Category Archives: Historical Fiction

In Farleigh Field

I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. I don’t read many mysteries but I’m always eager to try new things and with autumn just beginning here, a novel set in a British manor was just the thing to cosy up to on a weekend.

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“In Farleigh Field” by Rhys Bowen is a novel about an upper class British family during the 1940s. Lord Westerham, his wife Lady Westerham and three of their daughters have had to relinquish part of their stately home Farleigh Place to local soldiers. Their third daughter Pamela is working a secret government job at Bletchly Park and nobody has hear from their second daughter Margot, who was designing clothes in France, for a long time. When a young London boy Alfie who is billeted at the gamekeeper’s house stumbles across a grisly discovery, he and Lady Phoebe, Westerham’s youngest, rush to tell the authorities. The mysterious body draws family friend and the son of the local Vicar Ben Cresswell back to Farleigh on a top secret mission. Ben grew up rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Westerhams, and although he finds an old flame rekindled, he discovers that maybe he doesn’t know the people in those circles as well as he thought he did.

This book is a great little romp perfect for a bit of weekend escapism. I’m loathe to say it because I’m sure the comparison has been made over and over, but if you enjoy period dramas like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, especially against the social equaliser background of the second world war, you’ll most certainly enjoy this. This story is another snapshot that adds to the mosaic of the British war experience and the remnants of the English gentry. Bowen has an easy, fluid style of writing that lets the story speak for itself. Her dialogue is particularly enjoyable, and her foray into M15, codebreaking and double agents is compelling reading. I particularly liked her treatment of women and romance in this story, and felt that she gave a real sense of the desire of young women of the times to gain useful knowledge and skills to do their part. I also liked how she handled the changing social attitudes towards sex and explored the diversity of sexual expression without judgment.

This is Bowen’s first standalone novel and it is a very enjoyable read that is clever enough to be engaging, but simple enough to relax into.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior

After talking about a number of different issues together, a friend of mine lent me this book. I had never heard of it before (and I’ll go into that further in a minute) and apart from reading “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” last year, I haven’t had much exposure to Australian Aboriginal historical fiction. However, I have noticed that the role of Aboriginal people in early Australian historical fiction is often either glossed over or largely absent. The book has sat on my shelf for the better part of a year and finally I got around to reading it.

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“Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” is a historical fiction novel by Aboriginal academic, engineer and writer Eric Willmot and originally published in the 1980s. The story is set in the late 1700s around the Sydney area shortly after the arrival of the first British convicts and settlers. When a young Awabakal man called Kiraban first sees white people arrive in his homeland by ship (in the Newcastle area), he decides to adventure with them south to Sydney to gain experience and status among his people. When he arrives, he befriends and learns the languages of both the white settlers and people from the Eora nation and observes the interplay between these two peoples. Although Eora elder Bennelong advocates cooperation with the British, Kiraban comes to hear stories of mysterious Bidjigal man Pemulwuy. Pemulwuy has stopped trading kangaroo meat with the British as he once did and has instead begun to sabotage the Governor’s attempts to expand Sydney and turn Eora land into farmland. Without any way to get home to his people, and with relations deteriorating between the British and the Eora, Kiraban must decide which side to join.

This is an incredibly important book. In his short background at the beginning of the novel, Willmot writes:

This was indeed a conspiracy of silence. The same that was applied to Pemulwuy’s resistance. It was apparently not in the interests of a crookedly intent or racist establishment to promote such parts of the Australian story. If this is true, then these people have stolen from generations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal-Australians a heritage as important, as tragic and as heroic as that of any other nation on earth.

When I was in school, we learned about Captain Cook and the First Fleet. We learned about Banjo Patterson, the Gold Rush, the Eureka Stockade, Federation and the White Australia Policy. What we didn’t learn was about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. Even though the idea that the continent of Australia as terra nullius has since been proven false, there is a real absence of Aboriginal history within the national consciousness. I believe that this book would have been a much more valuable book to study in school than some of the other Australian texts we studied. If Australians were to understand that there were valiant warriors among the Aboriginal people who first encountered and, for years, effectively resisted settlement, perhaps there would be more mutual respect today.

This was also a really interesting book for a number of other reasons. I really liked Willmot’s treatment of women in this book. Narawe is a fascinating character who shows ferocity as a fighter on a number of occasions. Willmot also compares the role of women both among the different tribal groups of the Eora as well as between Aboriginal people and the British. Willmot also explores the ethics of both the British approach to settlement and the resistance of Pemulwuy, highlighting the many grey areas and suffering on both sides. I think probably the thing that I found most difficult about this book is that although it was only 300 pages long, it did take me a while to get through it. It is quite heavy on military and tactical writing, something that I have never been particularly interested in.

