Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Good People – Hannah Kent

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction
4*s

This is a book steeped in the folklore and superstition that I’m sure reigned worldwide at the beginning of the nineteenth century but possibly had its most ardent followers in the Irish countryside with its stories of fairies, changelings and many rituals to ward off evil.

Set in County Kerry in 1825 in a remote valley lying between the mountains of south-west Ireland,near the Flesk river we meet Nóra Lehay when she learns of the death of her husband Martin. Only earlier that year the pair had suffered the loss of their only daughter Johanna and as a result their four year-old grandson Micheál. Poor Micheál is unable to walk and Nora has kept him hidden from her neighbours but now with the house about to fill up with mourners, she decides to give him to her neighbour, Peg O’Shea to mind.

The women gather at the well and swap gossip and Nóra’s bad luck is part of the daily currency. Peg is more understanding, with Nóra struggling to cope as she refuses to take Micheál out of their home, she suggests she goes to the hiring fair to get herself a young girl to lend a pair of hands.

This book is beautifully written and I became immersed in the small house, the winter pressing down on an already bleak home. The simple lifestyle with the local handy woman dispensing herbs and cures for all manner of ills was easy to imagine with the lyrical writing and the occasional Gallic phrase served to add a layer of authenticity to what felt like a meticulously researched book. The superstitions that seemed so quaint at the opening of the book soon take a darker turn with many of the villagers reporting bad luck in the form of the drying up of milk from the cows and the lack of eggs from the hens. These basic needs are so important when the inhabitants are living from hand to mouth, and soon the murmurs of something causing the bad luck begin to turn into positive finger-pointing and some of those fingers point at Micheál.

There is no doubt at all that Hannah Kent knows how to tell a story, she is a master of the show and not tell with the various superstitions on which the villagers rely on are seamlessly interspersed throughout the tale. The atmosphere she creates as the backdrop oppressive with little relief and I felt that I was immersed in a world far away from my home comforts. The characters were well-drawn and although I wouldn’t have wanted to share the bleak winter with some of them, had enough of a back-story for me to understand them. This wasn’t after all a world where a battered wife could up sticks and leave. There is one woman, the handy woman, Nance Roche, who lives close to the part of the forest where the fairies are thought to dwell, whose life seemed to be a litany of hardship, and was one of many who illustrated quite how strong the survival instinct is. Her story combined with that of Mary the maid, just a young teen, confronted with caring for a young boy who couldn’t walk or talk and screamed through the night was almost too awful to imagine. The hardship was sadly all too easy to imagine.

The Good People is a heart-breaking novel which provoked a feeling similar to that I had when reading the author’s debut book Burial Rites, a feeling that the outcome was inevitable, yet I read it desperately hoping for something to happen that would change its course. The story is all the more devastating because like Burial Rites it is inspired by a real event.

I’d like to thank the publishers Pan Macmillan for allowing me to read a copy of The Good People ahead of the publication of the hardback on 9 February 2017.

First Published UK:  9 February 2017
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
No of Pages:  400
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

A Dangerous Crossing – Rachel Rhys

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

A Dangerous Crossing was my First Book of the Year 2017, a book that I was especially looking forward to due to the fact I’d won a charity auction run on behalf of CLIC Sargent to win my name in a book, and this was the one! Rachel Rhys has penned her first historical fiction novel, although you may have met her penmanship under the name Tammy Cohen where she’s written a mixture of contemporary and psychological fiction.

The book opens with a scene from the end of the journey from Tilbury docks to Australia with a dockside arrest, a scene that stuck in my head as the trip took us on a magnificent journey across high seas with the occasional stop in some far flung land. For Lilian Shepard has left her family following a disappointment in love to be a domestic servant in Australia, she is going to see the world and has grabbed the chance of an assisted passage to do so. Despite the confined nature, albeit on a fairly large liner, the Orontes, Lily learns more about life during the journey than she could ever have expected.

