Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Stasi Game by David Young

Zaffre | 2020 (31 December) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Stasi Game by David YoungThe Stasi Game is the sixth and very possibly final novel in David Young’s superb series featuring DDR detective Karin Müller and her assistant Werner Tilsner. While you could certainly enjoy this novel as a stand alone read, I heartily recommend that you read the others first. Karin’s story, and Werner’s, is a compelling one and this is in many ways its conclusion, making it all the more powerful if, like me, you have become so fond of Karin over the years.

East Germany, 1982. Three years have passed since the events of Stasi Winter. Karin Müller and Werner Tilner are in disgrace, demoted and re-housed. Karin might work for the People’s Police but she’s been left in no doubt that it’s the Stasi who are controlling her career and her life. And now they choose to send her and Werner to Dresden where the body of a man has been found encased in concrete. The Stasi are taking a keen interest in the case and Karin becomes increasingly suspicious about why that might be so.

In a parallel story beginning in the 1930s, an English boy Arnold Southwick meets Lotti Rolf in Dresden while on holiday. The two become pen pals as both experience the horrors of war in the bombed cities of Hull and Dresden. Through Lottie’s eyes, we’re taken back to the fire storm that was Dresden in February 1945.

I am a huge fan of this series. Its setting in Communist East Germany is fascinating and brilliantly evoked by David Young, who clearly knows his stuff and puts it across so well. In The Stasi Game, as with others in the series, we’re also reminded of the legacy of World War Two on the DDR. I enjoyed the movement between the two eras and the surprising and engrossing development of the story. The scenes depicting the bombing of Dresden are truly powerful and shocking. With chapters set before, during and after the bombing, Dresden becomes a significant character in the novel in its own right.

The plot of The Stasi Game is fantastic, possibly my favourite of the series, and there are some changes in the relationships between Karin, Werner and with Jäger of the Stasi. I have always enjoyed the character of Jäger, the way that he hovers between good and evil, and he’s particularly good in this one. There is a strong sense that each has reached their limit, that something has to give, and that gives an irresistible tension to the book. We know how strongly Karin believed in the DDR and its values. Karin’s faith is challenged here stronger than ever. She knows now better than anyone what the Stasi are capable of. And we’ve reached the early 80s so time is running out for the regime.

All good things must come to an end but it’s always a shame when they do. I will miss my annual immersion in this world and with these characters but, if this is the end, it ends perfectly, it really does. If you haven’t yet read these books then now is the time.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf
A Darker State

Stasi 77
Guest post on the historical background of Stasi 77
Stasi Winter

The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2020 (12 November) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Emperor's Exile by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 57 and Tribune Cato and Centurion Macro have returned to Rome following an unsuccessful campaign in the East. Their reception is a frosty one. They’re lucky that Nero isn’t in a bad mood but he does have a mission for them – one that will keep them out of his sight. The Emperor has been persuaded that he must banish his mistress from Rome. Nero’s political advisors have become jealous of the influence of the beautiful Claudia Acte. Cato is ordered to escort her to Sardinia, an island ravaged by bandits and plague. While there, Cato is expected to take over the island’s garrisoned soldiers and not come back until he’s sorted them and the place out. As for Macro, he’s had enough. He’s done his years and is now ready to retire. Cato is going to have to manage on his own, almost.

The Emperor’s Exile is the 19th novel in one of my all-time favourite series, Eagles of the Empire by Simon Scarrow. Like me, you may well have read them all and it’s an annual pleasure to keep up with the adventures and careers of Macro and Cato. But, if you’ve not yet read any, this book stands alone well, not least because it represents a new phase in the careers of our two heroes.

Much of the action takes place on Sardinia, which is an island in trouble. Tribal bandits have taken over the place and Cato, along with his second in command, the enigmatic spy Apollonius, has no idea whom he can trust and has to make do with the men that he finds there. Matters aren’t helped by the plague. In what feels like a particularly appropriate read for this winter, the plague is travelling around Sardinia like wildfire and the sections on it are especially engrossing.

