As a lover of historical fiction I am always looking for a good book to read. When I find one I like to share it with others.
I will feature one book a month on this page in the hope that you might find something to your taste.
I hope you enjoy this selection.
SEPTEMBER 2015 – ‘To Defy A King’ by Elizabeth Chadwick
This year we are celebrating 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta. Why did the barons come together to write the charter, and force King John to sign it? Why did the king renege on his promises? 1215 was a turbulent time in English history and in her novel, ‘To Defy A King’, Elizabeth Chadwick brings this period to life. Set in England from 1204 to 1218 the story immerses us in England’s conflicts with France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Roman Church. Following the characters we are able to see how these conflicts influenced the actions of both the barons and King John.
The novel begins with Mahelt, daughter of William Marshal (Earl of Pembroke), becoming betrothed to Hugh Bigod (future Earl of Norfolk). The marriages of children of important families in medieval England were arranged for political expediency, not for love. However, Mahelt and Hugh grow to love each other as they struggle to cope with an endlessly changing array of family and political alliances. The Marshal and Bigod families find themselves on opposing sides of the conflict surrounding King John, with Hugh’s family helping to formulate the Magna Carta in the hope of limiting John’s power whilst the Marshals stay faithful to their oath to the King, no matter how much they disagree with him. When John breaks his promises there is turmoil and conflict in England, including a French invasion. Throughout it all Mahelt and Hugh have to tread a knife-edge to protect their family and lands. Only with the death of the King is Mahelt able to re-unite her birth family and marriage family, and look to the future with hope.
As always, the historical research conducted by Elizabeth Chadwick in writing this novel has been immense. We know from history that these people existed. We know where they were at certain times and what their political persuasions were, who they fought for, who they loved. What Ms. Chadwick has done, with great skill, is to bring these people to life. One can only speculate on personal relationships so long ago (although there are hints in some of the historical documents Chadwick has used for her research), but it is this rich development of character which brings the novel to life. If you have no knowledge of medieval history when you pick up the book, by the end of it you will have some understanding of what it would have been like to live in King John’s kingdom – food, clothing, living conditions, family duty, loyalty, political and religious beliefs – for this is a book which immerses you in all aspects of medieval life.
Elizabeth Chadwick has a flair for descriptive writing with pace and believable dialogue. Couple this with well-rounded characters, an historically accurate story and a remarkable depth of research, and you have a book which will keep you hooked from start to finish. If you enjoy historical fiction Elizabeth Chadwick will become one of your favourite authors – if she is not already!
(Elizabeth Chadwick has written a number of novels set in this era featuring the Marshal and Bigod families. You can find the chronological order here on Ms Chadwick’s website. I decided to recommend ‘To Defy A King’ because of its link to the Magna Carta although it is not the first in the series)
‘To Defy A King’ can be found on Amazon.
OCTOBER 2015 – ‘Angels At War’ by Freda Lightfoot
‘Angels At War’ tells the story of the Angel sisters in the turbulent years of 1910 to 1918. I had anticipated that this book would be a light read yet, although the writing is not overly heavy or verbose, this is not a simple historical romance of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl finds boy again. Those elements are a part of this novel, but it goes on to be much, much more.
The Angels are sisters (their story begins in ‘House Of Angels’ although ‘Angles at War’ can be read as a stand-alone novel). The characters are well drawn and have depth; all with their good points and their bad, their strengths and weaknesses. The plot is intriguing and moves at a good pace, encouraging you to turn the page and keep reading.
What I was not expecting from this novel was such a masterly handling of the social and political history of the time, which Ms Lightfoot tells through the narrative without the reader ever feeling that they are being lectured to. The description of a turn of the century department store is intriguing, and its modernisation during the novel fascinating. Reading what happened to the suffragettes during their fight for emancipation is enlightening and humbling. The marches and arrests, the prisons and force-feeding are cleverly woven into the story. The description of the work of the VAD’s in hospitals, both in England and on the front line in France, is gripping.
This book seems to have everything, from the excitement of war to everyday domestic life, from male domination to female emancipation, from jealousy to love. Livia is a strong central character whose choices in life are often not the right ones, leading to unhappiness for herself and others. But her choices are always made for the right reasons, in an effort to help those she loves and, as such, she is an endearing character. I think many readers will recognise a lot of themselves in Livia, or one of her sisters.
This book, for me, was a pleasant surprise, which is something I always like. If you are interested in the past but don’t like a heavy history book – or a novel that reads like one – you will find ‘Angels At War’ informative and enlightening, yet entertaining and easy to read. I will certainly be buying more books by Ms Lightfoot.
‘Angels at War’ can be found on Amazon
November 2015 – ‘Cavalier Queen’ by Fiona Mountain
The English Civil War is a fascinating period of history, but the focus is usually on King Charles, or Oliver Cromwell, or Parliament. This book has a different perspective, focusing on Queen Henrietta Maria, her arranged marriage to the king, and her support for him during the war. I previously had only a superficial knowledge of Henrietta Maria’s life and loves, but this book has brought her to life for me. She was a multi-faceted woman, strong and supportive, deeply religious, loving and caring.
Through her story of the queen’s life Ms. Mountain gives a good description of the reasons for the war, and Henrietta’s constant struggle to raise money and arms for the king. The raising of the Queen’s Army in the north, and its journey south to meet up with the king, is fascinating. The description of Charles’ Headquarters in Oxford is also very interesting, as is the link to France with its own political turmoil at the time.
‘Cavalier Queen’ is an incredibly well-researched novel. The care for historical detail is superb with cameos of the queen’s life, (for example meeting the daughter of Shakespeare) bringing the whole period to life. One of the key players in the queen’s household was Henry Jermyn, someone whom I knew little about but who is a key character in English history, and who also played a key role in moulding Henrietta Maria into the person she was to become. I found learning about his life just as fascinating as the life of Henrietta Maria herself. (Please remember here, though, that the book is historical fiction. Although there is plenty of primary evidence for the role that Jermyn played politically at the court of King Charles, we cannot know the details of his personal relationship with the queen.).
Ms. Mountain is a skilled writer. Her characters are sympathetically drawn and believable, her dialogue realistic. The descriptions of palaces are vivid, and one feels the discomfort of those who suffered through some terrible sea crossings. ‘Cavalier Queen’ is enjoyable on so many levels – history, romance, love and duty. This is a book you can immerse yourself in; and one which, I believe, you will find difficult to put down.
Cavalier Queen can be found on Amazon
December 2015 – The Taming Of The Queen by Philippa Gregory
‘The Taming Of The Queen’ by Philippa Gregory opened my eyes to the importance of a little known character in English history, Kateryn Parr. Many will know that she was one of the six wives of Henry VIII, but that is all. I had previously imagined her to be a quiet, submissive woman of the time, who would have kept her thoughts and beliefs to herself in order to keep safe from a mercurial king. But I was wrong. In reading this book I discovered a woman who was deeply religious, intelligent and scholarly.
Kateryn Parr was fluent in Latin and French. She was a keen student of philosophy and theology at a time when the king was see-sawing between reform and renewing closer links with Rome. Kateryn was the first woman to publish her own writings under her own name in English, focussing on prayer and the liturgy.
Kateryn also acted as regent for King Henry, showing his trust in her at that time. But, of course, Henry’s feelings for his wives were as changeable as the English weather. This novel paints a portrait of the king as selfish, manipulative, and often cruel; one cannot help but be drawn into the whirlpool of emotions which must have surrounded him at all times. Ms. Gregory has researched this period of the English court in great detail, which brings to life the day-to-day experiences of Kateryn. As a reader I felt fully immersed in the Tudor court – the food, dancing, etiquette, intrigue – which I found fascinating.
It is not possible to know what went on ‘behind closed doors’ in the past, so we cannot know the intimate details of Kateryn Parr’s personal relationship with Henry VIII, or with Thomas Seymour. As this book is historical fiction, Ms Gregory has taken what we know of the character of the people involved to create a more personal view of Queen Kateryn, showing how she must have used her intelligence to keep safe at court, despite attempts to turn the king against her.
I enjoyed the historical perspective in this book. The sinking of the Mary Rose, and attempts to raise her, just one example of the historical accuracy here. I also enjoyed the interplay of the characters and the realistic speech, which was never stilted and which helped the story to flow.
All in all, ‘The Taming Of the Queen’ is an enjoyable read which I can happily recommend.
The Taming Of The Queen can be found on Amazon
January 2016 – ‘The Royalist’ and ‘The Protector’ by S J Deas
Unusually, I am recommending two books for you to read this month.
‘The Royalist’ is the first book about William Falkland by S. J. Deas, set during the English Civil War. The main character, William Falkland, fought for the king but was captured and, as the novel opens, he is in prison awaiting execution. Falkland is led out, presumably to his death, but instead he has a surprising meeting with Oliver Cromwell who wants him to investigate some suspicious deaths in an army camp. To do what Cromwell wants is the only way that Falkland can save his own life, and return to his family.
‘The Royalist’ is a real page-turner, with many plot twists which keep you guessing to the very end. Are the deaths suicides, or something more sinister? What is the reason for Cromwell calling on a royalist to investigate, rather than one of his own men? Falkland finds the answers Cromwell wants (no spoilers here!) and is free to return to his family.
‘The Protector’ continues the story of William Falkland which began in ‘The Royalist’. Still searching for his family, Falkland is once more called upon by Cromwell, this time to investigate the disappearance of a woman – the sister of the renowned John Milton. Once again the author creates a compelling mystery. Why would someone kidnap Milton’s sister? Is it to silence the writer, or for some other reason? What happened to Ann’s husband? What secrets are hidden in a ruined manor house in Lincolnshire? Deas masterfully weaves a detective story with a picture of life during the English Civil War. Rather than a straight history, details of the war are revealed through conversations amongst the characters, as part of the plot rather than a telling of facts. Deas also conjures the feelings of insecurity, threat, suspense and suspicion which were rife in England at the time as friends, neighbours and families chose sides and fought for what they believed was right.
These two books about William Falkland are thoroughly enjoyable historical mysteries. The characters are well-rounded and totally believable. Falkland is a sympathetic hero, Milton is a complex character who draws out conflicting emotions in Falkland (and the reader!), Miss Cain is a resourceful woman who ably assists in the investigations, and the initially simple Warbeck turns out to be a more complex character than first imagined.
I thoroughly enjoyed the history and mystery in these two books, and hope that there will be more novels about William Falkland in the future.
I heartily recommend both books to you.
Mr Deas website can be found here
The Royalist can be found on Amazon
The Protector can be found on Amazon
February 2016 – ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel
Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, are well known facts of history. Most people even know the names of some of the other people who played key roles in this matter. What Hilary Mantel has done in ‘Wolf Hall’ is to breathe life into these people. To flesh out the brief, dusty biographies of history into living, breathing people. People we can love or hate, laugh with or laugh at, care for or hope for their downfall.
At the centre of it all is Thomas Cromwell. A man of humble origins, a traveller in his youth, a lawyer, friend of archbishops and, ultimately, confidant of the king. Ms Mantel has managed to get into the character of Cromwell, teasing out possible motives for his actions, deftly drawing the psychology of a man and of an age. History depicts Cromwell as a ruthless self-seeker, and there are aspects of that in this book, yet Ms Mantel digs deeper – a loyal friend, a family man, a loving husband and father, a cultured man who knew many languages, loved art and poetry, loved to hunt with his falcons, was keen to find and train young minds. This bringing to life of Cromwell, and many other characters, makes ‘Wolf Hall’ compelling reading, even though we already know the outcome of the story. Added to this is the in-depth depiction of life at court – the ladies in waiting, the kings gentlemen, intrigue and indulgence, banquets and religious disagreement, hunting and jousting – the list is endless. Along with the background of Cromwell this gives a fascinating insight into life in Tudor times for both rich and poor.
‘Wolf Hall’ is an historical novel with an emphasis on history, both in the plot and the descriptions. Ms Mantel has taken a story we all know and masterfully made it into something new, which any lover of history will enjoy. With one caveat. I enjoyed reading this book, but for some the style may be a little strange. Cromwell is always referred to as ‘he’, which can be confusing at times; so much so that, on occasion, the author resorts to writing ‘he, Cromwell, said…’. For myself, this is not a problem as the style is quite unique and gives a feeling of being in another time with another turn of phrase, another way of saying and doing things. For those who initially find this style difficult to follow I would ask you to persevere, a few pages in and you will cease to notice this most of the time as you become gripped by the story.
‘Wolf Hall’ is a fascinating read, and a great introduction to Thomas Cromwell. I am very much looking forward to following his story through Anne Boleyn’s time as Henry’s wife, and on to yet another queen in Ms Mantel’s sequel, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’.
Hilary Mantel’s website can be found here
Wolf Hall can be found on Amazon
March 2016 – ‘The Soldier’s Farewell’ by Alan Monaghan
Before reading this novel I had a sketchy knowledge of the Irish War of Independence. ‘The Soldier’s Farewell’ has brought it to life for me. Set in England and Ireland in 1921 this novel follows the Ryan brothers through these momentous historical times. Stephen is an Irishman who fought for the British during the First World War, he is subsequently sent to London as part of the Irish Delegation to help with negotiations for the independence of Ireland. Joe, his brother, is jailed for his actions as a member of the IRA. Through the two brothers we follow the political and military upheavals of the early 1920’s, the ending of one war and the beginning of a new, more sinister conflict.
A sub-plot follows Stephen’s girlfriend, Lillian. A gifted mathematician, her work is stolen and her career progress blocked because of her gender. This provides an interesting look at the role and position of women in the early twentieth century, noting some changes (such as women’s suffrage in Ireland) and predicting some of the changes which would ultimately come. This sub-plot is expertly woven into the story of independence and helps to create a full, rounded character in Stephen.
As a historical novel ‘The Soldier’s Farewell’ is well researched, the real-life facts and characters portrayed through the story in an engaging way which never lectures. The fictional characters are believable and the dialogue well written. The descriptive scenes are compelling; from streets scenes to a prolonged journey on foot through snowy mountains, from formal meetings and court scenes to desperate military actions, from scenes of love to scenes of murder, Mr. Monaghan has created a world which brings to life a period of history which all British people should become more familiar with.
