Posts Tagged With: historical fiction

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny

Title: The Book of Madness and Cures
Author: Regina O’Melveny
ISBN: 978-1780330464
Publisher: John Murray
First Published: 12 April 2012 (HB) / 11 October 2012 (PB)
No .of pages: 384

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis (from Amazon):
Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in 16th century Venice, she’s a woman who practices medicine. Her father, a renowned physician, has provided her entrée to this all-male profession, and inspired in her a shared mission to understand the secrets of the human body. Then her father disappears and Gabriella faces a crisis: without her father’s patronage, she is no longer permitted to treat her patients.

So she sets out across Europe to find her father. Following clues from his occasional enigmatic letters, Gabriella crosses Switzerland, Germany and France, entering strange and forbidding cities. She travels to Scotland, the Netherlands, and finally to Morocco. In each new land, she uncovers details of her father’s unexplained flight, and opens new mysteries of her own. Not just the mysteries of ailments and treatments, but the ultimate mysteries of mortality, love, and the timeless human spirit.

Review:
In recent months, I seem to have read several novels which have very similar features – 16th Century Venice; female doctors struggling to practice medicine under the bigoted rules of the time; traveling far from home – as a result, large parts of this debut novel felt familiar. There were aspects that set it apart, but it was, overall, much of a muchness with the others and although I enjoyed it, I got slightly less out of it than I might have done had I not read others first.

If anything, The Book of Madness and Cures felt a tad long-winded at times, and despite the excerpts of the titular book (actually The Book of Diseases) being part of the plot, I found their inclusion to be intrusive and disruptive to the flow of the story around them, so much so that I eventually found myself skimming over them to get back to the proper narrative.

It is a meandering tale that takes its time to unfold, so that it feels like the reader is keeping pace with the travelers as they spend months journeying through strange lands, facing hardship and persecution, on a voyage of self discovery and reunion that often feels like it will never come to a conclusion. When it finally does, it feels a little rushed. I felt that I cared for very few of the characters, least of all the absent father descending into madness as he tries to escape his own failings in foreign lands. Gabriella seemed emotionally stunted, and the only ones I really felt for were her companions, Olmina and Lorenzo, who were kind, loyal and understanding as Gabriella persisted in her quest.

The redeeming feature is the writing itself, which is warm and rich – O’Melveny has many a beautiful turn of phrase and her skill with words is to be commended. I will look forward to seeing what she next brings to the page.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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The Venetian Contract by Marina Fiorato

Title: The Venetian Contract
Author: Marina Fioato
ISBN: 978-1848545670
Publisher: John Murray
First Published: 21 June 2012
No .of pages: 416

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
1576. Five years after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto, a ship steals unnoticed into Venice bearing a deadly cargo. A man more dead than alive, disembarks and staggers into Piazza San Marco. He brings a gift to Venice from Constantinople. Within days the city is infected with bubonic plague – and the Turkish Sultan has his revenge. But the ship also holds a secret stowaway – Feyra, a young and beautiful harem doctor fleeing a future as the Sultan’s concubine. Only her wits and medical knowledge keep her alive as the plague ravages Venice. In despair the Doge commissions the architect Andrea Palladio to build the greatest church of his career – an offering to God so magnificent that Venice will be saved. But Palladio’s own life is in danger too, and it will require all skills of medico Annibale Cason, the city’s finest plague doctor, to keep him alive. But what Annibale had not counted on was meeting Feyra, who is now under Palladio’s protection, a woman who can not only match his medical skills but can also teach him how to care.

Review:
It’s no secret that I adore historical fiction, but I’ve never been remotely attracted by any kind of medical drama. This novel may have changed that, as it blends the two perfectly. On one hand, we have the sumptuous sights and sounds of 16th Century Venice, complete with beautiful costuming, and on the other we have the tense atmosphere caused by an epidemic of a deadly disease that spreads like wildfire, and the lives of those whose life’s vocation is to contain and cure it, and it works incredibly well.

