by Mary Sharratt
Near the turn of the 19th century, Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. Female composers are unknown at the time, though new possibilities for women are opening up. She marries Gustav Mahler, who insists she give up her music as a condition of their marriage.
I liked the writing voice on this one right away. Alma had such enthusiasm that I wanted to see her achieve her dream from the start. The story takes us through her life as a young girl, her first love and her relationship with her various family members, but especially with her music.
It’s not all upbeat though. Alma sacrifices a lot for her marriage and it’s inevitable that she will question her decisions as time goes on. Mahler himself is a challenge to deal with and it was an era when women were expected to suppress their own needs and be supportive of a husband. Alma is a naturally passionate and creative person and this state of affairs can only clash with her natural inclinations.
I enjoyed reading this, despite the unhappy parts. The narrative kept my attention, even if at times I wanted to shake Alma and tell her she was making some bad decisions.
The historical note at the end was as interesting as the story itself. Alma was a woman ahead of her time, though her unfaithfulness in her marriages would bring a lot of criticism. She weathered some difficult times and gave her love to some of the top composers of her time. Some of her own compositions can be found on YouTube and I couldn’t resist having a listen after reading this story. I found her 5 Lieder for voice and piano pretty amazing and can only imagine that if her music had been supported earlier in her life that she might have been recognised in history as one of the great composers herself, rather than just a shadow of her husband’s accomplishments.
by Andrew Taylor
This started with a list of characters, something I always skip past. They don’t mean anything until they become a part of the story!
However, once the story began, some familiar characters from the first book of the series appeared, most notably Catherine Lovett and James Marwood. Marwood’s father, an old man without all his faculties, starts off in a sequence wherein he follows a woman thinking she is his wife, Rachel, who actually died years ago. He finds a body of a different woman and eventually discovers that the woman he followed is not Rachel.
Thus starts the mystery and intrigue that will shape the story. I found the pace a little slower in the first part of the book than in Ashes of London, the first book of the series, but still interesting and I’m glad I stuck with it as it gets better as more connections fall into place.
The pace actually gets very fast and dramatic in the later part of the book and the spiderweb of connections that have been set up throughout the story all fall into place. In a lot of ways it’s a whodunnit, but with political intrigue and a lot of very human emotions involved. It’s extremely well-written and I will be looking for a third book, which is hinted at by the very end.
The outcome surprised me not once but twice with plot twists I never saw coming. That’s pretty rare!
by Anna-Marie Crowhurst
Set in the seventeenth century, Ursula Flight is an unusual girl with a curious mind and a hankering for adventure. As a child she applies herself to learning to read and to learn about the world in ways that girls of her era seldom do, then a chance meeting with an actress leads her to fascination with a vocation with a bad reputation that is outweighed by the appeal of life on the stage.
Ursula is a likeable character from the start. She’s intelligent and curious, more interested in an experience for its own merits than in ‘what people will think’. However, although her father encourages her learning, when a local Lord takes a fancy to young Ursula, her father effectively orders her to marry him. Needless to say, Ursula is not pleased with being effectively sold into marriage.
The story is mostly told in first person, so we get a look inside the thoughts of a young girl, her fancies, and her unspoken opinions all along. One of her interests is in writing plays, so we are given interludes that she has depicted as a playwrite and have to wonder how much embellishment Ursula has added to her private writings.
Facing some difficult circumstances in an era when women were treated much as property brings out the strength in the character, even through girlish fancies. The story kept me interested all the way through and made me wonder if I would have had the courage to do some of the things she does to overcome obstacles to her happiness.
by Andrew Taylor
The Ashes of London is set against the Great London Fire of 1666. There are two stories intertwined. A first person narrative from James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer, who is tasked to track down the killer of a mummified corpse found in St Paul’s after it has burned down, alternating with a third person account of Cat, an heiress whose father is in exile for treason who faces many of the hardships that women had to deal with in that era, rich or poor.
