Historical Fiction

The Memory of Lost Senses – Judith Kinghorn

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on April 29th, 2013 by admin – 2 Comments

The Memory of Lost Senses

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Headline Review (23 May 2013)
  • Source: Amazon Vine
  • My Rating: 4 stars

Having enjoyed Judith Kinghorn’s debut novel The Last Summer I eagerly  anticipated her second novel The Memory of Lost Senses published by Headline on 23rd May.  Whilst it is quite different, structurally, from her first novel, it retains that intensity, that evocative heart which characterised her first novel.

It’s a novel about first love, sacrifice, intrigue and in particular the role of memory in shaping and refashioning our lives.  The mysterious Countess at the centre of our story seems to have undergone a variety of metamorphises in the course of her eventful life – the exoticism of an expatriate lifestyle in Paris and Rome seems at odds with her final resting place, a sleepy Hampshire village.  Does anyone know the real woman?  Her closest friend, the novelist Sylvia,  feels snubbed when young Cecily Chadwick is drawn into the Countess’ confidence but  the long hot summer of 1911 takes its toll on the elderly lady’s memory or does she just want to forget the murkier scenes of her past?

The narrative takes a while to get going but do persevere and you are in for a treat.  The author has a wonderful sense of place – from the small-town feel of Rome in the mid 19th century to the intensity of village life in rural Hampshire in 1911 where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  Countess Cora is a fascinating creature with so many anecdotes to tell that it is difficult to tell the difference between truth and fiction.  Sylvia seems so lacklustre in comparison but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her!  Likewise, Cecily is not quite so demure as she first appears and her ambitions stretch way beyond the village boundaries. Yes, there are some male characters but the female of the species tends to dominate…

After a slightly shaky start, I was soon engrossed in the lives of these Edwardian ladies, swept along by the ebb and flow of Cora’s memories.  A very thoughtful, evocative story which would make a marvellous film as would its predecessor.

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The Quietness – Alison Rattle

Posted in Historical Fiction, YA Fiction on April 12th, 2013 by admin – Be the first to comment

The Quietness

Published
07/03/2013

Publisher
Hot Key Books

ISBN
9781471401015

My Rating
4 stars

I must admit to being very envious of the youth of today, given the plethora of well written YA Historical Fiction which was sadly lacking in my younger days.  Alison Rattle proves she is a force to be reckoned with, given the quality of her debut YA novel, The Quietness.

This is the story of two teenagers, Queenie and Ellen, who have very different experiences of life in London in 1870.  Queenie is struggling to exist in the dark, impoverished side of the city whilst Ellen leads a privileged but not necessarily happy life with her austere, emotionally challenged parents.  As the story progresses, the two girls find their lives interweaving but don’t expect a fairytale ending!

The author excels at painting a realistic picture of late 19th century London, you feel the physical hunger of Queenie and her siblings and you are confronted with the seedier aspects of poverty, crime and prostitution.  Also examined is the distasteful Victorian practice of baby-farming whereby unwanted babies were, for a small fee, taken away by ‘kindly’ ladies who were supposed to find them new adoptive families.  Women have few rights, be they low or high born and even the more socially elevated Ellen finds herself under the complete control of her unfeeling father.  For all the social disadvantages facing Queenie’s family, they definitely have a more loving relationship… albeit tough love.

Detailed scenes of childbirth make this novel more suitable for an older reader, most likely girls aged 14 and over.  If you enjoyed Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper,  you will be equally engrossed by The Quietness.  Looking forward to reading more by this author.

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The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson

Posted in Historical Fiction on March 21st, 2013 by admin – 6 Comments

The Daylight Gate

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Hammer (14 Mar 2013)
  • Source: Review Copy
  • My Rating – 4 stars

The Daylight Gate is a short, compelling novella about the trial of the Pendle Witches in 1612.  I didn’t know much about the historical background to these events but the author’s introduction provides a brief summary plus the admission that she has played around with the facts and added some of her own inventions.  I don’t have a problem with authors reworking historical events as it can revitalise and add spice to well-worn stories but perhaps the real purists would be advised to stay clear of this version.

The plot is simple as is the language and Winterson doesn’t spare the reader’s blushes in presenting a gruesome picture of a wild, lawless society.  Lancashire wasn’t top of James I’s favourite destinations as he considered the region the nub of witchcraft, popery and all that was wrong in his kingdom.   Not for the faint-hearted, this story includes torture, rape, incest, child abuse but this seems fitting for a time when women were second-class citizens and those women who seemed more intelligent and more powerful than their male counterparts were the first to be debased.

The Daylight Gate is a different twist on a familiar story and it has certainly piqued my interest in the Pendle Witches.  I look forward to reading more about these intriguing women, starting with Mist over Pendle and Daughters of the Witching Hill.

