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

Book Review: The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

Book - The Last Hundred DaysSet in communist Romania, in 1989, The Last Hundred Days is a fascinating, vivid portrayal of the last months of the Ceauşescu regime. The absurdity of living in a city full of corruption, lies and paranoia is emphasised by the fact that the story is narrated by a young, nameless English student, an outsider who is adrift and immune, in a world full of danger and repression.    Continue reading

Book Review: Requiem by Berlie Doherty

book requiemBerlie Doherty has written numerous books for children and young adults, short stories, plays and poetry. Requiem (one of only two novels which she has written for adults) was first published in 1991 and has recently been republished by Cybermouse Books. It is an intense, emotional story told from the perspective of young, talented Cecelia Deardon. Cecelia is intelligent enough to win a scholarship to the local convent school, but she will always stand out as the girl who has no money. She loves singing, but Mother Mary Rose forbids her from joining the choir, humiliating her at every opportunity.    Continue reading

Book Review: Addlands by Tom Bullough

Book - Addlands by Tom BulloughAddlands is a book that takes you to another place – a rural mid-Wales that no longer exists, where time was slower and life was hard. It begins in 1941, as the farmer, Idris Hamer, ploughs his land with determination, content with his place in the natural world, surrounded by his dogs, his horse, “seacrows, starlings and lapwings”. We move from moment to moment, gaining vivid, brief impressions of life in the Funnon, passing through the years, chapter by chapter, until finally we reach 2016, where the story concludes, aeons away from its beginnings.    Continue reading

Book Review: The White Camellia by Juliet Greenwood

Book - The White CamelliaSet in 1909, The White Camellia focuses on the women’s suffrage movement, a group less well-known than the suffragettes who, for years, had been meeting in tea rooms and campaigning peacefully for women’s rights. The book follows the story of Bea, a young woman forced to leave her beautiful home, Tressillion, and move to London, where she finds herself responsible for the welfare of her mother and younger sister. It seems like her only option is to marry her cousin, Jonathan, who inherited the estate, but then Bea stumbles upon The White Camellia, a women’s tea room, and discovers a world of excitement and possibility.    Continue reading

Book Review: Black River by Louise Walsh

Black River - bookBlack River is a fictional novel based on a true event: the Aberfan disaster of 1966, when a coal tip collapsed, engulfing the village school and killing 116 children and 28 adults. It begins with a description of the ghostly scene which greets the eyes of Harry Roberts, a local journalist, as he arrives in Aberfan moments after the slip. He is stunned and shaken by what he sees. Unable to focus on journalistic objectivity and overwhelmed by the tenacity of Fleet Street reporters getting in the way in their attempt to find the most sensational story, Harry gives up, returning home with nothing to report.    Continue reading

Book Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

suite francaiseSuite Française, translated from the French, is made up of two uncompleted works (Storm in June and Dolce) by Irène Némirovsky, who died at Auschwitz in 1942, before she was able to finish her planned novel sequence. In fact, the story of her own life is printed in the back of the book, and is just as fascinating a read as the novels themselves.    Continue reading

Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Book: All the light we cannot seeAll The Light We Cannot See follows the stories of Marie-Laure (a blind Parisian girl) and Werner (a German orphan) during the Second World War. It is poetic in style and epic in scope. Each chapter gives us an impression, a short glimpse into another world, often just one or two pages long, brimming with poignant images. It begins in 1944, then moves back ten years and gradually fills in the gaps, leading up to the moment when the lives of these two characters will intersect.    Continue reading

Book Review: My Own Dear Brother by Holly Müller

My Own Dear Brother thumbMy Own Dear Brother is a powerful depiction of life in occupied Austria during the Second World War. But it is not a book about war, or a book about occupation. It is a book which makes you realise that anyone is capable of anything, that evil comes not only from outside, but also from within. And it also demonstrates the brutal and unfair treatment of the vulnerable members in society.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Illusion of Innocence by Jacqueline Jacques

Book - The Illusion of Innocence by Jacqueline JacquesI know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this cover (with its simple, elegant design, Victorian camera, steam train and the word ‘mystery’) drew me in straight away. The Illusion of Innocence follows Archie Price, police artist and painter, as he helps to solve a mysterious crime in which the robber (Freddy Porter) stole a box of illicit postcards and murdered his victim. He meets Polly, sister of the accused, desperate to get away from Freddy and his gang, and all three end up on the same train, travelling to Chelmsford for the trial. A sudden and terrifying derailment turns everything upside down and, while Polly and Archie are looked after by a local family, Freddy is nowhere to be found.    Continue reading

Book Review: 1356 by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction book - 1356It is not often that I am inspired to read a book after watching a TV series, but the recent BBC adaptation The Last Kingdom (based on Cornwell’s Saxon Stories) had me gripped. I was delighted to discover that he has written a number of books, and immediately began with 1356. It is an intriguing tale, bringing to life a confusing and complex period of European history – The Hundred Years War between England and France.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden - a book by Kate MortonThis was the second book I read by Kate Morton, after being impressed with her first novel The House at Riverton. It was even better – with a beautifully interwoven plot which moves seamlessly between three different time periods. Australian Cassandra, in 2005, attempts to discover what her deceased Grandmother (Nell) was up to, back in the 1970s, when she bought a ruined cottage thousands of miles away in Cornwall and, in doing so, she stumbles upon a compelling mystery that dates back to 1913.    Continue reading

Book Review: The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

house at rivertonThis was a random find in an Oxfam bookshop in Chester – one of those buys where you look at the front cover (I must admit this didn’t really draw me in), scrutinise the blurb, scan a couple of pages and you’re still not absolutely sure… but it turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read all year, so well worth the £4 that I paid!   Continue reading

Book Review: The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

The Moor's Account - A book by Laila Lalami The Moor’s Account takes you on an unforgettable journey following the Spanish conquest of what is now Florida. The conquistadors search for the evasive land of gold, embarking on a trek which leads them into numerous confrontations with indigenous tribes and which, ultimately, most of them will not survive. Only four of them make it into the civilised world again: three Spanish free men and Mustafa, the slave. The novel is his story.    Continue reading