Tag: Historical Fiction

The Black Ascot Book Review

Book Cover showing a race horse

The Black Ascot

The Black Ascot by Charles Todd is an historical murder mystery. The book takes its’ title from the 1910 Ascot races. Because of the death of King Edward VII, all attendees at the Ascot races wore black. The murder takes place following a race day.

The accused, Alan Barrington, disappears after the inquest and before the case goes to trial. The majority of the book takes place 1921. This allows the author to incorporate bits and pieces of history from The Great War.

Scotland Yard

In 1921, Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge receives a tip. Alan Barrington has been spotted back in England. Rutledge convinces his superior to allow the old murder case to be reviewed. Even though Rutledge was not involved in the original Black Ascot murder investigation, he wants to bring Barrington to trial.

Shell Shock

Inspector Ian Rutledge begins the review by getting to know the victims as well as the accused. His investigation involves interviewing past Inspectors and witnesses. Many of these individuals were mentally and/or physically affected by The Great War.

Rutledge also suffers from shell shock. During World War I, Rutledge loses a close colleague. But the ghost of Hamish “talks” to Rutledge throughout the book. When the issue of the inspector’s shell shock takes a pivotal turn midway through the book, so does the case.

Charles Todd

Charles Todd and his mother Caroline team together to write both the Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford series. Even though the list of published works is long, this was my first time reading a Charles Todd book. It will not be my last.

I love the combination of historical events and fictional murder mystery. Even though the Ascot races did not figure prominently in the book, naming the novel after the 1910 races was appropriate. A true blackguard caused the motor car crash taking the life of one and severely injuring another.

The expert writing not only kept the reader turning the pages, but also created a stand-alone book. I did not feel as if I were missing something by not reading previous titles featuring Inspector Rutledge. The intrigue of the plot combined with the well-developed characters made this one of the best reads of the 2019 year. I would not be surprised to find it on my end of the year list of favorites. (Click here for the 2018 list.)

The Black Ascot is highly recommended. Buy or borrow a copy today.

Only Killers and Thieves Book Review

Tree suffering from droughtPaul Howarth’s debut novel Only Killers and Thieves is a gripping work of historical fiction. The story begins in 1885 and takes place in Central Queensland, Australia. The McBride family struggles to survive on the drought stricken land. Thus, from the start, the reader knows some hardship will befall the family dependent on a cattle operation for their livelihood.

Weaved into the plot is the tension between rival landowners, the indigenous population, settlers encroaching on native lands. But Howarth adds more. Only Killers and Thieves does more than give a glimpse at the past. This book reminds us how important it is to preserve an accurate history.

The McBride Boys

Billy is the elder. Sixteen at the start of the story. Tommy, 14, follows his lead. The third McBride child is Mary. Since the drought, most of the hands have gone. Arthur, a Mission raised black is the only reminder of a once productive operation. He is as much a mentor to Tommy as his father, McBride.

The only other help on the land is Joseph, a Kurrong. But Joseph leaves after the group finds the bodies of two Kurrong. The same two men the boys had recently seen alive chained behind the Native Police at the request of neighbor John Sullivan.

Soon after, tragedy strikes the homestead. The evidence seemingly points to Joseph. In the rush to get help for the gravely injured Mary, the choices begin. Once a path is chosen, the past cannot be undone. Tommy wants to head for the nearest town. The doc is there. But it is a two-hour ride.

Billy over rules him. Thus they ride toward the Sullivan holdings. Life changes forever.

Only Killers and Thieves

John Sullivan convinces Billy to alter the story of the evidence found at the homestead. Thus Billy tries to keep his younger brother out of the loop. But Tommy insists on participating. They become liars. Witnessing a sworn statement that a group of the Kurrong over ran their home. However, the downward spiral continues.

The McBride boys join the posse. Four white men and four Native Police comprise the entourage. The Kurrong are hunted. Then massacred. But Joseph is not among the group. Both teenagers take part. But the impact is not the same. Tommy has regrets. And questions. Why wasn’t Joseph with his people?

The division between the boys begins. Billy falls lockstep in with Sullivan and his view that all the blacks must be eliminated for the safety of the settlers. On the other hand, Tommy is truly a Doubting Thomas. He questions what really happened to his family. He questions himself. Then he seeks the truth and justice for the innocent.

Only Killers and Thieves is a work of fiction. But Howarth captures all the nuances of the time. The struggle between cultures. The fight to survive in a harsh environment. Furthermore, through the character of Tommy, Howarth displays how individuals must wrestle within themselves. Is there right from wrong? Is there a God? Or are we just specks in time?

This debut novel deserves much praise as does the author.

Picture of dry land with small patch of irrigated grazing

The Alice Network Book Review

Kate Quinn offers a treat for history buffs and those who like a bit of romance. Her book, The Alice Network, is set in the years immediately following World War II. But, the focus of more than half the book is World War I, also known as The Great War.

