historical fiction

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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