Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Mailbox Monday: The Post-Christmas edition

image of an old-fashioned post office with the words Royal Mail.

I’ve been a rather negligent blogger this past year, and although I expect I’ll be busier than ever during the first third of 2013 as I juggle a full-time job in my chosen field with finishing the last course of my graduate degree (by distance), I still hope to become more active on here.

As I’ve said before, I love the idea behind Mailbox Monday, which serves as a weekly gathering place for readers to share their newly acquired books. Originally created by Marcia at Hooked by a Book (formerly The Printed Page), it is now being hosted on a monthly basis as the ‘Mailbox Monday Blog Tour’ and can be found at Lori’s Reading Corner during the month of January. Although I rarely receive enough reading material in one go to merit devoting a post to it, Christmas is the exception as I was recently supplied with more than enough books to keep me occupied!

The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips shifts between Restoration-era London ( a new favourite time of mine to read about) and present- day Cambridge in a historical mystery.

Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet is also set in Restoration England. After reading about the famous actress and mistress of Charles II Nell Gwynn in Priya Parmar’s novel Exit the Actress, I was eager for more. I look forward to reading a different take on Nell’s rise from orange girl to royal mistress.

Jumping ahead to 1850s London, The Agency series by Y.S. Lee was recommended to me by a close friend, who enjoyed the banter and interesting female protagonist. A Spy in the House is the first novel in this YA series about an orphan instructed at a school that also happens to be a front for an all-female investigative unit.

Those three have been on my wishlist for awhile so I look forward to diving into them. Although the next two are new to me, they come highly recommended as well. I’m familiar with John Green, of course, and attended grad school with at least one “nerdfighter”, but have never read any of his works. The Fault in Our Stars will be my introduction to the author. As a historical fiction novel, Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is perhaps closer to my preferred genre. It tells the story of a pilot and an undercover spy who are forced to endure capture in Nazi-occupied France during WWII.

When I first saw the fantastic HBO miniseries John Adams several years ago I loved Abigail and John, but was perhaps most captivated by Stephen Dillane’s portrayal of the complicated Thomas Jefferson. I’ve been looking for a good biography on the man for awhile, and was extremely pleased to receive Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham for Christmas, particularly as I am hoping to visit Monticello later this year.

Although I was the one doing the gifting, I should also mention Veronica Roth’s Divergent, which I bought my mother for Christmas, idly started flipping through and before I knew it was halfway through! I stole borrowed that one back for a few days to finish it off and now have the sequel on hold at the local library.

The Devlin Diary by Christi PhillipsDarling Strumpet by Gillian BagwellA Spy in the House by Y.S. Leethe Fault in Our Stars by John GreenCode Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

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Mailbox Monday: Christmas edition

After taking a hiatus to concentrate on coursework, I’m returning to Truth in Fiction with a Christmas edition of Mailbox Monday. I don’t usually receive enough books to participate in the weekly meme, which encourages readers to share the new books they’ve acquired each week, but during family get-togethers after Christmas I was well-supplied with enough fiction and non-fiction to ward off the boredom of a long Canadian winter.

Mailbox Monday began at The Printed Page but is now being hosted on a monthly basis as the ‘Mailbox Monday Blog Tour’. For the month of January it can be found at Rose City Reader.

Sir William Garrow: His Life, Times and Fight for Justice has been on my wish list for awhile so I was thrilled to find it under the tree! Written by legal historian John Hostettler and Richard Braby, a descendant of Garrow’s, it details the life of Sir William Garrow, an eighteenth century lawyer who changed the English criminal trial. Garrow spent the first ten years of his career as a defender at The Old Bailey and became known for his aggressive cross-examination, but later in life he changed sides and conducted prosecutions against political radicals while his colleague, Lord Erskine, defended them and became the more celebrated lawyer. Garrow’s early career has been dramatized in the wonderful British drama Garrow’s Law, which concluded its successful second season in December.

For my birthday several months ago my Aunt gave me Aristocrats, Stella Tillyard’s biography of the Lennox Sisters who became influential in Georgian England, so it was only fitting that I received Tillyard’s other titles, A Royal Affair and Citizen Lord: The Life of Edward Fitzgerald, Irish Revolutionary from her for Christmas.

