Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

This is a book I’ve had my eye on, on and off, for a while now. The title and cover grabbed me initially, and it sounded like the kind of twisted humour I quite like, but for some reason I’d never got round to it. Recently it became part of the Library Backlog (which has become large enough to warrant being a proper noun I feel).

It took me a while to get into this book, possibly because I’m having concentration issues at the moment. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would but it certainly wasn’t a bad start to a series, and by the end I was convinced to look for the others.

This is the start of a series about Lucifer Box, a British spy at the end of the last century. He’s certainly and interesting character – vain, arrogant, a bit of a cad but fairly heroic despite himself. In this adventure (and it’s definitely an adventure) he finds himself investigating the murders of a number of professors of vulcanology.

You do need a particular type of sense of humour to appreciate the book I think, but luckily mine is a bit warped. It doesn’t just rely on the humour though – you do end up quite liking Lucifer, and the actual mystery is well written and, if not quite believable, coherent enough to draw you in and work well in the context of this particular character. It’s a fun read, and I’m looking forward to Lucifer’s further adventures.

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Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

This is the third book in the Temeraire series, and probably my least favourite so far. It’s still very good, though, and I still recommend the series.

No sooner has their adventure in China finished when Laurence and Temeraire receive orders to go to Istanbul and carry three dragon eggs, one of which is fairly close to hatching, back to England. Needless to say this doesn’t go entirely smoothly, and they spend a lot of time caught up in the Prussian conflict against Napoleon which, again, isn’t all that successful.

This book is a bit more disjointed than the others, and there’s a point where I really dislike Laurence. I’d more or less forgiven him by the end though. I still love Temeraire, and there’s one intriguing new character I think might crop up again and one delightful one. It gives a new perspective on the war in comparison to the first book, one that gives a growing sense of frustration and hopelessness, which is interesting.

Another very good read, although I’m holding off on book 4 because a) I have a huge pile of library books to get through, and b) I don’t want to run out of Temeraire books too soon.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

This one was another Library Thing recommendation, and one that I really enjoyed. Flavia de Luce is nearly 11 years-old and a frighteningly clever child with a passionate interest in Chemistry, which she indulges in an old laboratory in the family home. Poison is a particular interest of hers. She lives with her distant father, two older sisters (with whom she is in a bit of an ongoing battle) and the family’s employees. When a body is discovered Flavia’s father is arrested, and she is left to solve the case.

This book is the first in a series and I’m really looking forward to the others. The mystery is well told, although I did guess whodunnit a while before the end it still kept me interested, and even once you know whodunnit it takes a while to piece together why. I loved Flavia’s character – she’s not an entirely believable 11 year-old but that really doesn’t matter. She’s intelligent and matter-of-fact with a wicked streak that I found strangely appealing. In some ways it’s a bit like A Series of Unfortunate Events for grown ups (this is an adult book), with an atmosphere a bit like Jonathan Creek.

I definitely recommend this and look forward to meeting Flavia again.

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

This is the second book in the Temeraire series, set in an alternative version of the Napoleonic War in which England has an Air Corps consisting of fighting dragons. Temeraire is one such dragon, and the one I completely fell in love with in the first book. Thank to the author I’m genuinely quite upset that dragons don’t really exist and I can’t ever have one 😉

I loved this book almost as much as the first. I say ‘almost’ not because it isn’t as good but because I was so excited at discovering a new series I knew I’d love when I read Temeraire, and as much as I loved this one it was less of a surprise if that makes sense. So no fault of the author’s there, the book is still fabulous and Temeraire is just as awesome. Possibly more so, because he can now speak three languages. There were also a few very minor editing quibbles I had which jarred a bit because I really can’t fault the rest of it. These are so minor, however, that it would be churlish to focus on them.

On to the good stuff: in this installment Temeraire and Captain Laurence must travel to China. China is not at all happy that a Celestial is in active service, as they are only intended to have royal companions, and demand his return. Neither Temeraire nor Laurence are at all happy with this and the journey is made in the hope that they won’t be separated. It’s a long and arduous journey, too far to fly and so made on an enormous dragon-transporting ship. The journey makes up most of the book, and just when you think it’s nearly over there’s the stay in China itself.

There’s so much packed into this book that again I had real problems putting it down. There are sea battles, sumptuous blankets, conspiracies, assassination attempts, gorgeous descriptions of China, meeting Temeraire’s family and an emperor, ghostly goings on, Christmas, Chinese New Year, a bit of not-so-friendly rivalry, a quite nasty skirmish on land and Temeraire’s growing realisation that, actually, his treatment in England isn’t all that great. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny  in places, and again managed to make me shed a tear (although admittedly I am soft beyond belief).

I definitely recommend this series and will be rushing out for the next one as soon as I can. Only being in a hotel in the middle of nowhere for the last few days has delayed me.

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

I fell utterly in love with this book and will definitely be buying the rest of the series.

I’ve been looking at the series in the fantasy section for a while; it’s not a genre I’m hugely familiar with so, despite being attracted to the cover art (the basis for an alarming number of my book choices) I hadn’t bought it but decided to go for it, and I’m really bad I did.

