historical

The Black Friar

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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Black Night Falling – Rod Reynolds

Title – Black Night Falling

Author – Rod Reynolds

Published – August 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

This is a long outstanding review that I feel particularly guilty about not posting in a more timely manner but it’s also a post that I would swear I had written and was ready to press ‘publish’ on, but then was just a blank page…

Set a few months after the end of The Dark Inside, Charlie Yates is living in Venice Beach with Lizzie and they’re putting the past behind them. But a call from a friend suggesting that there was something unfinished about the events that took place in Texarkana draws him back to the South. He leaves Lizzie at home and arrives in Hot Springs only to find that the man whose call he was answering is dead.

Galvanised into action by this unexpected death he embarks on an investigation of his own, but unlike in the previous book he has no standing to do that so this is another obstacle he must overcome. As he starts to find out more about the events that prompted the original phone call there are threads that link back to Texarkana and he finds that his actions may have put Lizzie in peril.

Charlie is still wrestling with his demons and although he has mellowed a little after the events of the previous book, he is still quick to avoid being seen as a coward (which suggests that that’s really how he sees himself). He’s motivated by justice and revenge and is driven onwards by his conscience – he feels like the quintessential ‘good guy’ although he doesn’t always get it right.

This is incredibly atmospheric and if you didn’t know better you would imagine that the author had walked the Texarkana streets in the 1940s so what makes the writing even more astonishing is the fact that Rod Reynolds is a thirtysomething Londoner. There’s lots of historical detail and the voices of the characters really feel true to the period. There is a real feel of the ‘Wild West’ too with the dogged newspaper man facing up to the corruption he finds around him. The first book had its origin in historical events but this book proves that the author can devise his own plots without any help.

Another great read in the Charlie Yates series and if you’re after crime fiction / thriller with an unusual historical setting then this might be just what you’re looking for.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Title – His Bloody Project

Author – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Published – 2015

Genre – Historical crime fiction

I bought this book because it’s not often that something shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize appeals to me, but billed as a historical thriller / crime novel it fitted in with my regular reading choices.

The story is set in a remote hamlet in the Scottish Highlands where the inhabitants work their crofts under the control of the local Laird in a hand-to-mouth state of poverty. The book itself purports to be the first publication of the memoir of seventeen-year-old Roddy Macrae, written while he was awaiting trial, as well as supporting documents including extracts of newspaper coverage of the trial itself.

There seems to be no doubt that Roddy has carried out the attacks of which he has been accused; his writing attempts to trace the course of events that led him to the crimes which he declared himself guilty of. What transpires is an account of an impoverished life where there is little hope for escape. His family’s fortunes take a turn for the worse after his mother dies and when a local bully takes on the role of Constable within the community his father seems to be singled out for ill-treatment.

The book seems to pose lots of question and doesn’t necessarily provide answers. I’m never keen on ambiguity – I am always convinced  that the author knows the ‘answer’ and is leaving me to figure it out, and I worry that I’ve not reached the right conclusion. From the beginning we only know who one victim of the attack is and it’s quite late in the story that we find who the others are. The narrators can be unreliable, some obviously so, others less explicit. There are a few incidents that are hinted at and never made clear and I was unsure about their relevance. And then there’s the ending.

I found the book quite enjoyable although I would say the telling of it was nothing new. There was something about the period in which it is set and the slow unfolding of the events in advance of a trial that reminded me of Burial Rites. But it lacked the beautiful writing of Hannah Kent. The use of ‘documents’ and reports to provide different perspectives isn’t new either, although statements during trials perhaps appear less often. Neither did it feel to me that it was shining a light on some of the issues it touched on – poverty of those working on the land, inequality, mental health, justice – than you might read in any similar novel set in the period.  Perhaps it is the combination of these that has made this book stand out to the judges. It certainly lacked some of the tension and thrills I might have expected.

I did go in search of ‘what is the Man Booker Prize awarded for?’. The official description is “a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the UK.” as well as “in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK.” And there we have it ‘in the opinion the judges’ – more a subjective criteria and dependant on who is judging.

Perhaps elevating this book to the Booker shortlist has made me overly critical. Have you read this or any others on the list? What did you think?

