Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have a soft spot for novels set on sailing ships. The wilder the storms and the longer the journeys, the better, so when I came across the recently published The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, I wasn’t hard to convince. Set in the 17th century on a ship crossing from Batavia (Jakarta) to Holland, Turton’s book is packed with wild storms, betrayals, demons, murders and a plot to make your head spin. If you enjoyed Ian McGuire’s The North Water or indeed Turton’s last book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, this book will be for you.
There’s something special about novels based on real events, particularly when the story is crazy as that of the The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist. It’s the late 1700s and the time of absolute rulers. In Denmark, a German doctor is hired to take care of the 16-year-old mentally disturbed King Christian VII. Within months, Struensee becomes the Queen’s lover and de-facto sovereign while living alongside King Christian. How was this possible? And was this Struensee’s intention all along? A wild journey into the madness of 18th century court life, revolutionary ideas and an absolute treat of a novel. Read full Review
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is O’Farrell’s take on ‘what might have happened’ around the death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet. It’s her first foray into historical fiction and an ambitious choice of subject matter, but she pulls it off triumphantly with this poignant tale of grief, love and motherhood.
Madeleine Miller is the much-praised author of the recently published and hugely successful Circe, which we at Bookstoker loved. In my view, Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles, first published in 2012 and the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction that year, is even better. This spellbinding novel is a must-read for anyone who loved Circe, The Silence of the Girls , has an interest in the Greek myths or is simply looking for an addictively good read.
I have a soft spot for anything Wild West (yes, I did watch a fair bit of The Little House on the Prairie as a kid), so when West by Carys Davies came along I wasn’t hard to convince. It’s the short story of widower Cy Bellman who sets out from Pennsylvania in 1815 to find rumoured gigantic beasts after reading about the discovery of ancient bones in a newspaper. Left behind, in the care of strict Aunt Julia, is his 10-year-old daughter Bess. Like many a mid-life crisis, this one doesn’t end well.
Now, a book about a mermaid might sound a bit ridiculous, but suspend belief and dive into the sumptuous, sexy and exuberant historical novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar and enjoy! Despite its 486 pages and tome-like appearance, I raced through this light, entertaining read and loved every second of it.
Set in Tudor England, The Shardlake Series by CJ Sansom is a series of (currently) 7 books featuring the lawyer Matthew Shardlake and a cast of both real and fictional characters. Packed with mystery, murder and intrigue and a wealth of fascinating historical insights, I admit I have become a bit obsessed. Forget taxing literary fiction, here is your new guilty pleasure.
Hot on the heels of Madeline Miller’s fabulous novel Circe comes another stunning book based on Greek myths and the Trojan War. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a recount of Homer’s testosterone fuelled Greek epic poem The Iliad. This time, from the perspective of the other half, the long suffering women. An absolutely riveting read. Go get it!
Circe. If you cast your mind back to school you may remember her as the witch on whose island Odysseus and his crew washed up on their long journey back from the Trojan War, and wasn’t there something about turning men to pigs and, um, did Odysseus have an affair with her? If you have ever wondered why she lived alone on that island, what made her a sorceress, what happened to her after Odysseus left her to go back to his wife – indeed if you have ever wondered about the reality behind the headline story of any woman who plays a bit part in the (hi)story of men – you have an absolute treat in store with this book.
Han Kang’s quirky Booker Prize winning The Vegetarian opened my, and I suspect many other’s, eyes to South Korean literature. I was curious, then, when Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a Korean-American, came out to rave reviews. Especially, as I have a soft spot for epic family sagas, the kind that sucks you in and makes you cry when you finish as you feel you’ve become a part of the family. However, Pachinko has turned out to be a tricky book to write about. It has many strong points but almost as many faults. I learned about the immigrant experience, Japanese racism towards Koreans, but missed some more historical context. There were characters in this book I really felt I got to know while others remained like card-board cut-outs. All in all, an uneven reading experience but one which still, somehow, managed to keep me going.