Historical Musings #72: From the TBR…Russia and Ukraine

Welcome to another of my not-quite-monthly posts on all things historical fiction!

This month I’ve decided to share with you some of the historical fiction waiting on my TBR. With everything going on in the world and with other projects taking place in the book blogging community such as Brona’s Understanding Ukraine, I thought I would focus on books set in Russia or Ukraine. There are a lot that I’ve already read (mainly Russia rather than Ukraine) and you can find reviews elsewhere on my blog using the Russia tag (there are some classics/contemporary novels amongst those too); I’ve just finished The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn, about a female Soviet sniper, so my review of that one should be coming soon as well.

The titles below are all books that I haven’t read yet. Maybe you can help me decide which I should try to read as soon as possible and which, if any, I could remove from my TBR.

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The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

Russia, 1854. As the Crimean War grinds on, Rosa Barr – young, headstrong and beautiful – travels to the battlefields, determined to join Florence Nightingale and save as many of the wounded as she can.

For Mariella, Rosa’s cousin, the war is contained within the pages of her scrapbook, her sewing circle, and the letters she receives from Henry, her fiancé, a celebrated surgeon who has also volunteered to work within the shadow of the guns. But when Henry falls ill, and Rosa’s communications cease, Mariella finds herself drawn inexorably towards the war.

Following the trail of her elusive and captivating cousin, Mariella’s epic journey takes her from the domestic restraint of Victorian England to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea. As she ventures deeper into the dark heart of the conflict, Mariella discovers her own strengths and passions through Rosa’s tough lessons of concealment, faithfulness and love.

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The Siege by Helen Dunmore

Leningrad, September 1941.

German tanks surround the city, imprisoning those who live there. The besieged people of Leningrad face shells, starvation, and the Russian winter. Interweaving two love affairs in two generations, THE SIEGE draws us deep into the Levin’s family struggle to stay alive during this terrible winter. It is a story about war and the wounds it inflicts on people’s lives. It is also a lyrical and deeply moving celebration of love, life and survival.

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Sashenska by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution.

Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.

Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. Yet she is about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.

Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice…

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The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

Russia, 1915: Sixteen year old farmer’s son Georgy Jachmenev steps in front of an assassin’s bullet intended for a senior member of the Russian Imperial Family and is instantly proclaimed a hero. Rewarded with the position of bodyguard to Alexei Romanov, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II, the course of his life is changed for ever.

Privy to the secrets of Nicholas and Alexandra, the machinations of Rasputin and the events which will lead to the final collapse of the autocracy, Georgy is both a witness and participant in a drama that will echo down the century.

Sixty-five years later, visiting his wife Zoya as she lies in a London hospital, memories of the life they have lived together flood his mind. And with them, the consequences of the brutal fate of the Romanovs which has hung like a shroud over every aspect of their marriage…

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To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams

St Petersburg, 1879. A shot rings out in Palace Square. Cossack guards tackle the would-be assassin to the ground. In the mêlée no one notices a striking dark haired young woman in a heavy coat slip away from the scene.

Russia is alive with revolutionaries. While Tsar Alexander II remains a virtual prisoner in his own palaces, his ruthless secret police will stop at nothing to unmask those who plot his assassination and the overthrow of the Imperial regime. For Dr Frederick Hadfield, whose medical practice is dependent on the Anglo-Russian gentry, these are dangerous times. Drawn into a desperate cat-and-mouse game of undercover assignations, plot and counter-plot, he risks all in a perilous double life.

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The Romanov Empress by CW Gortner

Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage — as her older sister Alix has done, moving to England to wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir, Alexander, and once he ascends the throne, becomes empress. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie — now called Maria — must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.

Her husband’s death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas’s strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has led her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.

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The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

When twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely travels to Russia to work as a governess in early 1914, she has no idea of the vast political upheavals ahead, nor how completely her fate will be shaped by them.

