Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Review: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Scribner via Netgalley.

My Review:
Sheep and GoatsThis was the perfect book for me to take on my recent beach vacation to Maine.  The story is set in England during a sweltering heat wave in the summer of 1976.  This neighborhood in the English Midlands is so tight knit that when Mrs. Creasy goes missing, every one notices, even ten-year-old friends Tilly and Grace.  Since Tilly and Grace are on summer vacation, they decide to use their time to look for clues around The Avenue in order to find out what happened to Mrs. Creasy.  The first person they seek out for advice is the local pastor.

The pastor tries to reassure Tilly and Gracie who are worried about Mrs. Creasy.  The girls don’t want anyone else in their neighborhood to disappear so they look to the pastor for comfort and he tells them that God is everywhere and will protect them.  So in addition to finding Mrs. Creasy, the girls also set out to find where God is hiding himself on The Avenue.  As they visit each house, we are given a glimpse into the quirky and oddball characters that inhabit The Avenue.  Joanna Cannon has written a book that is chock full of likeable and sympathetic characters in whose lives we become emotionally invested.

Some might be hesitant to read a story from a child’s perspective, but the characters of Grace and Tilly are charming and funny.  The girls have some of the most droll and amusing lines in the book.  It is Grace who aptly describes the oppressive heat of the summer: “We had to share bathwater and half-fill the kettle, and we were only allowed to flush the toilet after what Mrs. Morton described as a special occasion.  The only problem was, it meant that everyone knew when you’d had a special occasion, which was a bit awkward.”

As the girls visit their neighbors on The Avenue we are introduced to an engaging cast of characters.  Mr. Creasy is plagued with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and is consumed with counting things.  His wife, Mrs. Creasy, was the only person who could keep his anxiety at bay and now that she is gone his neurosis is back in full force.  Mrs. Forbes is a nervous wreck most of the time as well and her tendency to forget things forces her to constantly make to-do lists.  Mr. Lamb is a widower whose pride and joy is his lush garden.  These are just a few of the interesting characters that we meet on The Avenue.

As much as I enjoyed the characters and the clever writing style of the book, the author’s greatest strength is her ability to create meaningful and compelling relationships between the characters.  Grace and Tilly are best friends and it is touching how Grace is worried for Tilly because of her fragile health.  Grace and Tilly have a touching relationship with Mrs. Morton, a widow who lives alone on The Avenue.  Mrs. Morton takes care of the girls while their parents are having a rest and they feel just as comfortable in her home as in their own.  Grace tells us, “My mother spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down, and so I was minded by Mrs. Morton quite a lot.”  And  Mrs. Creasy, who has a gift for listening and compassion, has a special relationship with many of her neighbors on The Avenue.  We understand throughout the course of the book why everyone is so eager to have this kind woman back in their lives.

The title cleverly points out an important lesson that Tilly, Grace and the rest of The Avenue learn through the mystery of Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance.  All of the neighbors are whispering about some secret that they have been keeping for quite a few years.  They suspect that Mrs. Creasy must have discovered this secret and fled The Avenue. The guilt and the shame of whatever it is that they have done starts to weigh on the neighbors and they start to point fingers at one another.  Tilly and Gracie attend church one Sunday and are fascinated when the pastor reads Matthew 25:31-46:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

What Grace and Tilly, and really the rest of The Avenue can’t figure out, is how do we tell who is a sheep and who is a goat?  The entire Avenue has decided that their eccentric neighbor Walter Bishop is a goat and as a result they been excluded him from their community.  When I was reading the sections about Walter and his mistreatment at the hands of his neighbors I kept thinking of the famous character of Boo Ridley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Walter Bishop lives alone, is very shy and quiet and has some interesting hobbies like photography.  But The Avenue sees him as a threat to their peaceful cul-de-sac and blame him when anything goes wrong.  But Gracie and Tilly are on a mission and they even visit Walter on their quest to find God and Mrs. Creasy.  These little girls give their neighbor the respect and kindness that no one else will show him and in the process they also learn that it is not always easy to separate the goats from the sheep.

This story was funny, charming and engaging.  I was surprised to find out that this is Joanna Cannon’s first novel because she has the talent of a mature and experienced author.  This has been one of my favorite reads so far this summer.

