Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Colonel and the Bee

Steampunk round-the-world adventure

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“The Colonel and the Bee” by Patrick Canning is a steampunk adventure novel about a talented young acrobat called Beatrix who is trapped in a circus with an abusive ringmaster. When her skills are called upon to entertain some Swiss aristocrats, she seizes her opportunity to make her escape. She joins the enigmatic and rather promiscuous Colonel James Bacchus and becomes part of the crew of his enormous hot air balloon with four-storey accommodation called The Ox.

This is a rollicking story in the classic English adventure style where wit and ingenuity repeatedly save the day. Beatrix is a great character and I really enjoyed watching her character grow throughout the book. The interplay between her and the Colonel is very engaging and Beatrix slowly gains the confidence and friendships she needs to help solve the riddle and save the day. It is hard to tackle a genre and historical period that relies a lot on British imperialism, but I felt like Canning did a good job preserving the spirit of these types of stories while excluding some of the more racially problematic things typical of the time.

It is important to know that this is an adventure story, so it is action, action, action almost the entire time. I’m not huge on action novels, so my favourite parts were during the downtime when Beatrix and the Colonel were having heart to hearts on The Ox. I did find some of the action a little relentless, as enjoyable as the riddles and the intrigue was.

A new spin on a favourite style of story, this was a fun, enjoyable read.

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The Colonel and the Bee: A Globe-Trotting Adventure

 

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Wolf Hall

Quintessential historical fiction about the Tudors

Earlier this year I had grand plans to participate in the Man Booker 50 Challenge to celebrate 50 years of one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes. I was going to try to read as many Man Booker Prize winners as I could by the deadline to go into the running for tickets to the Golden Man Booker Prize award night in the UK. Anyway, although I picked up a bunch of previous winners, I only managed to read one in time. The others stayed on my bookshelf, waiting for the right opportunity, and when I went on holiday recently I decided to take this one with me.

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“Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel is a historical fiction novel about self-made man Thomas Cromwell and his role in the court of Henry VIII. The story begins with Cromwell as a young boy in a dysfunctional family at the turn of the 16th century. The novel progresses in fits and starts and follows Cromwell’s rise to power and fortune as a lawyer, entrepreneur, moneylender and confidant to England’s most powerful people.

Given the popularity of books about the Tudors, I think it’s safe to say that this is the book about the Tudors. Mantel has an incredibly immersive and detailed style of writing, and transports the reader directly into the grand halls of Henry XXIII’s kingdom. She writes in first person which makes you almost feel like the story is happening in real time. She unravels the genius of Cromwell’s mind, and weaves a story of subtlety, opportunity and shifting alliances. I really enjoyed the depiction of Anne Boleyn, and incremental trade of intimacies between herself and the king. 

I think probably the only thing that I struggled with is just the enormous amount of politics. I find reading about political intrigue a bit of a challenge at the best of times, and it’s a testimony to how good this book is that I managed to get through most of it pretty easily. However, considering this a book built almost completely on political history, occasionally it does feel a little bit relentless. 

Anyway, this is one of those books that I feel absolutely did deserve a Booker Prize, and if you’re a fan of Tudor history this is the book for you. 

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Wolf Hall: Shortlisted for the Golden Man Booker Prize (Thomas Cromwell Trilogy Book 1)

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Book of Colours

A little while ago I was invited to convene a panel at Muse Bookshop with two fabulous authors, and this is the second book.

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“Book of Colours” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel set in London in 1321. The book follows three people linked by the creation of an illuminated book of prayers. There is Lady Mathilda, for whom the book has been commissioned. There is the talented and a little roguish limner Will, walking as far as he can from a past he wants to escape. Then there is patient yet frustrated Gemma, the limner’s wife who dreams of recognition if not for herself, for her daughter. Each character is inextricably linked by the illuminated book, and none will come away unchanged.

This is the second book I’ve read by Cadwallader, and she truly knows her subject matter. Cadwallader immerses the reader in medieval life, and invites the reader to walk with her through the muddy London streets. This book is a fantastic example of an author getting the balance of detail just perfect. Cadwallader uses enough meticulous research to breathe life into a story, but weaves it delicately into the tapestry of the novel without it overwhelming the book.

Another thing about Cadwallader’s writing that stood out to me again is her ability to create such complex characters who are relatable despite being set in a world nearly 700 years ago. Cadwallader’s characters grapple with universal themes of interpersonal conflict, guilt, love and ambition. Will is a bit of a chameleon, constantly shifting and compelling though perhaps not ever entirely likeable. Mathilda has to wear the more traditional female costume society has prepared for her, but is forced to step up when her living situation changes drastically.

I think Will and Mathilda were interesting enough, but for me it was by far Gemma who stole the show. It was her chapters I couldn’t wait for. It was her little limner’s tidbits that I scoured greedily. I loved the interplay between her warm, maternal side and her unacknowledged but fiercely capable side as a limner. Not unlike the way I felt about the suggestion of the haunting in “The Anchoress”, I wasn’t quite sure about the gargoyle in this book. However like the marginalia dancing in the borders, or perhaps even like the rose in John’s illuminations, I’m starting to think that perhaps a touch of supernatural is Cadwallader’s watermark.

