Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls – Anton DiSclafani – 7/10

“But then, I knew nothing about the place except that it was where my parents were sending me so they wouldn’t have to see me.”

yonahlossee

Thea has brought disgrace on her Florida old-money Great Depression family and is sent away for the summer to a riding camp. When it becomes clear that her stay is not just for the summer but that her parents want her permanently out of their sight, she tries to make herself more welcome in her new world, trading favours and gossip for social elevation…

Thea is an intriguing character. In some senses she is wise beyond her years, acting more adult than many of the adults around her, but still very much a teenage girl with that brutal mix of sharpness. Her odd relationship with her twin – maybe it only seems odd to me because I’m not a twin. The liaison with a far-distant cousin, who at the same time is like a brother to her, predictable and yet tragic. Her parents, considering that she spends very little time with them in the book, are also sharply captured – on the cusp of modernising while buried in their orange grove dollars. 

DiSclafani (what a great surname!) captures the fading South well; the drip-drip-drip of family money down the Depression drain while girls are packed off to finishing school. The importance attributed to decorum and the age of family money is thrown into relief against the lacking morals displayed by several characters and the spicy ambition of the girls to succeed.

In a sense I found it disappointing that the plot continues to return to Thea’s sexual adventurousness – as if there was no other aspect of her that could cause conflict (when there were plenty of other aspects). But I often find that frustrating in a novel. The inevitable decay of the old money system was much more interesting, as was the evolution of Thea’s relationship with her parents.

A much darker, more American boarding school tale than those of Enid Blyton on which I grew up. Just as addictively readable.

Additional information:

Copy sent by the publisher, Tinder Press, in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Tinder Press, 389 hardback pages 
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The Bedlam Detective – Stephen Gallagher – 6/10

“The names of the house always charmed her. They hadn’t when she’d lived here, but they charmed her whenever she returned. Prospect Place. St Cuthbert’s. Puffin. St Elmo’s. Evangeline was a city dweller now, a grown woman, and these names were her childhood.”

bedlam

Two country girls have been found brutally murdered, not far from the estate of Sir Owain Lancaster, who returned alone some years ago from a disastrous trip to the Amazon. Sebastian Becker is sent to investigate, wondering if Sir Owain needs treatment in the infamous hospital above his office – Bedlam…

Becker is a solid everyman sort of detective, sympathetic without being ingratiating, persistent without being omniscient. Some home troubles make him a slightly more rounded character but not all that much time is devoted to making him an interesting person – he is the vehicle for the story. On the other hand there is a huge amount of time and paper devoted to the tale of Sir Owain’s misadventures in the Amazon – we have his diary as well as the observations of those around him so his is really the most rounded character in the book. Which begs the question – why bother with the London side-story and the murder of the girls? If the author just wanted to tell the tale of Sir Owain’s (literally incredible) visit to South America, why not just tell it by itself?

As with all these historical endeavours, one wonders how authentic it is. Would Sebastian’s autistic son really have fared so well in 19th century London? Is the life portrayed in Bethlehem Hospital accurate (or even close to accurate)? The London of the book felt quite sanitised, compared to the bleakness of country living. There’s an assortment of bit parts which are cleverly and amusingly put together – I particularly liked Becker’s family and the country plod who is supposed to assist Becker in his investigations.

I felt that towards the end, the author was in a bit deep with the plot/stories he had constructed and it needed to be wrapped up – the episode at the country hall has heavy touches of deus ex machina to it. As I look at the slim book beside me (it’s only just over 300 pages), more and more threads of plot come back to me and it’s surprising to consider they were all included in the same novel!

Overall, an enjoyable enough mystery; a bit dark for what I’m used to, and if you don’t mind the heavy-handed wrapping up, you should find it pretty gripping.

Additional information:

Copy kindly sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Broadway Paperbacks, 305 paperback pages 
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The Wedding Gift – Marlen Suyapa Bodden – 9/10

“That was how I learned what my future was to be, and my only thought was that my dreams of escaping were those of a fool. My absurd notions of running away or being bought into freedom by Isaac were exposed for what they were, empty plans made by a girl in bondage.”

wedding gift

Clarissa is born into Southern wealth – as the daughter of a plantation owner, she can expect privilege and honour all her life. Sarah is born into slavery – the daughter of a housekeeper, her life is considerably better than that of the fieldhands. The girls grow up together, which has its advantages for Sarah. But when Clarissa gets married and her father gives her Sarah as a maid, the two young women will be dependent on each other much more than they could have envisaged.

