Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

The Last Hours by Minette WaltersCrime fiction writer Minette Walters has branched out into the realms of historical fiction with her new novel The Last Hours. Set in the summer of 1348, it provides a fascinating glimpse into what life was like for the ordinary folk of Dorset when faced with the horror of the Black Death. Lady Anne of Develish decides to quarantine the demesne, bringing her serfs inside the walls to keep them safe from contamination. But the people soon become restless, as fear of starvation begins to counteract the fear of disease.   Continue reading

Book Review: Albi by Hilary Shepherd

Book - Albi by Hilary ShepherdSet during the Spanish Civil War, and beginning in 1938, this is a novel which captures perfectly the mixture of fear, excitement and uncertainty experienced by ordinary citizens in rural Spain. Albi is nine years old when the soldiers arrive in his village. Some say the war is over, and some say that it’s not, but it seems like everyone else knows what’s going on apart from him. They say he’s too young, but he’s determined to understand. Told from Albi’s perspective, the story is vivid and, though fictional, it feels very real.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield

The Magpie Tree by Katherine StansfieldThe Magpie Tree begins where Falling Creatures left off, with Shilly (the narrator) and her new companion (Anna Drake) arriving at Jamaica Inn in 1844, looking for a new mystery to solve. There is a strange mix of historical realism and gothic horror, as the pair begin to investigate the disappearance of a young boy. But this is no ordinary detecting duo. Anna transforms herself into an array of different characters, unwilling to reveal her true identity, whilst Shilly sees things in the landscape around her which others do not, things which suggest a merging of past and present, reality and myth.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

The Bookmans TaleThe Bookman’s Tale is one of those novels that begins at a deceptively slow pace, building its momentum as the plot is revealed. It begins in the 1990s, as antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly is trying to overcome the shock of losing his young wife. In an attempt to regain some sense of normality he ventures into a bookshop, and discovers an unusual Victorian painting hidden between the pages of a book – a portrait which looks remarkably similar to his late wife. As he attempts to uncover the secrets of this mystery painting, the plot thickens, and we are transported back through the centuries to an incredible book, a family feud and finally to the master storyteller – Shakespeare himself.    Continue reading

Book Review: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Book - At the Edge of the Orchardby Tracy Chevalier“Sadie is the most monstrous character I’ve ever written,” explained Tracy Chevalier at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, “and she was very fun to write”. Sadie Goodenough, along with her husband James, take centre stage as the characters of Chevalier’s novel At the Edge of the Orchard. Set in 1830s Ohio, in an area known as the ‘Black Swamp’ where farmers planted orchards, the book is an alternative to the idyllic American settler literature. This pioneer couple are engaged in brutal domestic warfare, fighting about everything, including apples.   Continue reading

Christmas Gifts for Historical Fiction Fans

christmas book-giftsIt’s nearly Christmas and you may well be searching for some book recommendations – something that will make the perfect gift for your bookworm friend. If you know someone who loves historical fiction, then take a look at my top five suggestions below, and click on the title to read a full review…    Continue reading

Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah PerrThe Essex Serpent is a refreshingly modern historical novel, set in 1893. It follows the story of Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and released, at last, from an abusive marriage. Eager to enjoy her new-found freedom, she abandons London for the Essex Coast, planning to scour its cliffs and beaches for fossils, and determined to track down the mysterious Essex Serpent (which she hopes will turn out to be an undiscovered species). She meets the very practical minister of Aldwinter (William Ransome) who is keen to quell any rumours of serpents and, despite their opposing views, they are immediately drawn to each other.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus ZusakThe Book Thief is set in Germany during the Second World War, but it is not your average war story. It is full of metaphors and symbolism, echoing the style of a fable, and it is narrated by an intriguing character – Death. Death looks on as humans do their best to destroy each other in the most horrific ways imaginable, while he is left to clear up the mess they leave in their wake. He doesn’t want to become involved, but he is drawn towards a young girl (Liesel) as she travels across Germany to meet her new foster parents, encountering Death on the way.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott

Book - The Fatal Tree by Jake ArnottI heard Jake Arnott reading from his novel, The Fatal Tree, at the Hay Festival, and was intrigued by his use of slang words – a historical dialect of thieves and villains, taken directly from the “flash world” of Romeville in 18th century London. The book centres on the true story of infamous jail-breaker Jack Sheppard and his companion, the notorious Edgworth Bess (aka Elizabeth Lyon), but it is not a straightforward telling. Arnott’s narrator (William Archer) is a young hack writer, who gains his material directly from Edgworth Bess herself, as she awaits trial at Newgate Gaol.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

