Category Archives: Historical novel

Book Review: City of Masks by S D Sykes

Poor Oswald De Lacy is in a bad way.  He is running from grief in his past and internal mental torment when he finds himself stuck in Venice.  “That doesn’t sound so bad” do I here you say?  But this isn’t Venice of today filled with light, beauty, energy and tourists this is the Venice of deep winter 1358.  The city is under siege due to a conflict with Hungary.  Provisions are running low.  The city has barely begun recovering from the black death.  Suspicion and paranoia rule in the form of the mysterious and autocratic ‘Council of Ten’.  The secret police can seize anyone suspected of spying or immoral behaviour and drag them away for torture and even execution.

He finds himself here after being diverted from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his mother.  They take accommodation in the home of an old family friend, John Bearpark, a rather bad tempered old man who chargers them for their stay and is far from a gracious host.  Along with a couple of odd fellow pilgrims the household is also consists of the Bearpark’s young pregnant wife Filomena (who Oswald finds himself disturbingly drawn to), his hard drinking party loving grandson Enrico and a handful of rude servants.

I suppose the best our Oswald can do is keep his head down and stay quiet until the siege is lifted and he can move on…some hope!  First he is persuaded to join Enrico in his partying and gets mixed up with some rather rough people, gets in trouble with too much gabbling and attracts the unwelcome attention of the Council of Ten.  The last thing he needs is to stumble across a mutilated corpse…but that is what happens.

Compelled to investigate the crime by pressure from his host who wants to avoid potential scandal he embarks on a quest that puts him in danger from every side.  He must seek out a murderer in a city where asking questions can see you accused of spying.  He must explore the underworld of Venice at a time when any moral transgression, or mere suspicion of it, can see you burned at the stake.  A tricky task indeed!

The best thing about this book is the setting.  The dark, spooky canals of medieval Venice help increase the sense of peril.  I also liked an historical book set in an era that has not been overdone, as I sometime feel the Tudor period has.  The characters were also good, I was left wanting to know what happened next to the characters (…those who survived that is!).

It’s a fairly exciting story but I felt the mystery itself was the weakest aspect.  I think the characters and setting would have been even more enjoyable if this hadn’t been a ‘who-done-it’, this aspect felt a bit shoehorned in, I could almost picture the meeting in the publishing house when they decided this had to fit into the crime genre because historical detectives are so popular.  The novel would have worked just as well if it had been the same characters in the same setting experiencing a number of things including murder but without following the formula of a detective character investigating the crime.

4/5

Zoe

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city of masks

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Book Review: Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

 

This is a good Read.  It takes us back in time to Amsterdam in the 17th century.  Holland is in the grip of ‘Tulip Fever’ when tulip bulbs were exchanged for huge sums of money and fortunes won and lost on this rather bizarre craze.  But our focus, at least to begin with, is on Sophia a young wife married to a much older husband who is about to have her portrait painted.

Bored and unhappy married to a man more than 30 years her senior she throws caution to the wind and embarks on a love affair with the artist employed to paint her.  Her only confidant is her maid who is a sympathetic ear (at least to begin with!) as she too is in love and willing to help her mistress pursue romance.  But how will it end?! If Sophia is discovered her reputation would be ruined and although she does not love her husband she relies on his good opinion and generosity to support her impoverished family.  Has she really found true love with her artist or just lust?  Will her servant keep her secret?  Will the lovers have a happy ever after or be disgraced by their reckless passion?  You’ll have to read it to find out!

There are plenty of twisted and turns to keep the reader engaged and a good dose of humour along with more serious moments.  I really liked the way Moggach moves the reader’s sympathy this way and that – I think we pity Sophia one moment as she is trapped in a marriage (and marriage bed!) with a man more than twice her age and longs for love and passion and fun with someone her own age.  Next we sympathise with her husband who is kind, loving and trusting – if lacking awareness as to how his wife might feel – he has a kind of oblivious vanity in assuming his wife is satisfied with him but is basically a good soul and doesn’t deserve what is coming to him…

A good light-hearted read ideal for a holiday or commute.

