Review: Here be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

Here be Dragons (Welsh Princes, #1)

Title: Here Be Dragons (Welsh Princes #1)
Author: Sharon Kay Penman
Publisher: Pan Books
Publication Date: 1985
Pages: 718

 

 

Oh, this book. One of my top priority reads for 2019, Here Be Dragons was recommended to me by my mum, who knows just the sort of thing I love. It’s a long, juicy medieval story, focusing on the history of my homeland – basically, all the ingredients were there for a new all-time favourite.

Yes, it’s long. Yes, there is a great deal of complex political detail, and many, many characters to keep track of. But Sharon Kay Penman delivered this epic novel with such effortless prose that I found myself completely captivated.

Before I ramble on too long, let me attempt to give a brief overview of this amazing story. At its very heart is Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd, and his attempt to unify Wales whilst constantly staving off the English king’s attempts to take the country for himself. But it’s also about his Norman wife Joanna, and the often heartbreaking consequences of a marriage spanning both sides of the England/Wales border.

The characters in this book are far from perfect; in fact, some of them are just downright awful. But whether I cared for them or hated them, Sharon Kay Penman made me feel such strong emotions for all these people, to the point where I was internally screaming at them whenever they made a particularly bad decision. I usually struggle to connect with characters in historical fiction set further in the past, but Llewelyn and Joanna both leapt to life on the page.

Sharon Kay Penman mentions the concept of hiraeth in this novel – a unique Welsh word loosely translating as both “longing” and “homesickness”. This is such an apt word for my entire reading experience, as the beautiful descriptions of my homeland stirred the deepest feeling of hiraeth within me. The narrative contains several such references to Welsh language and culture, and anyone wanting to learn more about the country’s history would pick up so much from this novel.

If you love a solid medieval historical fiction novel, or if you’re at all interested in learning about the history of Wales, I would thoroughly recommend giving this book a try. I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it, and I’m keen to move on to the other books in the trilogy!

Five for Friday | Inspirational Female Characters in Historical Fiction

I’ve been wanting to do some more recommendation posts for a while now – and I especially like the idea of recommendations based around a particular theme. So today marks the start of Five for Friday, where I will be recommending 5 historical fiction books which have something in common.

Since today is International Women’s Day, I’m kicking off this series with a list of five inspirational female characters in historical fiction books written by women.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do1. Nell from Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

This YA novel is brimming with strong female characters, but Nell especially stands out as a passionate suffragette who knows her own mind in a time where women often didn’t have many options available. She may be fierce, but she also has a big heart, and her relationship with May is just adorable.

 

 

The Nightingale2. Isabelle from The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Oh, Isabelle. At times she infuriated me with her recklessness, but you can’t help being in awe of her courage as she risks her life for the French Resistance in WWII. Her story moved me to tears, and I loved the fact that Kristin Hannah told this important story about the role of women in the Second World War.

 

 

Dear Mrs Bird 3. Emmy from Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce

Am I ever going to stop shouting about this book? Nope, probably not! It’s been months since I read it, but Emmy’s warm heart, quick wit and make-do-and-mend attitude still make me smile whenever I think of her story. She’s a real woman with real flaws, and you can’t help but root for her every step of the way.

 

 

Pachinko 4. Sunja from Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This multi-generational novel covers most of Sunja’s life, focusing on her incredible personal journey as she leaves her Korean homeland for Japan. Sunja is the glue that holds her family together under the most difficult of circumstances, and only her determination and resourcefulness ensure that her children don’t go without.

 

 

Here be Dragons (Welsh Princes, #1) 5. Joanna from Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

This series may be titled Welsh Princes – but Llywelyn the Great would not have achieved half his greatness without the love and support of his bold Norman wife. Forced to live in a foreign land where she is regarded as the enemy, Joanna carves out a place for herself both amongst the Welsh court and in Llywelyn’s heart.

 

 

So there we have my first Five for Friday! I hope you enjoyed this celebration of some inspirational female characters in historical fiction – look out for another post in this series sometime soon 🙂

Walter Scott Prize 2019 Longlist Predictions

It’s officially March, which means that any day now we could see the announcement of the 2019 Walter Scott Prize longlist!

The Walter Scott Prize is awarded for the best work of historical fiction published in the UK in the previous year. Its namesake, Sir Walter Scott, is known as the founding father of historical fiction, with the publication of his novel Waverley in 1814 regarded as the birth of the historical novel. Waverley‘s subtitle, ‘Sixty Years Since’, forms a key part of the entry criteria for the prize – to be marked as eligible, at least 50% of the novel must be set at least 60 years in the past.

