Tag Archives: historical fiction

A new novel! Can a woman be a frontline war correspondent?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War. It was ‘recent history’ for me as a child, and the Sunday afternoon movie on TV was often about the conflict which ended just 12 years before I was born. My love of history led to me studying the war at A level, and I again found myself delving into the political, military and personal aspects of conflict which are always so intricately entwined.

More recently, I came across the story of the renowned correspondent, Clare Hollingworth, which led me to reading the book ‘The Women Who Wrote the War’ by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. I was fascinated by the stories of these brave women, and thought that writing a novel from the perspective of a female correspondent would be a really interesting angle. (You can find my previous article on women war correspondents here.)  

In No Job for a Woman, the first novel in my new series, Jenny McLeod is a fictional character whose experiences are not too dissimilar to those of the small number of very determined women who went to the frontline to report the Second World War. It wasn’t easy for them. They had to overcome the arrogance and feeling of entitlement shown by their male counterparts like Ernest Hemingway, while battling a great deal of prejudice from the military who didn’t want women on the battle field. The British, in particular, didn’t want women there at all and wouldn’t give accreditation to female journalists until towards the end of the war. I have taken a little artistic license here as my correspondent, Jenny, becomes involved with the Desert Rats at a much earlier date.

Being a reporter becomes her identity for Jenny, it is all she knows how to do, all she feels comfortable doing. After the end of the war, she still feels the need to let the world know what is happening in conflict zones which is why she continues reporting in 1945 and beyond, from the independence struggles of Israel and India, to the Korean War.

But the books in this series are not just a list of battles, they are a family saga spanning decades. And Jenny finds that she must fight harder than a man just to be treated as an equal. With personal as well as military battles to be fought there was really only one choice of title for my new series – The Wars of Jenny McLeod.

Book one, No Job for a Woman, is now available on Amazon.

The Good Doctor Of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford

‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’
Warsaw, 1940. The Jewish ghetto is under the Nazis’ brutal control. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children slowly starve within the walls.
But while all around is darkness, one man brings hope, caring for the ever-increasing number of destitute orphans in the face of unimaginable conditions.
And, torn apart as the noose tightens around the ghetto, how will one young couple’s love survive the terrible tests of wartime?
Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.

Some of the best historical novels are based on true stories, and this is one of them. I knew the facts about Janusz Korczak and have admired both his teaching and his actions, but what I knew was the bare bones. Ms Gifford has conducted intensive research over a number of years to bring Korczak to life for me, and introduce me to other people I knew nothing about. A huge number of the characters in The Good Doctor were real people whose stories told here will touch the heart, a reminder of what is best about humanity; often exhibited in the worst of times.

This novel is well-plotted as it charts the falling fortunes of the Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas, from wealthy families to inhabitants of an ever-shrinking ghetto. The sights and sounds and smells of their experiences put the reader squarely in this terrible story of hatred, fear and death. The descriptions of starving children, of shootings, round-up’s, and trains to the death camps cannot fail to move you. The Good Doctor Of Warsaw is a window into the darkest soul of man, and as such a reminder of what we can become if we allow ourselves to build our lives on discrimination and hatred.

But the novel is also full of hope as we follow the true stories of Janusz Korczak, Sophia and Misha as they try to provide the love and security so essential to the children in Korczak’s orphanage. These real people were prepared to put their lives on the line for others, as were many non-Jews who could not allow themselves to be a part of Hitler’s Final Solution. Following these characters through the clearing of the ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not easy reading, but it is a book which should be read as both a lesson from the past and a guide for a better future.

Above all The Good Doctor should be read as a memorial to all those who stood up for what was right in the face of so much wrong.

(You can find out a little more about some of the children of the Warsaw Ghetto in my article When Boy Scouts Went To War

The Good Doctor Of Warsaw can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Elizabeth Gifford here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Queen of Bedlam by Laura Purcell

London 1788. The calm order of Queen Charlotte’s court is shattered by screams. The King of England is going mad. Left alone with thirteen children and with the country at war, Charlotte has to fight to hold her husband’s throne. It is a time of unrest and revolutions but most of all Charlotte fears the King himself, someone she can no longer love or trust. She has lost her marriage to madness and there is nothing she can do except continue to do her royal duty. Her six daughters are desperate to escape their palace asylum. Their only chance lies in a good marriage, but no prince wants the daughter of a madman. They are forced to take love wherever they can find it, with devastating consequences. The moving true story of George III’s madness and the women whose lives it destroyed.

