Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende

I picked up Portrait in Sepia up in a bookshop four years ago. As I knew nothing about it or the author it joined the other to-be-read books until just recently.

The opening pages of this historical novel grabbed my attention, about Aurora del Valle’s birth in 1880 in San Francisco in the Chinese quarter and referring to family secrets:

I have come to know the details of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain. (page 3)

Portrait in Sepia is part of a trilogy, with The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, and maybe it would have helped if I’d read the other two books, but I thought there was plenty of background history to the characters and I had no problem in following the story and distinguishing the characters.

Summary from the back cover:

After her mother dies in childbirth, Aurora del Valle is raised by her grandmother in San Francisco, but despite growing up in this rich and privileged environment, Aurora is unhappy. Haunted by terrible nightmares and the inexplicable absence of many of her childhood memories, and finding herself alone at the end of a love affair, she decides to travel to Chile to discover what it was, exactly, all those years ago, that had such a devastating effect on her young life. 

Aurora is the narrator and this the story of her family and after giving details of her birth, Aurora goes back to 1862 beginning her story with details about her grandparents. This is not a book you read quickly as there is a lot of detail, a lot of 19th century history of Chile, its mix of nationalities, politics and wars – at first I felt I was drowning in detail, but once I settled into the rhythm of the writing I began to appreciate Allende’s style. It takes you right into the characters, seeing them through Aurora’s eyes – her Chinese grandfather, Tao Chi’en, her uncle Severo and her two grandmothers, Paulina and Eliza, who both play a large role in her life. And there are many other colourful characters and momentous events in this book.

It’s a book about love, loss, identity, betrayal and about family relationships. It’s a portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of the characters and their struggle to survive. Aurora tells her family’s story through looking at photographs, snapshots in time, through her own disjointed, incomplete and vague memories of her childhood and through conversations with her family members. Whilst she was still very young her two grandmothers decided her future, thinking that time would erase the memory of the traumatic events she had seen, never realising that the scenes would live forever in her nightmares.

Portrait in Sepia explores the nature of memory, how each moment of our lives is so transitory and how the past becomes confused as we try to recapture the moments we’ve lived through. Through photographs we can keep memories alive. As Aurora discovered:

Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing. With these photographs and pages I keep memories alive; they are my grasp on a truth that is fleeting , but truth none the less; they prove that these events happened and that these people passed through my destiny. Thanks to them I can revive my mother who died at my birth, my stalwart grandmothers, and my wise Chinese grandfather, my poor father, and other links in the long chain of my family, all of mixed and ardent blood. (pages 303-4)

Reading a book like this inevitably leads me on to yet more books, because now I want to read the other two books in the trilogy.

Lamentation by C J Sansom

Once again I am behind myself with writing about the books I’ve read! So here are just a few thoughts about C J Sansom’s historical novel, Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake book.

I have enjoyed the earlier books in the series so I had great expectations for Lamentation and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. What I like about these books is their historical setting and the Historical Notes giving yet more background to the period and emphasising that because the sources are ‘very thin’ that inevitably this is Sansom’s own interpretation of events and clarifying that Catherine Parr’s book was not, in the real world, stolen.

The book evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension. It begins as Shardlake is ordered to watch the burning at the stake of Anne Askew and other heretics (a real event). I’m not good at reading horrific scenes, but I managed this one without too much mental aversion of my eyes. Along with the mystery of the missing book, Shardlake is working on the Cotterstoke dispute between rival siblings, and has problems at home with his domestic servants.

I was also very taken with Shardlake’s introduction in Lamentation to William Cecil, Mary Tudor and a young Elizabeth I. I hope Sansom has more Shardlake books in mind.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

I found The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland a little slow at the beginning, although it’s full of interesting and well drawn characters, set in Lincoln during the reign of Richard II. It’s the time of the Peasants Revolt, a time of murder and mayhem and when suspicions of witchcraft were high as people started to die unnatural deaths, but it just didn’t have the magic spark that I’d enjoyed in her other books that I’ve read – The Company of Liars and The Owl Killers. It’s a long book of nearly 500 pages and it’s not just the beginning that’s slow, but it picks up towards the end.

The story revolves around Robert of Bassingham, a rich wool merchant, and his family – wife Edith and sons, Jan and Adam. All is fine until Robert meets Catlin, a wealthy widow, who comes to him for advice. Catlin is, of course, not as kind and good as Robert thinks she is and Robert’s family soon suffers because of his involvement with her. There are many other characters, including Gunter and his family. Gunter is a river boatman, struggling to make a living, burdened by heavy taxes he can’t pay. His life goes from bad to worse.

