Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Davenports – Krystal Marquis

The Davenports – Krystal Marquis

I was looking for something like The Gilded Age and The Age of Innocence and although this is set at the right time, it wasn’t what I was looking for. That just means I am not the right audience for this novel.

Here’s the blurb …

In 1910, the Davenports are one of the few Black families of immense wealth and status in a changing United States, their fortune made through the entrepreneurship of William Davenport, a formerly enslaved man who founded the Davenport Carriage Company years ago. Now the Davenports live surrounded by servants, crystal chandeliers, and endless parties, finding their way and finding love—even where they’re not supposed to.

There is Olivia, the beautiful elder Davenport daughter, ready to do her duty by getting married. . . until she meets the charismatic civil rights leader Washington DeWight and sparks fly. The younger daughter, Helen, is more interested in fixing cars than falling in love—unless it’s with her sister’s suitor. Amy-Rose, the childhood friend turned maid to the Davenport sisters, dreams of opening her own business—and marrying the one man she could never be with, Olivia and Helen’s brother, John. But Olivia’s best friend, Ruby, also has her sights set on John Davenport, though she can’t seem to keep his interest . . . until family pressure has her scheming to win his heart, just as someone else wins hers.

The first book in a breathless new series, The Davenports offers a glimpse into a period of African American history often overlooked, while delivering a totally escapist, swoon-worthy read. Inspired by the real-life story of C.R. Patterson and his family, it’s the tale of four determined and passionate young Black women discovering the courage to steer their own path in life—and love.

This book is about women (black women) finding their way in the world. Realising they don’t have to be only wives and mothers, or do what their parents want them to do. At first, I thought the romance parts were a bit predictable, but then it all gets twisted around and unexpected things happen (no spoilers). To be honest, I was looking for something a bit fluffier – more fashion and more society intrigue.

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A Dangerous Business – Jane Smiley

A Dangerous Business – Jane Smiley

I ordered this one in because I am going to see Jane Smiley at the Perth Writers Festival.

Here’s the blurb …

From the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning and best-selling author of A Thousand Acres: a mystery set in 1850s Gold Rush California, as two young prostitutes—best friends Eliza and Jean—follow a trail of missing girls.

Monterey, 1851. Ever since her husband was killed in a bar fight, Eliza Ripple has been working in a brothel. It seems like a better life, at least at first. The madam, Mrs. Parks, is kind, the men are (relatively) well behaved, and Eliza has attained what few women have: financial security. But when the dead bodies of young women start appearing outside of town, a darkness descends that she can’t resist confronting. Side by side with her friend Jean, and inspired by her reading, especially by Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Dupin, Eliza pieces together an array of clues to try to catch the killer, all the while juggling clients who begin to seem more and more suspicious.

Eliza and Jean are determined not just to survive, but to find their way in a lawless town on the fringes of the Wild West—a bewitching combination of beauty and danger—as what will become the Civil War looms on the horizon. As Mrs. Parks says, “Everyone knows that this is a dangerous business, but between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise …

I like Jane Smiley and I have read several of her novels. This one is not my favourite, it seemed a bit confused. Is it a detective story? A more literary character driven novel? I did like all of the Poe references.

A review

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Go as a River – Shelley Read

Go as a River – Shelley Read

This one has been floating around in the back of my mind for a while – I am not sure who first mentioned it to me. Perhaps someone from Book Club. I wanted to treat myself to a new book and I selected this one.

Here’s the blurb …

In the spirit of Where the Crawdads Sing, and set amid the beauty and wilderness of the Colorado mountains, an unforgettable and deeply moving story of a young woman who follows her heart Seventeen-year-old Victoria Nash runs the household on her family’s peach farm in the small ranch town of Iola, Colorado—the sole surviving female in a family of troubled men. Wilson Moon is a young drifter with a mysterious past, displaced from his tribal land but determined to live as he chooses. Victoria’s chance encounter with Wil on a street corner profoundly alters both of their young lives, igniting as much passion as danger. When tragedy strikes, Victoria leaves the only life she has ever known, fleeing into the nearby mountains. Taking shelter in a small hut, she struggles to survive in the wilderness, with no clear notion of what her future will be. As the seasons change, she also charts the changes in herself, finding in the natural world the strength and meaning that set her on a quest to regain all that she has lost, even as the Gunnison River rises to submerge her homeland—its ranches, farms, and the beloved peach orchard that has been in her family for generations. Inspired by true events surrounding the destruction of the town of Iola in the 1960s, Go as a River is a story of deeply held love in the midst of hardship and loss, but also of finding courage, resilience, friendship, and finally, home—where least expected. This stunning debut explores what it means to lead your life as if it were a river—gathering and flowing, finding a way forward even when the river is dammed.