The year is 1939, the month is August and the rumours that the Germans are going to precipitate a war are getting harder to ignore. Lily’s father, who has been mute since the First World War is worried and now her adored brother may be in danger. Lily has decided to write a diary of her passage across the world, so that she doesn’t forget anything, but given the characters she is about to spend five weeks of her life with, that seems unlikely.

orontes

Rachel Rhys paints a brilliant picture of life on this ocean liner so that I felt that I was completely transported. Ask me;  I can describe the hot laundry where the guests wash and dry their clothes, the small cabin that Lily shares with Ida and Audrey, two fellow assisted travel passengers, the deck where they walk to work of the huge amount of food they are served to break up the boredom and the first class cocktail bar where Lily joins Max and Eliza Campbell for games of cards and gossip. Life on the ocean liner is nothing like anything Lily has experienced before. Max and Eliza are huge characters but despite muttered warnings Lily is drawn to them like a moth to a flame, the question is, will she get burnt? At the other end of the scale there are the Jews fleeing the life they have known, wearing the only clothes they own on board and unsurprisingly, given the point in history; a minority of passengers who have sympathy with the Nazi’s views on them. On a closed environment, a somewhat combustible mix of characters, all bought brilliantly to life by the clothes they wear, their chatter over dinner along with how they chose to spend all their time while their new home, and life, inches closer.

I loved every minute of the journey especially the observations Lily makes as she chats with her dining companions, the snippets of information that are revealed along the way of the main cast of characters means that it is apparent that no-one is quite what they first appeared to be. Everyone has secrets that they would prefer had been firmly left behind with their family and friends when they stepped up the gangplank to begin their journey for a new life.

This is truly one of those books to get immersed in, the glamour of the first class passengers, the uncertainty of the time, the snapshots of the countries they visit from Gibraltar to Egypt along the way provide a backdrop to the pitch-perfect atmospheric story, so expertly told.

This review may seem biased, I make no apology, it is, but I am sure that even if you haven’t been lucky enough to have a cameo role (look out for Cleopatra Bannister who appears in the last section) there is so very much to enjoy, as this story rolls along with the waves it rides on.

I am very grateful to have received a signed copy of A Dangerous Crossing from the author, ahead of publication on 23 March 2017 by Doubleday, a story not to be missed.

First Published UK: 23 March 2017
Publisher: Doubleday
No of Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Silent Hours – Cesca Major

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction
4*s

Told in the main by three distinct voices; Adeline who is mute, living in a convent in France in 1952, she’s been there for eight years, never speaking out aloud in all that time. Sebastian is a Jew working in his father’s bank in France, unable to fight in the war due to his limp. One day in the market square he meets Isabelle or perhaps Isabelle in her Olive coat notices the young man dancing with a younger girl, left out by her friends. We get to hear from Isabelle through her letters to her brother Paul who is away fighting in the War, the household a quieter more anxious home without him there. Lastly we have the voice of Tristan, a nine-year old boy whose family have relocated from Paris and reside in the same small village.

This small village is not yet occupied by the Germans and the anxiety about if and when that might happen pervades the book illustrating the uncertainty that coloured everything. With few young men left behind the older generation fret and try to plan, particularly those who are ordered to wear the yellow stars on their sleeves.

All of the narrators speak in the first person present tense which doesn’t normally present any problems for me, but I did feel that perhaps the early part of the book would have felt a little smoother if at least one of the narrators had been in a different tense. As it was, the reader is in the dark for quite some time about the links between the characters, which of course the author intended, as this meant that the revelation was all the more potent.

This was a powerful story, made all the more poignant because it has its heart in a real-life event that took place during World War II and I can absolutely see why the author felt it was only right to put that story at the centre of a tale which is part love story but more a reflection of what life in wartime was really like. I have now read a couple of books set in France during the war as well as a huge amount set in England, throughout them all there is the human spirit which keeps the characters putting one foot in front of the other coupled with a huge amount of uncertainty on how to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, whether that be at home, in a temporary home or fighting for freedom. It is impossible not to be moved by stories set during this time period, all the more so when those stories are told by characters who you can not only picture but imagine them living their lives in such terrible times.

