Tag: historical fiction

Review – The Animals at Lockwood Manor

Posted March 22, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane HealeyThe Animals at Lockwood Manor, Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor follows Hetty, an assistant at the natural history museum, elevated to supervisor due to the beginning of World War II and the loss of the men of the department to enlistment. Hetty’s in charge of the evacuation of key parts of the museum’s collection, including invaluable type specimens, to a house in the country: Lockwood Manor. At first, the site seems close to ideal, but almost immediately there are issues: valuable items disappear, things are moved around when Hetty isn’t looking, and something sinister seems to be happening which makes her begin to doubt her sanity.

It’s all very Gothic and a little spooky, with brief interlude chapters from the point of view of Lord Lockwood’s daughter, Lucy, who is clearly haunted by the wild behaviour of her mentally ill mother. Throughout, there’s a sense that either there’s some serious gaslighting going on, or Hetty and Lucy are truly haunted — even as they become close and start a romantic relationship, clinging to one another amidst the awfulness of the seeming haunting and of Lord Lockwood’s dalliances with women younger than his own daughter.

On the one hand, I couldn’t point to anything special about the book — nothing I thought stood out, or particularly made it worth reading. On the other hand, I read it practically all in one go: there’s something about it which is gripping, helped along by the connection between Hetty and Lucy (at its best before they say a thing to one another, laying tension into each scene) and the fact that I am interested in Hetty’s job and the work she’s described as doing. It was enjoyable, though not outstanding; I may not even think of it again, but it certainly whiled away a few hours entertainingly.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Eagle of the Ninth

Posted November 9, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary SutcliffThe Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff

It’s been a long time since I read this book, but I remembered every word and every one of C. Walter Hodges’ illustrations with the same sort of childhood sharpness that Marcus has in his memories of the olive-wood bird and the summer day he spent carving it. I think it was one of the first books I read on my own, and I read it absolutely to pieces. It’s funny reading it now and noting the things I didn’t understand originally, the details of Roman British life and stuff about Esca’s relationship to being a slave, and Tribune Placidus being a snob…

The Eagle of the Ninth follows Marcus, a young centurion who is injured partway through his first command at a smallish fort. His heroism saves his men, but cuts him off from the soldier’s life he expected to lead, the life his father led before him. His uncle takes him in, but he’s pretty lost — even once his leg heals, even with the friendship of Esca (a British ex-gladiator he buys) and Cottia (a British girl raised by a want-to-be Roman family next door), and even with the companionship of the wolf cub Esca brings him. In the end, though, he gets a chance to find out what happened to his father, who marched away with the Ninth Legion and never returned, and most of the book follows his travels through Scotland searching for the lost eagle of his father’s legion, with Esca at his side.

It’s weird reading this now with an eye to Esca’s relationship with Marcus and how tainted that is by Esca’s slavery. Sutcliff does deal with it somewhat, but… as a kid, I never really thought about how awful it was for Marcus to be able to buy a person, and to buy Esca’s loyalty like that. And I never noticed how young Cottia was, either. Yikes. But knowing that Sutcliff spent much of her life convalescent, there’s also a new poignancy to Marcus’ struggle with his injury.

Some of the details of Roman Britain as we understand it have changed since Sutcliff wrote this book, I believe, but her research was meticulous. Roman Britain wasn’t set dressing for a story that could happen anywhere; it’s beautifully woven right into history, imagining a story around a wingless Roman eagle that was found in Silchester. She reached for scents, sounds, authentic details, and brought the Roman world to life in many of her books, and especially here.

Though I read it as a child, I think it has universal appeal. There are things about the characters that I understand so much better now as an adult, and the detail of the worldbuilding that was immersive when I was a child is still impressive.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Widow of Rose House

Posted October 5, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Widow of Rose House by Diana BillerThe Widow of Rose House, Diana Miller

This was an impulse purchase that worked out very well for me! Alva Webster is notorious, a widow who supposedly held orgiastic parties right before her husband was murdered. She’s moved back to the US after his death, has bought a house called Liefdehuis, and wants to re-design it and create a lovely place to live… while writing a book about the process aimed at middle-class people. They’ll buy her book because of her notoriety, she reasons, and then some will enjoy her work.

