Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Tuscan Child

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and this is actually my second review of a book by Rhys Bowen.

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“The Tuscan Child” by Rhys Bowen is a historical fiction novel that spans and interlaces two eras: World War II and the 1970s. In 1944, a British pilot shot down by the Germans makes an emergency landing in a small Tuscan village. Hiding out in a bombed and abandoned monastery, Hugo relies on the generosity of local woman Sophia to survive. Thirty years later, Joanna has returned to the sad remains of her family’s lost manor to arrange her father’s funeral. While going through his things, she discovers hints of a love left behind in Italy. Joanna decides to try to learn more about her mysterious father’s past and travel to Tuscany herself.

Bowen’s strength is clearly in recounting World War II history and, like her novel “In Farleigh Field”, she excels at capturing the decline of the English country house. The tension between the shame and the inevitability of the loss of the family home is explored in a really interesting way, and I found the Joanna’s interactions with the principal of the girls’ school that took over Langley Hall especially fascinating.

The parts of the book set in Tuscany had a very different flavour. Although we don’t see much of the Tuscan countryside through Hugo’s eyes, the his relationship with Sophia is incredibly intense. When Joanna arrives in the village, I felt like although she quickly becomes immersed, her experience in is much less internal and the reader gets to enjoy a broader sense of Tuscan life and culture (inspired by Bowen’s own experiences).

However, there really are two very different stories in this book: Joanna’s sad and difficult English experience, and the much more mysterious Tuscan story of her father’s. While this divide is appropriate given the divide within Hugo himself, I think at times the transition between the two stories is a bit difficult to bridge.

Whether you are interested in romance, historical fiction, World War II or travel writing, I think most people will get something out of this story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction

The Lucky Galah

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog. As soon as I saw the title, and read the blurb, I was sold.

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“The Lucky Galah” by Tracy Sorensen is a historical novel set in Western Australia that is partly told from the perspective of a galah called Lucky. In 1964, a man called Evan Johnson drives across Australia with his wife Linda and daughter Johanna to work on a coastal tracking station ahead of the 1969 moon landing. They move into a new purpose-built house next to the Kelly family, a seamstress and fisherman with plenty of daughters. Marjorie and Linda become friends after the birth of Marjorie’s fifth child, and Johanna finds herself with an instant pack of friends. However, through the eyes of the Kellys’ pet galah, things aren’t as hunky dory in the Johnson family as they may seem.

This is a pretty delightful debut novel and I have to say, I was absolutely in love with Lucky the galah as a narrator. I adored Lucky’s perspective of the world, the way that Sorensen wove in facts about birds through Lucky and the relationship between Lucky and Lizzie. I really enjoyed the balance between bird behaviour and a knowledgeable narrator, and I thought it was a great way to foster empathy for a non-human narrator. I also really liked Lizzie, and I think my favourite parts of the books were the interactions between this unlikely pair. Lizzie was a great example of how an Aboriginal character can be depicted in a respectful and interesting way, and I would have liked a lot more Lizzie airtime. Essentially though, there are a lot of similarities between this book and the great classic Aussie film “The Dish” so if you enjoyed that take on a very particular time in Australia’s history and the interaction between scientists and the salt of the earth.

However, there were a couple of things that I wasn’t quite as enamoured with. I wasn’t particularly interested in Evan and Linda’s story, and the ending in that regard was ambiguous where I felt like Sorensen could have taken a bit of a stronger stance either way and made a bit more of a point. I also felt like the relationship between Marjorie and Linda could have been hashed out a bit more. Sorensen did explore some issues around class difference, but this again felt unresolved at the end and I thought there was scope for Linda to have reconciled those differences. Finally, the transmissions from the dish to Lucky I found to be maybe a little too experimental. I can see how they were a useful mechanism for keeping Lucky as the narrator but keeping the story focused on the Johnsons and the Kellys. However, I think I would have almost preferred a more linear narrative but all just through Lucky’s eyes. Maybe there were just a few too many things vying for attention.

To be honest, I think Lucky was a brilliant character and I would have loved an entire book from Lucky’s perspective. As it is, this was still a strong and interesting novel that wove in many different issues around an exciting part of Australia’s history and I think most people will enjoy this quirky debut.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Burial Rites

Hannah Kent has been causing a stir in the Australian literary scene recently, and after hearing the news that her debut novel is being turned into a film I figured I had better see what all the fuss was about. When I finished this book, the breath caught in my throat when I read this line in the acknowledgements:

And last, but never lease: thank you to Angharad, for never doubting, and for fortifying me every day, every hour.