I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the history of Ireland, the dreams and aspirations of the IRA, and how the Anglo-Irish conflict of the twentieth century was born in Dublin in 1921. (The Soldier’s Farewell is part three of Alan Monaghan’s trilogy set during the Irish Civil War).
Mr Monaghan’s website can be found here
‘The Soldier’s Farewell’ can be found on Amazon
April 2016 – ‘An Officer And A Spy’ by Robert Harris
Paris in 1895. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer, has just been convicted of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, and stripped of his rank in front of a baying crowd of twenty-thousand. Among the witnesses to his humiliation is Georges Picquart, the ambitious, intellectual, recently promoted head of the counterespionage agency that “proved” Dreyfus had passed secrets to the Germans. At first, Picquart firmly believes in Dreyfus’s guilt. But it is not long after Dreyfus is delivered to his desolate prison that Picquart stumbles on information that leads him to suspect that there is still a spy at large in the French military. As evidence of the most malignant deceit mounts and spirals inexorably toward the uppermost levels of government, Picquart is compelled to question not only the case against Dreyfus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his country, and about himself.
I can remember a brief study of the Dreyfus Affair while I was at school. It intrigued me but I never followed up on it, so when I saw ‘An Officer And A Spy’ by Robert Harris I felt I had to read it. I was not disappointed.
This book is an amazing read. Mr Harris has utilised all of the primary sources and leading academic works on the subject to create an incredibly detailed novel, drawing on court records, and also Dreyfus’ own writings. This may give the impression that ‘An Office And A Spy’ is a dry history book, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Mr Harris has written a gripping novel which draws you in – I certainly found it difficult to put down. The scenic descriptions are detailed, giving a great feel for time and place, the characters are well drawn, the dialogue totally believable. But what is most compelling about the novel is the complex plotting. Spying, forged documents, trials and hearings, attempted assassinations and attempted government cover-ups all lead to a taut thriller. I had to stop a number of times and remind myself that this story is real, a true accounting of an historical event, yet it reads like a novel by John le Carré, Robert Ludlum or Frederick Forsyth.
Mr Harris has brought to life the divisions of the Third Republic in France, the racism and anti-semitism, the corruption within the army and the government. From the initial miscarriage of justice, through the search for the truth by Georges Picquart and the defence of the free press in Zola’s J’accuse speech, we are led to the final triumph of justice and release of an innocent man.
The Dreyfus Affair, a scandal and one of the most famous miscarriages of justice of all time, has lain in dusty history books for 120 years, but in ‘An Officer And A Spy’ Mr Harris has transformed it into a spellbinding, gripping thriller which I hope that someone will one day make into a movie. If only all history books could be this exciting!
Robert Haris’s web page
‘An Officer And A Spy’ on Amazon
May 2016 – ‘Jackdaws’ by Ken Follett
Two weeks before D-Day, the French Resistance attacks a chateau containing a telephone exchange vital to German communications – but the building is heavily guarded and the attack fails disastrously.
Flick Clairet, a young British secret agent, proposes a daring new plan: she will parachute into France with an all-woman team known as the ‘Jackdaws’ and they will penetrate the chateau in disguise. But, unknown to Flick, Rommel has assigned a brilliant, ruthless intelligence colonel, Dieter Franck, to crush the Resistance. And Dieter is on Flick’s trail…
Mr Follett is an historical novelist whose writings have ranged across the centuries; with ‘Jackdaws’ he returns to World War II in the days leading up to D Day. After an unsuccessful attempt to destroy an important communications exchange female SOE operative, Flick Clairet, heads an all-female operation to enter the complex in disguise and cause enough damage to disrupt German communications during the Allied invasion.
The plot of ‘Jackdaws’ is realistic; many women served in the SOE during the war, and some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice. Details of how agents were trained, how they reached their destinations in France, and the types of attacks they carried out alongside the French Resistance are accurate. Through this we are able to see the fear and horror facing those who worked behind enemy lines, yet also their courage and resourcefulness, and in this respect I can highly recommend this novel.
On the other hand, I did find some aspects of ‘Jackdaws’ a little too far-fetched. It would have been possible to put together an all-female group, but no agents would have been sent out with the limited training that the characters in this novel received. Also, some of the characters were incredibly blasé about the dangers facing them, behaving almost as though they were on holiday rather than on a secret mission behind enemy lines. Having said that, this is historical fiction and so one can suspend belief a little in exchange for a good story. And ‘Jackdaws’ is that. The plotting is clear, the action almost constant, the suspense engaging.
Alongside the story of Flick and her group we also have the story of Dieter Franck, a German Intelligence officer whose character is full of contradictions – willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve his aims, yet feeling the guilt at what those actions entail; a loving husband, yet a man who also loves his mistress; a man who upholds the German ideal yet has feelings for a Jew. With Franck, and the other main characters in this novel, Mr Follett explores human psychology showing us the complexity of human relationships and how our feelings for others can colour our actions.
All in all, ‘Jackdaws’ is a good war-time thriller. Anyone who enjoys a fast-paced story set during the Second World War will enjoy this novel.
Mr Folletts website can be found here
Jackdaws can be found on Amazon
June 2016 – ‘The Nightingale’ by Kristin Hannah
‘The Nightingale’ is a novel which will grip you from start to finish with its portrayal of life for two sisters in France during the Second World War. Vianne’s husband is taken by the Germans to a labour camp. Having a daughter makes Vianne cautious, intent on ensuring that they both survive the war. Her sister, Isabelle, is younger, more daring; a girl who has felt unloved for most of her life and feels she needs to do something, anything, to give meaning to her existence. Yet as the years progress, as hunger and lack of all luxuries set in, so the characters change to meet their changing circumstances. Small changes at first, but for each action there is a consequence leading, almost inevitable, to more dangerous actions. This is real life in the sense that it is moral choices that people make which mould them, choices which they sometimes wish they didn’t have to make but which cannot be avoided.
‘The Nightingale’ covers many aspects of life in occupied France – living with German officers who are billeted in your home, whether you like it or not; the treatment of Jews; the harsh realities of Occupation; the French Resistance; escape routes for Allied pilots across the mountains into Spain. Unusually, this novel’s two central characters are women, giving us a deeper understanding of what life was like away from the battlefields of the war, and helps us to realise that there are more battles to be fought than those involving guns and bombs.
The relationship between the two sisters changes dramatically during the novel as they finally come to realise the strengths and weaknesses which they each have, both different yet both equally brave and selfless in their attempts to help the lost and vulnerable under Nazi occupation.
This novel is well-paced, the plot developments work well, the characters are believable and many faceted, the dialogue realistic. The novel begins in America in 1995 with a French immigrant receiving an invitation to a ceremony in France to honour a heroine of the Second World War. Part of the suspense of the novel is wondering which of the sisters it is to honour, and which is the one who received the invitation. Did they both survive the war?
‘The Nightingale’ is fiction but is based on the lives of real people who put their lives on the line to help others during the German occupation of France. Many of these people made the ultimate sacrifice, but those who did survive rarely spoke of their experiences, sometimes because their memories were just too painful, or maybe because they felt that they had done nothing more than others. In ‘The Nightingale’ Kristin Hannah pays tribute to these people in a story full of pain and fear, yet also humanity and courage. It is a novel which I can heartily recommend to you.
The Nightingale can be found on Amazon
Kristin Hannah’s website
JULY 2016 – ‘Winter Of The World’ by Ken Follett
‘Winter Of The World’ is the second part of Ken Follett’s trilogy about the twentieth century. It is an ambitious novel, taking readers from 1933 through the Second World War to 1949. The plotting is complex with characters in the US, England, Germany and Russia who experience some of the key points of this period of history – the rise of Hitler, the Nazi euthanasia programme, the war in Europe Pearl Harbour, war in the pacific, the development of the atom bomb, the aftermath of war in Germany – the list could go on and on. The raft of characters and wide ranging storylines does mean that some important parts of this period of history are missed or skimmed over, but that is perfectly understandable.
The historical information in this book creates a believable backdrop for the lives and loves of the fictional characters, and is testament to the in depth research which Mr Follett must have carried out. The characters are quite well rounded and believable of themselves, although the fact that they are almost all upper class or wealthy does give a certain bias to the book; even the family which comes from a Welsh mining village is involved in politics and has MP’s amongst them. I realise that Mr Follett does this to move the plot on, but I would have preferred to read about a few more ‘ordinary’ people.
Mr Follett has a way with words which brings scenes to life; he also writes in a way which keeps the story moving at a good pace and so draws the reader into his world. The first novel in the series, ‘Fall of Giants’, which deals with the first thirty years of the last century, should be read before this novel to give an understanding of who the main characters are and where they came from, but as that is an equally well researched and well written novel reading it will be no hardship!
‘Winter Of The World’ is a novel which will be enjoyed by people with an interest in twentieth century history, and also fans of Mr Follett’s previous books. I heartily recommend it.
August 2016 – ‘The Lady From Zagreb’ by Philip Kerr
Summer 1942. When Bernie Gunther is ordered to speak at an international police conference, an old acquaintance has a favour to ask. Little does Bernie suspect what this simple surveillance task will provoke . . .
One year later, resurfacing from the hell of the Eastern Front, a superior gives him another task that seems straightforward: locating the father of Dalia Dresner, the rising star of German cinema. Bernie accepts the job. Not that he has much choice – the superior is Goebbels himself.
But Dresner’s father hails from Yugoslavia, a country so riven by sectarian horrors that even Bernie’s stomach is turned. Yet even with monsters at home and abroad, one thing alone drives him on from Berlin to Zagreb to Zurich: Bernie Gunther has fallen in love.
‘The Lady From Zagreb’ is the tenth in a series of novels by Philip Kerr about German detective Bernie Gunther. These novels have well-constructed plots and are a pleasure to read for anyone who is a fan of detective novels. What makes them unique, however, is the historical setting. Bernie is a detective in Germany during the Second World War and the story gives us a different perspective on the conflict – from the point of view of a German who does not support the Nazis but has to try to survive to the end of the war. Disillusioned and cynical he often hides his feelings with a defensive blanket of sarcasm and dry humour, yet this detective is intelligent and persuasive with a belief in truth, justice and honour which is at odds with Nazi Germany.
Mr Kerr’s knowledge of Germany during the war years is extensive, and he expertly weaves the plot of his novel into the historical timeline – an international criminal conference in 1942 held at the villa where the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish question was decided; harrowing descriptions of the brutality of war in Yugoslavia; the Swiss plan to blow up key mountain passes if Germany tried to invade; these are just a few of the historic details which bring this novel to life. The author also expertly weaves real historical characters into ‘The Lady From Zagreb’, from Walter Schellenberg to Goebbels, Kurt Waldheim to Paul Meyer-Schwerendbach. Some of these names are familiar, others less so, but together they give this novel a real feel for time and place both descriptively and historically.
‘The Lady From Zagreb’ is an atmospheric novel which will draw a complex mix of emotions from the reader – anger, horror, sympathy, surprise, empathy to name just a few. It is a novel which will keep you turning the pages as you tread with Bernie Gunther the treacherous path between obedience, honour and survival.
In this novel Mr Kerr has expertly woven together the murder of a man by being struck over the head with a bust of Hitler, a missing priest and a mysterious body in a lake. Add to that a twist in the tale to equal any good detective story and you have a book which will appeal to anyone who loves the intricacies of a good crime story as well as historical fiction. I heartily recommend ‘The Lady From Zagreb’, and all of Mr Kerr’s novels about the cynical idealist Bernie Gunther.
September 2016 – ‘The Fort’ by Bernard Cornwell
‘Captivate, kill or destroy the whole force of the enemy’ was the order given to the American soldiers in the summer 1779.
Seven hundred and fifty British soldiers and three small ships of the Royal Navy. Their orders: to build a fort above a harbour to create a base from which to control the New England seaboard.
Forty-one American ships and over nine hundred men. Their orders: to expel the British.
The battle that followed was a classic example of how the best-laid plans can be disrupted by personality and politics, and of how warfare can bring out both the best and worst in men. It is a timeless tale of men at war.
The Fort tells the story of the military action which took place at Penobscot Bay where General McLean of the British Army was sent to set up a garrison to control the New England seaboard and offer a place of refuge for loyalists fleeing from the American War of Independence. The American rebels in their turn planned to oust the British in a show of strength. The novel is told from four perspectives – both the British and American, and for each side descriptions of the action on land and at sea. This gives the reader a feel for the complexity of what was going on and also the rivalries which can cause problems for military expeditions. One problem I initially had with this approach though is that some of the sections, particularly at the beginning of the book, were quite short and I had to stop to remind myself which side I was reading about; but as the story progressed this became less of a distraction. I found myself becoming increasingly engrossed in the story and eager to find out what happened next.
The American War of Independence is not something I have studied in any great depth so the story of Fort George was completely new to me. As with all of his novels Mr Cornwell has obviously spent a great deal of time researching this period, and this action in particular, and has conveyed a real feel for warfare at the time. I was particularly impressed with his descriptions of the navel engagements from both a tactical point of few and from the perspective of the sailors. Such battles must have been truly terrifying for the participants.
Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’ novels may be surprised by this book; it has a very accurate historical focus but less attention is given to the personal lives and romantic relationships of the characters. Having said that, most of the people who appear in this novel are real historical figures and much of their conversation and actions is based on authentic documents. This gives the novel a real feeling of authenticity, placing the reader in the midst of the conflict and eliciting feelings of anger and frustration towards some of the people (I have completely changed my view of Paul Revere!) whilst leaving me wanting to know more about others (in particular Lieutenant John Moore who went on help reform and develop the British Army and who appears to have been a fascinating character).
The Fort is not a novel for those who like historical stories where the main protagonist is in a fight of ‘good and evil’ against an opponent who holds some sort of a grudge against them, and where the hero then goes on to win the day pretty much all by himself. But if you like a well-researched, accurate account of a little known event in history then I would recommend that you take the time to read and appreciate The Fort.