But this is primarily a tale of aggression and war as Cato must try and subdue the tribes and their sympathisers while also trying to keep Claudia safe. The result is an action-packed adventure, which is not only gripping and thrilling, it’s also meticulously researched by an author who writes so well. I also really liked the edge given by Apollonius, an excellent character. I always enjoy these novels and this is a fabulous addition to the series. I’m excited by where the author may be taking us in the future. There are some clues and, if I interpreted them correctly, this series has so much more life left in it. Long may it continue.

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Day of the Caesars

The Blood of Rome
Traitors of Rome
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

Cross of Fire by David Gilman

Head of Zeus | 2020 (Pb: 10 December) | 464p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

Cross of Fire is the sixth novel in David Gilman’s Masters of War series but I think it stands alone very well. Sir Thomas Blackstone has reached another phase of his career and now his son Henry shares the martial stage. But I really do recommend that you read the earlier novels, beginning with Master of War, because they tell a fascinating tale of the Hundred Years War through the story of a common archer, knighted at the Battle of Crécy, who is now Edward III’s Master of War.

It is the winter of 1362 and Sir Thomas Blackstone and his men are working to claim King Edward’s lands in France. Readers of the series know how costly this campaign has been for Blackstone, with so many of his men and, so tragically, most of his family dead. Sir Thomas is a man who has friends around him who would, and do, die willingly for him and his cause but he also makes enemies easily and they are scattered around France. As he rescues a noble lady and her daughter, abandoned by her land-hungry, vile husband, Sir Thomas makes another. He fights for Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, but he also fights for justice and nothing fires Blackstone’s rage more than a woman and her daughter left to die at the hands of the many brigands that ravage these lands.

Cross of Fire is Blackstone’s story but I really enjoyed the fact that we have much more of his son Henry here. Henry is now 14 years old, a squire, but coming in to his own, not just because of his skills with a sword but also because of his brains. He wants nothing more than to go to University but he can’t because there are men out there who want him, a son of Blackstone, dead. Instead, Henry must prove himself in other ways and he sets out to do that here. It’s extremely dangerous, anxiety inducing for the gruff soldier that is Blackstone, but it is thoroughly exciting for the reader.

There is so much action in the novel as Blackstone and his men battle their way across France, with everything from small skirmishes to taking on whole fortresses. These were violent, brutal times and Sir Thomas is in the heart of it and, as usual, he comes up against some repellant villains. But there is more to this series than action. David Gilman is a fine writer who knows his stuff, not just about medieval military history but also about the effects of war on those who fight it and those who are innocent and must suffer it. This is an extremely well-written novel.

I must say though that I do wonder now how much further this series has to run but it is refreshing to see Henry come into his own, causing new relationships, alliances and rivalries to develop.

I listened to the audiobook and it was brilliantly read by Colin Mace! He fully captures the tension, drama and extreme danger of it all.

For something a little different, I heartily recommend David Gilman’s Night Flight to Paris.

Other reviews and features
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death (Master of War 2)
Gate of the Dead (Master of War 3) – review and interview
Viper’s Blood (Master of War 4)
Scourge of Wolves (Master of War 5)
An extract of Viper’s Blood
Guest post – War in the Last Horseman
Night Flight to Paris

Sons of Rome by Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty

Head of Zeus | 2020 (10 December) | 519p | Review copy | Buy the book

Sons of Rome by Gordon Docherty and Simon TurneyWhen boys Maxentius and Constantine meet in 286 AD in Diocletian’s glorious city of Treverorum, they instantly strike up a friendship that will last through the years and what momentous years these will be for Rome’s empire and for the men that Maxentius and Constantine will become. They meet during the celebrations to mark Diocletian’s division of the empire into two, with Diocletian retaining the East while Maxentius’s father Maximian becomes Empire of the West. Some years later two emperors become four, with Constantine’s father among them, becoming Augustus of the West. But such powerful men can’t stay content with their share. While some want it all, others must fight to retain what they have. Maxentius and Constantine are caught in the middle, used as pawns, as are their sisters, until the time comes when they, too, play their part as they rise to the very heights of power and friends become rivals.

