Category Archives: Historical Fiction

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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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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