‘The Fort’ can be found on Amazon
Bernard Cornwell’s website
October 2016 – The Truth Of The Line by Melanie Taylor
In 1572, the good looking and talented Nicholas Hillyarde paints the first of many portraits of Elizabeth I, England’s “Virgin Queen”. His ability to capture the likeness of his patrons makes him famous and his skills are much sought after by the rich and powerful members of the Elizabethan Court. His loyalty to Elizabeth even leads him to becoming part of Sir Francis Walsingham’s information network. One day he is approached by a young man with an intriguing commission. Hillyarde is to paint the man holding a lady’s hand – a hand which descends from a cloud – complete with a puzzling motto: “Attici Amoris Ergo”… There is something familiar about this young man’s face, and Hillyarde is led down a dark path of investigation to discover who this young man may be. Who is the young man? Has Hillyarde stumbled across a dark royal secret, and, if so, is there evidence hidden elsewhere?
‘The Truth Of The Line’ is an intriguing novel. On the one hand it is steeped in historical fact from descriptions of life at Elizabeth’s court to the life of a gentleman at home, from the political situation at the time to the detailed descriptions of Elizabethan art; on the other hand it is an historical novel which will keep any lover of mystery entertained.
‘The Truth Of The Line’ is a testament to the detailed research which historian Melanie Taylor has put into this book. Nicholas Hilliard was a ‘court limner’ who painted miniature portraits; he was also a goldsmith which enabled him to create beautiful settings for his portraits. (You can see some of his work in the National Portrait Gallery, London). It was this position at court which enabled Hilliard to come into contact with many of the key players in Elizabethan society, and to be a part of some of that time’s most memorable moments. Quite a lot is known about the life and work of Nicholas Hilliard, but this novel is the first book that I am aware of to hint at a secret which the artist may have discovered when painting the young man who appears on the cover of the book. Who was he? And why the strange, almost nonsensical, motto? Although a work of fiction the details of the clues which Hilliard followed are based on Ms Taylor’s skilled interpretation of actual documents and paintings. There was a great deal of symbolism in Tudor art which enabled people to pass on a message without the use of incriminating words, and the author seamlessly moves from those symbols which are known in the art world to others which she has ‘discovered’ through her own detailed research. You will certainly be left wondering if Hilliard’s (and Ms Taylor’s?) conclusions about the young man he painted, and his relationship key members at the royal court, could possibly be true.
If you are interested in history, or art, or cryptic clues then I think that you will enjoy this novel. It certainly left me wondering – what if…?
You can find out more about Melanie Taylor here
‘The Truth Of The Line’ can be found on Amazon
November 2016 – ‘The Secret Wife’ by Gill Paul
A Russian grand duchess and an English journalist. Linked by one of the world’s greatest mysteries…
Love. Guilt. Heartbreak.
1914 Russia is on the brink of collapse, and the Romanov family faces a terrifyingly uncertain future. Grand Duchess Tatiana has fallen in love with cavalry officer Dmitri, but events take a catastrophic turn, placing their romance – and their lives – in danger . . .
2016 Kitty Fisher escapes to her great-grandfather’s remote cabin in America, after a devastating revelation makes her flee London. There, on the shores of Lake Akanabee, she discovers the spectacular jewelled pendant that will lead her to a long-buried family secret . . .Haunting, moving and beautifully written, The Secret Wife effortlessly crosses centuries, as past merges with present in an unforgettable story of love, loss and resilience.
‘The Secret Wife’ is an engrossing read which takes the reader back to the days of the Russian Revolution and on through the years of the 20th century. It follows the life and loves of Dmitri, an aristocrat who has to flee from the communist regime not knowing where the woman he loves is, or even if she is still alive. It is a tale of war, romance, lost love and redemption. The book also follows the troubled life of Kitty, Dmitri’s great-granddaughter, whose research into the life of her ancestor helps her to come to terms with problems in her own life and helps her to make a decision about what she wants for her future. The two stories are expertly woven together into a novel which I found difficult to put down.
Ms Paul has written a truly captivating novel with strong characters and a strong, believable story line. The history, particularly the turbulent times surrounding the lives of the Romanov’s, has been well researched and is presented in a style which is easy to read yet immerses the reader in the political intrigue and violence of revolution and the life of a political refugee. Ms Paul also expertly delves into the psychological impact that such events would have on an individual. It is easy to sympathise with Dmitri as he struggles to come to terms with his changed circumstances, with Tatiana as she copes with violence and loss, and with Kitty as she understands why she is the person she is and finds a new direction for here future.
Many of the characters in this novel are actual historical figures about whom we know quite a lot, but historical evidence for what happened to some of them disappears after 1916/17. We do know the fate of some (no spoilers!), but it would be nice to think that Ms Paul’s story could be true!
If you like historical fiction, sagas, intrigue, strong characters and a story which draws you in right from the start then please give this book a read. I will certainly be reading more of Ms Paul’s books in the future.
Ms Pauls website can be found here
The Secret Wife can be found on Amazon
December 2016 – ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry
‘A Fine Balance’ tells the story of the lives of four individuals who are brought together by circumstances. While we learn a lot about their background the main focus of the novel is the political and social situation in India in the 1970’s. Through their relationships with each other and interactions with other people Rohinton Mistry paints a compelling picture of poverty and prejudice in India. The levels of corruption and injustice portrayed in the novel give a sense of the hopelessness of life for many, yet the fact that the poorest characters can find a joy in their lives which evades those of a higher social standing is humbling.
This is a novel which tells the truth of the brutality if a government which could force sterilization on people in an effort to control the population, and the brutality of people who , by a simple accident of birth, found themselves in a position of power. The title ‘A Fine Balance’ is well chosen as Mr Mistry balances this darkness with a lightness and humour from both the characters and their situations. As one who has lived in India for the last few years I found many of the descriptions incredible accurate – from the chaos of the courthouse and other official institutions to the busy streets, chaotic trains and remote village life.
Sadly, my experience tells me that although the cast system is now illegal in India it is still all pervading, and it would not be difficult to imagine aspects of this story happening today. Yet alongside this the humour, love and hope which Mr Mistry describes are still there and the road to change, which often seems too long and slow, is still progressing.
The only aspect of this novel which I found difficult was the number of coincidences which occurred, bringing minor characters into the story at frequent intervals which are unlikely to happen in life. Having said that, I recognise that these characters and their meetings are an essential part of the story which Mr Mistry is telling, so if you can set aside the coincidences and accept the truths that the characters bring to the story it will not spoil your enjoyment.
‘A Fine Balance’ is a well written novel with deeply nuanced characters, all the more real to me as I see in them much that reminds me of the Indians I know and love. It is well structured, invoking a sense of place so that we can almost feel the heat, smell the streets, taste the food, bathe in the dust or rain. This is a novel which shows the real India, where life can be hard for all but the most wealthy; it is therefore interesting that the character who has the easiest life, the best situation, finds it the most difficult to cope. As for the reader, I think we can all learn from the attitude of the main characters, and Indians in general – life is not easy, we all face difficulties challenges and heartaches; what defines us though is how we face what life throws at us, and move on.
‘A Fine Balance’ is up there as one of my favourite novels about India, alongside ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. Anyone who wants to try to understand the complexities, mysteries and universal truths of India presented by an author with an exceptional command of language should read this novel.
A Fine Balance is available on Amazon
January 2017 – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
‘Life After Life’ is not the usual type of historical novel that I review. This is a fascinating story which explores the concept of life and time. What would happen if we lived the same life over and over again? Would it always be the same or would things change? Would we be able to guide our destiny to avoid the bad things which happen in life or to seek to achieve a goal which appears to be out of reach? Ms Atkinson uses the life/lives of Ursula to explore this theme.
Ursula is born one snowy day in 1910. She dies without taking her first breath but then is born again in the same situation with one minor difference which allows her to live. The novel continues to follow Ursula as she is born and dies, again and again. Each time her life is changed in some small way which leads to much larger changes as the years go by. Edward Lorenz asked, ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ In this novel Ursula finds that her choices, as well as the decisions which people make all around her, do indeed lead to great changes – lives saved or lost, war or a chance for peace, all made possible through something as small as the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings.
Knowing, in part, what is going to happen to Ursula leaves you rooting for her, hoping that she will make a certain choice, speak to a certain person, avoid a certain action. In some of her incarnations you find yourself hoping that she survives and is happy, in others you hope that her death comes more quickly and she can start a new and better life. It is a strange novel in this sense, yet compulsive reading.
The reason I am recommending this book as historical fiction is the period in which it is set. Ursula lives during the turbulent years of both World Wars, and Ms Atkinson conveys these times in incredible detail. Her fictional accounts of the London blitz are some of the best I have read – both harrowing and inspiring. In another life Ursula lives in Germany during the Second World War. The descriptions of the changes from pre-war euphoria through nationalism to war and, finally, despair in Berlin during the last days of the Reich bear testimony to the depth of research which the author has carried out.
‘Life After Life’ is a unique novel in its structure. It is also a novel rich in historical detail and, in addition, a compelling portrait of Ursula and her family. Ms Atkinson’s writing cuts to the heart of human hopes and dreams, ambitions, loves and losses; the reader comes to love or hate the characters who are well drawn and believable, the kind of people you could meet almost anywhere.
The author writes with great skill, producing a novel which is thought provoking, moving and at times uncomfortable. It is the sort of book which leaves the reader reflecting on life, destiny and fate. What might be the consequences of our actions? Can we shape the future by a single word or deed or is it all pre-ordained? This is not a light read, but if you are looking for something entertaining and educational which leaves you asking questions and wanting more then I heartily recommend that you read ‘Life After Life’.
This novel won the 2013 COSTA Novel Award, and deservedly so.
‘Life After Life’ can be found on Amazon
Kate Atkinson’s website can be found here
February 2017 – ‘The Gift Of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng
Penang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido.
But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei to whom he owes absolute loyalty has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.
With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.
In ‘the Gift Of Rain’ the reader is immersed in life in Malaya during the 1940’s. Tan Twan Eng writes some of the best prose I have read in a long time, and it pays to take the time to read slowly and savour this poetic and evocative language. Whether he is describing the beauty of Malaya or the brutality of occupation the author places the reader there, in the midst of the action, in such a way that it easy to become lost in this book. Supporting the lyrical descriptions is a cast of characters who are multi-faceted and totally believable. It is easy to sympathise with Philip in his search to find out where he belongs; even when he makes choices which we might not agree with we can understand his reasons and fervently hope that he will find the love, acceptance and peace that he is searching for.
This book is written in two distinct sections. The first, set in Penang in 1939, moves at a gentle pace as Philip meets a Japanese aikijitsu master, and through his lessons with Endo develops a physical, intellectual and spiritual awareness which remains with him for the rest of his life. There is a strange bond between the two which seems to transcend time and space, and the playing out of this relationship is the pivot of the whole book. The second part of the book takes place after the Japanese invasion and is faster paced, dramatic and hard hitting. Philip finds that life puts him in a position which challenges his ethics and morals; does his loyalty lie with his family or with Hayato Endo? Or does he have a much broarder loyalty to the people of Malaya? And where does his sense of self fit within this conflict?
‘The Gift Of Rain’ evokes a real sense of time and place, giving the reader insights not only into the history of Malaya but also of Japan and China. The way that the Second World War impacted on the different ethnic groups and their relationships with each other is the cloth of which this story is woven; it is a testament to the thorough research which Tan Twan Eng has made of the history of these countries, and of the colonial impact which played a part in shaping events. Why does history seem to see British occupation of Malaya as acceptable, unlike the Japanese occupation which is seen as criminal? What responsibility did the colonial power have to the people of Malaya, and they to it? There are no easy answers to this, and the questions raised are played out through Philip’s own personal search for identity.
Tan Twan Eng has created a book which looks at the darker side of life yet which holds an incredible balance. One could almost describe the whole novel as an evocation of the ying and yang of life, the balance of duty and loyalty, the image of a civilised and refined Japan which can be selfish and brutal at the same time. It is a book which is incredibly difficult to categorise. Part historical fiction and part martial arts treatise, part philosophy and part a coming of age story, it is a book which draws the reader in from the very first words and doesn’t let go, even after the last page has been turned. I have read this book a number of times and come back to it again and again, learning something new each time. I heartily recommend ‘The Gift Of Rain’ as one of those few books which will leave a lasting impression on you for some time to come.
March 2017 – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.
‘A Town Like Alice’ is a classic which loses none of its appeal with the passage of time. The description of life for the English women and children who are unwanted prisoners of the Japanese, forced to march for months on end by Japanese officers who refuse to take responsibility for them, is harrowing. You would be forgiven for saying that something as inhumane as that could never have happened – but it did, though in Sumatra not Malaya. Mr Shute met with one of those women after the war, and this novel is a tribute to her strength and endurance and that of those who were held with her, and those who died during their long captivity.
You may also be forgiven for thinking that the story must be depressing, it is not. This is a novel of hope not despair. Mr Shute uses his characters to show us the good in humanity, the willingness to help others despite personal cost – Joe, the Australian soldier, who stole to feed the women, with tragic consequences; Jean’s struggles as she tries to cope with the ‘normality’ of England after the war, unable to begin life again because of a burden of guilt she carries from her time as a prisoner; the kindness and support show to Jean by her solicitor, Noel. Mr Shute skilfully weaves a believable plotline which takes Jean back to Malaya and on to Australia, searching for answers and for a purpose in life. Can she re-build her life in a new country in ‘a town like Alice (Springs)’ which Joe told her so much about?
This is a well-researched and well written novel in which Mr Shute immerses the reader in life in three very different locations – war-torn Malaya, bombed out London and the developing outback – with the effortlessness of a master wordsmith. This is a story of ordinary people with an extraordinary tale to tell; a timeless tale of love and loss, of romance and redemption. ‘A Town Like Alice’ is one of the books I’ve read more than once and always enjoy coming back to. If you have never read this modern classic you really must give it a go.
‘A Town Like Alice’ can be purchased from Amazon
You can find out about more about the life and work of Nevil Shute at the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation
April 2017 – The Road Between Us byNigel Farndale
1939: In a hotel room overlooking Piccadilly Circus, two young men are arrested. Charles is court-martialled for ‘conduct unbecoming’; Anselm is deported home to Germany for ‘re-education’ in a brutal labour camp. Separated by the outbreak of war, and a social order that rejects their love, they must each make a difficult choice, and then live with the consequences.