This book’s real power is in its ending, when all the links between the lives reveal themselves in their entirety and any pretence at cosiness is completely banished. So while I may have struggled at first with the seemingly disparate pieces of information while in between the lines the foundation to the story was being laid, the finale more than made up for the earlier confusion. I’d got to know the main characters, had some sympathy for them all, although I have to confess Tristan was a particularly irritating child in a way only a nine-year old can be. As different events occur during the book it amazed me how each one found courage, and even though with the hindsight of time you could see those on the periphery to the story working to their own agenda, The Silent Hours appeared to accurately create a time and place that I am thankful I did not live through.

First Published UK: 5 November 2015
Publisher: Corvus
No of Pages: 320
Genre: Historical Fiction – WWII
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The House of Birds – Morgan McCarthy

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

I’m a fan of dual time-line stories but suspect that these are far trickier to pull off than the big hits in the genre suggest, I have read my fill of poor imitations where the connections between past and present are weak or worse still, contrived. Books where all too often, one of the stories shores up the other to such an extent that you feel it was only invented to appeal to those of us who enjoy this form of storytelling. The House of Birds is not one of these poor imitations, better still the story in the present is about a man, Oliver who has walked out of his highly paid job and is ‘considering his options!’

Oliver met Kate when he was a twelve-year-old boy and together, one sunny day, finding themselves outside Kate’s Great-Aunt’s house decided as a bit of a dare to investigate. They made their way through the overgrown garden and Oliver climbed up to peer through one of the upstairs windows. What he saw in the room made a memory that he never quite shook off, coming as these vivid memories often do, just before his life changed, and he moved away from Oxford. Years later Oliver and Kate meet again and start to build a life together. Kate’s family has been split into two sides for years over an ongoing dispute of inheritance of the house in Oxford but now it has been passed to Kate. With the house in a poor state of repair and Oliver at a loose end, he decides to use his time organising the repairs and renovations. Once there he finds a story, written by a woman called Sophie.

Sophie’s story is set in the 1920s where she is trying to gain access to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, but not having anyone to write a letter to allow her entry she is turned away. So starts the beginning of my enormous sympathy for this young woman, one whose husband returned from the war a different man to the one who left. This is a woman who has a love of books, of language and of learning and yet she is tied to the house where her staff have not enough to keep them busy but go some way into bringing life into a house where husband and wife have little conversation and who sleep in separate rooms.

The link between past and present is far from clear, even to Oliver as Kate had never mentioned a Sophia, so the first mystery is how the document ended up in the house at all. But like me, he could not fail to be captivated by Sophia’s story and when the pages come to an end, he wants to know more and without Kate’s knowledge tries to find out more which means talking to the side of the family who believe the house belongs to them.

Already enthralled by the story I was especially thrilled later on when mentions of Crete, in particular, Knossos, and the renovation of the site by Arthur Evans in the early twentieth century because I visited the site on my holiday this year. We had a very knowledgeable guide Maria, and so I know that Morgan McCarthy has done her research well from the titbits that correlate perfectly to all that I learnt about the site. With many pieces of information that are lightly sprinkled throughout the book, from myths and legends to the difference between a labyrinth and a maze, battles and kings and queens, meant that this was a book that taught me some new things too without it ever feeling anything apart from the fabric of the book itself.

This book has some outstanding characters who run the gamut of emotions of humans around the world, and some of these are mirrored between past and present. Sophia has a sister, and there is sibling rivalry, there is love, there is duty and there is guilt and greed… I could go on. This isn’t a fast moving book but the language is beautiful and the writing evocative. I had one of those sad moments when I reached the very satisfying ending, where I genuinely missed the characters I’d come to know and love.

I was delighted to receive a copy of The House of Birds from the publishers Headline. This unbiased review is my thank you to them

First Published UK: 3 November 2016
Publisher: Headline
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Another Day Gone – Eliza Graham

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

I chose this book purely based on the author, back in 2010 I read a book called Jubilee which has proved to be one that I have carried with me ever since so I leapt at the chance to read an advance copy of this one. When preparing my weekly excerpt post, I was instantly drawn into the tale of a bomb going off in Coventry, shortly before the start of World War II, and promptly read the first three chapters before getting back to the job in hand.

