historical

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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The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin

Title – The Wicked Cometh

Author – Laura Carlin

Published – Feb 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

It’s 1831 and men, women and children have been disappearing from the streets of London. Hester is a young woman who lost her somewhat privileged life when she was orphaned and was taken in by her father’s ex-gardener and his wife, which has led to her living in ever more wretched conditions. She is pinning her hopes on being able to meet her long lost cousin in London but a chance incident and injury sees her become something of a ‘project’ for the Brock family – Calder Brock, his sister Rebekah and their uncle. Hester is sent to their country house where they plan to educate her (as she has managed to keep to herself the fact that she is actually relatively well educated), she makes friends with some of the housemaids and is mentored by Rebekah.

This is a book or two halves. There is the ‘salvation’ of Hester and her burgeoning relationship with Rebekah. Then there are the ‘investigations’ as they play amateur detective in trying to find what’s become of the missing people, uncovering some unpleasant secrets in both their families along the way.

I have to say this book that wasn’t really for me. The stories and the multiple threads became quite convoluted and the author packed a lot in. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hester, for some reason I didn’t find that her character rang quite true – although nothing I can really put my finger on. The author does paint an interesting and atmospheric picture of London, demonstrating some of the contrasts between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ and there is a period leaning to the writing. But the very end of the book felt like it had pushed the credibility of the story too far.

Many thanks to the publisher for the netgalley. You can see another point of view on Kate’s blog.

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A Darker State – David Young

Title – A Darker State

Author – David Young

Published – Feb 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

I reviewed David Young’s debut, Stasi Child, in October 2015,  last year it was the second novel in the Karin Müller series – Stasi Wolf, and now we have the third instalment in A Darker State.  Set some months after the end of the second book, Karin is feeling a little more domesticated with her newly extended family. Her break from work doesn’t last long, however, when she gains another speedy promotion and a new apartment, but as she well knows, everything has its price and she is soon involved in a new case following the discovery of the body of a young boy.

Berlin, Karl-Marx-Allee, Strausberger Platz

Karl-Marx-Allee, Strausberger Platz, Berlin Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-U0416-0017 / Schulz / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The investigation is slow to develop – it seems that the different divisions within the police and bureaucracy weren’t up to much in the way of cooperation. Karin isn’t one to give up easily though, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of the previous books in the series. The case is brought closer to home when it becomes apparent that there may be a link between the young man’s death and the disappearance of the son of one of her co-workers and as a new mother Karin is more sympathetic than perhaps she might have been in the past.

The missing boy is Markus Schmidt and throughout the book there are chapters told from his point of view where we get to find out about his backstory as the events unfold that see him become ever more distant from his parents. His story is both sad and his treatment despicable, a thought-provoking thread to the story.

We get a tiny glimpse more into the relationships between the main characters and find out that there is more to Tilsner/Jäger’s relationship than we might have thought. And just when I thought that Karin’s ex-husband had been forgotten we get a tantalising hint that all isn’t as it should be.

I don’t think anyone would be surprised at what was going on behind the Berlin Wall and this gives the author the opportunity to develop some real-life incidents into more gripping fictional ones. The political divisions and the controlling influence of the Stasi also allow for dramatic and tense situations and regardless of how the reader knows Karin she still ends up at the wrong end of the legal system.

Young writes really immersive historical fiction – there’s never a moment when the writing takes you out of the book and makes you question what you’re reading. The book is both a mystery and has its thrills and of course Karin is a great leading character. So do you need to have read the previous books in the series? This would probably make enough sense if you read it first but you would miss some of the backstory and character development that are relevant in the series.

Another enjoyable piece for Cold War crime fiction – many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Coffin Path – Katherine Clements

Title – The Coffin Path

Author – Katherine Clements

Published – 8 Feb 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

I might be posting this review WAY in advance of its publication date but this was such a perfectly timed read in the run up to Halloween. The Coffin Path is a gothic ghost story set in the seventeenth century at an isolated farm and manor house on the wild Yorkshire moors.

