historical fiction

HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown 2016

The HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown is a literary award for debut historical fiction awarded by the Historical Writers’ Association. With a prize of £1,000 the HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown for new Historical Fiction will be awarded to the what is, in the judges’ estimation, the best debut historical novel first published in the United Kingdom in the year in question

The shortlist for the award was announced by Andrew Taylor and comprises:

Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis, published by Jonathan Cape

The judges said: “A splendidly ambitious and tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the Victorian novel: The Pickwick Papers will never be the same again.”

Eden Gardens by Louise Brown, published by Headline

The judges said: “White trash in British India: a poignant mother-and-daughter story provides an unexpected perspective on the Raj.”

The Hoarse Oaths of Fife by Chris Moore, published by Uniform Press

The judges said: “From Fife in the 1960s to Loos in World War I: a wry and moving novel about fathers and sons that also meditates on war and race.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea, published by Scribe

The judges said: “The private lives of Marx and Engels are revealed as never before in this brilliant act of literary ventriloquism.”
Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye, published by Orion

Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye, published by Orion

The judges said: “A powerful and accomplished novel of love and loss that focuses on the plight of unwanted veterans and Florida’s disastrous 1935 hurricane.”

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck, published by Hodder

The judges said: “Finnish settlers are immersed in a powerful, beautifully written gothic murder mystery in a remote area of eighteenth-century Lapland.”

The winner will be announced at the Harrogate History Festival which takes place between 21 & 23 October.

I have only read one of these (Wolf Winter, which I loved) so I’m not in much of a position to pick a winner. How’s your reading going, have you read more – do you have a tip for this year’s winner?

The British Lion – Tony Schumacher

51IFW16kA0LTitle – The British Lion

Author – Tony Schumacher

Published – 2015

Genre – Alternative history / thriller

I had been intrigued by the premise of this book and when I saw the glowing review from Kate (stay here with my review for now!) I swiftly moved it to the top of the TBR pile.

The place is London, the year is 1946, and the Nazis are in charge as Germany has been victorious in the war. With little explanation of the circumstances that led to the rather unexpected turn of events the reader is introduced to detective John Rossett and Major Koehler of the SS. There are obviously some loose ends being tied up from the debut (The Darkest Hour) which preceded this book and it quickly becomes clear that there is some animosity between the two characters. We learn that Koehler is disillusioned with the situation in London and has been hoping to return to Germany and to his family but the powers that be aren’t so amenable to the suggestion. Rossett is also disillusioned, he is more of the typical damaged character but he’s decided to make amends for some of the abhorrent acts he has been involved in. Whilst he would like to return to the police force his work with the Nazis has made him unpopular.

The one thing the two men are certain about, however, is that they intend to go their separate ways. Their plans are thwarted when Koehler’s wife and young daughter, who are on a visit to London from Berlin, are caught up in a kidnapping. The kidnappers objective is to use the hostages to demand access to a jewish scientist working in Cambridge. As Koehler is occupied in dealing with the investigation into his wife’s disappearance he has to (reluctantly) rely on Rossett to meet the demands of the kidnappers.

One of the things I enjoyed about this book was how much action there was – as well as the two men making their own efforts to thwart the kidnappers we also have Koehler’s daughter making her own attempts to escape. I really got swept along with these scenes but there are some pretty tense moments to give a change of pace. I liked the freedom that the alternate reality gave the author and as someone who read a lot of fiction set in the First and Second World Wars it was interesting to see the action taking place on English soil.

The political situation and the circumstances that led to the Nazi’s success are dealt with in an understated way which I felt was a bit of a tease – I wanted to know more about how they had won the war and the turning point that led to to this reality. There are some interesting interpretations of how post-war relationships might have developed in the wake of a German victory.

The atmosphere is skilfully written and it’s easy to picture the dark, depressing times and the deprivation and fear of the people living under Nazi occupation in a miserable British winter. Koehler and Rossett are great characters with an unusual relationship and their story reflects the conflicts of people put in extraordinary circumstances. A chilling, thrilling read.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.


Exposure – Helen Dunmore

91qtjDrIqsLTitle – Exposure

Author – Helen Dunmore

Published – January 2016

Genre – Historical fiction

This is one of those situations where I don’t have much to say about this book for a review but that’s because I loved it so much; it’s a simple story beautifully told.

