Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu

I was lucky enough to get a place on Tandem Collective’s readalong for ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ by Melissa Fu. Now, this is probably a book I would not normally have read. In fact, as it is historical fiction, I would possibly have avoided it, as it is my least-favourite genre. However, this would have meant I would have missed out on one of my favourite reads of 2021 (especially as it is not even let out into the world yet).

Inspired by Melissa Fu’s own family story, this book takes us on a journey with Meilin and her son, Renshu. They are forced from their home during the second Sino-Japanese war and, from that moment, the are forced to move from place to place until they can find a place to settle and call home. Along the way, they encounter tragedy, friendship and the desire to survive – with Meilin doing all she can to protect her son and ensure he has the future opportunities she believes her deserves. And – then we explore the lasting impact these experiences have on all generations of the family.

It is an absolutely beautiful book. A true page-turner, and one that will leave you with a desire to find out more about China’s history, to bring the narrative to life even more.

And any bookworm will fall in love with the important role that stories play throughout the book – after all they can often bring us hope in the toughest times.

So, when ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ is released in 2022, please pick up a copy and find yourself in the company of Meilin and Renshu.

The Duchess by Wendy Holden

I was lucky enough to be selected to take part in ‘The Duchess Readalong’ with Tandem Collective UK, and they kindly gifted me a copy of the book by Wendy Holden too.

I am always a little cautious of historical fiction, as I have known people to read it and take it as fact. However, ‘The Duchess’ had me hooked, especially as I do have quite a fascination with Wallis Simpson and her impact on the royal family.

This is a beautifully written book. Totally absorbing. And fascinating as this is really about Mrs Simpson before she became ‘the woman who stole our king’. If she ever actually was – the story will certainly have you questioning that popular culture view of her. This novel presents a very sympathetic view of Wallis Simpson, and I think that is what keeps you reading as you realise what a complex character she actually was.

You can also not read this book without falling down a ‘royal rabbit hole’. I was keen to find out more about so many of the figures of this book. And, as I was doing this, it was convincing me that Wendy Holden had certainly done her research to write this book – and the narrative throughout this novel also supports this, as this is not written to over-dramatise any of the events.

I reallt enjoyed this book and feel very lucky to have had the chance to read it. I am certainly keen now to read ‘The Governess’, as – let’s be honest – the British royal family is an institution that is full of stories.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

When my lovely book buddy Charline suggested we had a buddy read of ‘The Underground Railroad’, I was up for it. We had both loved ‘The Nickel Boys‘, so agreed this needed reading.

‘The Underground Railroad’ is an absolutely stunning book. A powerful and emotional read from page one – and an education. Cora is enslaved in the American south – and then she meets Caesar, who encourgaes her to run away, telling her that the whispered-about underground railroad will take them to their ‘freedom’. Will Cora ever be free? There are Slave hunters, prejudice and ‘Manifest Destiny’ to tackled…

Colson Whitehead writes beautifully though-provoking books and starts conversations. This book has made me immediately want to be better educated about the experiences of different cultures in America. And really consider the dominance of white culture in a land that they took control of.

I hope that everyon will take time to read the works of Colson Whitehead, because he has so many important stories to tell.

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne Du Maurier

This was my pick for April for ‘The Unread Shelf Project 2021’. I have read ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Jamaica Inn’ as I am sure many of you have; however, ‘The Glass-Blowers’ was a book I was not familiar with.

This is actually a really fascinating read, as Daphne Du Maurier based it on her own family history. Based in France at the time of the French Revolution, this tells the story of a family of glass-blowers, the path the siblings take, and the choices they make based on their beliefs and ideals – creating divides and secrets in the family, some with tragic consequences.

At times, the story is truly heart-breaking as Sophie is at points torn between each of her siblings despite loving each of them dearly. Unfortunately Robert is quite a disagreeable character. Ideas above his station, and poor life choices, lead to him leaving quite a trail of destruction in his wake. Although, that is all part of the story, as many of the characters are also not his biggest fans.

This is a book that has reignited my interest in the events of the French Revolution. And, as you would expect from any work from the pen of Daphne Du Maurier, it is beautifully written and engaging. I really enjoyed this piece of historical fiction and, for me, it cements Daphne Du Maurier as a truly great novelist of many genres.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Finally I have dipped my toe into the world of Greek myth retellings. Thanks to two lovely bookstagram buddies, I picked up ‘The Song of Achilles’ for a buddy read.

I really enjoyed this book, so, again I am left pondering why it has been left so long on my to-be-read pile and maybe the others in this genre should be picked up sooner rather than later. (I realise you can all hold me to that when I am still to pick them up – so many books, so little time.)

‘The Song of Achilles’ is a retelling of the story of Achilles from the point of view of his loyal lover Patroclus. From their first meeting until their inevitable separation, we follow them as Achilles can not avoid living to fulfil the prophecy, evern if it leads to a heartbreaking conclusion. With much of this tale set during the war with Troy.

This is possibly one of the most beautiful love stories ever told. However infuriating Achilles can be at times, with his arrogance, the love he and Patroclus share is true. It worried me that some of Patroclus’ actions are due to him being blinded by love. However, it is clear that they are meant to be.

This book is a nice way in to an interest in the Greek tales. I am now interested to find out more. I have an awareness of a lot of the famous figures and tales, but this has certainly given me a desire to find out more – it is certainly complex. Although, I do have some issues with the treatment of women, one of the strongest characters in this book is Briseis. Despite starting as a prize from warm she becomes a loyal friend to Patroclus, even falling in love with him. She is certainly a balance, and a very strong woman.

This is a beautifully written book which engages the reader from the start. And the final two lines of the book are some of the most moving I have ever read.