Bother Feyra and Anibale have an air of mystery about them – both have unusual histories they are unwilling to share with others if they can help it; both are reserved and secretive; both have a passion for medicine; but there the similarities end. Annibale keeps his distance and has trouble feeling any particular connection with his patients, whereas Feyra is in danger of feeling too much.

Behind it all is the intrigue of espionage and suspicion as Feyra attempts to avert a terrible war, whilst hiding all along that she, herself, is actually from the enemy camp. It’s a complex, tangled web and our characters have to tread carefully, not only to continue their work, but to ensure their own survival.

If you like historical fiction and/or medical dramas, you should really give this a try. Fiorato writes with a deft hand and creates a whirlwind world that is excitingly beautiful and uncertain.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwait

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Fate by L R Fredericks

Title: Fate (Time and Light #2)
Author: L R Fredericks
ISBN: 978-1848543317
Publisher: John Murray
First Published: 5 July 2012
No .of pages: 528

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis (from dust jacket flap):
What am I?

Not a ghost, though that is what most people believe. I am, and it looks like I shall forever be, Lord Francis Peter George St John Damory. I was born more than two hundred years ago and although I am not strictly speaking alive, I am obviously not dead. My appearance is as I choose, though usually I resemble my old self. I was a handsome man; I enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. I am not beyond vanity, nor any other trick or trap od earthly existence. My body is a simulacrum, as is my study, my fire, brandy, pen, paper.

I am an artist of the æther.

Review:
If you enjoy elegant characters in an eloquently told tale of mystery, magic and timelessness, then this is the novel for you!

The pace is necessarily slow and reflective, yet the plot unfurls in a deceptively swift manner, so that one never feels bogged down or sluggish. The characters are at once mysterious, complex and simple, which helps ground this fantastic tale with a sense of realism, and the blend of magic and science in the setting of the 1700s makes for a sensationally engrossing read that never dumbs down for the readers’ benefit, but assumes a certain level of intelligence on our behalf without becoming lofty and grand in approach.

This is actually the sequel to the earlier novel, Farundel, but I never once felt lost or confused whilst reading Fate, and might never have guessed it was anything other than a stand-alone novel if I hadn’t already known that, so even if you have never read the first book in the Time and Light series, don’t let it put you off picking up this sublimely enjoyable book that will leave you filled with wonder and thinking about it long after you have closed the cover.

Review by Kell Smurthwaite

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The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

Title: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare
Author: Jude Morgan
ISBN: 978-0755358236
Publisher: Headline Review
First Published: April 2012
No .of pages: 400

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
The greatest writer of them all, brought to glorious life. How well do you know the man you love? How much do you think you know about Shakespeare? What if they were one and the same? He is an ordinary man: unwilling craftsman, ambitious actor, resentful son, almost good-enough husband. And he is also a genius. The story of how a glove-maker from Warwickshire became the greatest writer of them all is vaguely known to most of us, but it would take an exceptional modern novelist to bring him to life. And now at last Jude Morgan, acclaimed author of Passion and The Taste of Sorrow, has taken Shakespeare’s life, and created a masterpiece.

Review:
I’m a big ol’ fan of Shakespeare’s many beautiful works, so when this novel exploring his early life and his start in the world of theatres and writing, I was over the moon!

Living up to the most famous writer in the world was always going to be a tall order, but Jude Morgan takes up the challenge with great aplomb and does a sterling job of showcasing The Bard’s works while presenting him as a real and very believable character in his own story  – a fallible man striking out in the world on his own, trying to support a wife and family from a great distance whilst living out his dream

This is a beautifully written exploration into the not-so-glamourous world of Elizabethan theatre, where fickle audiences and the whim of Queen Elizabeth could make or break a play, or even a writer’s whole career.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, theatre, or Elizabethan historical fiction, give this one a try, and be transported to another time and place, where a young man struggles to prove his words are art and find his place in history.

