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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

I first read this book when I was a teenager, and if I cast my mind back through the many years that have passed since, I’m fairly sure that at the time I thought it was a true story. It isn’t, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the reading.

The story is, on the face of it, fairly simple. In Victoria, Australia in 1900, the students and two teachers as the prestigious Appleyard School for young ladies are preparing to go for a Valentine’s Day picnic at the famous landmark Hanging Rock. During the picnic, four of the students go off for a walk and only one returns, in a state of hysteria, and unable to recall what has happened to the other three young women. Also missing is one of the teachers.

The book explores the ripple effect of the disappearance and how it changed the lives even of people who were initially only on the periphery of the story, and illustrates how one event can have far reaching consequences. The disappearance itself happens in the first quarter of the book and the rest of the book deals with the after-effects.

I did enjoy this book very much, both times that I read it. There was a surprising amount of humour, or at least acerbic wit, but the main atmosphere is somewhat ethereal and dreamlike. My favourite characters were the coachman Albert Crundall and Madamoiselle De Poitiers, the French teacher who genuinely cared about her students.

It’s a short read (just under 200 pages) but an enjoyable one, and I would recommend it. I’d also like to see Hanging Rock for myself!

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In the mid 1740s, a young Englishman named Richard Smith arrives in New York, a city in its infancy, with a money order for £1000. As none of the counting houses have that kind of cash available and as there are questions surrounding his honesty and the authenticity of the order, Mr Smith is obliged to wait in New York until the money can be raised and he can be proven to be trustworthy.

The reader is also kept in the dark about Mr Smith’s intentions – we don’t know if he is honest and we don’t know what he plans to do with the money, and we only find out the truth about both questions at the end of the book. No spoilers here though!

His presence in the city divides the people who live there – some believe him and like him, others are convinced that he is a liar and a cheat – and he finds himself in some dangerous and unsavoury situations – some of his own making and others in which he is an innocent party. There are a number of twists and turns along the way.

A curious one this, for me. I really struggled with some parts of it and found it difficult to maintain interest. But other parts were fascinating and exciting and I raced through them. There is a LOT of description about New York in the 1740s, which does really help to set the scene. Spufford also employs the use of language of the era, which could sometimes mean that it didn’t flow as easily as it might have. So all in all a bit of a mixed bag. I did like the main character of Mr Smith, but most of the other characters were not particularly well developed. There is a strong female character named Tabitha, who I wish could have been pleasant as well as strong and smart. She had a much more pliant sister, and I was reminded of Katherine and Bianca from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (although Katherine is more of a sympathetic character than Tabitha, who I just found unpleasant).

With all that said, there was a lot here to enjoy and I would consider reading more from this author.

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Scottsboro is fact based fiction. It tells the story of the nine Scottsboro boys – nine young black men who were wrongfully convicted several times over, of raping two young women on a train in the American south in 1931. The colour of their skin ensured their guilty verdict, even when one of the girls retracted her statement and admitted that they had both lied about the rape.

The main narrator of the book is a (fictional) journalist named Alice Whittier, who covers the trial and tries to help in seeking justice for the boys. Parts are also narrated by Ruby Bates, the girl who admitted that she and her accomplice Victoria Price, had lied about being raped.

I think it is a skilful piece of writing, expertly blending fact and fiction. It will make you outraged at the absolutely blatant racism against the young men, (and also at the blatant sexism against the women in the story). It’s very eloquently written and I found it easy to lose myself in the pages, and hard to put the book down at times. However, while I could certainly see the usefulness of Alice as a character – her job entitles her to sit in the court while the trials were taking place, and to get to know Ruby and the nine Scottsboro boys – I did feel that unnecessary details about Alice’s personal life intruded somewhat. Of course people want a well rounded character, but certain events which she wrote about, just stalled the narrative.

However, anyone who is interested in civil rights and how they can be denied based solely on the colour of one’s skin (and this is not something that should come as a surprise to anyone) could do worse than read this book. I would recommend.

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I read Maria McCann’s novel The Wilding several years ago, in just a couple of sittings (most of it was read on a flight to Italy so I had little else to distract me). I had quite enjoyed that book so expected much of the same of As Meat Loves Salt, which was McCann’s debut novel. However, apart from the genre of historical fiction, there was little similar about these books. I far preferred As Meat Loves Salt, which is easily the darker of the two novels.

Set in the early years of the English Civil War, the anti-hero and narrator is Jacob Cullen, a man who is in domestic service with his two brothers, although they were originally born into wealth. Having committed murder (don’t worry, this is revealed in the first few pages and is not a spoiler), Jacob flees with his new wife and one of his brothers, but when things go wrong he finds himself joining the New Model Army fighting in the ongoing war, and befriending the enigmatic fellow soldier Christopher Ferris.

