historical fiction

A few short reviews

I’m not quite sure how it has happened that I’ve not posted on my blog for so long. You’d think that the months of lockdown restrictions would have given me more time not less! In a way to catch up on some of my outstanding reviews I thought I’d try and cram a few into the same post.

91iJ62bYxDLScreen Shot 2021-05-07 at 14.25.38 1447299892.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SX500_

81FdP-HU6mL

 

 

 

 

First up – one of the few books that I’ve been sent by a publisher this year.

Title – Lost Souls

Author – Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman

Published – 2021

Genre – Crime fiction

While I’m a big fan of Jonathan Kellerman, I don’t feel quite the same about his son Jesse, so if I’d been offered a review copy of this book I may well have turned it down. As it happens this just arrived in the post – and I’m very pleased it did.

This is the third in the ‘Clay Edison’ series but it wasn’t spoiled by not having read the preceding books. 

Clay Edison is the Deputy Coroner working the graveyard shift in a Californian suburb when he’s called out to the discovery of a dead infant uncovered by developers working in a local park. It will be Edison’s job to find the cause of death and determine the child’s identity. This is a particularly poignant case as Edison and his wife are just coming to terms with the arrival of their own small daughter. 

Prompted by news of the discovery Edison is approached by a man who is trying discover what happened to his sister who went missing as a small child some fifty years previously. Touched by the man’s situation Edison embarks on a private investigation.

Despite the similarities of the stories the investigations complement each other and I found this a quick and enjoyable read. I do wish, however, that I’d had a better idea of what a coroner’s role was in the US. 

1star1star1star1star

Next – a book that’s been on my shelves for a while. 

Title – The Stars are Fire

Author – Anita Shreve

Published – 2017

Genre – Fiction

This was the last of Anita Shreve’s books to be published before she died in 2018 and I’ve been saving it for a while.

Set in 1947 on the Maine coast, Grace and her husband a struggling in an unhappy marriage with their two young children. When Grace is pregnant with their third child fires sweep along the coast and Gene volunteers to help in a neighbouring town, leaving Grace to look after their home and their children. Gene hasn’t returned when the fire reaches their own home and Grace must draw on a strength and practicality she didn’t know she had to make sure that she and her children survive. 

In the aftermath of the fire and the decimation of their town she has to find a way to manage when Gene still doesn’t return to them. Grace turns out to be resourceful and is supported by a small cast of people who do their best to help her but ultimately her future will be determined by the fate of her husband. 

An atmospheric book with a period setting and an insight into the everyday lives of women and the hardship they faced, especially how difficult it could be to be single. 

Not my favourite of Shreve’s books but a story with a memorable main character. It also makes a change to read a book that’s told in an uncomplicated way with a single point of view and a chronological timeline. 

1star1star1star1star

Third – a sort of memoir. 

Title – Hemingway in Love

Author – A E Hotchner

Published – 2015

Genre – Memoir

I chose this book as I’ve developed a bit of an interest in Hemingway after reading Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel in 2014. 

Hotchner first met Hemingway when he was sent to commission him in Havana in 1948 for Cosmopolitan. They struck up a friendship and frequently travelled together until Hemingway’s death in 1961, in 1966 he published ‘Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir’. 

This is a slim book that provides an insight into Hemingway’s own thoughts on the affair that destroyed his first marriage (and led to his second). The dilemma he faced as he was ‘torn between two women’ and how he let Pauline Pfeiffer gain the upper hand. 

This gave an interesting perspective but like many books on this subject it remains difficult to see what is the truth of the relationships versus what people want you to think. Although it does provide a nice, potted, biography of the big man. 

1star1star1star

Finally –  review of a book that’s been sitting on my TBR shelf for 6 years!

Title – The Widow’s Confession 

Author – Sophia Tobin

Published – 2015

Genre – Historical fiction

This is the second book by Sophia Tobin (her debut was The Silversmith’s Wife) and is an atmospheric drama set in 1851. Broadstairs in Kent is the summer destination for people wanting to take the air or keep a low profile; a number of chance encounters amongst these visitors creates a small group of acquaintances who enjoy a few excursions together around the town. An eclectic group where a widow, a priest, and a painter can all find themselves having a picnic and shell collecting together. 

