Category Archives: Historical Fiction

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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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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The Locksmith’s Daughter – Karen Brooks

The Locksmith’s Daughter – Karen Brooks

A friend lent this to me when she heard that I like historical fiction.

Here’s the blurb …

In a world where no one can be trusted and secrets are currency, one woman stands without fear.

Mallory Bright is the only daughter of London’s master locksmith. For her there is no lock too elaborate, no secret too well kept. Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster and protector of Queen Elizabeth – the last of the Tudor monarchs – and her realm, is quick to realise Mallory’s talent and draws her into his world of intrigue, danger and deception. With her by his side, no scheme in England or abroad is safe from discovery; no plot secure.

But Mallory’s loyalty wavers when she witnesses the execution of three Jesuit priests, a punishment that doesn’t fit their crime. When Mallory discovers the identity of a Catholic spy and a conspiracy that threatens the kingdom, she has to make a choice – between her country and her heart.

Mallory, however, carries her own dark secrets and is about to learn those being kept from her – secrets that could destroy those she loves.

Once Sir Francis’s greatest asset, Mallory is fast becoming his worst threat … and everyone knows there’s only one way Sir Francis deals with those.

I enjoyed it – there is a lot of historical detail (which I like), plus a bit of action and romance. It is quite long and I did find it got a bit slow in the middle, but I will definitely seek out more of her books.

A review at the Historical Novel Society.

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Tangled Reins – Stephanie Laurens

Tangled Reins – Stephanie Laurens

A friend mentioned this author and as I like a regency romance, I was keen to give it a go. I found one at the local library.

Here’s the blurb …

Content with her humdrum country life, Miss Dorothea Darent had no intention of marrying. She knew that her unfashionable curves and her outspoken ways made her a disastrous match for any gentleman of the ton. But one kiss from a dashing stranger changed everything.

This was a great regency romance – reminded me of Georgette Heyer (is there any higher praise?)

The hero is handsome, rich and very accomplished. The heroine is beautiful (in an unconventional way – of course) and independent minded. There are balls, parties, excursions to Hyde Park and a lot of description of clothes (which I love).

Definitely worth reading if you are a fan of regency romances.

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The Seventh Cross – Anna Seghers

The Seventh Cross – Anna Seghers

This was the second book for my historical fiction group in our new ‘each member selects and presents’ theme. I did the first book – ‘Book of Colours‘ by Robyn Cadwallader.

Here’s the blurb …

‘At once a suspenseful manhunt story and a knowing portrait of the perils of ordinary life in Hitler’s Germany, The Seventh Cross is not only an important novel, but an important historical document. This new, unabridged translation is a genuine publishing event’ JOSEPH KANON, author of The Good German and Leaving Berlin
Seven prisoners escape from Westhofen concentration camp. Seven crosses are erected in the grounds and the commandant vows to capture the fugitives within a week. Six men are caught quickly, but George Heisler slips through his pursuers’ fingers and it becomes a matter of pride to track him down, no matter what. 
The net is closing in. Who can George trust? Who will betray him? The years of fear have changed those he knew best: his favourite brother is now an SS officer; his lover turns him away. Hunted, injured and desperate, time is running out for George, and whoever helps him will pay with their life.
The Seventh Cross is a novel that powerfully documents the insidious rise of a fascist regime – the seething paranoia, the sudden arrests, the silence and fear. It has never before been published in the UK.
‘It was [Seghers] who taught my generation and anyone who had an ear to listen after that not-to-be-forgotten war to distinguish right from wrong. The Seventh Cross shaped me; it sharpened my vision’ – Gunter Grass
‘The material that this book is made from is long-lasting and indestructible; very few things on earth can be compared to it. It is known as justice’ – Christa Wolf
The Seventh Cross was written by one of the most important German writers of the twentieth century. Her aim was to write, ‘A tale that makes it possible to get to know the many layers of fascist Germany through the fortunes of a single man.’ She had four copies of the manuscript: one was destroyed in an air raid; a friend lost the second copy while fleeing the Nazis; another was found by the Gestapo; only the fourth copy, survived, which, fortunately, she sent to her publisher in America just before she fled Nazi-occupied France. Published in 1942, The Seventh Cross became an immediate bestseller, was made into an MGM film starring Spencer Tracy in 1944, and was one of the only depictions of concentration camps on page and screen during the War.

I found this book fascinating – there was detail, but at the same time a sweeping overview of life in Hitler’s Germany. There was bravery, resilience and despair. It was about ordinary people trying to live their lives – and the extraordinary decisions that have to make (to risk themselves to help someone or not, who can they trust?).

It is well worth reading – exciting and informative.

Another review.

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A Universe of Sufficient Size – Miriam Sved

A Universe of Sufficient Size – Miriam Sved

I read a review of this novel in the Weekend Australian Review and was intrigued. The combination of two of my passions – mathematics and reading. However, don’t worry if you’re not keen on maths, the maths doesn’t overwhelm the story.

It is based on the author’s grandmother and this is her second novel. The first being Game Day.

Here is the blurb …

“A fascinating, compelling, beautifully written novel.” Liane Moriarty 

“Miriam Sved has woven three generations and two periods of history into a page-turning, emotional rollercoaster to remind us all that families are messy, complicated and that the repercussions of decisions made decades ago can come back to haunt you… I cannot recommend this book highly enough.” Heather Morris, author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz

I have wished so many times that I had acted differently.

I wish that I had been more worthy of you…
Eventually the war will end, and then we will find each other.
Until then, remember me.

Budapest, 1938. In a city park, five young Jewish mathematicians gather to share ideas, trade proofs and whisper sedition.

Sydney, 2007. Illy has just buried her father, a violent, unpredictable man whose bitterness she never understood. And now Illy’s mother has gifted her a curious notebook, its pages a mix of personal story and mathematical discovery, recounted by a woman full of hopes and regrets.

Inspired by a true story, Miriam Sved’s beautifully crafted novel charts a course through both the light and dark of human relationships: a vivid recreation of 1930s Hungary, a decades-old mystery locked in the story of one enduring friendship, a tribute to the selfless power of the heart.

This novel spans generations and places; Budapest in the 1930’s and Sydney in the early 21st century. It is about being a talented, Jewish student at a time when Jews were restricted and persecuted. It is about friendship, sacrifice, survival and the strength of the human spirit.

I enjoyed it for several reasons; the depiction of Budapest and the relationship between the five friends, the mother/daughter relationship (a bit adversarial, but in a good way) were lovely. And there is a mystery/suspense/twist, which keeps you turning the pages.

If you enjoy historical fiction, mathematics or stories about families (the relationships, the secrets, the contrivances), then I think you will enjoy this novel.

Another review.

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The Gown – Jennifer Robson

The Gown – Jennifer Robson

I saw this on Facebook or Instagram posted by one of the many embroiderers I follow. A story about the embroiderers working on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown? Of course I had to read it.

Here’s the blurb …

From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love. 

I enjoyed the sections about embroidery and living in post World War 2 England (but still with rationing). I wasn’t so taken with the plot. It reminded me of The Paris Seamstress. This just means that I don’t like ‘romantic drama’.

Another review.

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