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The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid – Craig Russell

51OeFxi-oWLTitle – The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid

Author – Craig Russell

Published – 4 August 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

I’ve heard a lot about Craig Russell’s books – largely through his connection with Bloody Scotland and The Ghosts of Altona which won the Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year in 2015. He has two crime fiction series – one set in Hamburg (The Ghosts of Altona is from this series) and the other set in Glasgow of the 1950s. The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid is from the latter – his ‘Lennox’ series.

Lennox is a private detective who operates on the fringes of what is legal – although employing an ex-policeman to help in his business he’s not above getting involved in something lucrative that isn’t strictly above board. In this case he has been approached to get access to something which is a little out of the ordinary and to complete the job he needs the skills of Quiet Tommy Quaid. Quaid is Lennox’s friend and a thief, a man everyone liked but, as it turned out, a man with a secret. When Quaid dies unexpectedly (I think as it’s in the title I don’t need to worry about that being too much of a spoiler) Lennox has some reservations about the official explanation so is more than willing to investigate in a more official capacity for Quaid’s (attractive) sister.

With a light touch on the historical detail and a snappy dressing, womanising PI this is was a very enjoyable read. Lennox makes an interesting protagonist and he has a dry sense of humour that helps to lighten the mood on what could be a very dark story. The post-war setting provides some interesting situations and it makes a pleasant change to leave behind modern technology without having to provide some sort of artifice for its absence.  The first person narration serves the plot well keeping the reader and Lennox in the dark.

I enjoyed this story which was a dark, violent and twisty story of a seedy conspiracy. There were some themes about justice, the abuse of power and what men will do when they believe one of the direst crimes has been committed. There were some thrilling scenes as well as some puzzles which added a mystery element. Although this is the fifth in the series it really did seem to me to be a book that could be read on its own – I don’t feel that I missed out by not knowing any of Lennox’s backstory.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy of this book.

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The Constant Soldier – William Ryan

416hB6-rgfLTitle – The Constant Soldier

Author – William Ryan

Published – 25 August 2016

Genre – Historical

This a departure from William Ryan’s Stalinist Russia set police procedural series but it shares Ryan’s polished prose and evocative depiction of historical fiction.

The story is set in the last months of the Second World War and German soldier Paul Brandt has been sent back home from the Eastern Front after being seriously injured in a Soviet attack. On returning to his village he finds that the SS have built a rest hut on the outskirts of his village, a luxurious a retreat for those who manage the nearby concentration camp or need to convalesce before returning to the front.

Drawn by a glimpse of someone he thinks is familiar, Brandt takes on the role of Steward at the hut, offering him a brief insight into the lives of the men who make use of the hut or are stationed there. This is a great opportunity to see a whole range of perspectives – from the Commandant who is haunted by the past, the vindictive Scharführer guarding the women prisoners, to the visitors from the camp and of course, the women prisoners themselves.

The main plot is driven by Brandt’s efforts to make amends for a wrong he believes he did and all that he does is to that end. Brandt is wary of sharing his own trepidation and doubts but occasionally he is drawn out to say more than he should, adding an extra layer of tension to the plot. The story has quite a slow pace but this is balanced with action scenes which come from a young Russian woman who is driving a tank which is heading towards Germany. Brandt’s return home also shows the impact that the war has had on his village and the family he left behind, and how his father and sister have fared while has been away. Divisions have opened up and whilst some people have had to go into hiding others are still pursuing victory and are keen to uphold the defence of the Reich to the last.

Ryan effortlessly creates the mood and atmosphere of the last days of the war and makes the book completely absorbing. I’m not sure that I’ve read a book that’s taken this perspective on the war, disillusioned characters who have an inkling of what their future may hold.  It made me pause to consider the people in this situation, forced along with the atrocities they knew were taking place with little chance of making any difference. How did people react when the conclusion of the war (not just this war but any war) became inevitable and they were going to be on the losing side, complicit in what had taken place? It speaks volumes for a novel when it makes you consider the reality of the situation it depicts.

As a departure from the Korolev series this may find Ryan a whole new swathe of fans – if you enjoy books like Atonement and Birdsong this will be right up your street. Beautifully written, thought-provoking and emotionally compelling, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Many  thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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