In 1917, revolution sweeps away the Moscow Gerty knew. The middle classes – and their governesses – are fleeing the country, but she stays, throwing herself into an experiment in communal living led by charismatic inventor Nikita Slavkin, inspired by his belief in a future free of bourgeois clutter and alight with creativity. Yet the chaos and violence of the outside world cannot be withstood forever. Slavkin’s sudden disappearance inspires the Soviet cult of the Vanishing Futurist, the scientist who sacrificed himself for the Communist ideal. Gerty, alone and vulnerable, must now discover where that ideal will ultimately lead.

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* To Kill A Tsar and The Vanishing Futurist are both books I need to read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project (I’m particularly interested in The Vanishing Futurist after reading Cyber Kitten’s recent review).
* I have had an unread copy of The Rose of Sebastopol for more than ten years, so I should really read it soon!
* Sashenka was added to my TBR after reading Montefiore’s One Night in Winter, then I saw some negative reviews that put me off reading it.
* I started reading The Siege years ago, but didn’t get very far because I kept thinking of The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons which I’d just read and which is also about the Siege of Leningrad.
* I love John Boyne’s books, so I definitely still want to read The House of Special Purpose – and I haven’t read very much fiction about the Romanovs so the CW Gortner book should be interesting.

Have you read any of these? Which other historical fiction novels set in Russia or Ukraine have you read?

The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau

A new Nancy Bilyeau book is always something to look forward to. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her so far: her Joanna Stafford trilogy, about a nun displaced in Tudor England after the dissolution of the monasteries; Dreamland, set in a Coney Island amusement park; and The Blue, a wonderful historical thriller involving spies, art and the race to create a beautiful new shade of blue. The Fugitive Colours is a sequel to The Blue and another great read; the two books stand alone, so it’s not necessary to have read the first novel before beginning this one, although I would recommend doing so if you can.

It’s 1764 and Genevieve Planché, heroine of The Blue, is now a married woman running her own silk design business in Spitalfields, London. With the help of her two young assistant artists, Caroline and Jean, Genevieve is beginning to find buyers for her silk designs and is determined to make the business a success. However, she has not given up on her dream of becoming a serious artist and when she is invited to a gathering at the home of the portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, it seems she could still have a chance of achieving her ambition.

This in itself would have been the basis for an interesting novel – a woman trying to build a career for herself in what was still very much a male-dominated field – but there’s a lot more to the story than that. Due to the parts played by Genevieve and her husband in the recent search for the blue, their names have come to the attention of some very powerful people who are hoping to enlist them in further conspiracies. Yet again Genevieve is forced to wonder who she can and cannot trust, but this time one wrong decision could mean the end of her dreams, the loss of her business and even the destruction of her marriage.

The Fugitive Colours is perhaps not quite as exciting and fast-paced as The Blue, but I found it equally gripping. Set entirely in London, it’s a very immersive book taking us from the Spitalfields workshops of the Huguenot silk-weaving community to the grand homes of the rich and famous and the nightlife of Covent Garden. While Genevieve and most of the other main characters are fictional, we do meet some real historical figures too – not just Joshua Reynolds but also Giacomo Casanova, the Earl of Sandwich and the fascinating Chevalier d’Eon. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the 18th century art world, the snippets of information I picked up (not coming from an art background myself, I didn’t know what ‘fugitive colours’ were, but now I do), and the insights into how difficult it was for women like Genevieve and the real-life Frances Reynolds, Joshua’s sister, to gain recognition for their work.

I hope there will be another book in the Genevieve Planché series as I think there’s certainly a lot more that could be written about her. If not, I’ll look forward to seeing what Nancy Bilyeau decides to write next.

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

This is book 21/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Rebecca Notebook: and Other Memories by Daphne du Maurier – #DDMReadingWeek

When a novel can affect the human heart in such a way it seems to mean one thing only: not that the tale is exceptional in itself, but that the writer has so projected his personality on to the printed page that the reader either identifies with that personality or becomes fascinated by it, and in a near sense hypnotised.

Here Daphne du Maurier is talking about her grandfather, George du Maurier, author of the popular 1894 novel Trilby, but I think this quote could just as easily apply to Daphne herself. The more I read about her and about her background and family, the more I can see how her own personality and experiences found their way into the writing of her famous novels and short stories. I’ve now read all of those novels and stories (and looked back at my favourites in this post from last year) and am now working through her non-fiction. The Rebecca Notebook: and Other Memories, first published in 1981, was my choice for this year’s Daphne du Maurier Reading Week hosted by Heavenali.