For more information about Joanna Cannon visit her website: https://joannacannon.com/



Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction, Summer Reading

Review: Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  This English version has been translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

My Review:
Her Father's DaughterFrance is a four and a half year old little girl, growing up in war time France with her mother.  Her father left to fight in World War II when she was an infant, so she only knows him through photographs.  In fact, the very concept of a father is alien to her because there are no other examples of fathers to which she is exposed.   I was immediately captivated by this short book and drawn into this small child’s recollections about the war and its lasting effects on her family.

Despite the fact that there is war raging on around her, France’s world is very small and happy.  She lives with her mother in a two room apartment in occupied Paris and as a spoiled and indulged child she does whatever she pleases.  She draws on the walls of her apartment, draws in books, sings at the top of her lungs and has awful table manners.  Her mother showers her with constant attention and affection and calls her “my darling.”  Her grandmother, who seems to the chid like a cold-hearted disciplinarian, visits France and her mother often but the child has no affection for her.  In fact, the child gets rather jealous when her mother and grandmother are talking privately to each other the child does everything she can to interrupt them.

One day France’s mother causally mentions that daddy is coming home.  France goes into a panic because she knows, rightly so, that her cozy world with her mother will never be the same.  When she meets daddy for the first time she is reticent and fearful.  Her father was captured by the Germans and spent years in a German prisoner of war camp.  When he is finally able to come home from the hospital, all of France’s routines are completely shattered.  Her father loses his temper easily at the ill manners of his small child.  When she refuses to finish her dinner he slaps her and when she throws a fit he makes her sit out in the hallway of the apartment by herself.  France develops a contempt for her mother for her once beloved who does not intervene on her behalf.  But at the same France gradually develops a fondness for her father.

Once he is able to settle his anger and impatience, France’s father is able to show her affection and attention.  He begins painting with her and telling her stories.  The transformation of this heartwarming father-daughter relationship was my favorite part of the book.  As France begins to trust her father, she confides in him a secret about her mother that has been bothering her for a long time.  This secret is what finally manages to break apart what was already a fragile marriage.  When France’s father moves out and remarries, she must once again navigate the world without a consistent father figure in her life.

I found this book to be clever in its dealing with the point of view of a child.  The entire story is seen through the child’s eyes, yet the narrator also interprets for us the underlying feelings and emotions of the child, so we get a deeper glimpse into the thoughts of her life and her surroundings.  The sentences are short and sometimes only a word or two which is fitting for a narrator who is a small child.  And throughout the book she is rarely called by her name but instead she is referred to as “the child,” as if she were unimportant, a non-entity to the adults around her.  This is another beautiful and powerful book from Peirene Press and it gave me a new perspective about the tragedies of war and how they affect the youngest and most vulnerable among us.

This is the second book in the Peirene Fairy Tale series.  I am always eager to read another Peirene and this book was absolutely fantastic.  I can’t wait for the third, and final book, in the Fairy Tale selections.  Please visit the Peirene website for more information on this book and to read a sample: http://www.peirenepress.com/books/fairy_tale/peirene_no_20/PLINK

About the Author:
M SizunMarie Sizun is a prize-winning French author. She was born in 1940 and has taught literature in Paris, Germany and Belgium. She now lives in Paris. She has published seven novels and a memoir. Marie Sizun wrote her first novel, Her Father’s Daughter, at the age of 65. The book was long-listed for the Prix Femina



Filed under France, Historical Fiction, Novella

Review: Clinch by Martin Holmén

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.  This was published in 2015 in the original Swedish and this English version has been translated by Henning Koch.

My Review:
ClinchHarry Kvist is an former boxer who lives in the decrepit, dirty and seedy city of Stockholm in the 1930’s.  The city is full of tramps, prostitutes, and bootleggers as well as poor and destitute citizens who have been affected by the economic collapse of this decade.  Kvist himself leads a hard life by serving as a collector of debts to those who have defaulted on payments.  His specialty is repossessing bicycles which is easy money for him.  When the novel begins Kvist is collecting on a debt from a man named Zetterberg who owes a few thousand kronor.  Kvist scares Zetterberg by giving him a good beating that is not enough to kill him, but enough to leave him with a few scars as a “reminder” to pay the money he owes.  When Zetterberg is found dead the next day, Kvist is the prime suspect and he is immediately picked up by the police.