I was thrilled to hear the news that Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty were joining forces to write a new series called Rise of Emperors. These two writers know their stuff (what Simon Turney doesn’t know about the Roman military isn’t worth knowing) and Constantine (not yet The Great) and Maxentius are in very safe hands. It’s difficult to imagine a more complicated period of Roman history than the years between 286 and 312 AD and these years were dominated by some larger than life personalities. It could be overwhelming. But the authors begin their series in fine style with Sons of Rome, bringing history and people to life and revealing what an absolutely fascinating and dramatic period of Roman history this was. It’s even more incredible when you think that all of this actually happened!

The novel is divided between our two main protagonists, Maxentius in Rome and Constantine on military campaign across the empire. The authors take a character each but you really wouldn’t know that, the joins are seamless. I was particularly drawn to the sections set in Rome – this Rome feels both familiar and strange with well-known monuments now in need of repair and whole sections of Rome cleared to make way for defences. The Colosseum is a busy place with Romans as cruel as ever, especially against the Christians.

Constantine’s early years are brutal, with his father’s callous dismissal of his wife and Constantine’s mother setting the tone for his relationship with his father. Constantine is a soldier, not yet a Christian, and his life is spent on the move, pursuing enemies to the empire but also enemies and challengers from much closer to home. Maxentius’ enemies, by contrast, come to him. I enjoyed the relationship between Maxentius and his monstrous ogre of a father, Maximian. Maximian has his rivals for most detestable Augustus, mind you – looking at Galerius here. Maxentius’ wife is quite a character in her own right. The women bear the brunt of much of the power struggles. Having been married off to secure alliances they then find themselves torn between loyalty to their fathers and strained loyalty to their husbands.

Sons of Rome sets the scene so well for the future novels as Constantine’s power and ambition grows. It’s fascinating to see what forces made Constantine the man and Emperor he was. This was all a bit of a mystery to me and now I can’t wait to discover more. It’s such a good story! I love Roman historical fiction so much and it’s wonderful to have a new series to follow.

Other reviews

Writing as Simon Turney

Writing as S.J.A. Turney
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae

Writing historical locations – a guest post

The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (6 August) | 352p | Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

It is 1728 and all is good at last for Thomas ‘Half-Hanged’ Hawkins, the one time minor aristocrat, and Kitty Sparks, the owner of the rather disreputable The Cocked Pistol bookshop. But they are not to be left in peace. Kitty is forced to give up the bookshop while Thomas is attacked in the street and discovers that there is a price on his head. Neither of them can understand the reason why but it’s not long before they begin to associate events with the arrival in London of the enigmatic, cunning Lady Vanhook, who has returned from Antigua with her favourite slave girl, Affie, by her side, a silver collar clasped around the girl’s neck.

The Silver Collar is the fourth novel in Antonia Hodgson’s wonderful Tom Hawkins series, set in Georgian London and beyond. It’s been a few years now since the last novel and so I was really excited to read this. You don’t need to have read the earlier books. We’re soon reminded of what’s happened before, but I do recommend them. The Silver Collar is my favourite of the four. I love Tom and Kitty. These are witty books and the relationship between the two main characters is so alive and vigorous (in more ways than one), partly due to the author’s sparkling dialogue. Tom and Kitty make me laugh but, in this novel especially, they made me cry, too. I have missed them!

The Silver Collar tells a fantastic story – it’s an intense, action-packed drama and it is driven by sinister and actually pretty terrifying Lady Vanhook. It’s hard for me to remember another fictional villain that I have hated quite as much as this one. But she’s also a scene stealer. Through her we learn much more about our heroine Kitty and so the reader is drawn to her even more.

