Tag: Historical Fiction

I Read Jo Baker’s LONGBOURN

LongbournI’m almost scared to write another gushing review: what is happening that I can’t discern anything negative in my last five reads, stellar all?!

Jo Baker’s Longbourn, the story of Pride and Prejudice‘s barely-glimpsed servants, manages to stay true to Austen’s romance and create a world, characters, and stories running parallel to the original and yet wholly unique. It is quite the achievement, both homage and uniquely itself, beautifully written and with only, at most, one forgiveably faltering section.

One of Longbourn‘s greatest strengths is its rich characterization of servitude’s silent shadows: Mrs. and Mr. Hill, the two housemaids, Sarah and Polly, and footman, James Smith, how their lives intertwine in profound and interesting ways, how fully-formed their stories are, for example, the as lovely-if-quieter romance between Sarah and James as the ones occurring “upstairs”. I also loved how Baker made Wickham more villainous than he appears in P&P, but in keeping with what we learn about him via Austen. Ultimately, however, it is in the richness, the tragedy and joy, of the servants’ inner lives and relationships that the novel’s strengths lie.     (more…)

“Not waving, but drowning…”, Stevie Smith said it best…

It’s been ages, dear friends and readers, since I wrote a blog-post. I played with the idea of shutting down the blog entirely. Life has been dealing lemons and I had a hard time making lemonade: nothing utterly shattering, just the slow erosion of my house and caring for an aging parent. Add a full-time demanding job and the spinster’s lot to carry it all and the result is not much reading and certainly no blog-posting. None of that is going to change any time in the near-future, so I thought a tiny post with a paltry number of books and even fewer thoughts about them was better than continued silence. So, here it goes. I read two whole books since April: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast and a more disparate reaction to two books I haven’t had in ages. (more…)

Having Read Amor Towles’s A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Gentleman_In_MoscowI read Towles’s Gentleman In Moscow on the recommendation of two friends whose reading opinions I value. They did not steer me wrong: Gentleman is a wonderful book about a wonderful man, a “gentleman” by birth and a “gentle man” by temperament. It was an opportune time to read Towles’s novel: with Russia playing strongman and all of us emerging from endless lock-downs…what better book to read than one about a Russian character, Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced to a life-time’s house arrest in the Metropol Hotel overlooking Red Square? Yet there isn’t much of the topical in Towles’s Gentleman: to start, the timelessness of the Count’s setting, a storied old hotel which keeps its character through history’s vagaries, offering elegance, steadfast grace and service, comfort and civility to its guests as its denizens. History happens “out there,” in Red Square and beyond: revolution, war, famine, oppression, genocide, injustice, while the hotel carries on. Nevertheless, the snake is never far from the tree: cruelty and evil worm their way in, but in the inimitable characters of the Count and his friends, the Metropol’s loyal staff or devotees, we read about the circumvention of malevolence via cunning goodness, the heart of the novel’s theme. As such, Towles’s Gentleman is a comedy in the Fryian sense, moving toward possibility, towards, as the Count would agree, faith, hope, and love (with his charmingly, parenthetically exclamatory and the “greatest of these is love!”).

From the back-cover-blurb, some of the plot’s detail: “When, in 1922, thirty-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel near the Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must now live in an attic room as some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold. Unexpectedly, the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry into a world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships with the hotel’s denizens. But when fate puts the life of a young girl in his hands, he must draw on all his ingenuity to protect the future she deserves,” bringing us from that 1922 tribunal to 1954 and the Count’s 65th year as we turn the final page.   (more…)

Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s HAMNET

HamnetIt has been a long time since I read literary fiction and the opening pages of O’Farrell’s Hamnet reminded me why: because of style over substance, meandering non-plots and vague characterization. Always, at the forefront, the author’s writing and never being able to be absorbed in, or by, the narrative. O’Farrell’s Hamnet proved me wrong; it was absorbing, moving, and contained sharp, delineated, compelling characterization.

I have loved William Shakespeare since the day my grade 7 teacher handed me a tiny, hard-bound copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have taught him every year of my more than 30-year teaching career and I have, with a few exceptions (sorry, Troilus and Cressida), read his plays and sonnets many times over. I have trekked with students and friends to the Shakespeare festival at our Canadian Stratford and watched, enthralled, characters who rave, rant, quip, orate, harangue, roar, bellow, pun, banter, declaim, sob, and sing. His language has always washed over me to say everything I fail to articulate.