A Royal Affair is concerned with King George III of England and his siblings, primarily his sister Caroline Mathilde whose affair with a court doctor ended in tragedy. Also featuring the king’s brothers, who delighted the gossip-hungry press by partying and carrying on disastrous relationships, Tillyard’s biography suggests that George III’s refusal to give up America can be attributed to his desire to control the colonists in the same way that he tried to rule his siblings.

Her other title, Citizen Lord, chronicles the life of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a Dubliner who fought with the British in the American War of Independence, visited revolutionary France, and took part in the 1798 Irish rebellion. A blurb on the back of the work writes that Lord Edward “grew up as vigorous as Garibaldi and passionate as Byron”. That description alone is enough to pique my interest!

Continuing with the Irish theme, I received Morgan Llywelyn’s 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion. I first borrowed this fictionalized account of the Easter Rising from the library last March as part of the Ireland Reading Challenge, and am thrilled to have my own copy of this fantastic novel to re-read and keep. You can find my review of it here!

My final historical addition is Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing. The novel, which won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award recognizing excellence in Canadian literature, is loosely based on the writings of Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon. Lady Duff-Gordon moved to Egypt in order to help manage her tuberculosis and published Letters from Egypt in 1865. Pullinger’s novel places Sally, the lady’s maid accompanying her, as the narrator who eventually must learn that despite the new freedoms life in Egypt has granted her, she is ultimately mistress of nothing.

I was also fortunate enough to receive a pair of fantasy novels to read when I’d rather escape to another world than the past. I’ve been meaning to read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman for awhile and asked for the novel this Christmas in the hopes of finally sitting down to read it. This collaboration by two of the biggest names in fantasy was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1990 and concerns the efforts of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley to postpone the end of the world after the apocalypse is announced.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians tells the story of a teenager, Quentin Coldwater, disappointed in real life and secretly fascinated by a series of fantasy novels set in a magical land of Fillory. Life becomes much more interesting when he’s admitted to a college of magic in New York and discovers that Fillory is real, but he soon realizes that the reality is darker than his childhood fantasy and more dangerous.

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Sunday Spotlight: Enchanted by Josephine

I hadn’t planned on doing a Sunday Spotlight post this week, but when I found out Enchanted by Josephine was holding a Victoria Day Weekend event I couldn’t resist! I’ve been reading Lucy’s blog for awhile now and was even been tempted to join her French Historicals Reading Challenge this year, although I ultimately decided to keep my number of challenges small.

As you might have guessed, her blog is named for Josephine, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, and her interests lie in French and Italian history. Enchanted by Josephine features historical posts, author guest posts, book reviews of historical fiction and non-fiction, and an interesting feature called ‘Historical Flavour of the Month’ where she features brief but fascinating biographies of women in history. Specific pages collect her posts on Venice and Josephine, two of her favourite subjects. Lucy is also a member of the Historical Fiction Bloggers Round Table, which writes about new historical fiction releases and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the genre.

As a fellow Canadian blogger, Lucy is celebrating the long weekend with a Queen Victoria event. Enchanted by Josephine has already reviewed a biography on the Queen by Grace Greenwood and is planning more Victoria-themed content including a giveaway. Anyone who posts on Queen Victoria is invited to share their links on Enchanted by Josephine as part of the ‘Queen Victoria Long Weekend Binge’ here.

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YotH: The Queen and Lord M

The Queen and Lord M by Jean Plaidy. Robert Hale Limited, 1973.

This is my May entry in the 2010 reading challenge Year of the Historical.

The second in her four book Queen Victoria series, Jean Plaidy’s The Queen and Lord M chronicles Victoria’s life through her time at Kensington Palace while she waits to become Queen and her marriage to Albert. As the title suggests this is the story of Victoria’s close relationship with the Prime Minister. Although forty years her elder, Lord Melbourne charmed the Queen and was the most important male figure in her life until she married Albert. Victoria’s attachment to her dear “Lord M” is at first charming as he guides her through the earliest days of her reign, but her unwillingness to let go of their close friendship threatens the country when she stubbornly refuses to let Melbourne’s failing government be replaced by Sir Robert Peel’s Tories.



