Fair Rosaline by Natasha Solomons

I am (as I am sure you have noticed) a fan of Shakespeare. And I am definitely a fan of people having a go at retelling or exploring other possible narratives of his plays. So, when ‘Fair Rosaline’ was published last year, I knew I had to read it. Now, I appreciate that it then sat on my shelf for quite some time, but it was selected for me as my June pick for my Twelve Days of Bookmas, and I am glad that I have finally read it.

Rosaline is the cousin of fair Juliet. We meet her only in words in the play, and this story is the idea of life before Juliet meets Romeo – a time when Rosaline met Romeo. This is a fabulous premise for a story, and this is a beautifully written story. However, for me, there was a little something jarring about this book.

Natasha Solomon has told a great story, and she has a magical way with words, but the story felt a little like an agenda. A very feminist telling of the lives in ‘fair Verona’ – which is fine, but does not need to be so forced on the reader. I totally understand that, as modern audiences, we have some issues with the idea of age and relationships (rightly so); however, these issues were not the same in the historical context. It felt, all the way through, that we were constantly being told that the age gap in relationships was a problem, rather than it being implied to the reader. And Romeo is categorised incredibly negatively, which, again, may be how the author sees him, but may not be how all the readers see him, and they are not left to form any kind of independent judgement of his character.

It was wonderful to meet Rosaline and give her a voice, and I liked the reimagining of the ending. But, if this was not a story of before Juliet, it could be a fantastic, independent story with no connection to Shakespeare – and I would have enjoyed it so much more if this was just a story about a strong, independent woman called Rosaline, trying to stand up to the expectations placed on her by society. Especially as Rosaline is a character I admired: her character and her determination, and her belief in loyalty to those who deserved and earn it.

So, I am interested, have you read this one? I would love to know people’s thoughts, because I think I recommend this as a beautifully written book – but without the attachment to Shakespeare.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

My IRL book club has chosen ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent for the month of June. The choices were all based on the ‘Women’s Prize for Fiction’ back list but it was ‘Burial Rites’ that won the book club vote.

‘Burial Rites’ is a a truly brilliant read. I was hooked from the moment that I picked it up. It is haunting and beautifully written, based on a true story, a tale of the last execution to take place in 1830. And that execution was that of a woman, Agnes Magnusdottir (apologies: the spelling is missing some of the symbols needed on the letters). Now, this is no spoiler, as you can imagine her crime must be one of the worst if the punishment is execution – and it is; she is charged with being complicit in the murder of Natan, a man she has been in love with, and who she believed, or maybe hoped, loved her too.

This book is a fictionalised exploration of Agnes’ exprience as she awaits her execution, and the people who are responsible for her care, spiritually and physically, until that final moment. It also slowly reveals what had happened on that fateful night, and leaves us considering the morality of the execution.

I felt fully immersed in this world. I could feel the cold of 1830 in Iceland, and the isolation that Agnes felt in those final days. It evoked anger as I read about the moment that led to the crime with which she is charged, and the inequality of society as nobody appears to relate to Agnes and what happened because of her social background and her gender. She is labelled by her ‘guilt’ until others start to see past that, as they spend time together, and the sense of injustice starts to build.

The final pages are some of the best that I have read: I cannot share more than that as I do not want to spoil it for readers. But I almost felt like I was there in the final moments of the story, feeling all the emotions as the story drew to a close.

I am not sure I can do this book justice because I do not want to spoil the experience for other readers but this is a book that is going to become one of my auto recommendations when people ask for something to read. It will satisfy those who enjoy historical fiction; it will satisfy those who like a great story with fantastic writing, and it will satisfy those who enjoy crime fiction. To be honest, it will be a satisfying read to anybody who admires a well-constructed story with fascinating characters – whatever your usual genre taste is.

The Last Paper Crane by Kerry Drewery

Miss W (who we all know I share books with on a regular basis) offered me the chance to borrow ‘The Last Paper Crane’, which I jumped at as I have seen so many people love this book. And, Oh My Word, I can see why so many people love and treasure this book. In fact, it is a book that I am going to be encouraging everybody to read because I think there are so many lessons that can be learnt from this book, about the past, the present and the future.

