The Historical Novel Society Newsletter

June 2, 2012

Issue 10/2012: 2 June 2012

Editors: Karen Wintle, Gordon O’Sullivan, Heather Laskey, and Meenoo Mishra

Section 1 Welcome
Section 2 Book Reviews Roundup
Section 3 Features

Section 1: Welcome

Welcome to this issue of the Newsletter. We hope you enjoy our book review summaries and features.

If you’ve any comments, we’d love to hear from you. Email the Editors at

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Section 2: Book Reviews Roundup

Headings give book title, author, journal, date and name of reviewer. Please note that where we have included links to online reviews, you may be required to register to use the site. Alternatively, you can visit which supplies log-in IDs and passwords for sites requiring registration.

If you experience difficulties with any of the links, main review pages can be found at:

Boston Globe Books:
Globe & Mail Books:
Guardian Review:
Independent Reviews:
New York Times Books:
Observer book reviews:
San Francisco Chronicle Books:
Telegraph Main Books Page:
The Times:,,923,00.html
Wall Street Journal Books:
Washington Post Bookworld:

The HNS takes no responsibility for the content of any web sites referred to in the Newsletter.

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Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

New York Times, 25 May 2012, Charles McGrath
“Bring Up the Bodies” takes up exactly where “Wolf Hall” leaves off: its great magic is in making the worn-out story of Henry and his many wives seem fascinating and suspenseful again. When the book opens in the fall of 1535, Henry, wearying of Anne Boleyn, who has failed to supply him with a male heir, already has his eye on shy, dull, flat-chested Jane Seymour. The king’s agent for disposing of Anne, just as he disposed of Katherine, Henry’s first wife, is his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, one of Mantel’s most original creations. Mantel’s Cromwell, through whose eyes and inside whose head the story unfolds, emerges as warm, bright, humane, decent (for the most part) and immensely capable.
See also:
The Independent on Sunday, 20 May 2012, Philip Henscher

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The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead

Washington Post, 21 May 2012, Chris Bohjalian
“The Coldest Night” is the story of young Henry Childs, a high school junior working at a stable in West Virginia in 1950. Henry and a high school senior named Mercy, a gifted rider and the daughter of a local judge, begin a doomed romance. Mercy comes from money and power, while Henry is a child of the hill country who hasn’t even a clue who his father is. The first third of the novel chronicles their decision to run away together to New Orleans. When Mercy’s family intervenes, Henry, though underage, joins the Marines and sets off for Korea, where the second third of the novel is set. Here, in the brutal cold and relentless carnage of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, the young man fights off an endless stream of North Korean charges before finally beginning the long retreat to the sea.

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Derby Day by DJ Taylor

The Independent, 26 May 2012, Emma Hagestadt
As every punter knows, even impeccable lineage and short odds can’t guarantee success at the Epsom Derby. According to DJ Taylor’s novel, it was ever thus. In a Victorian melodrama surrounding a clever betting sting, Taylor portrays a society in the midst of preparing itself for a new kind of front-runner.

When down-at-heel Lincolnshire farmer, Mr Davenant, acquires a lithe black horse called Tiberius, he doesn’t realise he’s bagged a winner. Eager to exploit the squire’s good fortune in time for Derby day are two London ne’er-do-wells: Mr Happerton, a wearer of top-boots and “equine pins”, and his ill-favoured associate, Captain Raff, habitué of the newly established Blue Riband Club where much of the plot is hatched.

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Dorchester Terrace by Anne Perry

Washington Post, 18 May 2012, Maureen Corrigan
“Dorchester Terrace” is the 25th suspense novel featuring Perry’s married sleuths, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt. Thomas has diligently risen through the police ranks to head of the Special Branch. An elderly woman (and former spy) becomes terrified when she realizes that her mind is faltering and she may unwittingly divulge old secrets that could still present a danger to present-day British interests. Panicked, she turns for help to a long-time ally, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, who happens to be Thomas’s aunt by marriage. While Lady Vespasia susses out this security threat, Thomas weighs disturbing news from his own espionage agents in field. “Dorchester Terrace” ends with some unlikely malefactors unmasked and greater evils left lurking on the horizon.