2012: Edward, a diplomat held hostage for eleven years in an Afghan cave, returns to London to find his wife is dead, and in her place is an unnerving double – his daughter, now grown up. Numb with grief, he attempts to re-build his life and answer the questions that are troubling him. Was his wife’s death an accident? Who paid his ransom? And how was his release linked to Charles, his father?
As dark and nuanced as it is powerful and moving, The Road Between Us is a novel about survival, redemption and forbidden love. Its moral complexities will haunt the reader for days after the final page has been turned.
‘The Road Between Us’ is a thought provoking novel which touches on subject matter which can make it uncomfortable reading at times. Following the stories of a father and son (one during the Second World War and the other set in the present day) Mr Farndale weaves a picture of love and loss, of discrimination and cruelty, yet also of loyalty and hope. During the war Charles loses his commission for ‘conduct unbecoming’ and spends the rest of the conflict searching for and attempting to rescue his lover, Anselm, who had been deported to Germany for ‘re-education.’ In the present Charles’s son, Edward, is released after eleven years in captivity and is also searching for love and hope, both of which he has buried deeply in order to survive his long period of isolation and deprivation.
Mr Farndale has approached the difficult subjects in his novel with respect and sensitivity. His descriptions of place and character are vivid, making the reader feel as though they are there and drawing them into the story. Even though some of the subject matter is difficult I found myself wanting to read more, to discover what made these characters tick and how they came to terms with aspects of their lives which were so troubling at times. It is the mark of a great novel to keep you reading under such circumstances, the key here being the believable characters who are drawn so sympathetically.
The historical context of ‘The Road Between Us’ has been well researched which gives a depth of plausibility to the story – the ‘re-education’ workcamps, the treatment of homosexuals etc. The dialogue has an authentic ring which brings the characters to life, dialogue which reflects the authors understanding of human psychology and encourages the reader to look deeper into themselves. All in all, this is a very moving story and compelling reading; it has a great narrative, the feel of both thriller and love story, intelligent and literary writing.
If you like historical novels which explore the human condition with depth and sensitivity then I heartily recommend ‘The Road Between Us’ to you.
(I have deliberately avoided going into details of this story as it would be difficult to do so without spoiling it for you!)
‘The Road Between Us’ can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Nigel Farndale on his website
May 2017 – The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman
A boat washes up on the shore of a remote lighthouse keeper’s island. It holds a dead man – and a crying baby. The only two islanders, Tom and his wife Izzy, are about to make a devastating decision.
They break the rules and follow their hearts.
After reading the above description I was expecting ‘The Light Between Oceans’ to be a romance/crime thriller, but in fact it turned out to be so much more. Set in Australia in the aftermath of the First World War it is a moving tale of how difficult it was for survivors of that conflict to integrate back into society, how their loved ones were affected by these shadows of men from the trenches, and how those whose husbands, brothers and sons never came back from the war struggled to understand the appalling waste and come to terms with their loss. This sounds like a novel in itself, yet it is purely the backdrop for a story packed with emotional highs and lows and a sympathetic understanding of human psychology.
The main characters of the novel struggle throughout with the concepts of right and wrong, and with putting these into some sort of acceptable order. Is it ever right to break the law to help a loved one who is suffering? Can love conquer all? Can we close our eyes to the suffering we may have unknowingly caused to someone else once that has been revealed to us? You will find yourself sympathising with Tom as he struggles to support the woman he loves, even though it goes against his conscience, and you will also find yourself sympathising with the other main characters too. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is an incredibly well written novel with believable characters who draw you into their stories. Ms Stedman has great skill as a writer in that she is able to describe the places and environment which are inhabited by her story in a way which makes you feel as though you are there breathing the salty air, feeling the wind and rain etc. whilst at the same time she creates characters, including some very minor ones, whose lives you can fully appreciate and whose driving forces are wholly believable.
The themes of love and loss, fear, anger, and hope are played out against the backdrop of a lighthouse on a rocky island, The Light Between Oceans of the title, and Ms Stedman has clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching the life of a lighthouse keeper in early twentieth century Australia. Her writing is very descriptive and the reader feels an affinity for the small-town community on the mainland as well as the incredibly difficult life of the lighthouse keeper and his family. It is a period of Australian history which I was not familiar with yet, by the end of the book, felt wholly engaged with.
This book is a highly emotional and moving read, I can guarantee that you will go on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and be left pondering some big philosophical questions at the end. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is certainly a book which will stay with you for some time to come and I heartily recommend it.
The Light Between Oceans can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about M L Stedman here
June 2017 – ‘Paris’ by Edward Rutherfurd
City of love. City of splendour. City of terror. City of dreams.
Inspired by the haunting, passionate story of the city of lights, this epic novel weaves a gripping tale of four families across the centuries: from the lies that spawn the noble line of de Cygne to the revolutionary Le Sourds who seek their destruction; from the Blanchards whose bourgeois respectability offers scant protection against scandal to the hard-working Gascons and their soaring ambitions.
Over hundreds of years, these four families are bound by forbidden loves and marriages of convenience; dogged by vengeance and murderous secrets; torn apart by the irreconcilable differences of birth and faith, and brought together by the tumultuous history of their city. Paris bursts to life in the intrigue, corruption and glory of its people.
Author of Sarum, London and New York, Edward Rutherfurd illuminates Paris as only he can: capturing the romance and everyday drama of the men and women who, in two thousand years, transformed a humble trading post on the muddy banks of the Seine into the most celebrated city in the world.
Mr Rutherfurd has written an engrossing saga of interwoven stories of four families who lived and loved in the city of Paris, families which come from all aspects of society – nobility, bourgeois, revolutionary and labourer. The lives of these fictional families are skilfully entwined with the history of the city from its earliest days to the Second World War and beyond, which makes the novel ideal for someone who wants to get an overview of the history of Paris and how different social groups influenced, or were influenced by, events. Each family history is carefully plotted and although there are rather a lot of co-incidences these are necessary to bring the characters together in a complex yet coherent plot, ‘Paris’ is, after all, historical fiction not fact.
Mr Rutherfurd has obviously conducted a great deal of detailed research into the history of France and Paris which is evident in the complexities of both the culture and politics of France which he has handled with skill. Whilst the main portion of the novel covers the period from 1875 to the mid-1960’s this story is interspersed with cameos of the families from 1261 onwards, the abiding theme being the socialist and revolutionary spirit of many of the city’s inhabitants. This is an effective way of telling the story of Paris without overwhelming the reader with too much detail or including information just for the sake of it. Mr Rutherford seems to get the right balance here, and anyone who wants to find out more about any of the periods will be able to conduct further research for themselves.
‘Paris’ is a story of divided loyalties, lies, deceit, love, honour, and a whole raft of other emotions, all told against the backdrop of this vibrant city. One fascinating aspect of the novel is the descriptions of the landscape and architecture and how these changed over the centuries. The physical space of the city is so well written that you can feel yourself there, and anyone who has ever visited Paris will recognise the authenticity of the descriptions from Versailles to Notre Dame, the Eifel Tower to Montmartre.
Mr Rutherfurd has a writing style which is engaging and moves the story on at a good pace. The one thing which readers may find difficult to follow is the relationships of the characters and family histories but the author has provided excellent family trees to help with this, and the more you read the less you need to use them. What draws the reader in is the believable characters who elicit a variety of responses, from sympathy to anger; what is interesting is that you are able to see the history of France from many different perspectives and find your sympathies residing with different parts of society at different times. It takes a very clever wordsmith to create such a believable world for his characters to inhabit.
I would recommend ‘Paris’ to anyone who enjoys historical sagas. The novel is an easy and engaging read from which it is possible to learn a great deal whilst also being entertained. Based on my enjoyment of this book I shall certainly be reading more novels written by Edward Rutherfurd.
‘Paris’ can be found on Amazon
Mr Rutherfurd’s website can be found here
July 2017 – Csardas by Diane Pearson
CSARDAS – taken from the name of the Hungarian national dance – follows the fortunes of the enchanting Ferenc sisters from their glittering beginnings in aristocratic Hungary, through the traumas of two World Wars.
From the dazzling elegance of coming-out balls, feudal estates and a culture steeped in romance, to terror and starvation in the concentration camps – no story could be more dramatic than that of Eva and Amalia Ferenc, whose fate it is to be debutantes when the shot which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo plunged Europe into the First World War. Their story is enthralling, tragic, romantic – and absolutely unputdownable.
Csardas is incredibly well researched giving a detailed and seemingly faultless history of Hungary from the feudal society which existed in the Austro-Hungarian empire before the First World War through to the creation of the communist state after the Second. With a clever choice of families to follow (aristocrats, wealthy half-Jews and poor serfs) Ms Pearson has been able to look at the key points in the history of Hungary from all perspectives in a narrative which is never ‘instructive’ but flows as a good story should.
The novel is well written giving a real feel of time and place whilst gently encouraging the reader to invest in the lives of its central characters who are believable and multi-layered. You will soon find yourself loving some and feeling less sympathetic towards others – the shallow young girl who never really grows up; the aristocrat whose experiences during World War One leave him mentally scared in a way that guides his future actions; the peasant boy who can’t commit to others because of his fear of loss…
The publisher’s description of this book may give the impression of a romance novel but it is much more than that. There are love stories intertwined throughout, but that is the nature of life itself; where Csardas excels is in the subtle way in which serious topics are covered from the depravities of war to the suppression of the lower classes and horrific treatment of Jews. Essentially this is a book which charts how life and culture in a country changes due to politics and war, giving the reader a fascinating insight into a country which we all know of but know little about.
The beginning of Csardas may seem a little slow to some readers as it sets the scene within Hungary at the beginning of the twentieth century and introduces the key characters, but this is necessary as it gives a great foundation for the engrossing story which follows. This is a book which I have read a number of times and no doubt will return to again in the future.
If you like well-written epic stories based on historical fact then Csardas is for you.
Csardas is available on Amazon
You can find out about other books by Diane Pearson here
August 2017 – First Of The Tudors by Joanna Hickson
Jasper Tudor, son of Queen Catherine and her second husband, Owen Tudor, has grown up far from the intrigue of the royal court. But after he and his brother Edmund are summoned to London, their half-brother, King Henry VI, takes a keen interest in their future.
Bestowing Earldoms on them both, Henry also gives them the wardship of the young heiress Margaret Beaufort. Although she is still a child, Jasper becomes devoted to her and is devastated when Henry arranges her betrothal to Edmund.
He seeks solace in his estates and in the arms of Jane Hywel, a young Welsh woman who offers him something more meaningful than a dynastic marriage. But passion turns to jeopardy for them both as the Wars of the Roses wreak havoc on the realm. Loyal brother to a fragile king and his domineering queen, Marguerite of Anjou, Jasper must draw on all his guile and courage to preserve their throne − and the Tudor destiny…
‘First Of The Tudors’ is a sequel to two novels about Catherine of Valois by Joanna Hickson (‘The Agincourt Bride’ and ‘The Tudor Bride’), but you do not have to have read these to enjoy ‘First Of The Tudors’ which can be read as a stand-alone novel. The author cleverly interweaves the backstory of Jasper Tudor and his family into this captivating and exciting novel to give a full understanding of previous events without slowing the pace of the story.
As with all good historical fiction this book weaves together historical figures and fictional characters to give a rich tapestry of life in another time and place. Ms Hickson accomplishes this by the clever use of two narrators – Jasper Tudor and his mistress Jane Hywel. Although Jane is a fictional character it is known that Jasper had children and so the creation of a mistress who cares for the young Henry Tudor is not unbelievable. In introducing Jane into her novel the author brings a balance between court life and intrigue, the domestic life and childhood of the young boy who was to grow up to be Henry VII, and how the events which led to the Wars of the Roses impacted on both spheres of Jasper’s life.
Ms Hickson peoples her novel with many historical figures from Jasper Tudor, the little known figure behind the rise of one of the greatest dynasties in British history, to Margaret Beaufort who enters the novel as an innocent and vulnerable girl yet grows to be a strong and influential individual capable of clever political manipulation to protect her beloved son, Henry. Henry VII is often overshadowed by his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I so it is interesting to see how, as a boy, he was shaped by his situation, his mother, and his uncle into a young man who would be able to go on to found a dynasty; I look forward to finding out more about his life in the sequel to ‘First Of The Tudors’, which is due to be published next year.
‘First Of The Tudors’ is a character driven novel which paints a totally believable picture of life in the fifteenth century thanks to the meticulous research of the author. Her language is free-flowing and emotive, and her descriptions of place clearly recognisable to anyone who has visited any of the locations mentioned (Pembroke Castle, for example). It is the mark of a good writer of historical fiction that Ms Hickson is able to present a totally believable interpretation of a known historical story by the inclusion of fictional characters and speech without detracting from the facts as they are known. I found it interesting that the author chose to present this story through the eyes of the enigmatic figure of Jasper Tudor, a man who is rarely studied yet played such an incredibly important role when he became protector of his young nephew Henry VII at a time of incredible danger for the Lancastrians, and continued to lend advice and support for many years to come.
If you enjoy a multi-faceted view of history which brings to life people and places which have, for many years, been left in the shadows, then ‘First Of The Tudors’ is the book for you.
First Of The Tudors is available on Amazon
You can find out more about Joanna Hickson here
September 2017 – At Break Of Day by Elizabeth Speller
In the summer of 1913, the world seems full of possibility for four very different young men.
Young Jean-Baptiste dreams of the day he’ll leave his Picardy home and row down-river to the sea.
Earnest and hard-working Frank has come to London to take up an apprenticeship in Regent Street. His ambitions are self-improvement, a wife and, above all, a bicycle.
Organ scholar Benedict is anxious yet enthralled by the sensations of his synaesthesia. He is uncertain both about God and the nature of his friendship with the brilliant and mercurial Theo.
Harry has turned his back on his wealthy English family, has a thriving business in New York and a beautiful American wife. But his nationality is still British.
Three years later, on the first of July 1916, their lives have been taken in entirely unexpected directions. Now in uniform they are waiting for dawn on the battlefield of the Somme. The generals tell them that victory will soon be theirs but the men are accompanied by regrets, fears and secrets as they move towards the line.