I just want to say straight away don’t let the reference to Where the Crawdads Sing put you off (if you like me, did not think very highly of that novel).

It is beautifully written, with lovely nature descriptions. I wasn’t convinced by the plot, but the relationships and setting kept me reading.

A review

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Salonika Burning – Gail Jones

Salonika Burning – Gail Jones

This novel was recommended to me by several friends and then I bought a copy as a gift for another friend, so I decided I should read it myself. I read Sixty Lights way back in 2009 and enjoyed it.

Here’s the blurb …

Greece, 1917. The great city of Salonika is engulfed by fire as all of Europe is ravaged by war.

Amid the destruction, there are those who have come to the frontlines to heal: surgeons, ambulance drivers, nurses, orderlies and other volunteers. Four of these people—Stella, Olive, Grace and Stanley—are at the centre of Gail Jones’s extraordinary new novel, which takes its inspiration from the wartime experiences of Australians Miles Franklin and Olive King, and British painters Grace Pailthorpe and Stanley Spencer. In Jones’s imagination these four lives intertwine and ramify, compelled by the desire to create something meaningful in the ruins of a broken world.

Immersive and gripping, Salonika Burning illuminates not only the devastation of war but also the vast social upheaval of the times. It shows Gail Jones to be at the height of her powers.

I knew nothing about Salonika or the Macedonian front during WW1, and amongst the four protagonists I only knew about Stella. Hence this novel was interesting just from the historical perspective – when the frozen rabbits from Victoria arrived (to a place with no refrigeration), I laughed out loud. Such a symbol of well-meaning, but ultimately useless action.

What I really enjoyed was the interleaving of the stories; one of the characters would describe an event – say swimming in the lake, and then you would get a different person’s perspective on the same event. The ending was unexpected and shocking, and we are left wondering what happens to all of these people after the war?

A review.

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The Fire and the Rose – Robyn Cadwallader

The Fire and The Rose – Robyn Cadwallader

As I have read and enjoyed The Book of Colours, I was keen to read this one. In fact, I got a paper and an audio version from the library. In the end I listened to it.

Here’s the blurb …

England, 1276: Forced to leave her home village, Eleanor moves to Lincoln to work as a housemaid. She’s prickly, independent and stubborn, her prospects blighted by a port-wine birthmark across her face. Unusually for a woman, she has fine skills with ink and quill, and harbours a secret ambition to work as a scribe, a profession closed to women.

Eleanor discovers that Lincoln is a dangerous place, divided by religious prejudice, the Jews frequently the focus of violence and forced to wear a yellow badge. Eleanor falls in love with Asher, a Jewish spicer, who shares her love of books and words, but their relationship is forbidden by law. When Eleanor is pulled into the dark depths of the church’s machinations against Jews and the king issues an edict expelling all Jews from England, Eleanor and Asher are faced with an impossible choice.

Vivid, rich, deep and sensual, The Fire and the Rose is a tender and moving novel about how language, words and books have the power to change and shape lives. Most powerfully, it is also a novel about what it is to be made ‘other’, to be exiled from home and family. But it is also a call to recognise how much we need the other, the one we do not understand, making it a strikingly resonant and powerfully hopeful novel for our times.

I enjoyed it. It reminded me of The Weight of Ink – female scribe plus the Jewish context. It was beautifully written with lots of historical detail; social history, Christian and Jewish history, information about the wool trade and spices, usury and living conditions. Antisemitism is endemic (quite appropriate to out times). The one thing I struggled with was the freedoms Eleanor had; I know she was poor, but to be able to support herself as a scribe and keep her baby seemed unrealistic in those brutal times.

A review

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Wifedom – Anna Funder

Wifedom – Anne Funder

This was a Christmas present. Given to me by a friend who wanted to discuss it (what a good way to create a little book club). There has been a lot of hype about this book, which always makes me trepidatious, but I was very pleasantly surprised. This book lives up to its reputation.