This novel is full of fantastically strong women. Sarah, Theodora Allen, Emmeline, Belle, Clarissa, Miss Mary – Bodden writes compelling, attention-grabbing, wonderful women, decisive in the courses of their lives. Sarah in particular is impulsive and gutsy, but the reader cannot help rooting for her. The twist at the end was actually quite harrowing – it was totally unexpected and cast the rest of the novel in a totally different light.

I was surprised by the social mores of the time in the white family – the common keeping of black mistresses, the physical abuse, the drinking… I don’t really know why I was surprised by it when it featured pretty strongly a century later in The Shadow QueenAmazing Grace is one of my favourite films, but it tells the story of slavery from a very British side. I have no way of knowing how accurate the depiction of the lives of cotton slaves is in The Wedding Gift, but like after I read The Help, I feel like I should do some learning. Which is a commendable result for a novel.

Buy it, borrow it, get it, read it.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher, Random House, in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Random House, 399 pages (hardback)
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The Kingmaker’s Daughter – Philippa Gregory – 8/10

“Well, it makes no odds. A girl’s no good. A girl can’t take the throne.”

The fourth in Gregory’s highly successful series of The Cousins’ War (as the War of the Roses, as we now know it, was known at the time), The Kingmaker’s Daughter tells the story of Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Earl of Warwick. Warwick had put Edward IV on the throne, but Edward had proved to be not quite as malleable a puppet as Warwick had expected, by marrying Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen, daughter of The Lady of the Rivers) in secret. Disappointed by his protege, Warwick turned to Edward’s other brothers in an effort to control the throne, and married his daughters off to meet his needs.

Anne’s life is portrayed in the other books as a sorry one – sickly, often overlooked for advantageous marriages, having to cater to her sister’s every whim. However, this book was considerably more positive than I had expected – Gregory imbues her with a resilience and loyalty which is not expected, given the other books I had read in the series. She deals with her father’s repeated changing of sides, her sister’s superiority and paranoia, the trouble caused by her over-ambitious brother-in-law; none of it causes her much distress. What is interesting is her introspection towards the end – she knows she has become hardened and deadened to political movements and changes that would have once scandalised her.

It is a little frustrating to read the same material again (admittedly through different eyes and different imagined private events), but Gregory does an admirable job of introducing enough new material to keep us interested and a different perspective on familiar events. My main objection to the prior books has been the sheer number of battles to wade through; this book misses some of the first ones out by starting only once Edward IV is on the throne, and ending before the Battle of Bosworth field which would ultimately conclude the Cousins’ War.

I found it interesting that Richard III is ultimately portrayed as sympathetic, loyal, in fact fatally loyal to the York cause, and not the evil hunchback that Shakespeare would have us remember. In this, Gregory builds on the not unsympathetic picture conjured in The White Queen.

If you’ve read the other three, you’ll read this one too. If you haven’t read the others, I wouldn’t worry about this one – start with The Lady of the Rivers (first chronologically) or The White Queen (best written) and see how you get on with the series.

The Shadow Queen – Rebecca Dean – 8/10

“The day would come when her Uncle Sol would eat his heart out to be publicly recognised as being her relation – and when it did, she wouldn’t even give a nod in his direction.”

I nearly didn’t get my hands on this one; after a FedEx misadventure, there is still a copy of it floating around my office block which remains stubbornly elusive; thankfully Jonathan at Random House was generous enough to send a second copy across the Atlantic.

This beautifully presented novel (how could you not love all the Art Deco/ancient photograph stuff going on on the cover?) fictionalises the life of Wallis Simpson previously Spencer née Warfield, up to the point at which she meets (then) Prince Edward, heir to the throne which she would famously (infamously?) cause him to abdicate. We follow her fraught childhood, caught between the money and glamour of her family and the financial situation of her mother, left nearly penniless by a consumptive husband; her escape to Florida and a number of failed romances, and eventually her move to England in pursuit of the very highest of society.

