Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2020 (2 April) | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Protector by Andrew TaylorThe Last Protector is the fourth novel in Andrew Taylor’s fine series that portrays the intrigue, decadence and fragility of Charles II’s Restoration court in the years beginning with and following the Great Fire of London. This is most definitely a series and so, although you could read it on its own and enjoy it, you really need to read these books in order, to follow the course of events and to understand the relationship between government agent and lawyer James Marwood and Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is 1668 and the honeymoon period following the restoration of Charles II and the monarchy is most definitely over. The King’s court is a hotbed for dissent, rivalry, licentiousness, cuckoldry and rebellion. Unfortunately for James Marwood, son of a traitor and now a lawyer and government agent, he’s once more thrown into the deadly heart of it. He is sent to spy on a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury and, unluckily, Marwood is spotted by Buckingham’s men. The duel was ostensibly due to Buckingham having an affair with Lady Shrewsbury but Marwood, and his boss Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, knows that it goes far deeper than that. Buckingham is plotting against the King.

Events grow ever more dangerous when Cat, now uneasily married to her elderly employer architect Mr Hakesby, is greeted by an old acquaintance. Elizabeth Cromwell, the granddaughter of none other than Oliver Cromwell is in town and with her is her father, Richard Cromwell, the last Protector. He is a man with a price on his head and someone that Buckingham wants in his power. Both Marwood and Cat are caught in a web of treachery and sedition and the stakes couldn’t be higher, or their lives more expendable.

I do enjoy this series. There are plenty of reasons for this but, as I read The Last Protector, I was reminded once more at just how skilfully Andrew Taylor can evoke the past. Just the right amount of detail is used to bring 17th-century London to life, with its busy river, its Tudor warren of alleys, apartments, brothels, inns and palaces, where the poor and the rich seem almost to live on top of one another, except for those oases of grand houses and gardens on the Strand. This book is full of the colour, smells, stench, misery and grandeur of London life at this time. As in previous novels, we’re reminded of how the most vulnerable suffer. In The Last Protector it’s the turn of the young prostitutes and the strange man who scrapes clean the royal sewers.

The characters are always interesting and I do enjoy the glimpses we’re given of Charles II. He’s devious and decadent and he’s also entertaining – as we see here with his little spaniels – but he is more canny of what’s going on than some might think. In this novel we meet the Cromwells and it’s an intriguing portrait of Richard Cromwell, the man who grew up in a palace and now must live abroad, secretly and quietly.

The heart of the novel rests with Marwood and Cat. The paths of the two don’t cross quite as much as in previous novels but, when they are together, the tension is as strong as ever, with the added complication of Mr Hakesby. We’ve seen the relationship of Mr Hakesby and Cat change over the years and now we see the old man in yet another light. What really stands out in this novel are the portrayals of the put upon and the abused, the prostitutes and Ferrus, the mazer-scourer’s labourer, the poor, damaged man who clears out the court’s excrement. As you can imagine, there is an awful lot of it.

The Last Protector tells an excellent story. It’s thrilling and also clever. There are moments when I was on the edge of my seat. Most of all, though, I just thoroughly enjoyed being transported to this other time and place where there is so much to see around every corner. This is an excellent series, now fully established, and I look forward to the next.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court
The King’s Evil

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

William Morrow | 2019 | 358p | Gift | Buy the book

Meet Me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbIn May 1955 Grace Kelly attends her first Cannes Film Festival on the French riviera. With the paparazzi hot on her trail, she takes shelter in the parfumerie of Sophie Duval. Sophie has inherited her perfume business from her father but it is a struggle to keep it afloat, and there are some who wish to buy her land, where her flowers grow and her scents are created. And there is a wealthy male friend in her life who wishes to be much more than a friend, to take her from this life. But Sophie is determined to succeed and when Grace Kelly enters her shop and falls for her perfumes, she has hope that her business can survive and that she can create her own perfumes, which will tempt a Hollywood princess.

James Henderson is a press photographer and he is on the trail of stars. When he follows Grace Kelly through the streets of Cannes, he encounters Sophie Duval and realises his life is about to change. He is there to witness the first and arranged meeting of Grace Kelly with Prince Rainier of Monaco. It seems unspectacular, uneventful to James but history is about to show James just how wrong he can be. As the preparations for the marriage of the year get underway, Sophie and James will find themselves drawn closer and closer to each other. But will their love story have the same happy ending?