I was scared O’Farrell would flatten Shakespeare to idealized genius, but I got something alive and interesting and much more than I wasn’t expecting. I knew going in that the novel would focus on Shakespeare’s son and play and I knew, from years of teaching, that his son had died, young, and that he wrote Hamlet some time after both his son’s and father’s deaths. But at the centre of Hamnet is the woman we know next to nothing about, except she was Shakespeare’s wife, bore him three children, lived apart from him until the last years of his life, and became his widow. (more…)

REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s THE VANISHED DAYS

The_Vanished_DaysReading my umpteenth Kearsley novel, I noticed something in her narrative I hadn’t beforehand: a common emotional trajectory that may be characterized as melancholy mood to joyful conclusion. Because they are the most historical of historical romances, their melancholy comes from Kearsley’s initial presentation of her characters as trapped by history. But she builds their strength, intelligence, and virtue and proves to us how these qualities can sometimes defeat history’s choke-hold. She writes about ordinary people (when considered through the lens of big-name, big-battle, big-power sweep) but extraordinary in how they wrest happiness out of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles determined by history and its cruel, expedient masters, men of power over honour. At their centre are women and child characters who are victimized but not victims, exercise agency within constricting circumstances and yet are often trapped by forces beyond their capacity to fight back. In the end, characters escape to a happy life by circumventing evil using wiles without losing their essential goodness. The Vanished Days‘ Lily Aitcheson and her helpers are such. Her story is told in a dual-timeline alternating between childhood/youth and the novel’s “present-day”, the early 1700’s. Her story is narrated by one Adam Williamson, who is tasked to investigate Lily’s claim for compensation as the widow of a man who perished in Scotland’s 1698-Darien-colony-bound fleet. The blurb fills in historical detail further: 

There are many who believe they know what happened, but they do not know the whole of it. The rumours spread, and grow, and take their hold, and so to end them I have been persuaded now to take my pen in hand and tell the story as it should be told… Autumn, 1707. Old enemies from the Highlands to the Borders are finding common ground as they join to protest the new Union with England, the French are preparing to launch an invasion to carry the young exiled Jacobite king back to Scotland to reclaim his throne, and in Edinburgh the streets are filled with discontent and danger. When a young widow, Lily Aitcheson, comes forward to collect her lost husband’s wages, former soldier Adam Williamson is assigned to investigate her petition. As Lily tells her story, Adam has only days to discover if she’s being honest, or if his own feelings are making him blind to the truth. But sinister figures lurk in the background – is Adam being used as a pawn in an increasingly treacherous game?

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Review of C. S. Harris’s WHO SPEAKS FOR THE DAMNED

Who_Speaks_For_the_DamnedWhen you review the 15th installment of a beloved historical murder mystery series, your review is inevitably about where the volume fits in the series’s scale of goodness to weakness. Because I have no perspective when it comes to Harris’s Regency-England-set Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, read no further if you haven’t read the series, just start reading it – from the beginning to the present volume.

In this 15th installment, Harris sees her nobleman-hero, Viscount Devlin, affectionately known as Seb for us in the series’s thrall, seek the murderers of a disgraced nobleman, Nicholas Hayes, youngest son of the deceased Earl of Seaforth. Years ago, Hayes was convicted of the murder of an exiled French aristocrat’s wife and, having stayed the noose, was sent to Botany Bay, an equally devastating, but protracted death sentence. Hayes’s return to London, with an Asian child, purported to be his son, shakes many privileged lives, not least of which is the present Earl, a distant cousin. But no sooner does the ton whisper speculation about Hayes’s return than he is found dead in Pennington’s Teas Gardens, with a sickle in his back. What brought Hayes back, though he would be captured and executed if caught by Bow Street? Was it revenge? Vindication? (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White’s ALL THE WAYS WE SAID GOODBYE

All_Ways_We_Said_GoodbyeI love these three authors and looked forward to reading their joint effort, All the Ways We Said Goodbye. While I enjoyed the multi-narrative-threaded novel, I prefer the Co. of Williams, Willig, & White seule over ensemble. There was so much here and not quite enough; the novel’s last quarter was stronger than its first half. Overall, a mixed-bag with a mixed response from me: bits I loved, characters I adored, and, in the best lingo from The Great British Bake-Off, a soggy middle (okay, “bottom” for them, but you get my drift).