Most people know something about ‘Mad King George’, and about his son the Prince Regent. Much less is known about the lives of his wife and daughters. Throughout history the position and role of women has not been considered as important, and they play a secondary role to men. This is even more the case when it comes to royalty; a daughter is a political bargaining chip, a wife is there to provide an heir. For the women in the life of George III there was the added complication of his madness.

Queen of Bedlam sheds light onto the lives of the women who lived in the shadow of madness yet had to present a façade of normality to the public. Theirs was a life of pain and suffering, of having to lead their lives treading on eggshells as they feared the king’s reaction to everything they said and did. For George’s daughters, their hopes and dreams centred on the chance to marry and have children, to find love and, in so doing, escape from the control of their mother who was afraid to face her husband’s madness alone.

Ms Purcell has obviously conducted intensive research into this subject and is able to give a touch of humanity to these characters who have been for so long in the shadows. Throughout the novel we begin to relate to some believable, but not necessarily likeable, women – like all of us there is good and bad in all of them, yet being forced to live lives so different from the norm made then quite emotionally insecure and stunted in a way which many might find difficult to understand or sympathise with.

Queen of Bedlam is a well-plotted novel, constructed with a real feel for time and place, which brings into focus life in the court with Ms Purcell’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of claustrophobic live in a royal gilded cage. At the heart of the story is a group of women who struggle to find a balance between duty and love, and it is refreshing to discover this much hidden aspect of the years leading up to the Regency with it’s focus on the women who had little control over their lives, with disastrous consequences for some of them.

For those of you who enjoy Recency romances, this book will give an interesting perspective to a period of history which you may already feel you know well.

You can find Queen of Bedlam on Amazon

You can find out more about Laura Purcell here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye

1993, Key West, Florida. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.

1919. Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching, including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood and struggling to do what’s right. And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town…

Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise made as the sun rose on a dark day in American history.

I was fascinated to read the author’s notes at the end of this novel. At First Light is based quite closely on real events which took place as the Klu Klux Klan moved into Florida’s Key West during the early twentieth century, and as such it makes for an absorbing read.

Ms Lafaye has conducted intensive research not only into the specific events which are the basis of her novel, but also into the Klan. It’s methods of recruitment would be called radicalisation today, preying on the weak and vulnerable and promising a better life if only they joined this group. The contrast between some almost comical aspects of the clan and their murderous brutality are chilling, as are the descriptions of the hatred and bigotry which allowed such a movement to take a hold.

At First Light also encompasses the introduction of prohibition and the smuggling of liquor which followed, as well as the Spanish flu which took so many lives at the end of the First World War. The story is however also one of friendship, a ‘coming-of-age’ tale, and a depiction of life in the Keys which is full of depth and detail in which the reader can almost smell the odours, feel the heat, and come to know the characters who lived there at the time. But, at its heart, At First Light is a story of love; a story of two people who, for whatever reasons, chose to stand together in the face of hatred and violence; a timeless story which will touch the heart.

Well-plotted and paced, clearly written with believable characters, I heartily recommend At First Light for its accurate portrayal of a time and place in the past which should be remembered if we are not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

You can fin At First Light on Amazon

You can find out more about Vanessa Lafaye here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – A Fine Madness by Alan Judd

A remarkable and meticulously researched novel from award-winning writer Alan Judd, exploring the life of literary genius Kit Marlowe, whose violent death composes one of the most fascinating unresolved mysteries of all time.  
 
In Elizabethan England, the Queen’s chief spymaster, Francis Walsingham, and his team of agents must maintain the highest levels of vigilance to ward off Catholic plots and the ever-present threat of invasion.
 
One agent in particular – a young Cambridge undergraduate of humble origins, controversial beliefs and literary genius who goes by the name of Kit Marlowe – is relentless in his pursuit of intelligence for the Crown. When he is killed outside an inn in Deptford, his mysterious death becomes the subject of rumours and suspicion that are never satisfactorily resolved.
 
