Tag: historical fiction


Review – Maisie Dobbs

Posted 28 March, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline WinspearMaisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear

I had high hopes for Maisie Dobbs as the series that would take over from Phryne as my current new comfort reading. I don’t think Maisie is the detective for me, though; for a lot of this, it felt more like the focus was historical fiction that detective fiction. There’s a big digression in the middle which eventually leads up to Maisie’s interest in being a detective, but it’s mostly about her character and the issues of class she’s faced. There’s something very cold about it — for example, the fact that she never went to see the man she’d intended to marry after his operation. She feels more like Sherlock Holmes than Peter Wimsey. Which is fine, but not what I’m interested in.

In terms of the mystery, well, any sense of urgency gets taken away first by the fact that there’s a massive flashback section, and secondly by the fact that Maisie doesn’t face any of the dangers personally. She doesn’t even meet many of the characters involved in the mystery more than once or twice. And she relies heavily on a “shiver down her spine” to tell her what’s going on. Sure, instinct, okay, but… it’s just too perfect, too precise, even alongside the many notes she takes. It’s more like precognition than detection, and I don’t think it’s intended to be supernatural.

I might give the second book a try, because there are aspects of the character and the context that I quite enjoy. I was curious/interested enough to finish this book, after all. But I’m not really feeling it at this point.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Scarlet

Posted 24 February, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Scarlet by A.C. GaughenScarlet, A.C. Gaughen

I wanted to love this. It’s Robin Hood, and it puts a female character at the heart of the band, working directly with Robin as capably as any of the guys. In fact, she is one of the guys — she’s Will Scarlet. The idea of a woman becoming part of the band in disguise isn’t a new one — Marian has joined the band in the disguise of a page, there’s Djaq in the BBC’s Robin Hood series, etc. I’m not sure if it’s ever been Will Scarlet before, but it’s a known and loved trope.

Honestly, I’m not sure how well it works here. Everyone and their mother seems to know that Scarlet’s a girl, and it isn’t hard at all to guess about her past and her real identity — even for people within the story. I know this is YA, but I’d still hoped for a bit more subtlety, if not mystery. I was pretty uncertain about the Robin-John-Scarlet love triangle, though it does have its interesting moments.

(And horrifying ones. There’s a scene where Robin calls Scarlet a whore for basically no reason. I couldn’t believe in the fascination of him from that point on. I’m also really over the abusive relationship between Scarlet and a character from her past.)

There’s also interesting stuff about Scarlet’s character: her difficulty with eating when people around her are starving, her coarse ways contrasted with her care for the people around her, her prickliness at the same time as she badly wants to belong.

What really killed it for me, though, was the narration. Given her actual identity, there’s no reason for her to talk like a commoner… and she doesn’t even talk like a commoner. Some of it doesn’t make grammatical sense in any dialect I know. Instead, it’s just faux-vernacular that might fool someone with no experience of dialect, but doesn’t fool me. And the other characters, for all that they have lower born backgrounds, don’t talk like her at all. It sticks out like a sore thumb.

Overall, I just couldn’t settle in and enjoy it, even if I tried to keep in mind that it’s YA, I’m rather over-versed in Robin Hood lore, etc, etc. I’m not going to continue the series. I’d probably give this one star, but I was curious enough to finish it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Augustus

Posted 8 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Augustus by John WilliamsAugustus, John Williams

It’s amazing the range of opinions you can find on Augustus Caesar. Some think he was the saving of Rome, a morally upright man who revitalised his country. Others think of him as a traitor, and a hypocritical one at that. I don’t know exactly what I think; I guess I probably think that he was a complex person who ultimately did what he thought best, like most of us. This book goes with the latter view, with a fairly sympathetic eye. It took me a while to decide whether I really enjoyed it: it’s slow-paced, and sometimes the timeline is difficult to follow, as people are writing from one point in time about an earlier point in time, but then the next letter might be from the earlier point in time, but portraying the next set of events. Did that make sense? It sort of does in context, but it can make it a bit more difficult to follow.

I did enjoy Williams’ decision to examine a central issue of Augustus’ life: his moral reforms, and then the fact that his own beloved daughter fell afoul of them. He had her banished from Rome, for all that he spent a great deal of her life watching over her and guiding her in a way many men didn’t bother with for daughters. And Williams does some interesting things with unreliable narrators: we get several different perspectives on the same people and events. Was Julia kidding herself, or was Augustus right — did she plot against her father?

