Tag Archives: historical fiction

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: 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: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

This book is inspired by real people and events. Agnes Magnusdottir really was found guilty of murder in 1820s Iceland and the author uses known facts about her life but the bulk of the novel is fiction as Kent uses her imagination to fill in the gaps. Agnes hasBURIAL-RITES been found guilty of murder and is awaiting the date of her execution. While this is arrange the authorities have to find somewhere to keep her and also ensure she has access to spiritual guidance. The novel covers the following months as she is kept in the home of a family and slowly tells her tale to a young priest. We follow events as they happen while also finding out about Agnes’ past as she recounts her experiences from childhood up to her arrest for murder. The setting is really interesting. You may find it strange that a criminal is sent to live in a family home! However it is established early in the novel that Iceland is an unindustrialised nation of small communities and doesn’t have the facilities or institutions other European nations might have had at this period to properly detain prisoners. The way the people in the novel live sounds medieval rather than nineteenth century, they are basically peasants living off the land – of course many British people of this time would have had a similar existence but there would also have been large towns with factories and big institutions that Iceland did not have, nor did British people have to battle with the weather to the same extent as the Icelanders. The setting is a long way from the drawing rooms and balls that would have featured in an Austen novel of this same period! The unfamiliar setting is a definite asset for the novel. The characters, family and servants, all pretty much live in a couple of rooms, they all sleep in one room. The novel is mostly set in mid-winter when it is so cold that it is dangerous to travel or really go out at all. So criminal, family and priest are pretty much stuck together making a claustrophobic and often tense atmosphere which works well for this story line.

The very bleak setting for the novel.

The very bleak setting for the novel.

Overall I liked this book very much. The story felt believable and the characters ‘real’.  Kent uses her imagination but doesn’t create a wildly over-the-top explanation as to why Agnes has found herself in such a terrible position, the tale she has concocted does feel like it could be true. What I didn’t always like was the writing style – Kent is a very descriptive writer, she can easily make a woman walking into the kitchen and getting a bowl of soup to eat last 4 or 5 pages! She likes to describe everything from the woman’s dirty finger nails to the smear of grease on the side of the saucepan to the slurping sound of the woman eating the soup – nothing wrong in this it’s just not to my taste. I particularly didn’t like the way Kent was constantly describing bodily functions! People seemed to constantly sweat, spit, chew, slurp, dribble, cough, vomit, wee, poo, sneeze etc. I know these things happen I just don’t like to be constantly reminded. I imagined the one room where everyone slept to be filled with bad smells and the sound of liquid noises – yuk! . A great story and well written (even if the writing wasn’t always to my taste) 4/5

Zoe

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One year, 51 books

lots-of-booksI took up the challenge last year to read 50 books in 2014. I actually read 51, having just made it through the last one in time! It could have been more, as one of them was 800+ pages long… !!!

As you’ve probably guessed, I love reading, always have done and always will. My studies and career choices have always reflected that. Back when I was growing up, reading provided me with escape and respite from difficult experiences. As an adult, I find that the books I choose often help me to understand and bring compassion to those difficult experiences, assisting me on my healing journey.
Working for Brent Libraries brings me in touch with lots of books. New books, old books, even those falling apart ones, hold a deep fascination for me. Assisting, as I do, with customer reservations brings the added excitement of coming across books I might not otherwise have seen.

So I thought I’d share with you the highlights from my 51 reads of last year. I thought I would go for the top 3, and The One I Would Never Read Again.

TOP 3 –

Paris by Edward RutherfordParis
I really like this genre, historical fiction spanning generations. It conveys social history really well, and puts into context what I learned about political history at school – in a much more inspiring way. I discovered so much about the building of Eiffel Tower for example. Surprisingly, the Revolution wasn’t really covered as such, which was a bit of a disappointment, but there’re threads of it. On the other hand, I found that a fresh, unexpected approach. Yes, it’s 800+ pages long, and towards the end it dragged a bit, but as a whole, definitely an interesting and thought provoking read.

silver_linings_playbook_cover_book1The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
I’m late to this book, which had a lot of hype with the film, I believe. I’ve never seen the film. The story I feel has a fragile and delicate structure that I found caught at my heart. It covers a lot of themes, including love and loss, and also the stigma that can be attached to having mental health issues. There was one particular well written passage conveying the pain of stigma with depth of emotion and empathy. The frequent American football scenes and references were tedious I found, as well as the main character’s somewhat unconventional relationship with his therapist, but it’s worth pushing through those for the core psychological issues covered in this book.