I have read All that I Am, which I enjoyed and I meant to read Stasiland but I haven’t read it (yet).

Here’s the blurb …

This is the story of the marriage behind some of the most famous literary works of the 20th century —and a probing consideration of what it means to be a wife and a writer in the modern world

At the end of summer 2017, Anna Funder found herself at a moment of peak overload. Family obligations and household responsibilities were crushing her soul and taking her away from her writing deadlines. She needed help, and George Orwell came to her rescue.

“I’ve always loved Orwell,” Funder writes, “his self-deprecating humour, his laser vision about how power works, and who it works on.” So after rereading and savoring books Orwell had written, she devoured six major biographies tracing his life and work. But then she read about his forgotten wife, and it was a revelation.

Eileen O’Shaughnessy married Orwell in 1936. O’Shaughnessy was a writer herself, and her literary brilliance not only shaped Orwell’s work, but her practical common sense saved his life. But why and how, Funder wondered, was she written out of their story? Using newly discovered letters from Eileen to her best friend, Funder re-creates the Orwells’ marriage, through the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War in London. As she peeks behind the curtain of Orwell’s private life she is led to question what it takes to be a writer—and what it is to be a wife.

I thought the structure was very interesting. A combination of historical facts and quotes (complete with notes), imaginative non-fiction (is that a thing? Where the author imagines conversations and thoughts within a known historical context?) and personal anecdotes about her life, marriage, domestic duties, etc.

I have read both 1984 and Animal Farm, but I was indifferent to George Orwell, now I think poorly of him.

This book is about speaking truth to power, about how women’s labour is taken for granted in a patriarchal society. And it’s the mental labour as well, what is everyone going to eat for dinner? Who needs to be where and when? Even with the most helpful of husbands it is usually still the wife asking the husband to do domestic chores; pick up the children, cook dinner, buy food etc.

In the Orwell household Eileen not only did all domestic chores, but she was also the main bread-winner (mostly) and she typed and helped edit his work. I don’t know why she stayed, particularly when he openly had affairs (and even implied that she was OK with that).

I think everyone (but definitely men) should read this book.

A review.

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House of Odysseus – Claire North

House of Odysseus – Claire North

I bought this for a friend’s birthday and then she lent it to me (perfect present!). I have read another Claire North novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which I really enjoyed so I was keen to read this one.

Here’s the blurb …

House of Odysseus is the follow up to award-winning author Claire North’s Ithaca “a powerful, fresh, and unflinching” reimagining (Jennifer Saint) that breathes life into ancient myth and gives voice to the women who stand defiant in a world ruled by ruthless men.

In the palace of Odysseus, a queen lies dreaming . . .

On the isle of Ithaca, queen Penelope maintains a delicate balance of power. Many years ago, her husband Odysseus sailed to war with Troy and never came home. In his absence, Penelope uses all her cunning to keep the peace—a peace that is shattered by the return of Orestes, King of Mycenae, and his sister Elektra.

Orestes’ hands are stained with his mother’s blood. Not so long ago, the son of Agamemnon took Queen Clytemnestra’s life on Ithaca’s sands. Now, wracked with guilt, he grows ever more unhinged. But a king cannot be seen to be weak, and Elektra has brought him to Ithaca to keep him safe from the ambitious men of Mycenae.

Penelope knows destruction will follow in his wake as surely as the furies circle him. His uncle Menelaus, the blood-soaked king of Sparta, hungers for Orestes’ throne—and if he can seize it, no one will be safe from his violent whims.

Trapped between two mad kings, Penelope must find a way to keep her home from being crushed by the machinations of a battle that stretches from Mycenae and Sparta to the summit of Mount Olympus itself. Her only allies are Elektra, desperate to protect her brother, and Helen of Troy, Menelaus’ wife. And watching over them all is the goddess Aphrodite, who has plans of her own.

For me, this novel took a long time to get going. I much preferred the second half to the first half and I think it would make a fabulous movie or TV series. It puts the women front and centre in the Greek myths and shows how they have to be and behave to survive in a patriarchal (not to mention misogynist) world. I did enjoy the female-centredness of this novel (and how it is all resolved is fabulous).