These books are full of brilliant characters. I love Sam, the young boy from a family of gangsters who has sort of adopted Tom as a surrogate father. His mother, the gang leader, is hysterical (and especially entertaining in the audiobook). But there are new characters in The Silver Collar who leave a long and lasting expression – the young slave girl Affie and her father Jeremiah Patience whose story is utterly horrific. Slavery adds another dimension to the novel, a warning that there was far more to Georgian England than wigs, debauchery and gangs. The role of women in this society is also considered. Kitty, herself, is extremely vulnerable no matter how tough she thinks it is.

Parts of The Silver Collar are upsetting to read, especially, but not only, the sections in which Jeremiah recounts his story. But it is well worth the emotion of reading it and I must say that the ending is fantastic. This is a very good novel indeed, by an author who writes beautifully and with such empathy for her characters and this period, but who is also very witty and always entertaining. It is also a pageturner! I was engrossed in the audiobook, which is read so well by Joseph Kloska. And, as I mentioned earlier, if you haven’t read the earlier books, you really must! The first is The Devil in the Marshalsea (I don’t have a review up for this as I read it as part of judging for an HWA award, for which is was shortlisted).

Other reviews
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins
A Death at Fountains Abbey

The Mitford Trial by Jessica Fellowes

Sphere | 2020 (5 November) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Mitford Trial by Jessica FellowesIt is 1933 and, with the rise of Hitler in Germany, fascism is beginning to become fashionable among British high society. Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists is on the ascendancy and his most ardent admirer is Diana Guinness, formerly Diana Mitford, who is not going to let her marriage, or his own dalliances, get in the way of attaching herself to him permanently. Diana’s younger sister, Unity, on the other hand, has a schoolgirl’s obsession with Adolf Hitler.

As if to clear their heads, their despairing mother plans to take her daughters on a luxury cruise to Italy. She needs somebody reliable to keep an eye on them. Louisa Cannon, the Mitfords’ former maid and companion is the obvious choice. Even though she has just married DI Guy Sullivan, Louisa feels she has no choice, especially when a strange man approaches her and suggests it would be in the interests of her country if she should spy on the Mitfords and any Germans that they might have contact with onboard. It all sounds deeply mysterious and intriguing but, when one of the passengers is found dead in his cabin, it also becomes extremely dangerous.

I am a huge fan of this series, of Louisa, of the mysteries that she solves, and of the intrigue, glamour and danger that surrounds the Mitford sisters, all brought to life in these novels. I live very close to where the sisters grew up and have been to events in their home, eaten in their local pub and visited their graves. They are fascinating, not necessarily always in a good way, and they reveal so much about the nature of the times in which they lived – in society but also on its fringes, where scandal can be found. Louisa is a bridge between normality and these unusual women. She is the one who can get to the heart of the matter, with or without the help of her rather bumbling detective friend and now husband, Guy Sullivan.

The Mitford Trial is the fourth in the series and you can certainly read it without having read the others. I read the first novel, The Mitford Murders, not that long ago and, as a result, immediately devoured the following two books. The stories stand alone with each of the books generally focusing on a sister. In The Mitford Trial it’s now the time to learn more about Unity, possibly the most notorious of them all (which is saying something when you consider the story of Diana). And so, if you’ve read them all, you’ll have more of a feel for their relationships and also for that between Louisa and Guy. I must admit, though, that this is possibly of less interest to me. I have still to be convinced that Guy actually knows what he’s doing.

This latest novel is different in that it is mostly set away from London and Oxfordshire. Most of the drama is set aboard the Princess Alice, a ship that carries such a strange bunch of crew and passengers to Italy. There is intrigue of every kind just as there is also the shadow of something sinister – there are spies at work, on every side. And while Diana and Unity see only glamour and excitement in the appearance of Nazis on the ship, many others don’t.

The Mitford Trial is an entertaining tale of glamour, spies and murder. It has that Agatha Christie type feel to it as our murder suspects are few in number and confined within the ship. The historical detail is marvellous and so too is its mood as we enter that dark period of 20th century history. I can’t wait to see where Jessica Fellowes takes us next as Diana and Unity become even more deeply involved with fascism, Germany and with Hitler himself.

