Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies

After six novels set in Asia, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed, Dinah Jefferies has recently switched her focus to Europe during World War II. Last year’s The Tuscan Contessa was set in 1940s Italy; her new book, Daughters of War, is the first in a new trilogy set in wartime France.

It’s 1944 and France is occupied by the Nazis. In a cottage in the Dordogne live three sisters, all in their twenties, who are each doing their best to protect themselves and their friends and neighbours and to ensure that they all survive the war. Hélène, the eldest, took on the responsibility of caring for the other two after their father died and their mother departed for England, and as well as trying to look after her little family, she also works as a nurse alongside the village doctor. Élise is the rebellious and daring sister, the one who is determined to do whatever she can to help the Resistance, whether that is hiding weapons in the cottage grounds or intercepting and passing on messages. Finally there’s Florence, the innocent and kind-hearted dreamer, who is always happiest when she is at home, spending time in the kitchen or the garden.

As the Occupation continues and liberation still seems like a distant dream, the sisters are faced with a series of important decisions to make. Should they give shelter to Tomas, a deserter from the German army? Can they trust Jack, a British SOE soldier who arrives injured at the cottage one night, asking for help? All they can do is follow their instincts and try to find a balance between keeping themselves safe and working to regain France’s freedom. Along the way, each of the sisters has her own set of personal challenges to overcome, family secrets are exposed and the bonds between the three of them are tested. As the first in a trilogy, not everything is resolved in this book, but the foundations are laid for the characters and ideas to be developed further in the second and third novels.

The book is written from the perspectives of all three sisters; we spend a few chapters with one, then a few chapters with another. I felt the closest to Hélène, although each of the sisters is a strongly drawn character with a distinct personality of her own. Élise has potentially the most exciting storylines, but I would have liked to have read about her activities with the Resistance in more detail – they are skimmed over quite quickly and I thought this was a missed opportunity. I also found it unconvincing that the sisters are so ready to trust and confide in everyone they meet, even when it appears that someone around them might be a traitor; I would have expected them to have shown more caution.

Those are the negatives, but there were also plenty of positives; I particularly loved the descriptions of the beautiful countryside and villages of the Périgord Noir, the region of France where the story is set. I’m sure I’ll be reading the other two books in the trilogy, whenever they are available.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 42/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Six Tudor Queens: Katharine Parr, the Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

This is the final book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series retelling, in fictional form, the stories of the wives of Henry VIII. Katharine Parr, the subject of this sixth novel, has never interested me as much as some of the other wives, yet this book has turned out to be my favourite of the series, not just for what we learn about Katharine herself, but also for the depiction of the political and religious situation in England during the later stages of Henry’s reign.

I have read other novels about Katharine Parr, such as Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit and Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Queen (interestingly, every author seems to choose a different spelling of her name!), but none of them go into as much depth and concentrate almost solely on her time as Henry’s wife and her relationship with Thomas Seymour. This book starts at the beginning, with Katharine’s childhood, and then takes us through her entire life, devoting plenty of time to her earlier two marriages, first to the young Edward Burgh and then to John Neville, Lord Latimer. I particularly enjoyed the section of the book where Katharine is married to Latimer; although it’s not a passionate romance, Katharine comes to love and trust her husband and they have a happy nine years together despite the religious turmoil going on around them (the uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace takes place during this period and provides one of the most exciting episodes in the novel).

Although Lord Latimer remains faithful to the Catholic Church, Katharine becomes a supporter of religious reform. When Latimer dies in 1543 and the King, having recently had his fifth wife beheaded, asks her to marry him, Katharine reluctantly accepts, knowing that turning down his proposal would be very unwise and hoping that her influence at court can further the cause of the reformers. Over time she becomes quite fond of Henry, engaging in lively debates with him on the subject of religion, but there is always an undercurrent of danger and Katharine knows that if she is to avoid the fate of her predecessors, she can’t allow her sympathies for the new Protestant religion to become too obvious. Somehow, Katharine manages to survive and outlive the King, free at last to marry Thomas Seymour, the man she really loves…but their time together is tragically short and marred by Seymour’s inappropriate behaviour with the young Princess Elizabeth.

I loved reading about Katharine’s life before she became Queen, as so much of this was new to me – and unlike the book on Anne of Cleves, where Weir admits that she invented a lot of Anne’s story, this one seems to be more grounded in historical fact. Once the novel moves on to her marriages to Henry VIII and Thomas Seymour, I was on more familiar ground and found these sections slightly less interesting to read – particularly as I have never liked Thomas Seymour and wished I could reach into the pages of the book and stop Katharine from marrying him!

