2016 Historical Fiction Uncategorized

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: deformity, isolated, rural, community, acceptance

Miss Jane is a powerful story about a woman growing up in rural Mississippi at the beginning of the 20th century. Jane is born with a genital deformity that causes her to be incontinent. The book shows how this isolates her from society and how she comes to terms with her condition.

It was beautifully written and felt authentically of-it’s time. It reminded me of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a book written during this period (and one of my all-time favourites). The plot was simple and the pace of the book was slow, but this didn’t matter as I was captivated by the atmospheric detail of day-to-day life in this rural community.

Miss Jane captured the coming-of-age experience. It was packed with emotion and I felt I completely understood Jane’s predicament. The nature of her deformity meant that there were some explicit passages in the book, but these were all relevant to the plot, and perfectly captured the difficulty faced by teenagers trying understanding what is normal – especially in a time before the Internet, or even books, were easily available.

Despite Jane’s isolation, she began to be interested in boys. It was a slow. gradual accretion, this new awareness. Of boys as boys, that is, strange creatures, like another species retaining the general physical qualities of her own but with hidden secrets, secret differences.

I particularly liked the way the book forced the reader to think about the important things in life and how much a person’s happiness relies on conforming with society’s “norms”.

Miss Jane was different from anything I’ve read before. Its absorbing, original narrative meant it ended up becoming my favourite novel of 2016. I highly recommend it!

2016 Historical Fiction

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: WWII, London, teacher, love, triumphs

I loved Chris Cleave’s debut novel, The Other Hand, but his subsequent books haven’t been in the same league. With Everyone Brave Is Forgiven he has returned to form. The fact this is based on the experiences of his relatives has ignited a special spark in his writing – the passion and emotion shines through. I even discovered a few more facts about WWII!

The book begins in London at the start of WWII, with Mary North volunteering to become a spy. To her disappointment she is assigned to teach in a primary school, taking over the job from a man who is sent away on war business. Mary forms a bond with the children, particularly Zachary, the son of a black minstrel. But the main focus of the novel is love and the way war impacts on the relationships that are formed during this difficult time.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is very well researched and I loved learning about a slightly different aspect of WWII. There were a few disturbing scenes, but these were balanced by the humour present in the rest of the novel. It was lovely to see how the British public coped with the terrible situation by making light of their plight – the dialogue was fantastic and most of the jokes were new to me. As per this History articles you will get the brief idea about immigration.

The imagery was also particularly vivid:

They were all turning to stone from hunger. They took  cover behind stone walls. They painted their trucks and their helmets and their guns to resemble stone blocks, as if by sympathetic magic some hardness might accrue. They saw rubble walls when they closed their eyes at night. Sometimes, when one was particularly hungry, the omnipresent yellow limestone had the exact hue of cheddar, and when the enemy’s paratroopers finally came it would afford about as much protection.

This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light. I’m sure it will be on a few prize shortlists later this year.

2016 Historical Fiction

The Villa Rouge by Maggie Ross

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: WWII, family, secret, consequences, life

I hadn’t heard of Maggie Ross until this book popped through my letterbox, but the PR blurb highlighted the fact that she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize back in 1969 and so I was intrigued.

The Villa Rouge is a slow moving, but richly detailed, story set during WWII. The plot revolves around Morgan Pericall, a young woman whose husband volunteers to join the army at the first opportunity. Betrayed by his abandonment, she leaves London and moves back into her childhood home. The events of WWII slowly develop around her and we see the effect that war has on a range of different people.

Charlie found it exciting listening to Simon’s tales: twelve miles inland from the coast had been designated a danger area; London was in a state of emergency, although it was reported that people were dying mostly from accidents caused by pitch-dark roads; there were already wardens on street patrols in the West End. Arpent said A.R.P posts were being set up in London’s private houses. So why not at the Villa Rouge? Rhoda and Charlie thought it thrilling. All Morgan could think about was her home in Tufnell Park.