So did the rest of the book live up to the opening – of course it did, I loved this story which is full of secrets, shame and consequences that rippled down the years.

The main part of this story is set in 2005 Sara is caught up in the London bombing, her partner is away working, out of reach in a jungle, and so she seeks comfort in her childhood home on the banks of the Thames. Her grandfather died a few years back but the house has never been sold because Sarah’s elder sister Polly, who will share the proceeds, has been missing for over ten years. Bridie the family housekeeper, the girls’ nanny has moved into a care home and the house feels empty and a little neglected but far safer to Sara than the scenes she has fled. Sara and Polly had a secure loving upbringing with their Grandfather and Bridie after the death of their parents, when both were too small to remember them and although the house was a little isolated the two sisters were really close until Polly began to draw away.

But in the beginning there was a bomb, set in Coventry which killed some and maimed others, a young girl who witnessed a man with the bicycle shortly before it exploded, and gave evidence in court which led to the only sentence given for such an act, death. This is the story of the repercussions and the retribution that would follow, spawning in its wake lies and half-truths as well as the stain of shame in a time where being able to hold your head high was the most important commodity the poor had.

Eliza Graham spins this multi-stranded tale with a deft and confident touch, the periodic details sprinkled sparingly, but there nonetheless, giving colour to the key time periods of 1939, the early 1990s and 2005. The characters are distinct and realistic in form. Be warned though, this is no magic wand story, the author has under-lined the realism by not giving everyone a happy ever after, what she does instead is give them the truth, a story that at times it can be hard to comprehend from a distance, a time where standards and expectations were unforgivingly imposed by the community and the church.

I really enjoy books about consequences that occur far later than the initial act, decision or mistake but to pull this type of story off, you need great characters, ones whose behaviour and actions are recognisable as realistic, given the circumstances, at any point in the story. Eliza Graham has this absolutely nailed. I was transfixed and reached that stage of reading where I wanted to know the ending but simultaneously wanted to stay with the characters, for just a little bit longer.

I’d like to thank the publishers Lake Union Publishing for allowing me to read a copy of Another Day Gone ahead of publication on 22 November 2016. This review is my unbiased thanks to them, and of course, Eliza Graham for her fantastic story.

First Published UK: 22 November 2016
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
No of Pages: 320
Genre: Historical Fiction (1939-2005)
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Woman on the Orient Express – Lindsay Jayne Ashford

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction
4*s

The synopsis gives us a flavour of what The Woman on the Orient Express has in store for us, promising secrets not easy to unravel on a journey on the iconic train line. The subject, ‘The Woman’ is Agatha Christie, the reason for the trip is an escape from England after the end of her marriage to Archie, the secrets… well it would appear that more than one passenger has something to hide.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a certain amount of discomfort when starting to read one of these factional tales, if for no other reason than it is not always clear where the lines between fact and fiction lie.

The plot is very much one of the time it is set in, being the 1928, a time when it was surely less usual for a single woman to be travelling to Baghdad but Agatha has that covered, she is travelling under the assumed name of Mary Miller. For her she wants to be well away from her home when Archie marries his second wife and with her daughter Rosalind at boarding school there is little to make her stay. Being a writer she can use the trip to come up with some plots for the books.

The chapters set on the train, are headed up with the legs of the journey, and it isn’t long before Agatha meets another young woman, Katherine Keeling who is a widow, making the journey to join the archaeological dig at Mesopotamia under the esteemed archaeologist Leonard Wooley. Later in the journey another young woman is introduced, one who is fleeing her abusive husband to stay with her cousin in Baghdad.

The book was far more evocative of both time and place than I expected, the descriptions of both the train and the destination of Baghdad giving this reader a flavour of what the trips that Agatha Christie did make, were like. The time period was underlined by the way the women conducted themselves with little interaction with others on the journey except those employed by the train company. Despite being in close quarters each of the women held key secrets back from each other which are only revealed once they arrive at their destination.

