Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison and Busby | 2019 (26 March) | 365p | Review copy | Buy the book

The American Agent by Jacqueline WinspearIt is September 1940 and London, as well as towns and cities across the UK, are under attack. The Blitz keeps people from their beds, cramming them into shelters and cellars for sleepless, frightening nights, while others work in the night as ambulance drivers, fire wardens, medics and so on to save lives while houses and streets burn. In the daytime, a kind of normality takes over despite the bomb damage and the grief. Men and women continue with their daily jobs, certainly very tired but determined to carry on with their lives before the ‘murder’ of bombers return. Maisie Dobbs, like so many others, knows about loss and worry as well as personal injury, but her life is full, driving a London ambulance at night alongside her closest friend, while working as a psychologist and investigator by day. Her mind, though, is very much on the people she loves at her home in Kent.

When an American war correspondent, Catherine Saxon, is found with her throat cut, it becomes the business not only of the police but also of the American Embassy. An agent there has history with Maisie and it’s her help with the case that he wants. It won’t be an easy working relationship. How can she trust anything he says? But Maisie cares deeply about this murdered young woman who once did a shift in Maisie’s ambulance as a witness to the horror that Londoners endure every single night. Churchill is desperate to get America into the war but there are many in America who want to keep her out of it, who hate the American journalists and pilots who have come to Britain to help with the war effort. While the bombs fall, Maisie realises that this could prove a most significant case and she must do everything she can to solve it.

The American Agent is the fifteenth novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s series to feature the truly wonderful Maisie Dobbs. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first I’ve read. This is a series that has passed me by and I’m so sorry about that because I fell instantly for Maisie. The fact that I haven’t read any of the earlier books did mean that I was unfamiliar with some of the scrapes that are alluded to here, such as in wartorn Spain and in Nazi Germany, as well as some of the people who have influenced her life, one of whom plays a significant role here. But, despite that, I had no trouble immersing myself in Maisie’s world, with her close circle of family and friends, and it didn’t spoil past events for me. It made me want to go back and read them. But The American Agent stands alone very well indeed.

The Blitz setting is superbly drawn. We’re spared the blood and gore but none of the drama and the relentless fear. War has come to London. Nobody is safe. There’s a strong feeling in the novel that loved ones should be held close and protected. But how can you protect them against bombs? Some choose to send their children away to strangers in distant countries. What kind of answer is that? People are having to make difficult decisions all of the time but alongside all of that and the danger, they also have to deal with the discomfort. People have to try and sleep wherever they end up when the siren sounds. As Maisie continues her investigations, she ends up sleeping in all sorts of places, and that’s when she’s not driving her ambulance. The memory of the Great War isn’t far away and soldiers are returning from the front missing limbs, horribly scarred, just as they did in that first war. All of this is evoked with such skill and feeling by Jacqueline Winspear. There is, though, an appealing lightness to the novel, even a whimsical playfulness on occasion, but there is a darkness and sadness too and these moods complement each other perfectly.

The mystery is such an enjoyable one and I love the way in which the investigation develops. It’s all carried out politely, without great drama (the drama comes from the setting), and is revealed through Maisie’s skill at getting people to talk. We meet such fascinating people, each with their stories to tell, as the murdered woman is brought alive through their memories. I loved it. And there were tears.

The American Agent may be the first Maisie Dobbs novel I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last. It gives us such a moving, evocative portrayal of London and Kent under attack from the Blitz in the last weeks of 1940, combined with a fascinating mystery investigated by a woman I adored. I can’t sing its praises enough.

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Surgeons’ Hall by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2019 (21 March) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

Surgeon's Hall by ES ThomsonIt is 1851 and the Great Exhibition is underway in London. There has rarely been such interest in science and innovation. Apothecary Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain are there to look at the wax anatomical models made by the famous and reclusive Dr Silas Strangeway. But there is a gruesome curiosity among the exhibits – a perfectly dissected hand of flesh and blood. There are medical students in the exhibition and Jem suspects a prank so he takes the hand along to Corvus Hall. This private anatomy school, next to Jem’s own apothecary, is run by Dr Crowe, who recently relocated from Edinburgh, transforming this once grand house into a macabre mix of mortuary, school and museum.