With the longlist announcement fairly imminent, I thought it would be quite fun to share my predictions for some of the novels that might feature on it! So without further ado, let’s get into the books:

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

This novel whipped up quite the literary storm when it was published back in January 2018. A sumptuous period novel set in Georgian London, it tells the story of merchant Jonah Hancock and prostitute Angelica Neal as their lives intertwine. It definitely wasn’t my favourite historical fiction of 2018, and I did have some issues with it – but the writing style and historical detail must be praised.

 

Dear Mrs Bird
Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce

If I’m being completely honest, this is probably my number one pick. Dear Mrs Bird is a warm, humorous WWII novel that completely encapsulates the spirit of 1940s London. Everything from the period slang to the food described was spot on, and I found myself utterly transported into the book’s setting.

 

 

In addition to the two novels above which I read in 2018, there are also a couple of books currently on my TBR which I think could be contenders, judging by what I’ve been hearing about them:

The Corset


The Corset 
by Laura Purcell

This novel is a dark tale of two women who meet in a prison in Victorian London – one of whom is there on a charitable visit, while the other is locked up for murder. Gothic mystery is definitely a trend in historical fiction right now, and this one has received high praise, so I think it could be a contender.

 

 

After the Party
After the Party by Cressida Connolly

My final pick is set in 1930s England, and deals with the rise of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Facists during this period. I remember learning about this briefly during A-Level History, but it’s really an aspect of British history that isn’t covered enough. It was chosen as the Waterstones Fiction book of the month for September 2018, which could bode well for its inclusion on the longlist.

 

So there we have my predictions for the Walter Scott Prize 2019 longlist! Let me know which books you think might make the list with a comment below – I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

For more information about the Walter Scott Prize, visit www.walterscottprize.co.uk.

Review: The Forgotten Secret by Kathleen McGurl

The Forgotten Secret

 


Title:
The Forgotten Secret
Author: Kathleen McGurl
Publisher: HQ Digital
Publication Date: 1st March 2019

 

 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Forgotten Secret is a dual timeline novel set in Ireland, both in the present day and during the War of Independence of 1919-1921. In the present day we follow Clare Farrell, who decides to leave her emotionally abusive husband and start a new life for herself in Ireland when she inherits her uncle’s old farmhouse.

Clare was quite a hard character for me to warm to. Her decision to leave her husband was very abrupt and seemingly without any heavy emotional repercussions, which felt highly unrealistic. Having spent 25 years in a manipulative and controlling marriage, she swanned off to Ireland without too much thought, taking a fancy to the first man she met there before divorce proceedings were even underway.

The historical portion of the story followed Ellen O’Brien, a young housemaid trying to find her place in the world at a time of war and turmoil for Ireland. I preferred her story to the present day timeline, and enjoyed learning more about how civilians’ lives were impacted by the War of Independence.

I would have liked to have seen more historical detail through Ellen’s eyes. She was quite a passive character, doing as she was told without questioning the instructions, which meant the actual part she played in the war and the goings on at the house where she worked were never really explained in much detail.

The plot moved along at a good pace, leading to a moving conclusion to Ellen’s story and a fairly satisfying ending to Clare’s. Overall this was a quick read with some interesting historical context, but the present day portion didn’t quite click for me.

 

Jane Austen’s London #4 | The City

For the original post in this series, click here.

I’m so excited to be writing another post in this series! It’s been so long since I last did one of the walks from Louise Allen’s Walking Jane Austen’s London, and I’ve really missed doing them – so when my mum decided to visit the other weekend, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

This walk started outside the Twining’s tea shop near Temple station, where my mum and I both went into raptures (as Jane Austen might say) over the delicious selection of teas on offer. It’s safe to say that we’re both tea lovers, so naturally we couldn’t resist making a purchase or two at the shop where the Austens used to purchase their own tea.

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It’s quite clear who I got my love of tea from!

Just outside the tea shop is a monument to the Temple bar, which stood as the historic gateway between the fashionable Westminster and the commercial City. It wouldn’t have interfered with road traffic in Jane Austen’s London, but sadly it became a hindrance to today’s motorists and had to be removed in 2004 – but luckily you can still view the impressive gateway in its new home outside St Paul’s Cathedral.

