Category Archives: Historical Fiction

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

I have read a few other Dickens novels; Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Great Expectations. When a friend mentioned she was listening to Hardy’s novels, I decided I should try to read (listen) this one and Our Mutual Friend (I am listening to this one now – 34 hours!).

Who hasn’t heard of Madame Defarge and her infamous knitting?

Here’s the blurb …

A Tale of Two Cities is Charles Dickens’s great historical novel, set against the violent upheaval of the French Revolution. The most famous and perhaps the most popular of his works, it compresses an event of immense complexity to the scale of a family history, with a cast of characters that includes a bloodthirsty ogress and an antihero as believably flawed as any in modern fiction. Though the least typical of the author’s novels, A Tale of Two Cities still underscores many of his enduring themes—imprisonment, injustice, social anarchy, resurrection, and the renunciation that fosters renewal.

The narrator was excellent (I think it was Martin Jarvis). His narration brought the story to life and I feel that Dicken’s novels are meant to be listened to. Towards the end, there were a lot of convenient coincidences (very Dickensian), but the characters were fabulous particularly Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross. I love they way they talk – Jerry about his wife ‘flopping all over the place’. The story is full of action and has a bit of foreshadowing of how it’s all going to end. There’s a too good to be true heroine, handsome hero, a dedicated hand-maiden, two people who look alike (a very important plot point), a lovely older business man, and the blood-thirsty Madame Defarge. It all makes for an enjoyable (if occasionally tense) romp through the French Revolution.

A review.

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Ariadne – Jennifer Saint

Ariadne – Jennifer Saint

I bought this because the cover is so beautiful. I have read one other myth re-telling – Circe.

Here’s the blurb …

As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.

When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.

In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?

Ariadne gives a voice to the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, and speaks to their strength in the face of angry, petulant Gods. Beautifully written and completely immersive, this is an exceptional debut novel.

In this novel we see the story from the perspective of Ariadne and Phaedra – essentially pawns in the machinations of men and gods. I found it a bit slow at first, but I pushed on and made it to the end. This novel has a very strong sense of place – Naxos, in particular. I only had a vague idea about Theseus and the ball of string, and I knew nothing about Ariadne after that. So it was interesting to learn more about her.

A review.

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These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer

These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer

This is the third novel in my read all Heyer’s romance novels in publication order. First was The Black Moth and second Powder and Patch.

This one is still set in the Georgian era – think powdered wigs, high heels, and lots of silk brocade. It has some characters from The Black Moth (the evil Duke of Andover is reformed – somewhat, and he is now the Duke of Avon, so maybe not the same character?).

Here’s the blurb …

The Duke is known for his coldness of manner, his remarkable omniscience, and his debauched lifestyle. Late one evening, he is accosted by a young person dressed in ragged boy’s clothing running away from a brutal rustic guardian. The Duke buys “Leon” and makes the child his page.

Reading the novels in order highlights Heyer’s growth as an author. In my opinion this ‘sequel’ is better than The Black Moth.

I think modern readers will struggle with the age difference (20 plus years) and the fact the heroine is the hero’s ward.

It’s witty, well-researched, and there is a bit of intrigue. A very entertaining read.

A review.

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North Woods – Daniel Mason

North Woods – Daniel Mason

I kept seeing this novel everywhere and I finally decided to buy a copy.

Here’s the blurb …

When a pair of young lovers abscond from a Puritan colony, little do they know that their humble cabin in the woods will become the home of an extraordinary succession of human and inhuman characters alike. An English soldier, destined for glory, abandons the battlefields of the New World to devote himself to apples. A pair of spinster twins navigate war and famine, envy and desire. A crime reporter unearths a mass grave – only to discover that the ancient trees refuse to give up their secrets. A lovelorn painter, a sinister conman, a stalking panther, a lusty as each inhabitant confronts the wonder and mystery around them, they begin to realize that the dark, raucous, beautiful past is very much alive.

In his transcendent fourth novel, Pulitzer Prize finalist Daniel Mason delivers a magisterial and highly inventive tale brimming with love and madness, humor and hope. Following the cycles of history, nature and even language, North Woods shows the myriad, magical ways in which we’re connected to our environment, to history and to each other. It is not just an unforgettable novel about buried secrets and inevitable fates, but a way of looking at the world.

This novel has an interesting premise and structure. First, it’s about a place. We meet all of the people who live in this place over time. From the very first white settlers to sometime in the near future. Second, all of the various accounts are told in different ways; a written history for posterity, ballads, almanacs, medical notes, letters to a friend, etc. I found it compelling (maybe not the ballads), but all of the other sections were well-written and moved the story along. It is also a bit mystical – there’s hauntings. It also has an environmental message; we see the forest slowly destroyed by various pests and diseases, and then global warming is the last nail in the coffin for several trees.

A review.

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The Sun Walks Down – Fiona McFarlane

The Sun Walks Down – Fiona McFarlane

I heard lots of people talking about this book, which (being contrary) put me off, but I did eventually cave in and buy a copy.

Here’s the blurb …

In September 1883, the South Australian town of Fairly huddles under strange, vivid sunsets. Six-year-old Denny Wallace has gone missing during a dust storm, and the whole town is intent on finding him. As they search the desert and mountains for the lost child, the residents of Fairly – newlyweds, landowners, farmers, mothers, artists, Indigenous trackers, cameleers, children, schoolteachers, widows, maids, policemen – explore their own relationships with the complex landscape unsettling history of the Flinders Ranges.

The colonial Australia of The Sun Walks Down is unfamiliar, multicultural, and noisy with opinions, arguments, longings and terrors. It’s haunted by many gods – the sun among them, rising and falling on each day that Denny could be found, or lost forever.

I enjoyed this novel, the writing is beautiful and I enjoyed all of the different character’s perspectives. The descriptions of the landscape and the sky and sun (particularly the sunsets) were lovely and very evocative. The characters are fully-fleshed out, with nuance and subtlety.

A review.

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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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