It is rather slow, as I said, and the epistolary format combined with the complex timeline doesn’t help. I enjoyed it as a sort of thought experiment, but I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it as a story, if that makes sense.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Ides of March

Posted 10 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Ides of March by Valerio Massimo ManfrediThe Ides of March, Valerio Massimo Manfredi

I’ve been meaning to try books by this author for ever so long (at least the last six years), so it was a little disappointing to finally get round to it and find it falling rather flat. It might be partly an issue of translation, but it just doesn’t read well to me — it feels choppy and overly filled with exposition; to be all about actions rather than thoughts and emotions — I guess what I mean is that it doesn’t seem to have any emotional life. If someone is worried, the reader is told they’re worried; there’s no need to guess at it, no attempt to show their worry through their actions or reveal it through dialogue.

The writing style honestly sucked any possible enjoyment out of this for me. I don’t know how you can make Caesar’s death boring — there’s so much you can do with signs and portents, with the unrest of the people around him. Instead, it just felt flat, and I didn’t believe in the cause of any of the characters. It’s a fairly standard thriller with historical trappings without that, which is not my thing.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Heresy

Posted 1 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Heresy by S.J. ParrisHeresy, S.J. Parris

I’ve had this on my to-read list so long, it’s ridiculous. And finally I got round to it! In tone, it’s very like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake books, but I have to confess that I think I enjoyed those more. Giordano Bruno’s role in this book was just… he was seeking out secret Catholics, to betray them to Walsingham, okay. But he was a Catholic and he faced the Inquisition, and he was well aware of what would happen to the people he betrayed — some of whom trusted him. It doesn’t sit well with me, and he barely even tried to justify it. It’s not as though he fervently believed that the Catholics were actually going to harm Queen Elizabeth; quite the reverse.

The historical setting and the mystery both work reasonably well, but I found it difficult to care about. There were few characters I wanted to care about; the only one was Sophia, and she was badly treated by the plot and just about every other character. Oh, and Cobbett, the alcoholic but devoted doorkeeper of the college.

If you’re interested in the period and into mystery stories, I’d give it a try — there’s a lot to enjoy about the way the mystery is set within the historical plot. I wouldn’t read the rest of the series personally, but it was okay for a one-off.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Doomsday Book

Posted 29 July, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Doomsday Book by Connie WillisDoomsday Book, Connie Willis

Originally reviewed 11th February, 2011

It took me quite a while to read Doomsday Book. I was intrigued to find it was about Kivrin, who was mentioned in ‘Fire Watch’, but it took so, so long to get off the ground. I figured most things out ages before any of the characters did. Following sick protagonists really is no fun at all, and it’s frustrating for the same conversations to be repeated over and over again — “Where is Basingame?” (who never appears), “Did you get the fix?”, “I must speak to Gawyn”… The parts in which Kivrin’s recordings were recounted were also annoying, given that they simply repeated the action, without giving much more information.

The last thirty percent of the book, though, is pretty good. I’m not sure I’m glad I persevered, because I was seriously being bored to death, but once Kivrin’s story really got into its swing — and I don’t think that happened until nearly the end — the sense of tension and horror was catching me by the heart, and the exchanges between Father Roche and Kivrin at the end of the book made me want to cry. Some of Kivrin’s part had real power — her outburst on the corder, for example, when she swears that she won’t let the others die.

One thing that amused/bothered me in equal measure was the inclusion of a character called Gawyn, with a horse called Gringolet, who bragged and was in love, “courtly love”, with his lord’s wife. Pity that I can’t think of a story where Gawain actually commits adultery, and that Lancelot or Tristan would have been a far more appropriate reference.

I’m going to try reading more of Connie Willis’ books — To Say Nothing of the Dog looks to be next — but I’m not going to stick with them all the way through if they have the same pitfalls as this book.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Fever

Posted 9 July, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fever by Mary Beth KeaneFever, Mary Beth Keane

Fever is a novelisation of the life of Mary Mallon, the famous ‘Typhoid Mary’. It attempts to dig into why she didn’t stop cooking for people despite knowing the risks; it also tries to provide her with inner life and give the reader someone human to sympathise with. It works relatively well; Mary emerges as a hard-working woman who doesn’t want to believe that something she loves could be making people sick, who struggles with the idea that maybe she is to blame, who has to find a way to get along with the skills she has. It also includes other characters around her who support her and share her views, to remind us that this is a world where germ theory is in its infancy.

It mostly does a good job of making Mary sympathetic, though it has a tough job considering her carelessness. Sometimes she does come across as lacking empathy, and of being too intelligent to miss the implications of what’s happening — so it seems as if she’s stubbornly going through with something she knows is actually a bad idea, potentially dangerous for those around her.

The most emotionally engaging thread is perhaps that of her partner, Alfred. I don’t know how much basis in reality he has, but it provides some emotional handhold throughout the book. They have an on/off relationship as he struggles with addiction and she struggles with her diagnosis as a typhoid carrier. They’re separated and yet come together again and again; there’s something engaging in the way Mary slowly accepts what he is and just works with it, and something pathetic in the way her proudness is worn down.