Plaidy’s novel is largely historically accurate, but does take one liberty with the age of “the boy Jones”. She writes that a boy of eight or nine was discovered in Buckingham Palace where he had hoped to meet the Queen. While there was a boy who found his way into the palace, he was Edward Jones, a fifteen-year-old sweep who had squeezed through a hole in the Marble Arch in 1938. The press called him “In-I-Go Jones” because his ability to find an entrance meant that he must be “a descendant of In-I-Go Jones”, a reference to Renaissance architect Inigo Jones. Jones made a second visit to the palace two years later when he was found under the sofa in Her Majesty’s dressing room.

The unfortunate case of Lady Flora Hastings is also true. She began to experience swelling in 1839 but refused a medical examination so the physician believed her to be pregnant. The pregnancy rumour was spread by Baroness Lehzen, Victoria’s old governess and close friend, and the Marchioness of Tavistock. Flora Hastings did eventually submit to an examination in early 1839 and the doctor found a liver tumor. After she passed away in July of that year, her brother and Sir John Conroy began a press campaign against the Queen and all others involved in the scandal.



She has been called one of the ‘grande dames’ of historical fiction, but until I started following historical fiction blogs I had never even heard of Jean Plaidy, let alone read any of her many novels. Although her books were published between 1941 and the early 90s, they have enduring appeal for many historical fiction devotees and there is even a Plaidy reading challenge you can take part in. Unfortunately many of her books are now out of print and I borrowed my copy from the local library.

I’m not quite ready to declare her the ‘Queen of historical fiction’ but I do understand why she is admired by so many. What Plaidy does well in this novel is to give realistic but interesting voices to historical figures. The Queen and Lord M didn’t immediately hook me, but once Victoria met Melbourne the witty conversations between Prime Minister and Queen captured my attention and didn’t let go. I thought that Plaidy did a wonderful job of getting into the minds of these characters and giving them distinct voices. Although the film came much later, I can just hear Paul Bettany and Emily Blunt as Lord M and Victoria from the wonderful movie The Young Victoria having these conversations as I read, and think that this makes a wonderful companion piece for anyone who enjoyed the film.

Of course the true strength of this novel is the amount of research that went into it, a joy for those historical fiction readers who like their novels heavy on the history but still very readable. If you read to expand your vocabulary you’ll also be in for a treat. Plaidy uses a number of unusual words but not in a way that suggests a case of Thesaurusitus.



This one really is a nitpick, but I found that Plaidy significantly overused the expression “with tears in his eyes” when referring to Lord Melbourne. Unless he was a particularly weepy man or prone to allergies I can’t imagine anyone being so often on the verge of tears. What begins as a touching reminder of his affection for Victoria quickly became, in my opinion, an odd and overused image in an otherwise realistic novel.

So how did I feel about my first Plaidy novel? I enjoyed it a great deal and I hope to read more by her in the future. Unfortunately, my local library doesn’t have a copy of the third Victoria novel (The Queen’s Husband) so I’ll be on my own tracking that one down.

Verdict: Recommended. Especially for anyone who enjoyed The Young Victoria and wants to learn more.

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Leonardo’s Swans

Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex. Broadway, 2006.


Leonardo’s Swans is the story of two sisters, Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, who lived during the Italian Renaissance. Both daughters of the important Ferrara family are engaged to be married, and when refined older sister Isabella meets her fiance Franceso Gonzaga, the handsome Marquess of Mantua, she believes that she has made the better match. Her wild younger sister Beatrice would rather ride horses than be engaged and her future husband Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro, is old and more interested in his mistress than in his young bride-to-be.

But when she finally meets Il Moro, Isabella finds common ground in their shared love of the arts, and a mutual attraction develops. There is one other thing Isabella desires of her sister’s husband – to have her portrait painted by Leonardo Da Vinci – and as Da Vinci’s patron, this is within Ludovico’s power. The desire causes a rift between sisters though as Beatrice comes into her own and the birth of her son secures her husband’s legacy.



