Historical Fiction

Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

Posted in Historical Fiction on November 25th, 2012 by admin – 3 Comments

I know, I know, I’m reviewing a novel which isn’t a new release, shock horror!  I am almost up to date with review copies so I jumped at the chance to join in discussing the latest choice of the Virago Book Club, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.

I have read and really enjoyed all of Sarah Waters’ novels but for some reason I have left her first novel to be read last.  There’s something quite intiguing about reading an author’s work in this order as you see how they have developed their style, the seeds of future storylines are sown, they find out what works and what doesn’t.  It’s odd to think that 10 years ago the tv adaptation of  Tipping the Velvet caused such a furore when it hit the screens and not that many had actually read the book yet, ten years on Fifty Shades of Grey virtually becomes a national treasure.  (psst the difference is Sarah Waters is a wonderfully talented storyteller who happens to include some sex scenes whilst E L James is……..).

Anyway, I digress….Tipping the Velvet showcases Sarah Waters’ talents as a supreme storyteller as she drags you kicking and screaming into Victorian England, from the oyster huts of Whistable to the sights and sounds of the music halls in London.  Our narrator, young Nancy Astley falls for Kitty Butler, “masher” extraordinaire, who beguiles both sexes with her impersonations of a young dandy.  Is it love or lust or just forbidden love doomed to failure?

None of the characters are particularly appealing or likeable but they are eminently interesting with all their flaws and foibles exposed.  Nan and her first love, Kitty, are both rather selfish and perhaps the reader isn’t totally sympathetic when the girls  discover the streets of London are not the golden pathways they expected.  Nan’s journey of self-discovery leads her to very dark places, there are scenes which might upset anyone leaning towards prudishness *dildo alert* but if you are of a less sensitive nature you will relish this rambunctious coming of age tale filled with Dickensian characters and Victorian melodrama.

Sarah Waters’ later works seem a lot tamer in comparison but you can see how she has developed and honed her storytelling skills and her eye for detail and historical ambiance has always been at the fore.  Relationships, social mores, class issues are frequent themes in her writing whatever the decade being placed under the microscope and you can be sure that she has done the groundwork to bring you an authentic experience.  All I need now is for her to write another novel…..

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In the Shadow of the Banyan

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on October 25th, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

In the Shadow of the Banyan

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (13 Sep 2012)
  • My Rating – 4 stars
  • Source - Amazon Vine

My knowledge of Cambodian history and the role of the Khmer Rouge is rather limited, based on viewing the excellent but harrowing film, The Killing Fields when I was 20. I relish the opportunity to discover the history and culture of other countries through fiction and In the Shadow of the Banyan has the added kudos of having an author who experienced these desperate times first-hand.

The author allows us to view the horrors of civil war up close but filters the more gruesome aspects by using a very young narrator, the seven year old Raami who has been swept from a life of privilege in an aristocratic family to the grass roots of a peasant existence. The language is so elegant and beautiful, very lyrical at times, allowing the reader to see the beauty and grace of the humans at the centre of this dreadful war. Ironically it is the exquisite nature of the prose which causes this to be a good but not great read for me as I just can’t get past the fact that the narrator is only 7 years old yet capable of such eloquence. Maybe it’s because I have young children myself but it seems incongruous for such a young child to express herself in such a consistently lyrical manner.

Having said that, it is an extremely moving read and a very good introduction to the troubled history of a country which, in my opinion, has been rather overlooked by the world of literature.

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Spirit of Lost Angels – Liza Perrat

Posted in Historical Fiction on September 28th, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

Spirit of Lost Angels

  • Paperback: 378 pages
  • At the time of writing – only £2.79 on Kindle
  • My Rating – 4 stars
  • Source – the author herself
  • I suppose I could be described as a Francophile, given that I used to teach French to A Level (age 18) and I have a penchant for novels set in France e.g. Joanne Harris, Kate Mosse, Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud, Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue and more recently, Tatiana de Rosnay.  Therefore I was immediately drawn to Spirit of Lost Angels, set in late 18th century Revolutionary France.

