Good old-fashioned historical fiction

I have been indulging myself in the last couple of weeks. Rob and I had a few days away in Amsterdam and Brussels – which has meant an awful lot of cheese and chocolate, a fair amount of art and lots of walking – and, since we were travelling by train, I was able to pack a book I’ve been looking forward to for ages. The new Shardlake is something I know a lot of our customers have also been eagerly anticipating – but at 650 pages of historical goodness I do hope they have been doing their weight-training before picking up their copy!


Shardlake is a great character. We have seen him grow and develop since his first outing – in Dissolution – and particularly in his attitude to religion. This is no surprise since the books cover the same time period, largely, as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and the complex political and religious changes of the age feature heavily. Shardlake’s life and career are tied up with those of the King, his Queens and various court figures: some, like Catherine Parr, are friends, others, like Sir Richard Rich, are openly antagonistic towards him. It certainly shows that C.J.Sansom studied history before he went into the legal profession – he obviously does lots of research on both the history and the law covered in the books – and yet the stories are real page-turners. My favourite sort of history is the type which is as easy as this to read!

It seems odd to worry about spoilers in well-researched historical fiction of this nature. We know what happened to Henry VIII, to Catherine Parr and to lesser figures like Anne Askew and Thomas Wriothesley. In the previous book in this series Shardlake spent some time on board the Mary Rose as it was being prepared for war – I spent a lot my time when reading it willing him to get off the ship (I knew it wouldn’t end well for the poor old Mary Rose). And I guess this is where the real beauty of historical fiction lies – the way our unknown heroes and heroines fit in to the actual history. Anyway, without giving too much away, Shardlake and his assistant Barak are both in great danger at various points in this novel – but it seems that, should Edward VI need any grisly murders solving, Shardlake will be around to investigate.

15728386Murder and pathology have featured heavily in the previous books I have read by Ariana Franklin – about a woman doctor who mainly practices as an anatomist since custom means she cannot treat living patients – but they have also been set in a well-researched historical period. The latest volume, Winter Siege, is set slightly earlier during the anarchy surrounding Stephen and Matilda’s battle for the crown and, although the characters are all new, the initial fenland setting and the unflinching descriptions of brutal crimes are just the same. At first I was slightly disappointed – I really liked Adelia Aquilar, the female doctor – but in the end I was glad. Ariana Franklin died before this book was completed and it was finished by her daughter Samantha Norman. The style seems unchanged but I’m not sure I would have wanted a heroine I loved in the hands of any other writer. That said Norman has done a really good job here with great historical detail of both the nobility and lower classes and a terrific plot heavy on blood and sexual predation.

If you, like me, enjoy historical fiction then you will probably already know C.J. Sansom and be looking forward to Lamentation. I would also strongly recommend Ariana Franklin – who may not be as well-known but is well worth looking out for.



The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy – Rachel Joyce

cb0cb52e50aaf103a2d4b49bc41b6d9dI don’t know if it is my age but I am not ashamed to say that I was shedding the odd tear at certain points while I was reading this book. I read Harold Fry and enjoyed it very much but it didn’t move me nearly as much as the story of the woman Harold walked so far to see – although both books share the same uplifting feeling (despite the waterworks….)

This is not a sequel or even a prequel to Harold Fry. I would describe it more as a companion piece, sitting quietly alongside the earlier story, offering support and clarification where needed, but not imposing. Which is pretty much the role Queenie took in the part of her life which directly involved Harold so I am quite pleased with that analogy! We see so much more of Queenie, however, than just her relationship with Harold. We get glimpses of her childhood, her education (a first in classics) and her life before moving to Kingsbridge (surprisingly racy – hanging out with artists and taking lovers) as well as after (a lonely beach house in Northumberland with a strangely beautiful garden). Queenie is a beautifully drawn character – so complex and so real. I think you can understand, by the end, why Harold walks over 600 miles to see her again. I think some of the tears I shed were in sorrow that I never got to meet such a remarkable, yet unobtrusive, woman.

Most of them, however, were for the situation Queenie finds herself in towards the end of her life. The situation which led her to send that first, life-changing letter to Harold and to her taking up residence in St Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Her illness is touched upon but not in detail – in her original letter she says ‘Last year I had an operation on a tumour, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing to be done’ and I feel that sums up her stoicism. The real beauty of the book, for me, is the description of her days in the hospice and the people she meets there. We don’t get happy endings – this is a hospice after all – but we get to SEE the men and women who have gone there to die. The old are too often invisible in today’s youth-obssessed society – the old and the terminally ill can seem like an embarrassment – so it is just wonderful to have the honour of meeting not only Queenie but Mr Henderson, the Pearly King, Barbara and Finty. It is quite humbling to remember that every person in every hospice up and down the country has a story to tell if only we could hear them.

In the end I think that this book is very life-affirming. Although we witness so much illness, death and grief it is the lives which shine through – and any story which contains so much energy, character and warmth cannot help but make you smile through the occasional tear or two.