This isn’t a murder mystery tale, more like historical fiction with the three women at a crossroads in their life, all needing to face some truths from their past and then to find a way forward. That said, it is a very engaging story, with enough intrigue to keep this reader turning the pages to find out exactly what the outcome would be – reader be warned, this isn’t some saccharine sweet tale where everything turns out rosy! The book has a few scenes that are full of action which seem out of place in what at times feels like a woman’s fictional novel (and I don’t use that phrase in a derogatory manner), which indicates how hard it is to categorise this book. One of the jarring points was, as much as I love Poirot, the fictional Agatha hearing both the Belgium detective and her mother talking to her throughout the book was most off-putting, perhaps because I deem our heroine far too certain to have to listen to imaginary voices before taking any course of action.

Earlier on I mentioned the difficulty with identifying the artistic licence in this kind of writing so I’m pleased to report that at the end the author makes it clear which parts she took liberties with and which sources she used for the factual elements.

A surprisingly enjoyable read which gives a flavour of a key point in Agatha Christie’s life by weaving a story around her trip that felt reasonably credible.

I’d like to thank the publishers Lake Union Publishing, who allowed me to read an advance copy of The Woman on the Orient Express ahead of publication on 20 September 2016. This unbiased review is my thank you to them.

First Published UK: 20 September 2016
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
No of Pages: 330
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016

3 Poisoners, 2 Doctors and a Nursery Maid – My #20booksofsummer Roundup

20 Books of Summer 2016

Cathy at Cathy 746 has a yearly challenge to read twenty books over the summer months starting on 1 June 2015 and finishing on 5 September 2016.

I’ll start by saying I didn’t finish all 20 books this year due to bad planning, a wedding and far too much work, but looking at the positives, I read some fantastic books and made some much-needed room on my bookshelf! The count of physical books on my shelf reducing from 94 to a mere 83 books.

Cathy’s rules are flexible but I challenged myself to read 20 books that I already owned as physical books before the challenge started – no review copies were included.

Did I stick to the rules? Well nearly the only exception was Did She Kill Him? by Kate Colquhoun which was a birthday present delivered in July! So that was just being polite, wasn’t it?

Of the 15 books I did read and review, I had just one DNF, with the Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, with me concluding that this author’s style isn’t for me, 5 were non-fiction books – I only read 8 non-fiction books in the whole of 2015 but my interest in poisoners this year has definitely fuelled a surge this year.

The 3 suspected poisoners I read about this summer were:

Dr Adams who appeared in Jane Robins’s book The Curious Habits of Dr Adams. Dr Adams was arrested in 1956 under suspicion of killing a number of his patients in return for cars & money but his alleged crimes started many years previously. A fascinating five star read.

Gail Bell’s book The Poison Principle the subject matter was her paternal grandfather who was suspected of poisoning his two young sons in 1927. Gail Bell’s book took in real-life infamous poisoners and those in literature; who can forget the wicked witch and her poisoned apple in Snow White? in a wide-ranging and interesting read.

Florence Maybrick is one of the alleged poisoners that features frequently in lists of those women who poison – a real worry for Victorian society when a few fly-papers legally bought could see the demise of unwanted husbands and relatives. Kate Colquhoun’s book Did She Kill Him? was an immensely readable book which covered the entirety of Florence Maybrick’s life and was another five star read.

picmonkey-collage-poisoners

My greatest achievement was finishing the entire 640 pages of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain which is the author’s memoir of the First World War as a VAD and beyond. This was more of a mixed bag with some of the book incredibly interesting and sadly, parts which my lack of knowledge rendered a bit of a slog. I actually started this read in mid-July and finally turned the last page at the end of September, proving once again that reading more than one book at a time just doesn’t work for me!

Noel Streatfeild’s book about life as an Edwardian Nanny, Tea by the Nursery Fire, was a bit of a mixed-bag, my conclusion being that this favourite children’s author had passed her best by the time she wrote this in 1976.

picmonkey-collage-non-fiction

I had 2 books on my list that were a catch-up of series that I love – Sophie Hannah’s The Narrow Bed didn’t disappoint at all with an off-the-wall mystery with a literary base and gained five stars from me. Meanwhile Camilla Läckberg’s Swedish series featuring Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck often links past crimes with the present and Buried Angels was a superb mystery whose roots spread back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Another series which I love and have read was written by the talented Reginald Hill and features Dalziel and Pascoe and Pictures of Perfection was book 13 in this series. Once again this author proved what a brilliant writer he was. An absorbing, clever and well-plotted read originally written in the early 1990s looking at a way of life that was dying out.

picmonkey-collage-series

I also took in two older books by authors that I’ve discovered more recently;

L.P. Hartley’s The Shrimp and the Anemone is a dark look at two siblings in the inter-war period, frail Eustace and his bossy elder sister Hilda – this is the first in a trilogy and based on this read the following two will appear here before too long.