Other reviews
The Mitford Murders catch up (The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead, now renamed The Mitford Affair)
The Mitford Scandal

Fugitive by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2020 (20 August) | 416p | Review copy and Bought copy | Listen to the book | Buy the book

It is 1868 and Jack Lark – The Captain – has returned to England from the American Civil War, a conflict in which he served on both sides, experiencing the very worst of it. He’s now resumed business in the rough part of London, fleecing the rich and foolish who are after a ‘good time’. To be fair, they usually get it but it doesn’t always go to plan. When one venture fails spectacularly, Jack has no choice but to flee the country. In what is perfect timing, an old friend and fellow ex-officer, Macgregor offers Jack a place on his treasure-hunting expedition to Abyssinia, along with Macgregor’s academic friend, Watson. The British Army is about to take on Abyssnia’s mad and terrifying emperor Tewodros and attack his stronghold of Magdala. And while they’re doing that, there will be plenty of chance for Jack, Macgregor and Watson to help themselves to Tewodros’ loot. If only it would prove to be that simple. Jack Lark is about to enter a hell on earth and he will have to fight for his life to escape it.

Fugitive is the ninth novel in Paul Fraser Collard’s Jack Lark series and it’s great to see Jack again. It has been a pleasure watching Jack’s rather roguish career develop over a fair few years. The man has been changed by his battles and adventures across Victoria’s empire and further beyond. These are books that you can pick up and enjoy as stand alone novels, so you don’t need to have read all or some of the earlier books first. I’m not much of a reader of American Civil War fiction and so I missed the last novel and now I’m delighted to see Jack back on his old turf and then in Abyssinia. Jack really suits places such as this – it’s unfamiliar, exotic, hot and dusty, horrendously hard and he faces a truly horrific villain.

This is exciting stuff and Jack Lark soon finds himself in the midst of it. The opening chapters of the novel are set in London’s East End but, far from being just a prelude, this section is absolutely brilliant! I love how the author writes and he really brings Whitechapel of the 1860s to life and it is most certainly every bit as unpleasant, violent and fetid as you’d hope. This is so well done. And when the action moves to Abyssinia the pace and compelling action continues. This is no sentimental tale. When people die, they stay dead and we know it could happen to anyone. Jack knows that, too. The descriptions of battle are exhilarating, thrilling and knowledgeable.

Jack strictly controls how much of himself he gives away. He has always hidden behind a disguise of some sort or another. He’s just the same here. Occasionally, though, it will slip as it increasingly does here with the intriguing Watson. So there’s a depth of character – we know Jack so well now – but there are also a host of other characters to enjoy, albeit more fleetingly, such as Jack’s sidekick Cooper. The mad Emperor is also a scene stealer and not necessarily for the best of reasons. What a nasty bit of work.

I listened to the audiobook read by Dudley Hinton. The narrator does a brilliant job of immersing the listener in this world, making the danger and tension even more real. Possibly it was a little too gory for me in places and there was a bit too much cussing for my sensitive nature (this is particularly in your face in the audiobook, probably less so in the treebook). But, nevertheless, I thought the audiobook was excellent and added a whole new level of drama and immersion to the experience of reading a Jack Lark adventure.

Jack Lark is one of my very favourite characters in fiction and it’s a pleasure to spend time with him again in what is one of the very best of the series. If you haven’t read any of the others, you will find so much to enjoy in Fugitive, not least Paul Fraser Collard’s wonderful writing and a character in Jack Lark who deserves it. And what a stunning cover!

Other reviews and features
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
The True Soldier
The Rebel Killer
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

One More Chapter | 2020 (ebook and audiobook: 17 September, Pb: 10 December) | c.300p | Review copy and Bought audiobook | Listen to the book | Buy the book

Before the Crown by Flora HardingIt is 1943 in Windsor Castle when the young Princess Elizabeth meets dashing Royal Navy officer Philip, a near penniless prince of the exiled Greek royal family. Elizabeth falls in love at first sight and, as the years and the war pass, Elizabeth and Philip must prove to her parents, the King and Queen, that they will make a suitable match despite the obstacles. And there are plenty of those, not least of which are Philip’s sisters with their Nazi husbands. Philip himself faces other hurdles. As a man about town, does he really want to tie himself down at such a young age and to a woman who would always be his superior and who, to be honest to himself, he hardly knows? And how far is Elizabeth prepared to go against her beloved father’s wishes and against her overriding motivation – her sense of duty?