1st July 1916 will always be remembered as the day that the Battle of the Somme began, a day of appalling loss of life in the midst of terrible confusion. At Break Of Day is the story of what led four young men to be there on the Somme on that day, and what happened to them. As you begin to learn about these young men you discover why they joined up and what led them, inexorably, to be in that place at that time; and as you read you know that, statistically they will not all survive to the end of this story.
Ms Speller introduces us to four very different young men, giving each his own distinctive voice in the narrative and crafting believable characters whom it is easy to sympathise with. It takes great skill to write about four main characters using slightly different styles in a way that makes them believable and yet very distinct for the reader, so avoiding any possible confusion. As the story moves towards its climax the lives of the protagonists cross briefly and often unknowingly. This had the potential to feel contrived and weaken the story line, but the author’s deft handling of the narrative made it all seem so natural – after all these four disparate characters are no different to those thousands of young men from so many different places and backgrounds who did, in reality, find themselves in that same place on that same day with such tragic consequences.
Many of us know about the First World War from documentaries, photographs and the poems written in the trenches, and At Break Of Day certainly evokes that sense of a landscape of mud and craters, barbed wire and fortified positions, horror and despair. I felt it was a clever plotline for Ms Speller to have her French soldier, Jean-Baptiste, growing up on the banks of the Somme as we see how the beautiful pastoral home that he loves is changed beyond all recognition by the terrible destruction of the First World War, and it is not difficult to see this as a metaphore for the way the Battle of the Somme changed men of hope and vitality into wounded and scared men who would never be the same again, if they survived at all.
The final section of this novel brings our characters together on that one fateful day. Here Ms Speller describes the trenches and no man’s land; the officers, soldiers, and medics; the fear and confusion. This section, like the remainder of the novel, is well researched and gives an insight into a little known soldier – the cycle messengers and their folding bicycles which they often carried over the rough terrain as they struggled to deliver orders in a sea of confusion. It is research which truly enhances the novel without ever being heavy or slowing the storyline.
At Break Of Day re-creates for us an image of life at the beginning of the 20th century with all its sense of hope and promise, and then shows how that hope and promise was shattered. It encapsulates the fragmented nature of the battlefield and so evokes some understanding of what it might have felt like to be a soldier during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is an intensely moving novel though never sentimental and although it is, finally, about death and destruction, it is also about family and friendships and love. Reading this novel is not always easy but it is something which I would recommend as a reminder to all of the utter futility of war.
At Break Of Day can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here
October 2017 – Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution. Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.
Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. But she’s about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.
Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice …
Sashenka is a classic historical fiction novel focusing on the lives of a family across generations. Encompassing the story of Russia through the 20th century Mr Montefiore has woven a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of Soviet Russia and its impact on Sashenka, the daughter of a wealthy family, who embraces the message of equality within the communist doctrine. As with all good books in this genre a number of historical figures are featured, and it is their interaction with fictional characters which is so appealing – you can know the history of Russia, but the way it impacts on this fictional family is new to you and, as such, draws you in.
As always, Mr Motefiore has conducted detailed research into the period he is writing about. The description of St Petersburg under the last of the Tsars gives an insight into two very different Russias – high society with its materialism and decadence, coupled with the secret police and their attempts to destroy the fledgling communist party set against the extreme poverty of millions of women and children whose men are sent to fight in the First World War. The novel then leaps forward to the Soviet period under Stalin and focuses on the fear and insecurity of people like Sashenka, people who have been loyal communists from the very beginning yet are just as likely to suffer under Stalin’s mercurial rule. The final section is moving in the way it portrays life after communism, the search of people who lived through difficult times for those they loved and lost, most not expecting any kind of reunion but just wanting to know what happened to their families.
The author of Sashenka has created believable characters who can be idealistic yet brutal, worldly yet naïve, and who it is easy to sympathise with. This is not a comfortable novel to read, at times it can be quite brutal, but to omit such sections would give a false picture of those times in Russia and do a great disservice to the real people on whose lives these fictional characters are based. The style of Mr Montefiore’s writing is clear and precise at times but can then switch to a description of deep love and passion, whether between a man and woman or a woman for her children, and as such the book has a great emotional impact.
Sashenka is a novel full of plot twists and turns, it is well-paced and vivid, complex and passionate, and incredible evocative of time and place with its accurate historical backgound; in all a gripping read which I would recommend to anyone with a love of historical fiction or of Russia.
Sashenka can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Simon Sebag Montefiore here
November 2017 – The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff
(New York Times Bestseller)
In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.
Passing through the woods is a German circus, led by the heroic Herr Neuhoff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze – under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.
Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another…or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.
In this novel Noa, a Dutch teenager who falls pregnant after a one-night stand with a German soldier, is disowned by her family and forced to give up her baby. She later comes across a train pulling a cattle truck full of Jewish babies en-route to a concentration camp, and impulsively takes a child – partly because of her horror at the situation and partly because of the loss of her own child which has left her feeling guilty and bereft. Noa gets lost in a snow storm and expects to die, but is rescued by a travelling circus where she makes a strange alliance with Astrid who has her own complicated history as a Jew who had once been married to a German officer. The premise of this story may seem far-fetched but, surprisingly, it is based on a number of true stories from the Second World War. In her notes at the end of the novel Ms Jenoff explains how she came across two stories in the Yad Vashem archives whilst doing research for her job as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. The first story was an account of a boxcar full of babies being sent to a concentration camp, the second was the story of a German circus which had sheltered Jews during the war (the owner, Adolf Althoff, was named Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem). The author has taken these stories and woven them together to create a fictional circus with characters and incidents which give us a glimpse of the fear and hardship of those who put humanity above nationality during one of the darkest periods of the 20th century.
Using parallel narratives Ms Jenoff tells an inspiring story of two very different women brought together by war; characters who are believable because they are so flawed – capable of generosity and selflessness at times, and at other times quite reckless and selfish; women who are changed for the better by the tragedies they have to endure. I must admit that I found Noa’s almost instant love for Luc, and his for her, rather improbable; for me this is the weakest part of the novel but, setting that aside, it does help the author to explore one or two other themes connected to war and conflict, particularly how a family (in this case Luc’s) can be divided by their beliefs and by what they feel is the best way for them to protect the people around them. Noa also seemed rather reckless at times as she knowingly did things which could jeapordise the safety of others but, having said that, one must remember that the character is just seventeen years old and I’m sure that the characteristic traits of a teenager could not be totally surpressed even during a time of war! The focus of this novel is on the relationship of these two women rather than the war itself, and I find this to be one of the strengths of the book. The two women journey from jealousy and suspicion to a grudging respect, and then even love for each other.
Ms Jennoff has also shown a detailed knowledge of circus life in her writing. The atmosphere of the circus ring is vividly evoked – the excitement and glamour as seen from the perspective of the customers. Yet this is well contrasted with life behind the scenes – the shabbiness, the hard work, the lack of privacy, the monotony. The author also conveys how life became much more difficult for German circuses during the war as restrictions were placed on them by the Nazis, yet the determination that ‘the show must go on’ shines through, particularly as the circus brings a feeling of normality and escapism to the people of towns and villages living under German occupation.
‘The Orphan’s Tale’ has a well-structured plot which is well paced with the tension rising steadily to the ultimate climax in the big top. Interestingly the pivitol role is a baby who has no words to speak and no actions which influence the tale; the purpose of his character is, in my view, to be a symbol for all those who were victims of the Nazis. The child represents every Jew, or gypsy, or homosexual, or disabled person taken by the regime; it doesn’t really matter who he is or where he came from, the underlying current of this novel is that he should survive to tell the tale and to live a life denied to so many others. ‘The Orphan’s Tale’ is historical fiction with a focus on how ordinary people survive during times of conflict and upheaval rather than on the key events of the war. If you are fond of character driven historical novels you will probably enjoy this.
The Orphan’s Tale can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Ms Jenoff here
December 2017 – Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode. Set in the 1840s when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s now legendary ball, one family’s life will change for ever.
Right from the start Belgravia immerses the reader in life in Victorian times with its detailed descriptions of two families. The initial scenes at a grand ball on the eve of Waterloo cleverly introduce the families who will become the main protagonists two decades later, as well as giving an initial insight into a society where class and position were all important. But things were changing in the nineteenth century, and this novel deftly portrays the currents of prejudice faced by wealthy self-made families when they came into contact with those with inherited wealth. This conflict is the backdrop to a story of love and loss, hope and fear, prosperity and debt, and as such it draws us in.
As always, Mr Fellowes has created a cast of characters who are all too human, with all the strengths and foibles which we possess ourselves. We can feel sympathy for some whilst others draw feelings of anger or even contempt from us as they live life in their ivory towers, expecting everything but giving nothing in return. The detailed research conducted by the author places these characters in an authentic historical setting where such behaviour was the norm, and it is a testament to skilled writing that we see the events of the novel through the eyes of Victorians and not our own with our two hundred years of hindsight. Belgravia immerses us in the past with its descriptions of houses, parties, costumes and transport of a bygone age; I found the description of the development of central London and its architecture during that period particularly interesting.
As with Downton Abbey Mr Fellowes cleverly interweaves the lives of the wealthy with those of their servants creating a novel which is well-paced with interesting plot twists to keep the reader wanting to find out more. With a deft touch the author gives us light romance, humour, mystery, suspense, scandal, conflict, and murderous intent. Belgravia is a classic love story which would appeal to anyone who loves books in a similar style to that of Jane Austin.
Mr Fellowes is able to bring the past alive for us is a way which helps us to understand the social and political conflicts of a time which, in some ways, is not too different from our own where reputation is all important for many people. If you like historical fiction, and enjoyed Downton Abbey, then I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy Belgravia.
Belgravia can be found on Kindle
You can find out more about Belgravia here
January 2016 – House Of The Hanged by Mark Mills
France, 1935: At the poor man’s end of the Riviera sits Le Rayol, a haven for artists, expatriates and refugees. Here, a world away from the rumblings of a continent heading towards war, Tom Nash has rebuilt his life after a turbulent career in the Secret Intelligence Service. His past, though, is less willing to leave him behind. When a midnight intruder tries to kill him, Tom knows it is just a matter of time before another assassination attempt is made. Gathered at Le Rayol for the summer months are all those he holds most dear, including his beloved goddaughter Lucy. Reluctantly, Tom comes to believe that one of them must have betrayed him. If he is to live, Tom must draw his enemy out, but at what cost to himself and the people he loves…?
House of the Hanged is a thriller with the majority of the story set in the mid-1930’s when the threat of war hangs over Europe once more, but no one is sure whether it will be fascist Germany who is the enemy, or communist Russia, or maybe a combination of the two.
The novel begins almost twenty years earlier in revolutionary Russia with the main character, Tom, failing to save the life of the woman he loves. The story swiftly moves on to the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War where Tom has given up working for British Intelligence and settled down in the south of France. As the novel progresses we learn more about Tom’s work, how it affected him, and how he is now trying to redeem himself, put the past behind him, and enjoy a life of peace. Each year Tom invites friends to join him at his villa for the summer; he also extends a welcome to refugees, particularly from Russia, as though his efforts to help them may in some way atone for not saving his love. After the thrilling opening the pace of the novel slows as we settle into the relaxed lifestyle of cocktail parties, sailing, swimming etc. in the south of France, but there is already a feeling that this year will not be like those which have gone before. When an attempt is made on Tom’s life the pace quickens again as he begins to question those around him – one of the people he is close to, perhaps someone he loves, has betrayed him.
Mr Mills has created a cast of well-drawn and believable characters in this novel, and the reader will enjoy learning about them and how they could be involved in the attempts to kill Tom. Is the threat to him linked to the current political climate, or has his past in Russia finally caught up with him? (Don’t worry, no spoilers here!) Tom is so unsure of the people around him that he keeps the danger to him a secret; all is calm on the surface, but the author has deftly created an undercurrent of fear and suspense which draws the reader in, helped in no part by his skilled writing, particularly in dialogue. Mr Mills has obviously researched this period of European history and has therefore been able to contrast the relaxed lifestyle of a particular social group on the French Riviera with the tension of a continent edging ever closer to all-out war. He has an evocative style which leaves the reader feeling immersed in a particular place and time – it is almost possible to feel the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the coolness of the water and the everchanging breeze – yet, at the heart, this is a well-paced cat and mouse thriller in which the pace is not slowed by the historical detail.
House of the Hanged is a classic spy story which would make a great holiday read for anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries and intrigue. I will certainly be trying other books by this author.
House Of The Hanged can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Mark Mills and his work here
February 2018 – Shadows and Strongholds by Elizabeh Chadwick
An awkward misfit, nine-year-old Fulke FitzWarin leaves his family for the household of Joscelin de Dinan, Lord of Ludlow. Once there, he begins to learn the knightly arts which he desperately hopes will free him from the shadows of his past.
Joscelin’s youngest daughter, Hawise, befriends Fulke when he most needs it. But as the years pass, an enemy to Ludlow changes their friendship unalterably, forcing them onto opposite sides of a cruel divide.
When the menace to Ludlow intensifies, Fulke must confront the future head on or fail on all counts, all the while desperate to know if Hawise stands with or against him.
Shadows and Strongholds is the early part of the story of a family who appear in Ms Chadwick’s novel Lords of The White Castle, which is itself based on the history of the FitzWarin family as it was told in a rhyming story written in the thirteenth century – the sort of story told to pass long winter evenings in the great hall. After completing that book the author felt compelled to tell the story of the early life of the key characters, and I am glad that she did! This is a tale steeped in the tensions and conflicts of a time which may not be well known to many readers but which is a fascinating period of English history, telling the story of the lords of Ludlow and Whittington against the broader backdrop of a country riven by civil war. The competing claims for lordship of Ludlow and Whittington castles are well documented, as is the outcome (no spoiler here!), but what is compelling for the reader is the fact that many of the key players in this novel are unknown to us so we don’t know how they will be affected by events, creating an exciting plot line which draws you in.
The original writer of the medieval tale is known to have been free with chronological order and some facts, Ms Chadwick has often followed his lead as this creates a great story line, and as Shadows and Strongholds is a work of historical fiction most readers will be happy with that. After all, this is not an academic historical account of the times but, instead, the author immerses the reader in the sights and sounds of a bygone age, the structure of a society which is unfamiliar to us, the violent conflicts between barons and those in authority which would be impossible in England today but which moulded and influenced the political scene in a much more turbulent time.