Beryl Bainbridge is slightly more contemporary and An Awfully Big Adventure is set in 1950s Liverpool with theatre life under the microscope of this sharp author. Another author who I will be reading more from in the near future this book also being awarded five stars.

picmonkey-collage-favourite-author

And it wouldn’t be a summer list without one book entry from Agatha Christie and this year I chose The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The second doctor on my list narrates this novel about his patient who has been stabbed in the back. I concur that this is one of the best of Christie’s novels.

I stayed in the past with Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger which could be read as a ghost story, unless you are me, as I’m not a fan of ghosts in books (or anywhere else for that matter), who couldn’t resist this fantastic author’s work and read it at a slightly different level!

1900s-picmonkey

With the contemporary fiction on my list taking in the strange tale of two sets of twins in the aptly named The Twins by Saskia Sarginson, a couple recovering from the loss of their son set in Italy in Other People’s Secrets by Louise Candlish and a psychological thriller that is quite frankly still haunting me with You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, all in all it was a varied summer reading wise.

picmonkey-conemp-fic

My aim is to keep the page devoted to 20 Books of Summer updated with the last 4 reads ready to beat this challenge in 2017 if Cathy is good enough to hold it again.

Top Read of 20 Books of Summer 2016

The question is how do you choose the best read when the subjects are as wide-ranging as the style of writing employed – the answer is it’s tough but in the end exceptionally easy based on the impact this book made – forever now linked to a pool in Crete where I sat and became absorbed by village life in Enscombe in Yorkshire.

The Top Read of 20 Books of Summer 2016 is Pictures of Perfection by Reginald Hill!

 

Pictures of perfection.jxr

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Kindred – Steve Robinson

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

Genealogical mysteries are a rarity and so the chances are that you haven’t tried one, if not then Steve Robinson is the author to go to. This is the fifth in a series of books where the protagonist Jefferson Tayte (or JT) uses historical records to uncover secrets from the past. Often these forays into long forgotten events get him into trouble. But JT has his own genealogical mystery, he was adopted as a child and has no clue who his own ancestors are.

In Kindred JT finally has a clue, and a friend, Professor Jean Summer, to accompany him on his trip which is to Munich. Clutching a photo of the woman he believes may be his mother he is off to find out more about the building the woman in the photo is pictured against. It doesn’t take long for him to discover that this building belongs to Johann Langer an old and very ill man. Granted an interview with the man in hospital Langer tells the pair the beginning of the story of his friendship with Volker Strobel during their boyhood in Hitler’s Youth.

I’m not going to relay the whole story, you really should read this for yourself, but it’s told through Langer’s eyes over a number of years taking the two boys to adulthood, and it is just so very realistic, it is almost painful. This story of two boy’s war is set against JT’s struggle to find out the ending to the tale, not an easy task as it becomes very clear that someone doesn’t want them to know the truth – nor are they subtle in the way they give their warnings. With JT getting himself into dangerous situations having read the previous episodes I knew only too well how important finding out the truth is but, JT, you really do need to be a little more careful whose cage you rattle!

I don’t know if I have the right words to convey just how exceptional this book is; the storytelling was perfect, maintaining the tension with legitimate delays while documents were sought and meetings arranged but not to the point where it felt like a device. The friendship between JT and the Professor was well-drawn, with convincing scenes between the pair, dinners eaten, although perhaps less food than our protagonist would wish, and realistic exchanges of opinion – I like this pair working together. Obviously because of the time it was set and their background at times this story meets a historical reality that is hard to face, this isn’t a book that shies away from the reality of the war, including the concentration camps. At these times the absolute authenticity of this book felt very raw because I never doubted the truism that it portrayed.