Corvus Hall is not a place to be after dark and not just because of the recently dead corpses or the dissected remains pickled in jars. Dr Crowe’s daughters, the eldest Lilith and twins Sorrow and Silence (one blind and one deaf), move around the ‘dead house’ by night and the students are frightened of them. And then there is a death in the Hall and it’s clear to Jem that this is a place of deadly secrets.

Surgeons’ Hall is the fourth novel in E.S. Thomson’s fantastic series featuring one of the most unusual and fascinating main characters in Victorian crime fiction, Jem Lockhart. Jem lives a life based on a lie. A few people detect the secret, that Jem is a woman living as a man, but generally Jem succeeds, helped by the large birthmark that covers her face, ensuring that most people don’t take a second look. It’s a lonely life but Jem has Will Quartermain for company. This young architect is Jem’s family, along with the servants in their home. But when Will gets a job as an illustrator in Corvus Hall, Jem realises how easy it would be to lose him. All of this adds such depth and feeling to the novels, as well as a sadness. Jem is the perfect observer, she is our narrator, and she watches the women around her who are so constrained and limited by the rules laid down by fathers, husbands, brothers as well as by Victorian society in general. Medicine, especially, is a man’s world.

Medical training in the mid 19th century is the stuff of nightmares and it feels as if every floor, every room of Corvus Hall reeks of death, blood and gore. E.S. Thomson lays this all before us with such vivid and rich prose. She writes beautifully, capturing the atmosphere perfectly. This is a gruesome and macabre place. To catch a killer, Jem and Will must creep around its rooms by night. The house itself is decaying. You can almost smell its stench and feel the horrible wet squishy disgusting mess of a sample trodden underfoot.

E.S. Thomson has such a good time bringing the male world of anatomy, medical training and dissection to life but she has plenty of time for the women of the novel, not all of whom are still alive. Many women are victims, some are silenced in more ways than one, while others have to make a living in the best way that they can and we see all types here. Some are gloriously hideous, pocked with disease, while others are subdued and others still are prey. These are fantastic portraits and some are very moving to read. Jem and Lileth, though, have no doubt that women should have a bigger role in society. There are signs here that medicine is making breakthroughs – anaesthetic is now in use – but some attitudes remain in the dark ages.

But it’s not just the women who come to life in Surgeons’ Hall. There are fantastic descriptions of the men who lurk in the corners of Corvus Hall as well as the raucous students who eat pie and drink ale in the nearby inns. It’s a wonderful depiction of Victorian society as witnessed by these young men, with no vocation, whose eyes are on the money of a career in medicine.

Another role in Surgeons’ Hall worthy of a mention is of course the human body and there are plenty of them here. These people are now worth nothing more than the value of their bones and organs as they’re taken apart bit by bit. What a way to end up. It’s horrifying and they haunt this novel.

The mystery is excellent and it is revealed in such a brilliant way. It’s a compulsive read. I was completely immersed in it. This is such fine writing, steeped in historical and scientific detail. This series is now well established as one of the very best in historical fiction being written today and Surgeons’ Hall is superb and I loved every page of it.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum
The Blood

Shadows of Athens by J.M. Alvey

Orion | 2019 (7 March) | 376p | Review copy | Buy the book

Shadows of Athens by JM AlveyIt is 443 BC and Athens is at peace after decades of war with Persia. The city is being rebuilt in marble and its wealth is matched by its culture, which flourishes. Athens is also in a good mood. The Dionysia festival is shortly to begin which means five days of holidays as actors and singers compete in the city’s beautiful theatre to win glory for their patrons. The playwright Philocles is trying to focus on the job in hand, which is to win the comedy prize for the wealthy and powerful Aristarchos. It’s a stressful business, making sure that actors are prepared, with costumes and masks delivered, while fighting off the insults of rivals and appeasing the gods with frequent rituals.