It’s not very sympathetic to the medical community — Soper seems like a glory hound, for example, who hunts Mary for his own fame — but that’s probably to be expected considering this book tries to see things from Mary’s point of view.

Overall, I think it’s pretty successful, and the historical details seem to be right. It’s very easy to read; the style is relatively simple, but Mary’s voice is strong.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Midnight Never Come

Posted 20 June, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Midnight Never Come, by Marie BrennanMidnight Never Come, Marie Brennan

I actually picked this up before I ever got into the Lady Trent books, which I have loved so much, but I bought it again when Titan reissued it with a pretty new cover. Fired up with enthusiasm for Brennan’s work and knowing there’s a wait until the next Lady Trent book, I finally decided to read it. I was a bit daunted by the length, but in the end that felt perfect: just the right amount to dig into. The faerie court is interesting, and I enjoy the fact that Brennan kept it period and geography-appropriate in terms of which sorts of fae were present. Genre-wise, it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy, in the sense that I think the pacing and politicking belongs to a historical novel, and the fantasy is situated within that historical context (rather than the other way round).

To me, reading it that way, the pacing was mostly really good, though some of Michael Deven’s sections were frustratingly disconnected from the main plot — partly by their mundanity, and partly because Michael isn’t a major player or even properly clued in for a lot of the book. Lune’s sections work better because she is more aware of the situation on a macro-level, and though her goal is personal advancement, at least her eyes are open to the wider implications of what she’s involved in.

The only part that didn’t quite work for me was Michael and Lune’s relationship; I felt a little lukewarm about them individually, so it didn’t add up to much more with them together, and so parts of the plot which relied on their relationship fell a little bit flat for me. I was really more interested in some of the background, the history of Invidiana, the links between the courts, etc. But overall it still worked pretty well for me, and I’m excited to read more in this universe. I suspect it’ll get better as it goes along, too, knowing how much I enjoy Brennan’s most recent work.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Owl Killers

Posted 8 April, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Owl Killers by Karen MaitlandThe Owl Killers, Karen Maitland

Originally reviewed 25th August, 2012

I think this might be my favourite of Karen Maitland’s books so far — I definitely liked it more than The Gallows Curse, although it didn’t grip me as tightly as Company of Liars. I have nothing really to nitpick about here, though: the five POVs were well done and cast interesting lights on each other, and I love the research Maitland clearly put into it. The very concept of a beguinage is pretty fascinating, so that helps, but the way Maitland brought this one to life — and tried to explain a real historical event through it — is even more so. I’ve always loved historical novels that take something we know (a wingless Roman Eagle was found buried in Silchester, and Rosemary Sutcliff wrote The Eagle of the Ninth to explain it, for example) and try to puzzle out why. Karen Maitland explores why the beguinages failed to take root in Britain, despite some evidence of them existing here, and despite their longevity and appeal on the continent.

As with her other books, she evokes the Middle Ages well — the smells, the sounds, the sights. Perhaps a little predictably, I suppose: she gives us the vision of the Middle Ages we expect, dirt and plagues and superstition, but still. She does her work well.

I suppose I do have one nitpick, and that’s the POV of Pisspuddle, which doesn’t add much. It does add a villagers-eye view, so there’s that, but mostly she’s just a small child who doesn’t matter that much to the events happening around her.

The characters are all intriguing: I really felt for Osmanna, and for Servant Martha, particularly. I felt very sorry for Beatrice, even though I knew she was seeing things from a very biased point of view. And Healer Martha deserved better.

Oh yes, and trigger warning: rape, abusive parents, sickness. More or less what you might expect, but just in case.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – An Earthly Knight

Posted 6 March, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of An Earthly Knight by Janet McNoughtonAn Earthly Knight, Janet McNoughton

This was another reread, basically to match The Perilous Gard, since they’re both Tam Lin themed. This one is a mite more traditional, and sticks pretty close to the ballad, rather than being based on the situation the ballad lays out and then growing in other directions. The interesting thing is that it brings in another ballad, one I’m less familiar with: ‘Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight‘. That and the medieval, historical setting ground the fairytale elements very well and make the whole thing feel more solid.

Unlike with The Perilous Gard, I didn’t love it much more this time than last, but all the same I did appreciate the cleverness more, I think. Because I knew it was there, I was watching and waiting for it, picking up on every hint.

Altogether, it’s a very satisfying story, though it doesn’t take many liberties with the story of Tam Lin — it only embroiders it, bringing in historical figures and contemporary politics. If you know the ballad, you know more or less how the story goes; unlike with The Perilous Gard, there’s no real wondering about how exactly things will come out. Still, the historical details make it more emotional, and the payoff more satisfying, I think.

Rating: 4/5

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