Cat is a strong character and intelligent. She has an aptitude for architecture that the role of women would usually squelch, but through a series of mostly unfortunate circumstances, she finds herself in a position to develop.
The changing perspectives actually work very well. There is a healthy dose of political intrigue and an element of mystery to be solved. The book held my attention and the last few chapters got into some tense action that had me glued to the pages. I’m glad I’ve got the sequel waiting for me because this was definitely one of my best reads this year!
by Edward Rutherfurd
Like other books written by Rutherfurd, history is illustrated within intertwining stories of people and families covering a sequence of centuries showing life and how it developed within the chosen city, in this case, Paris.
I enjoyed the book a lot, though it didn’t have quite the generational flow that some of his others did. The stories of individual characters kept me interested and seeing what happened with their descendants was reminiscent of Rutherfurd’s style in earlier books.
It is a long book, over 800 pages, and took me a long time to read through all of it, but it was time well spent. Seeing the construction of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, plus exploring the variable feelings that local residents had about the latter, really brought the history alive. Also reading through eras of religious and political strife in France and how Paris residents were affected expanded my knowledge of history, which is part of the point of reading Historical Fiction!
Rutherfurd remains one of my favorite authors in this genre. The last few chapters took us underground in the French resistance of WW2 and although I find that era generally over saturated, I really got caught up in events, some real, some fictionalized. Rutherfurd included an afterword to differentiate which was which.
There were a few very long chapters that could do with sub-chapters, but it was a good read and kept my interest, despite the length.
by Bernard Cornwell
From the well-known Historical fiction writer is a story about players, actors on the stage, in the time of Elizabeth I. Women were still played by men and the brother of Will Shakespeare, Richard, is continually given women’s roles with his brother’s company. Between getting to be too old and taking a liking to a servant girl in a great house where they are to perform, Richard tries everything he can think of to get his brother to give him a male role.
Themes of dominance between brothers are fully explored in this story and I couldn’t help but have sympathy for Richard, who, as a significantly younger brother, is constantly in his brother’s shadow.
I don’t know if Shakespeare really had a brother but I’m not going to look it up. I enjoyed this story and Richard was a likable character. Will Shakespeare came over as a callous, unfeeling brother, most of the time. Whether there i any accuracy to this is anybody’s guess.
The story gave a good look at the life of players in Shakespeare’s time and I found it was my preferred read among several books I’ve been reading at once. It is undeniably well-written and has plenty of excitement and a few laughs.
by Matt Haig
This started out with a really pleasant tone, though there was a lot of ‘telling’. Sometimes that can fit the story, putting background into context. It is not about time travel, as I presumed, but about a man who has a ‘condition’ that makes him very long lived, the opposite of the premature aging diseases we’ve all heard of.
Part of the story is about his quest to find his daughter who shares the condition, but he has much to learn from others of his kind. The story unfolds slowly in the first few chapters and blossoms into questions of the meaning of life and the importance of pleasures and especially of the power of music to move the soul.
I found myself captivated by the journey through time, seeing historic periods through Tom’s eyes. He was a likeable character, though rather sad and world weary. The descriptions of what it was like to live through various times were believable and I enjoyed reading it very much.
A shock twist near the end didn’t have quite the impact on me that I think was intended. I felt it was a little rushed and there was insufficient explanation of motivation. Apart from that, the story gave me a lot of enjoyment and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone with any interest in history at all.
by Sara Gruen
The prologue starts out with a sad situation. A young woman, Mairi, has lost her baby to stillbirth, and soon after learns that her husband, a soldier in WWII, is missing, presumed dead. How this ties in with the story to come will take some time to become clear, but the reveal was worth the wait.
The story mostly concerns a group of Americans: Maddie, our pov character, and her husband Ellis, plus their friend Hank. Mention is also made of Violet, Hank’s girlfriend, but she is left behind as the other three cross the ocean in 1945 when WWII makes that a foolish idea, to go to Scotland to hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. Hank and Ellis are both unable to sign up with the military, one for color blindness and the other with flat feet.
