Review | Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo

Forgotten history revived. 4/5 stars.

Mad Blood Stirring

Thank you to Transworld and NetGalley for providing me with an e-copy of this book.

The blurb:

1815: The war is over but for the inmates at Dartmoor Prison, peace – like home – is still a long way away.

On the eve of the year 1815, the American sailors of the Eagle finally arrive at Dartmoor prison; bedraggled, exhausted but burning with hope. They’ve only had one thing to sustain them – a snatched whisper overheard along the way.

The war is over.

Joe Hill thought he’d left the war outside these walls but it’s quickly clear that there’s a different type of fight to be had within. The seven prison blocks surrounding him have been segregated; six white and one black. As his voice rings out across the courtyard, announcing the peace, the redcoat guards bristle and the inmates stir. The powder keg was already fixed to blow and Joe has just lit the fuse.

Elizabeth Shortland, wife of the Governor looks down at the swirling crowd from the window of her own personal prison. The peace means the end is near, that she needn’t be here for ever. But suddenly, she cannot bear the thought of leaving.

Inspired by a true story, Mad Blood Stirring tells of a few frantic months in the suffocating atmosphere of a prison awaiting liberation. It is a story of hope and freedom, of loss and suffering. It is a story about how sometimes, in our darkest hour, it can be the most unlikely of things that see us through.

My take:

Mad Blood Stirring is an example of what I love most about historical fiction: an entertaining and immersive way to learn more about a past event, place and people. The story picks up on a bit of “forgotten” history, or not forgotten in my case as the War of 1812 and the associated events at Dartmouth prison were all completely new to me!

The novel is incredibly well-researched and brings the past to life with vivid descriptions, conveying the horrors of confinement, particularly when disease and violence spreads throughout the jail. And, as is often the way with books “based on true events”, the most unbelievable details are precisely those which are true: the racial segregation of the prisoners, the smallpox outbreak, King Dick himself, and the prisoners putting on productions of Shakespeare.

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Review | The Fire Court (Ashes of London 2) by Andrew Taylor

More slow-moving intrigue in Restoration London. 3.5/5 stars.

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor (Ashes of London 2)

Thank you to HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for providing me with an e-copy of this book.

The blurb: 

Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…

The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.

James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?

Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.

My take:

I read the first installment in this historical mystery series – The Ashes of London – right before moving onto this book. And while I’m sure you could read and enjoy The Fire Court without having to read book 1 – it is a new mystery which introduces a group of new characters – I would recommend seeking out The Ashes of London first. A lot of my enjoyment in reading book 2 came from seeing how established characters and their relationships developed under the pressures of this plot, and in this regard there certainly is a great deal going on. I can only praise the author for giving us high stakes: he isn’t afraid to put his main characters in true peril and let them get hurt. I lost count of the number of times Cat had call to use or threaten to use her knife in self-defence!

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Review | The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

A great backdrop filled with vivid historical detail. 3.5/5 stars.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

Thank you to HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for providing me with an e-copy of this book.

The blurb: 

A CITY IN FLAMES
London, 1666. As the Great Fire consumes everything in its path, the body of a man is found in the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral – stabbed in the neck, thumbs tied behind his back.

A WOMAN ON THE RUN
The son of a traitor, James Marwood is forced to hunt the killer through the city’s devastated streets. There he encounters a determined young woman, who will stop at nothing to secure her freedom.

A KILLER SEEKING REVENGE
When a second murder victim is discovered in the Fleet Ditch, Marwood is drawn into the political and religious intrigue of Westminster – and across the path of a killer with nothing to lose…

My take:

The second book in this series – The Fire Court – is coming out on 5th April and was available on NetGalley. It sounded interesting but, being a completist, I took the opportunity to go back and request the first book in the series. Always best to start at the beginning!

I haven’t read any historical fiction for a while and I’ve never read anything set in this specific period. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that apart from knowing that the Great Fire happened in 1666, I know little else about it. In fact I don’t know much about the history of the Restoration at all, another reason why I was keen to read this series. And, in that regard I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The historical details, both in the descriptions of London and how the main characters have been affected by the execution of Charles I and the return of his son, Charles II, to the throne, are fascinating.

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Review | At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Chevalier continues to be a master of historical fiction. 4/5.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Thank you to HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for providing me with an e-copy of this book.

The blurb: 1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.

1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.

My take:

I’ve enjoyed all of Tracy Chevalier’s books. I leapt at the chance to request her latest without even reading the blurb, so confident was I that it would be good. And she hasn’t disappointed me.

Chevalier excels at capturing the atmosphere of a time and place. At the Edge of the Orchard transports the reader to mid-nineteenth-century America, where we struggle through the mud of the Black Swamps of Ohio before being whisked away to the hills of California to marvel at the redwoods and giant sequoias.

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ARC Review | Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

Although this book has a lot going for it, it’s not the upbeat mystery I was hoping for.  3/5 stars.

miss-treadway-and-the-field-of-stars-by-miranda-emmerson

Thank you to HarperCollins UK, 4th Estate and NetGalley for giving me an e-copy of this book and the chance to review it.

Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars will be published on 12th January.

The blurb: Soho, 1965.

In a tiny two-bed flat above a Turkish café on Neal Street lives Anna Treadway, a young dresser at the Galaxy Theatre. When the American actress Iolanthe Green disappears after an evening’s performance at the Galaxy, the newspapers are wild with speculation about her fate.