Review by Kell Smurthwaite

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Insurrection by Robyn Young

Title: Insurrection (Insurrection Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Robyn Young
ISBN: 978-0-340-96366-1
Publisher: Hodder
First Published: October 2010
No .of pages: 672

Rating: 2/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
The year is 1286 and Scotland is in the grip of one of the worst winters in living memory. Some believe the Day of Judgement has come. The King of Scotland is murdered by one of his squires, a deed pre-meditated by his own brother-in-law, the King of England, a thousand miles away in France. The Prophecy of Merlin has decreed that only when the four relics of Britain have been gathered will one man rule a united kingdom, and Edward I is determined to fulfil it. The murder of Scotland’s king is thus just the first in a chain of events that will alter the face of Britain forever. But all is not destined to go Edward’s way. Out of the ashes of war, through blood feuds and divided loyalties, a young squire will rise to defy England’s greatest king. His name is Robert the Bruce. And his story begins in INSURRECTION.

Review:

I adore historical fiction, so I jumped at the chance to read something set in Scotland and covering an exciting period in its history – Scotland’s political wranglings with the English date back centuries and are fraught with battles, both of words and combat. I was champing at the bit to get started and waded in.

I was right about the setting being spectacular and the story intense, but the realisation of it was pretty dry in places and such slow going I felt like I was wading through sticky Scottish porridge, trying to get to the end. Unusually for me, this book took an absolute age to finish and when I did finally get to the end, I felt like my brain had been stuffed full of stodge.

All this is not to say it’s a bad book – there are some really thrilling battle scenes and some fascinating glimpses of the life of Robert the Bruce as he slowly rose in position, both in Scotland and England, but there’s a lot to get through in between that slows the pace considerably, and at close to 700 pages, this felt even lengthier.

Recommended only for big fans of Scottish history who enjoy wrestling with hefty novels. There’s some really good stuff in there, but you have to persevere to find it.

Review by Kell Smurthwaite

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Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Title: Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles
ISBN: 978-1444708875
Publisher: Sceptre
First Published: January 2012
No. of pages: 352

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
Set during the hazy, enchanting, and martini-filled world of New York City circa 1938, Rules of Civility follows three friends–Katey, Eve, and Tinker–from their chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year’s Eve through a year of enlightening and occasionally tragic adventures. Tinker orbits in the world of the wealthy; Katey and Eve stretch their few dollars out each evening on the town. While all three are complex characters, Katey is the story’s shining star. She is a fully realized heroine, unique in her strong sense of self amidst her life’s continual fluctuations. Towles’ writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges. Reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Rules of Civility is full of delicious sentences you can sit back and savor (most appropriately with a martini or two).

Review:
This is what chick-lit would be like if it were written exclusively by men. No, I don’t mean lad-lit; that’s a completely different animal – this is more like chick-lit with all the fluff removed. There is absolutely nothing frothy about Rules of Civility but there is still the lightness and ease of reading without any of the brashness you might expect from a man writing from a female point of view.

In fact, there is a sense of honesty about the character of Katie Kontent (Kontent like the state of being, not Kontent like something in a box) that is quite refreshing and delightful. The story from Katie’s point of view has a gentle flow that carries the reader forward at a steady pace, which is why it’s such a jolt when you come to a section told from Tinker’s point of view – you suddenly feel like you’ve run aground on a sand bank for a while till Katie takes the rudder and you’re able to push off again.

There are no wildly exciting escapades here, just a subtle meandering as the characters meet and mingle, crossing the boundaries of their respective social circles and having their lives affected by those interactions. There is no sense of urgency, and no hurry to get from one moment to the next – you just drift.

And that, I think is the main problem. The characters feel like they are in want of just a little more plot. There is growth – the characters develop and learn about themselves and each other, but there is little real action. That said, there is something quite pleasant about just sitting back and enjoying the ride as you glide from the first page to the last.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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The House of the Wind by Titania Hardy

Title: The House of the Wind
Author:
Titania Hardy
ISBN:
978-0755346295
Publisher:
Headline Review
First Published:
June 2011
No. of pages: 528

Rating: 2/5

Synopsis (Amazon):
A legendary ruin. An ancient mystery. Will unveiling the past transform the future?