Culture clash is immediate. Hank and Ellis come from well-off families and expect ‘service’ and luxury where the down-to-earth people one finds in a Scottish Inn expect people to look after themselves at the very least and apparently healthy young men are looked at askance if they are still civilians. The men expect ‘service staff’ to put their clothes away for them in their rooms. Maddie catches on and puts her own things away.
I grew to like Maddie. Her backstory comes out over the course of the story and her willingness and ability to adapt to the very different culture appealed to my sympathies. Her husband, on the other hand, is the epitome of the ‘ugly American’. A spoiled brat who routinely lies to his wife and treats the locals as if he is somehow better than they are. As much as there was social stigma over divorce in those days, I was thinking halfway through that Maddie really needed to get this ill-mannered beast out of her life.
One of the things I really like about this author is that she does her research. The fine details of life in that time and place lend a sense of reality. Little things like hearing about a fever going around in Inverness or looking at the newspaper and seeing stories of decimated towns next to adverts for cold cream, showing an attitude of ‘life goes on’ amidst the horrors of war on home soil.
The acknowledgements at the end show that she interviewed several people about their first hand experiences, so details like the reaction when a postman brings a telegram, a sure sign that someone has died, ring true. Also the subtle implication that women tended to fall for whatever men were available at a time when most of the young, healthy men were away in battle add to the reality of a 1945 setting.
A lot of fast action comes into the last 20% or so of the book and I found it hard to put down. The emotional roller coaster left me with a book hangover I won’t soon forget. There was some very descriptive sex, but somehow it didn’t feel like porn. Sara Gruen has definitely made it onto my favorite authors list and I will be reading more of her books in future.
by Marie Benedict
This is Historical Fiction, but based on a real person who was the first wife of Albert Einstein and one of the few women of her time to have an education in Physics. Her name was Mileva Marić.
The story is told in first person and for me seemed very realistic, showing Mileva’s background, interaction with parents and thoughts about achieving her educational ambitions, as well as her cultural influences in dealing with expectations for women, the interest of Albert Einstein, and her treatment at the Polytecnic in Switzerland where she studied as well as her belief that a foot deformity made her ‘unmarriageable’.
I found the author’s voice very engaging and soon got caught up in her tale, even looking up a few mentions of Mileva’s life on Wikipedia. The story is mostly fiction based on bare bones scaffolding of known facts, yet it felt very plausible all the way through. Albert’s personality came across as witty and charming in the beginning and I half fell in love with him myself, but later in the story he becomes an unsympathetic character which might be less than fair to him. Still, looking up what facts are known, why didn’t he ever meet his daughter? Why did the relationship go awry in a time when divorce held almost as much stigma as unwed motherhood?
Anyone who has been in a relationship that went wrong will recognise the pattern of how these things often happen. Whether Albert used his wife’s ideas and took full credit is something history and science will probably never be able to answer, but in the time and place where it is set, it is easy to imagine that any contribution from an intelligent female would likely be subsumed by a husband with the proper qualifications.
Mileva’s life is not a happy one and history doesn’t give us a happy ending for her, but I very much enjoyed reading this story. Factual or not, the writing was very engaging and ‘m glad to know of the existence of this woman whom I had never heard of before. Whatever contributions she might or might not have contributed to Einstein’s theories, she stands out as a strong woman in history who dared to step into the male preserve of higher education, helping to forge the way for many women in generations to come. I will definitely be interested in anything else this author writes.
by Paulo Coelho
This was an amazingly fast read, although it was over 200 pages. It tells the story of Mata Hari, starting with her execution and then flashing back to begin her life story and how she became who she was.
The writing, as anything by this author, flows poetically and draws the reader into its depths, involving the reader so completely in the story that it would be easy to imagine oneself as Mata Hari, sharing her experiences.