Something that has intrigued me throughout this series is the way in which Alison Weir has chosen to portray Henry VIII. She shows him in a much more positive light than usual, to the point where she almost seems to be absolving him of any responsibility for his actions, putting the blame on the people around him instead – Thomas Cromwell, Bishop Gardiner, even some of his victims such as poor Katheryn Howard. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see a more nuanced depiction of Henry, but on the other I’m not convinced that his wives would all have viewed him as favourably as these books suggest!

Katharine Parr herself is portrayed as an intelligent, well-educated and compassionate woman; her previous marriages and experience of life have given her a maturity and common sense that some of Henry’s other wives lacked. She makes an effort to befriend her stepchildren and plays an important part in persuading Henry to restore his daughters Elizabeth and Mary to the line of succession. She gains the King’s trust and is named regent while he is away on a military campaign, as well as becoming the first queen to have books published in English under her own name. Katharine’s life is maybe not as dramatic as some of the other wives’, but because I liked her so much I was able to become fully invested in her story.

Now that this series has come to an end, Alison Weir is moving further back in time with her next novel to tell the story of Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, in The Last White Rose.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 41/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Top Ten Tuesday: From One to Ten

This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Books with Numbers in the Title”. I’m sure a similar topic has come up before, but I didn’t take part that time so thought I’d join in today – and to make things more difficult, I have chosen a different title for each number from one to ten and have only used books that I have read and reviewed!

One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore – There were a few books I could have used for number one, but I’ve chosen this thriller set in Stalin’s Moscow at the end of World War II and based on a true story.

Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy – This is a lesser known Hardy novel, but I still really enjoyed this story of Lady Viviette Constantine and her love for the young astronomer, Swithin St Cleeve.

Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell – I avoided the more obvious choices here, such as The Three Musketeers and Three Men in a Boat and went with this non-fiction account of Durrell’s expedition to Guyana in 1950. I loved the descriptions of the animals and birds he finds there and the funny anecdotes about things that happen to Durrell and his companions during the journey.

The Four Emperors by David Blixt – Ancient Rome has never been one of my favourite periods to read about, but this novel brought to life the Rome of AD 69, the year in which four different emperors ruled in quick succession.

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie – This 1942 Poirot mystery is slightly unusual in that Poirot is trying to solve a crime that took place many years before the story begins. It’s one of several Christie novels with a title based on a children’s rhyme!

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid – I didn’t think this would be my kind of book, but I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. Written in a documentary style, it tells the story of a fictional 1970s rock band.

The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley – I had several choices for number seven too, but I decided on this one, the first in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series. Each book in the series tells the story of one of seven adopted sisters and in this first novel we meet the eldest, Maia, as she traces her family history back to Brazil during the creation of the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne – I’m cheating slightly here as I don’t seem to have read any books with ‘eight’ in the title. Anyway, I enjoyed this classic tale of a man who sets out to prove that it’s possible to travel round the entire world in eighty days – although it seemed such a waste to visit so many different countries and not have time to actually explore any of them!

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart – I love Mary Stewart! This wonderful Gothic suspense novel set in France was the first of her books that I read and probably still my favourite.

Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler – This is the fourth novel in Fowler’s Bryant and May series about a pair of elderly detectives who work for the Peculiar Crimes Unit. In this book, Arthur Bryant and John May are on the trail of a mysterious serial killer dressed as an 18th century highwayman.

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Have you read any of these books? Could you put your own ‘one to ten’ together?

Historical Musings #68: Historical fiction in translation

Welcome to this month’s post on all things historical fiction.

August was Women in Translation Month, a popular event in the book blogging calendar, and although I was only able to join in with one book – The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani, set in Morocco in the 1940s and 50s – I thought it would be interesting for this month’s Musings to look at some of the other historical fiction novels I have read in translation. I’ve read plenty of older classics, many of which I’ve reviewed on my blog, but sadly very few recent books published within the last ten years or so. Here is everything I could find in my blog archives, although I might have missed one or two (and for the purposes of this list, I am referring to books that have been translated from their original language into English, not from English into other languages):

French to English:

Maurice Druon – The Accursed Kings series (translated by Humphrey Hare)
Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers and sequels (translated by William Barrow); The Black Tulip (Franz Demmler); The Red Sphinx (Lawrence Ellsworth)
Victor Hugo – The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (translated by Isabel F. Hapgood); Les Miserables (Norman Denny)
Madame de Lafayette – The Princess of Cleves (unknown translator)
Robert Merle – The Brethren (translated by T Jefferson Kline)
George Sand – Mauprat (translated by Stanley Young)
Olivier Barde-Cabuçon – Casanova and the Faceless Woman (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie)
Leïla Slimani – The Country of Others (translated by Sam Taylor)

Italian to English:

Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose (translated by William Weaver)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – The Leopard (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)

German to English:

Oliver Pötzsch – The Beggar King (translated by Lee Chadeayne)

Norwegian to English:

Lars Mytting – The Bell in the Lake (translated by Deborah Dawkin)
Sigrid Undset – Kristin Lavransdatter (translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Catalan to English:

Rafel Nadal Farreras – The Last Son’s Secret (translated by Mara Faye Lethem)

Spanish to English:

Isabel Allende – The Japanese Lover (translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson); A Long Petal of the Sea (Caistor and Hopkinson)

Russian to English:

Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago (translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari)
Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Dutch to English:

Hella S Haasse – In a Dark Wood Wandering (translated by Lewis C Kaplan)
Simone van der Vlugt – Midnight Blue (translated by Jenny Watson)

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Have you read any of these? Can you recommend any other historical fiction novels in translation, particularly anything recent?

There’s a Goodreads list here with 295 books and an interesting article here on the particular challenges of translating historical fiction.

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My current historical reading:

I have just finished two novels, both long ones which have occupied most of my reading time for the last couple of weeks: Katharine Parr, the Sixth Queen by Alison Weir and Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies. I’m also in the middle of an even longer non-fiction book, Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones, which is fascinating but has a lot of information to take in and absorb. As I wanted something lighter to read alongside this, I have just started The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters, the third book in her Amelia Peabody mystery series featuring a female Victorian Egyptologist. It will count towards the RIP XVI challenge. After this, I have review copies of two new September releases which I would like to read before the end of the month: The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien and A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick.

New to my historical TBR in the last few weeks:

The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret George, the sequel to The Confessions of Young Nero, which I read a few years ago, and Pour the Dark Wine by Deryn Lake, a novel about the Seymour family (the ebook was free on Amazon last week). Also, The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley and Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth, both via NetGalley and due to be published in 2022.

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Have you read any good historical novels lately? And what are your thoughts on historical fiction in translation?

Goodbye, Mr Chips by James Hilton

Since reading James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, which I loved, I have wanted to try more of his work – and although it’s taken me a few years, I’ve finally read another of his books! If I’d known how short Goodbye, Mr Chips was I would have tried to read it before now; there are only about 120 pages in my edition, so it’s a very quick read.

Before starting the book, I thought I already knew the story because I’ve seen two of the adaptations – the 1939 one and the 1969 musical version (both of which I enjoyed). The earlier film is much more faithful to the book, but neither follow the original story exactly and there are incidents in both that don’t appear in Hilton’s text. The novella tells the story of Mr Chipping, a quiet, unassuming teacher, and follows his career at the fictional Brookfield School over a period of many decades. Chipping – or Mr Chips as the boys call him – teaches Greek and Latin and, as the years go by and the world begins to change around him, he gains a reputation for being old-fashioned and traditional, reluctant to embrace new teaching methods and belonging to an earlier time. We first meet him as an old man – the sort of old man people struggle to imagine ever being young:

…white-haired and only a little bald, still fairly active for his years, drinking tea, receiving callers, busying himself with corrections for the next edition of the Brookfeldian Directory, writing his occasional letters in thin, spidery, but very legible script. He had new masters to tea, as well as new boys. There were two of them that autumn term, and as they were leaving after their visit one of them commented: “Quite a character, the old boy, isn’t he? All that fuss about mixing the tea — a typical bachelor, if ever there was one.”

Of course, Mr Chips was young once and the boys would have been surprised to learn that he wasn’t always a bachelor. Back in 1896, at the age of forty-eight he had married Katherine Bridges – and although their time together was tragically short, Katherine’s kind heart and sense of humour had a profound effect on Chips, leaving him a better person and changing his outlook on life.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks, with the elderly Mr Chips looking back on his life and career, remembering not only the happy days of his marriage to Katherine, but also the more difficult times he has lived through, such as the First World War. It’s a nostalgic and sentimental book, but quite a sad and poignant one too. I found it too short to be completely satisfying and I think this is one of the few occasions where I would say I preferred the film – either of them – to the book, but I did still enjoy it and am looking forward to reading Random Harvest, the other James Hilton novel I have on my TBR.

This is book 23/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

My first book for this year’s RIP challenge is Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire novella, Carmilla. First published in 1872, it is thought to have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which came more than twenty years later, and is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction (although John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Byron’s Fragment of a Novel were written earlier still).

My previous experience with Le Fanu has been limited to his Victorian Gothic novel, Uncle Silas, and one of his short stories, Laura Silver Bell, both of which I read ten years ago. I’ve always intended to read more of his work, so when I saw Carmilla available through NetGalley (a new Deluxe Edition is being published by Pushkin Press this week) it seemed the perfect opportunity.

