Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

The Dovekeepers – Alice Hoffman

Posted in Historical Fiction on November 11th, 2011 by admin – 4 Comments

The Dovekeepers

Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors and I love her juxtaposition of the mundane and magic in contemporary settings.  The Dovekeepers is far removed from our humdrum, daily lives as it is set in ancient Israel but the magic remains in this extensively researched historical novel.

Following the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 and the destruction of the temple, many Jews fled the Romans and crossed the Judean desert, establishing a Zealot settlement at the remote natural fortress, Masada.  Overlooking the Dead Sea, this rugged outpost was considered virtually impregnable but the Roman Empire was determined to conquer Masada, once the site of King Herod’s palaces.  In AD73, Flavius Silva, the Roman Governor, succeeded in breaching the fortress but not before the Jewish inhabitants (numbering almost 1,000) organised a mass suicide, preferring a glorious death to a life of infamy.  According to the ancient historian, Josephus, only two women and five children survived.

In The Dovekeepers, Hoffman tells the story from the Jewish women’s point of view, using four different female narrators, Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah all of whom work in the dovecotes.  They are exceptionally strong women who have suffered so much yet make their mark in what is most definitely a man’s world.  Yael, whose own mother died giving birth to her, is shunned by her father but, following the fall of Jerusalem, they eventually reach Masada.  Revka, traumatised by the brutal death of her daughter at the hands of Roman soldiers, comes to Masada with her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they witnessed.  Aziza, raised as a boy, longs to show her warrior skills but has to do so by subterfuge.  Shirah, Aziza’s mother, has to conceal her magical skills for fear of being an outcast again. 

In a novel of epic range, the author brings us into the Judean desert in the 1st century – we feel the relentless heat, the harshness of the rocks underfoot, the endless hardship of daily life.  All these women hope for is a better life for their children but they know what fate awaits them.

Yes, there is magic but it’s dark and disturbing, something to be concealed by women who realise that whatever they do they can’t escape what fate has already decreed.

At 500 pages, with detailed descriptions, this is a novel which requires focus and concentration.  It is much more intense than Alice Hoffman’s previous novels but it’s well worth the effort.  My only slight criticism would be that some of the descriptions veer on the flowery, over-written side but overall it’s an engrossing read.

Alice Hoffman has succeeded in bringing a long-lost world into our contemporary lives and at times, one wonders if there are more similarities than differences!   Highly recommended for patient readers.

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The Things We Cherished – Pam Jenoff

Posted in Dual Time Frame, Historical Fiction on November 5th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel is a well plotted, dual-time frame story.  In the contemporary narrative,  two American attorneys, Charlotte Gold and Jack Harrington, are brought together to work on the defence of a man accused of war crimes during WWII.  The accused, Roger Dykmans,  is reluctant to aid them in his defence, seeming resigned to whatever fate holds for him.   The only clue is a handcrafted anniversary clock which might hold the key to why he allegedly betrayed his brother Hans to the Nazis.

In the engaging historical narrative, we are fed tantalising nuggets of information which eventually come together to explain Roger’s actions.  It’s a love story with Roger falling for Magda, his sister-in-law in what will be a doomed romance.

Romance also features in the modern narrative, with Charlotte and Jack gradually becoming closer despite the emotional baggage of previous relationships.  I found their story less gripping than that of Roger and Magda who had much more to lose but then I have a personal preference for historical fiction.

This is a very touching, readable  story with the focus on love and loyalty rather than the brutality of war.  It’s about how we tend to cling to the past, to our memories – both good and bad.

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The Unseen – Katherine Webb

Posted in Dual Time Frame, Historical Fiction on October 27th, 2011 by admin – 2 Comments

The Unseen

During the long hot summer of 1911, a feisty young woman arrives in Thatcham, Berkshire to work as a maid in the Canning household.  Having served time in prison for undisclosed crimes, Cat Morley crashes into the lives of the vicar Albert Canning and his wife Hester, determined to leave her mark.  Cat is not the only disruptive influence though as Albert invites Robin Durrant into their home – Robin shares Albert’s interest in theosophy but Albert becomes more and obsessed with his guest and the quest to capture photographic images of elementals.  Passions run high as the temperatures soar and it is inevitable that someone will get hurt in the process.