4/5

Zoe

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Tulip Fever

 

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Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse

This was a pretty good book, the downside is that I felt it should have been even better.

The action of the story is divided between 1960s London and 1930s Spain.

We begin in London where we meet Odelle.  Odelle is an aspiring writer who has immigrated to London from the West Indies.  After a few unsatisfying years working in a shoe shop she gets a better job as a typist at a top art dealers.  Here she meets the enigmatic and charismatic Marjorie Quick.  The arrival of a mysterious painting upsets Quick and awakens Odelle’s curiosity about both the painting and Quick’s relation to it.  The story then jumps back to 1930s Spain on the eve of Civil War where we find out about the creation of the painting.

In 1930s rural Southern Spain we meet the Schloss family and their brother and sister Spanish servants Teresa and Isaac.  The Schloss family are parents Sarah and Harold and teenage daughter Olive, they are from a British and Austrian background and have just arrived in Spain.  There are a myriad of tensions in this household: Olive is attracted to Isaac and they share an ambition to become artists, Harold is conducting a secret affair that young Teresa accidentally discovers, beautiful and glamourous Sarah suffers from depression and possibly alcoholism, Teresa is drawn to Olive and is jealous of the attention Olive is giving her brother…and on top of all this Civil war is brewing…basically there is a lot going on!

This is quite a plot driven piece and it’s hard to say more without risking spoilers (which I don’t want to do as this is definitely worth reading for yourselves).  The Spanish plot is compelling and keeps you wanting to know what happens next.  But we keep jumping back to the 1960s which is a bit irritating as it is rather dull in comparison.  I don’t think Burton convinced me at any stage of the necessity for Odelle to be in this story, we don’t need her to reveal the 1930s action as the author can tell us that without Odelle discovering clues to what did or didn’t happen.  Odelle has potentially a good story of her own, coming to Britain, facing racism and struggle to establish herself, but this story does not really get room to breathe – if Burton wants to tell that story she should have given Odelle her own book and not tried to shoehorn her into to a story mainly about art and the Spanish Civil War.  Burton tries to imply that the stories of Olive and Odelle are linked as they are both creative young women struggling with their art in different times, but I think each story was strong enough to stand alone and the piece is weakened by trying to slot them together somehow.

I think Burton introduces an interesting situation in Spain with intriguing characters but doesn’t quite develop either characters or plot quite fully enough (I had a similar criticism of the Miniaturist, although I think The Muse is much better).  I felt the book could have been longer and more detailed (not something I often say as I am generally a fan of short books).  It is good, but felt a little rushed and underdone.  Jessie Burton is a good writer through and imaginative – I would definitely read more of her work, I just think she should be more ambitious, there were all the ingredients for a great epic tale here rather than just an enjoyable OK story.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Conspiracy by S.J. Parris

conspiracy

This is the fourth book in S.J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno series.

Giordano Bruno was a real person who lived in late 16th century Europe.  He was a disgraced monk who abandoned holy orders because of his ‘heretical’ ideas on philosophy and science.  He is probably most famous for his theories on an infinite universe.  Excommunicated by Rome he travelled Europe making his living (with varying levels of success) as a teacher and academic, finding favour at times with rich and powerful figures because of his great intelligence.

S.J. Parris takes these facts and then uses her imagination to turn Bruno into a sort of travelling sleuth who solves crimes on his travels and become embroiled in plots and conspiracies wherever he goes!  It is a great idea.

So far we have seen him in Oxford, London and Coventry dealing with the spies, religious radicals, murderers and plotters who were indeed abound in Elizabethan England.  This novel is in my opinion the most exciting yet and sees him over the channel in the Paris that oversaw the end of the Valois Dynasty.

Henry III

Henry III of France, one of many interesting characters in the novel based on real historical figures. 

It’s a great setting.  Set about 15 years after the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s day, when tens of thousands of Protestants were slaughters across France, we find a city taut with religious and political tension.  The last Valois King Henry III, although still relatively young, is childless and not in the best of health and his cousin and likely heir is a Protestant.  Will the King, whom most believe to be a homosexual, produce an heir with his long suffering wife?  Will a Protestant on the throne reopen the barely healed religious wounds?  Or will the Catholics find a way to force a Catholic succession with or without a legitimate Valois heir?