I thought that I knew most things about WWII, but this book has a level of detail which surpasses most others on the subject. I’m not sure how old Maggie Ross is, but I read this feeling as though she’d lived through these experiences herself. The authenticity and meandering nature of the plot gave the impression that this book was more autobiographical than fictional.

Much of this book was impressive, but my main gripe was that the characters weren’t very likeable (something I’m scared of writing, given the fact I think this is autobiographical!) I love deeply flawed characters, but these didn’t seem to have many redeeming features. I failed to form a connection to them and so didn’t care what happened.

I was also a bit annoyed to discover (on the very last page!) that this book carries on into a sequel. I try not to start series until the final one is published, as I know I will never remember enough detail if I have to wait until the next one is released. I think the fact this is only the first half of a book should be revealed on the cover.

These small problems shouldn’t put you off reading it, as there is a lot to enjoy in here. The Villa Rouge gives a rare insight into domestic life in England during WWII. Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading about family life.




1980s Historical Fiction Uncategorized

Familiar Wars by Julietta Harvey

Familiar Wars Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Greek, boy, massacre, uprooted, family

Familiar Wars was originally published in 1987, but was re-released last week to coincide with the publication of the sequel, One Third of Paradise. I hadn’t heard of Julietta Harvey until review copies of these books fell through my letter box, but I quickly released she is an author I want to follow.

Familiar Wars begins in 1922 and follows Gregoris, a young Greek boy who flees the Turkish massacre in Smyrna.  I loved the way the book combined historical fact with vivid descriptions to create an atmospheric story. Julietta Harvey was born in Greece and her love and knowledge of this country was evident throughout. I knew very little about this period of history, but everything was explained so I could understand the details of this conflict.

The writing quality was excellent and many aspects of the novel reminded me of my favourite book, A Fine Balance. I especially loved the way the descriptions included the sounds and smells of the area, as these added a wonderful depth that too many writers ignore:

But they knew how to eat! The shop flooded with new appetising smells. Hunger for the delicacies appearing behind the counter caught him unawares: it gripped him, he was in tears with sudden total desire. Large green olives swimming in herbs and spices, pickled cabbage fragrant with aniseed, baby aubergines stuffed with dill and basil, pink octopus tenderised in spiced wine, potted prawns as big as mackerels and as fresh and sweet smelling as the sea at dawn, caviar from the Black Sea, each egg as big and juicy as a grape, pastourma – the flower of the Karamanli genius wrapped in layers and layers of cayenne, and underneath, the meat, red and moist and tender, begging to be eaten, ready to melt in the mouth.

The vivid detail meant that some scenes were disturbing, but these were necessary to show how brutal this period of history was. They also helped to show how communities can overcome hardship, harnessing resilience to rebuild a happy life.

The only real negative was that the story contained too many characters. I frequently struggled to remember who some of the peripheral characters were, but in the end I decided this didn’t really matter as the central characters were so strong. 

This is an impressive book which highlights an important period of history. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the way conflict affects ordinary people, especially if you have an interest in this area of the world. I look forward to reading the sequel soon.





2012 Historical Fiction

Brilliance by Anthony McCarten

Brilliance Source: Personal copy

Five words from the blurb: invention, light bulb, Edison, electric chair, immorality

I’m drawn towards books with shiny gold covers so Brilliance stood out when I was browsing a local charity shop. I’d heard nothing about it, but the simple blurb persuaded me to give it a try:

A novel about the brightest and darkest sides of human invention.

I’m so pleased I took a chance on this book – it was entertaining, informative, and shocking in equal measure.

Brilliance is a fictionalised biography of Thomas Edison, showing the experiences of this famous inventor as he goes from the high of inventing the electric light, to financial lows as he fails to monetise his invention properly. Whilst at his lowest he is approached by the banker JP Morgan, who persuades him to invent the electric chair. This leads him into a disturbing new life, introducing a series of moral dilemmas.