San Francisco, 2007. Madeline Moretti is grieving for her fiancé. Nothing brings her joy any more, and Maddie’s grandmother, a fiery Italian, sends her to Tuscany to heal. Here, Maddie is immersed in the mystery of a ruined villa. Destroyed centuries ago in a legendary storm on the Eve of St Agnes, it has been known ever since as the Casa al Vento – the House of the Wind.

Tuscany, 1347. Mia hasn’t spoken since her mother’s death, and lives in silence with her beloved aunt. One dark night, a couple seek refuge in their villa. Used to welcoming passing pilgrims, Mia is entranced by the young bride’s radiance and compassion, but mystified by her reluctance to reveal even her name. Where has she come from, and why must her presence be a secret?

Centuries apart, each searching for a way to step into her future, Mia and Maddie will be haunted by the myth of the woman who walked unscathed from the ruins of the House of the Wind.

Review:
I really wanted to like this a lot more than I actually did. I adore historical fiction and I love the cleverness of concurrent storylines, centuries apart, having bearing on each other, but this just didn’t work for me.

The problem for me was that it was just too darned slow. Hardy uses achingly beautiful prose that absolutely sings off the page, but the plot unfolds at a maddeningly sedate pace, not just in one timeline, but in both. As a result, I grew bored with the characters, their loss, their pain, their motivation, and their relationships, and grew tired of waiting for everything to happen.

The fact is, that the same writing device has been used before to better effect (if you’ve read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t read it, I can heartily recommend it!) and I found myself forever waiting for something other than the writing to excite me. Truly, the writing often verges on the sublime and I give it a higher rating as a result, but it was let down by pedestrian plot and plodding pace.

I will be interested in reading more by Titania Hardy if only to see if the tale is worthy of the writer’s obvious talent with words.


Reviewed by kell Smurthwaite

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Crippen by John Boyne (Transworld Book Group)

Title: Crippen
Author:
John Boyne
ISBN:
 978-0552777438
Publisher:
Black Swan
First Published:
2004
No. of pages:504

Rating: 5/5

Synopsis (Amazon):
July 1910: a gruesome discovery has been made at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden. Buried in the cellar are the remains of Cora Crippen, former music-hall singer and wife of Dr Hawley Crippen. But Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve have disappeared, and a full-scale hunt for them has begun. Across the Channel in Antwerp, Captain Kendall gives the order for the SS Montrose to begin its two-week voyage to Canada. On board are 1300 passengers, including the overbearing Antonia Drake, the unassuming Martha Hayes and the enigmatic Mathieu Zela. And, slipping in almost unnoticed, a Mr John Robinson with his seventeen-year-old son Edmund …

Review:
Well, where to start? How about with just one word: WOW! Crippen is quite one of the most gripping crime faction novels I’ve ever read. That’s the short version.

You want the long version? OK, here goes…

This fictionalised account of a real and infamous crime that gripped the English-speaking world is nothing short of brilliant. The characters are sympathetically drawn, yes, even that of Dr Hawley Crippen himself. Boyne has taken one of Britain’s most notorious and mysterious killers and made him a human being; one with feelings and troubles with which one can readily identify. The relationship he suffers with his overbearing wife, Cora, makes one wish someone would kill her!

Despite Dr Crippen being a name synonymous with gruesome and grisly murder, mystery and misconception surrounds both the man and the case, so proceedings are not so straightforward as one might expect. Indeed, Boyne manages to keep things suspenseful to the very end, which came as a huge surprise to this reader!

I was completely drawn into the plot and loved the back-and-forth style of storytelling which revealed things little by little, drawing things out in such a way that there was always something unexpected around the corner. Time and again I was delighted by some little twist or turn till the thrilling conclusion which was immensely satisfying.