The necessities of Victorian life mean that there are conventions to be followed and woe betide those who don’t toe the line. In this upright and uptight atmosphere it’s easy to keep secrets buried but there is a price to pay when they are uncovered. There is also an ‘outsider’ element to the story – with a division between the ‘locals’ and the ‘visitors’.  

There is a mystery, a number of young women who are found dead on the shore, but that’s more of an aside to the way the relationships develop between the disparate group, it’s the feelings that the deaths bring to the surface within the group that are more prominent than the search for the person responsible.  

I enjoyed this with its historical details, atmospheric setting and well-drawn characters and I was particularly a fan of Delphine Beck. 

1star1star1star1star

Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins – James Runcie

Title – Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins

Author – James Runcie

Published – 2016

Genre – Historical crime fiction

This is a book that has been sitting on my TBR pile for quite some time and part of the reason is that I have the hardback and it’s a VERY pretty book.

I’m familiar with Grantchester because I’ve watched all 5 of the TV series based on the books, consequently my review is more a comparison with the ITV drama than just a review of the stories.

If you haven’t seen or read anything of Grantchester then as a brief overview this is quite gentle period (1950s/60s) crime fiction set around Cambridgeshire with a sleuthing Anglican priest at the centre of the stories.

I was surprised to find that the book was actually a series of short stories but that fits in well with the way that it was adapted for the small screen. Other surprises followed as, although I suspect the two started in the same way, Sidney’s life in print has diverged somewhat on the TV – in the book we’re in the 1960s and he’s married with a small daughter. In one of the late stories in the book, when he was actually moving away from Grantchester, there is a reference to him being in his forties. The supporting characters bear some similarities to the ones I was familiar with but with the exception of Amanda they are more passing caricatures.

The stories themselves are quite gentle, not the death and violence of the TV series (although they aren’t actually very gory or graphic). The plots in this book (no. 4 in the print series) featured a missing painting, a falling piano, an exploding school science lab and poison pen letters. There is also a gentle pace in the telling of the stories and the religious aspects of Sidney’s life play a larger part with more focus on the Right (with an intentional capital) of the situations.

Nostalgic and gentle crime fiction, similar, but not the same as, the TV series.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

1star1star1star1star

The Quickening – Rhiannon Ward

Title – The Quickening

Author – Rhiannon Ward

Published – 20 August 2020

Genre – Historical crime fiction

While I’ve not suffered the lack of interest in reading that others found during lockdown I have found that the change to my routine has made my blogging even more sporadic than normal. Somehow over the last few years I’ve gone from 50 or 60 posts a year to only 12 so far in 2020 but the latest book from Rhiannon (Sarah) Ward has prompted me to get back to the keyboard.

I had intended getting my blog post out in time for the publication date but it’s taken longer to write than I planned as I’ve deleted around 400 words and started again.

So.

Not only is there a change of name for the author but also a change of publisher and genre (as Sarah Ward she is the author of four DC Childs novels) although keeping the crime/mystery element this is a move to an historical setting – the main part of the story being taking place in 1925.

Louisa is a photographer asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex, where she is to photograph the contents of the house for auction before the family move to India. She is surprised by the commission but with a baby on the way she’s keen to take the opportunity to earn some extra money. When she arrives she finds that the house is literally falling apart and its inhabitants seemed to be damaged or weighed down with grief; it’s a dark and tense atmosphere that she’s not comfortable with. She discovers that during her stay at the house an event is planned to recreate an infamous seance that originally took place in 1896.

The setting is atmospheric and there is an underlying tension which builds through the story as the secrets of the house and family are revealed. There is a lot of grief and loss in the book, something which Louisa herself is no stranger to, and this is magnified by the decay of the surroundings and the limited cast of characters.

Louisa makes a great lead, she has some modern sensibilities but the author couches these within the constraints of the period. I was fascinated both by the details around the photographic process of the period as well as those around the everyday lives of the house’s occupants. I have to wonder how on earth you can research these tiny details – if they were made up then they were very convincing!

It’s one of those oddities of publishing that I was sitting in the garden in a heatwave reading this dark and chilling mystery – it will make a great read when the nights draw in. A gothic mystery set in a dilapidated country house with a strong female lead, a mysterious child and a cameo appearance by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – what more could you ask for?

Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

1star1star1star1star

Blood & Sugar – Laura Shepherd-Robinson

81+E4V5p1LLTitle – Blood & Sugar

Author – Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Published – January 2019

Genre – Historical Fiction

This is a debut by Laura Shepherd-Robinson,  a murder mystery set within the landscape of the slavery trade.

In June 1781 an unidentified and mutilated body is found hanging at Deptford Dock, branded with a slaver’s mark. When Captain Harry Corsham is asked to investigate the disappearance of old friend and committed abolitionist Tad Archer he is drawn into the dangerous world of Britain’s slaving industry.

What follows is an atmospheric and immersive mystery that plunges Corsham into the dark heart of the slaving port of Deptford – a place that bears little resemblance to the modern day area of London. As he tries to uncover what became of his old friend he enters a community keen to protect its secrets and profits.

One interesting approach within the story is the shades of grey that lie between the slavers and the slaves and abolitionists, not all matters are as cut and dried as they might appear. And as ‘freedom’ is a theme in the story, Corsham has his own secrets and has something in common with those who have made an ‘accommodation’ to get by.

In starting the book I did wonder if I’ve read anything else set in the same period and wondered why not – is it me that’s missed a swathe of historical fiction or is it not seen as being suitable fictional setting?

In a way this is quite a topical book, it would be difficult to watch the TV news and not notice the language used by some politicians to describe groups of people. While we might not be about to embark on a new era of slavery it does make it easy to see how the treatment of groups of people, to their detriment, can be sanctioned by those in power.  It’s also timely as people rethink the modern day links to those who pursued and profited from slavery.

It’s disturbing to find that the incident at the heart of the investigation is based on real events and it’s perhaps easier to take in the horrors of the trade in reading this mystery than in trying to read a more objective non-fiction telling. It’s always a positive to learn from the fiction you read!

A fascinating, dark and atmospheric read with a convoluted mystery at its heart. Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

1star1star1star1star

The Last Hours – Minette Walters

Title – The Last Hours

Author – Minette Walters

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’m a huge Minette Walters fan so The Last Hours was a book I didn’t want to miss out on reading. A departure from her crime novels this is historical fiction where the bulk of the bodycount comes from the Black Death rather than murder (note I said bulk…).

Set in 1348 the book opens as the Black Death is starting its horrific journey across the country. The main location is Develish, an estate in Dorset where the absence of the Lord of the manor forces his wife, the young Lady Anne, to take control in order to protect the serfs who live on their land.

Lady Anne is a progressive woman for her time, having introduced changes (despite her boorish husband) which have seen the health and productivity of their lands improve. She quickly understands the necessity for isolation and brings all two hundred serfs within the moated walls of the estate. This sets up a situation where tempers are sure to fray and conflicts arise.

The death of a young man leads to a small expedition beyond the confines of the estate and this adds more tension to the story. The parts of the book where the action takes place outside the walls are graphic in their depiction of the Black Death and don’t pull any punches. It’s also one of those situations where the reader knows more than the protagonists about their plight (unless you’ve never heard of the Black Death…).

I’ve seen reviews of the book that describe it as being on a broad canvas but I’m not sure I agree. The isolation of the inhabitants from the rest of the outside world, other than a few dramatic encounters, gives the book a claustrophobic atmosphere and although there are several main characters (Lady Anne, her spoilt brat of a daughter Eleanor, Thaddeus Thurkell, a man pilloried for being a bastard) the core story is very much ‘the Black Death came to our door, this is what we did’ rather than deal with the developments beyond the estate.

I think the book has quite a slow pace but I enjoyed the description of the more day-to-day events and the development of the main characters that this allowed. Some of the characters were better developed than others – the priest, for example, felt like quite a caricature, but the demands the new situations put on Thaddeus provided an opportunity for his character to grow through the course of the story.

I’m not sure how realistic the portrayal of Lady Anne is and whether there are any examples of women who took on these leading roles in their estates, but her character is the one that ties all of the story together and she is the one who sets the moral standards in things like equality.

A very enjoyable read but a little disappointing that it obviously goes straight into the sequel so I did feel I’d been left in suspense a little at the end.