I was also told that I would read this book quickly and that prediction was not wrong as I could not put this book down from the moment I started it. If it was not for the fact that sleep is fairly essential I think I would have read it in one sitting. And, it is not just the story that keeps you reading, it is the fact that this book is so beautifully illustrated and written that you become drawn in from the moment you start reading.

This book is about the tragic events in 1945 in Japan, when the USA dropped the two atomic bombs. This book is about the people and the places that were damaged and harmed after this terrible act of warfare and violence. But, this is most importantly a book about survival and hope.

Mizuki is worried about her grandfather, his wife has recently died and he seems to be struggling as she was the one person that he shared his hardest memory with from his past. Mizuki soon finds out that her grandfather is a survivor of the attack on Hirsohima, but that he lost so much in that attack and feels that he let down his friend Hiro because he did not save his friend’s younger sister, Keiko. Mizuki’s grandfather recounts his tale and how, when he gradually recovered from the attack he kept searching for Keiko, leaving paper cranes with his contact details anywhere he thought Keiko may be. Mizuki is inspired to try and help he grandfather ease the survivour’s guilt he has carried around him for so many years and help him understand that he has always done all he could.

This book is one of the most moving pieces of historical fiction I have ever read, and is a very special book that I would encourage young people and adults to read as it is a really special book. It is a book that readers will treasure for a long time and often return to. This is a book full of lessons for us all and one that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

I think this book has been on my shelf for about 3 years – which is terrible. However, it was picked as my May read for the ‘Twelve Days of Bookmas’ – and I am rather glad that it was.

I am not sure why it has taken me so long to pick up this book, but I think it may be because it was a book that slightly intimidated me. The title, the cover and the fact that it is historical fiction made me avoid it when it was sitting on the shelf, because I think I thought it would be something that I would find hard-going. However, I was wrong.

This book is incredibly readable as it immerses you in the world of the American West (a theme of a couple of my book choices this month, I wonder if I am missing teaching the topic – haha) but from a very different perspective to the usual tales. This is told from the point of view of a Chinese migrant family to the West – and this is something that really makes this book stand out – but it also sets up what you believe to be one story: the story of an ambitious but possibly slightly foolish man who believes that his fortune will be made in the American West, and that the next job, plot of land, or big gambling win will be the one. Yet, this is not the full story for this family and it may not have been Ba who had made all the choices after all, and established the situation that Lucy and Sam now find themselves in.

Lucy and Sam are orphaned and forced to embark on quite the journey, so that they can find the perfect place to bury Ba and work out how they will survive now that they are alone in the world. This journey becomes quite the adventure, and it becomes clear that, as the siblings try to find their new normal, they have different ideas about the past, and the memories that have formed who they are and how they see the world.

This book is beautifully written. The characters, and the wilderness and towns, are so vividly brought to life that you feel immersed in the world of the American West – and you can feel all the emotions that the characters are experiencing as they embark on their path of self-discovery. There are also some twists to the tale that keep you reading on – a couple of moments caused me to read past my bedtime, as I just had to find out more about the characters and the events of the past and present.

So, if this is a book that you have been considering, then take this as your sign to pick it up. And if it is a book that is new to you, I suggest you take a chance on it, because it is really quite an epic piece of historical fiction.

West by Carys Davies

I have recently discovered BBC Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read’, in fact I am not sure how I have not listened to it before as I am a big fan of radio and books, so this show is ideal. However, it is dangerous for my tbr pile. And the first book I have picked up since listening to the programme is ‘West’ by Carys Davies – which has also been recommended by the author Bobby Palmer.

This book is brilliant, a short but beautifully crafted novel, that I have recently discovered was Carys Davies’ debut novel, where not a moment on the page is wasted for the reader. A story of a desire for adventure, but at the cost of a father-daughter relationship. Cy Bellman heads off on an adventure, very possibly to avoid the grief of having lost his wife, but leaves his daughter at home, despite the fact that she asks him not to leave. And this is not the only odd decision made by Cy; there is also the purchase of a certain hat.

However, Cy Bellman is not the only person journeying to and through the West. He meets different characters along the way, including a Mountain Man and Native Americans – their lives, of course, impacted by the arrival of the Europeans as they continue to spread their influence from the East Coast of America to the West. However, some very important relationships are made along the way, and one which will save Cy’s daughter, Bess, when she least expects it.

