Category Archives: historical fiction

THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES … by Sarah Maine (2016) Originally published as BHALLA STRAND (2014)

 

house tidesbhalla strand

Scottish Island Fiction

I am always looking for new books to read especially if they fall under the category of Scottish Island fiction – a  favoured topic  I’ve been pursuing for many years.  Recently a  review of THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES caught my attention because it has all the elements I enjoy in my preferred  novels but there was something strangely familiar about it.  As it turns out I had read this book a couple of years ago under its previous title – BHALLA STRAND.  I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t written about it back then but I decided to give it a reread.  My library only had a copy of BHALLA STRAND but the author says on her website that they’re the same book.  A quick gander at some reviews informed me that she changed the name of the house from Bhalla House to Muirlan House in its latest incarnation, but I will say Bhalla House because that is the name of the manor in the copy I now physically hold in my hands.

This is a dual narrative novel with Bhalla House, on an Outer Hebridean Island, being the  link between the two stories.  In the modern account (2010), Hetty has just buried her last living relative – her Grandmother – and subsequently finds herself the owner of an old estate on a sparsely populated Scottish Island.  She is bombarded with advice but most of her counsel is provided by individuals with self-serving interests.  One group – led by her sometime boyfriend – has ideas of making Bhalla House a hotel and playground for the very rich.  Another interested party has warned her that the estate is far too dilapidated to save.  Oh yes, there is a little matter of the skeletal remains found in the foundation.  She is confused by the conflicting advice but she arranges to visit the island and do some research of her own.

In 1910, a newly married Theo Blake, a renowned artist, is bringing his bride to Bhalla house for the first time. He sees his much younger wife as a delicate creature and he is afraid that she won’t love the island and the house as much as he does.  On the contrary, she adores the island; the wildlife, the clean air, the beauty, the ocean and natural plant life.  But the house she finds damp and gloomy and Theo won’t hear of her plans to brighten it up with paint.  It is also filled with dead things (stuffed and mounted but dead)  There are grievances still simmering among the Island people, many of them were cleared out of their homes by Theo’s father in another generation, so he could build Bhalla house.  During the summer, Theo and Beatrice entertain several groups of guests: mostly hunting enthusiast with bored wives.  Many of the birds shot or collected are endangered and this infuriates the factor’s son and it is a source of more tensions.  These underlying tensions and unexpected alliances prove to have consequences that will still be significant in Hetty’s time.

Hetty comes across as someone who is easily manipulated – at first.  But she grows. She is still young and she is without a single family member to support her ( a tough spot to be in )

The concern for the birds really caught my interest.  At one point Beatrice was attempting to keep Theo from finding out about a pair of divers setting up a nest on an island loch, before he could stuff and mount them.  I did a wee bit of research and I  discovered the divers are the same bird a Canada’s loons.  We love our loons (we even put them on our money) and their call truly is haunting. This is just me learning something. Yeh.

I enjoyed both the storylines and I found Maine’s descriptions of the Island  captured the untamed beauty splendidly.  Giving a house such a central role isn’t new (Thornfield Hall, Manderley, Tara, ) but it works.   This novel has mystery suspense, romance in a beautiful setting – a lovely novel.

Now I must explain why I didn’t write about this book when I first read it a few years ago because I do remember now.  I read three books, around the same time, that were set on Scottish Islands. All three books involved turning an old estate into a holiday home of some sort.  And (here’s the big one) all three books began with the discovery of human remains on the property.  But I can see, with hindsight, that despite those similarities they were all unique stories.*

See also *

THE SEA HOUSE  by Elizabeth Gifford (2013)

NIGHT WAKING by Sara Ross (2011)

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, historical fiction, Historical mysteries, mystery fiction, Scottish Island Fiction

IN FARLEIGH FIELD … by Rhys Bowen (2017)

in farleigh field     Mystery Fiction                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   I have been a Rhys Bowen fan for years and I  await each installment of her two current series with eager anticipation.  The “Molly Murphy” mysteries feature a capable and enterprising young woman – an Irish immigrant with an unfortunate past – rebuilding her  life in early twentieth century New York City.  There have been 16 installments in this series, with a new adventure available later this year.  It is always nice to have something to anticipate.

 The “Royal Spyness” mysteries  are set in England between the wars, and feature a young lady who is 35th in line to the throne.  Lady Georgiana  is dirt poor but rich with connections and usually finds herself performing some favour or another to stay in the good graces of her royal family.  In the background, her cousin Edward is courting a certain Mrs. Simpson.  There are nine books and counting in this more lighthearted series.