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The Palace of Curiosities – Rosie Garland

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 4th, 2013 by admin – 4 Comments

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (28 Mar 2013)
  • Source: Amazon Vine
  • My Rating – 4 stars

This is a promising debut novel which will appeal to fans of quirky fiction peppered with a dash of magical realism. Alternate chapters tell the stories of Abel, the Flayed Man and Eve, the Lion Faced Girl whose lives intertwine when they both perform in Josiah Arroner’s Palace of Curiosities. Estranged from “normal” society, they share a basic human need for acceptance and love.

Their story is told in the present tense, similar to The Night Circus and like Erin Morgenstern’s debut, this will probably be a “marmite” read. There are elements of the grotesque as you might expect in a tale about those characters considered freaks by the rest of society – probably not to be recommended for those of a sensitive nature!

I really enjoyed this whimsical tale of unconventional characters set against the backdrop of a murky Victorian London. Looking forward to reading more from this author.

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The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Proofs on March 1st, 2013 by admin – 5 Comments

The Last Runaway

Published
14/03/2013

Publisher
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Source
New Books Magazine

My Rating - 4.5 stars

Tracy Chevalier is one of  my favourite authors and she has a way of making history come alive in her novels which have subjects as diverse as Vermeer and fossils.  In The Last Runaway she switches her focus to America, in particular 1850s Ohio where the young English Quaker, Honor Bright starts a new life very different to her quiet upbringing in Dorset, England.

It is a time of great upheaval in America as the country inches towards civil war with a variety of runaways, both black slaves and white settlers, trying to forge a better life for themselves.  Honor finds life hard as a single woman unaccustomed to the American way but she is aided by the flamboyant Belle Mills, a milliner, who takes Honor under her wing.  Belle’s brother, Donovan, sets his sights on Honor but his reputation as a dissolute slave hunter makes him an unlikely suitor.

Reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, this is a novel with strong female characters who use their wits to survive difficult times.  Those travelling the Underground Railway are not the only runaways in this well-researched and eloquently written novel.

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The Kitchen House – Kathleen Grissom

Posted in American Fiction, Historical Fiction on February 27th, 2013 by admin – 2 Comments

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (14 Mar 2013)
  • Source: Amazon Vine
  • My Rating – 4 stars

Kathleen Grissom’s debut novel, The Kitchen House, is a New York Times bestseller and a firm favourite with book clubs in the United States. Despite stiff competition from many other novels set in the antebellum Deep South, this story has captured the imagination of contemporary America.

Perhaps it is the twist of placing a white female in the midst of black slaves which makes it stand out and gives it a spark of originality. Lavinia, a seven year old Irish orphan, finds herself indentured to a white plantation family and eventually discovers a new family amongst the black slaves in the kitchen house. As the years pass, she ends up in a limbo-like situation unsure of her status in society, not quite fitting in anywhere.

Yes, there are some stereotypical characters including evil overseers, drunken, power-crazed plantation owners, swooning ladies but there are also some strong female characters ironically more so among the slave population than amid the white genteel ladies who seem imprisoned by the shackles of marriage and the constraints of society. With chapters alternately narrated by either Lavinia or Belle (her guardian at the kitchen house), the reader gets a broad, balanced view of events.

There is quite a lot of misery but nevertheless this is an extremely readable, compelling story. I’m not sure if I would put it on a par with The Help as that was a more character-driven novel and there were moments of humour to alleviate the gloom but it is an impressive debut and a definite page-turner.

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The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

Posted in Australian fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on February 20th, 2013 by admin – Be the first to comment

Front Cover

Transworld Publ. Limited UK, 11 Apr 2013 – Fiction – 464 pages
Source – Publisher
My Rating – 4.5 stars

The moors in Wuthering Heights, Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, both settings which have drawn me in and remained with me long after turning the final page.  Now I have a new setting to add to the favourites list – the island of Janus Rock, set in the wild, remote region where the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet off the coast of Western Australia.   Here on Janus Rock, in the aftermath of World War I, ex-serviceman Tom tends the lighthouse and he and his wife Izzy hope to raise a family here.   Their plans are thwarted until one day, a foundling is washed up on the island and Izzy’s desire for a child of her own overrides any sense of moral obligation to investigate the child’s origins.

I loved how the author describes the love story of Tom and Izzy in a completely non-judgemental way, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether to make any moral judgements.  I was drawn into the lives of the main characters, particularly Tom who still feels the emotional fall-out of his time in the army.

You know in your heart that things will not turn out well for Tom and Izzy.  Who could possibly live with such a heavy secret?  You know there can’t be an idyllically happy ending but you find yourself rooting for these characters knowing that they mean well.

This is a compelling, beautifully written story peopled with real, flawed characters.  It’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel.

