Category Archives: Historical Fiction

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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The Fish Girl

This book was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and when I got a couple of book vouchers for my birthday last month, I knew that I wanted to spend one on this. I spent some years growing up in Indonesia, and studied the region for years at university, and I was so excited to read this story.

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“The Fish Girl” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novella based on a short story called “The Four Dutchmen” by W. Somerset Maugham. Riwoe’s story conjures a backstory for the character who is never named, but referred to as ‘the Malay trollope’. Riwoe imagines a young Indonesian girl who is hired by an Indo man to work in the kitchen of a Dutch merchant’s house. Mina is from a tiny fishing village and is very young and very naive. However, she soon settles into the routine of preparing and serving food for the master and begins to grow more confident. As time goes on, Mina is noticed by one of the master’s Dutch sailor friends as well as Ajat, a young man from her village. Despite her newfound confidence, Mina’s inexperience is taken advantage of and these men are ultimately her undoing.

This was an excellent novella. Riwoe drew on her own family knowledge as well as thorough knowledge to bring this story to life. Considering how undercooked a character she is in Maugham’s short story, this novella gives Mina a name and demands empathy from the reader when there was none originally. This book feels like a snapshot into both Indonesian culture and Dutch colonisation and it conveys so much in so little. I also loved Riwoe’s writing. I loved how she used spice and smell to bring an extra dimension to her story, and I adored her use of imagery. The similes she used were just exceptional, and completely believable as comparisons that Mina herself would use to make sense of her new life and new experiences.

I only have one criticism for this book, and it’s going to sound like a strange one, but I felt like the novella was too short. The pacing throughout the majority of the book was so perfect, but once Mina steps on the ship everything felt like it was at warp-speed. Riwoe covers all the events of “The Four Dutchmen” in only 14 pages. With all the care and detail and exactness that had been taken with the majority of the book, this part felt rushed and the situation deteriorated so quickly it was hard as a reader to keep up.

This is an excellent book and a stand-out example of the power of historical fiction to tell stories that were ignored or minimised at the time. I’m really looking forward to see more of Riwoe’s work and I am so glad that I picked this as one of my birthday books.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Novella

Artefacts and Other Stories

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

Artefacts and Other Stories

“Artefacts and Other Stories” by Rebecca Burns is a collection of short stories. Set largely in the UK, many of the stories are set before, during or in the aftermath of World War I. These are stories of ordinary people with jobs, families, memories and traumas as much as they are about the people who have left them behind.

The short story is a tricky art form, but Burns’ vignettes are compelling. Each story tackles the delicacy of human life and the fragile beauty of love, and finishes on its own unique and poignant note. Burns uses objects and everyday events to explore the complexities of human emotion, and some of my favourite stories in the collection were “The Last Game, August 2014”, “The Bread Princess” and “The Greatcoat”. “Artefacts” also stuck with me long after I had finished the book.

I do think some of the stories were stronger than others. Burns has a real knack for capturing the tone of early 1900s England and those historical fiction stories about the tragedy and futility of war really stood out.

If you enjoy short stories, or are fascinated by World War I history, then I think you’ll get something out of these.

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Heart of Brass

If you listen to my podcast, you might recall that a couple of episodes ago I interviewed local Canberra author Felicity Banks about interactive fiction and her project “Murder in the Mail“. A while ago, by coincidence, my partner bought me a copy of her book at CanCon, completely unaware that Felicity and I had already been chatting!

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“Heart of Brass” by Felicity Banks is the first book in her pre-Federation Australian steampunk series “The Antipodean Queen”. The story is about a young upper class Englishwoman called Emmeline whose family has a lot of secrets but not much money. One of those secrets is that Emmeline, a keen inventor, has a steam-powered heart made of brass. When her attempts to save her family’s financial situation through a strategic marriage go very awry, Emmeline is sent to the colonies on the last convict ship and finds herself in Victoria. In this strange new land, she realises that she has a lot more freedom and opportunities than she perhaps had at home, but also has a lot more enemies.

This is a very fast-paced book full of action and intrigue. Banks introduces a very diverse range of characters that give a really holistic sense of the kinds of people who made their way to Victoria during the gold rush. This steampunk book involves a little bit of magic, and I really enjoyed the subtlety of Banks’ magic system and the way people can interact with metal. I think that it worked really well in a steampunk setting, and particularly well in a goldrush setting. I liked the way that people tapped into the properties of metal and used them to express themselves and enhance themselves in the clothing that they wore.

Now, I absolutely have to mention something about this particular book that really made it enjoyable for me. At the end of the book is a short choose your own adventure-style story called “After the Flag Fell” about a true historical figure called Peter Lalor, but set in Banks’ own steampunk reimagining of the Eureka Stockade. This was such a fun and cleverly done little story, and I was flipping through trying to achieve all the goals and collect all the items with absolute delight.

I think maybe the only thing I found a bit challenging in this book is that there is a lot going on, and Emmeline and her two new companions Matilda and Patrick are on the run for the majority of the book. Sometimes this made it a little bit difficult to keep up with all the action, but I think for people who really enjoy adventure fiction, this isn’t going to be much of an issue.

A fun story with an especially fun choose your own adventure bonus at the end, Banks’ novel is a fresh look at Australia’s history and blows apart some of the dark areas of our past with explosions, metal and lots and lots of steam.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, interactive fiction, Signed Books

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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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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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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