Roses of Marrakech by Rachel Clare – A romance in time and place, 1944 to 2016.

 

A story of place, of love, of secrets revealed; this is a book which encompasses a lot in its substantial length. Ivy is a young woman who has had self image problems for many years, but despite everything has created a life for herself, albeit devoted to teaching. It is only when her beloved great aunt Rose dies that she decides to explore something else- the beauties and textures of Marrakesh in Morocco. This is a book where stories are revealed and the price of real love shown. A book of enormously beautiful writing, depicting a life lived in England full of family and countryside, contrasted with an in depth tour of the main sites and hidden corners of Marrakesh.

 

 As Ivy walks the tiny byways of the city where history burns so brightly, she also reads of her aunt Rose and her venture into a great experience of love. It is only when Ivy discovers herself also facing the adventure of love with all its stresses and pitfalls that she understands what made Rose the woman she became and showed to a small girl who was so shy. This is a book of contrasts, of beautifully written descriptions, but also revealing great insights into love over many years and in several places. I was so entranced and am grateful to have had the opportunity of reading and reviewing this book. 

 

This book begins with the birth of Ivy, and her parents joy somewhat affected by the news that she has a permanent facial birthmark. As she grows she discovers that she is grievously affected and made unhappy by the attitudes of others to her appearance, but makes a great friend in a girl called Mei. Rose has died, but not without giving Ivy every element of love and support. Being a schoolteacher she decides to use part of her legacy from Rose to travel to Morocco for her long summer holidays alone. When she gets there she discovers a great love for the place, making her way among the small corners, markets and more. She makes a friend of the young son of the owner of the riad where she is staying, and falls in love with the place in which she walks and explores. Soon she meets a man who transforms her experience of the place in every way. At the same time she is reading Rose’s diary of her mysterious early life, her family and its losses. As her own love affair deepens, she discovers Rose’s own wartime romance and wonders where both loves are headed.

 

This is a big book with many elements to be enjoyed. Through it the reader discovers Marrakesh and the surrounding countryside. The people she encounters are all well drawn and so fascinating. The sights, smells and sounds of the streets around the riad where she is staying are wonderfully illuminated by the writing of Ivy’s story. The combination of love stories and wonderful writing of place makes this a truly special book. It is engaging in so many ways, and well paced in its gradual discoveries. A story of romance, of special places and discoveries, this is a splendid book which deserves a lot of interest. 

The Will to Succeed by Christine Raafat – Anne Clifford and her fight for her fights – a novel

Image result for "The Will to Succeed" Christine Raafat

 

Sometimes historical fiction can give the reader a whole new perspective on a period of time, and the sort of people who lived during a time of change and challenge. Lady Anne Clifford was a woman who had one focus in her life, the inheritance of her family’s lands. In the seventeenth century women of course were not generally seen as having independence; only an exceptional few were landowners in their own right. Her obsession dated back to the time of her father’s death, when she was only fifteen, and was informed that she would inherit a fortune but not the lands that had been entailed down the generations of her family.  From that point onwards she was willing to fight for what she believed she should have, and for that she was willing to endanger everything. This carefully written novel is a testament to the determination of a woman who fought everyone in a fiercely patriarchal society peopled with those who were influential and changeable. I found this a powerfully written and effective novel which feels as solid as a non fiction history book, but brings characters to life like the best of imaginative novels. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book.

 

Born in 1590, Anne was the only surviving child of the third Earl of Cumberland, and thanks to her mother, Lady Margaret’s, connections at the royal court she became a popular and admired lady in waiting first to Queen Elizabeth then among those in the court of King James and Queen Anne. It is when her wish of marrying Richard Sackville is realised that her determination to fight for her inheritance really comes to the forefront of the story. With a subtle hand Raafat describes a young couple very much in love. It is only when, following a long separation when Richard travels, that he falls under the influence of unscrupulous gamblers and  a corrupt court, that he seeks to redress his financial losses by commanding Anne to give up her claim to her lands in the north of England. The loss of trust, the legal inequalities which face Anne, and the varying fortunes of the couple and those around them make for a focus to a fascinating account of life in and around the royal courts of England in the 1600s.