The book is set during the Napoleonic War in an alternate version of history in which, along with the usual armed forces, there is also the Air Corps which uses dragons. They dragons are intelligent to varying degrees and can talk. There is no magic or other fantasy in the book so it all fits very well and you could almost imagine that dragons really did exist. It starts with a Navy captain taking possession of a French ship along with its cargo which happens to be a dragon egg. With dismay the crew realise it’s about to hatch – dismay because dragons will only imprint on one person who then has to remain as their handler, a role that pretty much giving up any life outside the force and is generally met with disdain by the rest of society. When the dragon hatches it imprints on the Captain (who names it Temeraire), and this first book in the series mostly tells the story of Laurence and Temeraire adjusting to their new lives.

I grinned almost the whole time I was reading, apart from one section that made me cry, and I defy anyone to get through the book without wishing for a talking dragon. I’m giving it 5 out of 5 despite the fact that it doesn’t have the same depth as, say, This Thing of Darkness. It’s a reasonably short and easy read but hugely enjoyable.

The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George

This was a recommendation on Library Thing. I knew a reasonably amount of Henry VIII’s reign from my History A-level but that was a frighteningly long time ago now, and I thought it would be interesting to read things from his (fictional) point of view.

This was a very long book for me at just over 900 pages but wasn’t heavy going at all, it rattled along. Usually with longer books I read something alonside it but I didn’t want to for some reason. It didn’t grip me as much as This Thing of Darkness but was well written. There’s no bibliography but it does seem to be well researched.

The book is written in the form of Henry’s journal, with occasional notes from his fool. This works well to give the background of things, or to explain times when Henry wouldn’t have been able to write about what was going on. It’s cleverly done and convincing. I don’t think it’s changed what I think about him particularly but I did feel quite sorry for him at the end.

I’ll be reading some of her other books I think, and am especially interested in the one about Mary because my knowledge of British history is fairly slim after the year 1539, and this (along with some reference material to look things up) is a great way to learn more. I’m also interested in reading more about Henry VIII’s wives, though I don’t know whether Margaret George has written anything from their point of view.

Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn

I picked up Silent in the Grave, the first book in this series, following a glowing recommendation on another blog and I wasn’t disappointed. It started with a death, which turned out to have been a murder, and followed the investigation by Nicholas Brisbane, a slightly grouchy mysterious figure, and Lady Julia Grey, the victims wife. It was great, and I’d been very excited about reading the sequel.

Silent in the Sanctuary gets off to a necessarily gentler start – you can’t really start in the thick of the action in a sequel and it had to cover what Julia Grey had been up to, and manoeuvre her and Brisbane back together. It was well done, and the story didn’t lose anything for it. In fact I quite liked the chance to get to know the family and characters a bit better.

It didn’t take me long to read, mostly because I was enjoying it so much I raced my way through it. Grey and Brisbane are fantastic characters and work really well as a double act and the tension between them never gets tiresome or ridiculous – the will-they-won’t-they provides an edge to the story and a more pleasant backdrop to some of the grizzly goings on. The incidental characters are all likeable and believable. I didn’t guess whodunnit and there was plenty of humour along the way.

The next book in the series is due out in March I believe, and I’m really looking forward to it.

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

I really can’t say enough good things about this book.

It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Robert Fitzroy, the man who captained The Beagle while Darwin was a passenger. Darwin does appear in a large portion of the book, and there’s a lot about their friendship, but it does cover some of his career before that and up to the end of his life. Not the kind of thing I would usually pick up at all, but a friend from work was reading it and was so enthusiastic I thought it was worth giving it a go, and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

It’s a big book at around 750 pages, and took me almost two weeks to read (though I did read a couple of other books alongside it) – it never takes me more than a few days to read a book so that’s a long time for me – but I loved every minute of it and felt a bit bereft when it was finished.

I know shamefully little about that period in our history but there’s a reassuring bibliography and it appears to be very well researched. There’s an author’s postscript which is just as interesting as the rest of the book outlining what was real, what wasn’t and what happened to the people and places since.

It was fascinating to see the thought processes of both Darwin and Fitzroy (albeit fictionalised versions) as one developed his theory of evolution, and the other made significant, if ignored, advances in things like weather forecasting which. It’s a great inside into the culture and attitudes of Britain at the time and often made me quite angry at how we used to be – the attitude that all land was there to be taken, that the ‘savages’ were less intelligent, less than human and there to be used, that they could be ‘improved’ by teaching them English and saved by converting them to Christianity. Slavery has just been abolished but the culture is a long way from changing. The Old Testament is taken to be the literal truth of how the world was created.

There’s a lot of technical detail about the voyage, but not so much that it’s off putting. The language used by the author seems to be very faithful to the language of the time, but never becomes too heavy or overwhelming.

I’m recommending this to anyone who’ll sit still for long enough to listen at the moment, and if my To Read pile wasn’t so huge I’d already be reading it again.