I’ve read many books which mention Edison, but this was the first to really bring him to life. His relationship with his wife was touching to read about and I loved the way their hopes are fears were exposed. There was a real emotional depth to the text, made all the more special by the quality of the writing. 

It was also the first book to make me appreciate how groundbreaking the invention of the electric light was. I hadn’t realised how fearful the public were of this new product and how hard it was to change their minds. The scene from the Columbus Day parade was particularly revealing:

Families applauded and laughed from behind the cordons. But the happy shouts died away to silence and even fear as the Edison Electric Light Company’s new promotional exhibit rounded the corner.
At first, parents covered their children’s eyes. There were screams. Women put hands into their mouth. Men peeled off their bowler hats in slow motion. What was this? Were they witnessing a catastrophe?

There was a bit of science in this book, but it never felt dry or overly technical. It was all well-researched and came across as authentic for the time period. Some people might find the scenes involving the testing of the electric chair too distressing, but I felt they simply explained the facts, which are disturbing however you describe them.

Overall this was a gripping read that gave me a new insight into this period of history. Recommended, especially to those who appreciate good science in their literature. 


The thoughts of other bloggers:

McCarten does more than rewrite Edison’s biography, he gives him a voice. River City Reading

If the book has any weaknesses it’s due to the fact that it’s not a full blown biography but if it were and had just stuck to the facts it would lose all its colour and charm. The Truth about Lies

It’s shocking in places, funny in others and I did find myself really feeling for Thomas Edison. Novel Kicks

2014 Historical Fiction

Wake by Anna Hope


Five words from the blurb: unknown, soldier, buried, women, change

Wake is set over the five-day period in 1920 in which the body an ‘unknown soldier’ was removed from a French WWI battlefield, transported to England, and then buried in Westminster Abbey. The book shows how important this remembrance service was to the British people, allowing them some closure for the suffering they’d endured as a result of WWI.

The story concentrates on three women, showing how the war impacted on their lives and how they adjusted as things began to return to normal. It was very well researched, with lots of little facts about both social and military history.

I loved the sections containing information about the unknown soldier. The descriptions of the battlefield after the war had ended were incredibly atmospheric and I enjoyed learning the details of the clean-up process – something I’d not come across before. Unfortunately I found the sections on the women less interesting – their characters lacked depth and I often struggled to tell them apart. Too much information was crammed into the book at the expense of emotional engagement and detailed character development.

I also felt that the book sometimes forgot its time period. There were several occasions when I questioned the actions of the characters as they appeared more modern than a 1920s person would be – both in terms of what they did and the dialogue they used.

I read Wake because it was selected by my book group. Everyone else enjoyed it more than I did and their passion was infectious. I found that as the book was discussed I appreciated it more. I’d thought that there were too many characters, but I began to realise that they all served a purpose. I prefer books that concentrate on a smaller cast, but I can see why others enjoyed the brief insight into the lives of a wider range of people.

“I see so many women here,” she says, “and they are holding, all of them. Holding on to their sons or their lovers or their husbands, or their fathers, just as surely as they are holding on to the table here,” she gestures with her hands. “They’re all different but all the same. All of them are afraid to let them go. And if we feel guilt, we find it even harder to release the dead. We keep them close to us; we guard them jealously. They were ours. We want them to remain ours.” There’s a silence. “But they are not ours,” she says. “And in a sense, they never were. They belong to themselves, only. Just as we belong to ourselves. And this is terrible in some ways, and in others…it might set us free.”

Overall this was a fantastic book club choice. There was a lot to discuss and we all felt that we’d gained something from having read it. Recommended for the snippets of historical knowledge and the pleasure of an avid discussion.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It is beautifully and inventively written, adding something unique and genuinely enlightening to the canon of contemporary historical fiction. Book Snob

None of the protagonists were memorable enough to be thought of little more than fillers and I cringed at the tawdry motives behind unnecessary scenes. Live and Dream a Little Dream

Anna Hope’s writing was simple and straightforward, but at the same time profound. Laura’s Little Book Blog