Bruno is drawn into  this conflict when an old friend of his is mysteriously murdered and the clues indicate that the man had been part of a conspiracy at the heart of the French court possibly involving a plot to assassinate the King!

The best thing about this novel is that it is really exciting, full of danger and peril.  It is also fun to learn more about the rather debauched French court which is run by the formidable Queen Mother Catherine De Medici.   As for criticisms I found moments a little too gory, some of the poor characters really suffer under torture, but this is probably just because I am a wuss and the scenes did reflect the bloody times and helped raise the peril levels for Bruno.  I also, in common with the other Bruno novels, felt the mystery itself to be a little weak.  Parris is excellent at creating compelling characters and settings but she is no Agatha Christie when it comes to creating an intriguing mystery.  At the ‘big reveal’ moment in each of the Bruno stories I have read so far I have felt a sense of disappointment at the solution of the mystery, a sort of “Oh, was that all”.  But overall a great read and they do say the journey can be more exciting than the destination!

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This book has an interesting style.  It is fiction but is written as if it is true crime with the text made up primarily of witness accounts and trial documents and reports.  The crime in question is the murder of a Scottish crofter and his young son and daughter, the criminal is one of his neighbours, a 17-year-old boy, Roderick Macrae.  It is set in 1869 in the Highlands of Scotland.

Most of the book is an account written by Roderick (who freely admits his guilt) of the circumstances leading up to his crime.  It makes fascinating reading, not just because of the crime, but because of the picture it paints of life as a 19th century crofter.  People living as peasants long after the industrial revolution had swept the rest of the country.

The story also offers an element of mystery.  Not as to who did the crime, as that is pretty clear, but why.  Because he is so open about his guilt Roderick seems a reliable witness but aspects of his account don’t tally with evidence found in court documents.  Did he really kill the family driven by family pride after a prolonged disagreement as he claims or did he actually have baser motives?

It is a very interesting and well written book.  Mysterious and offers a glimpse into a world very different from modern Britain.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's Ark

This is the Booker prize winning novel on a very serious subject of the holocaust.  And I didn’t finish it.  I feel bad, like I was obliged to find it brilliant and moving as so many other people have.

The subject matter really is moving and the darkest subject there is.  The story has an element of hope too however.  It tells the story of Oscar Schindler a Czechoslovakian businessman living under Nazi rule during World War II.  He uses his wealth, power and influence to save as many Jews as he can.  The book was made into a film, retitled Schindler’s List, which won a record number of Oscars.  It is based on a true story and real people.

I guess with the subject matter it’s not the kind of book you expect to enjoy but I have to say I didn’t find it hugely moving or engaging either.  The style didn’t pull me in.  Keneally moves between short, often harrowing, stories of Jewish families before quickly moving on to another individual’s or group’s story.  The only constant character is Oscar, but I never really felt I ever really got to know him well either.  I think it is probably intentionally arranged like this, it would be easier for the reader to follow if we stuck with one group of characters but perhaps part of Keneally’s take is to show how many horrifying stories there were and not give any one the focus of the book.  There was one tale I particularly liked with elements of joy about a couple who fell in love and married while confined to a work camp, their friends and family help them court, marry and even attempt a wedding night all in secret without the guards finding them out – it was almost funny!  Then we left the couple after only six pages or so – I was left wanting to follow their story for good or ill.  Other books I have read about the Holocaust recently have been Diary of a Young Girl and The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas, these tales make the holocaust human and almost manageable by focusing on a small tight experience, Keneally leaves the holocaust vast and hard to imagine or relate to.  It’s admirable but it just wasn’t for me, I constantly found myself wishing I was reading a factual book instead or that it would start to take on a more conventional storytelling approach, I found myself having to be disciplined about picking it up and reading it was slow going until I eventually gave it up with about 100 pages to go.

I’m not sure if I failed or the book did.

