17 October 2017

The Chalky Sea by Clare Flynn

Amazon UK £2.99 £9.99
Amazon US $3.85 $15.87
Amazon CA $20.40

This title is shortlisted for the October Book of the Month

Family drama

When I bought A Greater World by Clare Flynn, I didn’t know what to expect. Within a few pages I was captured not only by the writing and immersion into the historical period, but by the fine development of Flynn’s heroine over the years. When I was offered the opportunity to review The Chalky Sea for Discovering Diamonds, I leapt at the chance.

The Chalky Sea does not disappoint. The author knows Eastbourne, on England’s south coast, and has researched its history in detail, but she uses it deftly to illustrate her story and never allows it to cloy or bore as we see in some historical fiction. The detail is cleverly woven into the essential story of two people from different backgrounds, ages and character. One is intensely proper, emotionally defensive, an outsider in many ways, yet yearning for something undefined; the other, unsophisticated, even innocent, and wounded by betrayal.

War and its circumstances, give release to both; Gwen grows to recognise her emotions, to enjoy herself and express her feelings, Jim hardens up and achieves balance. Both step out of their previous worlds to cope with horror; we are with them not only in the harshness of the barrack room or battlefield, and the body count after a Luftwaffe raid, but also in the new friendships and sense of purpose in a period of violent change.

This is a stylish, unusual and well-written Second World War story which I heartily recommend.

© Jessica Brown

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16 October 2017

Across the Mekong River by Elaine Russell

Amazon UK £3.81 £8.27
Amazon US $4.90 $10.50
Amazon CA $13.31

Family drama
US / Laos 

By strict DDRevs definition this may not be Historical fiction, but…
Set mostly in the 1970s, which is not yet at our ‘pre-1950s’ rule, but with small parts before then and parts between 1978 - 1990, it is definitely a good read, and we are amicable to bending the rules occasionally if a novel has some form of historical-setting connection.

"In a California courtroom, seventeen-year-old Nou Lee reels with what she is about to do. What she must do to survive. She reflects on the splintered path that led to this moment, beginning twelve years ago in 1978, when her Hmong family escaped from Laos after the Communist takeover. The story follows the Lees from a squalid refugee camp in Thailand to a new life in Minnesota and eventually California. Family members struggle to survive in a strange foreign land, haunted by the scars of war and loss of family. Across the Mekong River paints a vivid picture of the Hmong immigrant experience, exploring family love, sacrifice, and the resiliency of the human spirit to overcome tragic circumstances."

Across the Mekong by Elaine Russell was a most enjoyable and rewarding read. After a gripping prologue, the main narrative starts with a courtroom scene in California in 1990 where a daughter and father fight each other. This is interspersed with strands telling the story of this Hmong family from their time in Laos in the 1970s until then.

The parts set in Laos are the most gripping, with excellent suspense and compelling characters. The thoughtful and well-written portrayal of the complexity of the political situation and the inclusion of plenty historic details made this very addictive reading for me.

Once the family enters the US, the mood and pace of the novel change. The second part is equally well written and illustrates the immigration experience from multiple viewpoints, although I missed the urgency of the first part a little.

I would thoroughly recommend this book to all who would like to dig a bit deeper into this era of not-too-distant world history. 

© Christoph Fischer

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15 October 2017


Today: our 

 ‘The historical novelists’ historical novelist’ . . .
A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett (1923–2001)
By J.G. Harlond

There are two sets of Dorothy Dunnett historical novel series on my bookshelves, plus two copies of King Hereafter: a few are hardbacks the rest are now dry, cracked-spine paperbacks, whose pages are so yellow and print so small that I struggle to read them – but I still do. I’ve bought a few replacements over the past forty years, but somehow can’t bring myself to throw or even give away the originals. The other curious thing about these old books is something very modern. Without strapping any box to my head or standing in any man-made cubicle they produce a form of virtual reality. Just by looking at a title I can see scenes. Stills and moving images hang in the air: a joyous youth riding an ostrich, the same man now older rides a silken-hide camel; a little boy with sturdy legs runs through apricots drying on a rooftop; a vast eagle swoops across a snowy waste onto an arm; a mad, brave youth runs across moving oars and marries a woman with ‘spawn-like’ eyes . . . 

