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Historical Fiction – recent excellent reads #GreatBook

My recent reading. Historical Fiction recommendations.

As you know, I read widely, and here are some books which are definitely worth your time. All are beautifully written. Click the title for the UK buy link.

The Anchoress

This is a contemplative book aimed at young adults. Its powers lie in the description of life as a nun, locked in a hermitage behind four walls, with only the nesting birds for company. This is a book that’s big on small detail, and evokes the medieval period through what is absent rather than what is present. We spend much of the novel inside Sarah’s head, along with her fears of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, sexuality and chastity.

(Bought this from the revolving book stand in Booths Supermarket – much more tempting than the fruit & veg stall)

Olive Kitteridge

Not strictly speaking a historical novel, though it has an old-fashioned aura about it, and covers 25 years of a marriage. Set in Maine, this tells of the small triumphs and disasters of the relationships in a small town in a series of linked vignettes. Each is a separate mini-story, with its own heart, and its own ending. Put together it creates a portrait of Olive Kitteridge – an ordinary woman in a small town – and does it with extraordinary insight and perceptiveness. If you’re curious as to what makes A Pullitzer Prize winner, then here’s your answer!

(Was lent this by a friend who thought I’d like it – I did!)

Plague

A rip-roaring historical crime thriller in which a killer is on the loose in plague-beset London. Not for the faint-hearted, this includes plenty of gore, gruesome descriptions of the plague, and an edge of your seat plot. The pace is relentless and our two heroes – Coke and Pitman must unmask the murderer before he strikes again, risking, of course, death at the hands of the butcher in the process.

(After being on a panel with the author, I ordered this from Amazon)

The Heart of the Night

Epic WW2 fiction spanning counties and continents. At heart a love story between two couples, but also a story of the enduring friendhip of two women. This is not an easy book to condense into a sentence or two, but it covers the fate of Russians in WW2, the occupation of Paris, and the fate of soldiers at the front. Tender and realistic, the writing is seamless and flowing, and the 500+ pages seem to fly by.

(picked this up from a charity bookstall in aid of our local village hall – cost me 50p and worth a lot more for its entertainment value)

None So Blind

A great historical mystery set in Wales in the Victorian era. This is a crime novel with a difference – with an unusual detective , a barrister who is losing his sight, and his sidekick who is a down-to-earth clerk of a very different class. The two both need each other and irritate each other in ways which are believable and feel real. Add to this an unusual case centred around the Rebecca Riots of the 1840’s & 50’s, and you have a dark mystery that’s well worth a read.

(Alis Hawkins, the author, was first published by Macmillan New Writing, as was I, and we’ve stayed in touch. She sent me this as an ARC before it had a publisher – now I’ve got the real thing as a paperback via my local bookshop)

I Stopped Time

Haunting portrait of the Edwardian era told through the idea of the ‘new’ art of photography. Set in Brighton and London, pioneer photgrapher Lottie Pye must apologize on her deathbed to her son James (who thinks she has abandoned him as a child) and explain the story that led her to lead her life without him. When James inherits her photographs they explain to him more than anything else what she felt for him. Fabulous characters, lovely detail, and an engaging plot.

(Read this as an ebook after taking part in a promotion where this author was featured. I like the Edwardians, so thought I’d give it a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. )

Do give some of these books a try.

Categories
Blog Reviews Seventeenth Century Life

Three great books on The Great Fire of London

Rebecca Rideal – 1666 Plague, War and Hellfire

Plague War Hellfire

For most of my research books I prefer hard copy, and this is a brilliantly and evocatively written hardback, beautifully produced.

Here’s are some of the the opening sentences to whet your appetite:

‘Pale winter sun brought the dawn. Casting a mottled-grey glow on glazed windows and icy puddles, it offered light but little warmth. London was a month into a deep frost. Across the capital people woke to clanging church bells and the hubbub of the streets: barking dogs, clattering carts calling pigeons and chattering early risers.’

Written in three distinct sections covering the War with the Dutch, the Plague and the Fire, it is written chronologically beginning with the explosion of the ship, the London and ending with the Fire.  Lavishly illustrated with colour photographs and peopled by contemporary accounts, this is an account full of the vigour of the changing times. Just get it – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Ashes LondonAshes of London by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London is a murder mystery set in the burnt-out remains after the Great Fire. The opening chapter is a tour-de-force. We accompany James Marwood as he watches in amazement and horror as the edifice of St Paul’s Cathedral, the biggest landmark in seventeenth century London, burns before his eyes. He is spurred into action when he sees a young boy try to run into the flaming building. When he throws his cloak over him, he discovers the boy is actually a young woman, but before he can find out more, she runs off taking the cloak with her.

Who is she, and why was she taking such a risk? Later Marwood suspects she may have known something about a body, found in the smouldering remains – a man stabbed to death, with his thumbs tied behind his back.

The Ashes of London is about the search for these answers. Told in chapters alternating points of view between Marwood, and the young woman, Cat Lovett, we learn how little London has settled after the tumultuous events of the beheading of Charles I and the restoration of his son to the throne. The novel deals withn the fact that there is still a royal search for the regicides responsible for the execution, and particularly for the actual executioner himself.

If I have one criticism of the novel, it is that Marwood himself is rather passive; though I can see why – Cat is a vengeful and active protagonist, and two of those in one novel might have been excessive! However it does make for rather slow going in the middle of the novel. Persevere though, because the climax of the novel is another wonderful set piece and well worth waiting for. As a fly-on-the-wall re-imagining of seeing London go up in flames this is superb.

Permission HeavenBy Permission of Heaven – Adrian Tinniswood

As a novelist, I love the specifics – small details of time and place that are often overlooked in the tellings of history. Adrian Tinniswood gives me this is spades, in his book about the Fire of London. From the particulars of the evil portents, to the bungling attempts to control the spread of the flames, this is a close examination of the week that saw the end of Tudor London’s half-timbered houses and jettied windows, to be replaced with Wren’s elegant stone.

One of the things I liked was the use of maps at the start of the chapters to show the spread of the fire, and the extensive descriptions of fire equipment – the billhooks for pulling down hoses, the fire ‘machines’ that proved ineffectual against such a blaze.

The aftermath is also particularly well covered. More than 13,o00 houses were desroyed, innumerable churches and public buildings, leaving London economically impoverished, and half the population as refugees in Moorfields or other open spaces. Do get the paperback rather than an ebook, you’ll want to refer to it over and over.

Fire

Still on my list, is CC Humphey’s ‘Fire’.  And via Twitter, I’ve just heard of another – ‘The Prospect of This City’ by Eamonn Griffin. And if you have had enough of all this destruction , do try The Phoenix by Leo Hollis, which I really enjoyed and tells of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire.

So why all the interest? My third book in the Pepys series (still in the research phase) takes place during the Great Fire, but is scheduled for publication in 2019, so do enjoy these whilst you wait!

 

PhoenixProspect