All the Ways We Said Goodbye is ambitious, I’ll give it that. Three women, three stories, intertwined by war, betrayal, passion, love, and honour, the male protagonists following likewise in their wake. One narrative follows WWI-set Aurélie de Courcelles, the Demoiselle, whose family heirloom/talisman is a cloth seeped in the blood of Ste. Jeanne d’Arc. Aurélie leaves her mother ensconced at the Paris Ritz and makes her way to the ancestral home, now behind enemy lines. She carries the talisman with her, legendary because as long the Demoiselle holds it, France cannot fall. Given that most of the Great War was fought on French soil, a symbol of French hope and pride. Aurélie finds her home occupied by some nasty German officers. She machinates to protect her people and finds herself embroiled with one kind, handsome German officer …
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REVIEW: Iona Grey’s THE GLITTERING HOUR

Glittering_HourIona Grey’s The Glittering Hour wrenched my heart, squeezed it, and wrung it out to dry. This is a very sad book, a hopeful one, but nevertheless, sad. At the same time, despite work deadlines, it kept me in its grip and I stayed up to finish it into the early morning, something I do rarely these days. If you love Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White, and our very own Canuck, Clarissa Harwood, you’re going to love Grey’s novel, as long as you’re willing to forego their more-often-than-not HEAs.

The novel opens, as the best novels do, with a naked sleeping couple in 1926. We don’t know who they are, yet we sense love and desperation. Selina Lennox, aristocratic bright young thing, darling of the then-tabloids, lover of cocktails, jazz, and wild, nocturnal shenanigans. And Lawrence Weston, dark, handsome, talented, an artist and photographer, of humble means, lowly origins, cultured, urbane, working-class. Lovers. Tragic lovers, we sense. Fast forward to 1936 and the narrative shifts to Alice Carew, eleven-year-old daughter to Selina née Lennox and Rupert Carew, presently living with her maternal grandmama and grandpapa in the Lennox family estate, Blackwood Park, of former grandeur and still the site of much of the Lennoxes’ cool snobbery. (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Sarah M. Eden’s THE LADY AND THE HIGHWAYMAN

Lady_HighwaymanI was pleasantly surprised at the complexity and page-turning élan of Sarah M. Eden’s The Lady and the Highwayman. Eden is a new-to-me author and I’m glad I’ve discovered her romances; this first read won’t be my last, thanks to her robust backlist.

Victorian-set among the humble and working-class, Eden’s thriller-melodrama-romance boasts a former-“guttersnipe” hero, now successful penny dreadful author, and girls-school headmistress heroine. Fletcher Walker struts the streets of 1865-London with the swagger of a man who brought himself out of the gutter and into success. But Fletcher is not an advocate of the every-man-is-an-economic-island making his own way in the world. He is the defender, rescuer, and fighter for the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of London’s invisible people, the widowed, fatherless, and orphaned; the sweep’s agony, the harlot’s cry come under Fletcher’s protection and his penned stories tell of their pathos, endurance, and spunky survival, the importance of helping one another, and defending those who cannot defend themselves. His author’s income isn’t for himself alone, but largely given to the poorest of the poor. (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Allison Montclair’s THE RIGHT SORT OF MAN

Right_Sort_ManIt’s too bad I started reading Allison Montclair’s The Right Sort of Man when I returned to work after the holidays because I wanted the luxury of inhaling it in hours instead of days. First, it came recommended by MissB’s reader, Barb, always spot-on; second, it held much tropish goodness: historical, check; mystery, check; women forging paths in post-war-England, check; engaging voice, check; witty, rapid-sharp dialogue, check; glimmers of love interests, check. And, I cannot say this enough: it’s moving without being lugubrious and the characters grow in believable, positive ways. (More than anything, my ugh with litfic is the latter. If you have any recs about this, they’d be welcome.)

Montclair creates a pair of female amateur sleuths who start a marriage bureau agency in post-WWII London. They’re an unlikely, contrapuntal pair whose professional relationship grows into a friendship. If you’re keen on romance tropes, they’re an opposites-attract version of female friendship. Montclair opens her novel, cleverly-like, with the victim, one Tillie LaSalle, seeking a match from Gwen Bainbridge and Iris Sparks’s Mayfair matchmaking establishment, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. We soon realize Iris and Gwen are as unlike in personality as they are in height. Gwen is the willowy, still-grieving widow of would-have-inherited-a-title Ronald Bainbridge and mother to six-year-old Ronnie. Iris, on the other hand, a former ton-ish wild girl about town, did some secret service work during the war and has derring-do recklessness to Gwen’s methodical care.    (more…)