1star1star1star1star

Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Title – Birdcage Walk

Author – Helen Dunmore

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical fiction

I loved Exposure so much that I treated myself to a copy of Birdcage Walk (admittedly when it came out in paperback rather than hardback). It’s made more difficult to review as Helen Dunmore died before the paperback publication of Birdcage Walk.

I was captivated and intrigued by the opening of the book. A middle-aged widower and his dog walk along Birdcage Walk and the dog discovers a hidden and somewhat ambiguous stone memorial. Intrigued the man eventually has the opportunity to quiz a local historian about the names on the stone. Stored in the archives are papers written by one of the people mentioned on the stone and these papers offer a fragment of information, with the documents dating back to the time of the French Revolution.

So far so good, the introduction was beautifully written and I was hooked. Then it all went downhill. The book moves to Bristol in 1789 and concerns the story of a family following the events of the French Revolution and their somewhat peripheral involvement in matters across The Channel.

Lizzie has been raised among radicals, her mother, Julia, who was widowed when Lizzie was an infant, is a fervent supporter of women’s rights, while her stepfather pens rousing republican pamphlets. Lizzie’s husband is a different kettle of fish, a practical man who lacks interest in idealism and who is more concerned about the impact of the upheaval on his business interests.

There is a mysterious burial and some skulduggery but I never really liked or connected with any of the characters and I found the story tedious. There were some odd parallels with The New Mrs Clifton  in terms of location, property development etc.

I persevered to the end but it felt like a chore. And the final disappointment for me was that the book wasn’t rounded off by the reappearance of the contemporary character with which it had opened.

1star1star1star

 

Fools and Mortals – Bernard Cornwell

Title – Fools and Mortals

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2016

Genre – Historical Fiction

If you follow my blog you’ll know that I’m a fan of Bernard Cornwell (with the exception of the Sharpe series) and a standalone novel is a huge treat when I don’t have to remember detail from a lot of preceding books in a series.

With this book the period is Elizabethan England and the location is London; it’s set around the rivalry between an established theatre company and a new company that needs good scripts to appeal to a large audience so they can recoup their costs. The main character is a young man who is part of the long-running theatre company, an impoverished actor, making ends meet through a combination of a pretty face and a side-line in petty theft. Used to playing female roles he wants to move on to take on male roles and disillusionment with his current company makes him a target for an offer that he may not be able to refuse. This isn’t the only thread and the backdrop to the story are the preparations for the performance of a new play for a courtier and the company’s rehearsals. This introduces an interesting take on the development of a very famous play.

I have to say that I really enjoyed this book even though it had a lot less action than is usual in one of Cornwell’s books and it has a very ‘contained’ plot, which could even have been just a short story. However, despite these differences from  – I was really drawn in. The writing is evocative and I got a real sense of what Elizabethan London was like, from the smell of the streets to the political rivalries which affected people’s everyday lives.

I really liked the main character, the multiple threads kept my interest despite the more narrow plot and there were a few action sequences squeezed. It might feel as if it has a slow start as there’s lots of scene setting but I actually found all of the background – both the details and the broader setting – really interesting.

As with much of his historical fiction a number of the characters are based on real people and some of the events did take place. I enjoyed the fact this book didn’t have the memoir style of storytelling to it however it did have some aspects that the reader probably already knows about, so there is still an element of foreknowledge but it gives you a take on how these real life events may have panned out.

A different read from the other historical novels by Cornwell but nonetheless enjoyable.

1star1star1star1star

Death of Kings – Bernard Cornwell

Title – Death of Kings

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2012

Genre – Historical Fiction

There isn’t much need for preamble to this review – I pressed straight on with this book after finishing The Burning Land. Feeling on a bit of a roll after getting caught up on the action in book 5 of The Saxon Stories I thought I would strike while the iron was hot.

As you might guess from the title this is the book which sees the death of King Alfred, a moment which he and Uhtred have believed would be a catalyst for action by the factions looking to secure the throne for themselves.  However, the book is mostly about more political shenanigans, partly as the new King needs to find his feet and figure out which of his many advisors he should trust. The rise of Christianity has been a theme in the series but it feels as if this book may have seen the tipping point in its importance.

Uhtred is frustrated by King Edward’s reluctance to attack the Danes and puzzled by the Danes lack of attack. The lack of action was a bit frustrating for me as a reader too. There are some small skirmishes but it felt like a lot less happened in this book than in its predecessor. The main action is saved until the very end of the book in what is a great set piece with a real feeling of tension.