Kvist spends a few rough nights in a disgusting jail cell covered in urine and lice.  He is given a working over by the detectives and after they don’t get any information out of him he is released.  He spends the next few days hunting downs leads about Zetterberg’s murder and trying to find a prostitute named Sonja who is the only person who can provide him with an alibi for the time of the murder.  Kvist’s detective work takes him to bars, gangster hideouts, slums and brothels.  The best part of the book is the author’s ability to fully capture the squalid, dingy and oftentimes dangerous city.  The streets are an interesting mix of pre-industrial Europe and the slow progress towards modernization.  Horse carts still plow the streets and deliver coal, but cars are also driven through the crowded and dirty city.

The plot about the murder is slow to advance throughout the course of the book.  However, Kvist’s contact with the seedy underbelly of the city make for some thrilling scenes.  His always has a desire to use his boxing skills and he gets into several fist fights with other gritty characters.  He is also shot at and chased after and there is rarely a dull moment in Kvist’s life.  But even though there is an undercurrent of violence throughout the book, Kvist is not a murderer or a psychopath.  He can be sensitive to the needs of others, especially women who are in a tough spot or emotionally distraught.  He is even nice to animals and feeds the starving strays on the streets of Stockholm.  All of these details give us a multi-dimensional character with whom, even when he is violent, we can sympathize.

Kvist’s sexuality and his experimentation with both males and females gives the book an added layer of interest and sophistication.  Kvist has several encounters with different men at the beginning of the book which is very dangerous for him since any type of homosexual act is illegal at the time.  But Kvist’s sexual preferences are not an “either, or” choice.  He also hints at the fact that he has a daughter and makes comments about the type of woman that attracts him.  He spends quite a bit of time in the second part of the book sleeping with an actress who was trying to contract him for his collection serves.  The exploration of his sexuality, which is not usually done in Noir fiction,  adds another brilliant dimension to his character.

I am excited that this is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy about Harry Kvist and I am eager to read the next two installments which are coming out in the next year.  This is noir writing as its best and you won’t want to give this book a miss if you are a fan of this genre.

About the Author:
M HolmenMartin Holmén is a Swedish writer based in Stockholm. He was orn in 1974. He teaches History, Swedish and History of Culture and Ideas at an upper secondary school in Stockholm two days a week. He is the author of the Harry Kvist trilogy.




Filed under Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Mystery/Thriller, Scandanavian Literature, Summer Reading

Review- The Honeymoon: A Novel About George Eliot by Dinitia Smith

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Other Press.

My Review:
The HoneymoonThe most upsetting aspect of this fictional biography of George Eliot was the message forced upon her by her family that she was not a beautiful person and never would be.  From the time she was a five-year-old girl she was told that she was physically ugly and that no man would ever marry her.  Her mother favors her other two children over her; her father dotes on her but it seems that he pays her extra attention out of a sense of pity for his ugly child.  It was difficult and sad to read that from an early age the emphasis on her physical appearance greatly affected every aspect of her life.  Her father provided her with the best education because no man would marry her and she would have to be able to support herself.

When the book opens, Marian Evans, which is the famous author’s real name, is on her honeymoon in Venice;  she has just married a man twenty years her junior and it is evident that this is a platonic marriage which is void of any physical pleasures.  Marian and her husband Johnnie seem uneasy for a variety of reasons and most of the book is a flashback to earlier times in her life.  In her younger years, Marian has several affairs with married men which make her feel lonely and guilty.  Her low self esteem, due to what she perceives is her “ugly” exterior, makes her vulnerable to these men when they show her any type of attention.

Marian is depicted as an intelligent, curious, and kind woman.  She has learned several languages including German, Italian and Hebrew.  Whenever she is at a party and around a group of people, the most famous minds among them are attracted to her because of her sharp mind and intellect.  She first has an affair with a good family friend, Charles Bray,  but he casts her off for a young maid.  She is then seduced by the publisher John Chapman who owns the literary magazine she works for.  But when his wife and his other mistress get jealous he ends the affair.  After this string of empty affairs, Marian is dejected and feels that she is doomed to a life of loneliness without the love of a man.

Marian meets George Lewes through a mutual friend and their relationship is built on an appreciation for all things intellectual.  They read the same books, share their writing pieces and go to the theater together.  When they do become lovers George reassures her that, despite the fact that he is legally married, he has every intention of being with her for the rest of his life.  They do stay together and live together as man and wife for over twenty years.  Their deeply emotional and intimate relationship is the best aspect of the book; even though they never have any children together she treats George’s children as her own.  It is George who encourages her to start publishing her writings and he gives her valuable feedback on her manuscripts.