It is divided into three parts with no chapters to break it up further, but I had no trouble reading part two, about 50% of the book, in one sitting. This part took me through some quick personal history up to the beginning of the war and how a dancer got caught up in the war machine. Though an intelligent woman, one bad choice changed everything for her.
History gives us spoilers, but reading about the events that led up to the conclusion we started with was fascinating. I do need to read more by this author.
by Carol Birch
This turned out to be a fascinating story, though it started out a little poetic and vague. It took a chapter or two to really get into what was going on, but once the background of the main character, Julia, started coming out, I definitely wanted to keep reading.
Julia was born ‘different’. She has hair all over her face and body like fur, and the face itself appears ape-like. After her mother abandons her as a small child, she is taken care of in comfortable circumstances until the old woman who looks after her dies, then Julia sets out on her own and eventually joins a carnival freak show.
The variety of characters in the freak show provides some interesting personality quirks that come of growing up ‘different’. Julia sometime bristles at the casual way in which the other ‘freaks’ refer to her anomaly, though her sensitivity goes largely unnoticed.
Julia is like many young women and wants the same things, like nice dresses, but she is aware of the effects of her appearance and is told she will never ‘get a man’. She’s also very talented and can sing and dance, which takes her beyond just being a freak into being a valued performer.
It wasn’t until the end of the story that I learned that Julia was a real person, though the events of her life are fictionalized in the story. Wikipedia has an interesting entry about her. The story is well told and gives the reader some insight into what it must be like to grow up and live as someone who is visibly different and the treatment she gets as a result. Very poignant.
by William Andrews
This is a powerful story. It’s Historical Fiction, based closely on events that actually happened in Korea during WW2 and the Korean war and after. The story of Anna, a Korean war orphan, is fiction but much of her grandmother’s story reflects things that happened to real people.
Quite honestly, I cringed when in started out written in present tense. However, the story itself was interesting so I persevered. To my joy, I soon learned that most of the story is told by Anna’s grandmother and her history is all in past tense, so I could get sunk into it. I can sort of see how the author thought switching to present tense for Anna’s part of the story might work, but it really doesn’t. The change is too severe.
A fascinating, though unpleasant story unfolds about the Japanese occupation of Korea and the atrocious treatment of Koreans by their military occupiers. Men were taken off to war, many women were forced to work in factories, but some women were forced to become ‘comfort women’, as the book description implies. The dehumanising treatment these women received is disturbing to read, yet the historic aspect of it is gripping.
Apart from the main plot of the story, it becomes apparent that there is a mystery involved. What does it mean to be a daughter of the dragon? What does the symbol of the dragon mean? All becomes clear by the end.
This was one of those stories that once I started getting into it, I actually couldn’t stop reading. I had tears in my eyes at the end and couldn’t bring myself to start reading another book the same day. It taught me about a time and place in history that I knew little about and left me with very strong feelings about the horrors of war, the inhumanity of occupying forces and the human element in the conflicts of nations, especially the abhorrent treatment of women.
I usually mark down a star for present tense writing but not this time. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading Historical Fiction.
by Elizabeth Chadwick
This is the second book in a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Alienor in French, her native language. The first book, The Summer Queen, was an excellent read so I didn’t hesitate when this one came up for review. I haven’t been disappointed. If you like Historical Fiction at all, I highly recommend this series!
The Winter Crown begins with Alienor’s crowning as Queen of England, two years after her marriage to Henry, who became King Henry II of England in 1154. This occurred just eight weeks after her marriage to Louis of France was annulled. So Eleanor had been Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and became Queen of both France and England successively.
She was a strong willed woman and tended towards a spirit of rebellion against the limitations put onto the power of a woman in that time period. Eleanor faced both triumphs and tragedies in her marriages and through her children and had more political influence than women of her time could ordinarily manage.