 

I found this a carefully executed book, which gives a believable picture of life for a woman of determination and strength in difficult circumstances. There is an immense amount of research demonstrated in this book which never gets in the way of the story; the small details of jewelry, clothing and everyday life of travel and setting is combined to make a tremendous narrative. This is a novel of powerful women and determined men, long journeys across the country, and the dispute which had a serious effect on several lives. Anne’s story is indicative of the problems that many wealthy women faced over the centuries, that their lives, loves and children became ways of control over them as the second best gender. This is a fascinating novel , and I recommend it as a fine example of historical fiction with a unique woman at its centre.   

Empire’s Hostage by Marian L Thorpe – a historical fantasy with a powerful impact

 

A powerful and intense sequel to the impressive Empire’s Daughter, this book is a remarkable story of one young woman’s battle with an Empire and a kingdom. In a delicate balance between historical novel and fantasy, this precise and effectively written story of a challenging time in Lena’s life is remarkably full of suspense. In this second book of a trilogy there are moments of real cliff hangers when I quickly turned the pages to find out what happened next.  Lena has matured as a character and really developed as a Guard of The Wall, after her journey to find her partner, Maya. This novel stands alone as a story of a young woman in difficult circumstances, and I believe it could be enjoyed without having read the first book, as there is a careful creation of character. This is a book which is well constructed in its plot, and the characters have real presence. As with the first book, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book.

 

The books opens with Lena being an active Guard on the Wall, which is the northernmost boundary of the Empire. She has moved on from any link with her former partner and her village of origin, as she has found that she is a capable and responsible soldier. While there are few women who are prepared to fight, Lena and others work alongside the men with equal living conditions. The battles between the Empire and the people of Linrathe to the north of the Wall have led to a stalemate in which both sides are struggling for food in an area which has been stripped of crops and wildlife. Despite having met and established a relationship with Casyn, the Emperor’s brother, she is still surprised that she is chosen as his representative. Together with a young man called Darel she is sent north to what looks as if it may be an educational establishment and a time of learning about not only her people but those nearby tribes or peoples that have posed a danger. This being Lena she soon finds herself in trouble with all sorts of people, and is put at risk in many ways.

 

This book may not be based on a recognised country’s history, but it has nevertheless taken a lot of research into horse care, riding practicalities, foods, clothes and many other small details that makes this fantasy so solidly written. I found this a really convincing and absorbing read and I found myself trying to read faster to find out what happens to Lena and those she cares for. Thorpe has achieved a very difficult task; constructing a world with laws, rules, expectations and internal logic. She does this by creating convincing characters, even if they only appear for a short space of time, and watching the details that make a solid world. I thoroughly recommend this book for all fans of historical fantasy fiction with a solid background and a great deal of adventure.  

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd – six views of a world changed by one explosion

 

 

There are six characters in this book, all of them fighting against the odds. The reason is simple – the eruption of a volcano – Mount Tambora. The year is 1815, but it is a chilling suggestion of how the climate of the entire world can be changed by one event, as in Britain, in Europe, in America, lives are changed by what happened when a mountain just exploded. For although one character actually goes to the terrifying site of the massive destruction and sees at first hand the death and suffering, other people who had never even heard of that part of the world are affected. Ranging from a young girl fighting her world, a young woman, Mary Shelley who finds inspiration for one of the most famous characters in literature, to a famous painter who discovers a whole new style, this book has a huge scope of people in great depth. 

 

It is a fascinating read, with vivid descriptions of landscapes and seasons turned completely upside down, winter in summer, drought then heavy rain, hope then surprise. This book captures real human emotions as the world is changed, and the people who live through the time have to change as well. I found it an incredible read, which moved from character to character and maintained interest in every way. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this amazing book.  

 

The first character to be encountered is Henry Hogg, shown in 1815 as the young doctor is on board a ship heading towards a potential pirate raid as explosions have been heard. It soon becomes evident that something far more cataclysmic has occurred, and Henry describes what he sees and experiences in letters to his wife. 