Charlie

Alternating chapters reveal the stories of two women. Charlie, short for Charlotte, opens the story in 1947. She is searching for her cousin Rose. The family lost contact with Rose while France was occupied by Germany. Charlie has one lead, Evelyn Gardiner.

Charlie is also running away. Her story is a combination of post war stresses as well as her search for Rose. War has long-lasting consequences for both soldiers and families. Quinn does an outstanding job of conveying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) throughout Charlie’s tale.

Fans of romance are treated to just a bit as Charlie becomes attracted to Finn Kilgore, employee of Evelyn Gardiner. Kilgore’s background is of a former soldier with some issues. He is struggling a bit but is a rock to both Eve and Charlie.

Eve/Marguerite

Evelyn Gardiner is the protagonist of The Great War story as well as the support Charlie needs in her search for Cousin Rose. Evelyn now known as Eve and sometimes as just Gardiner, is a drunk. But during World War II she served as a spy with the assumed name Marguerite.

Marguerite Le Francois is an integral member of the Alice Network. She is recruited in England but placed in France. Her fluency in English, French, and German makes her an ideal spy. Of course Marguerite is entirely concocted by Quinn. But The Alice Network was real. So too were some of the key supporting figures in the story of Eve. The weaving of fact and fiction is expertly done.

The Alice Network

Throughout history, women have been a party to war. During the Great War, women served as key figures in spy rings operating behind enemy lines. In the chapters focusing on Eve’s storyline, Quinn demonstrates the sacrifices made by these women. Then through Charlie’s story, she gives the readers a glimpse of how long-lasting the impact of war is.

I really enjoyed The Alice Network. The back and forth between storylines worked. Although the reader knows Eve survives World War I since she is still around in 1947, there is still quite a bit of suspense to this novel. I greatly appreciated the author’s notes at the end of the book. Quinn spells out fact from fiction as far as the war events. Those more knowledgeable of The Great War might not appreciate the notes as much.

I strongly recommend this book. The members of The Alice Network went to great lengths to shorten the war. The author does a really good job of showing the impact of war on soldier and civilian as well.

The characters are endearing. The story is suspenseful. The ending is akin to a romance novel even though there is a dose of bittersweet. Kate Quinn has a winner in this well researched and well written book.

New York Station Book Review

Book cover of New York Station and poster of Saratoga racetrack.
New York Station takes place in and around Saratoga Springs.

New York Station by Lawrence Dudley is the perfect example of a writer using current events for inspiration. Recently I have read several books involving fixed elections. New York Station is the best of those. Perhaps the fact the book uses an election prior to the United States’ entry into the Second World War plays a part in my enjoyment. I like historical fiction.

Roy Hawkins is the central character in New York Station. He is half American and half British. Hawkins is a spy for the Brits and the opening scene place him in Paris as the Germans roll in. The main purpose for this setting is to give the character a position in the war as a contrast to the many isolationists later introduced in the book.

The novel’s move to New York establishes Dudley’s point of view. The writing entertains, but I believe the author is also using New York Station as a vehicle to present a case against neutrality. The plot is well-developed and based on fact. A populist movement of non-intervention divided America in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. There are parallels to current events and the author shares those in a subtle way. This is one of the best attributes of the book. Lawrence Dudley definitely has his point of view. He makes his case, but in a way that does not ruin the story.

The action takes place in the summer of 1940. The Nazi’s are trying to rig the Presidential election. Furthermore, the German’s are actively engaging in espionage. Apparently, the United States did not have an organization to track spies at this point in time. Far right leaning activists are also featured. The picture painted has some similarities to the 2016 election. Outside forces want to influence the election process so integral to America’s core belief system. In New York Station much of the scheme is foiled.

Added to the intrigue is a bit of romance and gambling. Hawkins falls for a New York socialite Daisy Van Schenck. Daisy needs money to shore up family losses. The Van Schenck’s did not weather the Great Depression well. Daisy has rented her mansion to the Nazi Party for fundraising purposes. The event does not end well and triggers quite a bit of violence.

Saratoga Springs

Much of the action takes place in and around Saratoga Springs, New York. The racetrack plays a part in the story. Part of the plot revolves around a sure bet. Sure because of cheating. Since New York Station is historical in nature, there is plausibility in the sure bet. Today a sure bet is far more difficult because of racetrack testing.. This is the first scene showing conflict within the lead character.

Hawkins struggles with the violence that occurs, justifying often that the end goal takes precedence. There is some conflict of loyalty, although he seems much more British than American. The author makes good use of secondary characters to shape the actions of his main character.

I found New York Station quite entertaining. The snapshot of Saratoga Springs was quite different from my small experiences with the area. Perhaps the historical angle is responsible or perhaps my point of view differs from the author. However, I believe Dudley has written a book that is thought provoking. When is it okay to stay on the sidelines? How does one know when to take a stance? Does the end justify the means? This is shown through the actions of the characters and is well done. I highly recommend you read New York Station.