It’s rare that a novel compels me to research a subject further, but this one has had that exact effect. I’m now fascinated by the man and the crime he committed (or did he?), and urge all fans of crime fact and fiction to pick up Crippen as soon as possible.  I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down till the last page has been turned.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

You can find out more about the Transworld Book Group HERE.

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Caligula by Douglas Jackson (Transworld Book Group)

Title: Caligula (Roman Trilogy 1)
Author:
Douglas Jackson
ISBN:
978-0-552-15694-3
Publisher:
Corgi
First Published:
Feb 2009
No. of pages:496

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis (back cover):
Rufus, a young slave, grows up far from the corruption of the imperial court. He is a trainer of animals for the gladiatorial arena. But when Caligula wants a keeper for the emperor’s elephant, Rufus is bought from his owner and taken to the palace.

Life at court is dictated by Caligula’s ever shifting moods. He is as generous as he is cruel – a megalomaniac who declares himself a living god and simultaneously lives in constant fear of plots against his life. His paranoia is not misplaced however; intrigue permeates his court, and Rufus will find himself unwittingly at the centre of a conspiracy to assassinate the emperor.

Review:
Fans of intrigue, action and historical drama will all be thrilled by the first novel in the Romans trilogy by Douglas Jackson. From the first sentence, the reader is totally immersed in the unfolding drama – once can almost taste the paranoia dripping from each page as it is turned.

Caligula’s sadistic tendencies, even as a child, are quickly revealed, but so is the constant fear with which he lives and I, very surprisingly, found that on occasion, I actually felt some sympathy for him – I wasn’t prepared for that and it was a refreshing change. Rufus, and his friendship with Cupido, were written with such devotion that one could almost believe the author was writing about close friends of his own, such was the realism of both their characters and their relationship. As for Bersheba, the emperor’s elephant, she has such character that it’s no stretch of the imagination to feel her presence and hear her huffing breath as one reads – she’s right there beside you.

There’s excitement by the barrel load and the roar of the crowds in the arena is almost palpable, along with the stench of the animals and the stink of sweat and blood. It’s a vividly recreated world that one feels could almost be touched. It’s not just a story, it’s an experience.

I highly recommend this novel and am champing at the bit to read the rest of the trilogy.

Review by Kell Smurthwaite

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Monsieur Montespan by Jean Teulé

Title: Monsieur Montespan
Author: Jean Teulé
ISBN: 978-1906040307
Publisher: Gallic Books
First Published: February 2011
No. of Pages: 302

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis (Amazon):
The Marquis de Montespan and his new wife, Athénaïs, are a true love-match – a rarity amongst the nobility of seventeenth-century France. But love is not enough to maintain their hedonistic lifestyle, and the couple soon face huge debts. When Madame de Montespan is offered the chance to become lady-in-waiting to the Queen at Versailles, she seizes this opportunity to turn their fortunes round. Too late, Montespan discovers that his ravishing wife has caught the eye of King Louis XIV. As everyone congratulates him on his new status of cuckold by royal appointment, the Marquis is broken-hearted. He vows to wreak revenge on the monarch and win back his adored Marquise. With this extraordinary novel, Jean Teulé has restored a ridiculed figure from history to the rightful position of hero, by telling the hilarious, bawdy and touching story of a good man who loved too well and dared challenge the absolute power of the Sun King himself.

Review:
Based on the true story of the husband of the most celebrated mistress of Louis XIV, this is a rip-roaring romp through the reign of the Sun King. I found it difficult to feel sorry for the plight of the cuckolded husband, despite the fact that he raised such a scandal over the affair between the King and his wife, which most men of that time would have taken as a compliment and accepted the many honours, titles and money that would bring. Although I didn’t find sympathy for him, I did find I respected this much-maligned figure and his stance over his position.

It’s a well-researched and well-written novel that is both engaging and entertaining, with more than a little titillation between its covers as the exploits of Madame de Montespan, both with Louis XIV and her husband before him, are described with passion and humour. It’s well worth a read if you’re a fan of historical fiction with a little French flair.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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