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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

TaleofHilltopFarmWhy does the name Dimity appear only in a certain sort of British cosy?* I have never met (or even heard of) a real person named Dimity but one so-named occurs in Miss Read’s Thrush Green series, the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton, and Susan Wittig Albert’s series The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter (starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm). I view it as a kind of code. If I read the name Dimity then I promptly make my hot chocolate, put on my dressing gown and slippers, and curl up in my over-sized armchair for a cosy treat.

And for those readers interested in a cosy interlude The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter are indeed a treat. Beatrix Potter is of course a real person and Susan Wittig Albert researched her extensively and followed her life events as they are known. Beatrix Potter really purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in England’s lovely Lake District and spent increasing amounts of time there away from the overwhelming presence of her parents. But the series is highly fictionalized even though some of it reads as a travelogue as the reader learns about charming Hawkshead, and some reads as a romance as Beatrix Potter’s affection grows for lawyer Will Heelis whom Beatrix Potter married in 1913.

On the shelves of the Williamsburg Regional Library these books have a small purple magnifying glass sticker showing that they are classified as mysteries, although nothing disturbing or gory happens. In The Tale of Hill Top Farm the mystery arises from the death of elderly local spinster Miss Tolliver. Could it possibly have been foul play and is it related to the inheritance of desirable Anvil Cottage? Beatrix Potter has a trained artist’s eye and is soon in the thick of village affairs to solve the mystery.

Fans of Beatrix Potter’s famous books will be thrilled to recognize many animal characters such as Tom Thumb mouse, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog, and Kep the farm dog. Like Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s book creatures, the animal characters in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter can talk, but only to each other as the Big Folk generally don’t understand them. They also wear clothes, use furniture, and Bosworth Badger XVII is even writing a badger genealogy, but like Beatrix Potter’s animals they follow their animal natures in personality and appetite.

The books are nicely rounded out by a map, a cast of characters, a list of resources, and recipes (I highly recommend the Ginger Snaps!).

The Tale of Hill Top Farm is the first in the series that continues on with eight titles, the most recent of which, The Tale of Castle Cottage came out in 2011.

These books are great for fans of cosy British series like Miss Read.
I listened to The Tale of Hill Top Farm on audio and I can only say that narrator, Virginia Leishman, did a lovely job with just the right sort of British voice.

*And “cosy” not “cozy” is most appropriate since they are Very British.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm on CD.

 

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whistlingHere’s another fantastic book I read based on my colleague Nancy’s suggestion.  Like her last recommendation, The Supreme’s at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, this one takes a look at friendships and race relations in the South.

Starla Claudelle is an impetuous, spunky 9-year-old kid who learns a lot about the world during a two-week adventure in the summer of 1963.

Her mother moved to Nashville to be a country music star when Starla was just 3 years old.  She has vague memories of a beautiful woman with a lovely voice, and her most prized possession is a demo record her mama sent her a few years ago.

Starla rarely sees her dad who works on an oil rig in Biloxi. She is growing up under the care of her grandmother, Mamie, who doesn’t have a lot of patience with Starla.  Maybe Mamie is just worried that Starla won’t grow up into a proper young lady without the restrictions and high demands, or maybe she’s just got a mean streak…

After losing the privilege of attending her favorite holiday festivities because she was defending a younger girl against a bully, Starla decides to sneak out for the 4th-of-July parade and get her share of candy. When she is caught by one of Mamie’s friends, Starla reasons that she might as well run away to Nashville and live with her famous mother instead of staying in Cayuga Springs and being sent to reform school.

There aren’t many cars on the road on the holiday, and Starla is beginning to rethink her impulsive action when a black woman pulls up and offers her a ride.  You know from the start that Eula doesn’t believe Starla’s story about why she’s on the road alone, but Eula takes her home anyway and eventually helps her get to Nashville to find her mother.

Through the course of the story Starla learns about kindness and meanness, justice and injustice, truth and lies. And the reader learns it, too, through her eyes.

I loved the way the reader, Amy Rubinate, handled the narration of the audiobook.  I particularly enjoyed Eula’s voice – soothing and calm. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say, especially after hearing Starla go on about something she was upset about. Rubinate received AudioFile’s Golden Earphones Award for her work on this book.

When I got nervous that Starla was going to get in a heap of trouble, what Starla referred to as getting a “red rage,” I had to turn off the CD and pick up the book.  It sounds silly, but I cared about the characters too much to listen to something bad happen to her or Eula.  And no, I won’t spoil the story by telling you whether my fears were unfounded.