    This is a very impressive debut novel with characters which spring to life from the opening pages.  Our narrator is a young peasant girl, Victoire, who experiences at first hand the tumult caused by the rumblings of revolutionary France.  Victoire is a surviver, having to “reinvent” herself on more than one occasion to keep her head above water.  We witness her rural upbringing, not quite the bucolic idyll and then a new life in bustling Paris, in the midst of turbulent social change.

    Real life historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jeanne de Valois feature in this vividly described narrative adding authenticity to this epic tale.  The author wears her research lightly in this extremely readable, emotionally satisfying tale of a feisty young girl surviving the worst of times.  I am pleased to report that this is the first of a series of novels and I am really looking forward to hearing more about Victoire’s descendants.  Highly recommended for all lovers of historical fiction who enjoy a meaty tale!

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    The Mill for Grinding Old People Young – Glenn Patterson

    Posted in Historical Fiction on September 20th, 2012 by admin – 8 Comments


  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber (15 Mar 2012)
  • Source - Library
  • My Rating – 5 stars
  • I wouldn’t have even heard about this novel if it hadn’t been our latest choice for our library reading group, so many thanks to Liz, our lovely librarian, for seeking out this gem of a story.  I had heard of  Glenn Patterson, a local author, who has written many novels set during and considering the impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland but for some strange reason I hadn’t read any of these, preferring perhaps not to read about our painful past and instead reading about conflict in other distant countries.  Time to rectify that now!

    The Mill for Grinding Old People Young is narrated by Belfast man, Gilbert Rice, in 1897.  At the age of 85, his health is failing yet he has vivid memories of his youth in a rapidly changing city.  In the 1830s the city’s population was expanding rapidly in response to industrialisation and the influx of a vast new workforce.  Gilbert has had a relatively sheltered childhood, brought up by a strict but kindly grandfather, but he enters a new exciting world when he starts work at the Ballast Office at the Port of Belfast.  There is the constant fear of a cholera epidemic which leads to a wariness of foreigners.  There is a wide chasm between the landed gentry and the ordinary working folk although both like to indulge in a bit of gambling at cock-fights!  Gilbert makes his way through an ever changing world, making mistakes en route, growing up in a city which is also finding its feet.

    Written in an easy, accessible style, this intriguing novel opens a window on the past of a city which has constantly had to reinvent itself.   From the opening pages, you have a sense of Belfast as a living, breathing organism and there’s a lot of affection and humour from Gilbert as he takes you on a tour of a city in its heyday.  The author wears the weight of his historical research lightly and you absorb the atmosphere, soaking up the ambiance whether it be supping a pint or having a quick nap in the storeroom of the Ballast Office. 

    Anyway, how could you resist such an intriguing title or such a stunning cover??  This is the first time I have been accosted by a doctor in a waiting room….to ask what I was reading and I was delighted to recommend it wholeheartedly.

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    My Dear I Wanted To Tell You – Louisa Young

    Posted in Historical Fiction on August 22nd, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

    My Dear I Wanted to Tell You




    My Rating - 3 stars

    There seems to have been a spate of WWI books recently of which I have consumed my fair share so I waited a while after publication before investigating this story out of fear of over-exposure.   I have also waited a while after reading before reviewing as I wanted to see if my reading experience would improve with age…..however, it remained a 3 star read for me, not bad but not earth-shatteringly good either, decidedly middle of the road.

    There’s a lot going on in this novel – two men and three women, from varied social backgrounds experiencing different aspects of the war both at home and at the front.  Add to that a forbidden love affair, the gradual crumbling of social barriers, the horrors of life in the trenches, the physical and mental scars of war and you have a heady mix.  It’s clearly an extremely well-researched novel with lots of interesting information about the early days of reconstructive surgery.

    There’s no doubt that Louisa Young is a fine writer but I had the impression the kitchen sink effect of so many themes had a clogging effect on the story and I found it hard going at times.  Whilst Riley, Peter, Nadine, Julia and Rose are portrayed vividly, I only felt engaged by Rose who was kept in the background for most of the novel.  The rest seemed to belong to a clique renowned as much for their vapidity as their beauty.

    Somehow this novel and I just didn’t click but I’d still like to read more of the author’s work, perhaps with different subject matter.