After they leave the New Model Army, Ferris returns to his home in London and offers Jacob a home there. For fear of spoiling the story for anyone who wants to read this book, I’ll not reveal more, except to say that things get very dark very quickly. Emotions run extremely high and Jacob in particular has little success in controlling his feelings. To say he is quick to anger is an understatement. He is a large, strong man, capable of committing much physical harm, and almost a slave to his own violent tendencies. He always acts without thinking and no matter how much he regrets his outbursts later, he is seeming unable to control his rage when it bubbles up inside him.

For all that he is a man who one would wish to avoid, he’s not the only one in this book. Ferris is charming and well meaning, but mercurial and manipulative. I actually cared for him very little, but the relationship between him and Jacob was a fascinating one. (It has just occurred to me that the women in this book come across by and large far better than the men.)

The one thing I would have liked to have known more about was the fate of Zeb – without giving anything away, I did think he would feature more than he did, and that there was an interesting story. If Maria McCann ever feels like writing the story from his point of view, I would definitely be interested in reading it.

Overall I would definitely recommend this book. It’s not an easy read, and there are a few very violent scenes. But it’s well written with a not very likeable but always interesting narrator – if this is the kind of book that appeals to you, I would give this one a try.

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I have thoroughly enjoyed previous novels by Sarah Waters, and had high hopes for this one. The story is set in the early 1920s, and Frances Wray and her mother have fallen on hard times, and are forced to take in lodgers. When Leonard and Lilian Barber arrive, Frances is shaken out of her small world, and drawn into their lives. However, when passion mounts, the consequences are shocking and everlasting.

This is a strange book in that it starts off being fairly slow moving – in keeping with the pace of Frances’s life. Every day is the same for her – housework and spending time with her mother, before retiring to bed. But as her new lodgers arouse her interest and she gets drawn into their lifestyle, the pace picks up. The last third of the book is a very different tone and I did get very absorbed, staying up late to find out how the story ends (without revealing any spoilers, I would have to say that I found the ending surprising, but in a weirdly anticlimactic way).

I cannot say I didn’t enjoy the book, but whereas with Waters’ previous novels Fingersmith, Affinity and The Night Watch, I couldn’t put them down, with this one I found myself not really engaging until the last part. The characters were not particularly likeable, which was not a problem, as I don’t believe they were written to be. They were believable though and the idea of Frances, being an intelligent woman trapped in claustrophobic lifestyle, was convincing.

Overall, not one of Sarah Waters’ best, but still worth the read and I will continue to read anything that she writes.

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The Thorn Birds has been on my tbr shelf (I laughingly refer to it as a shelf as if there aren’t that many books I have not yet read – ha!) for about six years. It’s not generally the kind of book I go in for, but I bought it for some reason – I have a feeling my aunt recommended it – and just occasionally I like to get caught up in a sweeping saga, so in search of some escapism (at the time of writing, most of the world is on lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic) I decided this might do the trick.

Pretty much all I knew about The Thorn Birds prior to reading was that there was a tv series adaptation in the 1980, starring Richard Chamberlain; I knew it was about the love between a woman and a Catholic Priest, and apparently it was extremely scandalous!! With this in mind, the book turned out to be a bit of a surprise. I was expecting a love story but this is more of a family saga, concentrating on three generations of the Cleary family. It takes place from the early to mid/late 20th century on a homestead in Australia (mainly) and at the centre of it is Father Ralph De Briccassart and his love for Meggie Cleary. It starts as a paternal type of love as Meggie is only a child when they first meet, and Ralph is a young priest, but as she grows older, their love becomes more – but Ralph’s vocation is always between them.

A lot of the book is given over to other characters – in the beginning, Meggie’s brothers and parents; and later on the net generation of the family, Justine and Dane. The hardships and realities of running a sheep station in Australia.

I did more or less enjoy the book – clearly it was well researched and it did hold my attention for the most part. However, I did not particularly warm to Meggie and I certainly didn’t like Ralph, who seemed particularly mercenary and manipulative. Nonetheless, I am glad I read it although it wouldn’t be a story I would probably want to reread at any point.

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Riley and Nadine meet as young children in 2007, and become close as young adults. But it is only after war breaks out and Riley is sent to fight in France, that they are able to admit their love to each other. As they both witness and suffer the horror and heartbreak of World War I, events lead Riley to tell a terrible lie to protect Nadine.

I am honestly not sure what to make of this book. I can definitely recognise the excellent writing, but for much of it, it did not make me feel a lot. I had high expectations due to hearing other readers rave about it, so maybe that was a factor. But much like looking at a piece of art and appreciating the talent required to create it but not feeling moved at all by it, that was how I felt about this novel.

That said, I did enjoy the second half a lot more than the first. The first part of the story was essentially setting up the second half, and as such was fairly slow moving. After the pivotal event takes place, the pace picks up and I liked it more. I also liked the parallel story of Julia and her husband Peter who is Riley’s commanding officer. My favourite character of all was probably Rose, Peter’s cousin, for whom war provides the identity and purposefulness which she had lacked (or been seen to be lacking) before.