As soon as I heard that Rhys Bowen had a new novel coming out I knew I had to read it.   I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.  This is a World War ll era novel with great characters (and in my opinion Rhys Bowen writes great characters)

 Farleigh Place is the stately English manor of Lord Westerham, his wife, and five daughters.  England is at war with Germany and half the estate has been commandeered by the British army; meanwhile the family learns to live in more reduced circumstances.  Middle daughter Pamela has a position at Bletchley Park, although her family thinks she is doing secretarial work.  Another daughter, Margot, is living in Paris and refusing to return home to England.  Ben is the son of the village vicar, and Pamela’s childhood friend.  (of course he is secretly in love with her)  A recent accident has kept him from enlisting but he does undercover work for the government and receives a lot of flack for not doing his part.  Another childhood friend – dashing flying ace Jeremy Prescott- has joined the RAF.

One day, as youngest daughter Phoebe is crossing the estate on her pony, she comes across a battered body in soldier’s clothing.  He has fallen from the sky due to a failed parachute.  This sets off  an inquiry with lots of  questions and Ben is tasked with discretely finding some answers.

 Each daughter has her own story.  This is where I always admire Rhys Bowen; I think she is great at writing characters that the reader can care about.  And she excels at writing women with good minds and strong personalities.  This novel has been promoted as a “stand alone” but I , for one, would love to see it become a series.  I feel the author has only scratched to surface with these characters.

IN FARLEIGH FIELD is a novel about WW ll with great characters and an exciting plot;  espionage, secrets and alliances of all kind are all explored in this excellent book.

The reader may want to read THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) as a companion book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, General fiction, historical fiction, Mysteries, mystery fiction, world war 2

IN THIS GRAVE HOUR by Jacqueline Winspear (2017) …A Maisie Dobbs Novel

in this grave hour

Mystery Fiction

Historical Fiction

“In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.  For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war. ” — The opening lines of a speech given by King George Vl of England, on the day it was announced that England was at war with Germany. (September 3, 1939)

 The 13th novel in the MAISIE DOBB’S series begins with Maisie rushing to the home of her dearest friend Priscillia, so they can listen to the Prime Minister’s announcement on the wireless: war has been declared. This is a time period the British often refer to as the “phoney war”, or Churchill’s term “the twilight war” where nothing much happens on land, involving the Allies,  for about eight months – ( although the seas are a different matter). The children of London are evacuated to country homes and the adults of London must carry gas masks and adhere to strict blackout rules. The initial  chaos contributes to the cases that Maisie must confront since the police force,  and the bureaucrats are overburdened.  Maisie is employed to investigate the murder of a man who was a Belgium refugee in the first war and she also attends to a little girl who is an evacuee with a mysterious background.

Fans of this series will remember that the first novel (MAISIE DOBBS, 2003) began in 1929 with Maisie, also a psychologist, opening her inquiry agency.  Many of the early cases had seeds in the first war and many of the characters were physically or mentally wounded by that war. But there was also healing and new life.  It is therefore terribly heartbreaking that many of the children that offered up hope throughout the series are now eligible to fight in the new war. And here is what separates a series from a stand-alone novel; the reader may become totally invested in the characters in a series. I thought the last book ( JOURNEY TO MUNICH, 2016) was the weakest in the entire collection but I still wanted more Maisie (and friends).

The author manages to convey an overall sense of incredulity among the older characters that there is – indeed – another war.  And some acceptance.  But the younger characters – meaning those who weren’t yet born during the 1st war or those who were too young to remember – often display a sense of excitement.

Overall I felt this was maybe not the best entry in this series – but it was good – and I will look forward to reading about the next chapter in Maisie’s life.

IN THIS GRAVE HOUR, a Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear, (2017), Harper Collins, 332 pages.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, General fiction, historical fiction, Mysterious Ladies, mystery fiction, world war 2

HIS BLOODY PROJECT by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

Fiction

project

This novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and, although it didn’t win, the nomination will give the novel oodles of exposure. It’s a historical thriller that is a little difficult to categorize but the author himself has said it’s “a novel about a crime rather than a crime novel” That sounds right. The multiple perspective format allows the reader to almost be the detective; taking in the information and sifting through the often contradictory evidence.

This is not a whodunnit since we learn almost immediately that the protagonist -a youth by the name of  Roderick Macrae – had readily admitted to the killing of three people in his Scottish Highland crofting community in 1869. But why? Roddy’s advocate (lawyer) tasks him with writing an account of his life and the circumstances proceeding  the murders along with details of the actual killings.  The resulting narrative is a grim and gloomy representation of a life saturated with hopelessness where the churchy types embrace providence -” it is the will of God”- sort of thinking.  The death of his mother and then the wrath of a bully-man add further darkness to an already bleak existence.