Years later, when Thomas Phelippes, a former colleague of Marlowe’s, finds himself imprisoned in the Tower, there is one thing that could give him his freedom back. He must give the king every detail he is able to recall about his murdered friend’s life and death. But why is King James so fascinated about Kit Marlowe – and does Phelippes know enough to secure his own redemption?

Alan Judd’s rendering of the life of Christopher Marlowe is steeped in his intimate knowledge of Elizabethan times – whether it be the everyday life of gentlemen or the intricate spider’s web of the Queens intelligence agency. Cleverly constructed as a discourse by Thomas Phelippes as he is questioned about the death of the playwright, the novel not only describes what is known of some of the most important clandestine events of the time (for example, the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne) but also delves into the intellectual questions which were a part of politics – and life – at the time, questions about faith and morality as well as politics.

Such a novel has the potential to be dry or didactic, but that is not the case with A Fine Madness. Judd’s writing draws the reader in with his descriptive prose and clever use of dialogue which breathe life into people who have been dead for centuries. With his use of a clever plotting device the author creates a world of suspicion and fear where those who spy for the government can never feel secure in their own position as factions jostle for position at court. Against this backdrop we come to know something of Christopher Marlowe – a mercurial man, playwright, scholar, trusted confident yet enigmatic presence – with Judd’s writing based on the records that we have about this enigmatic man and the tavern brawl which led to his death. It is a mark of his excellent writing that Judd draws us in as we want to know what really happened, whether it was ‘just a fight’ or whether there was something more sinister behind it, yet all the time we are well aware that no one knows as the death of Christopher Marlowe remains one of the great literary mysteries of the last centuries.

A Fine Madness is a cleverly crafted novel balancing historical fact and fiction to create an honest portrait of the people and times with, at its centre, Christopher Marlowe seen not through rose-tinted glasses over the distance of time but as he most probably appeared to the men of his day – an intelligent man who questioned the hold of religion on men’s lives, energetic, a man who ‘burned too brightly’ and was gone too soon.

Part spy novel, part quest for intellectual truth and understanding; a study of duty, faith and friendship; I can highly recommend A Fine Madness to all lovers of historical fiction.

A Fine Madness can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Alan Judd here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Book Review – The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson

The Cardinal tells a story of a working-class American’s rise to become a cardinal of the Catholic Church. The daily trials and triumphs of Stephen Fermoyle, from the working-class suburbs of Boston, drive him to become first a parish priest, then secretary to a cardinal, later a bishop, and finally a wearer of the Red Hat. An essential work of American fiction.

Before anything else I must say that you should not be put off this book if you are not religious, or not of the Catholic faith. This is not a book about Catholicism (although there is much about Catholic beliefs and practice within its pages), at its heart The Cardinal is historical fiction, a saga of the greatest tradition, anyone who enjoys that style of novel will love The Cardinal.

We follow Stephen Fermoyle from the outbreak of the First World War to the days leading up to the Second. At the beginning of the novel he is a new priest returning to America from Rome, and we follow him on his swift rise through the ranks of the church, facing both financial and spiritual challenges as the Depression takes hold and society has to find ways to care for the most vulnerable. As Stephen progresses in his career he moves back to Rome where we see the rise of facism in all its ugliness, and the threat it poses to the world, both religious and secular. Stephen also falls in love, probably the greatest challenge for a celibate priest, and one can only sympathise with a man torn between his love for a woman and his love for God. As the reader accompanies the priest on his soul-searching journey to find his way forwards through this dilemma, we are given a deeper understanding of the cost and rewards of following a vocation.

But The Cardinal is not a novel confined to the priestly, not only do we follow Stephen on his journey of faith, but also the members of his family who face trials and tribulations no different to the rest of us. The Fermoyles are a loving family of Irish extraction, a group of characters who follow their own paths through life whilst staying closely knit and offering support to each other through the tragic events which shape them. They are not a ‘sugar-coated’ family, the have their disputes and arguments, their rifts and tragedies, but through it all there is a love and faith which binds them together.