I’d recommend this one to book groups looking for a something like The Help or as Nancy suggested, The Sweet By and By. There is a lot to discuss about friendship, family and racial tensions. A reading group guide is available online at the publisher’s website.

Check the WRL catalog for Whistling Past the Graveyard

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of Whistling Past the Graveyard

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bolithoThe end of summer seems a good time to pull out some old favorite titles and enjoy a last indulgence in pleasure reading before the busy-ness of Fall picks up. On a windy day, what could be better than a novel of nautical adventure? While I enjoy Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series about which Charlotte has written so well, I think that my favorite 19th century sailing novels are those of Alexander Kent.

Kent’s series chronicles the rise of Richard Bolitho through the ranks of the British navy beginning during the American Revolution and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars. Like O’Brian, Kent has a deep understanding of the art of sailing and of late 18th and early 19th century naval customs and traditions, and his books are richly descriptive without being dry. Kent also gives an interesting picture of all the behind-the-scenes trades that are essential to a successful voyage: ropemaking, supplying ship’s stores, and so on.

These are character-driven stories, and Bolitho is always at the center. Over the course of his career (and the series) Bolitho often finds himself challenged by orders that conflict with his sense of honor. This conflict between following one’s duty or one’s moral code is a central theme here. The secondary characters, from newly minted sailors to the lords of the Admiralty, are all equally well-drawn. Kent’s ear for dialog shines through.

The pace here is a bit faster than that of the Aubrey and Maturin books, and Kent offers readers a thrilling blend of naval detail and action. The series should be read more or less in order to get the full story, so start with Midshipman Bolitho, the first in the series.

Check the WRL catalog for Midshipman Bolitho

Read the series in ebook format, starting with a 3-in-1 collection The Complete Midshipman Bolitho

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saylorLoving historical mysteries as I do, I was surprised to find that I had not written about Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series before (well, I mentioned him in this review of Lindsey Davis’s Falco series). While I like the Lindsey Davis books quite a lot for their humor and wit and a well-crafted noirish feel to the mystery, Saylor’s novels are, I think, richer and perhaps more accurately capture life and culture in early Rome.

The series lead is Gordianus the Finder, a sometime investigator in the later days of the Roman Republic.  In many of the stories, Gordianus finds himself delving into the crimes that result from the struggle for power among the Roman elites. These books will interest anyone who delights in tales of political intrigue and backroom manoeuvrings. Throughout the series, Gordianus encounters historical figures — Cicero, Catalina, Caesar — and he frequently finds himself working for the state, occasionally against his better judgement.

Saylor’s mysteries venture into the darker side of human nature where Gordianus finds his sense of honor and ethics sometimes at odds with the wishes of his clients. Saylor has a firm foundation in Roman history and uses that knowledge to create a believable and realistic sense of place. The private lives of Romans of high and low birth come to life here, and the novels are an excellent introduction to the history of the end days of the Republic.

One appealing feature of this series is the way that Saylor’s characters age in a realistic fashion. In so many mystery series, the passing years have little affect on the main characters, but in the 30 or so years covered in the series, Gordianus experiences the inevitable changes that come with age.

If you like historical fiction or well-crafted mysteries, this is a series not to be missed.

Check the WRL catalog for Roman Blood

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ParisIf you enjoy sprawling stories that cover several centuries of history, you are probably already familiar with Edward Rutherfurd. He came to prominence with his first novel, Sarum, which tells the story of the land and the people of the Salisbury Plain in England over a period of about 10,000 years. He followed up that success with books set in Russia, London, Ireland, and New York, all in the same pattern. Rutherfurd uses the specific — stories of individual lives — to draw a picture of the whole; his books, as in yesterday’s post, are mosaics.

Character is at the heart of Rutherfurd’s novels, and Paris is no exception. Here, he follows the lives of four French families from the 1200s through the 1960s. He uses the ebb and flow of their personal and professional lives to track the life of the city, and does so in an eminently readable fashion. As in all his novels, Rutherfurd creates characters from all classes of society, allowing him to move smoothly from the lives and homes of courtiers and nobles to those of merchants and artists to the Paris underworld and its denizens.

Paris itself is a character here too, and the city comes to life in Rutherfurd’s telling. His attention to detail is always just right. There are no unnecessary facts cluttering up the story just to show the author’s erudition. Whether it is Paris during the two World Wars or in the reign of the Sun King, Rutherfurd creates a compelling and memorable portrait of a lively and engaging city. The fictional and historical characters blend easily together, and Rutherfurd creates dialog that rings true regardless of the time period.

Readers who like family sagas will find a great deal to enjoy here, as will fans of history, and lovers of Paris. If you cannot get away to the City of Light anytime soon, you could do worse than letting Edward Rutherfurd take you there in his book.

