Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Olympic Affair: A Novel of Hitler's Siren and America's Hero by Terry Frei

Olympic Affair: A Novel of Hitler's Siren and America's HeroLeni Riefenstahl, having become well known as a dancer and actress, moved into film making - quite a feat in the nineteen thirties for a woman. However her renown was more due to the documentaries she made for the Nazis prior to World War II, and the rumours surrounding her relationship with Hitler than her gender. On the other side of the Atlantic Glenn Morris is a young athlete who is due to complete at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He's a small town boy who finds himself in the spotlight as one of the favourites to win the decathlon. This book is a fictionalised account of how they meet and the affair she claimed towards the end of her life that the pair had.

I really enjoy historical fiction, and especially recent history and tales with a firm factual basis, so this was right up my street. As well as providing an account of the developing relationship between the two, and their individual endeavours to reach the top of their field, it provides a great picture of the international fears of the coming of a second world war and the build up to that in Germany. Seeing Berlin through the eyes of the visiting athletes who try and rationalise what they are encountering provided a nice spectrum of views of what was happening at the time. 

As far as the main protagonists go Leni isn't a particularly sympathetic character. She is a demanding task master who has a way of putting her own spin on events to cast herself in a positive light. She comes across as slightly delusional and I couldn't quite get a handle on how she really felt about the relationship, and whether she really saw it as anything more than a career move. Glenn on the other hand came across as a charming small town boy whose life changes dramatically, although not necessarily in the way he had envisioned. His relationship with Leni takes a toll and seems to affect the rest of his life - a life that was full of promise.

I found reading about his preparations for the Olympics and her career to that point very interesting and enjoyed the development of their affair and the less factual part. At points the narrative was a bit too matter of fact, with lists of how came where in what event with times or distances. It makes for interesting footnotes but in most cases didn't really add anything for me. However in this blend of fact and fiction it was more forgiveable than it might have been otherwise. As always I appreciated the authors note at the end that helped distinguish where the line between the two was. My one wish would have been for more about what happened to the pair in the longer term than the relatively brief summary of the rest of their lives. It seems that the brief period of time had a lifelong impact and I would have very happily read more. Other than that I thought this was a very good read.

Format: ARC, anticipated release date 16th December 2012
Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield
My Rating: 4*

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Resurrectionist by James Bradley

The Resurrectionist After killing my kindle I had to turn to my bookshelves for a read for my commute to work. I picked this book up at a swap event on World Book Night and have been meaning to read it for a while.

Gentleman's son Gabriel arrives in London in 1826 to study with one of the city's greatest anatomists. It is a time where the study of the human body is thriving, but to serve the demand for cadavers there is a seamier side to the city. Not only is Gabriel exposed to body snatchers, he also begins to associate with prostitutes and drug users. In time he is drawn to the underworld and discovers how easy it is to forget your morals. Transferring his allegiance to his tutor's rival signals the end of his life as a respectable young man.

I love historical fiction and this was an alluring prospect. This is essentially a book of three parts; the young man finding his feet in a new city, the descent into addiction and crime and what comes thereafter. The author offers up a dark view of the London of the time, with plenty of description to conjure up the feel of places Gabriel visits. Some of the descriptions of the work of the grave robbers and anatomists made me feel a bit queasy, being fairly blunt. However as evocative as the writing is, I began to find the narrative wordy and had to stop myself skimming the text on more than one occasion.

I found that the tale was very nuanced and a lot of information was left to inference and supposition. I don't mind an author leaving parts open to interpretation but it was too frequent in this book and I felt like I was doing all the work. I struggled to get through the second part in particular, despite it being to most shocking part of the tale, but felt the novel was redeemed by the final part. Possibly because the characters and their conduct remained fairly mysterious I didn't really care what happened to any of them, which was a shame because they should have been a rich cast.

Had it not been for the third part of the book I think I'd have given this book a lower rating than I have. However the ending rounded off the story in a way I appreciated and I preferred the slightly different feel to it. Overall it's not a book I'd recommend and I think I'd want to sample any other work by the author before buying another one of his books.