The last thing Philocles expects is to find a man with his throat cut outside his front gate. His valuables, including a fine pair of boots, are untouched so this was no robbery. Philocles soon learns that the murdered man had been seeking him out, that the crime is part of something much bigger with significance for Athens. Philocles finds himself becoming the reluctant detective, working for Aristarchos to discover the truth. And he still has that play to present…

Shadows of Athens is the debut novel by J.M. Alvey and is, I suspect, the start of a new series of historical murder mysteries set in the relatively unfamiliar territory (compared to Rome) of ancient Athens. The historical setting is marvellous and the novel really succeeds in depicting a place and time that actually feels, at least to me, almost unknowable. It is so different, despite the patterns of human behaviour that repeat themselves, whatever the period of history, sometimes leading to murder.

The festival of Dionysus dominates Shadows of Athens and it is fascinating, as people travel from all over the Hellenistic world to enjoy the cultural displays. And yet it’s not that straightforward. Athens and its dominions are at peace but it comes at quite a financial cost. Dependent states and cities pay vast contributions to Athens to keep them safe when, for all the world, it looks as if this money is being turned into marble temples. There’s a rumbling of discontent and this adds another layer to the novel.

And then there’s the social history element of the book, which I found particularly strong. Philocles is in a relationship with a woman he loves but is most definitely not acceptable at his family’s dinner table. This is a world dominated by its social codes and religious rituals, challenges to these aren’t acceptable. And so women, foreigners (even people from the next city along the coast), and slaves do not enjoy the same privileges as the male citizens of Athens. Philocles’ household, though, shows a slightly different reality. He has a slave but this man is almost a member of his family, he fought alongside Philocles’ brothers in war. Philocles’ partner is a foreign woman, her skin is dark, she doesn’t hide it from the sun as Athenian women do. She stands out. It’s so interesting seeing the contrast between Philocles’ family and those of his brothers and his patron. Although the slaves in Aristarchos’ household play a similarly ambiguous role. Every male citizen is aware, though, that in order for a slave’s testimony in court to be permissible that slave must first be tortured. That’s the law but it’s not necessarily what one would ever want to happen.

The role of outsiders in Athens is a central theme of the novel. Despite the displays of civilisation, sophistication and culture, we’re made well aware that this is founded on success in war. Military triumph is equated with moral virtue and divine favour. This attitude is very hard for outsiders to come up against. Athenian citizens might be cultured and athletic but they’re also trained killing machines. This undercurrent of violence, which can be expressed in riot or murder, lurks in shadows throughout the novel. Philocles gets a battering more than once.

As we move around the glorious streets of Athens, there is so much to enjoy in this rich and vibrant depiction of ancient Athens and its festivals. This is fine worldbuilding and I think that the murder mystery itself is rather overshadowed by its setting. I also found it a little difficult to keep track of individuals through the pages. However, I liked Philocles and his household very much and I really enjoyed the scenes where we follow him in his day job as dramatist. There is a sense that Shadows of Athens lays the ground for future books and it does that job very well. I look forward to seeing Philocles again.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.

Shadows of Athens blog tour

The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane by Liz Trenow

Pan | 2019 (21 February) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Dressmaker of Draper's Lane by Liz TrenowMiss Charlotte is admired by many. She runs her own successful costumier business and dresses some of the grandest ladies in society. Not many women in London during the 1760s live such independent lives. But Charlotte’s life has not been an easy one. She was abandoned as an infant, given away to the Foundling Hospital, which, because the roll of the dice (or the coloured balls) fell in her favour, cared for her and gave her an education. Life didn’t get any easier when she left their care but Charlotte was saved when her elder sister, Louisa, found her and gave Charlotte the family and security she needed. But when Charlotte buys pieces of silk in an auction, she finds a small scrap that stirs within her memories that remain just out of reach. She knows it means something and she will not rest until she discovers what that is.