A fascinating book, especially for lovers of the physical book, that conjures a long ago world and the kinds of people who lived in it.

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The Passengers

A little while I got the most exciting email ever: would I like to host a discussion with two authors about their books at Muse Bookshop? Obviously the answer was yes, and this is one of the books.

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“The Passengers” by Eleanor Limprecht is a historical fiction novel about a woman called Sarah who was an Australian war bride. After six decades of living in America, Sarah finally returns to Australia on a cruise ship with her granddaughter Hannah. On the journey across the Pacific, Sarah recounts to Hannah her story of growing up in rural New South Wales, moving to Sydney and meeting an American serviceman. Meanwhile, Hannah is going on a journey of her own and although she agreed to go on the trip to look after her elderly grandmother, Hannah comes to realise that sometimes she is the one who needs looking after.

Now, when you start reading this book, you should absolutely play this song. Just like the Waifs’ classic track, this is a beautifully whimsical book about a time of great change in Australia. Limprecht brings to life a tough country upbringing, the shifting dynamics between parents and adult children and the incredible bravery that it takes to move to another country forever. Sarah is a wonderful character who showcases the resilience and adaptability of so many young women who made that journey. When I interviewed Limprecht, I asked her to read out a passage and the passage I chose is right at the beginning of the book where Sarah is reminiscing about all the work she did with animals on the family farm. Reading about her dog Blackie, and how that upbringing directs her life later on, gave me a hitch in my breath. The conflict Sarah feels about her parents as she grows to better understand their private lives is palpable.

As a counterweight to Sarah’s story is the story of Hannah. Fiercely intelligent and about the same age as Sarah was on her voyage to the USA, Hannah’s own life is being stymied by a secret struggle. Where Sarah constantly looks outward and forward, Hannah is spiraling internally, choking on a past she’s never been able to talk about. Reading Hannah’s parts of the book was much harder than reading Sarah’s. Sarah is inherently a much more likeable character, but that could be because I found Hannah’s experience a little too close to home. Although Hannah is so much younger and has grown up in a much freer world, in a lot of ways Sarah is far more liberated and confident than her young granddaughter. However, I think that the contrast between past and present helps propel the story along and ultimately I think it was a good choice.

If you like historical fiction, this is a wonderful story filled with truths about the real women who took this incredible journey in the 1940s to a new country and a new life forever.

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Doomsday Book

A friend of mine gave me a copy of this book a very long time ago. Perhaps just before I started writing this blog! This copy has a pretty understated and uninspiring front cover, and despite the fact that it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, it has gathered dust on my shelf for years. I’ve recently reorganised my bookshelves so I now have a shelf dedicated to books I haven’t read yet, and finally it was this book’s turn.

20180721_131041-641834144.jpg “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis is a one of those books that is both science fiction and historical fiction: a time travel book. Set in the mid-2050s in Oxford England, the book is about a student of Medieval history called Kivrin who is to be the first person to travel back in time to the 1300s for historical research. Aghast, her professor Mr Dunworthy tries to talk her out of it, but Kivrin has the firm support of the acting Head of the History Faculty and the expedition is to go ahead. However, while Dunworthy frets about the margin of error and whether Kivrin did arrive in the correct year, both in the 14th Centry and in present day Oxford, there are far, far bigger problems.

This is an absolutely engrossing book. Willis is an incredibly skilled writer who is brilliant at creating and maintaining tension. The book flips back and fourth between Kivrin in the 1300s and Dunworthy in the 2050s, and no matter which part I was reading about, I was on the edge of my seat. Willis drops hints and suggestions throughout the book and keeps you guessing right until the very end about what is going to happen. I was also really surprised to find out that she is not actually English. She really captured that peculiar brand of British humour that combines the absurd with the chaotic and uses a lapse in otherwise very good manners to comedic effect. However, I wouldn’t consider this a particularly humourous book and the darker and more tragic parts of this book really underline Willis’ flexibility as a writer.

I think there was only one single tiny thing that got under my skin about this book and that is Willis’ tendency to repeat facts and dialogue in order to ensure that the audience appreciates their significance. While I think that this is a good technique to make sure that your audience is picking up what you’re putting down, it did occasionally feel a little heavy-handed.

Anyway, it really was no surprise that this book won so many awards. It is a cracking story and I am really inspired now to read more books by Willis, including more in this series about time-travelling historians.

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Into the World

I received not one but ten copies of this book as part of a prize pack from a book club contest from Allen & Unwin. I’m part of a sort of feminist-fantasy book club, and although this isn’t a fantasy book at all, it does have quite a few feminist themes. The prize pack also included a couple of bottles of wine, some snacks, some book club questions and some French-inspired recipes. I also got to meet the author at a local event, so I was very lucky to get my copy of the book signed as well.