The story is set in 1960s London, a time of Cold War spies and the accompanying sensational headlines. The main characters are husband and wife, Simon and Lily, and Giles – Simon’s colleague and old university friend. All of them have something to hide. When Giles suffers an accident he calls on Simon to help him and sets in train a series of events which affects them all. While this is a story of espionage and has its fair share of tension it’s told in an understated way – focussing on the characters and their domestic lives rather than thrills.

Lily is at the heart of the story and what a marvellous character she is. Shaped by her experience as a child she is strong, reserved, determined and pragmatic. She puts her family first and has an unwavering faith in her husband. I could have read on and on about her!

The title is well chosen, there are multiple levels of potential ‘exposure’ in the story and the fear of it drives the plot. A change of pace from conventional spy thrillers this was a real treat to read.

I read this as a Net Galley.


The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

91hZMZoX53LTitle – The Miniaturist

Author – Jessie Burton

Published – 2014

Genre – Historical fiction

I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of The Miniaturist but having a signed hardback that wouldn’t benefit from being crammed in my bag for my commute means that I left it a long time until picking it up to read. Although with its setting between October 1636 and the following January, reading it in dark and gloomy December felt appropriate.

As someone recently pointed out – when a book becomes so ubiquitous as this one, or an author as well known as Stephen King or John Connolly, what value is there in a blog post / review. So this isn’t really a review – the book won amongst others the Specsavers National Book Award 2014, Waterstones Book of the Year 2014 and Jessie won Books are my Bag New Writer of the Year – what can I possibly add!

What I can do is say something about what to expect from the book – even having heard Jessie read from the opening I still wasn’t sure what it would be about.

Told in the present tense it’s the story of Nella, eighteen years old and arriving at her new home in Amsterdam, to live with the man she recently married. She’s an inexperienced country girl thrown into the heart of Amsterdam and the new husband she expected to greet her isn’t even at home. From this inauspicious start Nella has to learn to live in this strange household – with her sea-faring husband, his brusque sister and their two servants. Although maintaining his distance from her, Nella receives a gift of a miniature house, a replica of their own home, from her husband and in turn that leads her to find the Miniaturist who can help to furnish it. It is this Miniaturist who by turn baffles and inspires Nella – something between a spy, a prophet and a guide. In a house full of secrets and cut off from her family Nella needs all the help she can get.

A beautifully written book that immerses the reader in 17th century Amsterdam this was an absorbing, atmospheric and moving read.

Wolf Winter – Cecilia Ekbäck

Title – Wolf Winter

Author – Cecilia Ekbäck

Published – February 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

This is a debut which is getting a lot of praise (and rightly so) on twitter from shivering readers who are suffering from the chilling effects of Ekbäck’s atmospheric writing. Although Swedish by birth it is written in English and set in Swedish Lapland of 1717. It has the setting of a great scandi or nordic drama, but the writing flows in a way that would be unusual in a translation.

The story is that of a family who have moved to a remote settlement in the shadow of Blackasen Mountain. They are Finns who have traded their home with that of their uncle in the hope of a fresh start. Soon after their arrival the elder daughter, fourteen-year-old Frederika, discovers a body in a glade when she’s taking their goats to graze. The body has been mutilated and the settlers are quick to blame wolves for the death, but Frederika’s mother, Maija, believes it was murder.

The premise is one of an amateur detective (initially Maija) and a small pool of suspects (the other settlers in the community) but the story is so much more than that. Maija is new to the country and is an outsider in a time where suspicion, especially of the supernatural, can have dire consequences. The other outsiders are the Lapps, forced to toe the line by the government, they are unwilling neighbours who have had to suppress their traditions. The area is controlled by the Church and the local priest has his own agenda, but is ordered by his Bishop to resolve the death as quickly as possible.

There are some explanations about Maija and her family’s past and some things that are only hinted at, but they aren’t the only ones looking to escape and soon it seems that all their neighbours have something to hide.  Early on in the book a simple solution seems to become apparent, but the story has a multitude of layers.

The story is told using several voices, mostly divided between Maija and Frederika. For me Maija is the star – intelligent, pragmatic, determined, and tough on the outside, but internally she’s conflicted. She has no-one to rely on but herself and there is an aspect of the book that makes this a story about her survival.