I have mixed feelings about this novel – it’s a dual time frame story, one set in 1911 and one in 2011 but very little time is spent on the contemporary narrative.   Now, I know I’ve frequently said how the modern story frequently doesn’t work as well for me in this type of novel but The Unseen does seem a bit off-balance in this respect and I feel that it might have been better to stick to the 1911 story and remove the 2011 element altogether as it really doesn’t enhance the reading experience. 

So I’ll focus on the story of the Cannings and their troublesome blow-ins, Cat and Robin.  I found none of the characters particularly likeable but some of my favourite fictional characters are obnoxious so no problem there.  The Reverend Albert is weak and watery and easy prey for the charismatic, cunning Robin who is desperate to excel at something in life and impress his family.   Cat is like a caged animal and yearns for freedom and equality – not quite the right fit for someone in service!  In contrast, Hester is naive beyond belief, even for a century ago – I wanted to shake her.

A varied assortment of characters then with interesting historical elements – suffragettism, attitudes to homosexuality, theosophy but if only it had a bit more pace at the start (and I’m a fan of slow, lyrical reads!) It took me about 100 pages to “get into” the story and I must admit the temptation to skim was ever present.   It’s a very well written novel and the author has clearly done her research but it didn’t engage me as much as The Legacy.

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The Lady of The Rivers – Philippa Gregory

Posted in Historical Fiction on October 26th, 2011 by admin – 6 Comments

The Lady of the Rivers

This is the third of Philippa Gregory’s Cousin’ War series and here the focus is on Jacquetta, mother of the White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville.  Jacquetta has been rather neglected as an historical figure but the author aims to make amends for that oversight in this compelling portrayal of a fascinating woman.

Jacquetta had an extremely eventful life – even though she became very wealthy as a result of her arranged first marriage to the Duke of Bedford she chose to marry for love in her second marriage to Richard Woodville, the Duke’s squire.  As favourites of King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, Jacquetta and Richard are privy to all the shenanigans of courtly life but England is in turmoil with the constant rivalry between the Houses of Lancaster and York so their royal connections don’t always work in their favour.

As in The White Queen, there are frequent allusions to Jacquetta’s alleged ancestor, the river goddess Melusina and the story is imbued with water images.  This adds an ethereal, magical aspect which enhances the story whilst not overpowering the historical facts.  Having said that, Jacquetta seems to have been a formidable woman in her own right, bearing 16 children during her marriage to Richard, yet still having time to be a close confidante of the queen.

The Lady of the Rivers is an extremely engaging tale of an extraordinary woman who fought constant obstacles to ensure an auspicious future for her family.  I’m now looking forward to the next in the series about Elizabeth of York.

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The Countess – Rebecca Johns

Posted in Historical Fiction on October 26th, 2011 by admin – 2 Comments

The Countess: A Novel

“The Countess” opens in Hungary in 1611 with Countess Erzsebet Bathory being walled up in a castle prison to spend the remainder of her life in solitary confinement.  What crimes did she commit to warrant such a brutal punishment?   She and a number of her employees were accused of the murder of hundreds of local young girls who had incurred the wrath of their mistress, later known as the Blood Countess.  Erzsebet has been the subject of numerous myths and legends which portray her as the most prolific female serial killer, on a par with Vlad the Impaler, but she never stood trial and the truth remains a mystery.

I hadn’t heard of Erzsebet before reading this novelisation of her life but I found this version very readable and engaging.  The author refrains from sensationalism with little reference to the blood and gore attributed to the Countess but I felt the story had more substance as a result.  Erzsebet is portrayed as an ambitious, intelligent woman, married off at a very young age to a man who is more concerned with battles than the bedroom.  Left to her own devices, she becomes an astute businesswoman, successfully managing her husband’s estates during his lengthy absences. 

Rebecca Johns succeeds in painting a very vivid, human picture of a flawed woman whose all-consuming ambition is her downfall.  We will never know the whole truth about her crimes but The Countess is an absorbing account of a woman who strove for independence yet made the mistake of thinking herself invincible at a time when women were supposed to be meek and mild. read more »

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Madame Tussaud – Michelle Moran

Posted in Historical Fiction on September 26th, 2011 by admin – 4 Comments

This is my first read from Michelle Moran and I will be coming back for more!  Madame Tussaud – A Novel of the French Revolution tells the story of Marie Grosholtz (later to become Marie Tussaud) from 1788 until 1802 and is set against the vivid backdrop of the French Revolution.  Marie’s talents as a wax modeler attract the attention of both the royal family and the French revolutionaries so she and her family strive to keep their heads (literally) whilst pleasing both factions.