Check the WRL catalog for Paris

Or try the ebook version of Paris

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delderfieldOver the past few years, I have spent a lot of time reading both fiction and nonfiction set in the early 20th century, from just prior to WW I and the years immediately following the war up to the start of WW II. There is something about that time period that I find particularly compelling. Part of it is, no doubt, trying to comprehend the horrors of the war itself and the effect that it had on individuals and on the world. In R. F. Delderfield’s great academic novel, we see how a man, scarred by his service in the British Army in the fields of France, attempts to recover through his work as a teacher, just as his country attempts a similar recovery from its devastating losses.

We first meet David Powlett-Jones, shell-shocked and still recovering from injuries suffered when an explosion buried him alive, as he catches a train into the English countryside to apply for a position at Bamfylde School. Powlett-Jones has been brought back to a semblance of health, mental and physical, by a Scottish neurologist, who encourages him to consider becoming a schoolmaster, “imparting to successive generations of the young such knowledge as a man accumulated through books, experience, and contemplation.” Although the war interrupted his education, Powlett-Jones is taken on an instructor, and the novel chronicles his rise through the school to headmaster.

I love this book for the small portraits that Delderfield paints of the schoolmasters, students, and country folk in the neighborhood of Bamfylde. In a paragraph or two or three, each person is limned with compassion and a recognition that all of us have our strengths and weaknesses. Delderfield’s mastery is in building his lengthy story — 598 pages — with a multitude of smaller pieces. As with a mosaic, you can take as much delight in studying the tesserae as in looking at the whole.

Delderfield also excels at writing about the English countryside, for which he has a clear and deep affection. Here is a description of Powlett-Jones’s approach to Bamfylde:

Already the hedgerows were starred with campion and primrose, with dog violets showing among the thistles and higher up, where the rhododendrons tailed off on the edge of a little birch wood, the green spires of bluebell were pushing through a sea of rusty bracken.

Yes, I am easily won over by lists of flora, fauna, or geologic formations.

Delderfield does not shy away from difficult situations, and Powlett-Jones experiences triumphs and sorrows as he and the school navigate the turbulent years from 1918 to the beginning of the Second World War. But through all of these ups and downs Powlett-Jones emerges as a compassionate and thoughtful teacher, the sort we would all hope for at the beginning of a new school year.

Check the WRL catalog for To Serve Them All My Days

Read the ebook of To Serve Them All My Days

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crowsIt’s always exciting to discover that an author has returned to a series you thought had been abandoned. While browsing the stacks, I recently came across a new-to-me installment in the adventures of Sir Robert Carey, sixteenth-century Elizabethan courtier and crime solver.

These historical mysteries are set in the 1590s in Carlisle, on the border between England and Scotland, a frontier where blood feuds and cattle raids are what pass for law and order. Carey, taking advantage of his position as Queen Elizabeth’s favorite cousin, finagles a position as Deputy Warden of the West Marches to escape his many creditors and to be near his unlucky lady love, unhappily married to another man. When last seen, our hero and his trusty henchman, Sergeant Henry Dodd, had narrowly escaped torture and death at the hands of an enemy ranked high in Elizabeth’s court.

Picking up where she left off more than a decade ago, Chisholm has relocated her characters from the wild borderlands of northern England to the city of London. Carey is charged with looking into a botched execution in which the wrong man appears to have been hanged, drawn, and quartered. Meanwhile Sgt. Dodd, far from the kinsmen who might help him wreak revenge, decides to pursue city justice against their new enemy. While dubious that anything can be done with warrants and writs on paper, he hires the last lawyer in London willing to do business with them. It’s bad enough that their enemy can buy or terrorize anyone into silence, and that their lawyer seems to have his own agenda, but things really begin to look worrisome when their lines of inquiry point back to Carey’s own mother… a cheerful Cornish lady with her own letters of marque.

P. F. Chisholm is a pen name for Patricia Finney, who also writes sixteenth-century espionage thrillers. The mysteries have a lighter, more humorous tone, but in all of her novels she revels in the details of dress and weaponry that make the setting come alive, plus enough dialect and slang to make the glossary at the back a welcome appendix. Chisholm’s London is boisterous, smelly, and violent. Dodd’s sardonic view of the soft, decadent southerners and his daydreams of leading a great raid on the banks of London lighten the atmosphere; in fact, it isn’t fair to call Dodd the henchman in this one, he’s really the star.

If you’re new to Chisholm’s mysteries, don’t start here; there’s too much back story. Pick up the first book in the series, A Famine of Horses and carry on from there.

Check the WRL catalog for A Murder of Crows

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