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Queen’s Gambit – Elizabeth Fremantle

Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs on February 14th, 2013 by admin – Be the first to comment
Queen's Gambit

Published
14/03/2013

Publisher
Michael Joseph Ltd

ISBN
9780718177065

My Rating 4 stars

I have read and enjoyed Philippa Gregory’s Tudor series of novels so I was keenly anticipating this debut novel by Elizabeth Fremantle which focuses on Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr. My knowledge of Katherine was rather limited given that other queens especially Anne Boleyn tend to hog the Tudor stage!

This is an impressive debut novel with assured, confident writing. We see the many aspects of Katherine’s character – she was so much more than a nursemaid to the ailing king – with her contribution to religious reform, her survival instincts, her desire for love even after two marriages of convenience. Complementing Katherine’s story is the tale of her chamberer, Dot Fownten (Fountain), whose life has been colourfully reimagined by the author. Whilst I enjoyed hearing about Dot’s life, I did find myself wanting to know more about Katherine and what made her tick.

A handy list of the main characters with some extra biographical information is included at the back of the novel along with a basic Tudor timeline – ideal for Tudor novices.

Queen’s Gambit will appeal to fans of romantic historical fiction with moving accounts of Katherine’s love for Thomas Seymour. They say love is blind and this must certainly have been the case for Katherine, an intelligent, perceptive woman, to overlook/remain blissfully ignorant of all of Seymour’s machinations. The novel works well as a light read and is an impressive debut, the first of what should be a popular trilogy of novels set in the Tudor era.

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Becoming Jane Eyre – Sheila Kohler

Posted in Historical Fiction on January 18th, 2013 by admin – 4 Comments

Becoming Jane Eyre

Published
18/08/2011

Publisher
Corsair

Source
Kindle Purchase

My Rating
3.5 stars

Jane Eyre is my favourite novel of all time so, whilst I am not a expert in the Brontes, I have a penchant for any books, films about them or their novels/poetry. I’ve also visited the Parsonage at Haworth where you get a real feel for the isolation they must have felt, cooped up in that dark house, left motherless at an early age.

I admire any writer who takes on a project like this, a merge of fact and fiction, as Brontephiles can be quite sensitive to any conjectures re their heroines. Sheila Kohler is obviously a fan and her “faction” is based on solid research. Some might question the suggestion that Charlotte was envious of her sister’s success but I, personally, thought it was an interesting viewpoint. As usual Branwell is the villain of the piece with the bed burning and laudanum addiction included.

Overall this is an interesting read although I felt the author skimmed over the deaths of Charlotte’s siblings and her courtship with Arthur Bell Nicholls. It’s still a good introduction to the Brontes and how their upbringing and environment influenced themes in their novels. For further reading I would highly recommend Lynne Reid Banks’ novels about the Brontes, Dark Quartet and Path to the Silent Country.

Haworth Village during our visit in 2008 (not raining for a change!)

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

Posted in Historical Fiction on November 28th, 2012 by admin – 8 Comments

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Paperback, 355 pages

Published June 2012 by PanMacmillan
My Rating – 4 stars

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is Carol Rifka Brunt’s extraordinary, literary debut novel set in New York in 1987.  Narrated by 14 year old June Elbus, this is an engaging coming of age story filled with the highs and lows of family life.  June is a bit of a nerd and doesn’t quite fit in with her peers but she does have a  special link with her Uncle Finn, the famous but  now reclusive artist.  When Finn dies, far too young, June discovers that she was not the centre of his universe but she shared that limelight with Toby, Finn’s “special” friend.

As the story  unfolds, June gradually gets to know Toby but she is still torn apart  by jealousy, a bitter envy of the close relationship Toby had with Finn.  Ironically her obsession has left her oblivious to how envious her older sister Greta is of her closeness to Finn.  June’s mother has mixed emotions about her brother, Finn for reasons which will eventually become clearer as the story progresses but the author doesn’t tie everything up neatly, after all, family relationships are rarely straightforward.

I thoroughly enjoyed this insightful tale of a family coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.  I’d forgotten how prehistoric some people’s attitudes to AIDS were when it first hit the news headlines, indeed some folk have still not moved on!   June’s mother seems convinced that Toby killed Finn by giving him the AIDS virus but this is just another example of the mass hysteria which surrounded AIDS in the early days.  The parents seem well-meaning but they work ridiculously long hours and June and Greta are left to their own devices most of the time – a recipe for disaster.

Each  character is far from perfect, even the revered Finn whose very absence haunts the novel, even June, the misunderstood teen, who acknowledges that she has ulterior motives for some of her seemingly selfless actions.  This is a beautifully written, slow moving story which needs to be savoured rather than rushed – a very impressive debut.

Click here for the opportunity to access a free download of the first 10 chapters of Tell the Wolves I’m Home from Pan Macmillan.

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