Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Victory Garden

British historical fiction about the Women’s Land Army

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

The Victory Garden - Rhys Bowen

“The Victory Garden” by Rhys Bowen is a historical fiction novel set in the UK during World War II. Emily Bryce has lived a sheltered and privileged life, and is prevented by her parents from becoming a nurse. However, when she meets an Australian pilot on a chaperoned hospital visit with her mother, she is inspired to do more to help out with the war efforts. Too late to study nursing, Emily instead joins the Women’s Land Army. After helping out farmers with their harvest, Emily is reassigned to a large estate to help tame the garden of an elderly widow and moves in with friends to an abandoned cottage near the herb garden. However, when Emily finds her future suddenly very uncertain and approaching at speed, she finds solace in journals left behind by a woman whose life seems to closely parallel her own.

I’ve read a few of Bowen’s books now, and this one is one of my favourites so far. I have a vague memory of learning about the Women’s Land Army when I was in school and the topic being completely bland. This story brings this real turning point in women’s rights to life and Emily is a fantastic character to explore issues of class, the value of women’s work, stigma around single mothers and family rejection. I especially enjoyed Emily’s time living, boarding and working with an incredibly diverse range of women and helping to prove that women can do the same work that men could do. I also really liked that while there were some romantic elements to the story, it certainly was not the main part of the book.

I think that while the first half of the book was incredibly engaging, I found the second half of the book a little slower. Isolated and unable to leave, the second half of the book involves a lot more introspection and a little bit of a mystery which was quite a different pace to the immersive feminist history of the first half. I did feel like the ending was a little bit of a deus ex machina, and that perhaps the book could have used a little more conflict or drama towards the end.

This is a great topic for a historical novel, and I really enjoyed putting myself in the shoes of a ‘land girl’ and reading about such a pivotal point in history for women. It was also a very easy read.

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The Victory Garden: A Novel

 

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The Song of Achilles

Queer fantasy retelling of Greek mythology 

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m part of a feminist fantasy book club, and for our first meeting of the year, this was our set book. Unfortunately I was running a little late and forgot to take photos of the wonderful Greek feast one of our members made, but I did read the book.

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“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller is a fantasy retelling of the Greek myth of Achilles. The story is told from the perspective of Patroclus, a disgraced prince who is banished to the kingdom of Peleus after a terrible accident. Although initially isolated and lonely, Patroclus is soon befriended by Peleus’ godlike son Achilles. As the boys grow up together, under the tutelage of the centaur Chiron, they form an inseparable bond. However, increasingly determined to fulfill his destiny as the greatest warrior of all time, Achilles is drawn into a war that will put their love to the test.

The first half of this book was brilliant. Miller brought a unique and romantic perspective to this classic myth and a sense of realism to the characters of Patroclus and Achilles. I especially loved the dreamy and idyllic chapters in Chiron’s home where the two boys could explore their feelings for each other and their own hopes and dreams for the future without interference from the outside world. I thought that Miller did a good job of exploring Patroclus’ feelings of inadequacy juxtaposed against Achilles’ sense of entitlement, and the first half of the book was extremely engaging.

However, the second half of the book, when the young men go off to the Trojan war, I found to be a lot more difficult to get through. It wasn’t quite so obvious for the first half of the book, but for the second half it becomes abundantly clear that Patroclus didn’t actually have any purpose or work apart from being with Achilles. It was very late in the book that he started taking an interest in healing, which made him quite a frustrating point of view character up until that point. Also, I completely understand that according to the mythology Achilles spends 10 years fighting the Trojan war, but even though it only took up a couple of hundred pages in the book, the war part really seemed to drag on. I did appreciate that the war camp turned into its own ecosystem, but it just seemed a bit relentless that 10 years would pass with so little happening.

Anyway, an excellent example of direct queer representation that was a bit slow-going plot-wise at times.

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The Song of Achilles

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Lonesome Dove

Epic western novel about an ambitious cattle drive from Texas to Montana

When my friend told me that this book was her best read of 2017, I admit, I dithered a bit and didn’t get around to buying a copy. Insistent that I read “the best book ever written”, my friend bought me the first copy she came across: this beaten up old book missing a front cover. I needed to choose a book for my 80th book of 2018, and even though I had to stay up all night on New Year’s Eve reading, I managed to finish it.