 

Later in 1816, Mary Shelley has to cope with literary stars as well as the shortage of basic food  on a famous trip to Switzerland as she seeks inspiration for a story that will rock many people’s perceptions of life. John Constable, struggling artist and calculating if he can marry his beloved Maria, visits various parts of Britain and witnesses first hand the shortages of food and the desperation of the poor. Sarah is a girl for whom survival is difficult, as she seeks work in fields empty of crops and for bread that cannot be bought. Further afield, a young preacher, Charles, discovers the cost of love in a time of scarcity and summer snow. Hope Peter, experienced in war and army life,  discovers real danger when he returns to England from a famous battle.

 

Despite the desperation of several of the characters, this amazing book with its detailed exploration of a world undergoing a change through the lives of six people is a well paced book. It is a vibrant description which must be powered by immense research in social history, but this research is never allowed to intrude, as the author never loses sight of the real people at the centre of the stories. This means that the reader feels alongside the characters described, and gains a real sense of a time which made people question everything. I recommend this incredible book of historical fiction with a unique focus.  

The World of Wolf Hall by Sam Binnie – a free booklet introduces the new Hilary Mantel novel

Image result for the world of wolf hall reading guide"

 

The World of Wolf Hall by Sam Binnie (4th Estate)

 

Just a brief note about this “Reading Guide to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies” which is free in many bookshops at the moment. It is of course a trailer in book form for “The Mirror & the Light” , the concluding in a trilogy of books featuring Thomas Cromwell and his life and service in the court of Henry VIII. This much awaited book is due out on the 5th March, follows Wolf Hall (2010) and Bring Up the Bodies (2013). I was surprised how long ago those two books were actually published and started winning awards, most notably the Booker prizes.

 

I have read and re read these books and listened to them on audio cds, but I would be the first to agree that they are big books, and reading them is certainly a large undertaking. In a way, the second one is an easier read, if only because Mantel had sorted out the “He” ambiguity which meant that it could be hard work to sort out who was being described. Wolf Hall was the achievement, though; having read many historical novels and reviewed quite a few on this blog I would certainly say that Mantel’s novel broke the mode in its sensitive handling on a controversial but not well known historical character. They are intense books, with their focus on one man’s life, but which left huge holes in the background to this most enigmatic of men.

 

Which is a long way of saying that this booklet is a timely reminder of the facts, themes and style of the books before tackling the third novel. It saves rereading them, and enables the reader to follow the characters, dates and most significant events of the time before the beginning of the third novel. It also contains questions for reading groups who tackle the books, which includes the question about which household you would prefer to live in. If you have read the books, or are intending to get all three after the 5th March and set off on a reading marathon like no other, it would be well worth picking up this small but interesting book.  

 

 

Killing Beauties by Pete Langman – she-spies in Cromwell’s London – dangerous streets and people

 

Spies are fascinating, and spies in an historical period unburdened by difficult hi tech are even more involving. In this book the fact that the spies are very much women adds to its attraction, as both Susan and Diana spend the first part of the book using their unique talents to fool those around them. This book is set in the time of Oliver Cromwell’s ascendancy, in 1655. King Charles I is dead, executed by Cromwell and others who believed that it was the only way to end a series of battles, civil wars that had divided the not only the country but also families and friends. This is a book about a brutal time, when Charles who would be in time acknowledged as king Charles II lives in France, partly at the charity of the French king. Susan and others are maintaining not only the hope that this young man will return to his dangerous kingdom, but also making it possible that his supporters who will welcome him survive and thrive. In a state where a security system is being established, where casual brutality is accepted on the streets of London, where women are not valued for their intelligence or abilities, Susan must survive and act. This is an exciting novel, full of telling detail and vivid descriptions of a dirty and disturbing London, and very memorable characters. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent and exciting book.