The Rosie Effect – Graeme Simsion

rosie-effect-215x330One of the highlights of my reading year (so far) has been Graeme Simsion’s Rosie Project. It was funny, heart-warming and gave so many interesting insights into the mind of its hero, Don Tillman, an academic apparently somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, in his search for the perfect partner. The path of love doesn’t run smoothly (when does it ever in good fiction?) and most of the humour comes from the seeming mismatch between Don and the Rosie of the title.

However, since this book opens with Don and Rosie, married and living in New York, then it should come as no surprise to find that they did get together. And once again the laughs (and the sadness) come from the difficulties of the relationship – and particularly from how Don deals with the prospect of becoming a father. I would imagine that most fathers-to-be feel at least some trepidation when they first hear that tiny feet will soon be pattering – for someone like Don it is going to be even more of a life changing experience. Throw into the mix Gene (with the globe-trotting libido), a social worker with an axe to grind and an aging English rock star with a real-ale bar in his Manhattan penthouse and you can see where the comedy is coming from.

What raises both this book and the Rosie Project above being just another funny love story is Don. Because he is the narrator in both books we see the world through his eyes – this gives us a chance to begin to understand just how different life can be for those on the spectrum. This gives an undercurrent of slight sadness – not that Don is sad, but that you feel sympathy for his efforts to be understood. At one point he has just delivered a baby (not his own) in the presence of the social worker who, for slightly complicated plot reasons, thinks the child is his. The social worker accuses Don of being unfeeling and we get a sudden flash of insight into the real strain he is under constantly. He says ‘I was suddenly angry. I wanted to shake not just Lydia but the whole world of people who do not understand the difference between control of emotion and lack of it, and who make a totally illogical connection between inability to read others’ emotions and inability to experience their own’. And it just seems so important that people understand that…

When The Rosie Project was released in paperback I was lucky enough to hear the author talking about his work in Leeds. In the audience were also staff from a local group which works with autistic and asperger’s adults in West Yorkshire – the book has been a big hit with their service-users which suggests to me that the message being given is not only entertaining but informative. And I think it is one that everyone should be reading.


Harry’s Last Stand – Harry Leslie Smith

Prejudice is a funny thing. We are all guilty though, of judging others, and often because they are not ‘just like us’.  We can misjudge the young because we have forgotten what childhood was really like and we can underestimate those much older than ourselves because they have had experiences we have yet to have. And if we don’t listen to others – both the young and the old – we seem to risk never learning anything….

harrys-last-standHarry Leslie Smith has had so much experience in his long life. He has lived in poverty – the kind of poverty that most of us can only imagine – and fought in defense of freedoms which we now take for granted. What he is not doing in this book is fitting in with our narrow view of how an older person should present themselves – he doesn’t view the past through rose-coloured spectacles, he is not someone who is afraid to be heard and his opinions and beliefs could be those of a person of any age. There is a telling episode when he returns to Halifax, where he spent part of his youth (I would hesitate to refer to it as a childhood), and is confronted with the kind of unthinking racism which many older people – who have to see the country of their own youth changed in ways they don’t necessarily understand – are prone to. But, because he is obviously someone who sees beneath the skin colour or birthplace of people to the humanity which we all share this is not Harry’s way. As he says ‘ many people who are younger than me presume that because of my age I have a default setting which makes me, among other things, a lover of dogs, suspicious of immigrants, wary of welfare benefit recipients and distrusting of those who possess piercings and/or multiple tattoos’. You do not need to read much of this book to work out that is not an accurate description at all.

Harry Smith is, despite the gaps in his early education, an intelligent and thoughtful man. He has made sure that he is well-informed about what it is like to live in Britain now for those of us who are not part of the ruling elite and, most noticeably, he is angry. He is angry because the world his generation fought for, politically, socially and militarily, seems to be drifting back towards the ‘bad old days’ he would rather not see again. The privations of the immediate aftermath of World War Two, following on as they did from the Depression years of the 1930s were meant to have become a thing of the past with the coming of the welfare state. Our modern politicians, from all political parties (no favouritism shown here!), are given fairly short shrift as are the banks, climate-change deniers and the press.

I can’t say that I agree with absolutely everything Harry Smith says. But that isn’t the point – I don’t think any of us would want to live in even a benignly totalitarian state. The overarching message which I have taken from this book is that we should never give up fighting for what we think is right – any age is too young to decide that prejudice and injustice are somebody else’s problem.


Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

Some time ago I picked up David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and, to my slight shame, it is still on the ‘to-read’ pile teetering by my bedside. And moving down the pile as more lovely new books are added to the top. I had read and enjoyed other books by Mitchell – Black Swan Green was like a literary Adrian Mole with a seam of bittersweet darkness and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a meticulously researched historical novel set in late 18th Century Japan * – but I just couldn’t cope with the idea of the nested stories. In fact I gave up just as the first part ended, rather abruptly, and the second began thinking that I just didn’t have time to work out what was going on.  I did, therefore, approach the Bone Clocks with some trepidation –  since David Mitchell seems to be a different author with every book he writes which one would he be this time?