The first part of the book consists of du Maurier’s notes and drafts relating to the writing of Rebecca – in fact, her notes were used as evidence when she had to defend herself against plagiarism allegations in the 1940s. It’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the early outline of her novel and the finished version (did you know that Maxim de Winter was originally called Henry, for example?) and her chapter summaries get longer and more detailed as the story takes shape and the characters develop. The original epilogue – which eventually became the prologue – is included in full and in another piece of writing, The House of Secrets, du Maurier describes her discovery of Menabilly, the house in Cornwall that was the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca and later became Daphne’s home.

The rest of the book collects together some of the essays and poetry written by du Maurier, including the piece about her grandfather, George du Maurier, which I quoted from above, and other biographical accounts of her father, who was the famous actor-manager Gerald du Maurier, and her cousins, the Llewelyn Davies children, who inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. Having previously read Daphne’s autobiography Myself When Young, I was already familiar with some of this information but was happy to read it again, from a slightly different perspective.

In her other essays, du Maurier discusses subjects such as Shakespeare, her views on romantic love and her feelings on becoming a widow. She talks a lot about fame and what it’s like to live life in the public eye; coming from what we would now consider a ‘celebrity family’ and being a private person herself, it’s understandable that this topic would be of particular relevance to her.

Tip the scales, and the hands that acclaim the artist become the hands that tear him to pieces. The wreath of laurel is the crown of thorns. The actor and the writer are especially vulnerable today, when worldwide publicity through press and television makes them into that treacherous thing, a ‘personality’.

None of these pieces are very long – the whole book is under 200 pages long – but I found most of them interesting and insightful. They don’t really need to be read in any particular order either, so it’s the sort of book you can easily dip in and out of and come back to later. Most people who pick up this collection will probably do so because of the Rebecca connection, but be aware that only a relatively short section of the book is devoted to Rebecca; however, if you’re interested in du Maurier as a person as well as a writer and would like to try some of her non-fiction, this is a good place to start.

Top Ten Tuesday: Famous Authors in Fiction

This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana of That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Bookish Characters (these could be readers, writers, authors, librarians, professors, etc.)”

There were lots of ways to approach this topic, but I’ve decided to list ten historical fiction novels about the lives of real authors. I have read all of them apart from the last one, which I’m reading now. Let me know if you can think of any more!

1. Daphne du MaurierDaphne by Justine Picardie
I’m starting with one of my favourite authors, who is being celebrated this week in a Reading Week hosted by Heavenali. Picardie’s novel follows Daphne through the period when she was working on her biography of Branwell Brontë, while in the modern day we meet a PhD student who is writing a thesis on Daphne and the Brontës.

2. Charles Dickens and Wilkie CollinsDrood by Dan Simmons
This Gothic mystery is supposedly narrated by Wilkie Collins as he and Dickens (the two authors were good friends in real life) search Victorian London for a mysterious figure known only as Drood. There were some things I loved about the book – the setting, atmosphere and biographical information – but I was disappointed by the negative portrayal of Collins, who I confess to liking more than Dickens!

3. Charlotte, Emily and Anne BrontëA Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan
I’ve read a few other books about the Brontë sisters (and their brother Branwell), but didn’t enjoy any of them as much as Jude Morgan’s beautifully written novel. He captures the personalities of the three sisters so well.

4. William ShakespeareThe Tutor by Andrea Chapin
I’ve read other fictional portrayals of Shakespeare too – including one by Jude Morgan, in fact – but I decided to feature this one, in which Andrea Chapin explores a possible theory to explain what Shakespeare was doing during his ‘lost years’ of 1585-1592.

5. DH LawrenceZennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
Zennor is a village on the coast of Cornwall and this novel is set during the period when DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived there towards the end of World War I. I loved the way Dunmore wrote about life in a small village during wartime, but found the parts of the book about the Lawrences less interesting.