She runs into Sam Moore, a scientist, who really wants to look into the local folklore surrounding Liefdehuis. There’s a ghost, supposedly, and he’s eager to put that to the test. Alva’s not keen, but is eventually driven to seeking him out for that.

If you’re a fan of the Veronica Speedwell books, I suspect this would be up your alley. Alva is a bit less independent than Veronica, partly due to her rather traumatic past, but there’s a kinship there. The love interest, Sam, is just a delight — bright and optimistic most of the time, oblivious to the stupidest societal things, protective and full of love. I could maybe wish Alva was a little less tentative in some things, but some of the breakthroughs of the story are hers and her slow but sure understanding that her past is done is well done. Sam’s family are also a delight, and I could definitely wish for a few more books with them and Henry…

The book does contain references to domestic violence, and some violent scenes. Alva is blackmailed, and her family are also abusive (though more in a neglectful sort of way). There are several fairly explicit sex scenes, which do somewhat further the relationship between Alva and Sam, but are probably skippable too. I don’t know enough about the period to say whether it’s historically accurate, but it felt like there was some license being taken about how Alva’s servants (for instance) would react.

Very enjoyable, all in all!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Firebird

Posted October 3, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Firebird by Susanna KearsleyThe Firebird, Susanna Kearsley

I normally love Susanna Kearsley’s work, in much the same way as I love Mary Stewart’s, but The Firebird didn’t really work for me. I stalled out halfway through, and then eked my way through a couple of hundred pages before I found my way back into it again. Partly it might have been mood, but partly I think it was the structure: The Firebird follows Nicola, in the present, as she searches out the history of an item for a client, and a girl called Anna, in the past — the girl who once was given the item, a firebird, by the Empress Catherine.

I was interested in both the historical fiction and in Nicola figuring out her issues — including her psychic talent, which sits sort of awkwardly next to the grounded reality of the historical plot — but… well, that’s the problem, I think: for me, it sat oddly. The time wasn’t evenly divided between the two, with odd stops and starts of action and then long, long stretches spent with the past.

I don’t mind the past/present juxtaposition in principle, and there are books that pull it off. This one, though, just didn’t come together for me, and I didn’t remember enough about the other books this one is related to in order to be pleased by the cameos and references, either. A bit sad, honestly; I wanted to love it. I think there’s a lot there for other folks, particularly those interested in the Scottish and Russian parts, and there’s a solid romance as well, in both the historical story and the part set in more-or-less the present.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A Dangerous Collaboration

Posted August 30, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna RaybournA Dangerous Collaboration, Deanna Raybourn

A Dangerous Collaboration is the fourth outing in the Veronica Speedwell series, and is much like the other books: a quick, fun, fairly anachronistic read which somehow still manages to sink its claws into me and make me desperate to read more. Veronica and Stoker continue to be absolute soulmates, and the obvious romantic arc continues beautifully here… though we also get to see more of Stoker’s elder brother, Tiberius, and what really moves him.

(The bit about their obvious romantic arc is not to say that I don’t wish they could’ve remained platonic. Reading Veronica as aromantic would make a lot of sense with some of her previous statements and dalliances, and it’s always kind of cool to read something where a man and a woman can just be friends. That said, Deanna Raybourn was obviously going to go there, so it’s misplaced to fret about wishing it’d steer away from the romance!)

The setting is fun as well, being relatively constrained. No dashing about London here, but instead an exploration of an old castle on an island, and the old mystery of a young bride who disappeared on her wedding day a few years before. I’ll admit I kind of called it, for no reason other than a kneejerk reaction, because I immediately suspected a character so ubiquitous and *nice* sounding.