The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane is a novel that enchanted me. It takes us back to a world that has always fascinated me ever since I read of the Foundling Museum in London where you can see the tokens that distraught mothers left with their abandoned babies so that they might one day identify them and reclaim them. This so seldom happened. You can feel their pain and Liz Trenow brings that alive in this wonderful novel.

The dressmaking business is an aside. It gives Charlotte her independence to investigate the mystery that obsesses her, although, having said that, the vagaries of business, especially for a woman, are made clear here. Survival is so difficult. Destitution seems such a small step away. We also see the hardship that women suffer who have husbands they depend upon who are not worthy of them. Charlotte is spared that but she is well aware of the power that men can have over a woman. It’s a theme that runs through the novel and it is compelling.

We also see the other dangers that could face women – the peril of childbirth, the fear of losing a child to disease, their financial dependency on men. Charlotte wants to live a safe, independent life, but she is well aware of these dangers, she sees their impact on her sister and beloved nephew. She has experienced them herself. She also has women working for her. She feels responsible for them.

And yet, despite all of these concerns and fears, which form the heart of the novel, Charlotte is driven to discover the mystery of her past. I was enthralled by it and couldn’t wait to discover the truth. I loved the novel’s historical setting and its descriptions of the clothing that gives Charlotte her independence. The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane might be a gentle and relatively light read but there’s a power to it, as well as some disturbing moments. It contains a serious message – about the fragility of life in 18th-century England, especially for children and women in labour, and the misery of women who had no choice but to give their babies up to the Foundling Hospital, and this is well worth reading about, especially when it’s done as well as it is here.

The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane follows on from The Silk Weaver, which focused on Charlotte’s friend Anna, but it stands alone perfectly.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Headline Review | 2019 (21 February) | 406p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Gown by Jennifer RobsonIt is 1947 and the people of London, like those living in the rest of the country, still suffer from the effects of war. Food, fuel, clothing, not to mention all of those special luxuries, are strictly rationed and are in short supply. It doesn’t help that the winter is particularly harsh and dark and there is so little warmth to be found. And then comes the announcement from Buckingham Palace that Princess Elizabeth is to marry Philip Mountbatten. It casts a ray of light over the gloom. For Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin the news is especially meaningful. They are embroiderers at the Mayfair house of Norman Hartnell, so beloved by the Queen, and the two women have been picked to embroider the princess’s wedding gown. All of the details must be kept absolutely top secret! But there is so much else going on in the lives of Ann and Miriam as their friendship grows, against the backdrop of a city scarred by war. Miriam, especially, has suffered. She is a survivor of the Holocaust.

In Toronto in 2016, Heather Mackenzie’s beloved grandmother has died, leaving Heather a box full of secrets. Heather’s nan never discussed her old life in Britain but Heather discovers a story that deserves to be told, hinted out by the box’s contents of priceless embroideries, so similar to those that adorned the Queen’s wedding dress when she was still a princess. But there is another mystery. How well did Heather’s nan know the celebrated textile artist Miriam Dassin?

The Gown is one of those wonderful books that arrives on my doorstep completely unexpectedly but fits my reading mood perfectly and couldn’t be more welcome. The novel is advertised as ‘perfect for fans of The Crown‘. I am such a fan and I think that this claim is wholly justified. I read The Gown in just one day, in one glorious sitting. I barely looked up from it.

There’s a little bit of an upstairs downstairs feel about The Gown. We’re given glimpses of the royals and other rich and influential people who breeze through the Hartnell showrooms but mostly we spend our time in the sewing rooms with the women who have to enter the building through the back entrance. Both Ann and Miriam are given glimpses of this other glamorous world in which rich foods can still be had in the grandest of restaurants, but most of the time we see them at work or in their small shared house that is also freezing as they have nothing to heat it with. We see the daily monotony of their lives which contrasts with the beautiful things that they create. But it doesn’t grind them under. They love their work. I really liked the harmony of the Hartnell sewing rooms. The women work hard but they aren’t taken advantage of. This isn’t sensationalist. It feels believable. And the result is a fascinating glimpse of life in a 1940s’ fashion house in Mayfair.