Roddy’s personal narrative accounts for over half of the novel but there are other perspectives to consider. The reader is privy to the court proceedings, newspaper stories, medical and coroner’s report, character assessments, and other cronicles. An expert on lunacy examines Roddy and gives testimony that might have been darkly funny if it hadn’t been so disturbing.

Of course nothing is straight forward…and that is the point, I think.  Extenuating circumstances — maybe —maybe not!

I found this to be a fascinating and rewarding novel.

HIS BLOODY PROJECT Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae… by Graeme Macrae Burnet   Contraband Publishing (2015) 288 pages

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, historical fiction, Scotland, Uncategorized

PLAGUE LAND (2014),THE BUTCHER BIRD (2015)…by S.D. Sykes

BUTCHERPLAGUE LAND

HISTORICAL FICTION

Before I have my say on these two books, I would like to introduce three quotes that I believe to be relevant to today’s books.

All great changes are preceded by chaos. Deepak Chopra

Without a struggle there can be no progress. Frederick Douglas

Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested  interest in the chaos in which they exist. Richard Nixon

So I think I will be discussing change.

In 1350 England was a changed country. Between one-third and one-half of the population had been wiped out by the plague and the survivors were living in fear and accompanied by grief. The plague years had not been productive and many citizens were also starving to death. And the great manor houses had not been unaffected. Young Oswald was recalled from his situation in the monastery when the Lord of the manor, the heir, and the spare suddenly and quickly succumbed to the plaque. I am referring, of course, to his father and two older brothers. Oswald was probably not well suited for the job ahead of him – he had been in the monastery since the age of seven, and at 19 he had no practical training.  England was still operating under the feudal system (fortunately the author explains that a little in the glossary) but all was not running smooth. So many people had died that the able bodied labourer had become quite precious. It was a matter of supply and demand. Laws had been in existence for centuries that bound the various levels of tenants, serfs etc. to the manor house and the wages were also set in stone. But fields needed to be harvested and if someone else was willing to pay more coin in the next county then the labourers might think about relocating. Lord and labourer would both be breaking the law but the number of sheriff’s men had also been reduced in the Plague years. Desperate times bring desperate measures and all that. And young Oswald had more problems…After finding a murdered girl he needed to find the culprit and deal with the priest that was telling everyone that “dog head’ creatures are doing the killing to avenge their sins.

Both these novels center on a murder and throughout the investigations Oswald is hampered by the superstitions and beliefs of those involved.He also needs to appease his narcissist mother and sour sister (although I think I would have been “sour” too if I had been a woman in those times.)

I enjoyed reading both these book for the insight into a difficult time and because I like a whodunnit.

 

PLAGUE LAND by S.D. Sykes (2014) Hodder & Stoughton 324 pages

THE BUTCHER BIRD by  S.D. Sykes (2015) Hodder & Stoughton 336 pages

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, General fiction, historical fiction, Historical mysteries, mystery fiction

THE ISLAND HOUSE …by Posie Graeme-Evans (2012)

SCOTTISH ISLAND FICTIONisland house

I adore Scottish Island fiction and I was fortunate to find this novel at my local library. This is a dual-timeline story where both narratives center around a Scottish Island called Findnar (a fictional island) In the modern tale, the reader is introduced to young grad student named Freya Dane, who has just inherited an Island from her recently-deceased archeologist father. Freya had been estranged from her father for many years but she is also an archeologist and she is curious to learn more about his research – and maybe more about him.

The narrative switches back and forth between Freya’s story and the story of Signy – a Pictish girl in 800A.D. The time period is significant because it was a time of conflict between the Vikings, the Picts, and the newly arrived Christian community.  Signy’s entire family is slaughtered in a Viking raid and she taken in by the Christian community survivors. She also falls in love with an injured Viking youth left behind by the raiders. This story-line is interesting and  I’m thinking that the appeal should be quite timely; especially since tv shows like “The Last Kingdom” and “Game of Thrones”  have popularized hairy, tattooed men with swords, and clubs, and berserker warriors. Fun stuff.

Signy’s story is really quite interesting but I have to admit that I found Freya’s story dull . And her romance – yawn.