I am a huge fan of Hazel Gaynor. She writes beautifully, as anyone who’s read The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter will attest, and I was drawn so strongly to Meet Me in Monaco. I have become such a reader of historical romance or ‘women’s fiction’, especially when it’s set during the 20th century and features real women that I have an interest in. Here we’re given Grace Kelly and she is captivating. Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb bring this charismatic and slightly mysterious, perhaps unknowable figure to life and I loved watching her experience Cannes and the other wonderful locations of this novel. It is fascinating to see the origins of her relationship with Rainier but I also loved all of the descriptions of Grace, her clothes, her style and her manner.

There is more to this lovely novel than Grace Kelly. At its heart is the growing romance between Sophie and James. These are very different people, one a French parfumer and the other an English newspaper photographer but there is more to both than initially meets the eye and it’s wonderful getting to know them. I enjoyed learning about Sophie’s perfume business and her relationships with her mother and father but I think James, or Jim, is my favourite character. We explore his background, his family and his friendships as well as his past. I think he’s a fantastic character.

Meet Me in Monaco is a gorgeous novel. It is filled with the glamour of Cannes and Hollywood in the 1950s, it has the intrigue of Grace Kelly’s rushed and curious romance, and it tells the involving story of Sophie and James. The pages are filled with the warmth and sunshine of the Mediterranean. I read the novel in just one day. It’s a light, enchanting read and the pages flit through the fingers.

The Deep by Alma Katsu

Bantam Press | 2020 (5 March) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Deep by Alma KatsuIt is 1916 and Annie Hebbley has just joined the ship Britannic as a nurse. This enormous ship, a sister ship to Titanic, has been drafted into war service, ferrying the injured and dying from the battlefields of southern Europe back home to Britain. This marks the start of a new life for Annie and it’s one she’s lucky to have, for Annie was a maid aboard Titanic. It was a miracle that she survived but she’s spent the time since in an asylum. But now she has hope of recovery even if it means she must return to the sea and the sea is something that both calls to Annie and terrifies her.

In a story that moves between 1912 and 1916, life aboard both grand ships is brought to life, especially on the Titanic as Annie waits upon and almost befriends some of the most famous and glamorous passengers of the Titanic, including Madeleine Astor, the scandalously young and pregnant bride of one of the richest men in America, as well as Mark Fletcher, his wife and baby, whom Annie is especially drawn to. But all is not as it seems and the mood darkens, the further the ship sails across the black, cold waters of the Atlantic. Strange things are seen, voices heard. Annie is plagued by demons on a voyage that is doomed and, as she sets sail on Britannic, she knows that they follow her still.

I am such a big fan of Alma Katsu’s The Hunger and so I couldn’t wait to read The Deep, even more so when I learned it was set aboard (and overboard) two tragic ships, Titanic and Britannic. The fate of both ships is well known and it provides the perfect subject for historical horror. It’s extremely hard to resist.

Much of the novel focuses on the doomed voyage of the Titanic and I absolutely adored the sections set aboard this ship. It’s brought to life with the most exquisite descriptions of life on board, especially for those rich enough to sail in first class. We spend time with several of the passengers, learning about their lives, fears, hopes and secrets. This is a voyage to a new life in some cases. It’s a symbolic passage for several, including Annie. The future looks wide open and optimistic as they sail to the promised land. But that’s not reckoning on the malignant and horrifying entity that haunts this ship and the people on it.

The Deep is a glamorous novel, not surprisingly because it features so many glamorous people, but it is a horror novel and there are moments in it when it does frighten. I didn’t find its horror as believable or as frightening as in The Hunger, there’s something not quite right about its reveal in my opinion, but, nevertheless, it’s a wonderfully written book and it does a brilliant job of recreating the experiences of those aboard the Titanic. The sinking scenes are fantastically done. I was glued to the page.

I think Alma Katsu is such an interesting writer and I love the ways in which she combines history with horror. The descriptions are so richly evocative of place and time and the mood is so intensely charged with atmosphere, dread and tension. I just can’t get enough of books such as this and so I long for the next.

