historical fiction

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)?

The New Mrs Clifton – Elizabeth Buchan

Title – The New Mrs Clifton

Author – Elizabeth Buchan

Published – June 2017 (paperback)

Genre – Historical fiction

As we get closer to the end of the year I thought I would try to tackle some of the books I’ve started but struggled to finish. At the beginning of the week, according to Goodreads, I was ‘currently reading’ 10 books and I’m now down to 8 – woohoo!

This book I started in October of last year but put it down when I was about 100 pages in and it just wasn’t holding my attention. I  picked it up where I’d left off and remembered enough to press on without needing to go back.

The setting is London in post-war 1945 and the main characters are a trio of women – which reminded me a little of Wake by Anna Hope. Gus, who works for the British Government, returns from Berlin after the end of the war and surprises the two sisters with whom he lives by bringing with him his new German bride, Krista. The early part of the book (and where it lost me) was setting the scene of the initial reactions of the three women living under the same roof as well as providing some backstory. The point at which I picked it back up saw Gus and Krista sent back to Berlin in order to work together on an interrogation. This introduced a different dynamic that helped lift the characters for me, I would have enjoyed more of this aspect.

As the relationships develop over the first few months in Clapham, dull and dreary in the post-war period, the author also provided glimpses of the harrowing situations that Krista suffered with fragments of her backstory, beginning to explain her relationship with Gus. There are lots of other threads in the story including how the two sisters find their own ways of dealing with the losses that they both suffered in the war. It is also beautifully written and very evocative of the period.

As it happens, when I finished I looked back and re-read the first chapter which felt a bit like a prologue. It was set in 1974 and set the reader up to look for a specific situation arising. Having read the bulk of the book without this in mind I’m pleased that I had forgotten it, I would have enjoyed the whole of the book a lot less if I had been looking for the inevitable conclusion.

In the end this was an enjoyable read despite the dark setting and it took some twists and turns that I wasn’t anticipating.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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In the Month of the Midnight Sun – Cecilia Ekbäck

Title – In the Month of the Midnight Sun

Author – Cecilia Ekbäck

Published – June 2016

Genre – Historical crime fiction

I was so taken with Wolf Winter that I treated myself to In the Month of the Midnight Sun when it came out in June last year (which shows you how far behind I am!).

Similar to some of the books by Anita Shreve, using the same location for a story in different times, Ekbäck returns to Blackåsen Mountain.  In this case we move from 1717 in Wolf Winter to 1856. On the mountain a Sami woman has left her tribe following the death of her husband, while the local settlers are puzzled by this but they have bigger worries as a Sami man has carried out a fatal attack in their rectory.

In Stockholm The State Minister of Justice instructs geologist Magnus to head to the area to investigate the attack. The Minster’s interest is purely bureaucratic, concerned that the sale of land in the area may be jeopardised. Magnus has some personal issues which he should deal with but perhaps prefers to avoid these by agreeing to the trip. The Minister is also Magnus’s adoptive father, so when at the last minute he is forced to have his sister-in-law, Lovisa, accompany him he is unable to argue against it. The two travellers set out for the long journey to Lulea with Lovisa withdrawn and uncommunicative and unprepared for what lies ahead.

The journey sees the relationship thaw a little and we find out more of the backstory of the two characters, and as the story switches between points of view (in the first person so you need to pay attention) we also learn more about those living in the shadow of the mountain. When eventually they reach Lulea and Magnus meets the man accused of the murders he doesn’t believe  he is the killer and knows that the only answer is to travel onwards to the Blackåsen Mountain.

Despite the broad, sweeping landscapes and the midnight sun this has a very claustrophobic feel and a very varied cast of characters with some unique voices. There is a hint of the supernatural in the lives of the Sami and the same battle with the elements that those in Wolf Winter faced. But essentially the story is about the people.

If you appreciate beautifully written, atmospheric crime fiction with a literary style then you really should try these books.

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