I’m such a massive fan of The Crown, especially the first series, and so I couldn’t resist Before the Crown by Flora Harding. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a very familiar story but, even so, it’s well worth the re-telling and I like the way that the author does it. The narrative moves between Philip and Elizabeth’s perspective and so we see both sides of the story throughout the courtship, which does not run smoothly.

Elizabeth is not an easy person to know and through this structure we can see how Philip struggles to understand her. Is this a marriage of convenience or one for love? Philip really has no idea. The same is true of Elizabeth. She doesn’t know what Philip feels about her and she can barely understand her own feelings. This is an age of innocence, despite the bombs falling, in which people like Elizabeth and Philip can barely talk about these things, let alone share a kiss. It’s a dance, watched over by a very judgmental King and Queen, and it’s very entertaining to read about.

There are some moments that really made me laugh, especially a very long-suffering Philip’s time at Balmoral, being dragged up and down mountains by the King’s gillie. It all sounds absolutely horrendous. I must admit to preferring Philip’s sections of the book. The scenes with his sisters in Germany are wonderful as are the times he spends with his mother. Philip’s family history is fascinating and that is captured very well in the novel.

I listed to the audiobook of Before the Crown. It’s very good, not least because there are two excellent narrators for Philip and Elizabeth: Edward Killingback and Imogen Wilde. They do a brilliant job.

I think my only issue with Before the Crown is its sudden ending. I wish it had taken us right up to the altar. Nevertheless, it is a very entertaining romantic tale and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Raven Books | 2020 (1 October) | 576p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart TurtonIt is 1634 when the East India merchant ship Saardam sets sail from Batavia (Indonesia) to its home port of Amsterdam. In its dark and diseased depths it carries Sammy Pipps, a renowned and famous detective who is now a prisoner, being taken to his execution. He is accompanied by Lieutenant Arent Hayes, his bodyguard and close companion, who is determined to discover why Pipps is to die. And to do that he must play a careful game with the Governor-General of Batavia, the cruel and powerful Jan Haan, who is also aboard the Saardam, with his wife, daughter, and his mistress.

It is clear even before the ship sets sail that this will be a tormented voyage. A tongueless leper curses the Saardam from the docks, foretelling three terrible miracles. And when the ship sets sail, horrible sightings are seen, sinister whispers are heard and people begin to die. Arent fears that the ship will never reach its destination for how can it when the devil himself, Old Tom, is aboard? The only hope is Sammy Pipps.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a glorious, ingenious masterpiece – it is hard to imagine a debut novel that is more difficult to follow. But Stuart Turton has done a fine job with The Devil and the Dark Water. It is very different from its predecessor and so stands on its own terms very well. It is a more traditional novel of historical fiction, its tale is linear and it is steeped in its time of the first half of the 17th century. But it is still another clever novel. The action takes place almost entirely aboard the Saardam and on the high seas. This means heightened claustrophobia, sickness, danger but added to this is the element of something strange and supernatural haunting the ship, terrifying its crew and passengers, driving them to violence, to madness.

You can almost feel the spray of the sea on your face and the movement of the waves when you read this novel. You can strongly imagine the stench below decks, the misery of the unhappy passengers trapped below, the undercurrent of violence that menaces the women in particular, and the evil malignancy of the Governor-General. Stuart Turton is a fabulous writer and he uses his skills to great effect as we voyage across the high seas on a damned and cursed ship.