Now, obviously this thank you was not intended for me personally, but another Angharad. However, it’s so rare to see my name in print that I was all aflutter after reading it!

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“Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel based on a true story about a woman called Agnes sentenced to death for the murder of a man. While waiting for the sentence to be carried out, she is sent to live out her final days with the family of District Officer Jón Jónsson. Although a significant improvement on her previous location, and although Agnes sleeps with the family in the baðstofa, the welcome from the District Officer’s wife Margrét and especially her younger daughter Lauga is icy. Agnes is permitted religious counsel by the District Commissioner, and she nominates an inexperienced Assistant Reverend who is known as Tóti. As Agnes gradually tells the story of how she came to be accused of murder, Tóti, Margrét and Margrét’s older daughter Steina begin to warm to her.

This is a dark and engrossing story that I was hooked on from beginning to end. Kent has a visceral writing style and this book is like a triad of beautiful landscapes, deep dialogue and unflinching descriptions of what human bodies must do to survive. The picture Kent paints of 1800s Iceland is a bleak one with food shortages, illness and unsafe housing all competing to claim lives. I really enjoyed the way that Kent wove in observations about Icelandic culture without distracting the reader from the story. Agnes is an ambiguous but engaging character, though I think my favourite character would have to be Margrét.

I think the part about this book I enjoyed the least was probably Agnes’ retelling of what happened with Natan Ketilsson, the man she was convicted of murdering. I think that warm but cloying tension of the Jónsson family was fascinating to me, but as Agnes recounts what life was like living with Natan, I felt disengaged somehow. Whether it was because this part of the story relied too much either too much on recorded facts or too much on fictionalisation, I’m not sure.

Interestingly, Agnes’ trial is set to be reheard nearly 200 years afterwards applying modern justice principles. It is certainly a story that fascinated Iceland, and this book was a story that fascinated me. I’m very eager to see what the film is like and to read more of Kent’s work.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Terra Nullius

I’m doing something a little bit different today and I’m reviewing out of sequence. This was not the book that I read after “Joe Cinque’s Consolation“. This is a book that I read just this week, and I think that today, 26 January, is the right day to review it. I’ve just come home from a rally and I’m ready to dive in.

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This photo was taken at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy during the Invasion Day march on 26 January 2018 and this artwork is from one of the box planters there.

“Terra Nullius” by Noongar woman and author Claire G. Coleman is a novel set deep in the bush. Jacky, a Native, has absconded from the Settler farm he works on as an unpaid servant and is running for his life. Sister Bagra runs her school for Natives with an iron fist, but word of her approach to discipline has reached the Church and a senior representative is on his way to investigate. Esperance is a free Native, evading the Settlers with her Grandfather and community by moving camp deeper and deeper into the desert. However, the constant moving is taking its toll and Esperance fears that the Settlers will eventually catch up with them.

Honestly, the less I say about this book the better. This is really one of those kinds of books where you should really dive in cold and experience it fresh. Coleman is a wildly creative and clever writer, and this book is brilliantly crafted and exceptionally well-researched. Coleman draws upon the massacres and the Frontier Wars, as well as colonial accounts of invasion, settlement and occupation to create a story both familiar and unique.

This is a book that facilitates deep empathy and I feel like on this day, if there is any book you should pick up and read, give this one a try.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction

With Love from Miss Lily: A Christmas Story

HarperCollins the publisher was running a bit of a Christmas special and had this book available to read for free. In fact, I think it still is available for free. It has been a while since I read a Jackie French book, and while I whipped through it before Christmas, my intentions on having this review ready for Christmas were sadly not fulfilled. So, here it is, slightly late: my review.

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“With Love from Miss Lily: A Christmas Story” is a short story by Jackie French set shortly after the first novel in her “Miss Lily” series called “Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies”, about the contribution of society ladies to World War I. This short story takes place in France during winter. A hospital is running low on supplies, patients are dying of influenza, and head nurse Sophie is worried that she won’t be able to have the ceasefire Christmas she was hoping for. However, between the dying old woman who won’t stop furiously knitting, the handsome captain and the help from Miss Lily, somehow Christmas makes it after all.

This is a very short but touching story that manages to weave a bit of history, feminism, family, friendship and even a dash of romance altogether. I really enjoyed reading it on my drive down to my own family Christmas and I am a bit intrigued about the rest of the series.

I think I’ll finish the review here because it’s such a short story, I’m at risk of writing a longer review than story. Sorry I didn’t get this up in time for Christmas!