I haven’t read Ithaca and perhaps I would have enjoyed this more having read that. I am also not very familiar with the myths so I would have missed any allusions etc.

A review

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Powder and Patch – Georgette Heyer

Powder and Patch – Georgette Heyer

This is Heyer’s second published novel. Published in 1923 (and again in 1930 minus the last chapter). It set in the Georgian period, so there is lots of mentions of wigs, swords, lace and high heels (for men).

Here’s the blurb …

Cleone Charteris’s exquisite charms have made her the belle of the English countryside. But Cleone yearns for a husband who is refined, aristocratic and who is as skilled with his wit as he is with his dueling pistols…. Everything Philip Jettan is not. As much as she is attracted to the handsome squire, Cleone finds herself dismissing Philip and his rough mannerisms.

With his father’s encouragement, Philip departs for the courts of Paris, determined to acquire the social graces and the airs of the genteel — and convince Cleone that he is the man most suited for her hand. But his transformation may cost him everything, including Cleone….

This was shorter than what I expect from a Georgette Heyer novel. This is definitely not her best work – the hero is delightful, the heroine not so delightful, but there was a witty, wise older lady and lots of mentions of tight coats and stockings with clocks. The things that delight me about Heyer’s novels – the wit, the meticulous research, etc, are present in this novel in an early form. However, I don’t think this novel works for a modern audience – there’s a bit too much ‘women want to be mastered by men’ for my liking. There was also a lot of untranslated french (I have been learning French, so I was fine).

A review.

Next up on my Heyer In Order project is These Old Shades

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The Black Moth – Georgette Heyer

The Black Moth – Georgette Heyer

My summer of Heyer has begun. My plan is to read the novels (just the romance ones) in publication order. First up – The Black Moth (first published in 1921).

Am I the only one who thinks it’s weird that there is a still from an Emma adaptation on the cover?

Anyway, this novel is set in the 1750s, so Georgian and not regency. It has many of the characteristics that would later define a Heyer novel; attention to detail, impeccable research, witty dialogue and strong independent heroines. However, she definitely improved with time. This one feels a bit flabby and I think it could do with some editing. Also, I am probably not a fan of Georgian fashion – all of those wigs! Although I do like an embroidered waistcoat and stockings with clocks!

Stocking with clocks (it’s the decorative bit on the ankle)

Image from Fashion History Time Line.

Here is the blurb…

Diana Beauleigh is caught between two men.

Seven long years ago, Jack Carstares, the Earl of Wyncham, sacrificed his honour for his brother and has been in exile ever since.

Returning to England, Jack pretends to be a gentleman named Sir Anthony Ferndale but makes his living in a most ungentlemanly fashion, as a highwayman and a gambler.

When Jack encounters his nemesis, the Duke of Andover, in the midst of kidnapping Diana Beauleigh, the two old enemies come to blows.

Can Jack save the beautiful Diana from rakes, kidnap and ruin.?

This was lots of fun, probably not my favourite Heyer novel, but I am glad I read it. Next up Powder and Patch. I am looking forward to reading These Old Shades where ‘the black moth’is redeemed (although I think he is re-named).

A review.

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Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau – Sheena Wilkinson

Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau – Sheena Wilkinson

This was a birthday present.

Here is the blurb …

April McVey hasn’t a romantic bone in her body. So how has she found herself at the door of Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau, job application in hand? Matchmaker Martha hopes the lively Irish girl will breathe fresh air into a business struggling to keep with the times amid the tumult of 1930s Britain. So when lonely widower Fabian arrives at the bureau, the pair’s matchmaking skills – and professionalism – meet their first true test. Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau is a charming and witty romantic comedy about friendship, loneliness, and the unexpected places where we find fulfilment

This novel had a lovely 1930s feel to it. It reminded me of novels like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or something by Dorothy Whipple (or any of the Persephone authors). April is a modern woman not interested in marriage, Mrs Hart is a war widow who wants to find veterans and other lonely people a suitable partner. Enter some clients (some nice some decidedly not nice) and we have a fun story. There are some dark patches – a man assuming April is a prostitute and Jewish refugees arriving from Germany, but mostly it is a light-hearted romantic comedy. It also touches on women’s role in society – what is expected of them, but also what they might want for themselves.

A review.

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