The Cardinal is a beautifully written novel with a well-crafted plotline, believable dialogue, and engaging characters which draw the reader in and leaves you wanting more – which is my one criticism of this novel. At the end we journey with the new cardinal from Rome back to America where new challenges await him; he is only fifty-one and there is potential for so much more in the lives of the Fermoyle family in general and Stephen in particular, so I found it disappointing that the novel ends at the point where Stephen’s work as a cardinal begins. Having said that, this is a beautiful novel which I highly recommend to anyone who is a lover of historical fiction.

‘The Cardinal’ can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

WINNER OF THE COMMONWEALTH PRIZE FOR FICTION
Based on a true story, Lawrence Hill’s epic novel spans three continents and six decades to bring to life a dark and shameful chapter in our history through the story of one brave and resourceful woman.

Abducted from her West African village at the age of eleven and sold as a slave in the American South, Aminata Diallo thinks only of freedom – and of finding her way home again.

After escaping the plantation, torn from her husband and child, she passes through Manhattan in the chaos of the Revolutionary War, is shipped to Nova Scotia, and then joins a group of freed slaves on a harrowing return odyssey to Africa.

The Book Of Negroes is an incredibly moving story which draws you in right from the first page when we are introduced to Aminata, an eleven-year-old Muslim girl who can read the Quran and is already an accomplished midwife – not the naked savage which was how the peoples of Africa were described in a perverted excuse for the slave trade. Firmly rooted in historical fact, Mr Hill enables the reader to discover more about a multitude of aspects of life for those who were torn from their homes and sold into slavery. This is a compelling story moving from freedom in Africa to the indigo plantations of the New World, from initial freedom in New York to failed promises by the British in Nova Scotia and on the exodus back to Africa; and the character of Aminata is a believable and compekking companion on our journey.

The Book of Negroes in the title is an actual historical document and is the largest single document about black people in North America up until the eighteenth century. Containing the names and details of 3,000 black people who received freedom from the British at the end of the American War of Independence, Mr Hill has utilised this document as a source for the characters who people this novel. Some of these characters are real historical individuals, but the fictional ones are also totally believable as they are well drawn, both physically and emotionally, and give an insight into the traumatic lives that these people lived. The dialogue is also strong and believable, which allows the story to develop and flow realistically.

The author has great skill at descriptive prose, and the reader cannot fail to be moved by the beautiful rendering of the land or the visceral horrors of the Atlantic crossing, the contrasting life on slave plantations and in the city, the clothes and food of the different strata of society. But, above all, this is a beautiful and compelling, dark and harrowing, totally engrossing story of the slave trade.

As the world begins to openly face the history of slavery, I believe that The Book Of Negroes is a must read for all.

The Book Of Negroes can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Lawrence Hill here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Dissolution by C J Sansom

Dissolution is the first in the Shardlake series by bestselling author, C. J. Sansom.

England, 1537: Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and the country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. Under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: the monasteries are to be dissolved.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege – a black cockerel sacrificed on the altar, and the disappearance of Scarnsea’s Great Relic.

Dr Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell into this atmosphere of treachery and death. But Shardlake’s investigation soon forces him to question everything he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes . . .

Dissolution is at its centre a medieval detective story with the required twists and turns to keep the reader guessing as to ‘who dunnit’. A strong, well-paced plot which weaves together a well-researched historical background with good characterisation and realistic dialogue makes this a novel which you may find difficult to put down.

The settings of the novel, whether in London or on the Sussex coast, are well drawn so that the reader can almost feel the cold, taste the food, and touch the buildings which breathe life into this book. The juxtaposition of life for the monks in the monastery with that of the peasants who live in the nearby village is carefully drawn and focusses attention on why so many people at that time were keen for the monasteries to be reformed. It was a time of deep mistrust when true feelings were hidden as an act of self-preservation for many whilst they payed lip-service to the new rules.

Commissioner Shardlake is a realistic character with a deformity which creates a refreshing vulnerability in the ‘hero’ of a novel. An astute man he is aware from the very beginning that the truth is being hidden from him not only to cover up a murder but also to try to preserve a way of life which it is becoming increasingly obvious really has no future. Sansom cleverly uses Dissolution to lay out the reasons why people wanted reform – the wealth of the church, corruption in the use of relics and selling masses, the use of Latin to keep the ordinary people apart from the religious leaders etc. At the beginning of the novel Shardlake is a true supporter of the reformation, but as he conducts his investigations and discovers the tactics his superiors are willing to employ to achieve their ends he is led to disillusionment and begins to question his own motives and feelings.