Madame Tussaud is an extremely readable, entertaining story, not so much a fictional biography but an intriguing viewpoint of one of the most brutal, turbulent periods in history.  Marie is a determined, ambitious young woman, putting her work and financial security ahead of any possible romantic liaison with her suitor, the incredibly patient Henri Charles.  In that sense, she seems a very modern woman.  Despite the revolutionary call for liberty,equality and fraternity, Marie is all too aware that allegiances change on a daily basis, so much so that they can hardly keep up with all the new models needed in the wax salon. 

Moran cleverly shows both sides of the Revolution via Marie who has first hand contact with the aristocracy in the shape of Madame Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI and also frequent encounters with revolutionaries such as Robespierre, Marat, Danton as well as Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson and even the Marquis de Sade.  These historical figures are so vividly presented, you almost feel yourself hurled into the midst of the Reign of Terror and the tension and fear is palpable, particularly when Marie is forced to make death masks from the freshly severed heads of royalty and revolutionary leaders who have fallen out of favour.

A fascinating story of an extremely talented businesswoman who lived in equally fascinating times.

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The Sandalwood Tree – Elle Newmark

Posted in Dual Time Frame, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on August 21st, 2011 by admin – 7 Comments

Transworld Book Group

I read and reviewed this book as part of the Transworld Reading Group Challenge.

I am very partial to well told dual time-frame stories although I usually find the contemporary narrative weaker so this is a rare gem indeed, a dual time frame narrative with both stories set in the past, both in India, one in 1947 and the other in the mid 19th century.  I’m delighted to report that both stories drew me in from the opening pages and I was sad to finish this very engaging novel.

In the 1947 setting, Evie and Martin Mitchell, and their little boy, Billy, have moved to India in a bid to embark on a new life, far away from the nightmare memories of WWII which continue to haunt Martin, a former soldier.  Unfortunately, the turmoil of war torn India with all its religious divisions mirrors the turbulent nature of the Mitchells’ relationship.  Evie feels isolated but a diversion arrives when she discovers some old letters hidden within the walls of their bungalow – she is enthralled by the story which emerges of two Victorian women who once occupied their home during the 1840s.

There’s a lot to satisfy the reader in this carefully woven tale – history, romance, eccentricity, various thrills and spills.  Elle Newmark has an almost painterly approach to her descriptions and you feel plunged into this dusty landscape – it is very easy to visualise the eponymous sandalwood tree in front of the bungalow which has witnessed so much change as India gradually edges its way towards partition.  We also witness first-hand the sights, smells and sounds of an India which has learned to “bend” rather than be “broken” by the streams of invaders and conquerers over the centuries.

I was very saddened to learn of the recent death of Elle who was still working on the final draft of this captivating novel during a long illness.  However she has left a wonderful legacy in both this and her previous novel The Book of Unholy Mischief.

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Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

Posted in YA Fiction on August 20th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

In recent times I have read quite a few books set during WWII and some have had a more profound effect than others.  Between Shades of Gray is one  of the stayers, one of those books which will stand the test of time and endure and survive.

Based on  first-hand accounts from those who experienced the harsh rule of Stalin, this novel is a fictional account of the experiences of a middle class Lithuanian family who are ripped from their comfortable home one night in 1941 and forced to commence an agonising journey to the desolate wastes of Siberia.  Our narrator, fifteen year old Lina, vows to document their experiences through the medium of her drawings and writing, also hoping that she can communicate with her father who is in another prison camp.  What follows is a hard-hitting narrative, all the more powerful thanks to the simplicity of the prose and the viewpoint of a young teenager who is bewildered by the inhumanity of the Russian secret police, the NKVD.   Lina’s mother Elena is a very strong character, doing everything she can to keep her family together whilst still considering the needs of other prisoners. 

Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee and her proximity to the real life experiences of those persecuted by Stalin is evident in her detailed descriptions of the horrors faced by the deportees – bitter cold, starvation, disease.  This is an unflinching account of man’s inhumanity to man but it somehow clings to hope for the future as Ruta states in her Author’s Note at the conclusion of the novel -

Some wars are about bombing.  For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing.  In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, the three Baltic countries regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity.  They chose hope over hate and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light.

Between Shades of Gray will make you appreciate your freedom, something which we take for granted.  It will also make you realise the power of  the human spirit to endure, to survive and to aspire to a better future.   A Young Adult novel which will engage all ages and hopefully become a modern classic.