The Saardam is arguably the most central character of the novel but she has a rival in the extraordinary Arent. The author has mentioned in an interview (it follows the audiobook) that there are echoes of Holmes and Watson in the relationship between Pipps and Arent but what is interesting is that the relationship is turned on its head. Here we have the soldier, the helper, dominate, while the famous detective is forced into inaction. I’m not a fan of Sherlock Holmes (I know, I’m sorry about that) and so I’m pleased to say that the similarities didn’t influence my reading. Arent is a marvellous character and, as his past is slowly revealed to us, he fascinates more and more. His relationship with the Governor-General is truly intriguing.

My favourite character of the novel is, undoubtedly, Sara Wessel, the Governor-General’s beaten and badly-treated wife. She has heroic strength, loving and protecting her daughter Lia, determined to do what is right for those who need help even if it will result in another beating. Her courage and goodness are the light in this novel. As the Governor-General cowers and hides from the dark, Sara thrives.

Menace and foreboding shadow the voyage, and the novel, throughout. It’s a deliciously atmospheric tale. It’s dramatic and pacey, the crew is horrifying and compelling almost to a man, and it is all so beautifully described. I didn’t find it frightening but I did find it very disturbing. I listened to the audiobook, which was masterfully narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt, and I can thoroughly recommend it. Having said that, there are some gorgeous hardback special editions to be found! I settled for both.

Stuart Turton is most definitely an author to watch. I love the way in which he plays games with historical fiction. I can’t wait to see where and when he takes us next.

Other review
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The Second Marriage by Gill Paul

Avon | 2020 (17 September) | 464p | Review copy and bought copy | Listen to the book | Buy the book

The Second Marriage by Gill PaulIt is the late 1950s and Maria Callas is the most adored and magnificent diva of the century when she captures the eye of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Both Maria and Ari are married when they embark on their glamorous affair, mostly aboard the stunning yacht Christina and also around Europe where Maria performs on the greatest stages. This is a life of riches and champagne and Maria successfully hides behind it. Her reputation of being demanding is a mask for the reality of insecurity, a commitment to training and maintaining her peerless voice, a deep desire to have a child. Across the Atlantic, Jackie Kennedy would also seem to have it all. Married to the charismatic Jack Kennedy, a member of America’s most glamorous political family, elegant and beautiful, and on the path to the White House. But Jackie, too, is insecure, not loved as she should be, and destined for tragedies. When she needs support, it is Aristotle Onassis, a man drawn to beautiful and influential women, who provides it.

I love Gill Paul’s writing and I love the way that she invests so much feeling in her characters, bringing to life people that we may know well from history but bringing so much more to their portrayal. I knew a little of the love triangle of Maria, Ari and Jackie but I hadn’t thought about the real people behind it, just suspecting the motives of Jackie for marrying one of the richest men in the world. But in The Second Marriage, Maria, Ari and Jackie are vividly real and complex, displaying the author’s incredible insight into their natures and motivations.

Jackie is just as I imagine her but more intensely so, while Ari is charismatic, powerful and attentive. He is seen through the eyes of Maria and Jackie. We see how duplicitous he is, how much he hides from each but also how protective he is, how much he gives, emotionally as well as materially. We also wonder about his actions behind the scenes, what he might be doing that Maria and Jackie might not be aware of.

But the triumph of this outstanding novel is Maria Callas who, appropriately enough, dominates its stage. She is a tour de force of a character and personality, extremely complicated, full of intense feeling, dramatic, capable of such love. I absolutely adored her. Her relationship with Ari is intense and fiery. Her devotion to her craft is staggering and so fascinating to learn about. Maria’s relationship with her voice is a central theme of the novel. She is a glorious star, and we witness that side of her, but we also see her off stage and she is fabulous.

The novel moves between Maria and Jackie over a period of many years. We witness the big events of their lives, some well-known, others less so, and it is mesmerising as well as dramatic. It is also at times extremely sad and I cried and cried over bits of this novel. When I finished it, I felt bereft, that I’d been part of a great story with astonishing people and I was so loath to leave them behind.

I listened to the audiobook. I am in awe of its narrator Lisa Flanagan. The voices of Maria and Jackie are incredible and made me feel even closer to these women.

The Second Marriage is most definitely a contender for my top book of 2020.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband
Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband
The Lost Daughter