6. EM ForsterArctic Summer by Damon Galgut
This novel follows Forster’s visits to India and Egypt and the relationships he forms there that will influence his novels. Although I found a lot to admire about this book, I think I would probably have enjoyed it more if I’d read more of Forster’s own work first.

7. Jakob and Wilhelm GrimmThe Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth
This book takes a fascinating look at the inspiration behind the Brothers Grimms’ well-known fairy tales. Forsyth writes the novel from the perspective of Dortchen Wild, a young woman who grows up next door to the Grimm family in the small German state of Hessen-Cassel.

8. Bram StokerShadowplay by Joseph O’Connor
The Irish author Bram Stoker’s story unfolds alongside the lives of English stage actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in this epistolary novel written in the form of diary entries, letters and transcripts of recordings. O’Connor weaves lots of allusions to Dracula into the plot and shows how Stoker could possibly have drawn on his own experiences to help write his most famous novel.

9. Geoffrey Chaucer and John GowerA Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger
We’ve all heard of Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, but his friend, the poet John Gower, is much less well-known. The two of them team up to solve some intriguing mysteries in A Burnable Book and its sequel The Invention of Fire.

10. Thomas MannThe Magician by Colm Tóibín
I don’t have much to say about this one as I’m only a few chapters into it, but I’m already learning a lot about the life of Thomas Mann. This is one of the shortlisted titles for this year’s Walter Scott Prize and is maybe not a book I would have chosen to read otherwise.

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Have you read any of these? Which other novels featuring famous authors can you recommend?

Six Degrees of Separation: From True History of the Kelly Gang to The Moonlit Cage

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 starting with True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I haven’t read it and it doesn’t really appeal to me, but here’s what it’s about:

To the authorities in pursuit of him, Ned Kelly is a horse thief, bank robber and police-killer. But to his fellow Australians, Kelly is their own Robin Hood. In a dazzling act of ventriloquism, Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel of adventure and heroism brings the famous bushranger wildly and passionately to life.

The title of the Peter Carey book immediately made me think of The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric (1). This unusual novel tells the story of Manticory Swiney and her six sisters who escape from poverty in 19th century Ireland to find fame on stage with their song and dance act, ending each performance by letting down their ankle-length hair. The book is not quite the ‘true history’ it claims to be, as the Swineys are fictional characters – but they are based on the real-life American singing group, the Sutherland Sisters, who really were famous for their very long hair.

And long hair is my next link! Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (2) is a retelling of the fairy tale, Rapunzel. Rapunzel, of course, is famously locked in a high tower by a witch and throws her long hair out of the window to form a rope that the witch can climb up and down. In Bitter Greens, she is given the name Margherita and her story alternates with the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, the real historical woman who wrote Persinette, the original fairy tale on which Rapunzel was based. Even if you don’t like fantasy, I think this novel is still worth reading for the fascinating details of Charlotte-Rose’s life at the 17th century French court.

Another book in which fairy tales play a part is Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville (3). This very dark and unsettling novel opens in 1890s Vienna with a psychoanalyst treating a patient who claims to be a machine, not a human being. Several decades later in Nazi Germany, we meet a little girl who is neglected by her father, another doctor, and entertains herself by remembering the fairy tales her nurse read to her – including her favourite, Hansel and Gretel. The two storylines seem unrelated at first but do come together towards the end! I remember finding this a very disturbing book, but also a clever one with some surprising twists.

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson (4) is also set in Vienna, where our narrator, Susanna Weber, is a dressmaker with a busy shop on the city’s Madensky Square. Beginning in the spring of 1911, Susanna keeps a journal in which she writes about the daily lives of her friends, customers and neighbours. It’s a lovely novel and I enjoyed getting to know all of the characters – I particularly loved Susanna’s relationship with Sigismund, a lonely Polish orphan. Including this book in my chain has reminded me that I really need to read more by Eva Ibbotson!

I’m going to stay with books about dressmakers and link to a non-fiction book this time: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana (5). In this book, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon describes her trip to Afghanistan in 2005 in order to report on female entrepreneurs working in war zones. Here she meets Kamila Sidiqi, a young Afghan woman who started her own dressmaking business with her sisters and friends in an attempt to make money while also staying on the right side of the Taliban. Kamila’s story is fascinating and a real inspiration! She even opens a school to teach other women to sew, so that they can also support themselves and their families.

