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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.

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Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – Miniature Scottish Coffins

In 1836, five young Scottish boys were out huntinCoffins 2g for rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, a hill in the centre of Edinburgh. After chasing a rabbit into a small cave, they saw something jammed into a crevice in the crag. It was the first of no less than seventeen miniature coffins – each one painstakingly carved out of pine and realistically ‘furnished’ with cut iron decorations.

The children pulled them out and were amazed to find that each tomb contained an individual wooden figure. All male figures, they had been individually and expertly carved, and then dressed up in their own set of clothes.

Unaware that they might be valuable or interesting, the boys played at throwing them about so several were “destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles”The Scotsman, 16 July 1836).

Now only eight of the seventeen remain intact, but what they were made for, or why they were hidden remains a mystery.

 the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier,  the effects of age had not advanced to far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.  Charles Fort

The coffins ended up in the collection of Robert Frazier, a South Andrews Street jeweller, who put them on display in his private museum  until he retired in 1845 . They were sold at auction as “The celebrated Lilliputian coffins found on Arthur’s Seat, 1836” and fetched £4.8s. It was not until 1901, that a set of eight were finally donated to the National Museum of Scotland (where they remain today) by their then owner, Mrs Christina Couper of Dumfriesshire.

coffins-3

Various theories have been suggested as to their origin and meaning – from being gruesome reminders of murder victims, memorials to dead children, pagan ritual dolls, hangman’s souvenirs, or sailors lost at sea.

An excellent in-depth article on the subject is here

In this series you might also like:

The Tudor Copperplate Map

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Entwined

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Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – the Lost Ruskin Daguerrotypes

Ruskin - Venice
Venice. The Ducal Palace South Façade. ‘Eastern Windows’ Tracery Looking Out Towards the Lagoon, c.1849–1852. Quarter-plate daguerreotype. By John Ruskin and John Hobbs (Ruskin’s valet)

I have just visited Brantwood, the Lakeland bolt-hole of Victorian giant of arts and literature, John Ruskin. Whilst I was there, I came upon this fascinating story. When Ruskin died in 1900, he was largely-forgotten figure, having suffered from bouts of mental illnesss, brought on, it’s said by a sense of powerlessness to change the industrial world and bring better conditions for the poor and the working classes. So his library, paintings, and personal effects were sold off in what amounts to a car boot sale in 1936.

Everything was laid out on the lawn at his family home, Brantwood, near Coniston, and locals were invited to make offers. All his possessions were sold that day, and have only gradually made their way back to Brantwood, which is now a museum to Ruskin’s life. Ever since then, his wonderful drawings, manuscripts, books and items of furniture have been gradually reappearing as Cumbrian people finally realise what they are, and their significance. The daguerreotypes had been owned by an elderly man who had inherited them, and who wanted to sell, having no idea they were of much value.

Ruskin john_ruskin_small
John Ruskin

The Penrith auctioneers did not help much either, because they misread the label on the box as ‘Vienna’, instead of ‘Venice’, and put in a conservative estimate of £80. Imagine their surprise when two separate bidders – having spotted the possibility they could be Ruskin’s lost photographs – started to bid against each other, each desperate to have them, until the price reached a whopping £75,000. And even better, imagine the face of the elderly gentleman when he heard how much they had made!

So what is a daguerreotype?

A daguerreotype photograph is one where, because of the process, each photograph is unique. The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful process in the history of photography. It uses an iodine-sensitized silvered plate, or even a real silver plate, and mercury vapour to produce the image. It was named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Nowadays, daguerreotypes are scarce, though some contemporary artists have re-embraced the medium today. Daguerrotypes can give very sharp and luminous images.

Ruskin The_Casa_d_Oro_Venice_Ruskin
The Casa d’Oro, Venice by Ruskin

Sources:

BBC News  The Telegraph Brantwood, Coniston

Quotations by Ruskin:

‘Fit yourself for the best society, and then, never enter it.’

‘Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.’

‘There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.’

Pictures from Wikipedia and The Telegraph.
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Books to invest in for Christmas Reading – mulled wine optional.

murder affairExcellent murder mystery with larger than life characters and a tone in which you can tell the author is enjoying the telling of the tale. John Lovat, the bastard brother of one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers and always second fiddle to his snooty brother, is employed to solve the mystery of the death of a Portuguese nobleman, and to hush up any scandal that might affect the court.

The author has researched the times thoroughly, with detailed knowledge of London streets, the theatres, the waterways and the politics of the day including the taking of slaves and the ruthlessness of piracy on the high seas. There are plenty of false leads and a surprising denouement. All in all an excellent read.