Other review
The Hunger

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Manilla Press | 2020 (6 February) | 371p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Foundling by Stacey HallsIt is 1747 when Bess Bright walks with her father Abe to the Foundling Hospital on the northern fringes of London. Bess can hardly walk. She gave birth just hours ago and now she must leave her newborn, illegitimate daughter Clara with strangers, abandoning her as a foundling, with just a token for her daughter and the hospital to know her by. Six years later Clara returns to the hospital with the money that she has spent years saving. At last she can buy back her daughter and be her mother again. But Bess discovers that, just the day after Clara was left, a woman claiming to be Bess turned up and carried the baby away as her own. It is a catastrophe and Bess’s life is almost destroyed. Only one thing can save her – the hope that she will find her daughter and the woman who stole her.

A mile from Clara a young widow, Alexandra, lives in her gloomy townhouse with a couple of servants. She hasn’t set foot outside the house for a decade except for her weekly Sunday trips to church. And that is the only time that her little six-year-old daughter Charlotte feels the sun on her face and can breathe fresh air. Otherwise, she is confined to the house with her unhappy mother. The vicar knows that something must change and suggests that Charlotte should have a nursery maid to help look after her and puts forward a young woman that he knows, Eliza. Alexandra dreads having somebody new in her house, disrupting her carefully constructed and elaborate routine. But she will find she has no choice as the past threatens to catch up with her.

I loved The Familiars, Stacey Hall’s brilliant debut novel, and so I couldn’t wait to read The Foundling, another stand alone historical mystery with another stunning cover. These are gorgeous books! This time we are placed in London in the mid 18th century and it is a very different place for Bess and Alexandra. The novel moves between the two women, using the first person narrative for both and so we are immersed in their lives, and it’s fascinating to see their worlds constructed. Bess leads a hard and poor life as a hawker walking the streets of London selling boiled prawns from the stinking, scalding basket on her head. I love the way in which Stacey Halls describes the everyday turmoil of her life. Alexandra is very different. She is a widow of some means but one who has agoraphobia and who cannot leave her dark and unhappy house except for church.

I enjoyed getting to know Bess, Alexandra and the enchanting Charlotte very much. This is such a beautifully written and deeply atmospheric novel, with a touch of the Gothic to it as we see the world though Alexandra’s tormented eyes. I liked Beth a great deal but I surprised myself by falling most deeply for Alexandra. I loved the way in which her story is revealed.

There are coincidences in the novel, which did contribute to it feeling not entirely plausible or convincing. There is a plot device that I’m not sure about. But, nevertheless, this is a gorgeous and enchanting read that pulls at the heartstrings, sometimes for unexpected reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by the Foundling Hospital, now a museum, and the tokens left by women who had to make such a terrible choice. As a result, I couldn’t resist The Foundling and, very unusually for me, I read it in just one day, even though that day was a very full one. I did not want to put it down unread. It is wholly engrossing. And just look at the cover! The inside cover is just as gorgeous.

Other review
The Familiars

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Washington Square Press | 2017 (this edn 2018) | 389p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidMonique Grant is a struggling magazine reporter in search of the Big Break. One day it comes to her in the most unlikely of forms. Reclusive Hollywood legend Evelyn Hugo is approaching the end of her life and now, aged almost 80, wants her story to be told for the first time and, for reasons Monique can’t fathom, she wants Monique to write it. And so, for day after day, Monique listens to this extraordinary woman tell the story of her life, a life known most of all for her seven husbands. But, as Evelyn reveals the truth about each of her marriages in turn, she also reveals the truth about her greatest love, a forbidden love, and her ambition that threatened to destroy it. Secret after secret are revealed until at last Monique knows everything.

I have heard so much recently about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo that it felt serendipitous when I shortly afterwards came across a copy by accident in a local bookshop. I’m so glad I did. Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a woman in Evelyn Hugo that I suspect will be very difficult to forget. Evelyn dominates this book, from her difficult youth and early flowering as a beauty (best known for her impressive chest!) to her emergence as a starlet, a siren and, finally, a successful, admired Hollywood icon, albeit one who is always looked down upon for her divorce rate. It’s an incredible story and we’re told it in sections which cover each of her seven husbands by turn. And what a bunch they are. This novel overflows with larger than life personalities and it all builds up to an addictive portrayal of Hollywood between the 1950s and 1980s.