Refuge by Jenny Smith
This is non-fiction, a biography written by a woman who grew up, like me, in the early 70s, a period when the first women’s refuge was opened. I learned so much about the social milieu of the time, which put my own experiences into context. For me this was a very emotional, therapeutic read. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has lived through domestic abuse of any kind, or who is interested in women’s rights and social history. It also has the racial tensions of the era as a main theme.The RefugeNever Again! –

The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey
This was one weird book! Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with surreal, quirky fiction, I read so much of it when I did a Totalitarianism and Literature module at uni! But I didn’t expect this one to be quite so off the wall. It’s post-apocalyptic, packaged in a different way [orange and yellow cover, for example]. The blurb and the cover drew me in, but I found that it really wasn’t my cup of tea at all. But if you’re into zombies and girl with all the giftsall they entail, this is probably a book you would enjoy.

I write poetry, and am working on getting published. For a poet, I barely ever read poetry, so I plan to include some poetry books in my reads this year. I’m open to recommendations.
I also look forward to sharing with you on this blog some of my reading highlights as this year progresses.

 

Katie

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Book Review: The Warrior’s Princess by Barbara Erskine

Warrior's princessPlot
The story begins with Jess suffering a traumatic event. Jess is a teacher in a London sixth form college, one night she is assaulted by someone she knows. To escape the trauma of this event she goes to stay in her sister’s empty, remote Welsh cottage. But rather than find peace she finds she is being haunted by the spirit of first century AD, Welsh Princess Eigon. Eigon’s tribe was defeated by the Romans and she and her family taken captive. The two women are linked by their trauma and find a connection across the ages.
The story splits between – Jess’ tale: pursued and tormented by her attacker she flees to Rome where her sister is staying and while there tries to uncover more of Eigon’s history. Eigon’s tale: after first being mistreated by her captors she is taken to Rome where she is treated with more respect due to her station and kept in circumstances somewhere between honoured guest and important captive, her tale covers many years of her life and she becomes a healer then gets involved with early Christianity. The stories also cross with hauntings, possessions and characters from the past and present using séances and mediums to contact each other.

Is there anybody there?  The subtlety of the early chapters was lost as the plot became more far fetched and extreme.

Is there anybody there? The subtlety of the early chapters was lost as the plot became more far fetched and extreme.

Verdict
I really did not enjoy this book and was tempted many times to give up on it, although I did manage to struggle to the end. It’s a shame as I did like the concept of the story and quite enjoyed some of the early chapters but then, for me, it went off the rails for a number of reasons.
The first problem I had was that, when it came to dealing with the villain of the piece (I can’t say the name in case you want to read it as we don’t discover the identity of the baddie until a few chapters in) the behaviour of Jess and her friends did not seem believable for people living in modern Europe. When Jess is first attacked I can understand why she doesn’t go to the police, she is traumatised and also her memories of the attack are unclear as she had been drinking when she was hurt. I hope in her shoes that I would go to the police but I can understand why she doesn’t. But as the novel goes on her attacker reveals themselves beyond doubt, they stalk Jess, follow her across Europe, threaten to kill her, break into the places where she is staying and even physically attack her friends. Through all this Jess (and then her friends once they’ve witnessed the attacker’s behaviour) keep stressing that they can’t go to the police because there is no real ‘proof’, this goes on through the bulk of the novel until very near the end. I found it infuriating and more of a plot device from the author to enable the attacker to remain at large and a threat, than a realistic reflection of how real people might behave. I mean if I got home and found my house had been broken in to I would call the police, I wouldn’t start worrying that there was no proof as to who did the crime.