2/5

Zoe

holocaust memorial

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The Muse by Jessie Burton is the 2018 Cityread book

The Muse by Jessie Burton (Pan Macmillan) has been chosen as the book for Cityread London 2018. The title will be the centre of a month-long celebration of reading in the capital, starting on 30 April and running throughout May.  Cityread is a huge city-wide book group which aims to help Londoners explore and celebrate their city through its stories.

The Muse cover

The Muse opens in London 1967, where we meet Odelle Bastien, recently arrived from Trinidad and trying to make her way in a new country.  A new job at the Skelton Institute of Art brings a mysterious painting, and even more enigmatic colleague, into her life.  We are then transported to Spain, 1936, and meet Olive Schloss, and we begin to discover how the painting came into being, against the turbulent backdrop of Spain on the eve of civil war.

Taking Burton’s depictions of 1960s London and 1930s Spain as a starting point, a programme of events exploring The Muse’s themes of arrival, the creative process, art history and family secrets will take place in Brent Libraries (and indeed across London!) throughout May.  Highlights will include:

  • A life drawing art workshop on Tuesday 8 May
  • A Spanish cookery class on Thursday 10 May
  • A history talk about the Moors of Spain on Wednesday 16 May
  • An art history talk, Guernica and beyond, looking at the art of the Spanish Civil War on Tuesday 22 May

We will also be holding a competition for the best book review of The Muse with some exciting themed prizes!

For full details of our events look out for our special brochures, keep an eye on our online events lists or email libraries@brent.gov.uk

Jessie Burton

“I’m truly delighted that The Muse will be London’s Cityread for 2018. It’s a novel that celebrates the diversity, humour and spirit of Londoners – both those who were born here and those welcomed in to make it their home. It’s an honour to support our city’s libraries and to be reminded of their incomparable value, and I can’t wait for new readers to find my story of Odelle and Olive, and make it their own.”

Jessie Burton

 

Further details of all Cityread London activity can be found at the website:

www.cityread.london and at Facebook/CityreadLondon

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Book Review: If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If you go away

I’m afraid this book has gone on to my small life is too short pile of unfinished books.  The book was highly recommended to me by a friend so clearly not everyone feels this way!

It was just so humdrum and dull (IMO).  I gave it a fair chance, I got to page 233 before I decided that I had no interest in finding out what happened to these characters and would quite easily shut the book and never think of them again (obviously I’m thinking of them now – but only because I’m writing the review).

The book gives us alternate chapters following our heroine then hero over the same time period.  Our heroine is Vivian a very beautiful (we’re told this repeatedly) and slim (which we’re told over and over again) debutant.  Slim, beautiful Vivian is a popular girl who hopes to make a good marriage and help raise her family’s flagging fortunes but then when she fears she is losing the attentions of the man she has set her sights on she has sex with him in an attempt to seal their relationship.  This is a shocking thing for a high born young woman do to in 1914 and, although it is not clear that the details of her indiscretion are widely known, her reputation is damaged so her family rush her into a hasty marriage much more lowly than they had hoped for.  Her husband is not cruel or anything but he is cold and unaffectionate so their marriage is rather unsatisfactory.  It gets worse for Vivian when war breaks out her husband goes to war and it’s decided she should relocate from London to their relatively modest country home in the midlands where she is very lonely and isolated.

Our hero, Howard’s, story runs concurrently.  He a handsome (we are told this repeatedly), tall and manly (we are told this again and again) playwright who has a promising career ahead of him.  But then war breaks out and Howard is pressured to sign up, he resists because he does not agree with war and instead goes to the trenches as a journalist.  There he sees the horrors of war first hand and becomes even more convinced of the futility of war.  He returns to England just as conscription is introduced.  He becomes a conscientious objector and is imprisoned because of this.

trenches

Howard witnesses the horrors of life in the trenches

At this point I felt the time was coming for our heroes to meet as Vivian had befriended Howard’s mother in the country and she had started to talk to Vivian about the plight of her son.  That’s when I decided I just couldn’t go on.