The book starts out from the perspective of Mercy Booth, a woman who challenges the expectations of the time about how a woman should behave. She sees herself as the mistress of Scarcross Hall (what a name!) and expects to inherit it when her father passes away. Scarcross is run down and the source of local rumour and superstition; the arrival of a mysterious stranger coincides with events that bring these to the fore. The man is Ellis Ferriby and as the narration switches between him and Mercy we see a different perspective on the period and gradually discover the secret that haunts him.

The controlled pace allows us to get to know and understand the characters as they face the sinister and mysterious events. Verging between the menace of a more corporeal threat versus an ethereal one, the tension is gradually ramped up through the book. As the incidents increase they take their toll on the inhabitants and the farm’s workers and gradually Mercy comes under more and more pressure and becomes more and more isolated.

The location could perhaps be credited as the third main character – the wilds of the moors, the remote location and the unforgiving weather all play their part. This isn’t a book that’s heavy on historical scene-setting – the period is obviously important for a number of reasons but it provides the backdrop to the story, rather than being the driver for it.

There was a point where I suspected that this might become something of a formulaic romance but while the relationship between the two main protagonists could take that direction the author kept the tone of the writing true to their personalities and anything that does (or doesn’t) happen avoids any predictable clichés. Both characters have their flaws but are immensely likeable and both are presented with situations which put them to the test.

The climax is thrilling and there was a sudden ‘aha’ moment which I hope I haven’t misinterpreted… A chilling and eerie story this is bound to make many lists as a ‘must read’ book for next Halloween.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Black Friar – S. G. MacLean

Title – The Black Friar

Author – S. G. MacLean

Published – October 2016

Genre – Historical fiction

My intention is to crack on today and catch up on my reviews. Although I’ve been too busy to ‘blog’ I’ve been reading as much as ever so I have quite a stack of books to get through.

First up is The Black Friar, which came in the post from the publisher last year. This is the first book I’ve read in the series but the blurb tells me that this is the second in the Damian Seeker series and that the first book in the series (The Seeker) won the CWA Historical Dagger in 2015. In fact The Black Friar made it to this year’s Historical Dagger longest but sadly didn’t go through on the shortlist.

The book is set in London in 1655 – the time of Cromwell as Lord Protector. This is a time of unrest and there are many trying to challenge Cromwell; Seeker, as Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, has his hands full trying to stem this tide, so it’s surprising when he takes an interest in the body of a friar discovered in the walls of the Black Friar’s monastery. Behind the mystery of the dead friar, however, is a link to the spies in Cromwell’s service and as Seeker tries to find out more about the dead man he becomes involved in trying to find out why children have been disappearing. The story is told against the backdrop of the political machinations that are trying to uphold Cromwell’s authority against the undercurrent of dissent.

I really liked Seeker – he may be feared and have the power to make people cross the street, or even empty a coffee house, but he is still charming and has a sense of decency and justice that gives his character more depth. It was interesting to see the author drawing on real-life characters who walked the corridors of power (Samuel Pepys, Andrew Marvel) which did pique my interest in the period, probably more than just purely fictional characters would have done.

This was a gripping tale of espionage with a more conventional mystery to be solved too. There plotting was complex and pleasantly devious The historical detail felt well-researched and certainly provided an immersive experience of the period. The book definitely worked without having read the previous title but I shall make a point read more in the series.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Paris Winter – Imogen Robertson

Title – The Paris Winter

Author – Imogen Robertson

Published – 2013

Genre – Historical fiction

Our move West and a sustained busy period at work means that although I am still reading at the rate of around a book a week (call myself a blogger!!) I’m struggling to find the time to review what I’ve read and that is a real shame. I seem to have, in the process, dropped off the lists for a number of publishers, so while I never received a huge amount of ‘book post’ my average is now just one or two books a month. Which means that I’ve got the opportunity to catch up on some books that I have had waiting on the TBR for some considerable time – and this book at 3 or 4 years is by no means the longest!

Out of necessity I will post some shorter reviews but I hope that I still manage to do justice to some of the really enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year.