Format: Paperback
Publisher: Faber & Faber
My Rating: 2*

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Infinite Sacrifice by L E Waters

Infinite Sacrifice (Infinite Series, #1)When Maya dies she finds herself in somewhere akin to heaven. She is keen to be reunited with others she has lost but instead finds herself at the start of a journey, lead by her spirit guide Zachariah. Before she is able to move on she has to review her past lives and show she understands the lessons each incarnation should have taught her.

This is the start of a series and in this book Maya relives pasts as a High Priest in ancient Egypt, a Spartan mother hiding a secret, a young Irish boy captured by Vikings and a Doctor's wife in plague-ridden London. She must prove she has learnt one of the important lessons before experiencing more of her past lives. In each story there are other characters who re-appear, recognisable by minor physical characteristics. 

I have to admit I was both impressed and slightly concerned by the foreword. The author has a website which includes more detailed research about the facts behind the work, which I thought was a real positive, but it also mentioned that to prevent confusion from the intricate character histories there was a chart at the end of each life to help identify the characters. This sounded a bit disconcerting, being told up front I might struggle to keep up! As it happens I found that I was able to identify the main characters with no real problems and didn't need to keep trying to refer to the charts at all.

I really enjoyed this book. I'm a fan of historical fiction anyway and the idea of reincarnation is of interest, so I found this an interesting meld of the two. By the time I got to the end I was so engrossed with the progress through history that I'd almost forgotten about the context holding the stories together. Each life was full of interesting little details and mostly I was able to identify approximately where and when the life was unfolding without too much prompting from the author. Some of Maya's incarnations are more likeable than others but each has a good story to tell.

This was a very good read that made me think, and I thought the magical realism surrounding Maya's arrival in "heaven" and how the process she finds herself going through works was well handled where it could have been fudged. I would definitely read the next in the series, Infinite Devotion.

Format: Kindle, review copy
My Rating: 4*

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Enza by Kristy K James

EnzaA big welcome to Kristy K. James who is on a blog tour right now, for her new book Enza! Set in the USA in 1918 a small town is focused on the fate of friends and relatives who are fighting in the trenches in the Great War. A more immediate threat is soon plaguing the town and tearing families apart. The seven strong Owens family is headed by a loving father and devoted mother. Daughter Elizabeth is dedicated to the Suffragette movement, trying her parents' patience almost as much as younger brother Johnathon who is convinced their German neighbour is a spy. Minister Colby Thornton and undertaker Marcus McClelland are both hard-working men who find themselves duty-bound to deal with the impact of the spread of the flu, although for very different reasons. Daniel Pullman has his hopes of joining the army dashed by an accident but finds the love of his life instead. All of them are at risk, and both their health and happiness are under threat.

This is a very touching book that almost had me in tears more than once. While the author focuses on a number of very different characters they are all very human and easy to sympathise with. A good part of the book is spent on setting the scene and developing the characters which is why I found it so sad when the pandemic hit their town. Cheeky lad Johnathon was particularly endearing and I enjoyed seeing the change in undertaker Marcus as events unfolded. I raced through this book in a couple of sittings, to see how the indiviuals would be affected. The writing was fluid and I found myself able to immerse myself in the story.

I suspect like me a lot of people have heard of the Spanish flu pandemic, it's mentioned every time there is a threat of a new global pandemic, but probably don't know a great deal more about it. The author provides some shocking statistics at the end of the book to further illustrate the swathe the illness cut across the globe. I really appreciated how the story of the pandemic was married with the other important news of the time to create a snapshot of the era.

This was a moving piece of historical fiction, that is as driven by the characters as the plot, and one I'd be happy to recommend.

Format: Kindle, Review copy
My Rating: 4*

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Book Review - Wings of Freedom by Ratan Kaul

Wings of Freedom is at heart a historical romance. That is slightly outside the genres I usually read but the blurb promised an Indian setting with a backdrop of British Colonialism, a revolution and World War I which made it very appealing. 
Wings of Freedom1911, Delhi. George V is due to visit for a Coronation celebration. When there is a suspected arson attack on the Royal camp prior to his arrival British police clamp down, afraid of sabotage or even worse an assassination attempt by revolutionaries. Having been working in the area Raju is concerned that he may be unfairly implicated. He is a college student at something of a crossroads in his life. His friends are firmly behind the revolutionary cause and want to plan action of their own to strike against the British. His father however runs a business relying on imports from Britain and has different view of the political situation in India. 