But as the news grows old and the case grows colder, it seems Anna is the only person left determined to find out the truth. Her search for the missing actress will take her into an England she did not know existed: an England of jazz clubs and prison cells, backstreet doctors and seaside ghost towns, where her carefully calibrated existence will be upended by violence but also, perhaps, by love.

For in order to uncover Iolanthe’s secrets, Anna is going to have to face up to a few of her own…

My take:

There are many things to like about Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars. I think this is the first story I’ve read which is set in 1960s’ London, a location which was brilliantly rendered, interesting and refreshing.

The diversity of the characters is also impressive. Aloysius, a Jamaican accountant, quickly became my favourite. The story moves at a good pace and there’s always something happening, mostly because the main characters are roving all over London and then southern England in search of the missing Iolanthe.

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Review | The Siege by Helen Dunmore

Beautiful and rightfully bleak. 4/5 stars.

the-siege-by-helen-dunmore

The blurb: Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…

The Siege is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.

My take:

I got a copy of this from the library. It sat on the table and stared at me for four weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to progress past the opening page on which there is a reproduction of the order from Nazi High Command for Leningrad (St Petersburg) to be wiped off the face of the earth. I had a feeling reading this one would take strength, and I was right.

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ARC Review | Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

Historical fiction at its best. 4.5/5 stars.

victoria-by-daisy-goodwin

Thank you to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for giving me an e-copy of this book for review.

Victoria will be published on 22nd November.

The blurb: In 1837, less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Alexandrina Victoria – sheltered, small in stature, and female – became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. Many thought it was preposterous: Alexandrina — Drina to her family — had always been tightly controlled by her mother and her household, and was surely too unprepossessing to hold the throne. Yet from the moment William IV died, the young Queen startled everyone: abandoning her hated first name in favor of Victoria; insisting, for the first time in her life, on sleeping in a room apart from her mother; resolute about meeting with her ministers alone.

One of those ministers, Lord Melbourne, became Victoria’s private secretary. Perhaps he might have become more than that, except everyone argued she was destined to marry her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. But Victoria had met Albert as a child and found him stiff and critical: surely the last man she would want for a husband…

My take:

I requested this ARC from NetGalley because I’d watched and thoroughly enjoyed the TV version which was recently shown on ITV here in the UK. I liked the characterisation of the historical figures and was particularly gripped by Victoria’s relationships with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, and Prince Albert.

Daisy Goodwin wrote this novel at the same time as writing the TV script and, as you might expect, they are very similar. If you have already watched the TV version, don’t read this expecting any surprises!

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Review | The Ballroom by Anna Hope

Beautiful writing overwhelmed by gloomy content. 3.5/5 stars.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope book cover

The blurb: Where love is your only escape ….

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever.

Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, THE BALLROOM is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

My take:

Perhaps I’m just an optimistic romantic… but when I read the blurb for The Ballroom I jumped to the conclusion it would be a “love conquers all” story. Well, it’s not.

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Review | The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

An enjoyable wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey tale. 4/5 stars.

The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig book cover

After seeing several blogger’s recommending this book, I requested it from Netgalley. Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an e-copy in return for an honest review.

The blurb: Sixteen-year-old Nix Song is a time-traveller. She, her father and their crew of time refugees travel the world aboard The Temptation, a glorious pirate ship stuffed with treasures both typical and mythical. Old maps allow Nix and her father to navigate not just to distant lands, but distant times – although a map will only take you somewhere once. And Nix’s father is only interested in one time, and one place: Honolulu 1868. A time before Nix was born, and her mother was alive. Something that puts Nix’s existence rather dangerously in question…

Nix has grown used to her father’s obsession, but only because she’s convinced it can’t work. But then a map falls into her father’s lap that changes everything. And when Nix refuses to help, her father threatens to maroon Kashmir, her only friend (and perhaps, only love) in a time where Nix will never be able to find him. And if Nix has learned one thing, it’s that losing the person you love is a torment that no one can withstand. Nix must work out what she wants, who she is, and where she really belongs before time runs out on her forever.

My take:

I’m about to go on a tangent. Stay with me…

There’s a moment in the movie Austin Powers 2 when Austin and Basil Exposition (best name ever) are talking about time travel. Worrying about time loops and the like, Austin goes cross-eyed with the effort of puzzling out the complications of there being different versions of himself existing simultaneously at different points in time. Basil helpfully suggests that Austin not worry about that sort of thing and just enjoy himself. And then Basil turns to talk directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall to tell the viewers, “That goes for you all too.”

This is the spirit in which it’s best to approach The Girl from Everywhere. There’s some serious wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey (Hello Whovians!) stuff going on here and if you stop to try to figure it all out, your experience of this book will most likely be spoiled. Best to just let it wash over you and concentrate on:

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Review | The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

An engrossing story with excellent period detail. 4/5 stars.

The Golem and the Djinni book cover

I sought this out at the library based entirely on the recommendation of Emily at A Keyboard and an Open Mind. Thank you! Here’s her review.

The blurb: Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

Struggling to make their way in 1899 New York, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their immigrant neighbors while masking their true selves. Meeting by chance, they become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

Marvelous and compulsively readable, The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of folk mythology, historical fiction, and magical fable into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale

My take:

This is a powerful story which unfurls slowly. You’ll need to give the book your patience for a while, but it’s worth it.

Less of a fantasy and more a fairy tale, the narrative voice has the dispassionate distance and spellbinding quality of all classic folk yarns. And yet the fantastical elements of the plot never overwhelm the narrative thanks to the thoroughly-researched and exquisitely-recreated period details of New York at the end of the nineteenth century.

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