This is by far the best of the entire series although I got into that awful quandary, especially towards the end, where I wanted to find out what happened but desperately didn’t want the book to come to an end. Thank you Steve Robinson for an absolutely wonderful story, set in both time and place to perfection.

I now need to say a huge thank you to the publishers Thomas and Mercer who allowed me to read a proof copy of Kindred ahead of the publication date of 12 April 2016, this review is my thank you to them.

If you haven’t read any of this series but you like historical fiction with a difference here are the books in order – I strongly suggest you start at the beginning although each one, including this latest one can easily be read as a stand-alone.

In The Blood
Two hundred years ago a loyalist family fled to England to escape the American War of Independence and seemingly vanished into thin air. American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is hired to find out what happened, but it soon becomes apparent that a calculated killer is out to stop him.
In the Blood combines a centuries-old mystery with a present-day thriller that brings two people from opposite sides of the Atlantic together to uncover a series of carefully hidden crimes. Tayte’s research centres around the tragic life of a young Cornish girl, a writing box, and the discovery of a dark secret that he believes will lead him to the family he is looking for. Trouble is, someone else is looking for the same answers and will stop at nothing to find them.

To The Grave
A curiously dated child’s suitcase arrives, unannounced and unexplained, in a modern-day Washington suburb. A week later, American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is sitting in an English hotel room, staring at the wrong end of a loaded gun.
In his latest journey into the past, Tayte lands in wartime Leicestershire, England. The genealogist had hoped simply to reunite his client with the birth mother she had never met, having no idea she had been adopted. Instead, he uncovers the tale of a young girl and an American serviceman from the US 82nd Airborne, and a stolen wartime love affair that went tragically wrong.

The Last Queen of England
While on a visit to London, American genealogist Jefferson Tayte’s old friend and colleague dies in his arms. Before long, Tayte and a truth-seeking historian, Professor Jean Summer, find themselves following a corpse-ridden trail that takes them to the Royal Society of London, circa 1708.
What to make of the story of five men of science, colleagues of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, who were mysteriously hanged for high treason?
As they edge closer to the truth, Tayte and the professor find that death is once again in season. A new killer, bent on restoring what he sees as the true, royal bloodline, is on the loose…as is a Machiavellian heir-hunter who senses that the latest round of murder, kidnapping, and scandal represents an unmissable business opportunity.

The Lost Empress

On a foggy night in 1914, the ocean liner Empress of Ireland sank en route between Canada and England. The disaster saw a loss of life comparable to the Titanic and the Lusitania, and yet her tragedy has been forgotten.
When genealogist Jefferson Tayte is shown a locket belonging to one of the Empress’s victims, a British admiral’s daughter named Alice Stilwell, he must travel to England to understand the course of events that led to her death.
Tayte is expert in tracking killers across centuries. In The Lost Empress, his unique talents draw him to one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history as he unravels the truth behind Alice’s death amidst a backdrop of pre-WWI espionage.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Shadow Hour – Kate Riordan

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction
4*s

I do like a good historical time-split novel and so when I saw Kate Riordan had written a tale set in both 1878 and 1922 telling the tale of two governesses both whose charges at Fenix House high on the hills of Cheltenham.
This story starts in an intriguing way, reminding us that:

It is not always as simple as beginnings, middles and ends Not all stories should be regarded as a straight line, with the past at a distance and the present close at hand. Some, like this one, are formed in a circle, with something terrible and secret at the core, and everything else radiating out, ripples from a raindrop on water.

And so begins a gothic tale, set as far as Grace in 1922 is concerned in a dilapidated house which is nothing like her grandmother, Harriet’s memories of the house, which were much grander when she was the governess back in 1878.

The gravel was thin and patchy, showing the earth beneath, like a balding carpet; weeds and grass had taken hold in patches.

I looked through the bars at Fenix House and then glanced quickly away, as one averts their gaze from a stranger with a damaged face.