Nevertheless, Willmot is a bright and considered writer who has filled an important historical gap with an alternative narrative of the people who have lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. I would highly recommend this book for history buffs who would like a more nuanced retelling of early British colonialism and the impacts on Aboriginal Australia.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Skylarking

This book was selected as the February book for a feminist book club I go to. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it had me at the word “lighthouse”. I absolutely adore the title and the book has a beautiful cover.

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“Skylarking” is a debut historical novel by Kate Mildenhall. Based on a true story and set in late 1800s Australia, this book is about two girls who live in a small settlement at Cape St George in Jervis Bay, NSW. Kate’s father is the head lighthouse keeper while Harriet’s father is his second. Kate is younger, darker and interested in knowledge while Harriet is older, fairer and sweeter. They are inseparable friends – closer to each other than Kate is to any of her siblings. However as they grow up and start facing the realities and expectations of their time, it becomes increasingly apparent to Kate that their idyllic, isolated life together is about to change forever.

This is a beautifully written story about the infinitely complex relationship between two best friends. Mildenhall captures the intricacy, the passion, the tension and the confusion of Kate’s friendship with Harriet and the subtle changes as they both grow into teenagers. I really liked how Mildenhall dealt with Kate’s frustration at being relegated to domestic chores when she loved to read, ride horses and study maps with her father. I felt like it was a heartfelt but realistic interpretation of gender inequality at the time. I also really Mildenhall’s depiction of the anxiety, fluidity and complexity of teenage romantic and sexual awakening.

I think there were only two things that bugged me a bit about this story. The first was that I felt like the ending was a bit flat. I felt like it should have been a sharper, swifter finish to a story that had built up over many chapters. All the speculation up until the historically event (which I won’t mention because of spoilers) seemed like it was spot on, but the story sort of petered out and the speculation afterwards just didn’t seem to have the same oomph. Maybe that was the more accurate interpretation, but I’m not sure it was the more satisfying one. The second thing that bugged me was Mildenhall’s treatment of her Aboriginal characters. I thought she did a really great job of shining a light on Kate and her family’s own prejudices and complacency. However, when it came to actually engaging with the character of the Aboriginal girl, I felt like Mildenhall fell into the trap of the Noble Savage trope. The Aboriginal girl seemed to solely exist to help Kate with her spiritual dilemma and journey towards tolerance and once those purposes had been filled, the girl was discarded.

This is a compelling, thought-provoking novel that generated quite a lot of goosebumps for me while I was reading it. A really excellent debut novel that shows that truth quite often is stranger than fiction.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

Revenants: The Odyssey Home

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I don’t read much fiction or even historical fiction about war, so I was a little apprehensive about this one. However, when I opened the parcel and saw the little courtesy bookmark, I knew I was going to give this one a red hot go, and boy am I glad I did.

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“Revenants: The Odyssey Home” by Scott Kauffman is a historical fiction novel set in a small town in the USA in the 1970s. Betsy, a high school sophomore cheerleader, is upset when her brother returns to fight in the Vietnam War, and is devastated when he doesn’t come home. As she starts to drift in school, her principal gives her an ultimatum: either she volunteers as a candy striper at the local veterans hospital, or she repeats her sophomore year. Although initially repulsed by the horrific injuries suffered by the young men there, Betsy perseveres and finds herself a niche. However, that’s not all she finds, and what she anticipated to be a boring summer turns into a hunt to solve the mystery of a nameless, faceless patient.

This book reads like a slice of time. Kauffman has an incredibly immersive style of writing, and uses slang from the era and local turns of phrase effortlessly in a manner reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell or Irvine Welsh. This is more than a story about war. This is a story about trauma: about the physical and emotional effects of war that trickle down through lives, families, and even through generations. I really learned a lot about this book. You can be as anti-war as you like, as I am, but that doesn’t erase the fact that war still happens and people still suffer. You don’t have to support war to support those people at risk of poverty, homelessness, disability, mental health issues and suicide. Betsy is a really great character who Kauffman imbues depth, complexity and flaws and he balances the mystery plot with the social commentary perfectly.

This was a really standout take on the impact of war and it really opened my eyes in more ways than one.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Signed Books

Bender

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I was immediately intrigued by the premise – four love stories that cross through time and space.

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“Bender” by Alexander Rigby is a historical fiction/science fiction hybrid novel about four star-crossed couples whose love is forbidden. During ancient Egyptian times, a pharaoh’s daughter falls for a slave. In Renaissance Italy where homosexuality is punishable by death, two men fall in love. In 1980s USA, two people meet who are already taken. Then, in an Argentina set 200 years from now, two women find themselves in an impossible situation.

Rigby is an elegant writer who fills his pages with rich imagery. This is a well-paced story that keeps you turning your pages to find out the fates of each of the four couples. Rigby’s concept is refreshingly original and thought-provoking. I found myself pondering the meaning of life, love and souls more than once throughout this book. The only thing I found a bit challenging about this book were that some of the stories, namely the ancient Egyptian and futuristic Argentinian stories, hooked me more than others.