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“Into the World” by Stephanie Parkyn is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Marie-Louise Girardin, a real French woman.In the novel, Marie-Louise has just given birth to a baby boy who, widowed, she cannot afford to keep. Estranged from her family and entangled in the politics of the French Revolution, Marie-Louise makes the drastic decision to give up her son and find work at sea. However, given the attitudes towards women in 18th Century France, Marie-Louise disguises herself a man and finds a job as the ship’s steward on board the Recherche. While the official mission is for two ships to find the missing French explorer La Pérouse who disappeared somewhere near New Holland, Marie-Louise’s ship also carries a number of naturalists looking to study the continent’s unique flora. Marie-Louise befriends the scientists but finds her loyalties torn between them and the officers of the ships, particularly Kermadec, the captain of the second ship. As tensions threaten to boil over, Marie-Louise worries that her secret will be discovered.

This is a difficult book to review. Parkyn has clearly put an enormous amount of research into this book. Her environmental science background meant that the detail of the expedition is meticulously captured and it was very easy to imagine life on the boat and the characters and experiments of the naturalists. The sailors’ reactions to the new plants, animals and people of the Australian continent felt very authentic. Parkyn had a tricky job to depict two trips around the continent and compare first impressions with second impressions, but I think that Parkyn brought that fresh perspective in a clipped, academic style.

Nevertheless, there were quite a few things that I struggled with in this book. Very little has been written about the enigmatic character of Marie-Louise, and I absolutely appreciate that like most historical fiction novels, an author needs a bit of creative license. Parkyn creates a backstory of intrigue and involvement in the French Revolution which I thought did give a bit more impetus for Marie-Louise’s extreme choice to become a male sailor than simply being an unwed mother. A revolutionary so bold as to dress as a man and go sailing around the world to undiscovered lands, I was expecting Marie-Louise to be brave and canny.

However, I felt like the character of Marie-Louise in this book is very timid and unsure. She is constantly second-guessing herself and while I appreciate how nerve-wracking it would have been for the real Marie-Louise, I really would have liked to have seen a much more bold and confident character to match those incredible feats. Any sailor who hopped on a ship to travel uncharted seas would have had to have been brave; a woman hiding her identity, doubly so. I really wanted Marie-Louise to show that kind of gumption.

Something else I was surprised about was the ending. Without giving away too much, Parkyn chose to end the story differently to the way the real Marie-Louise’s story ended. I can understand the temptation to give her an uplifting ending, but I think that maybe the real story would have given Marie-Louise the hero’s ending that I think she deserved. I also think that while there was a huge amount of historical detail, I would have liked a bit more French culture.

Anyway, this was a really interesting story about a woman who had a fascinating life but unfortunately did not leave much of a trace of her incredible adventures behind. Parkyn brings Marie-Louise’s unique story to life, and though I didn’t necessarily agree with all the choices she made for Marie-Louise, I thought it was a very well-researched book.

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The Anchoress

Content warning: mental health, self-harm. 

This book had received quite a lot of attention when it first came out, and I was intrigued to read a book that not only has such a striking pearlescent cover, but is by a Canberra author as well. I picked up a copy and it sat patiently on my shelf for ages, but when I got my copy signed at the author’s event launching her newest book, I knew it was time to give this one a go.

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“The Anchoress” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel about a teenage girl called Sarah in medieval England. Sarah decides to become an anchoress, secluding herself in a cell attached to a church to live the rest of her life in solitude and prayer. As the story progresses, the reader comes to learn why Sarah has chosen this hard, lonely life while Sarah learns that even as an anchoress, she cannot escape the outside world.

This is an ambitious book that is excellently crafted. It’s difficult to tell an engaging story completely set within a tiny cell, but Cadwallader brings to life a rich story full of engaging characters and moral dilemmas. You can tell the research that went into this book. Cadwallader conjures a world where the opportunities for a woman to make her own life are greatly limited, especially by the risks of childbirth. The day to day detail of this story brings medieval culture to life. In such simple times, even the smallest objects have so much meaning and utility. I think that my favourite parts of this book are the characters that Sarah interacts with, and the snippets of the outside world that she ultimately can’t escape. I also really loved how the discussion of writing a prayer onto an apple played out, and Sarah’s difficulty in interpreting her faith by balancing the wishes of the villagers and the decisions of the priests.

I think the only part of the book I struggled with was the ambiguity of Sarah either being haunted by the spirit of the previous anchoress Agnes, or suffering from some serious mental health issues. I appreciate that during medieval times, the line between mental illness and mysticism was much, much more blurry than it is today. However, I think that I would have liked maybe a little more focus on the mental health part and looking a bit more sharply at the damage Sarah was doing to herself rather than leaving it ambiguous.

This is a fascinating book that really immerses the reader into a medieval phenomenon that so little is known about. Cadwallader’s passion for her subject matter radiates off the page and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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