It’ll be interesting to see how the events at the end of the book impact the next. I’m hoping it isn’t bloody Jack the Ripper, though. That would be a cliché too far for me, most likely… though who knows? I practically eat these books up with a spoon; it’ll take something egregious to shake me.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Alike As Two Bees

Posted July 31, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Alike As Two Bees by Elin GregoryAlike As Tw0 Bees, Elin Gregory

Not a period I’ve read romance for (that I can think of), so when my automatic recommendations turned this up I pounced on it! Philon is an apprentice stonemason, and as he works on portraying Castor and Pollux, he’s copying from a horse he’s seen on the beach. Her rider Hilarion is clearly interested in him, and Philon’s apprehensive and eager about that… even as Hilarion’s brother, Aristion, starts to bully Philon’s fellow apprentice. Hilarion comes to his rescue, and Philon… well, he falls a bit head over heels.

It’s sweetly done, and avoids the issue of an age gap (since in Greek tradition, it would be a rather older man and a fairly young boy) by having Philon be more or less an adult. Though he gets a serious crush, it’s not “instalove” — it’s quick, but he even acknowledges himself that for now it’s just the beginning of something. I’d be interested to see more of Hilarion’s point of view here, since we only see him from Philon’s point of view.

It’s nice that it doesn’t feel like the story is just there as a wrapper for the romance: the work of the stonemasons goes on and surrounds the budding romance, and each gives the other meaning.

It’s a quick read, and I’d gladly check out more by this author.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Return of the Earl

Posted July 28, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Return of the Earl by Sandra SchwabThe Return of the Earl, Sandra Schwab

Con has been away from his father’s estate for thirteen years, after his father caught him with the stableboy. In the intervening time, he’s inherited the estate and the title… but he has no wish to return home, having been told by his father that his stableboy lover repudiated him harshly and had to be paid for his silence. Matters need to be handled, though, so reluctantly, he returns to the place he grew up… to find Bryn still there, waiting for him, and apparently totally brazen about his actions.

Needless to say, I don’t think there’s a spoiler here to say there has been a grave misunderstanding. It’s understandable in the context, but Con spends the entire time refusing to trust Bryn, looking desperately for the evidence that Bryn really did have to be paid off, instead of realising that, hey, his dad was a git and Bryn was always true. Once that gets through Con’s head, the story turns sweet, but until that point he’s rather petulant… and his about-face felt a little odd.

Bryn would almost have been a more interesting POV character; he has his head on straight, knows what he wants, and while he isn’t impervious to pain, he knows he’s not the only one suffering.

Anyway, a fun and quick read, overall, but not super memorable.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Like a Gentleman

Posted July 19, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Like a Gentleman by Eliot GraysonLike a Gentleman, Eliot Grayson

I read a different book by Eliot Grayson on a whim a while ago, and thought it was okay, and I wanted something short and relatively low-stakes this evening, so I thought I’d give this a try! James Rowley is a writer, and the brother of an Earl. His editor, Leo, has been awfully rude to him, and the crowning insult is that he’s stolen James’ work. James sets out to get revenge, and when he learns that Leo’s attracted to him, he decides that will be the perfect revenge.

The bit that I don’t really get is Leo’s nasty letter to James, which is half-explained but seems way too angry and incongruous with Leo’s feelings and actions (even if he gives some excuse about it being due to irritability). The whole scenario felt very manufactured as a result, and it doesn’t help that Leo’s feelings for James are based on very little… and James’ for him on even less. I didn’t really believe in the relationship between the two, so I wasn’t invested in it — the scene where James uses Leo and makes him feel awful is well-done, but to believe in it, I’d need to understand much better where Leo’s feelings come from.

The best bit is actually the final chapter, where they’ve got their HEA and then bicker with each other. A lot of stories dismiss the issues of class in this period, and that last chapter unpicks that a little and deals with that barrier to their happy-ever-after. Their emotions and reactions to each other in that scene make a lot more sense to me!

