Category Archives: Historical

The Vanishing Of Audrey Wilde, Eve Chase – Book Review

I received The Vanishing Of Audrey Wilde in exchange for an honest review

I was sold on this book by the fact that it was a dual timeline mystery described by Lisa Jewell as ‘The most beautiful book you will read this year.’ I have to admit I felt a little let down as I started it; this book has been described as ‘beautiful’ and ‘evocative’ but I found the writing a little too flowery when it wasn’t necessarily needed. It took me a little while to get into the story as I took time to adjust to the tone of voice, but once I did I found a strong plot which took me by surprise.

The Vanishing Of Audrey Wilde, Eve Chase

At the centre of the story is Applecote Manor, a grand manor in the Cotswolds. In its time it was a pristine picture of elegance, but in present day it’s crumbling and dilapidated. The story follows two timelines and shows what one house can mean to two different people. In present day, Jessie sees the mansion as a fresh start; a chance to escape the bustling city life of London and build a life with her new family. In the summer of 1959, Margot and her three sisters also escape the city for a summer in the countryside, when they are sent by their mother to live with their aunt and uncle. Continue reading

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The Lonely Hearts Hotel, Heather O’Neill – Book Review

I received The Lonely Hearts Hotel in exchange for an honest review

Heather O’Neill’s new Baileys award nominated novel completely blew my socks off. Between the blurb’s comparisons to The Night Circus and the Goodreads reviews slamming it for its controversial topics and crude nature, I had no idea what to expect. But as soon as I started the novel, it’s all there. Yes, it’s controversial, it opens with an incestuous scene and goes on to introduce orphans who are abused, punished and raped, and yet from the beginning there was something decadent, evocative and magical about this novel.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel, Heather O'Neill

Set in Montreal during the Depression era, O’Neill sets the perfect scene for her bleak, brutal tale of two troubled orphans, isolated on a small island where the austere winters are palpable. The author explores the seedy underbelly of both Montreal and New York, and the glitz and glamour of the 1920s entertainment industry, making for something that’s both dark and escapist but, overall, incredibly atmospheric.

Despite the harsh themes and grim setting, the characters are the true light of this novel. I often talk about character development, but the author really has nailed it here – in Rose and Pierrot, she’s created not one but two incredibly unique, whimsical characters who are loveable, authentic and sympathetic. We follow the pair  from their formative years in an orphanage through to adulthood and beyond. Throughout, many forces seem to be working to keep these star-crossed lovers apart.

It took me a while to get through this one, but that was solely because I wanted to savour it. Books like this don’t come along often. It’s unusual and controversial – there’s orphans, abuse, heroin, clowns, prostitutes and lots of sex. But if you can get past the initial shock at the frank manner in which many degrading events are portrayed, you may just find that this book is just as full of positive themes – there’s freedom, feminism, love and much more all wrapped up in beautifully poetic prose and a magical story.

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The Wonder, Emma Donoghue – Book Review

Since reading Room years ago I’ve followed Emma Donoghue closely and read a number of her books, but I’ve never found one which could top the Booker-nominated, film-inspiring sensation that was Room. But this one come pretty damn close. I’m not sure I’d say The Wonder quite surpasses Room, but it stands in its own right as a riveting piece of historical fiction.

The Wonder

The story takes place in middle Ireland, a few years after the Great Famine. Lib Wright, an English nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, is called to the area to take an unusual position. Her ward is Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who who has supposedly not eaten a morsel of food for four months. Lib is required to simply watch the young girl, and report her observations to a committee after two weeks. Continue reading

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Orphans Of The Carnival, Carol Birch – Book Review

I received Orphans Of The Carnival in exchange for an honest review

I requested this book based on its beautiful cover and the fact that it’s about carnivals – I can’t resist a carnival/circus story. But this book is so much much more than a throwaway, fun-filled tale set under the big top.

Orphans Of The Carnival is based on the true story of Julia Pastrama, a woman born in 19th Century Mexico. With her face and body covered in thick black hair and an unusually wide nose, her looks were almost more reminiscent of an ape than of a woman. Being born into a time when so little was understood about medical oddities such as hers, Julia was singled out and ostracised from a young age. To try to build a future for herself despite her unusual appearance, she left her home of Mexico in her late teens to move to America and embarked on a tour with a circus tribe. Continue reading

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The Muse, Jessie Burton – Book Review

I received The Muse in exchange for an honest review

It’s inevitable that Jessie Burton’s new novel, The Muse, will be compared wth her smash-hit debut, The Miniaturist. And I seem to be in the minority in thinking that this novel is better than her first. It’s certainly cemented Jessie Burton as my my current favourite historical fiction writer. The Muse effortlessly brings to life other eras, cultures and life-like, three-dimensional characters, all wrapped in up luscious descriptions and a gripping plot which had me completely hooked. Not to mention, another stunner of a cover too.

The Muse

We are first introduced to Trinidadian immigrant Odelle, who has moved to London in 1967 to pursue the dream of a better life. She gets off to a difficult start, but through plucky perseverance and a little help from the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, she secures a role as a typist at an art institution, where she encounters a famous, long-lost painting Rufina and the Lion by Spanish painter Isaac Rubles who died young in violent circumstances. But its history is murky, and as Odelle settles in her role preparing for a major exhibition around the painting, she becomes determined to uncover the truth about its origins.

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The Girls, Emma Cline – Book Review

I received The Girls in exchange for an honest review.

“They didn’t have very far to fall – I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe in yourself.”