There is warmth and humour in this book, which sits side-by-side with some of the more difficut topics that Carys tackles on the pages. For me, I was questioning the ease with which Cy walked away from his daughter and left her to the mercy of the men of the town – although he provides the saviour she needs without even knowing it.

I can see exactly why this is a book that is recommended by so many. And it is one that I will be recommending too. This is a lesson in writing a small but perfectly formed novel. It is a book that I will read again, as this is a part of America’s history that I find both fascinating and incredibly sad as Europeans made their way across the country. This is a story that can start discussions, and hopefully encourage people to learn a little bit more about American history.

As this is a Carys Davies’ debut novel, from 2018, that means that I have some more books to catch up on to bring me up to date to her latest release, ‘Clear’.

Past Caring by Robert Goddard

When I was at my IRL book club in January, one of the lovely members recommended the books of Robert Goddard to me – thrillers with a link to history sounded like a great read to me. And one that involves the Suffragettes sounded even better. So on my return from book club, I looked up ‘Past Caring’ by Robert Goddard and thought I would give it a go. Especially as I am trying to read books recommended to me a little more, and a little more timely (rather than waiting for months).

This book was fantastic. Considering (as I have said many times) I do not read the blurb, I was not entirely sure what I was expecting other than the words used when it was recommended to me. This is a historical mystery: why did Cabinet minister Edwin Strafford resign when his career seemed to be on the up? That is what Martin Radford is asked to find out. And it takes him on quite an adventure – and one that becomes a little more dangerous and thrilling than he could ever expect.

Edwin Strafford introduces us to his story through the pages of his memoir; Martin Radford’s job is to find out if Strafford is a reliable narrator or not. This leads Martin into a web of lies formed by the new family of Strafford’s former fiancee’s family – a family that Martin is closer to than he realises. Although there was one secret or twist I worked out as I read the book, this did not spoil the story. In fact, I was so invested in Strafford’s story and how he had been treated that solving that one mystery felt like an achievement (and made me dislike the villain of the piece even more).

This was so well plotted, with so much history entwined with the fiction of the thriller, that I found that I always wanted to know what was going to happen next. Dual timelines enriched the thriller as there were actually multiple mysteries that needed solving. I can see why Robert Goddard is a popular author and I have added yet another author to my must-read-the-backlist list. There are just so many good books and so little time…

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

It has been far too long since I read ‘Mrs England‘ – in fact it has been over two years – which means that ‘The Foundling’ has probably been on the tbr pile for almost as long. (I really do need to get it under control.)

But, after seeing one of my Bookstagram buddies having a real Stacey Halls phase, I thought it was about time I picked ‘The Foundling’ up. And what a lovely read it is. I think I had been putting it off, as historical fiction is not always my top choice of genre, but that attitude has slowly been changing over the last couple of years, as it is a genre that seems to be getting so much better.

‘The Foundling’ focuses on the Foundling Hospital in London and the experiences of those who were forced to leave children there, and those who adpoted children from there. This is a fascinating study of relationships: those between families and those between different social classes. And, of course, how wealth can bring freedom to many, and poverty can bring restrictions to so many others.

You are swept away to London in 1754 from the moment you start reading this book; it has been 6 years since Clara left her daughter at the Foundling Hospital, and now she is returning to collect her after saving what she believes is the fee to buy her daughter’s freedom. In a cruel twist of fate, Clara’s daughter has gone, apparently taken by Clara herself just days after she left her there. So where is Clara’s daughter now, and how will she ever see her again?

After this, I will definitely be returning to the books of Stacey Hall very soon. This is historical fiction that is well-researched, well-plotted and does not rely solely on lots of description to create an atmosphere of the time. It feels a little like time travel in a book, and I really enjoy that.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Now, I am very late to the party with reading books from the pen of Kristin Hannah. (I only started watching ‘Firefly Lane’ last month – so, I have been late to that party too). But I have seen so many people reading the novels of Kristin Hannah, and enjoying them, that I thought I should give them a go, and it appears I had ordered a copy of ‘The Four Winds’ – so, that seemed like that would be my starting place.