Not as fast-paced as its predecessor and pleasingly (for me) there was less attention to the memoir aspect of the story – less foreshadowing of future events by Uhtred.

1star1star1star

The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

Title – The Burning Land

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2009

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s for a long time (although oddly not the Sharpe series) but have fallen well and truly behind. He was writing (with the exception of Sharpe) standalones or trilogies but now some of the other series I was reading seem to be without end.

I bought this book in hardback when it was published so it’s been sitting around for a while but the longer I’ve left it the more difficult it’s been to pick it up. It’s bad enough coming back to an action series when it’s been a year between books but the longer I left it the more daunting it seemed. I should have remembered that I would be swept up in the action!

The Burning Land is the fifth historical novel in The Saxon Stories which follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his quest to return to his ancestral home. Told in the first person and narrated as a memoir this book is set around 892 and the opening starts quite slowly as, acting on Alfred’s behalf, Uhtred is in Kent to pay off a Dane to get him to leave. The action ramps up quite quickly as he then turns his hand to finding a way to remove Jarl Harald Bloodhair from Wessex. I was surprised to realise, and wonder if it’s always been the case, that the battles are as much about Uhtred’s ingenuity as they are about brute force. The story is what you expect from Cornwell – action-packed, fast-paced, spanning the length and breadth of the country and so full of detail that you can almost see, hear and smell the place for yourself.

There is one thing which I really dislike about Cornwell’s writing and this is something I should complain about less as I get further behind but it’s the fact that as a ‘memoir’ you know that the narrator survives to tell the tale. So while there may be some tension about how events will unfold you can be pretty certain that the main character isn’t going to perish in the middle of a shield wall. But not content with this Cornwell drops in remarks like “never to see xyz again” or “that was a decision I would regret” which tells me more than I want to know. I appreciate this supports the memoir style but it’s not an aspect I like.

Anyway my worries about picking the series up after so long were unfounded, either there’s an explanation of who people are and what their connection is or it doesn’t really matter, the action swept me along and I’ve even picked up book 6 to read already.

Score – 4/5

The HWA Crowns 2018

Update: the shortlists have been confirmed and the shortlisted titles are highlighted in bold below.
Update to the update: winners announced on 7th November, winners in red below.

The longlists for the three HWA (Historical Writing Association) Crowns – their annual awards – have been announced. It’s not clear what the shortlisting process or when a shortlist announcement will be but the winners will be announced in November.

What has surprised me is that as I’ve read two of the books which I think it’s more than I’ve read from any of the crime fiction award longlists.

HWA Debut Crown
This award is for the best historical novel by a first-time fiction author first published in the UK in English.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin – review here

Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stankovic (winner)

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol

The Woolgrower’s Companion by Joy Rhoades

The Parentations by Kate Mayfield

Deposed by David Barbaree

The Optickal Illusion by Rachel Halliburton

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Bitter by Francesca Jakobi

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

The judges include Ayo Onatade who did a Q & A for me on the subject of judging awards.

HWA Sharpe Books Gold Crown
This award is for the best historical novel first published in the UK in English.

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann, translated by Shaun Whiteside (winner)

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase

The Zoo by Christopher Wilson

Pilgrim’s War by Michael Jecks

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Blood’s Game by Angus Donald

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements – review here 

The Tyrant’s Shadow by Antonia Senior

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

HWA Non Fiction Crown
This award is for the best non-fiction work published in the UK in English.

Houses of Power: The Places that Shapes the Tudor World by Simon Thurley

White King: Charles I – Traitor, Martyr, Murderer by Leanda de Lisle (winner)

Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister by Nicholas Shakespeare

Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age by Michael Broers

The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us by Keith Lowe

The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition And Searing Rivalry by Clare Mulley

Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book: An Englishwoman’s Life During the Civil War by Lucy Moore

Black Tudors: The Untold Story Hardcover by Miranda Kaufmann

The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England by Graham Robb

Hearts And Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote by Jane Robinson

A History of Rome in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale

Pie and Mash Down the Roman Road by Melanie McGrath

Have you read many from these lists? What would be your tip for the winner(s)?