You see Grace had grown up hearing about the wonders of Fenix House of her Grandmothers fondness for her charges Helen and Victoria, and her affinity with their elder brother Bertie, but she didn’t tell Grace anything, and what she failed to divulge reverberated through the years.

There is no doubt that Kate Riordan is a marvellous storyteller with a fantastically plotted book which indeed, as promised in the beginning works in a circle taking in a myriad of lives from the lowly servant Agnes to a man high up in the Great Western Railway, from a woman who was forced to take the job of a governess to have a living, to Louisa Pembridge whose life is spent swallowing strange and dangerous potions to hold onto her youthful beauty all perfectly drawn to create a cast of characters both rich and varied.

Although the author touches on some of the key historical elements this book is not really about what is going on in the wider world and has an almost claustrophobic feel where the action is shrunk to one house, one family and their servants with few outside distractions. A world where unless it was read in a newspaper the world outside the house and its grounds, complete with the ruins and ice house, may not even exist.

I really can’t say too much else about the book except to state that the secret is much darker than the normal type in this genre, the romances perhaps even more doomed and with at least one of the characters having premonitions about future events, more spooky too. I’m not usually a fan of supernatural devices but in this book, with the setting and the secrets that are uncovered piece by piece, it did work – I am perhaps more forgiving of these in historical novels where these types of ‘gifts’ were more commonly accepted.

This is a brilliant second novel from Kate Riordan who is the author of The Girl in the Photograph, will be published on 25 February 2016. I’d like to say a huge thank you to Penguin UK who kindly gave me a copy of this novel and in return I write this honest review.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

Anna Hope’s debut novel, Wake was a stand-out novel amongst many contenders who have written about the First World War and so it when I heard that The Ballroom was a book about mental illness, my fingers were firmly crossed that this would also receive insightful treatment – it does!

The Ballroom takes a look at three different characters, all whose home, temporary or otherwise is Sharston Asylum. We first meet Ella Fey, a young woman whose incarceration is following an incident at the mill where she worked and it is decided that she is suffering with ‘hysteria.’ John Mulligan, an Irishman who is suffering with melancholy, a man who thrives carrying out the hard work at Sharston where the physically capable male patients work in the fields, or as John does when we first meet him, digging graves. The other character lives in the staff barracks, Dr Charles Fuller a First Assistant Medical Officer who doubles up as Bandmaster for the weekly Friday dances where selected male and female patients meet for supervised association.

This is a well-researched book which takes a thoughtful look at the role of such asylums at the time that this book is set, in 1911. As much as the scenes at the beginning of the book are those that we are all familiar with, life in the asylum provided refuge for those simply unable to live in the community, in this instance that of the West Riding of Yorkshire. This was an asylum that catered for both men and women who were kept separated at all times unless they were deemed suitable to attend the weekly dance with a band made up from the hospital staff played from the stage and the patients hopefully lifted their spirits by dancing for a couple of hours. As is only to be expected though, given the subject matter, this tale is also an unbearably sad one at times.

In line with the subject matter Dr Charles Fuller is a man who is interested in Eugenics, a movement which was gaining popularity at this time and had many influential supporters. As the book starts he is keen on submitting a paper in support of segregation of the feeble minded but as the book continues obsessional thoughts take over and the line between sane and mad becomes ever more blurred. I will leave you to make up your own minds on which of the patients were best served by being committed to the asylum but it is clear that this wasn’t the answer at all for some of them.

The story is told by each of the three narrators; Ella, John and Charles each evocative in different ways and perfectly providing the reader with a picture of the summer of 1911 when the heat was unbroken, the fields filled with crops and the steamy and smelly laundry where Ella washed underwear and sheets, was damp and hot.

This is an outstanding novel, one that I’m sure achieved exactly what Wake did, which is to provide an unforgettable story at the same time as being highly informative. Anna Hope dedicated this book to her Great Great Grandfather who was admitted to Menston Asylum, which inspired The Ballroom, in 1909 and died there in 1918 which just made the story held within the pages, all the more poignant.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers Random House UK who kindly allowed me to read a copy of this book. This review is my honest opinion of The Ballroom which is going to be published on 11 February 2016