I liked the elements of the supernatural and suspicions of witchcraft in this book and the historical setting. There are several narrators, including a ghost and each chapter is headed by weather-lore, anti-witchcraft charms and spells taken from medieval ecclesiastical writings, recorded British folklore and from medieval spell books known as grimoires. For example this is the heading for Chapter 2:

If you fear that you are in the presence of a witch, clench both your hands into fists with the thumbs tucked under your fingers. Then she cannot enchant your mind.

Now that advice could be useful!

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne


As I wrote in a First Chapter post  Time’s Echo mixes time as Grace Trewe is drawn into Hawise Aske’s life, four and a half centuries earlier in York, 1577. I saw this book in the library and although I hadn’t heard of Pamela Hartshorne I thought the title was interesting, and from the description on the back cover and the opening paragraphs, I thought it was worth borrowing.

RIP IXIt’s a good choice for Carl’s R.I.P. IX challenge, a time-slip story with an element of mystery and suspense in both time periods. Grace is staying in York to sort out the sale of her late godmother’s house when she experiences unnerving episodes in which she appears to be reliving the traumatic events in Hawise’s life beginning in 1577.  Grace likes to travel and although she survived the Boxing Day tsunami she is suppressing her memories of what happened. 

I think the suspense is somewhat diluted because right from the opening chapter it’s revealed that Hawise was drowned on All Hallows’ Eve, with her thumb tied to her toe – ie as a witch. But as Grace’s episodes continue she learns what happened in Hawise’s life to bring her to her dramatic death and this is interwoven with events in Grace’s life. It gets to the point where she dreads slipping out of current time into not only Hawise’s past but also into her own as what happened to her in the tsunami breaks through her mind.

What does add to the suspense is the unpredictability of the time-slips and the sense of malice and evil. So much so that the sceptic in me was unable to decide whether this was a question of whether Grace was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or was she really being “possessed” by Hawise, as she believed, feeling Hawise clamouring to be let into her mind. I found the historical sections more interesting than the modern story, which I think often happens when I read time-slip stories.

Pamela Hartshorne explains how she came to write this book in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. It grew out of her research on the wardmote-court returns of early modern York. These records dealt primarily with nuisances, things that affected the quality of life for the neighbourhood – such as noisy neighbours, blocked sewers. potholed streets etc (I note that local life hasn’t changed much over the centuries!). Some of the minor characters were real people, but this book is a work of fiction and Hartshorne is not intending this to be an accurate historical account, although she has tried to make it as convincing and as authentic as she could – I think she succeeded.

I thought the book was rather drawn out in parts, slowing the story down a bit too much for my liking. But, I like the fact that the book has a factual background, even though there are some liberties with the evidence – eg there was no plague in York in the 1570s or 1580s as featured in the book. So, on the whole I enjoyed Time’s Echo primarily because of its historical elements and I’ll look out for more books by Pamela Hartshorne. I see from her website that she has just published another time-slip book, The Memory of Midnight.

Almost Invincible by Suzanne Burdon

Almost InvincibleMary Shelley’s life and relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was truly remarkable, a story of scandal, love and loss. And Suzanne Burdon using letters and diaries has written a remarkable novel, Almost Invincible, about her.

Mary ‘s parents were two radical writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the advocate of women’s rights. At the age of sixteen she met Shelley, who was already married. They fell in love, abandoned their families and eloped, but significantly they took Mary’s step-sister, Claire with them. It was disastrous because Claire was in love with Shelley too and almost constantly in conflict with Mary.

The novel begins in Geneva in 1816 as Mary reads the opening pages of her novel, Frankenstein to Shelley, Lord Byron and their friends:

It was barely five on a summer afternoon but already eerily dark. The candles were lit and shivered in response to the wind and rain pounding against the panelled windows. Mary took up her scribbled pages and found her voice.

From then on the novel goes back to Mary’s meeting with Shelley in St Pancras churchyard in London two years earlier and follows their tempestuous lives until Shelley’s death in Italy in 1823. Mary went through so much; social outcasts they spent their time moving houses from France, England, Switzerland and Italy. She had two miscarriages and suffered the deaths of two of her children. Her father’s description of her shows her spirit:

She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes, almost invincible.

But above all, it was her love for Shelley that sustained her. I found this a very moving book as it weaves its way through the tangled and often turbulent relationships of Mary, Shelley, Claire and their friends and acquaintances. At times Claire’s behaviour was so manipulative and destructive that Mary could not bear to be with her. Yet through all the sadness, grief, illnesses, and financial difficulties she found solace in her writing.

