historical

Destroying Angel – S. G. MacLean

Title – Destroying Angel

Author – S. G. MacLean

Published – July 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

This is the sequel to The Black Friar and is the third in the ‘Seeker’ series.

It’s 1655 and Seeker has been sent to a small village on the North York Moors, asked to distribute orders demanding ever more restrictions on behaviour in new anti-Royalist laws. As an aside he is also tasked with tracking down a Royalist supporter who may have gone to ground in this, his family’s seat. What starts out as two simple tasks soon draws Seeker into hotbed of intrigue.

He starts his task by accepting an invitation to eat with the family of local businessman and local Commissioner, Matthew Pullan. It transpires that the village is in a state of fervent excitement as the following day The Trier (enforcer of Puritan morality for the villages) is due to sit to hear an accusation that the local vicar is accused of ungodly acts. The strained dinner highlights some of the resentments bubbling beneath the surface of the village and then one of the attendees becomes seriously unwell.

Seeker takes only a passing interest in events, pursuing his search for the missing Royalist, until the point when a young woman dies and he subsequently realises that events in the village have a very personal and unexpected connection to him. This gives rise to a variety of threads within the story – the search for the missing man, a murder investigation and a personal quest – all against a backdrop of suspicion, allegations, and petty power struggles.

The period is one where neighbour turns against neighbour and a small accusation can have huge repercussions. It’s also a time when the accusation of ‘witch’ can be a dangerous one and women need to be circumspect in how they appear. So the village is a tense place.

The personal side of the story is a very important one for Seeker and goes someway to explaining the dark character that readers will be familiar with. He is still not a man to be trifled with but his sense of decency shows through when he pursues an investigation onto the death of a young girl when there is no expectation on him to do so.

This story had less espionage than its predecessor and was more of a conventional murder mystery, the larger political picture also took a back seat to the ‘micro’ politics of the villages. The historical detail felt well-researched and certainly provided an immersive experience of the period. The book definitely would work without having read the previous title but it’s a good series that’s worth seeking out.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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A House of Ghosts – W. C. Ryan

Title – A House of Ghosts

Author – W. C. Ryan

Published – 4 October 2018

Genre – Historical thriller / supernatural

This is not just an excellent read but is a beautiful book to own. I read the netgalley which means that my hardback copy, with its gold embossed cover, map and illustrated chapter headings, can stay in pristine condition!

The starting premise of the book is terrific. It’s the winter of 1917 and on a tiny island off the Devon coast, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering in an attempt to contact his two sons who have already been lost in the war. He has a very specific guest list and this attracts the attention of military intelligence who ensure that included in the invitations are a number of people in their employ. As the guests gather a storm descends on the island, cutting off the route back to the mainland.

So we have a house party on an island, a raging storm, spies, ghosts, and guests with secrets. Excellent! The setting is Agatha Christie-esque but deals with much more serious issues than she would have tackled in her books. Some of the guests have profited from the war and commercial decisions aren’t always the same as ethical ones, people’s actions have had unpleasant consequences.

I’m not sure if there has been an increase in the books which have a ghostly or supernatural slant to them or I just happen to have read more recently but what sets this book apart is its unambiguous approach to spirits, an approach I really liked, although this does mean they don’t necessarily add to the suspense with the story.

There is a strong cast of characters and everyone adds something to the story. The main characters are Kate Cartwright, a bright, young woman with her own connection to the Highmount family, and Irishman Captain Robert Donovan, a veteran of the war and with plenty in his own past that he would prefer no-one knew about. There is a hint of chemistry between them but the relationship that unfolds is very within keeping for the period setting. One common trait in Ryan’s writings is the ‘reserved hero’, in the Korolev series and The Constant Soldier this is more due to the necessity of the situation but while that is to some extent true in this book it also reflects the etiquette of the time.

The book is neatly plotted with many layers and although the elements may make it sound like it’s all about the action there are some serious themes at the heart of it, including the treatment of those who have served at the front and returned. The writing had a very visual quality and by the end I felt as if I might have seen a film rather than read a book, my recall of the scenes being very vivid. An excellent read for dark winter nights.

Many thanks to the publisher for the netgalley.

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The Murder of Harriet Monckton – Elizabeth Haynes

Title – The Murder of Harriet Monckton

Author – Elizabeth Haynes

Published – 28 September 2018

Genre – Historical crime fiction

This book is a departure for Elizabeth Haynes who is well known for her standalone psychological thrillers and her DCI Louisa Smith series. This book is in the same vein as books like Burial Rites and The Unseeing, a fictionalised account of events based on a factual event.

On 7th November 1843, Harriet Monckton, 23 years old and a woman of respectable parentage and religious habits, is found murdered in the privy behind the chapel she regularly attended in Bromley, Kent. The story was a scandal in its time with the suggestions of impropriety in a small town. Drawing on the coroner’s reports and witness testimonies the book follows the events after Harriet’s death and as the witnesses recount the events from their perspective the narrative leading up to Harriet’s death is pieced together.