Raju's thoughts are further clouded when he meets Catharine, a British Doctor who has moved to India to try and improve health care and in particular maternity care in the area, and British officer's daughter Eileen. She has been born and raised in India, and contrary to her father's wishes is keen to experience as much of India as possible. Raju and Eileen both feel an almost instant attraction, but with racial and social divisions conspiring against them they are both concerned about whether a future together is possible. 

I wasn't entirely sure whether the balance between romance and historical fiction would be to my liking but I discovered a book I really enjoyed. The story touches on a range of issues facing people at the time and I found reading about India's fight for freedom interesting and really appreciated a new perspective on WWI. It was quite an educational read but set within a plot that flowed nicely to make it an easy read. I did spot a few typos but they were minor and didn't distract me from the story. The story opens with the end of the story, an urgent telegram to Raju from Eileen, then starts from the beginning. This had me on tenterhooks throughout, wondering what had happened to get to that point. The story really stepped up a gear towards the end and moved to a dramatic climax.

Raju and Eileen were quite likeable characters, both trying to follow their hearts while being respectful of their parents and finding their way in a time fraught with difficulties. Raju grows from a boy to a man during the book and Eileen isn't the spoilt, flighty rich girl I had been half expecting. 

I really liked this book and appreciated the notes at the end, with a glossary of the Indian terms used as well as some notes on the historical facts as they relate to the events in the book. Those notes could have been slightly better presented on the kindle but that is a very minor criticism.

Format: Kindle, review copy
My Rating: 4*  

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Book Review: The Fulcrum Files by Mark Chisnell

The Fulcrum FilesIn inter-war Britain forces are at work either trying to prevent or prepare for a second world war. Ben Clayton is more interested in sailing and fisherman's daughter Lucy. When an apparent accident kills his friend Ben is plunged into a world of intrigue, plots and counter-plots. As a sworn pacifist he doesn't even want to be involved with the production of warplanes like the Spitfire, but events force him to rethink his position. His beliefs aren't the only thing under threat, as his relationship with Lucy is threatened by the seductive Anna.                               
This novel is primarily a spy thriller but for me it was much enhanced by the historical element. I found the writing so evocative of the period. I could picture the people and their dress and it captured the tensions, including class divisions, of the time. When the story moved to Germany I found some of the narrative chilling and very tense, and I read on keen to get to the bottom of the tale. I found the author's note about certain facts that pertain to the story fascinating. They were facts I weren't aware of and often it's the stories like those that bring history to life for me. Sailing also plays an important part, and is a recurring and interesting theme in Mark's novels (no great surprise if you read his author biog on Amazon)

Ben is a very empathetic character. His life looks to be heading in exactly the direction he wanted, but he rapidly finds it all unraveling and unwittingly becomes a key to the course of the future. The strength of his beliefs has alienated his parents and he doesn't seem to fit within any particular class, and now he finds himself pulled from all angles. It's impossible not to be on his side. Lucy is also an attractive character and the polar opposite of slick, glamorous Anna. There are some very interesting dynamics among the various characters and while there is a lot going on it wasn't hard to follow the twists and turns, and unlike some spy stories I didn't find myself scratching my head trying to figure out what I had missed at the end.

This was a really enjoyable read and for me it cast a new light on the run up to World War II. The writing is fluid and allows the story to move on at a good pace. This was quite a departure from The Defector, by the same author, but Mark Chisnell's books are very welcome on my kindle.

Format: Kindle, review copy
My Rating: 4*

Friday, 3 February 2012

Book Review - A Storm Hits Valparaiso by David Gaughran

A Storm Hits Valparaiso is quite a sea change considering the previous books by this author. If You Go Into the Woods and Transfection are short stories whereas this a full length historical fiction novel. Having given the former 5 and 4 stars respectively I was looking forward to reading this book.