Sansom holds a PhD in history which has enabled him to write authoritatively about the historical context and the driving forces behind the main characters in his novel, but his style is never scholarly or stuffy but rather easy and lending a flow to the writing which entices the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. In Dissolution historical research gives an authentic backdrop to a compelling murder mystery, and I look forward to finding out more about Matthew Shardlake in the next book of the series.

Dissolution can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about C J Sansom here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Sometimes when he didn’t know he was being watched Meggie would look at him and try desperately to imprint his face upon her brain’s core . . . And he would turn to find her watching him, a look in his eyes of haunted grief, a doomed look. She understood the implicit message, or thought she did; he must go, back to the Church and his duties. Never again with the same spirit, perhaps, but more able to serve. For only those who have slipped and fallen know the vicissitudes of the way . . .

A classic historical family saga taking the Cleary family from 1915 New Zealand to 1969 Australia and Europe. In The Thorn Birds Ms McCullough has created a family of incredibly realistic characters who fight the struggles of life on two fronts – the harshness of life in the Australian Outback and personal conflicts which shape the people they become.

Australia with its heat and dust, it’s fires and floods is the panoramic backdrop for an unconventional love story which would lose much of its impact without this realistic depiction of just how harsh life was for people who struggled to live off the land. From the wealthy Clearys to itinerant sheep shearers and cane cutters, and the ubiquitous swagmen, Australia is revealed in all it’s unforgiving nature through sight and sound and scent.

At the heart of The Thorn Birds is the love between Meggie and Ralph, a priest who puts his faith and career in the Church before his love for the woman who is the other half of himself. Ms McCullough has crafted a fascinating plot which juxtaposes the difficulties of living this love with the difficulties of living in the outback. The central characters of this novel are totally human, incredibly flawed yet strong, and I’m sure that all readers will recognise something of themselves in them.

Love hurts. That may seem a trite saying but it is one most people can relate too, and in The Thorn Birds we see the raw emotion and hurt that can be caused by such love. This is a powerful telling of human emotion where duty and desire are the two sides of a coin which can never fully be seen or realised at the same time. One must take precedence over the other, sometimes duty sometimes love, but always the other call is there drawing the characters into situations they find incredibly difficult, even heart-breaking, but which they would never be without.

The Thorn Birds is a well-crafted powerful novel written in descriptive prose and realistic dialogue which cannot fail to move, and as such I highly recommend it.

The Thorn Birds can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Pachinko is a classic family saga set in a place and period of history about which I know (or knew) very little. The Japanese occupation  of Korea during the first half of the 20th century led to many Koreans moving to Japan to escape poverty only to be faced with discrimination, and even when the story ends in 1989 their grand-children and great-grandchildren who were born in Japan are treated as immigrants with less rights than those of native born Japanese.

Ms Min Jin Lee has created a compelling story which encompasses the legacy of the occupation, the Second World War, the division of Korea into two countries during a bitter civil war. But it is not merely a novel about history, Asian peoples have a deep spirituality which also shapes them and the way they live their lives so Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity underpin the actions of a well-crafted cast of characters who bring Pachinko to life. The story-arc is complex, weaving the lives of a number of families together, and it is easy to become attached to them as you sympathise with the troubles they face, the lives they are forced to live and the heartbreak which follows them.

Ms Min Jin Lee has an eye for detail and brings to life the living conditions, food and work place of her characters; life in the city and life in the countryside are equally well portrayed as are the trials and tribulations of an immigrant community where people struggle with a sense of dual identity. There is much in this novel which will speak to people today about their place in society – how welcoming they are to others, how much others strive to fit in. But above all it will speak to people on a human level as Sunja and her family struggle with friendship and duty, pain and loss, and above all love, in a way which affects all people no matter what age or nationality.

Pachinko is absorbing, distressing and yet heart-warming in almost equal measure. Yes, it is a family sage, but it is also much more than that. It is a story of resilience and compassion as four generations of Koreans struggle to find their identity and place in a world which does not want them. A powerful novel which I heartily recommend.

Pachinko can be found on Amazon

You can find our more about Min Jin Lee here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here