I really enjoyed Taylor Jenkins Reid’s style. The novel includes snippets from gossip columns and it all builds up to demonstrate so effectively how difficult and unfair life was for a woman wanting to become a successful actress, what she must compromise to achieve it. Evelyn is ruthlessly ambitious and yet she remains likeable, especially as she becomes more self-aware, but some of the decisions she makes might make you want to hold your head in your hands and groan. I hung on to every word.

This is also a love story, beautiful at times, and love doesn’t prove easy for Evelyn Hugo and I did pity her while also wanting to shout at her. There are some gorgeously tender scenes in this book and I laughed and cried several times. Evelyn is most definitely the star which does mean that Monique’s story is underwhelming by comparison but the majority of our time is spent enjoying Evelyn’s company, being shocked by her at times while at other times loving her as so many people did through her life. Evelyn’s struggle, though, is to determine which of them love Evelyn Hugo, the screen goddess, and which love Evelyn for herself. The two do not always go together. It’s a wonderful character portrayal. And that glamour! How I loved the glamour. This wonderful book drips in jewels, gorgeous gowns, lipsticks, red carpets and kisses. Fabulous.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2020 (23 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hitler's Secret by Rory ClementsHitler’s Secret is the fourth novel in Rory Clements’ Tom Wilde historical spy thriller series. I think that this novel stands alone perhaps better than the others but I would still suggest that you read the others first. It’s certainly worth it as this is one of my most favourite series of recent years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is Autumn 1941 and the war is not going well for the allies. The position of America is critical as it wavers between war and no war, with those sympathetic to fascism in powerful posts. Britain must use all means at its disposal to influence the outcome and that means spies and subterfuge. Tom Wilde, an American in England, a Professor of Elizabethan history at Cambridge University, is a man that Britain’s secret service regularly calls on and he is perfect for their latest mission. They want to send him into Berlin as an American-German industrialist with Nazi sympathies and there he must obtain a ‘package’ that must be smuggled out of Germany at all cost. There are powerful men who will do everything in their power to stop it leaving Germany and Wilde must overcome them. It’s obviously a deadly mission and life has moved on for Wilde. He’s now living with Lydia and they have a child. But he is driven to do it.

Germany is every bit as challenging as he would expect and there he meets people both charismatic and dangerous, including Anton Offerbach, Sunny Somerfeld, the widow of a German hero, Martin Boorman, Hitler’s henchman, and many others. Wilde can trust none of them although he’ll need the help of some to discover the package. And when he does everything changes. There may well be no way back for Tom Wilde.

Hitler’s Secret was a very pleasant surprise to me, to put it mildly. I had falsely assumed that this was a trilogy and that last year’s Nemesis was the third and final novel. How glad I am I was wrong. Time has moved on for Professor Wilde but, now that England is in real danger of losing a war that Tom Wilde has worked so hard to try and prevent, his services are required once more. The result is another beautifully written, extremely well-plotted spy thriller, which is tense from start to finish but is also a genuine puzzler that makes you think. Everyone in it has their own agenda, their own secrets, their own limits – how far will each go to achieve their target? This shifts constantly. People are complicated in this novel as they are in real life. It can be impossible to predict how they’ll behave when faced with certain circumstances. And this is every bit as true for Wilde as it is for other characters in the novel.

The sense of danger is palpable as Tom Wilde finds himself in disguise in the lion’s den, in Berlin itself, having meetings with some of the most important figures in Hitler’s Reich. The tension is almost overpowering, as is Tom Wild’s bravery. But Wilde is also a very clever man. Unfortunately, he is up against some of the most ruthless and determined people in Nazi Germany and it’s not long before they all want him dead and a trail of blood is left across the land. It’s compelling and riveting.