I know nothing of the period and Ekbäck draws the background in bold strokes, but puts her efforts into the detailed description of the conditions in which the settlers must survive. It’s beautifully written and it was impossible to read the evocative descriptions of the conditions without shivering in sympathy with the characters. There are some supernatural elements, which I’m not normally a fan of, but in this remote and harsh location, and in this period, it feels more credible. These elements help to move the story along but also help to raise the tension.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this and Burial Rites (which I also loved) and this left me feeling equally sad at the end. Many thanks to the publisher for the copy via bookbridgr. You can see other points of view on Northern Crime and For Winter Nights.


Mathew’s Tale – Quintin Jardine

MathewTitle – Mathew’s Tale

Author – Quintin Jardine

Published – 2014

Genre – Historical fiction

Mathew’s Tale is the 40th book by Quintin Jardine and his first historical one. I’d like to say that I’m a fan of his but I’m not sure I really qualify – I’ve only read 4 of his 23 Bob Skinner books so far, but I’m working on it! I do like to read series in order and it’s not easy to walk into a bookshop and pick up number 5 or 6 in a series, but I had no qualms about reading this standalone – and who could resist that cover?

The book starts with Mathew’s return to his village in Scotland after seven years away fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, including participating in the Battle of Waterloo. Marked by his experiences but still a young man he is apprehensive about making the journey home and what will have become of the family and friends he left behind.

The early part of Mathew’s Tale charts his efforts to make something of himself and despite coming from a country background he manages to capitalise on the burgeoning growth in industry and shows some moderate success. A chance event puts a close friend of his in peril and Mathew steps up to do what he can to save his friend. The story then takes a change in direction as it moves from the country to the city of Edinburgh and becomes more of a legal drama. Mathew finds himself at the mercy of a corrupt legal system that seems determined to thwart him at every turn, but his background as a soldier has given him a steel and determination that those in power have failed to credit. There was a lot of intrigue and a surprising amount of tension in this part of the plot.

It’s a while since I read any historical fiction and I really enjoyed this story. It has quite a gentle pace although time moves along quite quickly and while I was immersed in 19th century Scotland the historical detail was provided in broad brushstrokes, rather than getting into the minutiae of the period. The lead character is very likeable, his character has been shaped by his experience of war, but it doesn’t dwell on his backstory and surprisingly there are no real battle scenes, in fact the whole book is quite light on sex and violence (this is a good thing!). The story is also something of a romance and there’s a nice balance between the story of Mathew’s life and the skulduggery of the legal aspects.

A very enjoyable read – this might be the first historical novel by Jardine but I hope it won’t be the last! Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.


The Tainted Throne (Empire of the Moghul) – Alex Rutherford

Title – The Tainted Throne (Empire of the Moghul)

Author – Alex Rutherford

Published – 2012

Genre –  Historical Fiction

This is the fourth book in a series about the Moghul Empire. The series began with the ruler Babur in 1494, and The Tainted Throne is set in 1606, so quite a bit has already happened. I do enjoy historical fiction but most of what I read is set in Ancient Rome, so this was a new period and setting to me. I have to confess that I was a little cautious, coming in at the fourth book in a series.

Initially the book centres around the current ruler Jahangir, Moghul Emperor and ruler of most of the Indian subcontinent. When the book opens he is about to go into battle against is eldest son, Khusrau, who is trying to take the throne for himself. The battle is bloody and when Khusrau is defeated Jahangir’s punishment is stomach-churningly harsh.

Despite the action at the start of the book, the story is a mixed bag, with quite a large part of it being more of a love story.

I was disappointed that I didn’t learn more about the Moghul Empire – I never felt that I had really been transported to either India or the period. I can’t put my finger on why, there is certainly plenty of detail and description but it just didn’t hit the mark. I felt I was missing out on some of the background, for example about how the court or the Emperor’s household worked, but perhaps that’s the disadvantage of starting in the middle of a series.

It also seemed that compared to something like Simon Scarrow or Bernard Cornwell, the battles were very quick affairs not the large action sequences I expected.

The story is full of well-drawn characters but I never really cared about them. Jahangir is cruel but ultimately easily manipulated, his wife is devious and scheming. The second half of the book features Jahangir’s son Khurram and his wife, and I think it was them that I was supposed to be rooting for, but I wasn’t really that concerned about the.

I was surprised to find from the historical notes that much of the story and characters were based in fact and it made me wonder if trying to stick to some of the facts got in the way of making the story more engaging. I also found that “Alex Rutherford” is a husband and wife writing team, and I would be interested to know about how they write together.

Not a series that I will want to read any more of – although the setting has piqued my interest.

Thanks to Headline books for this review copy.

Score – 3/5