Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer Hickey

The Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer Hickey

This won the Walter Scott Historical Prize for Literature, so clearly I had to read it.

Here’s the blurb …

1950: late summer season on Cape Cod. Michael, a ten-year-old boy, is spending the summer with Richie and his glamorous but troubled mother. Left to their own devices, the boys meet a couple living nearby – the artists Jo and Edward Hopper – and an unlikely friendship is forged.

She, volatile, passionate and often irrational, suffers bouts of obsessive sexual jealousy. He, withdrawn and unwell, depressed by his inability to work, becomes besotted by Richie’s frail and beautiful Aunt Katherine who has not long to live – an infatuation he shares with young Michael.

A novel of loneliness and regret, the legacy of World War II and the ever-changing concept of the American Dream

I enjoyed it, certainly more than To Calais in Ordinary Time, which was on the short list. Three out of five.

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The Dictionary of Lost Words – Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words – Pip Wiliams

I bought this as part of my ‘I’m going to chemo today. so I am buying a book’ plan. The cover and the blurb reduced me.

Here’s the blurb…

In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.

Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it

I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this novel. The setting, the talk of words were beautifully written. And then my enthusiasm waned (could be because I was having chemotherapy). I passed my copy on the my mother-in-law whose book club is reading it. 3 out of 5.

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The Other Bennet Sister – Janice Hadlow

The Other Bennet Sister – Janice Hadlow

As I said in my last post, I don’t often read Jane Austen fan fiction and now I have done two in a row. This was recommended by a friend whose opinion I trust, so I decided to give it a go.

I liked it – it was refreshing to see things from Mary’s point of view. It was long though, and I felt a bit of editing would make a crisper story.

Here’s the blurb …

Mary, the bookish ugly duckling of Pride and Prejudice’s five Bennet sisters, emerges from the shadows and transforms into a desired woman with choices of her own.

What if Mary Bennet’s life took a different path from that laid out for her in Pride and Prejudice? What if the frustrated intellectual of the Bennet family, the marginalized middle daughter, the plain girl who takes refuge in her books, eventually found the fulfillment enjoyed by her prettier, more confident sisters? This is the plot of The Other Bennet Sister, a debut novel with exactly the affection and authority to satisfy Austen fans.

Ultimately, Mary’s journey is like that taken by every Austen heroine. She learns that she can only expect joy when she has accepted who she really is. She must throw off the false expectations and wrong ideas that have combined to obscure her true nature and prevented her from what makes her happy. Only when she undergoes this evolution does she have a chance at finding fulfillment; only then does she have the clarity to recognize her partner when he presents himself—and only at that moment is she genuinely worthy of love.

Mary’s destiny diverges from that of her sisters. It does not involve broad acres or landed gentry. But it does include a man; and, as in all Austen novels, Mary must decide whether he is the truly the one for her. In The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is a fully rounded character—complex, conflicted, and often uncertain; but also vulnerable, supremely sympathetic, and ultimately the protagonist of an uncommonly satisfying debut novel.

I would recommend this to Jane Austen fans. 3 out of 5.

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The Jane Austen Society – Natalie Jenner

The Jane Austen Society – Natalie Jenner

I normally avoid Jane Austen fan-fiction – Austen is just too hard an act to follow, but this came highly recommended, and I have been unwell, so pleasant reads are a must.

I liked it – well written and a little bit unexpected.

Here is the blurb…

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society

If you are a Jane Austen fan, I think you would enjoy this and even if you’re not, it’s a lovely story about grief, family, doing your duty and there is a bit of romance as well. 4 out of 5.

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To Calais in Ordinary Time – James Meek

To Calais in Ordinary Time – James Meek

This was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, so, as a fan of historical fiction, I had to read it.

Mr Meek used archaic words, which added colour, but made it hard to read. It was an appropriate read though, the characters are trying to avoid the plague and we were in Corona lock-down.

Here’s the blurb …

Three journeys. One road.

England, 1348. A gentlewoman is fleeing an odious arranged marriage, a Scottish proctor is returning home to Avignon and a handsome young ploughman in search of adventure is on his way to volunteer with a company of archers. All come together on the road to Calais.

Coming in their direction from across the Channel is the Black Death, the plague that will wipe out half of the population of Northern Europe. As the journey unfolds, overshadowed by the archers’ past misdeeds and clerical warnings of the imminent end of the world, the wayfarers must confront the nature of their loves and desires.

A tremendous feat of language and empathy, it summons a medieval world that is at once uncannily plausible, utterly alien and eerily reflective of our own. James Meek’s extraordinary To Calais, In Ordinary Time is a novel about love, class, faith, loss, gender and desire—set against one of the biggest cataclysms of human history.

This novel wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did finish it, so I am rating it as 2 out of 5. It’s not something I like to read, but that doesn’t mean it was poorly written. Quite the contrary, it was well-written and well-researched and many (perhaps most) will enjoy it.