It’s always hard to know with this style of book what is documented fact and what is author’s literary licence, but Wallis was a strong and well-fleshed out character; proud, strong, vivacious, not cowed by financial difficulty or bullying, always certain she was right but vulnerable as well. I loved the budding romance between Wallis and John Jasper, and was suitably outraged when it came to an end (that’s not a spoiler, right? Everyone knows she ended up marrying no-longer-King Edward).

Her subsequent romances were more difficult to deal with – as we moved into more reliably documented territory (her first and second marriages, her time in Florida, Washington and London), I struggled more to understand her motivations – I think Dean writes better when not constrained so much by documented history. The increasing emphasis on Wallis’ and others’ sexual liaisons also made me lose interest in the book a little – I know she had a scandalous reputation but it seemed like it was the easy thing to write about; I needed more context as to the mores of the time to know what was shocking and what was not.

Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the period, the story, or turn-of-the-century high society in the US.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Twice. If you work with me and you know where the original copy is that was Fedexed to me, let me know. I promise not to hurt you. Much.
Publisher: Broadway, 414 pages (paperback).
Order The Shadow Queen: A Novel of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor from Amazon*
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The Darling Strumpet – Gillian Bagwell – 5/10

“His Majesty saw women on the stage in Frankfurt and thought it a charming innovation”


The Darling Strumpet is the story of a girl who was nothing special but rose to national and historic fame. She’s known as one of the first actresses, one of the first women to be given the privilege to play female roles on the boards, but also for winning the love of a number of rich men, including the King of England (Charles II).

I liked Nell. She’s safely characterised (for such a potentially contentious story); strong and witty and intelligent, she rises above the poverty of her oyster wenching days and the abuse from her mother, she befriends others easily and we only see a negative side when she is jealous of Charles’ other mistresses. Looking back, I feel like she wasn’t given much depth as a character, but I’m not sure that’s fair – I think my problem is that too much time was spent trading on her looks and not enough on her wit and brains.

Nell’s sister Rose and early suitor Hart are similarly safe, pleasant but uncontroversial characters. Bagwell shows much more vim in writing Rochester, Dorset, Monmouth and other scheming men – they each have their fatal flaws and their difficulties for Nell. In a sense they are presented less as players in her life and more obstacles to be overcome, hindrances in her rise to prominence.

What Bagwell did very well was the historical events of the time – the great fire of London, the plague, the return of King Charles II from exile. You always have to wonder how accurate these things are, but they were slotted into the story well and Nell’s grief at losing so much of her home town was not something I had expected, but was a nice touch. Similarly her financial insecurity, being wholly dependent on Charles’ goodwill, was an eye-opener for me.

On the whole, I found this a little bawdy for my liking – too much romping about in bed with noblemen and kings, and not enough time on stage.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Publisher: Avon, 414 pages (paperback)
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The Queen’s Secret – Victoria Lamb – 6/10 (DNF)

“Who would have thought the orphaned daughter of a Moorish slave could find such favour at the English court?”

Lucy Morgan, a young Moorish singer, finds herself catapulted into the Queen’s favour at a summer progress. She becomes a secret emissary between lovers and spies; with assassination plots abounding, it won’t be long before Lucy’s world comes crashing down around her ears…

I gave up on this after about 180 pages; I got fed up of the constant to-and-fro of the love triangle of Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley and Lady Essex (Lettice Knollys); while Lucy was a sympathetic character with interesting friends, too much of the plot revolved around the women’s jealousy. Meanwhile, Walsingham is either plotting with the assassins or blissfully ignorant of their presence. The book failed to sustain my interest – I can’t pinpoint anything particularly deficient, it simply bored me.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Publisher: Transworld Books, 359 pages (hardback)
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Remembering Babylon – David Malouf – 2/10 (DNF)

“Strange how unimportant eyebrows can be, as long as there are two of them”

In David Malouf’s IMPAC-winning novel (novelette? 182 pages), a group of children in 1840s Queensland happen across a young man, unkempt and racially white, but exhibiting behaviour they and their community expect of the local Aborigines. The community is changed forever by Gemmy’s arrival.

I don’t understand how this won the IMPAC and was shortlisted for the Booker. It’s So Incredibly Uninteresting. I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters, the setting, the writing, just any of it. Maybe that’s a criterion for book prizes.