A novel set in such exciting time shouldn't be this dull.

A novel set in such exciting time shouldn’t be this dull.

The next problem I had was the character of the second protagonist Eigon. Her plot is rather more interesting than Jess’ especially as she becomes involved with early Christians under the reign of Emperor Nero. We all know the story, the fire of Rome while he fiddles, innocents thrown to the lions – I mean you can’t get much more exciting than that! But the excitement was rather marred by Eigon’s incredibly dull personality. She’s just so good. There seem to be no chinks in her shiny armour. She is described as physically very beautiful, then she learns to become a healer and treats the poor without charge out of charity and goodness, she loves her parents and then becomes even lovelier once she becomes a Christian and is prepared to selflessly risk her life for others and their shared beliefs. It’s like reading the adventures of ‘Little Miss Perfect’ (yawn!) If she were real I’m sure she would have been a lovely lady and nice person to know but in fiction I need a bit of edge. She didn’t need to be an all out sinner but a few flaws to make her more interesting would have made reading her journey a little less tedious.
Overall I felt the novel was too long, the author had a nice idea but didn’t have a strong enough plot or interesting enough characters to hold a reader’s interest for 500+ pages. The best bit was the beginning when the reader isn’t sure if Jess is really seeing ghosts or just suffering delusions because of stress – indeed there is doubt as to if she was really attacked or if she was, by whom, could she actually be going a bit mad? But these doubts and creepy tensions are quickly abandoned in favour of pure and unconvincing melodrama.
2/10.

Zoe

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Book Review: The Devil’s Beat, Robert Edric

They Say:

“A connoisseur of shadows, Edric is excellent on what is truly ‘devilish’ in human beings.  He specializes in murky uncertainty and disturbing implications”  SUNDAY TIMES

“The world Edric has made in this unsettling novel is both familiar and deeply weird; there’s a genuine sense of menace beneath the hysteria and superstition”  THE TIMES

devil's beat

We Say

“Not enough substance beneath the shadows”  ZOE ENGLISH, BRENT LIBRARIES.

The storyline of this novel is a sort of Suspicions of Mr Whicher meets The Crucible.  Set in 1910, an investigator, Mr Merritt, is sent from London to a rural village in Nottinghamshire to oversee a kind of ‘trial’ set up to investigate a strange happening.  Five young girls aged between nine and fifteen claim to have seen a devil in a clearing in the woods, one of the girls also says the devil visited her bedroom in the night, tried to get into bed with her and then smashed some plates.  All very mysterious and strange.  So a formal investigation is organised to publicly question the girls and get to the bottom of things.My first thought was ‘why?’.  I mean this is 1910 not 1610, surely the girl’s stories would be dismissed as silliness by most and life would continue fine without the expense and inconvenience of a formal investigation.  But I gave the author the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he had done research into a similar and real case in 1910 or perhaps the stories were causing serious unrest in the village.  Several of the characters refer to the stories causing unrest, but then I didn’t get the sense of this from the characters’ words and behaviour, people do seem to think the investigation is a waste of time and no one seems to believe the girls.  There are nasty rumours flying around, but then if that were enough cause for a mini trial we’d have had one every week in the Derbyshire village where I grew up!

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c1500-10) by Daniel Hopker. Did the Devil really jump out and surprise the girls in the wood?  After a while I stopped caring.

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c1500-10) by Daniel Hopker.
Did the Devil really jump out and surprise the girls in the wood? After a while I stopped caring.

So the novel got off to a bad start with me in that I didn’t really buy into the premise of the story.  I was still prepared to be swept along by the (perhaps slightly unbelievable) action…but there wasn’t really any.  Most of the novel was taken up by the ‘trial’.  “I put it to you that you didn’t really see the devil” – “well I did”.  “I think you’re making it up!” – “no I’m not” (or something similar). etc, etc.  Pretty dull, the characters even refer to things just going round in circles, and I as the reader was thinking the same.