It’s hard to put my finger on why this was so rubbish.  I guess in a way it wasn’t terrible just so so, it seemed to have nothing to offer that hadn’t been done better elsewhere.  There have been better books about lonely neglected wives and much better books about the horrors of war.  The characters were very two dimensional with nothing about them that drew you in or made you feel an emotional link to their journeys.  I just thought they both sounded fairly inoffensive but dull and I couldn’t imagine having an interesting conversation with either of them (even though I’m sure they would have been very nice to look at!)

I’d really like to hear from anyone who strongly disagrees with me on this.  What is it about this that you liked so much?  Does something extraordinary happen in the second half to make it all worthwhile?!

2/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

This is a very good book but the plot took a direction midway through that I really wasn’t keen on.

The book set a little after the first world war and is about a well to do mother and daughter (Frances) who have fallen on financial hard times so decide to take in lodgers – The Paying Guests.  A young couple, Lilian and Leonard, move in and the first half of the novel is about this slightly uneasy living arrangement.

PayingGuest

I found this first half of the novel utterly sublime, there is so much in there even though relatively little happens.  It’s riddled with tension around class, sexuality, the role of women, the generation divide.  The living arrangements form a fascinating dynamic, the mother and daughter are from upper society but now have no money, Lilian and Leonard are from working class backgrounds but Leonard has found a good job in insurance so have much more cash and better prospects than their well to do landlords, so where does the power lie?  Frances’ mother is old fashioned and is very embarrassed by her daughter doing housework, but they can’t afford servants any more so what choice do they have?  Frances, a formed suffragette, longs to embrace the new opportunities for independence that are becoming available to women but feels morally obliged to keep house for her mother, especially as her mother is still grief stricken by the lost of her two sons in the trenches.  There is tension between the young couple, they married partly because Lilian was pregnant but the baby died leaving them tied to each other with neither entirely happy in their marriage.  Like I say, there is so much going on and all of it subtly played out through little moments; an awkward conversation in the scullery, a passing on the stairs, an overheard hushed argument in the parlour.

The novel changes around the midway point.  Things become much more melodramatic and the subtlety is all lost.  I personally did not enjoy this change, the novel doesn’t become bad but I would have preferred it to continue as a story of human relationships amid massive social changes not a story of passion and violence.  I won’t go into detail of what happens as you may wish to find out for yourself, and I would still recommend this novel even though I found it somewhat disappointing.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Blood and Beauty

This is a novel about the real 15th century family: the Borgias.  Anyone who saw the TV series a couple of years ago with Jeremy Irons as the Borgia Pope may be familiar with much of the storyline.

The head of the family is Roderigo Borgia who is a Spanish Cardinal who climbs the ranks of the church to become Pope Alexander VI.  Like many churchmen in these times of corruption he has failed to keep his vows of chastity and has had mistresses and fathered children.  4 children, by the same mistress, form the nucleus of his family (although he also fathers 2 further children by a later mistress).  He shows no shame or embarrassment at having a family, in fact he showers them with positions and titles.  The family act as almost the royal family of the Papal States and this novel deals with their ambitions, love affairs and battles over the course of about 5 years.

Portrait by Bartolomeo believed to be of Lucrezia Borgia.

Portrait by Bartolomeo believed to be Lucrezia Borgia.

The novel is based on fact but much about the Borgia family is unknown although there are lots of rather scandalous unsubstantiated rumours (involving things like poison, incest and fratricide).  So Dunant has both factual details to guide her but exciting rumours to fully exercise her imagination!  This is where the novel failed for me somewhat, with an opportunity to write her version of events she chooses instead to remain vague about things.  She leaves it inconclusive as to whether one brother killed another or whether the family practiced incest – I would have preferred she choose to either make the family more heroic but maligned by history…or even worse and more scandalous than the rumours report!  She does neither, she instead writes a pleasing but rather bland tale.

The book is well written enough and easy to read but is not a gripping story.  The second half is a little more exciting as the family’s ambition grows and the eldest brother Cesare becomes ever more ruthless but overall it is not a page turner.

Jeremy Irons playing the Borgia Pope and the real Alexander VI.

Jeremy Irons playing the Borgia Pope and the real Alexander VI.

By Zoe

3/5

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