Those who are already familiar with Ms Chadwick’s work will recognise her style in this novel – a well written character driven story based on detailed research. The characters are well rounded, with the young Marion in particular drawing a sympathetic response despite her actions (which stem from a traumatic event in her childhood). In the modern world Marion would have been given psychiatric counselling and would most likely have turned out very differently, but understanding of mental problems in the twelfth century was limited, and Ms Chadwick has used this to develop a character whose interactions with those around her are pivotal to the plot. As well as Marion and the other characters about whom we know little but their names there are also brief appearances in Shadows and Strongholds by key players in history, such as Henry II, and the interplay of these characters is what makes for an exciting story. Added to this is a strong evocation of period through the careful use of language with the novel written in an easy to read style yet utilising a number of medieval words for clothing and objects which we no longer have, further infusing the reader with a sense of time and place.
Shadows and Strongholds will appeal to both fans of Ms Chadwick and those new to her work. If you enjoy good historical fiction, politics and battles, family life and romance, good strong plot-lines, well rounded characters and authentic dialogue then this book is for you. I enjoyed it, and Lords ofThe White Castle is now on my list of books to read.
Shadows and Strongholds can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Elizabeth Chadwick here
March 2018 – The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory
‘How long do I have?’ I force a laugh.
‘Not long,’ he says very quietly. ‘They have confirmed your sentence of death. You are to be beheaded tomorrow. We don’t have long at all.’
Jane Grey was Queen of England for nine days. Using her position as cousin to the deceased king, her father and his co-conspirators put her on the throne ahead of the king’s half-sister Mary, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her crown and locked Jane in the Tower. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block. There Jane turned her father’s greedy, failed grab for power into her own brave and tragic martyrdom.
‘Learn you to die’ is the advice that Jane gives in a letter to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and find love. But her lineage makes her a threat to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and, when Mary dies, to her sister Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a potential royal heir before she does. So when Katherine’s secret marriage is revealed by her pregnancy, she too must go to the Tower.
‘Farewell, my sister,’ writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary finds it easy to keep secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After watching her sisters defy the queen, Mary is aware of her own perilous position as a possible heir to the throne. But she is determined to command her own destiny and be the last Tudor to risk her life in matching wits with her ruthless and unforgiving cousin Elizabeth.
The Last Tudor is a thoroughly absorbing novel which tells the story of the three Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary – and the roles they played during the lives of the last generation of Tudors – King Edward, Queen May and Queen Elizabeth. Cleverly crafted, Ms Gregory gives each girl her own voice and they each tell their story in the first person. The style of writing is different for each of the sisters which deftly portrays their differing characters and beliefs. I am well acquainted with the story of Jane Grey but knew little about her sisters; the author has produced a book here which focuses on these relatively unknown siblings and through their descriptions of their feelings for the important people of the time – love, envy, anger, hatred – we are given an insight into the events which shaped the Tudor dynasty. This is a very clever personalisation which makes the history accessible and never dull or slowing the pace of the story.
Jane Grey is the eldest, she has strongly held Protestant beliefs and holds anyone of the Catholic faith in contempt. In the telling of her story she portrays herself as a rather impatient young woman who says that she is dutiful and humble yet comes across as slightly arrogant. Jane truly believes that the reformed church is the only way to salvation and, as such, pities those who will never get to heaven. Religion is the focus of her life and she is politically naïve which makes her the perfect pawn for those who wish to bypass Princess Mary as heir to the Tudor throne. When Jane’s cousin, King Edward, dies and she is placed on the throne it is obvious that she is unwilling to play the part yet unable to do anything else. Her simple belief as a sixteen year old girl that everything will turn out right in the end is both touching and frustrating, and leaves you wondering if she really thought this or just convinced herself of the matter as reality was too frightening to contemplate. A rude awakening awaits the young queen when Princess Mary comes to claim what is rightfully hers…
The middle of the Grey sisters, Katherine, comes across as materialistic, vain and arrogant; she is fiercely jealous of Elizabeth I and feels deliberately slighted by her. Katherine’s belief that she is the true heir to the Tudor throne prompts her to marry without the queen’s permission; after all, in her view Elizabeth is an illigitemate usurper, and even Henry VIII had her declared as such by Parliament at one time. Katherine’s marriage leads to trouble for her and her family, and as the years go by there is a change in her character as her belief that she has been wrongly treated affects her physical and mental health…
The youngest sister, Mary, was very small (barely 4 feet tall) and initially seems to have stayed under the radar of Elizabeth I (no pun intended). However, Mary follows in the footsteps of Katherine, believing herself so insignificant that the queen will not care who she marries. I must admit to a little frustration at her actions, but the truth is that she did behave as Ms Gregory tells (although the historical fact is rather sketchy in places). Mary develops from a small, insignificant and unimportant courtier into a woman with surprising courage and strength of character, and a determination not to suffer the same fate as her sisters…
The Last Tudor is interesting in its depiction of Elizabeth I as seen from the perspective of her cousins – a selfish and troubled woman who seems to care little for the future of England. As such, it is a novel which portrays the difficulties of history – we can look back in time to individual views of events but it is not always possible to ascertain the truth, particularly of people’s feelings and motives. Ms Gregory has conducted a great deal of research whilst writing this novel (some of the letters of the Grey sisters are included at the end of the book) and gives an engrossing view of what happened and why from the perspective of the Grey family; others, of course, would have seen things in a very different light.
As with all Ms Gregory’s novels this one places the reader squarely in a time and place in history with vivid descriptions of life at the Tudor court – the food and drink, the revels, the political intrigue, the fears, the treasons. The author has used very skilled writing to tell the story of Elizabeth and her advisors, the search for a husband and an heir, the delicate political situation between England, Scotland, France and Spain, in such a way as to convey an understanding of the scene quite briefly (as it is the backdrop to the story of the sisters not the main plot), yet in enough detail for the reader to understand its impact on the three young women.
The Last Tudor is one of the best historical novels I have read in a long time which gives us a clever telling of the politics of the court of Elizabeth I through the lives of three young women, and which has made me rethink some of my previous views on the glorious reign of Elizabeth I, as such it has inspired me to look once more at that whole period of history. If you like historical fiction and have enjoyed books by Philippa Gregory in the past I can guarantee that you will enjoy this latest offering. And if you have never read one of her novels? Then this would be a very good place to start.
The Last Tudor can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Philippa Gregory and her books here
April 2018 – Small Wars by Sadie Jones
Hal Treherne is a soldier on the brink of a brilliant career. Impatient to see action, his other commitment in life is to his beloved wife, Clara, and when Hal is transferred to Cyprus she and their twin daughters join him. But the island is in the heat of the emergency; the British are defending the colony against Cypriots – schoolboys and armed guerillas alike – battling for union with Greece.
Clara shares Hal’s sense of duty and honour; she knows she must settle down, make the best of things, smile. But action changes Hal, and the atrocities he is drawn into take him not only further from Clara but himself, too; a betrayal that is only the first step down a dark path.
Many people only have a limited understanding of the details of what is called the ‘Cyprus Emergency’ of the 1950’s which is the focus of the novel Small Wars. In 1914 Cyprus went from being a part of the Ottoman Empire to a British Protectorate, then a Crown Colony in 1925. From 1955 onwards there was a concerted effort by Cypriots to move from British rule and unite with Greece but, rather than unification, the end of the ‘emergency’ resulted in the creation of an independent Republic of Cyprus. Ms Jones has set Small Wars in the middle of this conflict and deftly incorporates the historical background into her novel. There are no long passages explaining the situation, but through the actions and dialogue of the main characters the reader comes to understand the complex politics with two Cypriot groups – Greek and Turkish – each striving for independence from Britain yet also opposing each other as the Turkish Cypriots did not want a union with Greece. It is a compelling story.
The British treatment of the Cypriots was brutal at times and over the years many previously supressed reports have come to light which show an unwarranted violence towards the civilian population; it is this premise which undermines Small Wars. Hal is a career soldier, as his family have been for generations, and his whole life is built on a foundation of honesty, fairness and honour. Under his command are many soldiers doing their National Service who do not want to be in Cyprus and are just counting the days to the time they can leave the army and re-join civilian life. During his time on the island Hal witnesses the ill-treatment of civilians, the cruel treatment of prisoners (torture is not too harsh a word), and violent clashes with militant Cypriots. Hal finds it difficult to reconcile what he sees with his vision of what the army should be and, unable to do anything about it, he retreats into himself. This, in turn, places a strain on his marriage as he cannot explain his feelings to Clara, the woman he loves as much as life itself. For her part, Clara has to adjust to life on an army base where she fears for her own safety and that of her young twin girls. The emotional conflict of Hal and Clara is at the core of this novel.
Small Wars is a multi-layered story – from the well-researched historical background to the disillusionment of an army officer who comes to realises that the British Army is not what he has always imagined it to be. It is a well written novel with evocative prose describing the scenery, the horrific aftermath of violent conflict, and life on an army base in the mid-1950’s. Ms Jones also deftly handles the dialogue which is sparse at times, reflecting the inner turmoil of people who know each other well but just cannot find the words to express their emotions. Yet, paradoxically, there is a tenderness and compassion at the heart of this novel which tempers the anger as the reader is drawn into the lives of a set of characters who are wholly believable; it is difficult not to be drawn to Hal and Clara in their difficult situation and find yourself hoping that they can overcome the trials that surround them and regain the love and trust which was the core of their marriage at the start of this novel.
This is, indeed, a novel about Small Wars – from national conflicts to personal relationships and, ultimately, the conflicts within ourselves; it is a well written novel, evocative of time and place yet with a theme which resonates with today’s world. A very good read and heartily recommended.
Small Wars can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Sadie Jones here
May 2018 – Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements
An enthralling adventure story, honest and powerful. The Wars of the Roses are imagined here with energy, with ferocity, with hunger to engage the reader.’ Hilary Mantel
February 1460 In the bitter dawn of a winter’s morning, a young man and a woman escape from a priory. In fear of their lives, they are forced to flee across a land ravaged by conflict.
For this is the Wars of the Roses, one of the most savage and bloody civil wars in history, where brother confronts brother, king faces king,
and Thomas and Katherine must fight – just to stay alive …
I was influenced in choosing to read this novel after seeing a glowing review of it by the historical novelist Hilary Mantel and am pleased that I followed my instincts to pick up the book. Many people only know the bare bones of the events surrounding the civil war in England known as the War of the Roses, often finding the interconnections between the royal houses confusing to follow and so giving up on the study. In his Kingmaker series Toby Clements sets out to rectify this lack of knowledge and understanding even though this first novel is not about the members of the powerful and wealthy families and factions at the pinnacle of society but the brutally hard lives of ordinary people. The main characters in Winter Pilgrims are not the key players as one might expect, but a monk and nun who have to flee for their lives; they are quite naïve in their understanding of who the people of power and ambition are, and the reader is able to gradually build up a solid understanding of the politics of the time alongside Thomas and Kit without any need for long passages of historical explanation. Yet Mr Clements has conducted an incredible amount of research into the topic which has enabled him to re-create a time full of historical detail which draws the reader in – the descriptions of a countryside ravaged by war; deserted villages; the cold, hunger and tiredness of an army on the move; the lack of medical knowledge and the primitive treatments given, all work together to give a depth of understanding of life for the ordinary man and woman which is at times harrowing and bloody yet also full of friendship, loyalty and compassion.
Alongside the realistic telling of the lives of ordinary people the author also immerses the reader in the blood and gore of 15th century warfare. The descriptions of training for the archers is very detailed whilst the skirmishes and battles themselves are harrowing. The elements of the cut and thrust of the fighting are incredibly accurate, both in the description of the physical fighting and in the actual historical confrontations – the author holds nothing back in writing about the battle of Towton which brings this novel to a close (and which is closely based on historical records of the biggest and bloodiest battle to have ever been fought on English soil); it is one of the best descriptions of the chaos, butchery, exhaustion and horror of battle interspersed with moments of calm detachment and observation that I have ever read in a work of historical fiction.
As well as accurate portrayals of what was happening during the War of the Roses Mr Clements also brings to life some of the key historical characters of the time including Edward Earl of March (18 -19 years old in this novel and destined to be the future king Edward VI) and the Earl of Warwick (known to history as ‘the Kingmaker’), as well as many more of the Yorkist leaders (we find out little about the Lancastrian leadership as this novel is told from a Yorkist perspective). These important men appear infrequently in the plotline of this novel which cleverly brings together what life was like for men in all strata of society. The stories of Thomas and Kit are interwoven with the struggles of nobles to hang on to their lands during times of lawlessness and confusion, with some holding fast to their allegiances and responsibilities whilst others frequently change sides whenever it suits them in order to increase their own lands and power.
I must admit that I found some of the plot for Thomas and Kit a little far-fetched at times but no more so than in books by Conn Iggulden or Bernard Cornwell, and it is possible to stretch imagination on occasions to fulfil the key purpose of an historical novelist – the creation of a good story. The fact that the couple have been confined in religious institutions means that they are inexperienced in the wider world and so we are able to discover more about religion at the time as well as the spiritual and philosophical conflicts which are a part of the journey of these characters.
Some readers may find the fact that this novel is written in the present tense difficult at times, but I find that, as the story progresses, it helps to add a sense of immediacy to the actions and emotions of the carefully created cast of characters and as such becomes an integral part of the storytelling. Mr Clements uses all his skills of writing to create a world full of excitement and contradiction, gory battle scenes and strong supportive relationships, and an honest telling of the vagaries of human character. As a novel Winter Pilgrims is well-researched and intelligent entertainment and will be enjoyed by anyone who is a fan of such writers as Conn Iggulden and Bernard Cornwell.
Winter Pilgrims can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Toby Clements here
June 2018 – A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: the tale of Lata – and her mother’s – attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great general election and the chance to map its own destiny.
