Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…

The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.

James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman – in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?

Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.

The Fire Court is an engaging ‘who dunnit’ set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. The fire which ravaged London in 1666 is well known, as are some of the buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren to help with the rebuilding; yet how many of us have ever taken the time to think about the aftermath of the disaster? How was it decided who owned which patches of rubble? Who would be responsible for re-building? And, above all, where would the money come from to re-build? I must admit that I have given little thought to that in the past and am grateful to Mr Taylor for introducing me to the Fire Court.

Set up by the king to untangle the complicated ownership/leases/sub-leases etc. the Fire Court was made up of a number of judges who gave their time for free to find the most equitable way to get the re-building underway as quickly as possible. Surprisingly for the 17th century there was very little corruption and the work went ahead swiftly. It is against this backdrop that the story of The Fire Court takes place.

The author has conducted an unprecedented amount of research into the Fire Court itself and 17th century London in general which immerses the reader in a city full of the rubble and ash of the fire, the dirt and smells of the Restoration, the filthy streets, the bridges and the river, the clothing and food which were a part of everyday life. He also shines light on the position of women in a society which still saw them as chattels yet where some women were already attempting to achieve a more independent role. In this realistic world we are introduced to James Marwood as he becomes embroiled in a legal battle for ownership of and therefore permission to re-build the Dragon Yard, a battle which leads to murder and through which we follow Marwood and Cat Lovett on a search for truth and their own survival. This is a well-crafted murder-mystery novel with twists and turns which keep the reader guessing to the very end, and well worth a read on so many levels.

(I was given this novel as a gift and was part-way through before realising that it is the sequel to Andrew Taylor’s novel The Ashes of London but it is a novel which stands well on its own.)

The Fire Court can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Andrew Taylor here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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Barkskins 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

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Soldiers 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

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims: (Book 1) 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

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – 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

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here