One of the interesting questions posed by Leonardo’s Swans is whether or not Il Moro murdered his nephew Gian Galeazzo. Gian Galeazzo was seven when his father was assassinated and he came into power with his mother Bona of Savoy acting as regent. Just four years later, Ludovico forced her to resign and gained complete control. When Gian Galeazzo reached maturity he continued to be no more than a figurehead and was described as sickly, frivolous, and an “incompetent nonentity”. Although there isn’t solid evidence that Ludovico did kill his nephew, contemporaries certainly believed that he had. As depicted in the novel, Gian Galeazzo fell ill and died in 1494 after the birth of Il Moro and Beatrice’s son Ercole. In his La Historia di Italia historian Francesco Guicciardini wrote:

The rumor was widespread that Giovan Galeazzo’s death had been provoked by immoderate coitus; nevertheless, it was widely believed throughout Italy that he had died not through natural illness nor as a result of incontinence, but had been poisoned… one of the royal physicians…asserted that he had seen manifest signs of it. Nor was there anyone who doubted that if it had been poison, it had been administered through his uncle’s Ludovico Sforza machinations.

After his death, the Dukedom should have gone to Giangaleazzo’s four-year-old son, with widow Isabella of Aragon serving as regent, but Ludovico seized the Dukedom himself and was declared Duke even before his nephew was buried.

Leonardo’s Swans also discusses Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse statue “Il Cavallo” and how the bronze that had been set aside to cast it instead went to make cannons used in Milan’s battle against the French. The horse was commissioned in 1482 in order to honour Il Moro’s father and took Da Vinci seventeen years of research, but when the clay model was ready to be cast, the bronze was needed for war and the clay statue was destroyed by French soldiers. A fascinating article can be found here detailing how the plans to cast a bronze horse, previously thought to be technically impossible by engineers, was feasible after all.



Isabella and Beatrice d’Este were such fascinating women that I’m actually surprised they aren’t a more common subject for historical fiction writers. When I first learned about the d’Este sisters in a Renaissance course, I was impressed that such well-educated and powerful women lived in such a male-dominated age and Karen Essex does a great job of capturing the sisters. Other reviewers have noted that Leonardo’s Swans is ‘heavy on the history’ and that’s probably what I enjoyed most about it. The novel includes a great deal of information about events that occurred and a lot of research has clearly gone into this book.

Where Essex excels is in the loving description and analysis of several works of art. It’s fortunate that we live in the Internet age because I often found myself wishing that I had an image of the paintings she discussed in front of me. Also interesting were the parallels drawn between contemporary and renaissance art and the process of the artist who is caught between commerce and imagination.



The one problem I had with this novel was the author’s use of tense. The work is written in present tense, possibly to create a feeling of action, but switches to past tense in flashbacks. While I certainly don’t mind the use of flashbacks in a work, the shifts in tense were so jarring here that they drew me out of the story, which is a pity because there is a good story here.

The other nitpick I have is Essex’s use of excerpts from Leonardo’s notebook, often at the beginning of chapters. The excerpts are interesting, but I often felt that they didn’t add anything to the story and interrupted the flow of the novel.

Verdict: Well worth a read for the interesting subject matter and loving depictions of art, but the style can be distracting and it sometimes drags in the middle.

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YotH: The Ninth Daughter

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton. Berkley Trade, 2009.

This is my second March entry in the 2010 reading challenge Year of the Historical.

In 1773 Boston, Abigail Adams goes to visit Mrs. Rebecca Malvern and instead discovers the corpse of a woman face down on the floor. At first Abigail fears it is her friend but she soon realizes that the body belongs to a stranger. Her relief is short-lived however because Rebecca Malvern has disappeared.

Aware of Rebecca’s ties to the Sons of Liberty, an underground organization of patriots, Abigail calls Samuel Adams to clear away any incriminating evidence before the British are aware of the crime. But Samuel is distressed to find that Rebecca is not the only one to disappear – gone too are a book of ciphers which contains the pen names used by the Sons of Liberty to submit articles and challenge British authority. Set during the tension between the British and the Sons of Liberty that will culminate in the Boston Tea Party, the situation grows worse when John Adams is suspected of the murder. It is up to Abigail to find her friend Rebecca and solve a murder in order to clear her husband’s name.