But what makes The Gown such a spellbinding novel is Jennifer Robson’s portrayal of these two women, Ann and Miriam. The chapters alternate between them. We get to know them both so well. Miriam, especially, is a brilliant creation. As the truth about her past slowly emerges, I was in tears. In fact, this novel made me a cry a couple of times. I love writing that can do that. I’m brought into a world and I feel it around me and here there is such emotion.

Scattered throughout are chapters set in the present(ish) day involving Heather. These sections don’t have the power or impact of those set in 1947 but they’re still enjoyable. I really liked watching Heather’s visit to London, which continues Miriam’s story. Miriam is such a presence in the book. I couldn’t get enough of her.

Jennifer Robson writes so well. We can feel the past being built around us. But be warned – there are some dark themes here (there is one scene in particular that I found shocking) and tears did flow, but overall this is such a warm tale of friendship, endurance and survival. The trauma of World War II hangs over events, as does the vulnerability of young women trying to make a living and home for themselves in the big, wide world, but there is also hope for the future, depicted most effectively with the symbolism of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. The Gown is completely absorbing and engrossing and I’m so glad I read it.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Doublesday | 2019 (17 January) | 420p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Once Upon A River by Diane SetterfieldIt is the longest night of the year and the men of Radcot, Oxfordshire, gather in The Swan, an ancient inn on the banks of the Thames, keeping to its winter room for warmth. There are no women among the regulars although each knows that the landlady, Margot, rules queen of this inn. The appeal of The Swan is that it is a place for telling stories. The landlord, Joe, a man who ails from damp in his lungs, is a master of storytelling and people gather to hear him and to tell their own. On this midwinter’s night they will each gain a new story, better than any. An injured stranger bursts through the door and collapses. In his arms is the body of a young girl, four-years-old at most. Rita Sunday, the local healer, is fetched but it is clear to everyone that the child is dead. But then, hours later, she wakes up.

The community of Radcot knows all about lost children. The Vaughans lost their daughter two years before, stolen by thieves. Little Amelia’s mother, Helena, a young woman who feels more at home on the river than she does on land, is bereft and her husband despairs. Might this child be Amelia? Robert Armstrong has cause to think that she might instead be the granddaughter he’s never met, a little girl feared drowned. And then there’s Lily White, a woman who is lost herself, who lives in little more than a hovel, who believes that the child can be none other than her sister, who she last saw so long ago. All of these people are as linked by their sorrow as they are by the river as it flows through their lives during the months between midwinter and midsummer and the winter once more. A time that will change them all.

Once Upon a River is a stunningly gorgeous and melancholic tale set along the Thames during the later Victorian years. This is beautiful writing. The flow of the river and its tributaries form the heart of the novel and they also weave their way through its prose and imagery. It’s a hypnotic book, albeit a very sad one in places, because this is a novel about lost children, the hope of a child found, and the folklore of a river that might be the centre of this village’s life but it is also a place of death, especially for those in despair, and superstition.

Diane Setterfield paints such exquisite portraits of the men and women who live in Radcot and its environs. We occasionally might meet dangerous predators but the majority of the people we come across are drawn with such tenderness and care. It’s impossible not to become involved in their stories. For me, the standout character, among many who stand out, is Robert Armstrong, a gentle giant if ever there was one, whose empathy for his fellow human beings, especially children, as well as for the creatures that he farms or comes across during his day is bewitching. He has something in his pocket for them all but he also gives them all his time and attention. His adoration for his pigs is something to behold. They are his friends. One, alas, like the little girl carried out of the river, is lost. I also loved the theme of photography that weaves through the novel – this is the dawn of a new age, the age of Darwin and science, which is now trickling down to those who live superstitious and relatively impoverished lives along the Thames.

