Historical non-fiction – The Secret Rooms & Churchill’s First War

Two reviews of non-fiction books by yours truly are included in this month’s Historical Novels Review, a publication of the Historical Novel Society. One is The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, the other is Churchill’s First War by Con Coughlin. I enjoyed them both for different reasons.

The Secret Rooms THE SECRET ROOMS – A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret

Catherine Bailey, the author of The Secret Rooms, went to Belvoir Castle on the Rutland family estate to “research a book about this small corner of England in the years of the First World War.” Immediately struck by an air of secrecy shrouding the castle, she instead plunged into detective work to solve a mystery involving one of England’s richest families.

Over the centuries, Belvoir had become a repository for the nation’s most important documents “stamped with the seals and signatures of every monarch since William the Conqueror.” John Henry Montagu Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, had been a dedicated steward of these documents so Bailey finds it particularly puzzling to find significant gaps in the family’s carefully catalogued personal documents; gaps no one can explain.

The Secret Rooms reads like a novel with exciting twists and turns and carefully doled out clues. Characters come alive: John’s manipulative mother and domineering father; Charlie, the uncle who looked after John for much of his life; Diana, John’s sister, a renowned and high-spirited beauty; and John himself. The result is narrative non-fiction that grips a reader’s attention, while at the same time providing a meticulously researched perspective on British high society and historical events from the 1880s to WWI.


Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 3.08.57 PMCHURCHILL’S FIRST WAR

What many people know about Winston Churchill centers on his stirring leadership during WWII as Britain’s Prime Minister. In Churchill’s First War, Con Coughlin gives us a young Churchill, a man of aristocratic upbringing whose father left the family impoverished and with a “somewhat tarnished reputation”.

After successfully graduating from Sandhurst, Winston sets out to gain “personal and political advancement”. His objective is to distinguish himself in battle. With ongoing struggles on the North-West Frontier, India is the logical choice and Winston pulls many strings to secure himself a role with the Malakand Field Force.

As Coughlin relates Churchill’s military exploits, he provides great insights into Britain’s colonial past and its troublesome relationship with the Afghan tribes, notably the Pashtuns. He then enriches the story by drawing parallels to recent events involving Britain, the US and other NATO countries in Afghanistan. Churchill’s experiences “gave him a deep awareness of the human cost of conflict.” During WWI and WWII, he remained “in close contact with soldiers fighting on the front line to make sure he kept its horror clear before his eyes.”

Churchill’s First War is a deeply researched novel. Weaving narrative with quoted materials from an extensive collection of books, articles, journals and letters, Con Coughlin explains the failures of the campaigns to quell the Afghans in the late 19th and early 21st centuries.

These two books illustrate that reading non-fiction can be just as engrossing as fiction!


Winter reading

I’ve read a surprising number of books since Christmas, keeping track of them in a beautiful notebook my great friend Edith gave me.

The Aviator's WifeThe Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

The story of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her husband Charles. Anne struggles with the reality that her life is defined and tightly controlled by Charles. As their marriage unfolds, she realizes that her husband was greatly affected by “the dark side of fame.” Despite all their troubles, Charles says that he “only ever wanted to be [her] hero”.

A compelling read.

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I have to confess that I did not finish this novel. I found the notion of death as the narrator did not suit me.

Nonetheless, Zusak offers an intriguing approach and a voice that creates an impending sense of doom. This book was recently done as a movie.

The Secret RoomsThe Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

A work of non-fiction I read as a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. The review won’t be posted until the May issue but as a sneak peek, The Secret Rooms is a terrific story with double-dealing, deliberately destroyed evidence from a Duke’s life, the inner workings of high society, a family curse and world war one.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

The Book of SaltThe Book of Salt by Monique Truong

A fascinating novel chock full of superb prose. I reviewed this recently in Book Club Gals Read The Book of Salt.

Binh is the Vietnamese cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Through his story we are also exposed to those of Gertrude and Alice and the many artists and writers who gathered around them in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Reading Like a WriterReading like a Writer by Francine Prose

Francine Prose discusses words, sentences, paragraphs, character, dialogue, details, gesture and learning from Chekhov.

Many good thoughts for writers. While I found some chapters more helpful than others, my copy is full of underlined passages and ideas that I will try to incorporate into my writing.

The Golden DiceThe Golden Dice by Elisabeth Storrs

A novel set during the wars between the Etruscans and Rome and told through the eyes of three strong women. I was captivated by the story of Caecilia, Semni and Pinna, three very different women, and the men they loved.

Highly recommended.

The ProposalThe Proposal by Margaret Evans Porter

A delightful story about Sophie Pinnock, a lonely young widow, and Cassian Carysfort, a mysterious earl, who clash over a neglected castle garden, a suspicious past, and secrets that threaten their blossoming love.

Porter’s dialogue and descriptions are excellent and she has created a romance that offers depth, as well as twists and turns.

Becoming JosephineBecoming Josephine by Heather Webb

Heather Webb has crafted the story of Rose Tascher originally from Martinique who sails for France to wed Alexander Beauharnais. As France undergoes the turmoil of the revolution, Rose matures. By the time she meets Napoleon Bonaparte, who gives her the name Josephine, she has become an influential woman in her own right. A wonderful read set in a time of great change.

At the moment, I’m reading two more books: The Mountain of Light by Indu Sundaresan and Churchill’s First War by Con Coughlin.

Why read one book when you can juggle two at the same time?