The search for ‘A Suitable Boy’ for Lata to marry is the over-arching theme which runs through this novel, yet the book is really so much more than that. Set in an India learning to stand alone after independence this novel is a true saga, bringing together diverse characters from all levels of society whose lives and interactions leave us with a surprising depth of understanding of the historical and political situation at that time. To give insights into the religious conflicts Mr Seth also introduces the reader to two families – one Muslim and one Hindu – who have been friends for many years. Their friendship continues despite the religious rioting and death which accompanied Partition and it is, in fact, an affair of the heart which threatens to shatter the relationship. We are also introduced to a range of characters from different levels of society – politicians, businessmen, landowners, poor workmen, and the untouchables. Anyone who has ever lived in India will recognise the truth of these characterisations and realise that in many ways the years since Partition have been slow to bring change to this ancient structure of Indian society.
In his novel Mr Seth has created a world of closely connected people with believable characters, and many readers will recognise aspects of themselves in the well scripted dialogue and familial descriptions. From the over-anxious mother to the over-bearing politician, the bullying brother to the pushy friend, the man obsessed by love to the woman who prefers her independence, it is easy to become attached to many of these characters as they go about their everyday lives. Alongside this A Suitable Boy weaves a rich tapestry of the complexities of Indian society – the religious festivals which underpin all aspects of life, the family structures, the duties of sons and daughters to their parents, the complex and sometimes corrupt political system, arranged marriages, caste, education – the list is endless and endlessly fascinating.
At it’s heart this is a novel about relationships and the conflicts that arise when we place personal freedom and self-fulfilment against our duty and responsibilities to others. The characters created by Mr Seth are multi-faceted and none of them are completely good or completely bad; they are real people and as such the author does not offer any easy answers to the conflicts which they face, just as there are no easy answers in real life. What comes across clearly is that the decisions which we make, whether at a personal or political level, have consequences for ourselves and others, and sometimes the only thing we can do is to choose the path of least harm as we make our way through life.
As well as the clever characterisation and plotting in A Suitable Boy Mr Seth also uses his considerable skill with words to paint a picture of life in India – the heat and dust, flora and fauna, fashion and food, all are cleverly integrated into the novel in such a way that anyone who knows India will easily recognise the land and its people, and those who are new to that country will come away from the book with clear mental images of what makes India such a fascinating place.
Although I have enjoyed reading it I would give two caveats to my recommendation of A Suitable Boy. Firstly, it is a wonderfully complex novel full of rich and nuanced language, but it is a saga in the true sense of the word (the edition which I read is 1,350 pages long). If you like a story which can be read in a day or two then this book is not for you. Secondly, there are passages of prose telling something of the history of the times immediately after Independence, and also a number of political speeches which do tend to slow the pace at times; it is, however, possible to skim over some of these without any loss to the story. There is also a fair amount of Indian vocabulary for the reader to contend with and a wordlist at the end of the book would probably be useful. Having said that, if you enjoy well written books which cover all aspects of life from birth to death, love, friendship, jealousy, loss, grief etc., and are willing to put in the time, then you will enjoy reading A Suitable Boy.
Please note that there are no spoilers here; if you want to know if Lata and her mother found A Suitable Boy you will have to read the book!
A Suitable Boy can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Vikram Seth here
July 2018 – The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson
It is late summer in East Sussex, 1914. Amidst the season’s splendour, fiercely independent Beatrice Nash arrives in the coastal town of Rye to fill a teaching position at the local grammar school. There she is taken under the wing of formidable matriarch Agatha Kent, who, along with her charming nephews, tries her best to welcome Beatrice to a place that remains stubbornly resistant to the idea of female teachers. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For the unimaginable is coming – and soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small town goes to war.
What a gem of a book! This is the first time I have read anything by Helen Simonson and it reminds me very much of the novels of Jane Austen. Like the best books by Austen The Summer Before The War is filled with a range of characters who are portrayed with a subtle blend of warmth and wit. From the strongly independent heroine to the young men looking for a wife, and from a formidable aunt to the ‘society ladies’ with their fears of scandal it is easy to both laugh and cry with the inhabitants of Rye during that last halcyon summer before the outbreak of war and the loss of innocence, the innocence both of individuals and of a society which was already on the cusp of change.
This novel has a strong plotline which brings to life the evolving world of the early twentieth century, its tight dialogue a good vehicle for the portrayal of social norms, women’s suffrage, divorce, upward mobility, pregnancy outside of marriage, and a hint of forbidden homosexuality. Through her carefully crafted prose Ms Simonson brings to life the small provincial town of Rye in the months before the war, which makes the changes forced upon it and the losses it endures during the conflict all the more poignant. This depiction of Rye is mirrored in the pace of the book which may seem slow and genteel at first, but there is soon an increase of pace as war looms and personal conflicts grow, a pattern which is engrossing and draws the reader in.
The Summer Before The War is a gently satirical novel, full of wry social commentary yet with a depth and sensitivity to the writing which reflects the authors shrewd observation of people and their interactions. The slower pace and genteel setting of the first part cleverly serves to emphasise the darker times brought about by war both on the home front and in the trenches. Ms Simonson has obviously conducted a great deal of research and shows a keen understanding of this period and the impact that war had on individuals, families and communities at that time, communicating this effectively through her delightful cast of characters. She is skilled in creating an absorbing, emotional, and engaging prose that leaves us in no doubt of the heartache caused by the war across the whole social spectrum in Rye from the wealthy to the poorest boy, Snout, who embodies so many young people who lied about their age to seek adventure but found hell instead.
This novel has all the ingredients which make for a good saga – love and loss, prejudice, family conflict, hidden secrets from the past, and a lovely twist in the tail. It may not be a novel for everyone but I found the similarities to Jane Austen’s style strangly compelling, certainly anyone who enjoys Pride and Prejudice or other novels of that style will enjoy reading The Summer Before The War.
You can find out more about Helen Simonson here
The Summer Before The War can be found on Amazon
August 2018 – The Soldier’s Story by Bryan Forbes
In the uneasy post-war peace of occupied Germany, a British soldier is billeted to a bombed Hamburg hotel. Alex’s days are spent investigating Nazi war criminals, but it is a chance meeting with a German university professor in a shabby back-street bookshop that changes his life. Having befriended the professor and his wife, Alex falls in love with their only daughter, Lisa, only to discover that the professor may not be as innocent as he first appeared. The stale aftermath of a long and hideous war has left the old society in ruins. There are still many secrets to uncover and Alex has to ask himself what is more important – love or truth? As he digs deeper into the professor’s past Alex is forced to recognise that he cannot have both.
This is an absorbing novel in more ways than one. We follow Alex as his life moves from war to peace, from seeing the Germans as enemies to trying to help them on the road to recovery. When he finally leaves the armed forces Alex, like so many men who served in the Second World War, has to re-adjust to civilian life. The Lincolnshire farm where he grew up seems confining, he feels rootless and unable to find his way. In this sense ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a tale of lost youth. Interwoven with this is a love story, an English soldier falling in love with a young German woman at a time when ‘fraternisation’ was still frowned on; how would her family, and his colleagues, react? If this were not enough, a photograph from Auschwitz places Alex in an impossible situation. What should he do? Should he put his love for Lisa before justice for those who suffered and died in the war? Should he follow his heart or do his duty?
‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a well written novel, peopled with many facetted characters who struggle to do right in a world which is never simply black and white. The dialogue is engaging and believable, helping to bring the characters to life. The descriptions of bomb-damaged Berlin, the Russian sector, the drab people struggling to come to terms with defeat, all combine to give an insight into a fascinating period of history. ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is not a dry history book, although through its pages we achieve a greater understanding of the years immediately following the Second World War, the true destructiveness of conflict, and the loss of innocence which it brings. This is a great piece of historical fiction which I heartily recommend to anyone who has an interest in history, the Second World War, morality, human nature and love.
The Soldiders Story can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Bryan Forbes here
September 2018 – Munich by Robert Harris
MUNICH, SEPTEMBER 1938
Hitler is determined to start a war. Chamberlain is desperate to preserve the peace.
They will meet in a city which forever afterwards will be notorious for what is about to take place.
As Chamberlain’s plane judders over the channel and the Fuhrer’s train steams south, two young men travel with their leaders. Former friends from a more peaceful time, they are now on opposing sides.
As Britain’s darkest hour approaches, the fate of millions could depend on them – and the secrets they’re hiding.
Spying. Betrayal. Murder. Is any price too high for peace?
Any lover of 20th century history will know Neville Chamberlain’s speech declaring ‘peace for our time’ when he stepped from a plane on his return from Germany in September 1938. A year later Britain was at war with Germany and the piece of paper which Chamberlain had waved so confidently seemed worthless. History has looked on Prime Minister Chamberlain as a failure and hostage to appeasement; but was there, in fact, a different explanation for what happened at the Munich Conference?
Robert Harris has done an incredible amount of research into this period. His in-depth descriptions of characters and their motivations are based on recorded fact, as are his detailed descriptions of Munich at the height of the Nazi’s power. The introduction into this historical setting of Legat and Hartmann serves to show both sides of the conference in Munich as well as raise questions about what might have happened if the opposition to Hitler at that time had been stronger and the planned removal of Hitler had gone ahead.
Munich is not an action-packed spy thriller with lots of car chases and dead bodies, it is a more thoughtful insight into the workings of leaders and their governments as they strive to do what they believe is best for their country, even if that means hiding their true motives and objectives in order to achieve their aims. I must admit that I came away from this novel with some new questions about Neville Chamberlain and a feeling that, just perhaps, he may have been done a disservice by history.
‘Munich’ Is a well plotted novel which draws the reader in. Yes, we know the outcome of the event, but how did the leaders get there? Could things have been different and prevented the Second World War? Or was it all inevitable? If Hitler had been removed from power would Goring or Hess or Himmler have taken over and continued the Fuhrer’s plans? It is questions like this which keeps the reader turning the pages.
This novel gives us an in-depth look at what happened over four short days in 1938, our own seat at the table where the future of Europe was decided not so much by what was said and done as by what was left un-done. If you have read and enjoyed other books by Robert Harris you will not be disappointed by ‘Munich’.
You can find Munich on Amazon
You can find out more about Robert Harris here
October 2018 – The Garden Of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
“On a mountain above the clouds, in the central highlands of Malaya lived the man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”
Teoh Yun Ling was seventeen years old when she first heard about him, but a war would come, and a decade would pass before she travels up to the Garden of Evening Mists to see him, in 1951. A survivor of a brutal Japanese camp, she has spent the last few years helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, she asks the gardener, Nakamura Aritomo, to create a memorial garden for her sister who died in the camp. He refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon’ so she can design a garden herself.
Staying at the home of Magnus Pretorius, the owner of Majuba Tea Estate and a veteran of the Boer War, Yun Ling begins working in the Garden of Evening Mists. But outside in the surrounding jungles another war is raging. The Malayan Emergency is entering its darkest days, the communist-terrorists murdering planters and miners and their families, seeking to take over the country by any means, while the Malayan nationalists are fighting for independence from centuries of British colonial rule.
But who is Nakamura Aritomo, and how did he come to be exiled from his homeland? And is the true reason how Yun Ling survived the Japanese camp connected to Aritomo and the Garden of Evening Mists?
This is a novel which appears, on the surface, to have a rather simple storyline, but as the reader journeys through it page by page a subtle complexity is revealed. Through a strong description of time and place the author uncovers the history of Malaya in three distinct time periods – during the Second world War, ten years after the war, and thirty years later. The novel switches between time periods without any indication in chapter headings etc. and, at first, this is a little disconcerting; but as you move further through the book it is easy to slip from one time to another which subtly mirrors the way Yun Ling’ thoughts and memories move as she attempts to come to terms with an illness which leads to loss of memory, although sometimes there are things she deliberately chooses to try to forget and these are, paradoxically, the ones which seem to remain.
As Yun Ling thinks back over her experiences, both as a prisoner of the Japanese during the war and during the Emergency which followed, the relationships between the characters and the consequences of their actions are revealed. These individual relationships mirror those of the nations involved in the conflict – no one person or nationality is wholly good or wholly bad and Yun Ling has to struggle to accept the complex characters of the people around her, particularly the Japanese.
Tan Twan Eng has drawn on his own experiences to describe Malaya in a way which is totally believable, one can almost feel the heat, smell the vegetation, luxuriate in the cooling rain. This is seen most clearly in the Japanese garden which is slowly created and is a central feature to the story, its development mirrored in the unfolding of Yun Ling’s story, her understanding and final acceptance of all that she has experienced. The subtlety of a traditional Japanese garden presenting constantly changing vistas as you move through it is used as a perfect metaphor for the journey of Yun Ling, and our own journey, through life. The layered depths of the story are beautifully described in elegant prose which leads to an absorbing novel of personal and social transformation. Important issues are hidden beneath surface detail and it is a delight to uncover these in both the people and the land as one reads further, and deeper, into this novel.
The Garden Of Evening Mists is a beautifully written novel in which the loss of honour, dreams, and loved ones in carefully balanced by the beauty of a Japanese tea ceremony, lanterns of hope released into a dark night sky, and a beautiful garden which finally brings peace and closure. This novel will not appeal to all readers. If you like an action-packed book with a clearly defined story arc you may find this a little too much work, but if you enjoy exploring ideas of identity, love and loss, and of the interplay of pleasure and pain in the recalling of your past, then I think you will enjoy this novel. It is an intelligent read in which mysteries are slowly and carefully revealed, yet certain aspects are left deliberately obscure to allow the reader to follow their own inner journey to its conclusion. When the character Yun Ling begins her apprenticeship with Aritomo she observes him carefully and notes ‘He was similar to the boulders…only a small portion was revealed to the world, the rest buried deep within, hidden from view.’ A perfect description of this wonderful novel which masterfully allows the reader to uncover those hidden depths for themselves.
The Garden Of Evening Mists can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Tan Twan Eng here
November 2018 – ‘The General’ by C S Forester
The most vivid, moving – and devastating – word-portrait of a World War One British commander ever written.
C.S. Forester’s 1936 masterpiece follows Lt General Herbert Curzon, who fumbled a fortuitous early step on the path to glory in the Boer War. 1914 finds him an honourable, decent, brave and wholly unimaginative colonel. Survival through the early slaughters in which so many fellow-officers perished then brings him rapid promotion. By 1916, he is a general in command of 100,000 British soldiers, whom he leads through the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, a position for which he is entirely unsuited and intellectually unprepared.