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Short Stories

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and unfortunately due to some technological issues, I actually thought I wasn’t going to be able to read it at all. Luckily, when I went to collect another book from NetGalley, I saw that it was available again and I pounced on it. This book was actually a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 for best historical fiction so I was even more excited to read it.

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“Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan is a historical fiction novel which is heavily inspired by true events experienced by a real person in Milan, Italy during World War II. Pino Lella, a happy-go-lucky 17 year old boy, is sent to live in the Alps after his hometown of Milan is bombed by the Allies. Staying in a Catholic boys’ school, he is enlisted by the priest to assist Jewish people escaping Italy via an underground railroad by guiding them through the treacherous winter mountains. However, despite the heroism of his early involvement, when Pino comes of age his parents insist for his safety that he enlists with the German forces. Disgusted by having to swap sides, Pino jumps at the chance to work for Hitler’s “left hand” and spy for the Allies. This new role is fraught with danger and Pino finds himself risking many important relationships, including his blossoming love with the beautiful Anna.

As the saying goes, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and this is, without a doubt a good story. I felt haunted by this book for a good week after I read it. I found myself going back to it to reread certain passages trying to find answers and going over and over the events in my mind. Sullivan makes it abundantly clear at the beginning of this book that this book is not intended to be a biography, and that much of the story has been heavily fictionalised, speculated upon and perhaps even embellished. I don’t even care. It’s a fast-paced, exhilarating read and I got much more out of this book set in Italy during the war than I did out of “My Brilliant Friend” set only a short time afterwards.

Probably the biggest criticism some may have of this book is that the writing, while perfectly serviceable, is not especially literary in tone. Some may find it a bit simplistic but I personally found the tone perfectly in keeping with Pino’s youth and naivete. Even though he is involved in very serious and adult issues, ultimately Pino is still a very young man and I think that the writing style actually suits the narrative.

This is an emotionally charged, exciting and intriguing book and if even half of it is true it’s an absolutely incredible story. A solid story that still makes my heart wrench thinking about it.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Lincoln in the Bardo

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden. It has one of those cool die cut designs where you can see an image through the “window” of the front cover, although this was not used in the final design of the book. As this was not my first George Saunders book, I gave it to my Dad to read first because I knew he enjoyed Saunders’ short stories. When my Dad gave it back to me saying he wasn’t able to finish it I was intrigued. This book was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – surely it must be fantastic, right? I had to find out for myself.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by George Saunders and is part historical fiction, part magic realism. Based on the events surrounding the death of Willie, the young son of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the story takes place on the night of Willie’s funeral. Distraught by the death of his son, Abraham Lincoln visits the body in the crypt where Willie is interred. However, unbeknownst to his father, Willie’s spirit emerges that night to mingle with the other souls who have not been able to move on to the afterlife.

The absolute first thing to say about this book is that it has an incredibly creative and refreshing narrative structure. The story is told by a chorus of voices, some of whom are ghosts encountered by Willie and some of whom are guests at the party thrown at the Lincoln’s house. The voices are sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory and provide a multifaceted glimpse into the man that was Abraham Lincoln and Saunders’ concept of a limbo inhabited by ghosts who cannot move on. I found that the beginning of the story was very compelling. There was a particular scene where the guests were giving simultaneous yet contradictory descriptions of what the weather had been like that evening that I thought was a great comment on the fallibility of history and human memory.

However, it’s difficult to sustain such novelty and momentum in a novel and I did feel as though the latter half was neither as strong or as structured as the former half. While I found the gossipy exploration of Lincoln’s presidency and family life fascinating, the concept of the bardo – the space between life and afterlife – seemed as though it grew muddier as the book progressed. There were several confusing concepts, such as Willie’s peculiar susceptibility to being consumed by vines made of shrunken tormented souls. Although adding a sense of urgency to the plot, some of these aspects of the intermediate state in which Willie finds himself don’t make a great deal of sense. Why would the fate of a child’s soul depend on the conduct of the other souls he is surrounded with in the cemetery where his body is left?

For fantasy to allow the reader to effectively suspend disbelief, the author needs to set rules for their imagined world that are at least coherent, if not plausible. Saunders was making exceptions as fast as he was making the rules to his bardo otherworld and ultimately I found it hard to follow and therefore hard to immerse myself in. Other parts of the story, like the African American ghosts, seemed incidental and shoehorned in at the last minute.

I think this is absolutely a wildly imaginative book and Saunders is definitely not short on creativity. However, as in my review of “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, I think he can sometimes be either too blunt or too abstract in his story-telling. Would I have given this the Man Booker Prize? I’m not sure. I’ll have to read some of the other contenders and compare.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books