A great book for anyone who is into romance, historical fiction or light science fiction.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction

The Postmistress

This book is part of the Penguin By Hand set and like “The Help“, it has a beautiful embossed cover. The embossing matches the design and you get the wonderful tactile experience of it feeling as though it’s been cross stitched. I’d been eyeing off the set for a while, and bought myself this book as a treat for finishing a unit at university.

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“The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake is a World War II story set in 1941 about three women. There is Iris, who is the postmistress in a small town called Franklin in the USA; Emma, the Franklin doctor’s new wife; and Frankie, an American newsreader based in London that the other two women hear on the radio. The women are united by the increasingly irrefutable impact of the war in Europe on America, and by a letter to be delivered.

I have very complex feelings about this book. On the one hand, Blake is without a doubt a beautiful writer who has brought to life a fraught period in world history from a number of perspectives. Her research is excellent and the detail of her own descriptions of everyday life as well as that of Frankie’s observations in her reports on the radio are very immersive. Frankie is an excellent character and Blake does a great job of handling the peculiar situation women found themselves in during World War II with burgeoning opportunities resulting from necessity and changing social attitudes but the lingering sexism of the past still very much present.

There are some wonderful subtleties in this book, however I did find myself wanting more from the story. I felt that Blake simply did not do the character of Iris, the postmistress, justice. I was completely disinterested in Iris’ blossoming romance with the town mechanic. What I wanted to know more about was about Iris herself. There were only a handful of chapters told from her perspective, and there was scanty information given about all the things I was desperate to know. How did she get the job as postmistress? What was it like working in the post office? I was way more interested in her troubleshooting the machine that printed dates on the letters than I was in her anxiety over her virginity. I feel like with books that look retrospectively at the chronically underwritten role of women in history almost have a duty to look at the influence women had on keeping society running. Blake did a fantastic job in this sense with Frankie, so it just seemed out of step that Iris’ character was cheapened by reducing her to not much more than her relationship with a man.

The other thing that I felt was a wasted opportunity (and this is a minor spoiler, so if you want to read the book completely unsullied, skip to the final paragraph now) was that Blake hints that Frankie’s housemate Harriet had actually met Otto’s wife in London before they were separated in Spain and he went on alone to America. I was hoping that somehow Frankie might have put two and two together, and delivered some of Harriet’s intel or a letter or something but Otto’s story was left in limbo (which, fair enough, it is WWII – that’s realistic) and Frankie’s focus is elsewhere. I think I just felt that maybe where other things had failed and gone wrong, that could have been a nice little thing amongst the collective disaster of war to go right.

This is a well-written book with some great historical and literary merit, and this edition in particular is absolutely gorgeous. A unique take on America’s role in WWII that perfectly captures the senselessness of war, but that I wanted a little bit more from when it came to some of the characters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Penguin By Hand

The House of the Spirits

This is one of those books that I have been meaning to read for a long, long time. It’s been recommended to me by many people and when a book comes with that many recommendations, you can usually bet that it will be good. Sometimes I can be a bit perverse with book recommendations, however. I remember when a primary school friend first recommended that I check out a book called “Harry Potter” I was skeptical. I think I worry that the book has been built up too much and I’ll be disappointed. Anyway, I finally picked up a copy of this book from the Lifeline Bookfair and it sat on my shelf, patiently waiting its turn until I could give it the full attention it deserved.

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“The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende is a novel that almost defies definition. If you were to describe it as magic realism, a family saga or historical fiction about a revolution, you wouldn’t be wrong. Although the name of the country the novel is set in is never explicitly mentioned, the story takes place in Chile and was originally published in Spanish. “The House of the Spirits”follows the life of Clara, a dreamy clairvoyant, and her unusual, contradictory family and descendants. Clara’s fate becomes intertwined with that of her beautiful green-haired sister Rosa’s fiancé Estaban Trueba. Trueba’s choices in seeking wealth and power have devastating consequences on his family and, ultimately, his country. In his misdirected quest for happiness, only his granddaughter Alba can temper his rage and bring out the little remaining good in his ever-shrinking soul.

This book is destined to become a timeless classic. It has everything: history, politics, magic, romance, women’s rights, social upheaval, culture, nuance – everything. It is simply a marvel at how much humanity Allende was able to cram into this novel and how she is able to maintain the reader’s attention throughout. Allende’s writing appeals to the inner child with tantalising pieces of magic and it appeals to the darkness of adults with social and political drama.

I’m not sure what else there is to say about a five star book, except that if you’re looking for an excellent addition to your to-read list, look no further.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, General Fiction, Historical Fiction