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The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel

The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel

The long-awaited third in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

‘If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?’

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.

This book will be forever known as my quarantine book – my reading it has co-incided with our lockdown (five weeks now).

This is a large book (physically – I should have bought a kindle version) and it took me a long time to read, but I enjoyed it. I even re-watched the Wolf Hall T.V adaptation. And I have bought Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell.

4/5 (too long for 5/5)

Another review.

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Filed under 4, Historical Fiction, Recommended, Serious

The Game of Kings – Dorothy Dunnett

The Game of Kings – Dorothy Dunnett

I first heard about this series at Cornflower Books and decided to listen to the Audible version.

Here is the Wikipedia summary

Living mostly by his wits and his sword-arm in 16th-century Scotland, Francis Crawford of Lymond is a charismatic figure: polyglot scholar, soldier, musician, master of disguises, nobleman—and accused outlaw. After five years in exile, Lymond has recently returned to Scotland, in defiance of Scottish charges against him for pro-English treason and murder. He has assembled a band of mercenaries and ruffians who follow his ruthless leadership. The reader gradually learns that Lymond has returned with the goal of proving his innocence and restoring his name. To do so, he must find the man who framed him and condemned him to two years as a French galley slave before he managed to escape. His family, the Crawfords, also cannot avoid becoming entangled in the complex politics between England and Scotland, including the Anglo-Scottish wars, Scotland’s alliance with France, and skirmishes in the Borders region.

The novel is constructed as an intricate mystery, punctuated by set pieces of adventure, high comedy, and intense drama. Will Lymond prove himself innocent, die in the attempt, or be captured and hanged? Moreover, who is Lymond, and what are his motives and his true relationships with the other characters? Lymond leaves no one indifferent to him: some of the key characters—such as Richard Crawford, third Baron Culter and Lymond’s older brother, and Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox—are one-time friends or intimates who become his mortal enemies. Betrayals and double-crosses, both potential and actual, abound. The pieces of the mystery only fit together late in the story as revelations at a trial.

A number of historical persons appear in the novel, many as important characters. They include members of the Scott clan including Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, his wife, Janet Beaton, and his son William Scott of Kincurd, who becomes Lymond’s second-in-command in his band of outlaws; Mary of Guise, the Queen Dowager of Scotland and her young daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots; and members of the Douglas family including Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, his brother Sir George Douglas, his daughter Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox (niece of Henry VIII), and Margaret’s husband Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, a potential claimant to the Scottish throne if the young Mary, Queen of Scots, died. The English military leaders responsible for prosecuting the war of The Rough Wooing, Sir William Grey and Lord Thomas Wharton, also have prominent, and often comedic, roles.

I really enjoyed it and will definitely read/listen to more in the series. 4/5

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Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift

This is the first book of 2020 for my historical book club.

Here’s the blurb …

It is March 30th 1924.

It is Mothering Sunday.

How will Jane Fairchild, orphan and housemaid, occupy her time when she has no mother to visit? How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?

Beginning with an intimate assignation and opening to embrace decades, Mothering Sunday has at its heart both the story of a life and the life that stories can magically contain. Constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving, it is Graham Swift at his thrilling best.

I really enjoyed the first two-thirds and was not taken with the last third. 3/5

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Warlight – Michael Ondaatje

I read The English Patient loved it, but struggled to get to the end. And have avoided his novels ever since, so I am not really sure why I picked this one up from the second hand book store.

In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel

It was great – easy to read and I learnt heaps about war time England and post war Europe. Definitely worth reading if you like historical fiction. 4/5

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The Last Train to Istanbul – Ayse Kulin

The Last Train to Istanbul – Ayse Kulin

This was one of my historical fiction study group novels (the last for the year).

Here’s the blurb …

As the daughter of one of Turkey’s last Ottoman pashas, Selva could win the heart of any man in Ankara. Yet the spirited young beauty only has eyes for Rafael Alfandari, the handsome Jewish son of an esteemed court physician. In defiance of their families, they marry, fleeing to Paris to build a new life.But when the Nazis invade France, the exiled lovers will learn that nothing—not war, not politics, not even religion—can break the bonds of family. For after they learn that Selva is but one of their fellow citizens trapped in France, a handful of brave Turkish diplomats hatch a plan to spirit the Alfandaris and hundreds of innocents, many of whom are Jewish, to safety. Together, they must traverse a war-torn continent, crossing enemy lines and risking everything in a desperate bid for freedom. From Ankara to Paris, Cairo, and Berlin, Last Train to Istanbul is an uplifting tale of love and adventure from Turkey’s beloved bestselling novelist Ay?e Kulin.

I found the story fascinating and informative – I had no idea the Turkish government saved so many people during World War 2. However, for me something was lost in translation.

Another review.

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