It’s on Kindle Unlimited and not a bad fast read; overall it’s kind of sweet, but I wouldn’t really recommend it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A Gentleman’s Position

Posted March 14, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Gentleman's Position by KJ CharlesA Gentleman’s Position, K.J. Charles

This is the final book in the Society of Gentlemen series, and it beautifully wraps things up — not just for Richard and Cyprian, but for the characters of the other two books as well. It’s all very cleverly done, with David Cyprian pulling the strings and manipulating things into place, and Richard stumbling towards happiness with large blundering feet. The plot is mostly: Richard fucks up, Richard needs Cyprian back, David Cyprian is too loyal for his own good, Richard puts his foot in it some more. I was at once longing for a happy ending and wanting David to realise Richard truly is an idiot and walk away.

Charles can always bring me round to enjoying a character or plotline I didn’t think I would; she had no problems here, as I was already eager to see what David could do and how things would work out. I actually read this all in one go.

It’s not just the characters and their relationship, though. I really liked the side characters, including the way Richard’s elder brother and his wife try to take care of Richard and are supported by him in turn. Knowing the world already from the other books, it’s interesting to see it from a new slant and discover the other sides of people one might have already disliked or dismissed.

As with the first book, I have very little I want to criticise here. It was a lot of fun. Just one point: Richard is portrayed as pretty much demisexual (and apparently word-of-God says he is), but there is a scene which puts the lie to that where he says he wanted David since he first saw him. Neither the inclusion nor that moment are a major part of the plot, but it’s a point worth being aware of if you’re hoping for demisexual representation.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – A Seditious Affair

Posted March 9, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Seditious Affair by KJ CharlesA Seditious Affair, K.J. Charles

This one feels rather darker than A Fashionable Indulgence, although some of the same themes of radicalism and struggle are in that book too. Here, they’re front and centre, because Harry’s radical mentor Silas is one of the main characters. And the other is his Wednesday liaison, Dominic Frey, who doesn’t even know his name as the book opens — just that his brute knows him and his needs, and challenges him in ways he’s never been challenged, while giving him the strength to face the rest of the world. The problem being that Dominic is a Tory, working for the Home Office, tracking down radicals just like Silas.

The whole book is a struggle between their ideals and their growing feelings for one another. Between them, they could work it out, if only they didn’t come from such different worlds at such a fraught point in time, just after the Peterloo massacre. The radical ideas that Harry mostly pushes away and hides in A Fashionable Indulgence are Silas’ everyday goals, and it sets him against Dominic, willing or not.

It takes a while for things to work out, but they do, and there is a happy ending — I promise! It’s a bittersweet ending, in many ways: they’ve balanced their need for each other with their ideals and found their ideals shaking, their dedication to them crumbling… but they do figure something out.

One thing I do enjoy that’s more in the background here is Richard and Dominic’s relationship. They were basically childhood sweethearts, but Richard couldn’t give Dominic what he needed — in fact, made him feel broken and wrong for wanting it, let alone needing it. So throughout the book they finally come to terms with that, and while it’s obvious they still love one another deeply and care very much about what the other does and what happens to them, they’re starting to let things go and make their peace with their long-ago rift.

As ever, this book does contain quite a few sex scenes, and if you’ve read A Fashionable Indulgence first, which I do suggest, you’ll be aware of Dominic’s tastes. I wasn’t always in love with the way this aspect of their relationship is portrayed: they do very little negotiating or checking in, and it takes a while for it to be fully clear how Dominic can give the equivalent of a safeword. There’s a lot of “no, don’t, stop” that can be quite discomforting, even with the context that the two of them have been doing this for a year and know each other well.

Overall, I don’t love the characters of Dominic or Silas as much as Harry and Julius, so that shaped my enjoyment of this book. I’m much more curious about Richard and David Cyprian, in the next book, and also hoping it gives us more glimpses of Harry and Ash, who are both adorable.

Rating: 4/5

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