When George dies Marian is absolutely lost.  She begins to rely on Johnnie, a family friend, especially to sort out her finances.  At this point in the book she is a very rich woman because of the success of her novels and Johnnie protects her assets and watches over her like a doting son.  When Johnnie proposes marriage to Marian it is shocking because they have had no hint at any romantic feelings for one another.  It is subtly suggested in the book that Johnnie is gay and he is marrying Marian to try to act like a normal, British man.   He is emotionally struggling but we are never given the exact details of his inner turmoil.  During their honeymoon Johnnie starts to mentally unravel and he attempts suicide by jumping into the canal.

The Honeymoon is an interesting look at the life of this prolific, female, British writer.  I always knew that George Eliot lived with Lewes but were never legally married.  The details in the book about their arrangement were enlightening.  The book also provides an important message: beauty is much deeper than a person’s outward, physical appearance.

About the Author:
D SmithDinitia Smith is novelist, Emmy award-winning filmmaker, and journalist. She worked as a correspondent for The New York Times, specializing in literature and the arts, for 12 years. She has taught at many institutions, including Columbia University.


Filed under Historical Fiction

Review: William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

My Review:
William EnglishmanI was not surprised to find out the author composed this novel in a tent on the front lines of World War I.  The novel is a gruesome, starkly honest portrayal of the horrors of war.  The author, however, draws the readers in at first with a light and satirical description of its gentle, naïve and optimistic main characters, William and Griselda.

When the story begins, William is twenty-six years old and still lives with his mother.  He has an extremely ordered and monotonous life working at a clerk’s office and handing over most of his weekly paycheck to his mother.  He doesn’t seem to have any genuine affection for his parent and when she suddenly dies he realizes that he never really loved her.  Her death means freedom for him; not only does he now have financial freedom since she left him a sizeable inheritance but he also has the freedom to make his own decisions about the course his life will take.

William asks some advice from one of his fellow clerks about what he should do with his time and money and it is through this interaction with Farraday that William becomes involved with political and social reform.  William leaves the tedious office where he has worked for many years and embarks on full-time career as a social activist who writes about, protests and goes to meetings about the suffragette movement, pacifism, and other socialist topics.

It is at these meetings that William meets Griselda, a feisty suffragette who shares the same ideals as William.  The tone in the book that describes these two is one of gentle parody as William and Griselda appear to fight for mostly vague causes.  They believe all government is evil and any attempt of a government to raise a military and train it is simply “playing” at warfare.  They love to go to meetings and hand out pamphlets and consider themselves strong and tough for fighting against social injustices.  They see themselves as the perfect couple and their courtship and devotion to each other is a sweet love story.

When William and Griselda take their honeymoon in the remote mountains of the Belgian Ardennes, they are uneasy with the slow-paced, quiet life of the village in which they are staying. But they settle in for a few weeks and enjoy each other’s company.  It is on the very last day of their vacation that things take a horrible and tragic turn for the worst.  They encounter a regiment of invading German soldiers who treat them brutally and inhumanely.  I have to say that the violence in this book shocked me and Hamilton does not gloss over or sugarcoat the atrocities of war.

William, the once naïve and optimistic Englishman who lived in his happy little bubble of bliss, now becomes the disillusioned and distraught victim of real warfare.  It is not a game or a joke when men are being blown apart and people’s lives are destroyed by gunfire and bombs.  I don’t want to give away the plot and the fate of William and Griselda.  But I will say that William’s story comes full circle and in the end his life becomes equally as monotonous and numb as it was when we first meet him living under the thumb of his mother.  What starts out as an amusing story about two naïve lovebirds becomes a harsh commentary on the gory realities of warfare.

I encourage anyone who enjoys World War I historical fiction to pick up this book.  Thanks to Persephone Press for reissuing another brilliant book from an important 20th century female author.

About the Author:
C HamiltonCicely Mary Hamilton (born Hammill), was an English author and co-founder of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League.

She is best remembered for her plays which often included feminist themes. Hamilton’s World War I novel “William – An Englishman” was reprinted by Persephone Books in 1999.

She was a friend of EM Delafield and was portrayed as Emma Hay in “A Provincial Lady Goes Further.”



Filed under British Literature, Classics, Historical Fiction, Persephone Books, World War I