Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

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 Prince who Walked with Lions – Elizabeth Laird

    Posted in Children's Books, Historical Fiction on March 19th, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment

    The Prince Who Walked With Lions


    Macmillan Children’s Books

    My Rating 3.5 stars

    I’m almost ashamed to say that before reading this I had never even heard of Elizabeth Laird but an examination of her back catalogue has revealed a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of children’s literature – much to add to the never-ending wishlist both for my children and I.   She has certainly had a full and varied life, working and travelling in many different parts of the world – a multicultural cornucopia which she has drawn upon to produce a range of intelligently written novels for young people.

    Based on a true story, our narrator is the young Prince Alamayu, son of Emperor  Theodore of Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia).  He tells his story as he lies on his sickbed during his time as a student at Rugby, via a series of flashbacks to his early childhood.  What follows is a detailed, interesting tale of an exotic lifestyle brought to a sudden end by the death of his father at the hands of Queen Victoria’s troops in 1868.   Torn from his native country, he is brought up and educated as a typical English gentleman but he finds it hard to fit in with his peers.

    This is an engaging, poignant tale of a proud young royal striving to adapt to extreme changes in circumstances.  Laird captures the turmoil of a young boy caught between two worlds, slowly forgetting his Ethiopian heritage yet not quite achieving the status of a perfect young gentleman despite his associations with Queen Victoria herself.   Reading this has encouraged me to find out more about this particular part of history – what a bonus if it could incite the same curiosity in younger readers.  Off now to check out Elizabeth’s previous novels – Kiss The Dust  and  A Little Piece of Ground are particularly catching my eye.

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    The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Proofs on March 13th, 2012 by admin – 7 Comments

    The Lifeboat

    Published in the US by

    Little, Brown and Company

    Pub Date: April 03, 2012

    ISBN: 9780316185905


    Published in the UK

    Virago Press Ltd

    My Rating = 5 Stars!

    The Lifeboat is another choice from Waterstones Eleven, eleven debut novels which they have earmaked for commercial success and critical acclaim in 2012.  This is my fourth read from the selection and yet another one which I thoroughly enjoyed, even on a par with The Snow Child which is high praise indeed.

    Set in 1914, most of the action, or should that read “inaction”, takes place on a lifeboat stranded in the Atlantic Ocean following the sinking of the Empress Alexandra five days after her depature from Liverpool.  Our narrator, newly wed Grace Winter, has written an account of her experiences during three long and exhausting weeks spent aboard the overladen vessel – an account which could once more mean the difference between life and death for her as she now stands trial for murder.  Some of her fellow passengers didn’t survive – some jumped and some may have been pushed but Grace’s involvement is rather unclear and she isn’t the most reliable of narrators.  What is crystal clear though is that the reader will question what he or she would do in a similar situation, how far would we go to survive?

    This is one of those novels you will want all your friends to read so you can discuss it afterwards and share your views.  Underneath the deceptively simple prose lies a multilayered entity which sucks in the reader from the opening pages.  Grace is an interesting character, flawed and human but does her devious streak extend to murder?  Lifeboat No 14 is predominantly female with 30 women, 8 men and 1 child and half of the men end up perishing in the ocean.  The whole power struggle between Hardie (the ship’s crewman) and Mrs Grant mirrors women’s struggle for emancipation and Grace tries her best to steer a middle course between the two.  However when they’re back on terra firma facing a murder accusation, it’s back to normality, to a male dominated society so everything changes.

    Charlotte Rogan wrote the first draft of The Lifeboat 10 years ago and she has been writing whilst raising triplets so she has had little in the way of spare time.  I, for one, am glad that she decided to revisit this novel and set it loose on us readers - grab your lifejackets or at least have plenty of snacks to sustain you as you will be enthralled by this compelling debut.

    My thanks to Net Galley for allowing me to review a digital proof of The Lifeboat.