Suzanne Burdon has written a most impressive story. She has done extensive research, using original letters and stories in the Abinger Collection in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Carl Phorzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle in the New York Public Library. Almost Invincible is her first novel, based on fact but conveying the emotions, thoughts and feelings of her characters so convincingly. I was entranced.

  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Criteria Publishing
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0992354005
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992354008
  • Source: review copy from the publishers

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Time’s Echo

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne, historical timeslip fiction.

It begins:

I feel no fear, not yet. I am just astounded to find myself in the air, looking down the murky rush of the river. It is as if time itself has paused, and I am somehow suspended between the sky and the wate, between the past and the present, between then and now. Between disbelief and horror.

It is All Hallows’ Eve, and I am going to die.

Time’s Echo mixes time as Grace Trewe is drawn into Hawise Aske’s life, four and a half centuries earlier in York, 1577. I saw this book in the library and although I hadn’t heard of Pamela Hartshorne I thought the title was interesting, and from the description on the back cover and the opening paragraphs, I thought it was worth borrowing.  From what I’ve read so far I’m hoping it will be an enjoyable book.

What’s In A Name 7: Completed

Whats in a name 7Hosted by  by Charlie at The Worm Hole this challenge runs from January to December 2014. During this time you choose a book to read from six categories.

I’ve now completed the challenge and these are the books I read:

  • A reference to time – The Time Machine by H G Wells, first published in 1895, is a work of imagination and an early example of science fiction, but it is also a commentary on late 19th century society and a vehicle for H G Well’s views on socialism and industrialisation.

  • A position of royalty – The King’s Evil by Edward Marston. This is historical crime fiction set in London in September 1666, just as the Great Fire of London has begun, eventually devastating a large part of the old medieval City of London

  • number written in letters Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, a Poirot mystery
    first published in 1943. Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.
  • forename or names - Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  a beautifully told tale – a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a ‘smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Ethan Frome
  • type or element of weather - Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

  • A book with a school subject in the title – The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier  fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. 

My favourite of these books is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

Thanks to Charlie for an interesting challenge that helped me reduce my to-be-read piles.

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

I love historical fiction – books that take me away to another time and place. I think one definition of historical fiction is that it should be written about 50 years after the events it describes and so The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop just falls short of that, set 40+ years ago in Cyprus, but I think it would be pedantic to say it’s not ‘historical fiction’.

Forty years ago Famagusta, on the east coast of Cyprus was one of the island’s most visited and most glamorous tourist resorts with its beautiful coastline and its luxury hotels and apartments in the modern district, now known as Varosha. The medieval walled city to the north of the beach resort was a historian’s dream, with its Byzantine churches, treasures and14th century cathedral. Then in 1974, following a Greek military coup, Cyprus was split in two as Turkish forces invaded the northern part of the island to protect the minority Turkish Cypriots. The population of Famagusta fled and the city was sealed off with barbed wire, leaving it a ghost town.

The Sunrise begins in 1972 before the war erupted. Everything is looking good – on the surface – the tourist trade in Famagusta is booming. But beneath the surface tension is building as fear and suspicion grows not only between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, but also amongst the Greek Cypriots themselves, a minority wanting unification with Greece.

‘Cyprus was like a vine leaf that looked opaque and green in the hand but held up to the light was lined with veins. The threat of violence coursed invisibly through the island, and while its sunny, sensual image continued to attract visitors, conspiracies were being hatched and whispers clandestinely exchanged behind closed doors.’

I liked The Sunrise very much – a story of human tragedy in the face of war. It’s a novel about love, friendship and war, the love between parents and their children, and the relationships between men and women. It’s about the struggle for power, about greed, betrayal and deceit. It’s about religion and nationality and the conflict these can cause. Above all it’s about the effect war has on individuals, in particular the brutality and the horrors it engenders.

See my full review of The Sunrise in the Autumn edition of Shiny New Books.

The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis

When I saw The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis in the mobile library I thought I’d seen reviews of her books on other blogs, so I borrowed it. It is the eighteenth Wesley Peterson Mystery, but I think it reads well without knowing the background to the main characters. Although I suppose if I went back in the series I’d find that I know things that maybe I shouldn’t.

Summary:

It’s the Palkin Festival in Tradmouth, a town in Devon, when the body of a strangled women is discovered floating out to sea in a dinghy. A year earlier Jenny Bercival had disappeared from the festival and her mother returns to look for her bringing with her anonymous letters claiming she is still alive. DI Wesley Peterson and his boss DCI Gerry Heffernan are investigating the two cases. Are they connected and is there a link to a fantasy website called ‘Shipworld’ which features the 14th century mayor and privateer of Tradmouth, Palkin as a supernatural hero with a sinister, faceless nemesis called the ‘Shroud Maker’?