If you recognise any of these scenes you probably qualify as a Dorothy Dunnett fan, and are very likely a ‘historical fiction junkie’. That’s what I was told Dunnett fans were a few years ago. There are currently three Facebook groups for Dunnett fans that I know of. I dip in now and again and am always rewarded by some insight into a bit of history or details on one of the many locations. The news on one, as I write this, is from a student in Australia who is writing her MA dissertation on Dunnett.

for Dorothy Dunnett


14 October 2017

1066 Turned Upside Down by Nine Authors

The Battle of Hastings 14th October 1066

Amazon Universal   special offer $0.99 £0.99 this weekend only
   (usually) £1.98  / $2.45

11 stories by nine authors: Joanna Courtney, Helen Hollick, Anniw Whitehead, Alison Morton,Anna Belfrage, Richard Dee, Carol McGrath, G.K. Holloway, Eliza Redgold

alternative / 'what if?'
England / Normandy/ Denmark

'Ever wondered what might have happened if William the Conqueror had been beaten at Hastings? Or if Harald Hardrada had won at Stamford Bridge? Or if Edward the Confessor had died with an heir ready to take his place? Then here is the perfect set of stories for you. ‘1066 Turned Upside Down’ explores a variety of ways in which the momentous year of 1066 could have played out differently. 

Written by nine well-known authors to celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the stories will take you on a journey through the wonderful ‘what ifs’ of England’s most famous year in history.'

There are brief historical notes to guide the reader who is unfamiliar with this period, and a few suggested 'follow-on' questions for schools, reader groups - or just your own entertainment. 
The e-book remained in Amazon's UK top ten best seller ranking list for four months, and is still in the top twenty-five.

This interesting alternative history of England’s tumultuous year 1066 is a collaboration of nine authors, each a successful writer of his/her own historical fiction novels: Joanna Courtney, Helen Hollick, Anna Belfrage, Richard Dee, G.K. Holloway, Carol McGrath, Alison Morton, Eliza Redgold, and Annie Whitehead.

In 1066 Turned Upside Down, each writer envisions a fascinating “what if” version about that fateful year in England's history. And with each outcome, modern man would have inherited a much different world, in some instances giving rise to my notion of “too bad it didn’t happen that way.”

I must confess to not knowing much about this time in England’s long history. However, having read James M. Hockey’s excellent “Edith Fair as a Swan: Tales of Bowdyn 3” (an excellent series, by the way), I was at least familiar with King Harold’s common-law wife Edith.

Because of this, and the excellent Foreword by C. C. Humphreys, I enjoyed the “what if” scenario in 1066 even more.

© Inge H. Borg, 

13 October 2017

Kitty's Story by Fenella Forster

Amazon UK £4.99 £12.95
Amazon US $6.50 $16.99

Family Drama
England, Cairo and Rome

Katherine Bishop is seventeen years old and she has two dreams: to sing and to 'do her bit' for the war effort. Against her father's wishes, she runs away from her home in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, to London hoping to fulfil at least one of those dreams. Eventually she passes an audition to join ENSA, despite being just too young, and is posted to Egypt. Unfortunately, there are always petty jealousies and Katherine (now known as Kitty Townsend,) falls foul of the leading act, messes up on her début and is almost sent home before she has even started. But she has friends and thanks to the intervention of an Italian officer who is a prisoner of war, she is kept on and begins the difficult climb to success. Needless to say, she falls in love with the Italian, but when she is ordered to spy on him to establish his loyalties, a disaster is inevitable.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book with some plot twists that will have you gasping 'I didn't see that coming'! Kitty is very likeable and very well portrayed as she transforms from naïve dreamer to experienced realist.

The cover is most distinctive and extremely eye catching, depicting Kitty as she first sets out on her journey. Superbly designed, except there is an error in it - and to criticise it is to be very picky in the extreme, as only ‘anoraks’ like myself would spot it, so it's no big deal! (But for those with an enquiring mind… see below.)

Although part of a trilogy called The Voyagers, this volume is eminently readable as a stand alone and it is not necessary to have read any of the others as they deal with different generations. On the evidence of this story, I would recommend the others purely on the skilful plot and excellent writing.

© Richard Tearle
Shortlisted for Helen’s Book of the Month

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(Kitty would have taken the Great Eastern Line from Norfolk to Liverpool Street in London. The locomotive pictured is an LMS [London Midlands] loco.)