Back to fiction, now. I’ve read a few other books set in Afghanistan and I’m going to finish my chain with one that I particularly liked, The Moonlit Cage by Linda Holeman (6). I read a lot of Holeman’s novels a few years ago and enjoyed them all, but she seems to have stopped writing now. The Moonlit Cage is the story of Darya, a 19th century Afghan woman who escapes from an arranged marriage and flees through the Hindu Kush mountains to India. I loved the descriptions of Afghan life and culture, as well as finding Darya’s story quite moving. I still need to read The Linnet Bird, which I think is the only one of Holeman’s adult novels I haven’t read.

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And that’s my chain for May! My links included: ‘true history’ titles, long hair, fairytales, Vienna, dressmaking and Afghanistan.

In June we’ll be starting with Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason.

The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

The Vanished Days, Susanna Kearsley’s latest book, is a prequel to The Winter Sea, which happens to be one of the few Kearsley novels I haven’t read yet! However, it didn’t matter at all as this is a completely separate story and works perfectly as a standalone.

The novel opens in 1707, the year of the Act of Union between Scotland and England. A few years earlier, Scotland had been involved in the unsuccessful Darien Scheme – an attempt to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama – and as part of the union settlement, England will pay compensation to those who had lost money due to the failed venture. When a young widow, Lily Aitcheson, comes forward to claim the wages owed to her husband Jamie Graeme, who was killed during the Darien expedition, Sergeant Adam Williamson is asked to investigate her claim. There is some doubt as to whether Lily and the man she insists was her husband were really married – and unless she can prove that their marriage was valid, she won’t be entitled to the money.

As Adam begins his investigation, searching for witnesses to the wedding or anyone who can say that it ever took place, he finds himself becoming more and more attracted to Lily. And, in chapters which alternate with the 1707 ones, we go back to 1683 and follow Lily through her childhood and the sequence of events that lead to her arriving in Edinburgh and claiming to be the widow of Jamie Graeme. Unlike most of Kearsley’s novels, which either involve some form of time travel or are set in two completely different time periods, one contemporary and one historical, this book is entirely historical, with the two threads of the story set just a few decades apart. There are none of the other supernatural elements that often appear in her novels either, so this one has a slightly different feel.

It was interesting to read about an aspect of Scottish history that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention in fiction. Although I was aware of the Darien Scheme and some of the events leading to the Act of Union, I’m not sure if any of the historical novels I’ve read have actually covered this subject. Some real historical figures appear in The Vanished Days too and Kearsley explores some of the political and religious tensions building in Scotland during this time – a reminder that the Jacobite rebellions are on the horizon. The focus, though, is on Lily’s personal story, whether seen through her own eyes or those of Adam and the people he interviews who once knew her.

This is quite a long book and I found it a bit slow for a while in the middle, but I was rewarded by a great ending with an unexpected twist. It was something I hadn’t seen coming at all and the sort of thing that makes you want to read the whole book again to see if there were any clues. I won’t do that just yet, but I will definitely try to read The Winter Sea soon, along with the other two Kearsley novels I still haven’t read, The Shadowy Horses and Bellewether.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 20/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Top Ten Tuesday: One-word reviews

This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) is “One-Word Reviews for the Last Ten Books I Read”.

The ten books I’m listing below are not technically the last ten I read, but they are ten that I haven’t yet reviewed on my blog. Full reviews for most of these should appear over the next few weeks, but for now I have chosen one word to represent each book:

1. Infuriating
The Trial of Lotta Rae by Siobhan MacGowan

2. Sadness
The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

3. Adventure
Winchelsea by Alex Preston

4. Dickensian
The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

5. Immersive
The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau

6. Surprises
The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

7. Freedom
Privilege by Guinevere Glasfurd

8. Secrets
In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson

9. Complex
All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay

10. Insightful
The Rebecca Notebook: and Other Memories by Daphne du Maurier

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Are you interested in reading any of these? Which would you like to know more about?