22430860As it turns out in this book, Mitchell manages to blend all of his previous author personas into one. The plot is, to say the least, quite complex and I won’t even try to explain it but it starts in 1984 as a fairly straightforward contemporary novel. As you move through the book, however, other elements come to the fore. The final section is set in a bleak future which would sit well in any good postapocalyptic dystopia and the central section is the kind of complex conspiracy-based near sci-fi novel which Dan Brown could only dream of being able to write. And the whole is based on a premise of time-travel which would be good enough for the average Doctor Who fan.

Add to this the fact that this is a wonderfully well-written book – it is on the Booker Prize long list after all – and one which it is an absolute pleasure to read.  All human emotion seems to be there at some point, beginning with the heroine, Holly Sykes, and her heartbreaking discovery of the fickleness of both men and best friends yet it is also, in parts, laugh out loud funny. And, as if it were not clever enough without, Mitchell even manages to drop references to characters and events from his previous works into the story without rocking the storytelling boat.

This book, for me, will hopefully end up on the Booker Shortlist – although I am too torn by how much I enjoyed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to know whether I want it to win. And, who knows, it may even have persuaded me to pick Cloud Atlas up and give it a second chance…


*I did also read Back Story: a Memoir by the comedian David Mitchell but I guess I had better not count that!

What Would Mary Berry Do? – Claire Sandy

9781447253495One of the great joys of working in a bookshop is that you are exposed to all kinds of books – you see your old favourites every day, get sneaky peaks at new authors’ work and, as you shelve, you see a lot of titles that you mentally categorise as ‘not my sort of thing’…..But moving out of your comfort zone can be a good thing. If I hadn’t tried new genres I would never have read David Barnett’s Gideon Smith novels, the fabulous Birdbox or How to be a Productivity Ninja. There are one or two experiments which were less successful (I shall name no names) but on the whole I have really enjoyed discovering new things.

Stories which veer towards the ‘chick-lit’ have usually been low on my list of priorities. When I was in my teens and twenties they didn’t really exist (although I did have a rather bad Mills & Boon habit at one point) and later I told myself that I didn’t have much in common with the typical chick-lit heroine. Claire Sandy’s What Would Mary Berry Do?, however, did catch my eye – as ever, I am easily tempted by even the thought of cake – and I am glad I gave it a chance. The heroine is a slightly older woman, happily married and comfortable with her own and her family’s imperfections; the plot is pretty straightforward but not entirely predictable or overly kooky and there is an enjoyable cast of supporting characters.

The plot follows a year in which Marie Dunwoody, a dentist with three kids and a husband who are simultaneously the best and most frustrating family imaginable, learns to bake. And along the way she finds friendship, never quite discovers how devious nine-year old twins can be and develops a working theory of personality types based on which tv chef various people have most in common with. Personally I’d like to be a Nigella but think I’m probably a bit of a Delia….I found all the characters interesting and engaging (but certainly not perfect) and the ending very satisfying. If this book were a cake it would be one of those wonderful ones which are full of fresh flavours but not so full of sugar that they set your teeth on edge (maybe our Café W Blueberry Crumble traybake fits the bill). And it has no calories at all


Cat Sense – John Bradshaw

Cat SenseLet’s get one thing clear from the start. I have a cat, Rosie. Before that I shared my home with Moth (for 18 years ) and before that the rather marvellously named Rodney (and the less imaginatively named Lucky). As a child we always had a dog but, left to my own devices, I opted for the less labour-intensive pet. I began by wanting to avoid having to go for long walks in all weathers and ended up a confirmed cat person.* (Bex has two cats, Lily and Dora, and would have more if her other half would let her – ’nuff said….)

Obviously my ‘cat person’ tendencies led me to want to read John Bradshaw’s Cat Sense – the idea that someone (and, more importantly to me, someone who has made a proper scientific study of cat behaviour for decades) could help me to understand the animals who have been living in my house for the last 25 years was appealing. I wanted all those litter-tray emptyings to have meant something! I guess what I really wanted to know was were my cats as fond of me as I was of them. Or was I just the hand that fed them….

Cats are now the most popular pet in the world – apparently outnumbering dogs by three to one – so we should have a better understanding of what makes them tick but, on reading this book, I find we have barely scratched the surface of their psychology. It seems our main error, forgivable maybe in regards to an animal with such a rounded, big-eyed, babylike face, is to treat cats as if they were small people. I don’t mean by talking to them (it’s normal to have a conversation with your cat when everyone else is out, right?) but by assuming that they have similar emotional responses to us – that they also enjoy the companionship of others for example. Bradshaw shows us, by taking us through the evolution of the domestic cat and the history of its relationship with man, that our feline companions are not yet fully domesticated – even more than dogs they are only a generation away from becoming feral – but are smart enough to live alongside mankind.

This book will not necessarily reveal every little foible which your individual cat may have but it does make sense of so many things. I personally have learned, the hard way, what a cat will do if it feels the stress of having its space invaded by a large crowd of people (including kids and dogs). If you want to avoid this kind of mess (and the rather smelly cleaning up afterwards) and to have a happier life with your cat then I can heartily recommend this book. In fact even if you don’t like cats it is worth reading – it is a fascinating and plainly written account of how two species have learned to live alongside one another.






*I do still love dogs though and enjoy walking. It is still the ‘in all weathers’ that puts me off…