The Girls has to be one of the hottest tipped debuts of the year, sparking a major bidding war amongst publishers before the 25-year-old author allegedly sealed the deal with a £2 million contract with Random House. And having read it, I can see why. Emma Cline’s talent shines through in this compelling debut. She writes with such a wisdom beyond her years, such a nostalgia for a bygone era and a lost youth. It’s incredible to think that she is younger than me.

The Fireman

Set over the summer of 1969 in California, The Girls is loosely based on Charles Manson and the girls who murdered for him. The story’s protagonist is Evie, 14 years old, lonely and shy. Following her parents’ divorce she lives with just her mother and has one close friend, Connie. Her middle-class existence is mundane and unfulfilling. That is, until she sees the girls. Continue reading

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The Color Of Our Sky, Amita Trasi – Book Review

I received The Color Of Sky in exchange for an honest review.

I acquired a review copy of The Color Of Sky last year, but shamefully only recently got around to reading it. This debut was promoted heavily on Goodreads and Netgalley at the time of its release but since then it seems to have dropped off the radar somewhat which is perhaps why I’d put off reading it. I don’t know why it’s received so little hype because for me it was a strong debut;  haunting, evocative and beautifully written.

The Colour Of Our Sky

The Color Of Our Sky tells the stories of Mukta and Tara, two Indian girls born into very different circumstances. In a style reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini, the author reveals their fates through a dual narrative and timeframe, beginning in1986 with Mukta and jumping between Mukta’s childhood and Tara’s narrative years later in 2004, as she looks back on their shared formative years after travelling back to India from her new home in Los Angeles. Continue reading

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The Ballroom, Anna Hope – Book Review

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

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The more historical fiction I read, the more I love the genre. To read such enchanting, atmospheric stories which feel so removed from my own life and then to realise how much they are ingrained with truth is enlightening. The Ballroom is a great example of this genre at its best – a heartfelt story, beautifully written with complex, well-drawn characters and a fascinating historical backdrop. I couldn’t ask for much more from a book.

The Ballroom

Told from three alternating viewpoints – Ella, John and Charles – The Ballroom reads as three intricately drawn character studies, bound together by Sharlton Asylum where the characters are residing – a place so vividly imagined it almost feels like a fourth character in its own right.

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The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff – Book Review

The Danish Girl

Beginning in Copenhagen in 1925, The Danish Girl is about the marriage of Einar and Greta Wegener. Both artists, one day Greta asks Einar to do her a favour and sit for a portrait of a mutual female friend Anna – wearing her clothes. The experience sparks something in Einar, and propels the couple down a path they never anticipated. “Einar was beginning to enter a shadowy world of dreams where Anna’s dress could belong to anyone, even to him.”

And so a third character enters the novel – Lili; Einar’s alter ego and female self. To begin with, Lili only appears occasionally – “she came and went, and there was nothing more to concern her than the wind lifting her hem” – but as time goes on, she becomes a more permanent member of their household and the lines between Einar and Lili become blurred. By the end of the novel, Einar has gone further on his transformation to become Lili than ever seemed plausible in those opening pages. Continue reading

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The Woman In Black, Susan Hill – Book Review

I read this book on the lead-up to Halloween, and it was perfect for the time of year. This dark, gothic little ghost story is wonderfully atmospheric with a Victorian feel.

the woman in black susan hill

Set in an unknown time, The Woman In Black is narrated by Arthur Kipps, now a comfortable middle-aged man spending the festive season with his family. As the group swap ghost stories around the fire, Arthur reflects quietly on his own encounter with the paranormal.

“Yes, I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy. But it was not a story to be told for casual entertainment, around the fireside upon Christmas Eve.”

And so Arthur shares his story with the reader; the story of how he was summoned as a young lawyer to Crythin Gifford, to attend the funeral of Alice Drablow and clear out her isolated home on the sea, Eel Marsh House. As soon as he arrives there’s a sense of something a little off about the area; it’s a small town and as an outsider he is instantly recognised as such. And why do so many of the local folk clam up at any mention of Alice Drablow and Eel Marsh House?

When he attends her funeral he gets his first glimpse of a mysterious woman in black who slips in quietly and sits at the back of the church, disappearing as quickly as she entered, but not before he sees her face, which is chillingly described. “Only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious, blue-white sheen, and her eyes seems sunken back into her head.”

The imagery throughout this novel is brilliant; Hill sets the scene with lengthy descriptions of the gloomy November weather and the journey North from London to the small coastal town. Using considered, traditional prose she immerses the reader in another time period not just through the setting, but in the writing style too. It all feels distinctly British – from the bleak winter weather to Arthur’s consistently cheerful, rational, stiff-upper-lip attitude towards the events which begin to unfold, and I love that.

Eel Marsh House itself is situated on a small island, only accessible when the tide is down, so Arthur decides to spend the night to get his work done. Completely isolated and cut off from the world, it’s the perfect location for a ghost story and that feeling of confinement adds to the atmosphere as Arthur begins to hear strange noises and becomes convinced that he is not alone.

This is a short book at only 160 pages but it never feels rushed, Hill takes her time building up the atmosphere with elegant, descriptive and traditional prose. It’s not until almost halfway through that the ghostly shenanigans really begin, but by that point I was already captivated and completely invested in finding out what happened to Arthur on that island.

I wouldn’t say it scared me more than any other novel I’ve read, but what this book does do wonderfully is capture the atmosphere of a time and a place, and the development of its protagonist from a cheerful and hopeful young man, to someone forever changed by his dark experience.  A twist very near the end of story reveals the woman in black’s truly evil intentions, and the lengths she will go to to fulfil them, giving the story an altogether more sinister feel. A perfect short read for this time of year, and I can see why this book is considered a modern classic.

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