There are four main characters:- the young teacher and close friend, the young man who walked out with Harriet, the man who offered her spiritual guidance and finally a mysterious man from her past who lives in London. Using the accounts of these four characters and the proceedings at the Coroner’s Court the story develops into a gripping ‘whodunnit. The reader has reason to be suspicious of all four characters but the truth of Harriet’s demise may lay with her missing diary. The discovery of the diary gives Harriet her own voice and perspective.

Colonial Times, Tasmania, September 1846

In fact the story takes place over a much longer period than might be expected as
several inquests over a period of years fail to reach a definitive conclusion.

You can see a reference to the events in the National Archives and if you live within striking distance you can go an view them for yourself. News even made it as far as Tasmania with an article appearing in the Colonial Times in 1846.

 

 

Medical Times

There is an account in the Medical Times of 1846 from the surgeon asked to attend the body where it was discovered.

 

 

 

As I’ve come to expect from Haynes the book is beautifully written and she captures the feel of the period through her writing, giving it the feel contemporary to the period but not over doing it. The story is a compelling mystery, especially given that there are some factual constraints within which the story had to be framed. The different perspectives that are used to describe the events leading up to Harriet’s death are interesting in themselves – told from each person’s own point of view they aren’t necessarily ‘unreliable narrators’ but they do have their own take on the way events played out. The fact that there were multiple inquests also allows for points of view to change as memories change over time.

The story Haynes tells of Harriet is a sad one but for a young woman who died in unpleasant circumstances, with few people to mourn her, this has given her an interesting legacy.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy of the book.

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The House on Foster Hill – Jaime Jo Wright

Title – The House on Foster Hill

Author – Jaime Jo Wright

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical fiction

This is a novel told over two timelines, connecting two women through Foster Hill House. In the present day Kaine is hoping for a new start by moving to an old house, sight unseen, in her grandfather’s Wisconsin hometown. Two years ago her husband died in a car accident and her pleas for the death to be treated as something more serious fell on deaf ears, since then she’s believed that she has been tormented by his killer. When she arrives at the house she finds that it’s long-neglected and needs a lot of work, which she is ill-equipped to do on her own. Feeling very fragile she is quickly befriended by a local woman and through her meets a ‘knight in shining armour’ (who also just happens to be a grief counsellor).

In 1906 Ivy Thorpe is the daughter of the local doctor (who also carries out postmortems) and helps him with the examination of the body of a young woman who has been found dead, her body hidden in the trunk of a tree. Ivy is a bit of an amateur sleuth and is drawn to help in the investigation into the woman’s death which becomes more urgent when it’s discovered that there may be a missing baby. The two timelines connect when Ivy’s search for the baby leads her to the abandoned and menacing Foster Hill House.

The two timelines are told in alternating sections, both with their own mix of tension and conflict. As Kaine’s story develops it becomes clear that there is a stronger connection to Ivy’s story than just the building she is renovating.

One of the first indications that this wasn’t for me was early on when Ivy insists that the unidentified corpse is given a name and she calls her ‘Gabriella’ on the basis that she was now an angel… And that was probably the first sign that religion was going to be a strong theme in this book (I later saw someone describe it as ‘Christian historical and contemporary suspense’). I’ve no problem reading any genre of book where one or some of the characters have a faith and find it important to them but the religious aspects of this book were much stronger than that. This, combined with some quite predictable turns and character developments made for a disappointing read.

Thank you to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Title – Swan Song

Author – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Published – June 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

Although this is a bit of a change from my normal crime fiction reads I was intrigued by a book about Truman Capote, being the much revered author of ‘In Cold Blood’. I read In Cold Blood some time ago and also ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’, both without knowing anything about Capote himself, but then caught the film ‘Capote’ on a flight. This filled me in on some of his, let’s say ‘quirks’ (and proved what a chameleon actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was), but didn’t particularly touch on the celebrity circles in which he moved. In a similar vein to ‘Mrs Hemingway’ this is a fictional account of real characters, and it is completely enthralling.

The timeline jumps about a bit (I was reading a netgalley which may have made it more difficult to know when I was) but the book opens in 1975, as the first chapter of Capote’s ‘Answered Prayers’ is published in Esquire magazine. After decades of sharing the most intimate secrets with his ‘Swans’ – a group of women from the highest ranks of American society – he publishes a thinly disguised story washing their dirty linen in the most public way. The Swans close ranks and Capote is shunned. While the story is the aftermath of the publication, the changes in timeline fill in some of the stories Capote has been told.

Truman Capote by Jack Mitchell

In the preceding years Capote has travelled the world with these woman and listened to their stories, in fact all of the women he surrounded himself with had stories to tell, often, like Capote himself, they were of their rise from rags to riches. But some, like Caroline Lee Radziwiłł (née Bouvier), Jaqueline Kennedy’s sister, were always high up the social ladder but still captivated him.

He’s also told a few stories of his own, and as with the arguments over how ‘nonfiction’ In Cold Blood truly was the book illustrates his manipulation of the truth (or ‘truth-flexing’) to suit his audience. Towards the end of the book we find out the truth behind the publication of the story that shattered his friendship with his greatest love. But this is Capote – who knows what to believe. Once we get to the final chapters and his increased reliance on drink and drugs the narrative becomes less coherent as Capote starts to see visions of the people he  wronged.