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    The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs on August 20th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

    The Colour of Milk


    Fig Tree

    Amazon Vine

    My Rating – 5 Stars

    Looks can be deceiving – The Colour of Milk looks like a dainty little thing, measuring just 15cm x 10cm and at 176 pages, more novella than novel but behind that delicate exterior lurks a powerful story with a strong female protagonist.

    It is 1851 and this  is the story of 15 year old Mary, the youngest of four daughters in a farming family where a son would have been more highly prized.  Mary tells it as it is and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  She tells her story over four seasons and over the course of the year 1851 there are big changes in her life.  Viewed as the runt of the litter by her brutal father, he sees some way to make use of her by hiring her out to the local vicar and his wife.   Perhaps this will be a form of escape for Mary but she misses her home, especially her grandfather.  There is some compensation as she eventually achieves her ambition, to be able to read and write but at what cost?

    I warmed to Mary from her opening words -

    this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.

    She’ll tell her story as she sees fit, in her own time and in her own barely literate style – don’t expect any airs and graces with this girl!  Her voice is so natural, so true and you can’t help but be engrossed in her tale.  She doesn’t set out to charm or flatter the reader but the bare, direct style of her narration makes her irresistible.  Her love for her grandfather shines through despite the lack of terms of endearment.

    Mary, with her hair “the colour of milk”, is intent on lingering in my imagination – a sure sign of a good read.

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    The Secret Life of William Shakespeare – Jude Morgan

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on July 31st, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

    The Secret Life of William Shakespeare


    Headline Review

    Source – Amazon Vine

    My Rating – 3 stars

    I loved A Taste of Sorrow, Jude Morgan’s wonderful novel about the Brontes and hoped to be similarly thrilled by this window onto the world of William Shakespeare.  Unfortunately the view is rather blurred, to the point of opacity and I was left feeling slightly bewildered and convinced I must have missed something which was so obvious to other readers….so I waited a month before reviewing, thinking that I’d soon experience some sort of epiphany, a dawn of understanding but nope…it didn’t arrive.

    If Shakespeare remains elusive and reclusive, we at least have some interesting snippets via Morgan’s portrayal of Kit Marlowe and Ben Jonson.  Anne Hathaway captured my attention also, a feisty lady whose stoicism allows her to survive extended time with the in-laws, raise a family, all with her husband living away from home.  Unfortunately these characters weren’t enough to hold my interest in a novel whose central character remains not only enigmatic (enigmas can be interesting!) but extremely dull and dispassionate.

    Overall, a disappointing read for me.  I should really stick with the Brontes as they rarely disappoint me!

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    The Prisoner of Heaven- Carlos Ruiz Zafon

    Posted in Books about Books, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on July 16th, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

    The Prisoner of Heaven


    Weidenfeld & Nicolson


    My Rating – 4.5 stars

    The Prisoner of Heaven is the long awaited third instalment in the Cemetery of Lost Books series.  Carlos Ruiz Zafon is such a talented storyteller I think he could make the phone book unputdownable! I always approach his new books with a mixture of pleasure and dread – I’m always confident they’re going to be good but I know I’ll feel bereft once the final page is turned.

    The story begins in 1957, a year after Daniel and Bea Sempere’s wedding and they now have their hands full with a new addition to the family, baby Julian.  All seems peaceful enough apart from the usual pressures of adjusting to parenthood and the need to bring more customers into Sempere and Son’s Bookshop where Daniel and family now live with his father.  Fermin is still working in the bookshop and will soon be married to Bernarda so what could possibly happen to taint this picture of domestic bliss?  Cue the entrance of the mysterious stranger who readily spends a small fortune on a rare copy of The Count of Monte Cristo only to instruct Daniel to pass it onto Fermin.  Thus, a window is opened on the murky past of Fermin Romero de Torres and we are swept back in the mists of time to 1939 when Barcelona fell to General Franco.   Fermin was amongst those unfortunates imprisoned in Montjuic Castle, considered as escape-proof as the Chateau d’If in The Count of Monte Cristo.  Yes, the past has a nasty habit of catching up on folk and Fermin is no exception.

    If you enjoyed The Shadow of The Wind and The Angel’s Game you will experience equal delight in this latest episode.  The usual Zafon ingredients are present – the gothic undertones, the inner heart of Barcelona, the love of literature, the sheer joy of creating a vibrant, atmospheric story peopled with characters who feel like old friends. 