THE ISLAND HOUSE   Atria Paperback   2012   448 pages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, historical fiction, Scottish Island Fiction, Uncategorized

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN … by Amy Stewart (2015)

Historical Fiction Novel

GIRL WAITS

This novel begins in 1914 as three American sisters are heading into a nearby town, from their rural farm, to pick up a few provisions. Suddenly a motor car, driven by a young factory owner, slams into the ladies’ pony cart, causing extensive damages and narrowly avoiding serious physical harm or death. This is the only form of transportation for these three women so elder sister Constance has the  damages assessed and sends the bill to the factory owner. He ignores it. Constance decides to take the factory owner to court. At this point in the story the factory owner – a man by the name of Henry Kaufman – enlists his group of thugs to systematically harass, stalk, blackmail and endanger the three sisters. Not a nice guy.

One of the best aspects of this fiction novel is that it is based on the real life story of Constance Kopp – a woman who became America’s first female sheriff.  The factory owner is pretty easy to dislike; he sees himself as an entitled man with his inherited wealth,  and his treatment of all women and his employees is despicable.  Of course these events took place one hundred years ago so things would be different now (we wish –think of affluenza teen in the U.S.A.)

This is a great book to read for fans of strong female characters. Don’t suggest to these ladies that they may improve their life by finding a man to marry them. They will do whatever they can to stay together.  In their past we find that they would handle a problem “head-on” and find a solution, And yes they had problems (even secrets).

The ladies find assistance from the sheriff. He’s a good sort and not afraid to ruffle some feathers.

Throughout the story the woman have other difficulties as well, especially their dwindling cash reserves. They have recently realized that they can’t keep selling off packets of the farm or they will soon have nothing. Youngest sister Flaurette has some sewing talent but A paying job would sure help.

Perfect for fans of female fiction and historical fiction.

Possibly first of a series.

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN      HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT PUBLISHING      2015       408 PAGES

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, General fiction, historical fiction, Mysterious Ladies

THE GILDED HOUR by Sara Donati (2015)

THE GILDED HOUR HISTORICAL FICTION

I first encountered the novels of author Sara Donati Years ago when I was looking for something to bide me over until Diana Gabaldon came out with her next OUTLANDER novel. I loved the outlander novels and someone suggested I might enjoy INTO THE WILDERNESS (1998), as it too was a sweeping historical romance-adventure (without the time travel)set in America in the 18th century. I loved it enough to quickly read all six books in the series – often collectively referred to as “The Wilderness Series”.

In 2015 Donati published a new book called THE GILDED HOUR which she promises will be the first in a new series. This novel opens in 1883 and many of the protagonists are descendants of characters from her “Wilderness” series – a clever way to appeal to a built-in fan base.

The reader is introduced to the upper-middle-class, New York City home of elderly Aunt Quinlan. This eighty-something lady lives in the home with her nieces, who are both physicians. Aunt Quinlan was once Lily Bonner; conceived in the first Wilderness book and born in the second. The author should have included a family tree because there are characters from three different branches of the Bonner family. Fortunately, the motivated reader can access a family tree at thegildedhour.com. There is a noticeable lack of male relatives since the civil war was so thorough in cutting through the male population twenty years earlier. Photographs sit on the mantle – a sad reminder of the sons and nephews lost to war. The household is unusual for its time since it is a multi-racial home; and racism is an issue that the family must contend with everyday.

The actual phrase “the gilded hour” is used on the very last page of this novel, but I think it must also be a nod to a term coined by Mark Twain when he referred to the years 1870-1900 as the “Gilded Age”. Gilded on the outside but beneath the surface those years were characterised by crushing poverty, disease, prejudice, hunger, and horrible sanitation… Yet, the Vanderbilts could spend one million dollars on a single party.

I have made many references to Donati’s Wilderness novels but I need to be clear that the reader does not need to be familiar with those books to appreciate this one. This is the first of a series so some of the threads are left unresolved but there is one plotline that I felt should have been resolved in this book – my own opinion – but it just felt wrong. That is probably my main complaint but I think this novel is perfect for fans of historical-romance-adventure-fiction.

 

THE GILDED HOUR    SARA DONATI   2015    BERKLEY     732 pages

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, General fiction, historical fiction

THE ISLAND HARP by Jeanne Williams…..(St. Martin’s Press, 1991)

Scottish Island Fictionisland harp

The year is 1844 and Mairi and her family live a simple but satisfying life on the Island of Lewis in the Hebrides. They raise sheep, weave their tweed fabrics, farm, fish, and send their young men to fight in the English Queen’s army; all this to ensure their rents are paid to the factor and that they may remain on the land. But sheep are a more profitable use of the land than humans so they are deceived and men are sent to turn-out the villagers and burn their homes and processions. Mairi’s beloved grandfather is killed during this attack, although his prized harp is rescued.  The villagers are still dazed by what has happened when an Englishman, who has been renting a nearby estate, stumbles upon them and offers some temporary shelter. It is during this time of “the clearances” that many islanders will immigrate to North America or Australia but Mairi is determined to remain on the land of her ancestors.