The story is narrated by nineteen-year-old Laura, who lives in a lonely castle in Styria, Austria, with only her father and governesses for company. Laura longs for a friend her own age and it seems she may get her wish when a young woman is injured in a carriage accident near the castle. Her name is Carmilla and her mother, who is desperate to continue on her journey, asks Laura’s father to take care of her daughter until she returns. Laura is delighted to have Carmilla staying with them, but also feels uneasy, because she has seen Carmilla before – in a dream that has haunted her since her childhood.

As this is a very short book, if I say much more I will be giving away the entire plot – and anyway, as I’ve already said that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what Carmilla really is and how the rest of the story will unfold. For the modern day reader there are no big surprises here, although I’m sure that at the time when it was published, as one of the first of its kind, it would have felt much more original and shocking. However, there are still plenty of things that make this book an entertaining and worthwhile read.

First of all, it’s interesting to read Carmilla while keeping in mind its place in history and its influence on later vampire fiction – there are some very obvious similarities with Dracula and Anne Rice has cited it as an inspiration for her Vampire Chronicles. It can also be read as an early example of a lesbian romance; although the constraints of 19th century fiction prevent Le Fanu from being too explicit, the relationship between Laura and Carmilla is clearly based upon physical attraction and we learn that Carmilla always chooses young women as her prey. Finally, with its sinister atmosphere, remote castle setting and other elements of classic Gothic literature, it’s the perfect choice if you’re taking part in the RIP event or just looking for something dark and spooky to read as we head towards Halloween!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 1 read for R.I.P XVI

Six Degrees of Separation: From Second Place to The Leopard

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re beginning with Second Place by Rachel Cusk. I haven’t read it and probably never will, but here’s what it’s about:

A woman invites a famed artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, in the belief that his vision will penetrate the mystery of her life and landscape. Over the course of one hot summer, his provocative presence provides the frame for a study of female fate and male privilege, of the geometries of human relationships, and of the struggle to live morally between our internal and external worlds. With its examination of the possibility that art can both save and destroy us, Second Place is deeply affirming of the human soul, while grappling with its darkest demons.

Second Place has been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. I haven’t read any of the other titles on the longlist either, although there are plenty of authors on there that I’ve read in the past such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Damon Galgut, Nadifa Mohamed and Francis Spufford. The last Booker Prize winner I read was The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (1), which shared the prize in 2019. It’s a sequel to her earlier novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, set in Gilead, a dystopian community ruled by a patriarchal regime.

Gilead is a place I certainly wouldn’t want to live in. For a Top Ten Tuesday topic in 2018, I made a list of other unpleasant fictional worlds. One of these was ‘the future’, as described by HG Wells in his classic science fiction novel The Time Machine (2). The world Wells imagines, where humanity has evolved into the beautiful, childlike Eloi and the savage, brutal Morlocks is bleak and depressing, but difficult to forget once you’ve read it.

I think if I had my own time machine I would be too afraid to see what the future might hold, so I would prefer to visit the past. A book in which the characters use their time machines to travel back in time rather than forwards is Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (3), the first of her Chronicles of St Mary’s. The series follows Madeleine Maxwell (known as Max), a time travelling historian who has some exciting adventures while personally experiencing some of the greatest events in history.

The name of the main character in the Jodi Taylor novel, Max, and the name of her mentor, Mrs de Winter, naturally makes me think of Max (or Maxim) de Winter in one of my favourite books, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (4). However, that’s where the similarities end because Taylor’s time travel novel has nothing else in common with du Maurier’s classic tale of Maxim’s young and innocent second wife, haunted by the memories of his first, whose presence is still felt throughout the estate of Manderley even after her death.

A novel that does closely mirror Rebecca is The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas (5). This modern Gothic novel tells the story of Sarah, who becomes housekeeper to Alex and his six-year-old son at their home, Avalon. But as Sarah begins to fall in love with Alex, she hears some disturbing rumours about his wife, Genevieve, who has disappeared without trace. I really enjoyed this book, with its twisting, turning plot, ghostly occurrences and dark, tense atmosphere.

Although most of the above book is set in England, Sarah and Alex first meet while on holiday in Sicily and Louise Douglas also uses Sicily as the setting for one of her later novels, The House by the Sea. Another, very different book set in Sicily is The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (6), which explores the 19th century Risorgimento (movement for the unification of Italy) through the eyes of a Sicilian nobleman, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina.

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And that’s my chain for September. My links included: Booker Prize winners, unpleasant fictional worlds, time machines, Max and de Winter, books inspired by Rebecca and the island of Sicily.

In October, we will be starting with The Lottery, a short story by Shirley Jackson.