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“Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry is an epic Western novel set in Texas. Augustus McCrae and W. F. Call are two retired Texas Rangers who are making a living rustling cattle from across the border in Mexico. With lazy idyll interspersed with bouts of criminal activity and visits to the town’s sole sex worker, McCrae is searching for something to give his life meaning again. After a smooth-talking old colleague drops into town with stories of endless unclaimed land in Montana, McCrae decides to attempt to be the first outfit to drive cattle all the way from Texas through the Yellowstone. Encouraged by the idea of crossing paths again with a long-lost love, romantic McCrae agrees to make the journey. However with a collection of green cowboys and a sex worker who wanted to go to San Francisco in tow, the many challenges they come across may prove to be their undoing.

This is a monumental novel that has everything. Adventure, heroism, moral decisions, romance, betrayal and just about every natural disaster you can think of. I actually feel like the grandfather in the opening scenes of The Princess Bride describing this book. McMurty is a talented writer who has a real flair for dialogue. From cover to cover, the book is chock-a-block filled with action and I think if you know a reluctant reader who finds books ‘boring’, this would be a great place to get them started.

Now, as epic as this book is, do I think it is the best book ever written? Unfortunately, no. That place in my heart is already taken. In addition to that, there are some things that are a bit difficult about this book. First of all, while I appreciate that it was written in the 1980s about the 1800s, there were quite a few things that felt extra dated about this. I don’t know which was more obvious: that the women were either saints or whores (except the incredible Janey), or that the Native American characters were all barbarians. It is definitely a book centred on a very typical idea of masculinity with some very fluid ideas about the appropriateness and morality of violence (problematic when experienced by the main characters, but necessary when dealing with others). The challenges posed for the cowboys by the natural environment do also become a little relentless, but it admittedly does get to a point where it is just entertaining rather than repetitive.

An action-packed behemoth from a different era about a different era, despite some outdated tropes, this is nevertheless a great book to give to someone if they typically don’t enjoy reading.


Lonesome Dove

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Heart’s Blood

Historical fantasy retelling of classic fairy tale

Content warning: family violence, disability

It’s no secret that I adore Juliet Marillier and her beautiful and whimsical historical fantasy novels. I generally try to space them out, but I am getting towards the end of all the books she’s written (so far), so it has been a while since I have picked one up. Anyway, approaching the end of the year, I was in dire need for a comfort read, and I was very eager to give this standalone novel a go.

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“Heart’s Blood” by Juliet Marillier is a historical fantasy novel that reimagines the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast“. The story follows a young woman called Caitrin who is on the run from her abusive family home. Trained as a scribe, when she hears of a job vacancy at the mysterious fortress known as Whistling Tor, locals warn her against it and the disfigured chieftain called Anluan. However when Caitrin arrives, she finds that fear of the known is far worse than fear of the unknown and soon settles into the strange rhythm of the household. While she attempts a seemingly insurmountable task that others before her have failed, she discovers that ugliness is often much more than skin deep.

Marillier, as always, gently coaxes into life sensitive and well-considered characters who overcome hardship and find strength and comfort in one-another. Marillier’s book are and continue to be incredibly inclusive and tackle modern issues through a historical lens. Although this is not the first book of hers with a character with a disability, this book is the first book of hers I have read that really explores the issue of family violence. I thought that she handled Caitrin’s experiences, and the toll they took on her self-esteem and identity, very adeptly and drew out the issues of vulnerability and courage for both Caitrin and Anluan very well. I also really liked that Marillier again made a main character with a disability someone who is capable and desirable.

However, this wasn’t my favourite of Marillier’s books. The plot twist about the true nature of the evil at Whistling Tor I saw coming a mile away, and I felt like a large proportion of the book was spent waiting for the ending I knew was on its way. While I did fully respect that Marillier incorporated themes of family violence into her book, I felt that it could have been a little less distant relatives come take advantage and a little more close to home like unfortunately so many domestic violence stories are. I also felt a little that the way that part of the story is resolved got a bit Jane Eyre towards the end with a bit of deus ex machina in the form of a cart of people going by at just the right time.

Regardless, this is a sweet and enjoyable story and a unique retelling of a classic fairy tale. I read this book in no time at all, and look forward to the next Marillier book I tackle.

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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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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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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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