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Far to Go – Alison Pick

Posted in Dual Time Frame, Historical Fiction, Literary Prizes on August 4th, 2011 by admin – 7 Comments

One of the longlisted novels for the Booker Prize 2011,  Far to Go is certainly attracting a lot of attention from readers and all with good reason -  it’s a refreshing look at a period of history which should never grow stale in our minds no matter how many years go by.

The main focus of the novel is on the Bauers, a young, secular Jewish family living in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia which has been invaded by Germany.  Pavel, a wealthy factory owner, Anneliese, his stunning, self obsessed wife and their six year old son, Pepik flee to Prague hoping to leave the ominous shadow of the Nazis behind them.  Marta, their dutiful Gentile governess, accompanies them, not so much out of duty but because they’re all she’s got – she doesn’t hold Jews in the highest regard but, like a lot of ordinary Europeans caught up in the war, she  probably wouldn’t be able to tell you why.   Eventually, all hopes are lost apart from those pinned on little Pepik who is sent on the Kinderstransport to the UK, hoping to be reunited with his family and Marta after the war.

Despite having studied WWII as part of  my History O Level course (many, many moons ago..) my knowledge has remained rather sketchy until recently when I have had the good fortune to read some excellent fiction set during this period.  Reading about the Bauers and their efforts (including bribery) to get Pepik out of Czechoslovakia will enlighten readers about the Kinderstransport and the heartache of separation albeit for a greater good, or what they thought was a brighter future… 

As well as educating the reader, this novel also achieves a more balanced view of events as the narrator who divulges the Bauers’ fate and who also holds their fate in her hands, is a Gentile with no political aspirations.  Marta, the governess, is more concerned with looking after Pepik and protecting him from the growing anti-semitic feeling which is gripping Sudetenland.  She has little in common with her conniving adulterous lover, Ernst, who hopes to gain financially from Pavel’s downfall.  Still, she’s no saint either and self-preservation is at the forefront of everyone’s mind be they Jew or Gentile, Czech or German.

What I love about Far to Go is its simplicity and unpretentiousness – the characters are flawed, real flesh and blood creations who find themselves in the most surreal of situations and whilst they aren’t always the most likeable they are all the more credible as a result.  Yes, it’s a story which will affect you emotionally but it doesn’t dwell on sentimentality and presents the truth in simple prose, in black and white.  The one minor difficulty I did have was getting into the rhythm of the story as several narrative strands are introduced very quickly, almost on top of each other – the story of the Bauers set in 1939, a contemporary storyline whose narrator remains a mystery until later and also letters written by Jewish parents to the children they sent to the UK.   However, this is just a minor quibble for me and it quickly becomes a compelling, coherent read.

Alison Pick has carved a fresh, fictional work out of the past experiences of her Czech grandparents who fled to Canada following Hitler’s invasion of their native country.  It’s a fitting tribute to all those who did not survive and those children who were never reunited with their parents.

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The Circus of Ghosts – Barbara Ewing

Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs on July 14th, 2011 by admin – 2 Comments

Due for UK release on 28th July, this is Barbara Ewing’s eighth novel but it’s my first encounter with this extremely talented novelist.   The Circus of Ghosts is a sequel to The Mesmerist (published in 2007) but can also be read as a stand-alone novel in which we leave behind Victorian London for the challenges of the New World. 

Cordelia Preston is the headline act of Silas P Swift’s circus, still performing acts of mesmerism although seances and clairvoyance are becoming de rigueur.  Her daughter, Gwenlliam, is also part of the circus troupe, and they have surrounded themselves with an array of wild and wonderful characters who act as a sort of extended family.   Their story is a veritable smorgasbord of American life in the 1840s, including such treats as the Californian Gold Rush, the Gangs of New York, the development of the daguerrotype, racial tensions and the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace – all packed into 416 pages!

With so much going on, there is little room for fleshing out all of the characters but I was so focussed on the story, the spectacle, the show that I didn’t really mind.  Yes, it’s a bit OTT at times (tis the circus after all) and yes, there are a quite a few coincidences but it’s a fabulous romp across America, a real page-turner through which you will get both the smell of the greasepaint and the whiff of the crowd, most of whom seem intent on redecorating the interior of the Big Top with their tobacco spit…

Highly recommended for fans of entertaining historical fiction.

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