 

This book begins with a powerful man in Cromwell’s service. John Thurloe is busy with a suspect, torturing him while receiving intelligence of the planned arrival of two further agents of the king’s cause. As Cromwell establishes himself as the effective ruler of the kingdom, two women come together in an inn  and receive their orders from Susan Hyde’s brother, the influential Edward Hyde, chief advisor to Charles Stuart in exile. The women, especially Susan, realise that the letter in its intricate packaging contains orders that not only put them at incredible risk, but will also challenge their abilities and reputations.  It is soon obvious that Susan is a woman of quick thinking and resource, as they pull off an impressive stunt which makes them “disappear”. There is a certain grim humour that runs throughout the book, as the women carry out small plots and actions that mislead and confuse the men around them. As Susan now has to plan a campaign that will involve a long term deception on a chief official, she obtains supplies and information that will give her access to the trust of her target. The men who work for Thurloe discover the benefits and challenges of pushing the edge of espionage and gathering knowledge of the supporters of exiled Charles. 

 

This is a sometimes shocking, sometimes surprising and always entertaining book. Susan trades on the fact that many women, lower class and working in the inns and back streets of London, were basically invisible and often fair game for men with a small amount of power and or money. Adopting one of the few roles that allowed women to move around London without suspicion, that of healer and midwife, she manages to gain access to men and places. There is a really special impact to this book, full of evident research which does not overwhelm the fiction, giving insight into the life of the most ordinary of people, whether apprentice, female innkeeper or others. This book is a superb picture of a troubled time in Britain’s history, whether spymaster or nearly invisible woman. Exciting, entertaining and always enjoyable, this is a novel which lifts history off the page, and is historical fiction at its best.      

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements – an historical novel of danger and revelations

 

In 1941 there were plenty of secrets as Hitler’s forces were in the ascendant. As even the vast Russian territory seems under threat, France has fallen, and America is on the edge of becoming involved in a war which is affecting all of Europe. Tom Wilde, historian and American, is asked to attempt the impossible, to retrieve a package from Berlin. This is the story of a man who must go deep into enemy territory, take on security services both official and unofficial, and move around an area already on high alert. As he tries to find a way through, he must try to determine who will help, and who is willing to kill to stop his progress. 

 

This is a grim tale, with little holding back on the brutality of a country at war and an individual taking huge risks. The unsettling theme of not knowing who can be trusted and who is playing a double game pervades the book, as every seeming advance is questionable. The book shows real audacity in its development of characters who have their own agendas which are not always obvious. As surprises occur, dangers mount up and the vivid picture of immenses risks occur, nothing is straightforward in a novel about a secret which could rock the German hierarchy. I found this a gripping and exciting book, in which nothing is predictable, and I was grateful for the opportunity to read and review it.

 

The book opens with Martin Bormann, Hitler’s closest personal fixer, having to deal with a situation which seems potentially difficult to sort out. He summons his useful and loyal unofficial agent, Otto Kalt. Bormann tells Kalt that his task is crucial and must be carried out correctly, as he realises that everything depends on it. Meanwhile, Tom Wilde is an academic in Cambridge, a historian and American. At this point he has been working on his German language skills, conscious that sooner or later he may well be called on to help in the war effort on Britain’s side. When he is approached he is shocked that he must go to Nazi Germany, as he does not have that much confidence in his ability to pass as a German. As an arrangement is made, he puts to his partner Lydia and the mother of his small son that he must leave Cambridge for training and preparation. He enters Germany with a weak cover story, and he is unaware of where the trail of the package will take him. 

 

This is not a restful, and occasionally brutal book. Clements’ eye for detail is impressive, as his research is incredible but not obviously written up. The reader discovers much about characters and situations in Nazi Germany alongside Wilde. Although the novel is in the third person rather than through Wilde’s eyes, the reader feels something of his confusion, fear and suspicion of those around him, just as he experiences some understanding of those he meets. This is an extremely well written book, full of tension, surprises and atmosphere. Just as Clements’ Tudor spy series creates a whole world of historical fiction, this is a terrific read that I found totally absorbing. I recommend this to all historical fiction fans, especially those who have an interest in the Second World War period.