The scenes of war were vivid and obviously well researched, as were the descriptions of early plastic surgery and facial reconstruction techniques. These descriptions dovetailed nicely with Julia’s obsession with her looks – all she had ever had to offer the world was her beauty and being unable to help with the war effort made her feel unnecessary and useless; the thought of losing her looks too, was unbearable to her. I was exasperated with her shallowness in parts, but it was forgivable as she too recognised it in herself and was unsatisfied with herself.

Overall I cannot say this was a bad book – in many ways it was a very good one. But it didn’t move me in the way I had hoped; however if you have any interest in World War I, you might want to check it out.

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Set across two different timelines, this is the story of Henry Lee and the girl he loved and lost…

In 1986, Henry is walking past the Panama Hotel in Seattle when he learns that a large amount of items which had been stashed there by Japanese American families, who were on their way to internment camps during WWII, have been discovered in the basement of the building. As Henry sees a distinctive parasol, he is reminded of Keiko, the Japanese girl who was his first love.

My thoughts

I really expected and wanted to like this book, so I am a bit disappointed to say that I found it…underwhelming. I can’t say that I actively disliked it, but it never really grabbed me. The historical parts – about Japanese residents in the USA being moved to internment camps (supposedly for their own safety, but everyone knows that it was because Japan fought against America in WWII – although most of those put in the camps were as American as anyone else) were fascinating to read about, but I didn’t feel like the characters themselves were ever well enough described for me to invest in them or to care too much about them – there was little characterisation and I never really got to ‘know’ them.

The writing itself felt almost like the wind of writing aimed at a child – simple and never very in-depth. were it not for the subject matter, this almost would feel like it was aimed at children, especially compared to other fiction books written about WWII.

So overall, the story itself gets a thumbs up for me, but the execution of said story….not so much a thumbs down as a thumbs sideways. Ho hum.

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s debut novel and as such the first one to feature her famous and hugely popular detective Hercule Poirot. Narrated by his friend Captain Hastings, the scene is set before Poirot appears in the story. Hastings is invited by his old friend John Cavendish to stay with his family and is most surprised to find the matriarch – John’s widowed step-mother Emily – has remarried to a man some 20 years younger than herself. It is safe to say that her new husband Alfred has not exactly endeared himself to the other members of the household.

When Emily is murdered by poisoning a couple of days later, Poirot is called in to investigate and through Hastings’ eyes, we see his methods as the famous Belgian detective pieces together seemingly unconnected clues and sifts through various red herrings to finally reveal the murderer.

I really enjoyed this book, and loved that it kept me guessing right up until the moment that the killer was revealed at the end. Although I could never dream of putting together such a complex story (and let’s not forget that Agatha Christie wrote a huge amount of mystery stories), I do think there were clues that this was an early novel, but if this is Christie at her most raw, then I can hardly wait to read her other books!

Poirot himself is an infuriatingly pompous and self-satisfied character who despite this is impossible not to like. The plot itself, with all of its twists and turns was still easy to follow and led to a satisfying and surprising conclusion.

Highly recommended to fans of the mystery genre. I have more Poirot stories on my to-be-read mountain and am looking forward to reading them.

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This book had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided it was time to read it for several reasons: I enjoy reading Shakespeare and learning about his life, I enjoy watching his plays, historical fiction (particularly when interwoven with fact) is a favourite genre of mine, and recently there have been the celebrations of 400 years since he died. Which I suppose is a slightly strange thing to celebrate, but still.

Not a lot is actually known about Shakespeare’s life, or to put it more precisely, there are large gaps in his biography. This book takes the facts that we do know and weaves a fictional story around them. It never claims to be anything but fictional, but clearly the author has done a lot of research to get as much accuracy in as possible.

I am in two minds about it. On the one hand, there was much to enjoy – the writing was elegant and at times rather beautiful, but also slightly too flowery for my personal tastes. It felt as though 20 words were often used when one would have sufficed. Nonetheless I felt it gave a descriptive portrayal of Shakespeare although there is no way of knowing truly how accurate the portrayal was. Morgan draws him as a serious minded, elusive man who wins everyone’s (almost) admiration, yet never really allows anyone to get too close, except for one person who he regrets letting into his life.

One thing to point out about this book is that it is as much about Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway as it is about him, and a fair amount of the story is also given over to Shakespeare’s friend and contemporary, Ben Jonson. Shakespeare is seen through both of their eyes, and out of all three characters, Anne probably comes across as the most sympathetic.

Overall I would say that this was a middling book for me – objectively I’d say it was wonderfully written, but subjectively I’d say that it wasn’t the best fit for me; however, I enjoyed it enough to want to pick it up each day, but it was so wordy that I couldn’t read great swathes of it in one sitting. Interesting though, and I would recommend it to fans of historical fiction and especially to anyone with an interest in William Shakespeare.

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