Tag 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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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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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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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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