But the novel also has a great deal of heart as Wilde must reflect on what’s important to him morally and he must make decisions accordingly. Although Hitler’s Secret is the most linear and possibly the most straightforward of the four novels, it is extremely well-written, as we’d expect from master storyteller Rory Clements, and very clever, with its dark and dangerous world brilliantly depicted. Tom Wilde is an exceptional character, bridging both American and British worlds, an outsider, someone who can make himself fit almost anywhere because of his deep insight into human behaviour and his expert knowledge of the lessons that history can teach us. I adore this series, it’s always one of the reading highlights of the year and, now that I know that this is not a trilogy, I really hope there’ll be more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus
Nemesis

Stasi Winter by David Young

Zaffre | 2020 (9 January) | 354p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Winter by David YoungStasi Winter is the fifth novel by David Young to feature Major Karin Müller of East Germany’s People’s Police. While it isn’t vital that you’ve read the others in order to enjoy this fantastic novel, I think it would be an even better reading experience if you had, especially as this novel revisits characters from the first book Stasi Child. This review assumes that you’ve read Stasi Child at least.

It is the winter of 1978/79 and East Germany, along with much of northern and eastern Europe, is in the grip of a winter that people will talk about for years to come. It is East Germany’s ‘catastrophe winter’. Not surprisingly, it is particularly bad in the north and it is to Rostock, a port on the northern coast that Müller, her deputy Werner Tilsner and forensic investigator Jonas Schmidt are sent when the body of a woman is found in the ice, frozen to death. As usual, the Stasi will be keeping a close eye on the investigation and, not for the first time, Müller finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place as the Stasi continues to try and exert control and manipulate Müller and Tilsner. Müller had wanted to give it all up, and thought she had, but she is given little choice. Then, when the identity of the dead woman is uncovered, Müller realises how close to home this case is and with it comes memories of the past. Müller must make a choice and she must risk everything.

This is a fantastic series and I’ve loved it since the beginning. The murder mysteries they depict are compelling and clever but there are two main reason why I’ll never get enough of these books. Firstly, there is the character of Karin Müller. She is a fully-rounded, believable, living and breathing woman with an absolute sense of duty and justice, who has to juggle a family life with a post that is unheard of for a woman. She is unusual and exists in a man’s world. The Stasi has cost her greatly, she has witnessed the effects of what they do, she has glimpsed the attractions of the West, but Karin still believes in a communist state and upholds its values. Her conviction is tested time and time again but through Karin we are reminded of what the ideal of communism is. Karin doesn’t hate the West, quite the opposite, she enjoys watching its television (which she can do due to her privileged position) and she is attracted to elements of it, but she also understands its failings and believes that her own state, should it ever function as it should, is the answer. If only it weren’t for the Stasi…

The other main reason why I love this series so much is its portrayal of East Germany during the 1970s. I’ve always been fascinated by East Berlin and have enjoyed touring the sites and these novels recreate it before my eyes. The descriptions are engrossing, the details are meticulous. It all feels so convincing and extremely insightful. David Young knows his subject, he’s done the research, and we reap the benefits of this in his fantastic set of books. And in Stasi Winter we travel to the far north of the country and you can almost feel the cold for yourself. It’s a frontier town – Denmark is only a short distance across the sea – and life in it is extremely tough. We read that the Republic’s conscientious objectors are sent to the city to do hard manual work, that Hitler built a huge entertainment complex here, that life is so hard for the most vulnerable, for the children of so-called traitors, and how sometimes the only way to survive is to listen to the manipulative lies of the Stasi. It is all so thoroughly engrossing.

In Stasi Winter, we meet characters from Stasi Child and Irma in particular is a scene stealer. Her story is central to the novel and it’s just as tough and upsetting as it is compelling. It’s because of her that Karin must make some difficult choices. Müller’s life is being changed. Müller’s relationship with Tilsner is a complicated one, as anyone knows who’s read the books, and it is a highlight of this novel. I’ve always liked Tilsner. He’s complicated and almost impossible to trust but his relationship with Karin, one senses, is one of the best things in his life. Stasi colonel Jäger, on the other hand, is more devious than ever.

Stasi Winter is a tense and exciting thriller (which builds to an absolutely brilliant climax), set during one of the most fascinating periods and places of recent history. Everything about it appeals and David Young does his theme and subject justice. And added to it we have the story of the young woman Irma, who, not for the first time, makes Müller question everything about her life. I can’t wait to see what happens to Karin next.

Other reviews and posts
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State (now called Stasi State)
Stasi 77Guest post on the historical background of Stasi 77