The narrative voice is unusually ‘we’ the voice of the swans together. They also refer to Capote as ‘the boy’ – which does tally with his often infantile behaviour. The writing style is unusual, it’s very easy to read with lots of showing rather than telling but I assume that some aspects are echoing the type of prose which might have been associated with Capote.

As with any fictionalised account I found myself a little frustrated not knowing where the line was between truth and fiction. I also found, as much was made of the Swans’ appearance, that I needed to google for photographs of them all. I even came across photographs of his infamous Black and White Ball before I reached it in the book, the ball in the book lived up to the expectations raised by the images. There are a few TV interviews which take place in the book that I would like to track down though…

This was a really fascinating book, I just have to remind myself that it’s a fictionalised story! Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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The Story Keeper – Anna Mazzola

Title – The Story Keeper

Author – Anna Mazzola

Published – 26 July 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

It’s been a long wait since Anna’s excellent debut ‘The Unseeing’ was published and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been looking forward to reading her second novel. Before I go any further I should say that it doesn’t disappoint!

Set on the Isle of Skye the book opens with the arrival of Audrey, running away from her family and an event which, at least in the early part of the book, is only hinted at, she is set to take up a post collecting folklore. She hopes that a return to Skye, which she remembers vaguely from  some time in her childhood spent in the area, is a way to recapture a connection to her mother, who died when Audrey was ten. Her new employer is the imperious Miss Buchanan, she is to stay with Miss Buchanan and her nephew in their family estate – the neglected and brooding Lanerly Hall.  Audrey isn’t feeling particularly confident about her ability to do the job she’s been employed for but she’s burned her bridges. And then she discovers the body of a young woman on the shore by the Hall.

While making some efforts to collect stories from the crofters Audrey asks tentative questions about the dead girl. The answers are a mix of superstition based around the folktales and more ‘earthly’ explanations. Her discovery of another girl’s disappearance only deepens the mystery. But as events play out Audrey becomes more isolated and weakened by the toll her involvement takes on her.

There is a social history aspect to the book, communities ravaged by the land owners and struggling, protective of their heritage and suspicious of outsiders. The factual background to the events which took place are probably not well known by most people and it’s always a positive to learn something from a work of fiction, especially when it’s done seamlessly, without the reader feeling that they’re being given lots of information. The folklore offers an interesting insight – does it develop as an explanation for the things which have no rational explanation; do the stories represent the truth or a warning?

I’ve read a number of historical fiction books recently which have this type of gothic feel to them but this one hits the mark in creating the dark and claustrophobic atmosphere with a set of compelling characters. There is a real sense of menace pervading this book and despite the July publication date it would be perfect for curling up on a dark night in front of a log fire.

I’ve seen comparisons to the excellent Burial Rites but for me it was similar to Burial Rites crossed with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Like Burial Rites the location is hugely important – rugged coastline, isolated communities, brutal weather. Audrey stands up as the heroine of the piece – conflicted,  isolated, trying not to be defined by her past but at a time when women weren’t expected to act on their own. She has an inbuilt sense of justice but acting on it isn’t always the best course of action.

The story develops into multiple threads and there were some surprises in the way it plays out and the directions it takes. It’s unusual for a debut author not to be embarking on a series but other than the dark subjects and the compelling writing it was quite different to The Unseeing although equally enjoyable (in a dark and moody way). Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell

Title – The Silent Companions

Author – Laura Purcell

Published – October 2017

Genre – Historical fiction

This was a book that I’d heard a lot of people raving about and when I saw the hardback on the shelves it was so beautiful that I added it to my Christmas list (and received it!). And now I’m in two minds whether or not to publish a review. It didn’t come from a publisher so I feel no pressure to be positive but I don’t mean to be negative for the sake of it. I still feel it’s worth saying what I thought because there are comparisons to be drawn with other similar books that I’ve read.

The book is set (mainly) in 1865. A little while in the future Mrs Bainbridge is in an asylum and a doctor persuades her to write down her account of the events in an effort to understand what led to her incarceration. In 1865 Elsie is newly married and newly widowed. The death of her husband has taken place at his family home, The Bridge, an old and crumbling mansion where her story starts, with shades of Rebecca. This part of the book is very much a chilling, gothic story but quite slow to develop and it didn’t have the atmosphere of something like The Unseeing. One of the issues I had was when a third timeline was introduced after diaries dating back to 1635, written by a previous owner of the house, are found in a mysterious garret. I then found the shifts through the three periods a struggle and I couldn’t take to the character who had written the diaries.

The silent companions of the title are a set of mysterious wooden figures that, sometimes, resemble some of the characters in the household and then appear where they aren’t expected. I had a quick ‘google’ to see a real example – http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object. Part of my problem was that these didn’t seem as sinister to me as they should have done. By coincidence it’s not long since I read The Coffin Path and that was where I first came across these unusual figures – and these I did find creepy, perhaps if the order in which I read the books had been reversed I might have felt differently.

When the threads of the different timelines are resolved and there is a final climax to the story I was impressed by the turn of events.  It’s a shame that I didn’t find the book as atmospheric and chilling as others did.

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