This book is largely set in South America in the early 1800s, detailing the impact of the struggle for freedom from Spain on a number of characters. Catalina has always been able to take care of herself; dealing with the patrons of her father's cafe has taught her plenty. When she loses her father and her home the skills she has honed come in very handy. Diego and Jorge are brothers who are both fighting for the Patriots but see life very differently and find a chasm building between them. Other central characters are important historic individuals like senior British Naval Officer Thomas Cochrane, whose radical politics saw him targeted and marginalised, and Jose De San Martin; a key military figure in the fight for independance.
A Storm Hits Valparaiso The author provides details at the end of the book about some of the key facts and characters woven into the story, and while working within the facts David Gaughran has still woven a captivating story of the lives of several people and how their paths cross during this dangerous period in South America's history. This is place and time I am not particularly familiar with so I didn't know what the outcome would be for the nations and the real characters. Before reading the end note I suspected that the author couldn't have taken too many liberties with major figures of the period but it felt like a piece of fiction rather than a straightforward, dry, historical account. The highs and lows of the senior miltary men are dramatic, but I found myself drawn in more by the stories of the "little people", whose lives were so affected by those men. Despite the story being told from several perspectives it was not hard to keep track, something probably helped by the good formatting. This is a well presented work.

This story is something of an epic, covering decades and detailing major events as well as small domestic details. I was pulled into their world and read on to find out who would survive the turmoil and how they would do so. One of the aspects of David's work I particularly enjoy is his ability to create a real impression of the characters and places without resorting to lengthy descriptions. With minimal words I felt I was getting a real feel for the people. While in some places towards the end there were parts summarising historic events that were a little flat in comparison, overall I very much appreciate the author's style.

I already knew the author wrote great short stories and I now know he's a deft hand with full length novels too. This was a really good read, loaded with drama, characters who develop throughout the book and a strong foundation in fact. I'd happily recommend it to fans of the genre.

Format: Kindle, review copy
Publisher: Arriba Arriba Books
My Rating: 4*

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Book Review: The Mountain of Gold by J.D Davies

The Mountain of GoldThis seventeenth century naval adventure is the second in the Matthew Quinton journals series, but I found this on Netgalley, was intrigued and read it without having read Gentleman Captain first. Matthew Quinton is an inexperienced young captain who is also brother of an Earl, and heir to the title. When he captures a  galley from under the nose of a Maltese Knight he discovers an Irishman, posing as a barbary pirate, who has tales of a mountain of gold. This tale stays his execution and maps out Matthew's immediate future. King Charles II sends him on a mission to find the mountain. The task is a hard one, without forces conspiring against the Captain and his men. Those who fear a Monarch with absolute power are determined to prevent the King becoming endlessly wealthy, but does the mountain even exist? As if Matthew doesn't have enough to contend with his brother, the Earl, is being pushed into a marriage of convenience with woman suspected of being involved in the deaths of her first two husbands.

While this novel contains some tense action and battles this wasn't the swash-buckling pirate romp I was expecting, but in a good way. It's clear from the information about the author and the notes at the end on the factual elements that this is well researched and grounded in fact. This is set in a different era to a lot of the historical fiction I have read before so I felt like I was learning something, but enjoyed the story and the moments of humour and warmed to Matthew and his colourful wife. In fact the Quinton family is quite a memorable cast and the subplot relating to the Earl's marriage is just as likely to get me reading the rest of the series as any other element.

The high paced action is broken up as the author shows the plotting, scheming and preparations that seem par for the course at the time, creating a nice balance and giving the reader a chance to catch their breath. I did feel slightly cast adrift in places, not being able to follow what was happening very well, but this was down to my ignorance of certain nautical terms rather than any fault with the writing. This book worked perfectly well on its own, and althought there are references to Matthew's previous sea-faring experience not having read the first book didn't seem to affect my appreciation for this novel.

All in all I found this an enjoyable, well written historical fiction action story.

Format: Kindle, ARC
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
My Rating: 3*

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Book Review: Last Stop Freedom by Ann Nolder Heinz

Set in 1850s America this book tell the story of two women, one black and one white, who are both desperate to escape the ties that bind them. Julia is a Northern woman, raised by and assistant to her parson father. She is totally unused to the complexities of life in South Carolina. As the new wife of a plantation owner she is expected to conform to her role and keep her opinions about the slave trade to herself. Julia becomes attached to young maid Fanny who illustrates the reality of a slave's life and gives her the strength to cope with her new set of circumstances. Essentially the two have the same dream, to be free to determine their own lives.