Book - The Muse by Jessie BurtonAfter reading Burton’s debut novel (The Miniaturist) I was expecting more of the same, but The Muse is quite different, both in style and theme. It is much more exciting and multi-layered, spanning two different time periods and focusing on the origins of an unusual painting. The book begins in 1960s London, where we meet the young aspiring writer Odelle Bastien, who moved to London five years ago from the West Indies. She is thrilled when she eventually lands a job as typist for the Skelton Art Gallery, working for the stylish Miss Quick.    Continue reading

Book Review: Gaslight by Eloise Williams

Book - Gaslight by Eloise WilliamsIt’s always strange to read a children’s book as an adult, requiring a kind of leap backwards to a previous version of yourself. Gaslight by Eloise Williams, is exactly the sort of book the younger me would have enjoyed – with the perfect mix of historical detail, mystery, suspense and danger. The fact that it is set in Victorian Cardiff (in 1899) adds an extra dimension of interest for a historian like me, as I can visualise the old city superimposed over familiar streets.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Book - The Miniaturist by Jessie BurtonThe Miniaturist is an intriguing work of historical fiction which immediately draws you in to the world of seventeenth century Amsterdam – a world ruled by Burgomasters and Guilds, where neighbours spy on each other and traders show off their riches. Burton tells the story of Nella, a young country girl arriving at the home of Johannes Brandt (her new husband and a wealthy merchant) who seems distant and uninterested in her. But he does present her with a wedding gift – a perfect miniature replica of her new home.    Continue reading

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic tale written in lyrical prose. It begins in the present, with Marie (also known as Li-Ling) baffled by her father’s unexplained abandonment and suicide, and intrigued by the visit of the teenage girl Ai-Ming, daughter of her father’s friend, on the run from China and seeking safety abroad. The narrative soon delves back into the past, revealing the story of Big Mother Knife, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer, all mixed up with an ancient tale that never seems to end.    Continue reading

Book Review: Falling Creatures by Katherine Stansfield

Falling creatures by Katherine StansfieldFalling Creatures combines the genres of historical fiction, detective story and gothic ghost story in a rather unsettling way, producing a novel that is both haunting and full of suspense, though it is actually based on historical fact. The author, Katherine Stansfield, grew up on Bodmin Moor, where the novel is set, and the tragic murder of Charlotte Diamond is a familiar story to local residents. At the book launch, Stansfield explained that she has always wanted to write about this case, but it was only recently that she discovered a way into the story.    Continue reading

Book Review: Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time's Echo by Pamela HartshorneTime’s Echo is one of the most gripping novels I’ve read in a long time. It follows the story of Grace Trewe, who is staying in York to settle the affairs of her late godmother (Lucy) who drowned in mysterious circumstances. Grace is a keen traveller, fully intending to move on once the house has been sold, but memories of surviving the Boxing Day tsunami still haunt her, and she soon begins to have nightmares of drowning. These strange dreams, which appear to be set in sixteenth century York, seem frighteningly real, until past and present begin to merge into something quite extraordinary…    Continue reading

Book Review: White Lies by Lynn Michell

Book - White Lies by Lynn MitchellI actually won a copy of this book on Twitter by explaining why I preferred a different cover – one which was white (to go with the title ‘White Lies’) featuring an image of a young girl (see below). The novel begins in the present, as Eve patiently types up her father’s memoirs, whilst also reflecting on her own childhood memories of living through the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, in the 1950s. We soon begin to realise that there is something left unsaid, something that Eve and her sister never knew about…    Continue reading

Book Review: Sweet Caress by William Boyd

book - sweet caressA Guest Post written by James Fenchurch

I will confess that before I picked up Sweet Caress I was already a confirmed William Boyd fan, and this novel only reinforced my view. His hallmark for me is his gift for creating a vivid sense of place and time through rich, detailed and precise language, within the framework of a completely unexpected story.    Continue reading

Time Travel with a Twist – A Book Review

Jodi Taylor bookJust One Damned Thing After Another by Jodie Taylor gives you time travel with a twist. It’s got all the best elements of Doctor Who and Harry Potter rolled into one and, better yet (for historians like myself), it’s full of genuine, historical research, alongside plenty of humour. Madeleine Maxwell (Max) finds herself a job at St Mary’s, a crumbling old house full of intriguing characters, explosions and surprises. She becomes a trainee historian, learning the ropes, until one day she gets to actually travel back in time. And then the excitement really begins…    Continue reading