its state of oxygenation, from dark, almost purplish, through to the brightest lurid red, but whatever its precise colour, our earliest selves must have formed a deep relationship with it.  Relationship, that’s the only word I can use, and still, after all my time thinking about it, I cannot find an answer to the question of blood.

This is a story of love, of extremes, passion, revenge, obsession, questioning the very primitive essence of man.  It has that gothic vibe which imbues Sedgwick’s earlier books – think more modern Bram Stoker than cute teen vampires and less vampire than Freudian ponderings.  The pace has a steady ebb and flow much like the blood pulsing through our veins and the pressure increases steadily as Charles’ quest takes him across Europe.  At times it is unclear as to who is hunting who – is Charles the prey or the predator?  Some of the chase is reminiscent of The 39 Steps and that classic black and white film starring Robert Donat.  Charles is not your typical hero and his flaws make him all the more realistic.  At times I also felt touches of Carlos Ruiz Zafon in the European Gothic style.  Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that Sedgwick has his own distinctive, elegant style.

A Love Like Blood will introduce Marcus Sedgwick to a much wider readership but I hope he will also continue to feed the curious minds of children and Young Adults with his other material.

A Love Like Blood is published by Mulholland Books – release date – 27th March 2014.

 

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After the Bombing – Claire Morrall

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 24th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

After the BombingI have read and enjoyed four of Claire Morrall’s previous novels so I think it’s fair to say I’m a fan!  I’ve read enough books (both diamonds and duds) to discover what I like and if I feel the urge for something understated yet thought-provoking, I know that Ms Morrall’s writing will tick all the boxes.

Morrall’s characters are rarely happy-go-lucky souls and young Music teacher, Alma Braithwaite, is no exception.  Having experienced severe personal loss during Hitler’s bombing of Exeter in May 1942, Alma has failed to move on, neither emotionally nor physically given that she now teaches at Goldwyn’s, the girls’ school she attended during the 40s and still lives in the old family home.  Alma is a creature of habit, relishing routine and her own company.  When Miss Cunningham-Smith dies in the Spring of 1963, a new headmistress arrives to sweep away the cobwebs and enforce her own regime.  Miss Yates is a force to contend with and her new-fangled ways are an immediate source of conflict with Alma who eulogized Miss Cunningham-Smith.

As the novel progresses, we discover what happened to Alma and her school-friends after the 1942 bombing when they were temporarily relocated to university halls under the supervision of a young Mathematics lecturer, Robert Gunner.  In the 1963 narrative, we gradually learn more about Miss Yates and her possible weaknesses whilst Robert Gunner returns into Alma’s life as the widowed parent of a student in her form class. It would seem that the psychological wounds of war are still open and smarting for our central characters whilst they are expected to keep calm and carry on.

The main characters are neither likeable nor particularly exciting but are all the more real as a result.   It was refreshing to see the effects of the war on those at home rather than those at the front especially those who experienced the full impact of Hitler’s bombs and how those left behind coped.  The nervy Robert Gunner seems powerless when faced by so many confident women, an attitude which does not seem to improve with age!

Like Morrall’s other novels, this is a slow burner peopled with characters who don’t quite fit in the “normal” world but a gentle read which will reward the patient reader.

After the Bombing is published by Sceptre – release date 27th March 2014, 384 pages.

Claire Morrall

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A Burnable Book – Bruce Holsinger

Posted in Historical Fiction on February 3rd, 2014 by admin – 4 Comments

A Burnable Book

Published
30/01/2014

Publisher
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Source
Lovereading

My Rating
3.5 stars

 

Bruce Holsinger’s fiction debut, A Burnable Book, is the first in a proposed series of historical thrillers set in 14th century London.  This is Chaucer’s London, it is 1385, a time of flux especially for the young king, Richard II, whose life may be in danger before he gets the opportunity to rule independently.  Rumour has it there is “a burnable book”, a treasonous tract the contents of which could overthrow the monarchy and threaten the stability of the whole country.

Enter John Gower, part-time poet and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer who has requested Gower’s help in tracking down this dangerous tome.  What follows is a well paced but complex story with many twists and  turns.  Equally complex is the vast range of characters, both real-life and fictional, and I was grateful for the list of characters at the front of the novel in order to frequently remind myself who was who.   Holsinger is well respected in the area of medieval research, as attested by his back catalogue of 6 non-fiction works in this field.  Such expertise is evident in the ease with which he brings alive the sights, sounds and smells of medieval London.

This is an accomplished debut novel reminiscent of the sprawling narratives of Ken Follett and C J Sansom.  It is slightly too detailed and convoluted for my liking but I think that Bruce Holsinger’s first foray into fiction will win him lots of new fans.

 

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The Midnight Rose – Lucinda Riley

Posted in Historical Fiction, Saga on January 20th, 2014 by admin – 6 Comments

Midnight Rose

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Pan (16 Jan 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1447218434
  • My Rating – 3.5 stars

Sometimes I need a good dollop of escapism in my reading material, especially during the dreary Winter months when sunshine is in short supply.  Fortunately I had The Midnight Rose, Lucinda Riley’s latest novel, to keep me entertained when the Christmas festivities had fizzled out.

This is the story of Anni (Anahita) Chavan, a tale which spans four generations and two continents.  As Anni celebrates her 100th birthday in Darjeeling, India, surrounded by her extended family, she decides to entrust her great-grandson, Ari, with the task of uncovering long buried family secrets – secrets which will lead him to Astbury Hall and the staid world of the English aristocracy.

As the novel progresses, we see the vivid colours of India at the height of the Raj; a warm, vibrant setting which contrasts sharply with the cold, reserved atmosphere which awaits Anni when she comes to England.   The characters are larger than life, particularly the strong women in the shape of Anni and her nemesis, Lady Maud Astbury.

The Midnight Rose is a thoroughly entertaining read which will appeal to those who enjoy historical sagas in the style of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Lesley Pearse and perhaps fans of Downton Abbey.  Yes, there are a few predictable elements but there’s no doubt Ms Riley can spin a good yarn to keep her readers captivated.

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The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

Posted in American Fiction, Historical Fiction on January 9th, 2014 by admin – 4 Comments
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  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Tinder Press (7 Jan 2014)
  • Source – Netgalley
  • My Rating – 4 stars

 

Set in early 19th century Charleston, Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel is the story of two women from very different backgrounds. On her eleventh birthday Sarah Grimke, daughter of a wealthy judge, is gifted ownership of ten year old Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a slave who will act as her handmaid. Both young girls have many dreams and aspirations but these are thwarted by social convention in Sarah’s case and the brutal reality of enslavement for Handful. Indeed, Handful points out that her slavery is that of the body whilst Sarah is held captive by her own mind.
Narrated in turn by Sarah and Handful, the story paints a realistic picture of the deep South where anyone speaking out against slavery is ostracised. Sarah has had a privileged background but she’s an intelligent woman who wants more than needlepoint and a socially acceptable match. As a teenager she sees how her brothers’ horizons expand whilst her prospects become limited. Meanwhile Handful is raised by a strong mother, Charlotte, who advocates quiet rebellion and unlocks the possibility of freedom for her daughter.
Spanning 35 years, this novel is loosely based on the life of Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina who were the first female abolitionists and feminist thinkers in the United States. The parallel stories of Sarah and Handful provide an intriguing insight into the racism, misogynism and inequality which pervaded the Southern States during this era. The voices of Sarah and Handful are very convincing as is the depiction of the claustrophobic life of the landed gentry and the daily brutality of life for slaves.
This is a very readable, thought-provoking story which packs a slightly stronger punch than the author’s first novel The Secret Life of Bees.

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