I have read quite a lot of historical fiction in the past, particularly that set in places other than the UK, but I don't ever recall reading about the place and time this book is set. I have some awareness of the slave trade but this book was something of an eye-opener. In addition to the commentary on the prevalent attitudes to race it also embraces the role of women at the time. As well as providing a fascinating glimpse into how life might have been and the tensions between the North and the South it is also a tale of friendship and romance. I enjoyed the balance between the various elements and the tension in the latter part of the book as the two women make a bid for freedom.

Last Stop FreedomJulia is a slightly naive young woman who has expected to spend her life a spinster, devoted to serving her father and God. When Nathaniel Hamilton proposes marriage she envisions a wonderful new life in the bosom of a new family. Watching her dreams shatter was sad but I was pleased she retained a spark of optimism and found the strength to try and overcome her situation. Her life is a complete contrast to Fanny's, and although her problems seem trivial in comparison to that of a slave's she is just as much Nathaniel's property and equally at the mercy of his whims.

I found this a very enjoyable read, warming to several of the characters and appreciating the descriptive powers of the author. I was drawn through a range of emotions as the story progressed, particularly once we were introduced to the Underground Railroad and the work to try and liberate slaves. As a slight negative there were a couple of small typos in the form of spelling errors, and the book could have been formatted a little better to make it easier for the reader to identify where the point of view changed in the course of a chapter. However these were minor issues. I came away from this book very pleased to reflect on how far the world has moved on since then, even if things still aren't perfect.

Format: Kindle, review copy
My Rating: 4*

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Book Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is one of those books I feel like I ought to have read by now. I haven't seen the film either. So when I saw it as a Quick Pick at the library (my final book for the Borrowed Book Challenge) the familiar title jumped out at me.

Stevens is a butler who has devoted himself to a life in service, following in the footsteps of his father. He seeks to be an example of a great butler and his view of the world is so narrow he appears to have missed what to the reader is obvious. He undertakes a trip partly to resolve a staff shortage (by luring the former housekeeper back.) During the trip he not only shares the present but also recounts tales of his service over the years. 
The Remains of the Day

This is told in the first person, and I particularly enjoyed it here as I began to read between the lines. I found myself reading between the lines and much of the story lies in what goes unsaid. You have to wonder exactly how far awry the  butler is in his assessment of Miss Kenton the housekeeper and his Lordship. Along with the minutiae of domestic life is historical detail, and I found the passing information on the tensions within Europe in the interwar period interesting as it's one I haven't read much about previously. There is some humour to be found along in the tale that balances with a feeling of sadness at missed opportunities.

I really enjoyed this modern classic, it is beautifully understated, and I have no doubt I'll look up more works by the author in future.

Format: Paperback, borrowed from the the library
My Rating: 4*

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Coming Soon Book Review: Catching the Eagle (Regency Reivers Series) by Karen Charlton

This book is the first in a new series. Set in Northumberland in the early 1800s this is a fictionalised account of the a crime that rocked the community and the author's ancestors.
Catching the Eagle (Regency Reivers Series)When £1157 in rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall the owner calls in officers from Bow Street magistrates court in London to investigate. While many think the owner's steward Michael Aynsley is to blame, suspicion focuses on poor farm labourer James Charlton. His behaviour after the theft only serves to further implicate him and the Charlton family, including brother William, begin a battle to save Jamie from the gallows and to keep his young family from the poor house. In his own way Will is also fighting for his freedom, trying to get away from the family farm and a past that has for too long affected his present. The magnificent golden eagle that has been seen over the area is a "lucky" bird, but there are parallels between the fate of the bird and Jamie.
This book is set in rural Northumberland, and although the reader is treated to some description of the life and homes of the upper classes much of the tale is set on the farms, in workers cottages and in the gaol. It is a bleak existence, especially in winter, and the author makes it easy to appreciate how difficult life must have been for the families in the novel. While the greater issues of the time touch on the story it really deals with telling the story of a family. The charming William is considered a bit of a ladies man but the reader sees more to him. He is devoted to his family but needs to cut the apron strings. I loved him, and the way he changed during the book. I also felt for Jamie's wife Cilla who, in common with many of her peers, was a hard toiling mother and worker.
I appreciated the writing style, which was descriptive without being too wordy, and which included enough local dialect to help me hear the characters without using using anything too obscure and confusing. Once I had chance to sit down and get into this book I didn't want to put it down again. The narrative is nice and linear, and easy to follow, seeing the family going through highs and lows. I thought that the recurring presence of the eagle made for a touching sub-plot interwoven with the main story.  
I really enjoyed this book, a historical fiction that values the smaller details. I put it down wondering what would happen next to Cilla and Will in particular, and would love to read the next in the series. 
Format: E-book, ARC, anticipated release date 8th Dec 2011
My Rating: 4*