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    The Last Summer – Judith Kinghorn

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 12th, 2012 by admin – 3 Comments

    The Last Summer


    Headline Review

    My Rating – 4 stars

    I must confess to having grown a bit weary of dual-time frame novels so it was a delight to pick up The Last Summer knowing that it would focus on one particular period in history, the Great War and beyond.  Brownie points are awarded for the inclusion of a sumptuous country house, Deyning Park – come Spring, of a weekend, you will find my family and I wandering around the grounds of Mount Stewart, a National Trust property, not unlike Deyning with its own lake and beautifully manicured gardens and grounds.   I find myself often wondering what it was like in its heyday with cocktails and croquet on the lawn….anyway, if you read The Last Summer you are instantly transported back to that world without even having to leave the comfort of your own armchair.

    Our story begins in the early summer of 1914 with events narrated by Clarissa, the privileged daughter of the wealthy Granville family.  During a weekend party she meets and falls in love with Tom Cuthbert, the housekeeper’s son, who is “allowed” to socialise with his betters for a short while while on holiday from university.  War interrupts this burgeoning, forbidden romance and ends what Clarissa describes as a “belle epoque”,  turning everything on its head but will attitudes change to such an extent that their partnership will ever be accepted in polite society?

    This is an epic yet surprisingly compact story which draws you in from the opening pages.  It does no harm, I guess, that Downton Abbey is currently enjoying such success with the Great British Public and even further afield as Downton devotees will fall equally in love with Deyning Park and its inhabitants.   The characters are vivid and engaging with just the right amount of flaws to make them appear “almost” one of us.  The author does a splendid job of recreating the accepted mores of post-Edwardian society including the seedier side of drug-taking as well as the intense suffering of those returning from the Front.  Yes, there’s a lot packed into just over 400 pages but it remains an immensely readable, compelling story.

    Highly recommended for all romantics and an extremely fine debut – looking forward to her next offering for my future romantic fix…

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    The Midwife of Venice – Roberta Rich

    Posted in Historical Fiction on February 17th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

    The Midwife of Venice

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (16 Feb 2012)
  • My Rating – 3 stars

    I have a distinct penchant for historical novels set in Italy,  especially those written by Sarah Dunant.  Therefore I was immediately attracted by the blurb for this, Roberta Rich’s debut, set in Venice in the 16th century.  It was a quick, easy read but Ms Dunant has nothing to fear – her crown remains unchallenged.

    It is 1575 and Venetian Jewess and midwife, Hannah Levi is much in demand for her birthing skills, particularly since she has devised a special instrument for assisting difficult births.  It is forbidden for Jews to attend to the medical needs of Christians but Hannah makes an exception for the Conte di Padovani’s wife – if the latter’s baby dies, Hannah risks the wrath of the Christian authorities falling on all who reside in the Jewish ghetto but if it survives, she will be able to afford the ransom to release her merchant husband, Issac, from captivity in Malta.

    The novel moves between 16th century Venice and Malta, detailing the twists and turns of Hannah and Issac’s efforts to be reunited.  The author’s research is evident in the recreation of Renaissance Venice, warts and all…rotting vegetables, vermin etc…do not expect lives of the rich and famous or modesty in actions and language although occasionally the language veers on the anachronistic, clunky side. 

    Of the two settings, I preferred Venice although you don’t get a feel for wider society beyond Hannah’s limited experience other than vague mutterings about the plague and how it affected Venice.  The Maltese location with hapless Issac taking centre stage has few saving graces apart from Sister Assunta, the zealous local nun, bent on converting all non-Christians.

    Overall I quite liked The Midwife of Venice in that it was like an historical soap opera, easygoing and not too intellectually demanding although I’m not too sure if historical-lite was the author’s intended target?   However I would have really liked more development of the main characters which could easily be accommodated by the excision of Issac – well, he didn’t do much for me… Overall, an okay read but I don’t think I will be rushing out to read more from this author.

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