 When Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson finds a skeleton on the site of Palkin’s warehouse, the question is whether an ancient crime has been uncovered, or is it Jenny’s body?

My view:

I liked the way the historical mystery intertwines with the modern one, through the archaelogical evidence, and the extracts from a 19th century biography of John Palkin written by his descendant, Josiah Palkin-Wright and letters from Josiah’s wife to her sister, worried about her marriage and that her sister does not reply. Kate Ellis’s style of writing is deceptively simple, so much so that the locations and characters came to life in my mind, whether it was Tradmouth in the past or the present.

There is plenty of mystery in this novel. I really had to concentrate to keep all the characters, red-herrings, twists and turns, and sub-plots in my mind. I thought I’d followed it as I read it, but now I’m not sure that I can give a clear account of what happened and why. However, as I do like complex mysteries I think I’ll have to look out for the first books in the Wesley Peterson series.

A note on the title:

From the title I thought that the ‘Shroud Maker’ would be a person who makes shrouds ie cloths used to wrap a body for burial, but that is not so in this book. Instead the name of ‘Shroud Maker’ is taken from a rope maker, shrouds being the ropes that support a ship’s masts. He or she is a mysterious figure, who in the Shipworld website appears as a faceless monster, wearing what looks like a white ski mask, a malevolent dark force.

The Author’s Note:

It didn’t take me long reading this book to realise that ‘Tradmouth’ is an inversion of the name of Dartmouth in Devon and Kate Ellis’s note at the end of the book clarifies that. She refers to Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales which features a character called the Shipman, a seaman from ‘Dertemouth’, who like her own invented character, was little better than a pirate. She writes that during the 19th century people were fascinated with the medieval period, perhaps as a reaction against industrialisation and her fictional writings of Josiah Palkin-Wright reflected that interest. And coming up to the present day she reflects that fantasy fiction is as popular today as it ever was, with the influence of J R R Tolkien’s works and fantasy fiction websites.

Reading Challenges: R.I.P. Challenge, the My Kind of Mystery Challenge, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt is the second book of his that I’ve read. The first one Death of a Chief I read 5 years ago! Both books are set in late 17th century Scotland (1686 and 1687) and feature a Gaelic speaking, Edinburgh lawyer John MacKenzie and his clerk Davie Scougall. I like the way Douglas Watt incorporates the historical background into the narrative without detracting from the story.

In Testament of a Witch MacKenzie investigates the death of Grissell Hay, Lady Lammersheugh accused of witchcraft in a village overwhelmed by superstition, resentment and puritanical religion. Then the same accusations are made against the Euphame, Grissell’s daughter.  I wasn’t too keen on the horrifying and explicit descriptions of how the witch hunter identified and dealt with women accused of being witches, which involved torture and sleep deprivation, but apart from that I enjoyed this book.

I liked the interaction between Mackenzie, a Highlander and Scougall, a Lowland Scot. Scougall is convinced of the reality of witchcraft, whereas Mackenzie has ‘grave doubts about the crime of witchcraft‘, believing ‘it is nothing more than superstition‘. The religious fervour and political unrest are clearly demonstrated in this book, setting the frenzied persecution of those suspected of witchcraft in context. Watts’ Historical Note on The Scottish Witch-hunt at the end of the book gives the background, when Scottish society was in a state of flux.

Change caused anxiety and fear, unleashing frenzies of witch-hunting . … It has been estimated that the Scottish witch-hunt was ten times more deadly than the English one in terms of executions per head of population. Probably more than a thousand men and women were executed for witchcraft in Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The witch-hunt could not have occurred without a widespread belief in magic, charming and divination, and the acceptance of Satan as a real presence in the life of the people.

Witch-hunting declined when the revolutionary zeal of the Scottish Reformation ran out of steam in the late seventeenth century. Scotland began to turn its back on persecution and look towards the more tolerant and commercial age of the Enlightenment.

Testament of a Witch is well-researched and although it gets off to a slow start and I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Death of a Chief, I was immersed into the fascinating and terifying world of the witch-hunt in 17th century Scotland as I was reading. It’s a book that qualifies both for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge and this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, as well as the Historical Fiction Challenge and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Douglas Watt is a Scottish historian, poet and novelist, who lives in Linlithgow. He has a PhD in Scottish History from Edinburgh University and is the author of The Price of Scotland, a history of Scotland’s Darien Disaster, which won the Hume Brown Senior Prize in Scottish History in 2008.