I picked up The Paris Winter as an antidote to a run of gripping but gritty contemporary crime fiction. The book was shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peter Historical Dagger, losing out to The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor. The setting is Paris, 1909, and Maud Heighton is a young English woman learning to paint at Lafond’s famous Academie. While many in Paris are enjoying the Belle Epoque it can be a difficult time for the women studying away from their families and the death of a fellow student throws Maud’s poverty into sharp relief. Rescue seems to be offered through the intervention of one of the models and a glamorous Russian; with their help Maud is employed by a young man to act as companion to his vulnerable sister.

What appears to be a lifeline for Maud is anything but. It soon becomes clear that not all is as it seems and their world of luxury hides a dark secret. I don’t really want to give anything away because I enjoyed how events played out and how Maud’s future became entangled with theirs. As the story progresses the characters of Yvette, the model and Tanya, the wealthy Russian are fleshed out and between the two we see the polar opposites of those enjoying the delights of Paris.

I loved the setting, both in terms of period and location, and the art school backdrop brought back memories of a number of books I enjoyed which featured The Slade in London. It’s beautifully written and the author made the book really immersive – getting off the train after I’d put it down I would wonder why I was in London, why it wasn’t snowing… I liked the characters, a mix of woman who showed strength but in different ways and without becoming caricatures and a plot that didn’t take the reader into the realms of the implausible.

If you enjoy historical fiction with a criminal leaning then you should add this to your TBR.

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Stasi Wolf – David Young

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Title – Stasi Wolf

Author – David Young

Published – Feb 2017

Genre – Crime fiction

I reviewed David Young’s debut, Stasi Child, in October 2015 and in 2016 it was the winner of the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger – a great feat for a debut. So what’s the sequel like I hear you ask – any ‘second novel’ issues? I have to say that I think Stasi Wolf is the better of the two books.

Following the end of Stasi Child Karin Müller has been sidelined from her activities in the Berlin murder squad and separated from her old partner. Which means that when she is offered another job which will involved the interference of the Stasi she still accepts it. The assignment sees her sent to Halle-Neustadt, a new ‘city’ created in 1967 and known as City of the Chemistry Workers it was one of the largest construction projects on post-war Germany.

ADN-ZB Lehmann 30.4.82 Halle: Fast 100.000 Einwohner zählt heute die Chemiearbeiterstadt Halle-Neustadt. Überwiegend Werktätige aus den Chemiekombinaten Leuna und Buna sowie aus anderen Großbetrieben sind hier zu Hause. Neben modernen und komfortablen Wohnhäusern prägen Sozial-, Kultur-, Sport- und Dienstleistungseinrichtungen das Bild von Halle-Neustadt.

Halle-Neustadt

The case she is sent to investigate, set in 1975, is the disappearance of twin babies. Of course in a city that is the pride of the communist state the Stasi are keen to control how far the team is allowed to publicise the case and who they are able to question about it. As ever, Karin is determined to find justice and her empathy with the parents of the missing babies helps to drive her to find a resolution. She has to work with and despite the Stasi and the team of local police who initiated the investigation.

As a possible clue to the case there are some passages, set in the past, which are narrated by a character who the reader can’t necessarily identify but they are obviously key to the mystery.

This book felt as if it dwelt less on the comparisons of the free West versus the East and more on the new world that the Eastern German citizens were being offered. It’s clear from the descriptions that this isn’t perhaps all that it’s cracked up to be and this isn’t what the leaders would want the populace to think but from Karin’s perspective you get a feeling for both points of view.

One aspect I was curious about was Karin’s husband. In Stasi Child it felt as if there was more to his relocation than perhaps Karin knew but that was only lightly hinted at here. What we did find out was more about Karin’s own backstory and specifically an incident as a small child and the loss of her best friend.

As with the preceding novel the author brings the atmosphere of the post-war setting without filling the narrative with too much detail. It certainly conveys the claustrophobic feeling of living in an environment where the wrong word or emotion can lead to no end of trouble.

The resolution perhaps relies a little more on coincidence than I would like but it is satisfying regardless of that. Although it can be hard to judge when you have read the preceding book, I don’t think you would feel you were missing out if you read this book without reading Stasi Child first.

A great follow-up to an award-winning debut, this is shaping up to be a series well worth reading. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point to view on Kate’s blog – For Winter Nights.

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