    The only thing preventing me awarding  a five star rating  (maybe I’m too greedy or too harsh..) is the fact that, at 288 pages,  this novel is almost half the size of its two sister volumes (The Shadow of The Wind 528 pages, The Angel’s Game 544 pages) and it feels more like part one of a two parter a la Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows movie version.  I guess it prolongs the inevitable despair of finishing the series, which will happen with the next novel but it could frustrate those accustomed to the “meatiness” of the previous tomes.  I’ll just have to bide my time waiting on the final course, grazing on less savoury fare to satisfy my literary munchies in the interim…

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    The Falcons of Fire and Ice – Karen Maitland

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs on July 10th, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment
  • The Falcons of Fire and Ice
  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Michael Joseph (16 Aug 2012)
  • My Rating – 3 stars

    I’ve really enjoyed two of Karen Maitland’s previous novels, The Owl Killers and The Company of Liars but I wasn’t so keen on her last book, The Gallows Curse. Still, I was keen to read The Falcons of Fire and Ice and see if it would captivate me as much as The Owl Killers had.

    The Portugal of 1539, complete with the terror of the Inquisition, was rather different from the view from my Portuguese sun-lounger – yes, the heat of the sun was rather intense but hardly a match for the pyres erected by the Jesuits in their efforts to hunt down and destroy the Marranos (Christianised Jews who had fled to Portugal from Spain). Meanwhile, in Iceland, the Catholic population face similar persecution from the conquering Danes. Isabella, daughter of the Portuguese Royal Falconer, faces the virtually impossible task of travelling alone to Iceland to capture two extremely rare white falcons – if she fails her father will be executed. Meanwhile, back in Iceland, the oracles, twin sisters Eydis and Valdis, anxiously await Isabella’s arrival at their remote underground cave.

    Yes, there is a lot going on – an ongoing battle between good and evil, supernatural forces at work as well as a dastardly villain determined to crush the young, innocent Isabella. It’s a big story with grand adventures and big characters but this penchant for the “larger than life” spoils the story for me. The characters end up pantomime-like, reminiscent of the commedia dell’arte or grand guignol and I didn’t really care about any of them although the twin sisters left me wanting more.

    If you enjoy far-fetched storylines and are willing to suspend your disbelief to Himilayan altitudes, then you might find this quite an entertaining  romp.  Also, if you are a bit of a twitcher and keen on birds of prey, the snippets about falconry which preface every  chapter will be of interest.  For me, though, I was slightly disappointed….but I live in hope for a return to Owl Killers form.

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    Blow on A Dead Man’s Embers – Mari Strachan

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on May 14th, 2012 by admin – 8 Comments

    Blow on a Dead Man's Embers


    Canongate Books Ltd

    My Rating – 4.5 stars

    I thoroughly enjoyed Mari Strachan’s first novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat, set in rural Wales in the 1950s with its unforgettable 12 and a bit narrator, Gwenni.  Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers is set in an earlier era, it is 1921 and Non (Rhiannon) knows she should be relieved to have her husband Davey safely returned from the Great War where so many perished.  Davey might be physically present but Non worries about his emotional and mental state and she is determined to “fix” him and make him whole again even if it means subterfuge on her part. 

    This is such a beautifully written story peopled with vibrant, interesting characters.  I felt like I really got to know Non and her step-children including the quiet, reticent Osian and the wilful, teenage Meg.  I felt immersed in the intensity of the interminable heatwave assailing the small Welsh village and its inhabitants and the fact I was also brought up in a tiny, remote village made the characters resonate with me even more.   Life is hard, the laundry is never-ending but there is little for it but to just get by the best one can.  However it’s not all doom and gloom and comic interludes are provided by Maggie Ellis, the village gossip (my village still has one like her!) and Non’s dour mother-in-law, Catherine Davies.

    As well as the stifling ambiance of village life we have the global issues of love and loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, autism, the struggle for Irish independence, medical advances, women’s rights, the growth of the Labour party.  Change is coming whether the villagers like it or not. 

    Mari Strachan has a knack of engaging the reader almost immediately, drawing you into this other world, immersing you in another era - highly recommended particularly if you enjoy excellent storytelling in a rural setting.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what Mari comes up with next.

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