Each chapter is from a different character’s point of view – we get Gemmy, Lachlan (the boy who found him), Janet (Lachlan’s jealous cousin), Jock (Janet’s father), the teacher… and none of them is an interesting person by themselves. There are some vague hints of interesting colonial life (dialogue is written in a strange Scotch hybrid sometimes) but it’s not explored. The writing is… meh. It’s not even exhilerating writing.

Urgh. Take it away from me.

Additional info:
This  copy was bought from a charity shop.
Publisher: Vintage Books, 182 pages
Order Remembering Babylon from Amazon if you can bear the tedium*
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Gods of Gotham – Lyndsey Faye – 7/10

“Hope, I’ve discovered, is a sad nuisance. Hope is a horse with a broken leg.”

In 1845, Timothy Wilde becomes member of the newly minted New York Police force after a fire destroys his home, his employment and his looks. Despairing of ever winning the delightful Miss Underhill’s regard, and seeking to avoid his louche brother Valentine at all times and costs, Timothy tries enforce some law and order while being kind to the impoverished Irish immigrants. When a girl in a blood-drenched lace nightgown crashes into his knees one night in full flight, he finds a purpose to his employment: to avenge a terrible evil.

Tim is a standard tragic protagonist: good-hearted and cursed; nevertheless, he is likeable, realistic and pleasantly articulate. Mercy is a touch twee, always buried in Harper Brothers’ latest or charmingly tucking a strand of hair behind an ear, and I thought a few of her actions towards the end of the book were inconsistent with the persona that had been constructed for her thus far. Valentine rides the line between good and evil marvellously, and the reader isn’t sure right until the end whether he might be the villain.

The revelation of the villain, when it eventually comes, is somewhat anticlimactic, and it is immediately obvious to the reader that he cannot be responsible for one of the deaths. I’m still not happy with the answer of who committed the final crime, nor any motive or means for doing so (maybe I was reading too fast). Nevertheless, the denouement fit my criteria of fitting hints which had been available, without being obvious to me.

Faye’s novel slips into 1840s New York with ease: the rickety buildings full of Irish immigrants, the news-sellers with their cigars and flash language. The writing is too rich at times, stuffed with simile and metaphor, but smooth; the plot is well-paced without racing. Faye strides the historical crime path with confidence and well; this is a most absorbing debut.

Additional info:
This  copy was sent for review by We Love This Book, where a shorter version of this review will appear.
Publisher: Headline, 400 pages
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The Tenderness of Wolves – Stef Penney – 7/10

The Tenderness of Wolves tells the story of the search for the murderer of Laurent Jamais, French trapper in late nineteenth century Canada, one brutal winter. Mrs Ross’ son Francis is suspected of the murder, and she sets out on a most unconventional journey to clear his name.

This was my first full-scale audiobook listening exercise (it took me about 5 months from start to finish because I don’t have much time in the day that can only be used for audiobook listening!) and I very much enjoyed it. It is such a different experience from reading a print book (not least in terms of the patience necessary!) and I will be looking out for more audiobooks now. This recording had two narrators; Sally Armstrong (with a beautiful clear but distinctive Scottish accent) for Mrs Ross’ strand of the narrative and Adam Sims (again, a clear and versatile voice) for various male-perspective strands.

I was particularly impressed by the characterisation of Donald; like Mrs Ross, he was granted considerable rumination and reflection, thinking back on his time with the Company in Canada and about his father. There were definite tinges of Little House on the Prairie in there, as what is fundamentally a simple murder mystery with a bit of pursuit is turned into an adventure story (to anyone who’s read it: did the story of Lina and her escape have any purpose at all except to add some danger?) and the cosy winter scenes are tempered with the tragedy of the Ross’ lost daughter and the missing Seeton girls.

Somehow the ending, which I would have found riveting and fast-paced in print, dragged a little in audio; whether there was too much perspective switching as the scene was revisited by several characters, or whether it was simply a function of the time taken to describe a scene and thus the impossibility of urgency, I’m not sure. Something to keep an eye out for in future I guess.

An enjoyable adventure tale, and well done in audio.

Additional info:
This was borrowed from the library.
Publisher: ISIS Audio Books
Order The Tenderness of Wolves from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this, which goes towards giveaways.
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