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The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson

The Independent, 19 May 2012, Barry Forshaw
But with Vladimir Putin sweeping to power again, Groundhog Day-style, and a new froideur in relations between Russia and the West, it is interesting to note a new wave of espionage novelists appearing. In this company, one of the most accomplished is Elizabeth Wilson, whose War Damage and The Twilight Hour combined glittering, dark-hued prose with levels of penetrating psychological insight almost the equal of her great predecessors in the field. Wilson’s upwards trajectory is continued with The Girl in Berlin, a sinewy thriller that takes us back to the summer of 1951 and the national obsession with the defection of Burgess and Maclean. Colin Harris is a member of the Communist Party and has spent several years in Germany before turning up in Britain to visit his old friends, Diana and Alan Wentworth. He has startling news: he has decided to return to Britain, and is bringing with him a young woman he has fallen in love with in East Berlin. Needless to say, the eponymous girl in Berlin is not all that she appears to be, and both Colin and his friends are soon in very deep waters.

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HHhH by Laurent Binet

Translated by Sam Taylor, The Globe and Mail, 25 May 2012, Michael LaPointe
That a generation is growing up unmoved by the Second World War is not a matter of disrespect; it is the passage of time, coupled with our current fixation on the historical now. So much is happening, and we can learn about it all. How does one motivate a passage into history? What is the appropriate route for such a passage?
Entering into this arena is Laurent Binet’s HHhH, an astonishingly strange debut novel, translated from the French. HHhH – which stands for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” – narrates the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious “Butcher of Prague,” Himmler’s right-hand man and architect of the Final Solution.

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Home by Toni Morrison

New York Times, 17 May 2012, Leah Hager Cohen
Frank Money, a 24-year-old Korean War veteran, is already back from the fighting when we meet him, a year after being discharged from an integrated Army into a segregated homeland. Since then, he has wandered the streets of Seattle, gambled his Army pay and lost it, worked odd jobs and lost them, lived with a girlfriend and lost her, and all the while struggled, none too successfully, against the prospect of losing his mind. The action begins with Frank confined to the “nuthouse” by the police for an infraction he can’t remember. He plans and quickly executes his escape. His destination is Lotus, Ga., which he’s been avoiding because it harbors hated childhood memories — and because he dreads facing the families of the two hometown friends whose deaths in Korea plague his dreams. What draws him back now is a letter informing him that his younger sister, Cee, is in trouble. “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.”

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Istanbul Passage: A Novel by Joseph Kanon

Washington Post, 25 May 2012, Dennis Drabelle
The action takes place in late 1945, with the war over and Istanbul reverting to normal. Leon Bauer, an American businessman, dabbled in cloak-and-dagger stuff during the war, and his handlers have persuaded him to take on one last job: Help a Romanian refugee into the city and then out again when safe transportation can be arranged. Late at night, Bauer slips down to the Bosporus, as directed, where a boat lands the fugitive. Shots are fired. Bauer shoots back and scores a hit. After stashing the newcomer in a temporary safe house, Bauer goes to work as usual the next day. Only then does he learn whom he shot — and killed: Tommy, the American consulate officer who gave him the assignment. This double-cross overshadows the rest of the novel. Bauer plays dumb about the killing, and not just because he has no desire to implicate himself; he also wants to find out why Tommy set him up.

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Maria and the Admiral by Rachel Billington

The Independent, 2 June 2012, Hugh Thomson
The drama of the 19th-century wars for independence in South America has not always translated well into literature. Even Gabriel García Márquez struggled in his account of Simon Bolívar, The General in his Labyrinth, often viewed as a less successful work.
Rachel Billington takes one brief episode in the actual career of Thomas Cochrane to give a more nuanced account, through the eyes of her heroine, Maria Graham. Maria (“to rhyme with pariah”, as she introduces herself) was an adventurous travel writer whose books were published by John Murray. In 1822, recently widowed and bored, she was living in Chile when Cochrane’s boat appeared over the horizon.
Admired by Napoleon and the radical press, Cochrane had escaped from an England that no longer valued him to aid the cause of independence in Latin America. When Maria meets the admiral, he has helped San Martí to take Peru and Bernardo O’Higgins to take Chile: ahead lies a further campaign in Brazil. The flirtatious Kitty Cochrane has been left behind in Britain and Maria sets out unapologetically to take her place as the admiral’s amanuensis.