Wonderfully human with Forester’s droll relish for human folly on full display, this is the story of a man of his time who is anything but wicked, yet presides over appalling sacrifice and tragedy. In his awkwardness and his marriage to a Duke’s unlovely, unhappy daughter, Curzon embodies Forester’s full powers as a storyteller. His half-hero is patriotic, diligent, even courageous, driven by his sense of duty and refusal to yield to difficulties. But also powerfully damned is the same spirit which caused a hundred real-life British generals to serve as high priests at the bloodiest human sacrifice in the nation’s history. A masterful and insightful study about the perils of hubris and unquestioning duty in leadership, The General is a fable for our times.
The British generals who served during the First World War have a reputation for incompetence and a callous disregard for human life, yet until the late 1920’s they were recognised as heroes – 1 million people went to London to pay their respects at the funeral of General Haig in 1928. It was not until the late 1920’s that novels began to appear criticising the war and those who led it, and it was in this climate that C S Forester wrote ‘The General’ in an attempt to explain what made men launch such catastrophic attacks against the enemy time and time again.
This is a story of human nature rather than military strategy, revealing the thought processes and perceived obligations of an officer during the First World War with such clarity that it reads more like a biography than fiction. Mr Forester has written a well-researched revelation of life on the front line, getting to the heart of the conversations of soldiers and the planning of the disastrous attacks which killed so many. The development of tactics and arms from the end of the use of cavalry through the introduction of machine guns, reconnaissance planes, and tanks is shown through the perfectly normal feelings of scepticism which always accompany new ideas and inventions. ‘The General’, which takes Curzon from South Africa to northern Europe, gives the reader some understanding of how difficult it would have been for officers of the ‘old school’ who had last fought during the Boer War to face the nightmare of trench warfare which the author describes in word pictures which are all the more real for their simplicity.
The character of Curzon is rather awkward, socially limited and lacking in imagination, yet he is single-minded in his loyalty to his men and his desire to be the best officer possible. He is respected and admired by his men, a dedicated and hard-working professional, but his tragedy is that he is unable to grasp the changing nature of warfare and use it to his advantage even though he does take the unusual step of appointing civilian conscripts rather than the traditional officer class to carry out new roles in logistics, chemistry, train scheduling etc.
This novel criticises the lack of imagination in the planning of the war – if an attack fails then just do the same thing again but with more men and more guns. Curzon sees the tragic and appalling loss of life as indispensable to victory and so accepts them in a way which may seem callous to us but which is perhaps intended to show how each aspect of the General’s role was compartmentalised as he focused on final victory, he buries his reaction to the death of his men in order to carry out his duty and ‘finish the job’. The reader has to face the same dilemmas as the General himself – should Curzon have surrendered positions to save lives? Would defeat have been better?
The General shows that the perception of cowardly generals leading from behind the lines is unjust. In fact most generals visited the front lines regularly, for some it was almost every day, and more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured during the course of the war. A General serving during the First World War would have been considerably closer to the action than generals are today. (About 12% of ordinary soldiers in the British army were killed during World War 1 as opposed to 17% of its officers).
The General paints a portrait of a man who was not wicked or incompetent and who elicits some sympathy from the reader. It is not really possible to love Curzon, but he can be seen as a tragic figure who did the best he could for his country in a particular time and place. As we are currently commemorating the centenary of the ending of the First World War in November 1918 it is perhaps a fitting time to read this novel and reflect.
‘The General’ can be found on Amazon
December 2018 – Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan
A sweeping epic historical novel about Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most compelling characters in British history.
1915: While the war in Europe escalates, a young intelligence officer named Thomas Edward Lawrence is in Cairo, awaiting his chance for action. His superiors, however, have consigned him to the Map Room at GCHQ. But there’s more to Lieutenant Lawrence than meets the eye. A man of immense energy, he runs a network of agents across the Levant. Lawrence is convinced that an Arab revolt is the only way to remove the Ottoman presence, and leave a free self-governed Arabia. Soon, alarming reports reach him of trouble in Persia, orchestrated by infamous German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss. Intent on taking down Wassmuss and, at the same time, unlocking the secret of his success, Lawrence assembles a small group and travels to Persia…
Anyone who has an interest in the First World War, the Middle East or T E Lawrence (as I do) will enjoy this book. Contemporary accounts of the life of Lawrence were often contradictory, and few people would ever have known of his actions if not for the journalist Lowell Thomas who is responsible for bringing the hero whom he called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to public attention. Yet, 100 years later, the real man still remains elusive and enigmatic. Empire of Sand is a work of historical fiction although much of the novel is based on events which really happened to Lawrence (destroying railways, working with the Bedouins etc.), and the tactics he used in his unconventional warfare, which are mentioned here, are still used today. In its way this novel gives us a real insight into the complex character of Lawrence and how he came to be involved in such important events in the evolution of the Middle East as we know it today.
Mr Ryan has included in his novel a number of real people such as the German Wilhelm Wassmuss (who was the same age as Lawrence, looked similar, and worked in a similar way) and Captain Noel Edward, as well as the great female explorer Gertrude Bell. The main plot line (the importance of Wassmuss’ luggage – no spoilers!) is based on a real event in which all of these men were involved. This novel is a testament to the detailed research conducted by the author who has created an absorbing novel around real and very important events. The descriptions of Cairo, the life of the British in the Middle East, and the difficulties involved in desert warfare all serve to draw the reader into this story, giving an understanding of how people used to a British climate and culture struggled to live and work in the Middle East in the early part of the twentieth century. One can almost feel the burning sun and the wind-blown sand which plagued those who struggled in unfamiliar surroundings against the Turks and Germans.
Mr Ryan has delved deeply into the character of Lawrence and his love for the Arab peoples, so much so that this novel gives a clear insight into what Lawrence believed was the best way to bring about peace in the Middle East, it is a sad truth that if he had been listened to many of the problems which face us there today might never have arisen. The narrative of Empire of Sand enables the reader to get to know the real Lawrence, rather than the hero of David Lean’s epic film, and as such elicits a sympathy for and understanding of him which is often missing in purely historical accounts.
I was disappointed that this novel took the story of Lawrence up to the time he went into the desert to help the Arab uprising against the Turks but did not include the dramatic events which led to his ride on Damascus. To do what Lawrence did, lighting a fire beneath the Arab revolt and dealing with the difficult leaders of the Middle East, took a charismatic and quite unique character and I would love to see this part of Lawrence’s life portrayed in another novel by Robert Ryan!
Empire of Sand can be found on Amazon
January 2019 – Barkskind by Annie Proulx
Longlisted for the Baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017
A New York times book of the year
From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.
In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.
Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.
Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.
Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.
Barkskins can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Annie Proulx here
February 2019 – Canvey Island by James Runcie
It is 1953 in Canvey Island. Len and Violet are at a dance. Violet’s husband George sits and watches them sway and glide across the dance floor, his mind far away, trapped by a war that ended nearly ten years ago. Meanwhile, at home, a storm rages and Len’s wife Lily and his young son Martin fight for their lives in the raging black torrent. The night ends in a tragedy that will reverberate through their lives. This poignant novel follows the family’s fortunes from the austerity of the post-war years to Churchill’s funeral, from Greenham Common to the onset of Thatcherism and beyond, eloquently capturing the very essence of a transforming England in the decades after the war. It is a triumph of understated emotion, a novel about growing up and growing old, about love, hope and reconciliation.
If, like me, you are a child of the 50’s or 60’s there is much in this novel which will take you back to your childhood and beyond, reliving stories and experiences which you may have forgotten yet which suddenly come flooding back to life as the author weaves together the stories of a cast of very real characters. As Martin and his mother fight for their lives during the terrible floods of 1953 your heart goes out to the young child then, as the years goes by, you see him change as he struggles with his emotions, and you sympathise with the way this one early experience structures the whole of his future life. Although Mr Runcie does not mention Post Traumatic Stress specifically it is clear from the way Martin interacts with the people he loves that this is the core of what drives him to his chosen career and blights his personal relationships.
Mr Runcie has cleverly structured his novel so that each chapter is written in the first person by one of the main characters and so enables us to delve more deeply into their emotional drives and feelings. Through this Mr Runcie is able to explore different views on ideas which have evolved over the years to shape the world we live in today– the role of women, nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, racism – there is something in this novel which will resonate with everyone. The author of Canvey Island has got to the heart of what it meant to grow up in the second half of the twentieth century. As you read this novel you are immersed in the sights and sounds of a period of rapid change – the life of a fisherman on Canvey island, the Christmas gifts which people gave in the 1950’s, the ubiquitous Avon Lady of the 60’s, the women’s camps at Greenham Common, the long hot summer of 1976, the Winter of Discontent 1979. Anyone who has lived through those times will recognise the detailed research which the author has carried out to enable him to bring these snapshots of British life sharply into focus.
Above everything else, though, Canvey Island is a novel about people – the emotional description of a family funeral juxtaposed against that of a state funeral as the nation pays its last respects to Churchill, the struggle of a child who misses his mother yet sees his father forming a new relationship, moving from the excitement of early romance to the domesticity of married life, coming to terms with your own mortality. This is a lovely piece of social history built around characters who are flawed yet draw sympathy and understanding from us. Mr Runcie writes with sensitivity and truth which makes this novel quite compelling in many ways, although I felt the ending was a little abrupt and would have liked perhaps one more short chapter to see what happened to Martin next.
This is an absorbing read although not a fast paced thriller, but if you are interested in people and what makes them tick then you are sure to enjoy Canvey Island.
Canvey Island can be found on Amazon
March 2019 – The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd
The Words in My Hand is the reimagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th century Amsterdam working for an English bookseller. One day a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the Monsieur – who turns out to be René Descartes.
At first encounter the maid and the philosopher seem to have little in common, yet Helena yearns for knowledge and literacy – wanting to write so badly that she uses beetroot for ink and her body as paper.
And the philosopher, for all his learning, finds that it is Helena who reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him, as gradually their relationship deepens in a surprising story of love and learning.
We know the writings of the philosopher Réne Descartes but not so much about his private life. Historians often describe him as ‘a loner’, but was this really the case? We know that he had a daughter, Francine, with Helena Jans who was a maid in the house Descartes lodged in in Amsterdam in 1634. We know that they corresponded (although their letters do not survive), and we know that they continued to live close to each other for many years after the death of their daughter. The implication is that their relationship must have been both complex and important. Ms Glasfurd has taken this scant information to create a novel which is both beautiful and compelling.
‘The Words In My Hand’ is an atmospheric novel which brings 17th century Holland to life with all its sights and sounds, its varied people with their thoughts and prejudices, and the conflict created by new thoughts and ideas which opposed both tradition and the Church. Within this totally believable world we find a realistic and unsentimental story of love between two very different people who struggle to overcome the divide between them. The author seems to have delved into the depths of a woman struggling against the challenges which faced her gender and social class yet never bowing totally beneath them. The writing is descriptive, fresh, and cleverly constructed, the novel gentle paced in which great characters are described with subtlety and understanding.
As you read ‘The Words In My Hand’ you become immersed in Helena’s world and it can be difficult to remember that this is fiction, a tale of love and a search for knowledge which is totally of its time yet could be any time at all.
Readers who enjoy character driven novels which stretch their imagination and understanding are sure to enjoy this superb debut novel by Guinevere Glasfurd.
The Words In My Hand can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Guinevere Glasfurd here
April 2019 – Lionheart by Sharon Penman
Richard I was crowned King in 1189 and set off almost immediately for the Third Crusade. This was a bloody campaign to regain the Holy Land, marked by warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. Men and women found themselves facing new sorts of challenges and facing an uncertain future. John, the youngest son, was left behind – and with Richard gone, he was free to conspire with the French king to steal his brother’s throne.
Overshadowing the battlefields that stretched to Jerusalem and beyond were the personalities of two great adversaries: Richard and Saladin. They quickly took the measure of each other in both war and diplomacy. The result was mutual admiration: a profound acknowledgement of a worthy opponent.
In Lionheart, a gripping narrative of passion, intrigue, battle and deceit, Sharon Penman reveals a true and complex Richard – a man remarkable for his power and intelligence, his keen grasp of warfare and his concern for the safety of his men, who followed him against all odds.
Most people have heard of the English king Richard I, known as the Lionheart, but do we really know the truth about the man? As with any medieval character much has been lost with the passage of time, and often much of what remains is distorted or written by those who came after and had an axe to grind. If you come to Lionheart with a background of legends then you will be expecting to read about a man who was a bad king, who put his love of battle and search for glory before the needs of his kingdom, even put that kingdom at risk for his own selfish reasons. Yet after reading this novel by Ms Penman you will most likely come away with a different view; it may be possible that Richard I is as maligned and misunderstood as that other Richard, King Richard III.
Ms Penman, who has conducted extensive research of the chronicles and first-hand accounts of the events of the Third Crusade, reveals a different Richard. Here we see a man driven by a genuine desire to retake the Holy Land for God, who knew the risks to his lands back in Europe but was prepared to accept these for the glory of God. It is true that he was a brave, almost reckless, warrior but he was also a fine tactician and general with a deep grasp of politics and human character which enabled him to bring a well-rounded approach to his plans and often a depth of understanding which his contemporaries did not see.
Surprisingly, Lionheart is not a book full of blood and gore, it takes many pages for the Crusaders to reach the Hoy Land, but it is engrossing in its revelation of the times and key people – revelations based on solid facts supported by both Christian and Saracen sources. It introduces us to a cast of well-rounded and believable characters whose weaknesses as well as strengths are fully exposed. Whilst not being the bad king that he is often portrayed to be Richard was a poor husband and probably a deeply selfish man (but that was not unusual for medieval monarchs who believed that they were the chosen instruments of God). Ms Penman also roots her novels in a realistic world which allows us to almost feel the heat and discomfort experienced by those who had never been out of Europe before, the comforts of court life, the food, the clothing worn, the terrible sea voyages undertaken.
Lionheart a is solid, detailed, character driven historical novel which delves into the political intricacies of the closing years of the twelfth century. It immerses the reader in the Third Crusade and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in history, religion and the enigma which was Richard I. I look forward to reading A King’s Ransom which will bring the story of Richard to its final conclusion.
You can find Lionheart on Amazon
You can find out more about Sharon Penman here