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The entire area of Fleet Street down towards St Paul’s is an interesting blend of historical and modern architecture, with brand new office blocks often just around the corner with buildings dating from before the Great Fire of London in 1666. One particular building of interest to me was the spire of St Bride’s Church, which apparently inspired a Georgian baker to create the tiered style of wedding cake which is so familiar to us now. I had no idea that it was such an old tradition, but it’s fun to think of Jane Austen’s characters eating a cake modelled on this beautiful church spire in their weddings.

rhdr

And speaking of Jane Austen characters’ weddings, the final portion of this walk was particularly exciting, since it took us to the (probable) location of perhaps the most infamous Jane Austen wedding of all!

I’m talking about none other than the marriage of Miss Lydia Bennet to Mr George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, which Lydia writes of as taking place in “St Clement’s”. The location is very likely St Clement’s Church on Clement’s Lane, as it is just around the corner from Gracechurch Street, where Lydia’s aunt and uncle Gardiner lived. It’s not a particularly grand, impressive church, tucked away down a narrow street – but to me it seemed to perfectly fit the rather seedy nature of Lydia and Wickham’s marriage!

rhdr

As always, it was so much fun to discover more about London in Jane Austen’s time, and how she wove parts of the city into her novels! If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out the previous posts in this series 🙂

SOURCES
[1] ALLEN, LOUISE – WALKING JANE AUSTEN’S LONDON (SHIRE, 2017)

 

 

Review: The Storm Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Storm Sister (The Seven Sisters #2)

 

Title: The Storm Sister (The Seven Sisters #2)
Author: Lucinda Riley
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication Date: 20th October 2015
Pages: 683

 

 

I’ve not been able to stop thinking about this series since reading and reviewing The Seven Sisters back in October, so when I saw that my local library had a copy of the second book in the series, I had to pick it up.

The Storm Sister follows Ally D’Aplièse, the second of the adopted sisters in this dual timeline historical fiction series which follows each of the girls in turn as they discover their heritage. The historical portion of this story takes place in 19th century Norway, interweaving the life of fictional singer Anna Landvik with that of renowned Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Each page of this novel was brimming with classical music references, and I was in heaven. Orchestral playing was a huge part of my life until a few years ago, and Lucinda Riley perfectly captured the essence of what playing in an orchestra is all about. As with the first novel in the series, the level of detail achieved in Lucinda Riley’s research was really impressive, allowing me to truly feel as if I was living the journey along with Ally and her ancestors.

I loved getting to know Ally as a protagonist; her boldness made her refreshingly different from Maia, the previous book’s narrator. Lucinda Riley surprised me with the emotional twists and turns faced by both Ally and Anna, making this a compelling and sometimes heartbreaking read.

The descriptions of Norway were beautiful – reading this book has definitely made me want to visit there! This novel is pure escapism; the sort of story you can lose yourself in entirely and find yourself transported to another time and place. Any intimidation I felt about the size of the book melted away instantly as I lost myself in Ally’s world, finding myself flying through the pages.

There is romance in this book, but it also explores different kinds of love, along with the concept that there should be no set rules about what makes a family. It certainly packs an emotional punch, but the overall feel is of hope and possibility.

The Storm Sister has cemented Lucinda Riley as one of my favourite authors, and I can’t wait to meet the rest of the D’Aplièse sisters as I devour the other books in the series!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Box #3 | The Long Song

To see the original post in this series, click here.

Today’s featured TV show is the 3 part miniseries adaptation of 2011 Walter Scott Prize recipient The Long Song by Andrea Levy. I adored every second, and since it’s only available on BBC iPlayer for 3 more weeks, I thought I’d waste no time in letting you know all about how amazing it is!

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Credit: BBC

What’s it about?

The Long Song tells the story of July, a slave born on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. It follows her life as maid to Caroline Mortimer, sister of the plantation’s owner, in the period leading up to the abolition of slavery in the 1830s.

As I didn’t read the novel before watching this adaptation, I can’t comment on how faithfully it follows the novel’s plot – I can only comment on how thoroughly gripped and moved I was by the TV series.

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Credit: BBC

Why I love it

This series is definitely not an easy watch – at times I felt so uncomfortable witnessing how horrifically the slaves were treated by the plantation owners. But it’s such an important story, and one that very much needs to be heard. July gives voice to a generation of Jamaican slaves in the time on either side of the abolition.

At points I was moved to tears, but these darker moments are lightened by July’s boundless resolve, courage and sense of humour. I completely fell in love with her character, and equally hated the character of Caroline Mortimer; the entire cast gave fantastic performances, stirring up so many different emotions in me.

the-long-song-bbc-pictures-ced18-heyday-television_carlos-rodriguez13

Credit: Heyday Television/Carlos Rodriguez

Recommended if you like:

Moving dramas, biographical stories, educational series