Friday, 2 December 2011

Book Review: The Luminist by David Rocklin

The Luminist: A Novel"IN COLONIAL INDIA, at a time of growing friction between the ruling British and the restless Indian populace, a Victorian woman and her young Tamil Indian servant defy convention, class, and heartbreak to investigate what is gained - and lost - by holding life still. Suggested by the life and work of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, The Luminist filters 19th century Ceylon through the lens of an English woman, Catherine Colebrook and a 15 year old Tamil boy, Eligius Shourie. Left fatherless by soldiers, Eligius is brought as a servant to the Colebrooks' neglected estate. In the shadow of Catherine's obsession to arrest beauty - to select a moment from the thousands comprising her life in Ceylon and hold it apart from mere memory - Eligius transforms into her apprentice in the creation of the first haunting photographs in history." From 
This is the first paperback I have read in a while and as I tweeted when I first picked it up and started reading it the other night it is the sort of book that could just make me feel I was missing something reading so many ebooks. The cover is striking, inside some of the pages are printed with a faint old map as a layer and I loved the formatting. I begrudged having to put it in my handbag in case I damaged it! I never usually mention this sort of thing when I do read a physical book so it obviously made an impact on me.
Catherine is married to a man twenty years her senior, with an older daughter and a young son, who survived his twin. The wish to capture her dead son's image so she might remember the light in his eyes forever drives her to try and perfect a new and as then un-named science, photography. Her family is the source of much gossip for other high-ranking Britishers in Ceylon, which leaves Catherine unbothered but seems to be a greater source of concern for daughter Julia. Much of the story is narrated in the third person from the point of view of Eligius. His father had managed to learn much whilst serving the British, but was killed in front of Eligius after trying to encourage the powers that be to improve their treatment of the locals. Eligius finds himself torn between taking up the cause and serving the Colebrook family. I wanted to like Catherine for going her own way rather than doing just what was expected of her, but I also felt sympathy as she came across as somewhat obsessive. The relationship between Catherine, struggling to fulfil the role expected of a woman of her status, and Eligius, who becomes an outcast and seems to become a surrogate son to Catherine is one of two lost individuals who share a common passion.
As far as the story goes this is an oddly beautiful book. The style is quite literary, which in places made for some lovely prose, while elsewhere I found myself drifting a little and having to pay attention to avoid missing some of the inferences that impacted on the story. This is a book that took a little while to get into and needed concentration to make the most of it. I also had a slight problem with the timescale, or more so a lack of one. It was difficult to figure out how long had passed between the various events, which isn't a major issue but I would have liked it a better sense of that. However on a positive note The Luminist tackles a number of interesting themes. It ranges from the impact of British Colonialism on Ceylon, and the role of women in the 1830s to broader topics like relationships and the need to explore and discover. I found it a fascinating read on a number of levels. For example as someone with a passing interest in photography it was good to sit and think about how far this art has come since pioneers like Julia Cameron tackled capturing images. I had never thought of how those exposed to photography in its infancy might have thought of it as ungodly. 
I found this a very enjoyable read, although I am aware some people would be put off by the author's style. The historical fiction fan in me certainly liked the snapshot of life in a part of the Empire I haven't really read about before.

Format: Paperback, review copy
My Rating: 4*