A Cellist Soldier by Robert J Fanshawe

This is a book that I have been lucky enough to read as part of a blog tour. Historical fiction is not my genre of choice, but I am always trying to improve this,s and this was an excellent opportunity. Like so many of us, World War One is a time of our history that I have always been interested in and in my day job as a history teacher is is one of the topics that I think is essential to teach.

So, as I picked this book up, I was not sure to expect – or how I would find it to read (subjects I find emotional I often put off reading). However, Fanshawe’s book is a very good read. Although a slow paced tale in parts this, for me, adds to the narrative as you almost feel like you are reading it in real time. You are experiencing what ‘Cello’ is experiencing as it happens. This also makes this books quite an emotional read as you go.

I do not like to reveal spoilers or too much of the tale when I write about a book. All I want to say is that this book, set during 1917 and the battle of Arras, is about one soldier’s (‘Cello’) personal convictions and struggle between what he believes is right versus the expectation of the establishment. Also, the impact that goes on to have, not just on him but also his friend, Ben.

You are left really thinking about the idea of justice, the value of the life, and personal convictions, as well as the impact that war has on so many – not just those present in the moment.

For a thought-provoking read, I would highly recommend this book as one to pick up.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I have enjoyed all of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books that I have read. So, as you can imagine, I was excited to give ‘The Mercies’ a go. You may have noticed that I don’t often read the blurb that goes with books by authors I admire, and that was exactly the case with this book – and, on this occasion, that paid off as I am not usually a fan of historical fiction, so I may have been a little put off. However, with this novel, the history is not the star (don’t get me wrong, I want to learn more) but is simply one part interwoven into an excellent narrative. This book is about so much more; it is about relationships, beliefs, ideals and the misconceptions that can come from misinformation and some unfounded beliefs.

‘The Mercies’ is inspired by the real events of 1621 in Vardo. The focal point bein the witch trials and the attempt to spread Christianity in the belief that it could civilise the people (a story that has been repeated throughout history). But this novel also, reflects so much more. It also investigates gender roles and the impact that these have on people’s lives, and how any attempt to break away from a predefined ‘norm’ could lead to suspicion an misconceptions.

I really enjoy Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing style, which means, for me, that become really beautiful books to read and page-turners.

So, if you’re looking for a lovely lockdown read, support a bookshope and order ‘The Mercies’.

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

I have two confessions:

  1. I do not really like historical fiction, pre 1900 settings.
  2. I have never read Bernard Cornwell before.

So, ‘Fools and Mortals’ was a bit of a breakaway choice for me this month. It had been an impulse buy last year as I was attracted by the reference to Shakespeare (as many of you know, I am a huge Shakespeare fan).

This was a little bit of a slow burn for me, for the very reason I do not usually pick an historical novel, there is a lot of scene setting. I, of course, appreciate the need for this as we have to be transported to the era but I often find it causes my attention to wander (or that could be reading on the commute).

However, the idea of the story did grab my attention. The complex politics of being a ‘player’ in Elizabethan England. An England of quite diverse beliefs and power and, indeed, the pressure that Shakespeare and his contemporaries may have faced to be successful in their field. However, this tale also has a hint of crime fiction: when a valuable manuscript goes missing and Shakespeare’s own brother comes under suspicion, he must work to attempt to clear his name.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel, especially all the nods to the work of Shakespeare. But I do think I need to give Bernard Cornwell another go with a different book to really form an opinion.

Any suggestions from you lovely readers about other Cornwell books I could try?

Munich by Robert Harris

I am not usually a fan of historical fiction. Usually, the reason being that they do not seem to get the balance between description and narrative. Setting the scene often seems to come at the cost of the narrative. However, Robert Harris does not fall into the trap. I do not know if it is because he covers events (in this novel) that people may have a little general knowledge of and, therefore, he does not have the same need to paint a picture, as his narrative does it for him with some of the characters that are really rather well-known.

Munich covers those events that happened immediately before World War Two. The meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain is imagined in Harris’ novel. Not only is that played out as the Allies are desperate to avoid a second war, but two young men, one on each side, may carry secrets that could change the course of history. Can the friendship and experiences of the past help change the events to come?

Munich carefully blends historical events and characters with fiction to create a thrilling story. You feel as though you are part of the events, experiencing the complex relationship between the leaders, almost as a fly on the wall. As tension builds elsewhere, you hope that right will triumph over wrong (even though you know the true outcome of events).

This is the first of Robert Harris’ novels I have read with a historical connection (I did read Conclave) but it has certainly made me keen to read others.

Do you enjoy historical fiction? Any suggestions of novels to try?

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is a title that I had spotted in the bookshops many times but had never quite got around to picking up. However, not so long ago, a lovely friend handed it to me and simply said ‘You need to read this, you’ll love it.’ And she was right! (Don’t you love having friends who know you so well they can pick books for you?)

I won’t lie, I was mildly concerned about the length of the novel, as I am not usually one for weighty historical fiction. However, a huge part of the charm of this book is that it is written in short, sharp chapters that allow you to process the story and keep you turning the page.

The two central characters are so wonderful, you fall in love with them as soon as you start seeing their story unfold. Marie-Laure is a wonderfully strong female character. She shows that, against all odds, people find strength to survive and achieve their dreams. Werner, meanwhile, is a boy who clearly finds himself torn between the desire to do the right thing and to grab opportunities that will give him a ‘brighter’ future.

One of the real skills of this storytelling is the clever way that the stories of these two characters cross over. Ultimately, a random series of events but almost shared experience draws Marie-Laure and Werner together. We also see that there is always kindness and the desire to do the right thing, whatever side war may put you on.

The novel certainly has an emotional conclusion, but it is wonderful that it shows the power of happy memories and the kindness of strangers.

Have you read any books that you have found to be a real surprise with how much you loved them?