Elizabeth Chadwick writes her characters well. Every character is well defined and we can feel both courage and cowardice in secondary characters as well as sorrow, joy, and the whole spectrum of emotions that touch the people around Eleanor, not to mention Eleanor herself. Her fears, determination, strength and sorrows are all depicted expertly and take the reader through one of the most interesting lives in history.
A lot of research went into the historical accuracy of the story as well, which is explained at the end where the author clarifies what is known historically and where fiction filled in the gaps. Apart from a couple of small anomalies, i.e. one sentence with a comma splice to a half sentence, the book is well edited and reads very smoothly. Elizabeth Chadwick is quickly becoming a favorite historical fiction author for me.
by Edoardo Albert
The book begins with lists of difficult names I’ll never remember, but clarifies pronunciation and historic context. It also explains the importance of names to Anglo-Saxons and why no two will have exactly the same name, although descendants might get an adaptation of an ancestor’s name.
After the cast of characters, we get an overview of what happened in the previous book, Edwin. This is very useful for people like myself who haven’t read the first one, and also starts to give us the feel for the historic period.
Then we get to the story for this book. I want to describe it as good, but it doesn’t have the flow of really great writing. Too many sentences starting with ing verbs can put me off easily. It works in moderation but the beginning overdid it somewhat.
Once I got past that, I was able to get into the story more and appreciate the historic period and events as well as getting to know the characters. Oswald is a reasonably likeable character who would actually like to be a monk, but duty requires that he take up kingship. The pace was a little slow, but ultimately it did take me to the Historical period and the characters were well defined. I felt sympathy for Oswald’s changing fortunes and the expectations put upon him just for being born in a line of kings.
One of the strong themes in the story is the changing face of religion, as Christianity begins to take hold in a country with Pagan roots. Different factions even within the same families might worship the old gods or embrace the new faith. The latter tend to be very forceful with their opinions, rather like some modern factions.
I would recommend this story for anyone who wants to get a strong feel for Anglo-Saxon history. It is atmospheric and realistic about some of the nasty things that happen in battles without becoming overwhelmingly gory.
by Anthony Doerr
This is one of those stories you hear a lot of people saying great things about, so curiosity made me read it too. It’s set just before and during World War II, and is an interweaving of two stories, though at first it seems to be short, random snippets of different people’s experience.
There are two aspects of it that didn’t set well with me. One, it’s told in present tense, which I find difficult to get into. The other is that much of it i told in such short snippets that just as you start to get into a part of the story, it switches to someone else and you have to start over. I didn’t like this format at all.
Having said that, it’s a rather poignant recollection of a dark time in history. The two main stories are about a French girl named Marie-Laure who becomes blind, and a German lad, Werner, who finds a radio and becomes adept at working and repairing electronics, a skill that the Nazis will find useful.
There were emotive recollections of terrible things that happened in the war, personalizing it. You can almost feel the experience of leaflets falling from the sky, or bombers flying overhead. The actual writing is very good, but the format kept jarring me out of the story. I’d love to see this writer do something with a straightforward narrative, because the descriptive passages were very effective.
by Elizabeth Chadwick
This is a historical fiction about Eleanor of Aquitaine, spelled Aileanor in the original French and for the novel. She is forced to marry the young Prince Louis of France and soon becomes the Queen of France.
She is depicted as a strong personality, but living in a time when choices for women were limited. Still, her influence on Louis is fairly strong at first and she makes the best of her situation, despite some difficulties when her younger sister begins to behave like a foolish girl and brings the risk of shame on the whole family’s reputation.
What I love about historical fictions like this is that it makes me go look up actual history to see how the details compare. Eleanor’s history is as interesting as a novel in itself. She was a strong woman who lived in a time when women were expected to defer to husbands or fathers and she was born Duchess of Aquitaine, so had position in her own right, though that had a down side in that society.
The novel is very well written and I really enjoyed following her story. There are apparently two more books, at least one already released, so I may be following the series. What I read of her history indicates that there is plenty more material to write about!
The characters were really brought to life and I will definitely be interested in other books by this author.