I was intrigued by this book (as you know, I do not read blurbs) as it was clearly about America and its west – a historical fiction novel about something that has always fascinated me seemed like a good choice to me – and, oh my word, it was.

This is a beautifully constructed novel. It’s a stunning piece of historical fiction that takes you straight to the Great Plains of America as families struggle to farm the land during times of extreme drought known as ‘The Dust Bowl’, and against the backdrop of the great economic depression of the 1930s. Elsa makes a decision that the best way to save her family (after her husband has made the decision to abandon them) is to move them to the ‘promised land’ of California – a place that is guaranteed to offer them salvation. But does it?

This is a stunning book about strength, tenacity, family and love (of so many kinds). You feel you are there with the family; that their experiences are your experiences. You feel all the emotions as you understand the injustice of so many of the situations, but also the hope that so many had to keep them surviving every day. This is a slow-burn story that you can’t help but keep reading, as you just have to know what happens to Elsa and her family, and you are rooting for them at all times.

I suspect that you will also be ready to find out more about this chapter in American history too, as Kristin Hannah explains herself she has researched it and fictionalised the events, but there is so much out there to help you find out more.

This was my final read of 2023 and it was great one, although this is another author with a backlist that I need to investigate (including ‘Firefly Lane’). So many books, so little time…

The Wind Knows My Name by Isabel Allende

I was kindly added to a readalong for ‘The Wind Knows My Name’ by Isabel Allende. So, I was gifted a proof of the book to allow me to join in, so thank you again Tandem Collective UK. I was very excited, as this was my first encounter with Allende’s work; I have seen it around a lot but I was not sure that her books were for me. They always seemed to be something that may be a little highbrow for me. Yet again, how wrong I was – in fact, I am now going to be trying to read her backlist (along with all those other books I promise myself I will read).

‘The Wind Knows my Name’ is a beautifully crafted piece of historical fiction that takes use from the tragic night of Kristallnacht in the 1930s right up to the present day. This book explores the idea of displacement of people due to the difficult and dangerous social and political situations that they have lived through with their families, causing them to flee for the hope of a better life. And, what Allende does so cleverly is bring some of her characters together from very different backgrounds, but who all have the shared experience of displacement – allowing them to form relationships and support for each other.

This book is heartbreaking and hopeful in equal measure. It is incredibly thought-provoking as its timeline becomes more and more contemporary, and you see the issues we sometimes think are left in the past are still continuing, every day, around the world. And, in fact, you will be wanting to find out more about the events that she has chosen to pick out to create her narrative.

I think it is fairly clear that I will be trying more of Allende’s novels. So, if you have any recommendations, please let me know in the comments.

In Memoriam by Alice Winn

‘In Memoriam’ is a book that I was totally influenced to pick up by my bookish friends, and it got bumped to the top of the tbr pile for ‘Pages of Pride 2023’.

I am not sure I can review this book, as I am not sure I can do it justice. There is so much to say about this book, but I am not sure I know how to put it into words – well, not in the way it truly deserves. This is an outstanding piece of historical fiction.

Gaunt and Ellwood are school friends; they attend the same private boys school and have a very close bond. Gaunt is of German heritage and Ellwood is a privileged member of English society, and of Jewish heritage. When Europe changes forever in 1914, the young men are thrown into war. Their relationship develops, and they are at war with what is seen as socially accpetable from their relationship, their own emotions and the enemy. I keep my reviews spoiler free so that is as far as I can go – other than to say that this novel is stunning.

This book presents the horrors of World War One; not to shock, but to allow the reader to understand the experiences of the men. This book studies the relationships of the men who were at war, and the relationship of Gaunt and Ellwood at a time that their relationship would not have been legal, let alone accepted with sensitivity. But, also, this book presents the impact that the war was having, not only on the men who went, but the men and families who were left behind. And, a couple of times, this book suggests that our characters felt the war was toughest on those at home reading the papers and guessing what was happening, which is another thought-provoking point (there are many in this book).

This book is beautifully written, clearly very well researched, and an emotional rollercoaster. I think this book will stay with me forever, and I will be encouraging everyone to read it (with a box of tissues for the tears).