We get to know these people intimately as they live their lives, suffer their griefs, enjoy their rare joys, and sometimes die, meeting the ferryman that they all believe haunts these waters. Diane Setterfield understands their motivations entirely and each of the stories we encounter here is perfectly formed. There is, though, such a sadness to parts of the novel which did at times make for painful reading but I was so hypnotised by it I could not put it down, staying up late into the night to read it. There is lightness to counteract the darkness. There is hope and there is also gentle humour as well as great kindness. A fairy tale of sorts, there are hints of something otherworldly just out of reach.

Once Upon a River is an immersive, beguiling novel from start to finish. It is also set in my part of the world and it made me feel closer to it, made me want to explore more of it. The beautiful cover hints at wonders within and they are there to discover and enjoy. I have no doubt that this marvellous book will be among my favourites of the year.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Zaffre | 2019 (7 February) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Familiars by Stacey HallsIt is 1612 and Fleetwood Shuttleworth is mistress of Gawthorpe Hall in the northwest of England, about forty miles from Lancaster. It’s a long way from London and the whole area is viewed with suspicion by the paranoid, unhappy King James I, ever since the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Some of the rebels fled north and James is not inclined to forgive the region. But Fleetwood has other problems to keep her occupied. She is just 17 years old and her marriage to Richard is already her second. She is heavily pregnant, having given birth to three stillborn babies. This is what life is like for eligible girl children. And Fleetwood is very afraid. She has discovered a doctor’s letter to her husband which states that if his wife should fall pregnant again, neither she nor the child would survive it.

But one day Fleetwood by chance comes across a young woman and midwife, Alice Grey. Fleetwood is drawn to her and hires her. Alice is knowledgeable about natural remedies and all remark on how much better Fleetwood is doing and her belly swells with a healthy child. And then men seeking favour with their King find it by discovering a local coven of suspected witches. Alice is among the accused. Fleetwood will stop at nothing, will risk everything, to save her friend whom she believes to be her only chance of salvation. But who will listen to a young, distraught and pregnant girl whose role in life is to support her husband and give him the heir he craves?

The Familiars is one of the most enthralling and enchanting historical novels I’ve read for some time. Its beautiful cover hints at wonders within and it is right. I fell for Fleetwood the moment I met her. She’s a remarkable figure, suiting her unusual name. She could hardly be more vulnerable or isolated, despite her love for her husband and their beautiful ‘modern’ home, and yet she is so resilient. But then she has so little to lose. She believes she’s a dead woman walking.

The title suggests that here is a story of witches and their familiars and, although they do play their part, the glory of the novel is in its portrayal of the fate of a well-to-do young woman who, while no more than a child, was married off, not once but twice, and lost her babies. Her terror feels so real. Her relationship with her husband is fascinating. There are elements of it that are shocking and yet we’re left in no doubt that none of this would be unusual.

Men are all powerful and this is shown in their persecution of these women. There’s no doubt at all that some of the accusers have their own motives for their cruel actions but the feeling is strong that women, particularly poor and illiterate women, have very little value – certainly less than a hunting dog or hawk. We are right behind Fleetwood as she fights for her friend’s life, just as we wince at the physical hardships she suffers in such an advanced state of pregnancy. The real suffering here, though, is experienced by the so-called Pendle witches. It’s barbaric. Stacey Halls doesn’t dwell on it but it’s very apparent.

The Familiars is such an atmospheric novel, which is rich in place. Fleetwood and Alice are just as at home outside in the woods as they are in Gawthorpe. Fleetwood is constantly on horseback, her enormous dog Puck running at the horse’s heels. The dining room, by contrast, is the male world where men meet to impress over wine and meat. There are beautiful descriptions of indoors and outdoors. It’s captivating. There’s sometimes an ephemeral feel to it. At other times, it feels modern and timeless.

I didn’t want to put The Familiars down once I picked it up and I read it in two glorious sittings, totally caught up in Fleetwood’s world and situation. She’s left an impression on me. I’ll miss her. And just look at that gorgeous cover!