Now allow me this awkward digression while I reminisce about a 60’s American tv show called “Green Acres” and trust me that I will eventually make a point about this. This is a very basic outline——-In this comedy sitcom, a successful Park Avenue lawyer leaves city life behind and purchases a farm (a fixer-upper in the extreme) and moves there with his socialite wife. On many occasions throughout the show, people ask this fellow (Mr. Douglas) why he chose to become a farmer. And he answers them. He usually delves into a speech about the farmers being the backbone of the country …. and ancestors turning to the earth……planting small seeds in the ground and watching plants shoot  into the air…..growing food and breathing fresh air…..and blah blah blah. During these speeches, the audience can hear a fife in the background playing a patriotic tune—usually Yankee Doodle or something.  Now here is where I make my connection, you see Mairi liked to give these impassioned speeches about her ancestors living on this land…the land and the music are a part of her….in her veins and body….and the unfairness of the English taking their land…and so on, and so on.  At this point I probably should have heard bag pipes or something in my head, but noooo—I had Pocahontas singing away. Weird right!  You think you own whatever land you land on, The earth is just a dead thing you can claim, But I know every rock and tree and creature, Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.  You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you…..”Colors of the Wind”
 Mairi gives alot of speeches and the reader is privy to her thoughts. Yeah so I spent a great deal of this book with Pocahonas singing in my head. It was like “don’t think of pink elephants” if you catch my meaning. I must say that “Colors of the Wind” is appropriate.

The Islanders have to deal with nonhuman problems as well –the potato famine, harsh weather, and angry seas. There is more to Mairi’s story but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory. I read some reviews before I read this book and some people found Mairi a little too headstrong but I liked her and I liked the book. Oh and there is a love story as well.

Leave a comment

February 6, 2015 · 12:39 am

THE SEA HOUSE…….by Elisabeth Gifford (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)

Capturesea houseScottish Island Fiction;

(Originally published as SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE)

I am enthralled with Scottish Island Fiction, and consequently, I am always trying to scope out a new book to feed my reading obsession. I’ve found one! THE SEA HOUSE is a dual narrative novel; a writing style that appears to be very popular of late.  I think of the authors Kate Morton, Lauren Wellig, Erin Hart, Susanna Kearsley, Diane Setterfield, Titiana de Rosnay and Ciji Ware (to name but a few) and their novels that feature the past and present intertwined. In “The Sea House” it is a house on the Isle of Harris that provides the link between the two narratives, and naturally it is a house by the sea.

The modern story begins in 1991, as a young married couple are attempting to renovate a dilapidated old house, with the hope they can run it as a Bed and Breakfast. As they lift the rotting floor boards in “the sea room” they make a gruesome discovery—the skeleton of a human baby with peculiar “fused leg bones”.  The police take the remains away but they can offer little information on this infant or why she was buried in such a manner. The wife, Ruth,  soon finds that she is beyond  curious about the baby and her research uncovers “a Reverend Alexander Ferguson” would have resided in the house during the approximate time-frame of the child’s death.

In 1860, Reverend Alexander Ferguson, is living in the sea house (it is the manse at the time); he tends to his parishioners but he also has a keen interest in Darwin’s work and an educational background in Scientific studies. Conflicting interests?–not for him, he has an answer for that. It is during this  time period  that the cruel Island clearances are taking place. Lord Marston is a despicable character whose greed and selfishness know no bounds as he ships the Island inhabitants off to other countries in filthy ships where death is a constant reality— all because sheep are a more profitable use of land than people.

This novel is heavily populated with the folklore stories of selkies,  mermen and mermaids (and some pretty darn interesting suppositions.)

On a personal note–I found myself caring about the 1860 characters (flaws and all) more than the modern Characters (and their flaws). By the end of the novel I thought I should have had more understanding for Ruth (maybe I did), but I just didn’t warm up to her. But I didn’t dislike her either–I was just sort of ambivalent.

This novel is delightful, insightful, interesting and enjoyable.

A great example of Scottish Island Fiction.

Leave a comment

Filed under book review, book reviews, books, historical fiction, Scottish Island Fiction