Another theme in the book is the tension between the four men overseeing the ‘trial’, as well as Merritt there is a local doctor, a vicar and a magistrate.  Each of them have their own ambitions and concerns about the investigation.  But this tension didn’t really engage me either.  Overall a dull tale with a rather abrupt unsatisfying ending (the kind that leaves you thinking “I struggled through all these pages for that!”).  Not recommended.

You Say…

What do you think?  Disagree?  Have you read this book and found it gripping?  Or read something on a similar theme that you would recommend?  Let us know.

Zoe

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Widely Read?

Earlier this week I read an article about a woman who read every book on a library shelf as a sort of experiment into reading habits and the unique service the a library can provide.  I love the idea of reading in this random fashion.  That’s right, I love the idea…I’d hate to actually do it!

soooo many books, so little...inclination.

soooo many books, so little…inclination.

I have to confess that when it comes to novels I’m quite a narrow reader.  I like things in an historical setting that have an element of mystery or are quite action focused.  I like reading, but it’s an effort and a commitment and it often seems like too much of a risk to embark upon a reading adventure when you don’t like the look of the book to start with.  So the romances, family sagas, horror stories, tales of gentle village life or gritty Scandinavian thrillers etc. don’t get much of a look in.  Am I missing out?  Or is it sensible to know ones taste and stick with it?  I’d be interested to know what other people think.

 I doubt I’ll be reading every book on a shelf any time soon, but the article did make me think.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll try to pick something a bit different for my next novel!

 

Zoe

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Book Review: The Empress, Meg Clothier

They Say:

“So much more fun than another Boleyn book” INDEPENDENT

“Speedy, gripping historical fiction” MARIE CLAIRE

“Compelling, exotic and fast-paced” VANORA BENNET

We Say:

I can’t disagree with the critics too much on this one.  As a big fan of historical fiction I agree with The Independent that it’s nice to have a break from endless books about the Tudors.  This book featured a period and location I knew next to nothing about.

It’s set in late 12th century Istanbul (Constantinople as it was then) and follows the story of Agnes, a French Princess who is betrothed to the heir to the Byzantium Empire.  I found myself regularly googling the characters while reading to find out more about their real life histories – which is a pretty good indication that I was engaged by the story.

The EmpressThe most interesting character is Andronikos, Agnes’ second husband and Byzantine Emperor 1183-85.  He sounds like he had quite the interesting life full of violence and scandalous love affairs, a life that ended with a particularly nasty death (not too much of a spoiler I hope).  I definitely want to read more about him, Umberto Eco wrote a novel about him called ‘Baudolino’ which I might take a look at, although the review I read of this said the novel has a strong focus on his grisly death so it might not be a book for the faint-hearted!

Overall it was an exciting story and I was constantly keen to find out what happened next so read it pretty quickly for a fairly long book (about 500 pages).  I liked that a historical book with a female protagonist didn’t focus on romance, although Agnes does have a love affair (aside from her political marriages) it is not the main focus of the book, the focus is more on the political shifts in power at the court and contains far more violence scenes than it does moments of passion.

This book didn't shy away from the violence of the times.

This book didn’t shy away from the violence of the times.

Although I liked the fact the focus was on action this did mean that the characters weren’t perhaps as well drawn as they could have been.  I didn’t really feel an affinity with anyone and although I wanted to know what happened to them, didn’t really care too much when people were killed off.  I guess that would be my main criticism.  I also found the dialogue quite weak and occasionally found it a bit unexpected for a historical piece, for example – characters say things like “you’re on your own mate” and the F-word is used liberally and a Byzantine general is referred to by his follows as ‘boss’.  This may not be a valid criticism at all, how do I know people in 12th century Byzantium didn’t talk like this?  I think it has more to do with my expectations – formed by being raised a diet of BBC costume dramas where everyone pre-1900 speaks in a very formal style!

Overall, pretty good and I would recommend it

You Say…

What do you think?  Have you read this book or another you’d like to let us know about?  You can have your say by leaving a comment.

 

Zoe

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