Although The Ninth Daughter focuses mainly on Abigail, many other historical figures play minor roles. Abigail meets with noted Sons of Liberty Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, and the rest of the Adams family (husband John, daughter Nabby, and son Johnny) are also included in the novel.

While it is well-known that Abigail Adams addressed her correspondence with her husband to “My Dearest Friend”, the pen names she used, and that Hamilton uses within the story, were new to me. Historically, John and Abigail began corresponding during their courtship and continued to write letters back and forth throughout their marriage when separated by distance. Abigail was just seventeen and John twenty-six when they began writing to one another, adopting pen names as was the custom. While John called himself Lysander, after the Spartan war hero, Abigail was named Diana, for the Roman goddess of the moon. She addressed her letters then as she famously would for the rest of her life to “My Dearest Friend.” After they married and had begun a family, Abigail changed her pen name to Portia, wife of the Roman politician Brutus.



What Barbara Hamilton does so well is to recreate the atmosphere of the times. She not only includes period details like the work being done, but also offers descriptions of the sounds and smells of 1770’s Boston so that the reader feels a part of the era. The tension between the British and the Sons of Liberty can be felt throughout the novel and Hamilton does a great job of building up to what will be known as Boston Tea Party.

When it comes to historical sleuths Abigail Adams is an inspired choice. Feisty, opinionated, and smart, she makes a great protagonist and, just as importantly, Hamilton writes her well. Abigail’s thoughts and words reminded me of the passionate woman portrayed so wonderfully by Laura Linney in the HBO miniseries John Adams, and as I read I could hear Linney’s Abigail in my head speak each line. Hamilton also does well to include Abigail’s social and political thoughts on the rights of women and slaves in a subtle but noticeable way.

The mystery itself was interesting and enough clues were given that the reader can take on the amateur sleuth role alongside Abigail. This is the first of a planned series and I look forward to reading more Abigail Adams mysteries in the future.

Verdict: Atmospheric with an intelligent and realistic historical protagonist. Well worth a read.

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Sunday Spotlight: Crime Thru Time

I’ve been falling behind on ‘Mystery March’, but if you’d like to sneak in a last mystery before the end of the month I suggest a visit to Crime Thru Time. Established as a discussion list in 1999, this independent historical mystery novel website has since grown to include “information about upcoming releases, series/author book lists, timelines, and links of interest.” This fabulous resource for the mystery reader even includes a subsection for young adult historical mysteries.

Of course the definition of ‘historical mystery’ depends on who you ask, so Crime Thru Time has a Definitions page to explain what is and is not a historical mystery. Even if you understand the distinction, the Definitions page is worth a read for the interesting discussion it raises on period as character.

Like the wonderful Historicalnovels.info, which I mentioned in a previous Sunday Spotlight, Crime Thru Time provides a listing of historical novels by era beginning with the ancient world and continuing into the 20th century. Entries are alphabetical by the last name of the author and also note the protagonist if the author has written a series of mysteries featuring one character, such as George Herman’s Leonardo Da Vinci mysteries. Clicking on an author name brings you to a description of the historical or fictional protagonist, the geographical location and time period in which the novel is set, and a list of published mysteries with their respective dates of publication.

With more than 700 members, Crime Thru Time has clearly not abandoned its discussion list origins. The list can be subscribed to by e-mail and a voluntary group read is held each month. The description reads:

“On our discussion list we talk about history, culture, authors and mysteries. We often share information found on the net about the historical periods written in the novels. We are an ever growing list made up of both authors and readers. We welcome historical readers and writers of all kinds.”

Although I’m not a member of Crime Thru Time, I do appreciate the time and effort that has gone into compiling such a wonderful list of historical mysteries. ‘Mystery March’ has opened my eyes to this growing subgenre of fiction and I look forward to finding future reads using Crime Thru Time.

Crime Thru Time can be visited here.

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