 

 

 

 

51eMB7tPzVL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_The House of York is loosely based on events during the era of the Wars of the Roses. It includes part of the plot of the Princes in the Tower (albeit updated) and this adds extra interest for history buffs.

The events are told from several points of view, mostly unreliable (!) and this family saga is part thriller, part crime, part intrigue, with a good dollop of psychology thrown in. This makes it sound complex, and it is, but it is also a seamless and entertaining read. The voices are clearly delineated, and each character convincing. Like the best historical sagas, Terry Tyler’s books are about power. Who owns it, who wants it, and the lengths people will go to to get it. Jealousy, back-stabbing, manipulation are all a part of the game. The ending leaves enough intrigue for the reader to wait anxiously for the next instalment.

 

 

 

51dYTFSb0SL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_A Dangerous Mourning is the second book in the William Monk Series, set just after the Crimean war, and full of Victorian atmosphere – the foggy Thames, and the complexity of the Victorian legal system. Both these outside forces are mirrored by Monk’s mind – his amnesia and how he copes with it, alongside his determination to be better than Mr. Runcorn, his superior, who would be happy to get rid of him from the Force.

The plot revolves around the murder of Octavia Moidore, a wealthy aristocrat’s daughter, who has been stabbed to death in her bed. Of course in those days there was no fingerprinting, no forensics, and the police force is full of ineptitude. Some of the time Monk is outwitting the system itself, as well as the perpetrator of the crime. Gripping, atmospheric stuff, with a great courtroom drama ending.

 

 

 

51fq0hMAISL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Letters to the Lost is a double romance set during World War Two and today. The plot is built around an empty house in which Jess finds herself after she escapes her violent boyfriend, Dodge. The letters she discovers in the abandoned house describe a sweeping love story that went wrong. At the same time, the airman of the letters is trying to find his long lost sweetheart and hopes she is still alive. With the help of her friend Will, Jess begins to unravel the mystery behind Dan and Stella’s wartime story, and in doing so finds a love of her own. Our hopes for a happy ending propel the two narratives along, and anyone looking for an exceptionally well-written romance with true heart and poignancy will love this.

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India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy by Carol K. Carr

I can’t imagine anyone writing historical fiction who doesn’t love history. What most people would consider tedious research is an incredibly pleasurable activity for an author. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who has to drag herself away from the reading part of the process to the actual writing of words.

In an indirect way, my inspiration for the India Black novels is my mother. That’s fairly ironic since she gets the vapors at the suggestion of anything even slightly off color and I doubt she thought her daughter would grow up to write humorous stories about a brothel owner who becomes a spy.

Mom taught me to read before I entered school, and I’ve had my nose stuck in a book ever since. The library in our little town had a collection of biographies of notable people, written especially for children. One of those books was about Queen Elizabeth I. There weren’t many books about women in that series, and the story of the Virgin Queen enthralled me. I read every book I could find on the Elizabethan era.

From there I branched out into other periods of English history, and other rulers. The English Civil War didn’t catch my fancy. Neither did Edwardian England. But the history of the British Empire fascinated me. I discovered Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica in college and I can still remember the excitement I felt when I read it. I’ll admit to some obsessive-compulsive behavior when it comes to reading, and I worked my way through every book in my college library that contained even the smallest reference to the Empire. Along the way I encountered some amazing characters: Disraeli, Gladstone, Rhodes and Kitchener. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Queen Victoria, although I’ve never really warmed up to her. Still, she belongs in the lineup of indomitable, bizarre and brilliant characters of the age.

During my reading journey, I stumbled across George MacDonald Fraser and his inimitable creation, Harry Flashman. The Flashman series stayed in my mind and several years into my career as a lawyer, I re-read the books. At that point, I was becoming consumed with the idea of writing my own novel. Fraser’s work was a splendid example of combining history, comedy and action and I wondered if I couldn’t write something similar, only this time with a woman at the center of things.

I mused about that for a while, drinking copious amounts of gin, and eventually the character of my protagonist, India Black, emerged in her full glory. Her character was so compelling to me, so vivid, that I had to get her on the page. And there was never any doubt that the Victorian period would serve as the backdrop for India’s adventures. The scope of the Empire was huge; India could go anywhere in the world and encounter pukka sahibs and scheming rajahs, pious missionaries and pompous generals. There was no doubt she’d consort with some of the leading figures of the day, whose biographies I’d devoured over the years. How could I pass up the opportunity to put my own spin on the leading lights of the day?

In short, India Black was made for the Victorian age, and the Victorian age was made for India Black. My heroine could not exist in any other time, and no other period could serve as such a splendid setting for her. I had no choice in the matter. I simply had to write it all down.

Find out more

Carol’s website