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Master and God by Lindsey Davis

The Independent, 23 May 2012, Jane Jakeman
For the background to this novel, Lindsey Davis picks up on Suetonius’s biography of the Roman emperor Domitian, as well as more recent histories. Suetonius’s dramatic account of Domitian is perhaps now unfashionable, but his spindly-legged madman stabbing flies with a pen is far more fun than the rather swotty legislator of modern scholarship. The imperial rule of this oddball, whose father and brother, Vespasian and Titus, had notable achievements to their names, is the background to the love story of two lesser Romans: the hairdresser Lucilla and the one-eyed soldier, Vinius. Their on-off romance is gently but unsentimentally recounted by Davis, who displays her fascinating panorama of knowledge of the ancient city in all its filth and glory.

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Sacré Blue: A Comedy D’Art by Christopher Moore

The Globe and Mail, 24 May 2012, Sara Bynoe
Set mostly in Paris during the Belle Époque, the novel opens with the murder of Vincent van Gogh, a typical Moore-ian twist. Lucien Lessard is a baker and aspiring Montmartre artist. When Lucien first hears of the death of his friend van Gogh, presumed to be a suicide, he seeks out Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for his paintings of the Moulin Rouge, diminutive stature and love of women and booze.
Lucien and Henri develop suspicions about the true nature of van Gogh’s death. As they start to seek the truth, they unravel a mystery that has lurked for centuries in the shadows of the art world: a gnarled character called only Colorman has been providing artists with unique paints that have mystical powers like the ability to stop time.

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Secondhand Daylight by D J Taylor

The Independent, 15 May 2012, David Collard
Following At the Chime of a City Clock, this is D J Taylor’s tenth novel and his second James Ross mystery. The narrator, Ross, is a déclassé ex-public schoolboy footloose in pre-war London who earns a crust (the idiom is catching) as a rent collector, nightclub doorman, aspiring poet, ladies’ man and copper’s nark. Set in the dreary autumn of 1933, the story revolves around Ross’s hungry pursuit of an enigmatic tart named Gladys, his brief employment as a co-respondent in a divorce case, and his infiltration into the British Union of Fascists.

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A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics by Neil Faulkner, The Independent, 26 May 2012, Boyd Tonkin

14th Century
The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, The Independent, 19 May 2012, Christina Hardyment

18th Century
Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf, New York Times, 18 May 2012, JoAnn C. Gutin
In 1761 and 1769, dozens and dozens of stargazers traveled thousands of miles by sailing ship and open dinghy, by carriage, by sledge and on foot. And they did it all for science: the men in powdered wigs and knee britches were determined to measure the transit of Venus.

20th Century
All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings, The Independent, 26 May 2012, Boyd Tonkin
Readers who know Max Hastings the dyspeptic opinion-monger – indeed, some who have read his narrower military histories – may be surprised or awed by this book. Not another doorstop chronicle of the Second World War, this is his masterpiece: humane, sceptical, vivid, authoritative, quite free of jingoism. He delivers “bottom-up… experiences”, of civilians and combatants alike.

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist, Washington Post, 4 May 2012, Mark Caro

The End by Ian Kershaw, The Independent on Sunday, 20 May 2012, Brandon Robshaw
Ian Kershaw’s account of the last months of the Third Reich makes harrowing, but compelling reading.

Just Send Me Word, a True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag by Orlando Figes, The Independent, 19 May 2012, Oliver Bullough

On The Eve: The Jews Of Europe Before The Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein, The Independent, 12 May 2012, Ian Thomson

Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson, The Independent, 26 May 2012,
Arifa Akbar
Sixty million women played their part on the home-front while 64,000 service-women helped to win the Second World War.

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston, New York Times, 11 May 2012, Adam Hochschild

The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food by Lizzie Collingham, New York Times, 4 May 2012, Timothy Snyder

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson, New York Times, 4 May 2012, William Poundstone

The Origins of Sex by Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Washington Post, 23 May 2012, Michael Dirda

Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them by James Wright, New York Times, 25 May 2012, Andrew J. Bacevich

Biographies & Memoirs
My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman with Alan Light, Washington Post, 18 May 2012, Mark Jenkins
See also:
New York Times, 27 May 2012, Dwight Garner

The Churchills by Mary S.Lovell, The Independent, 19 May 2012,
Christopher Hirst

The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers, New York Times, 25 May 2012, Ken Kalfus
Generations of British readers have grown up with Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” series of young adult novels. During Ransome’s career as a foreign correspondent, he spent 11 years in and out of Russia during World War I, the revolution and the civil war that followed. Roland Chambers wonders whether Ransome served as a double agent, working on behalf of the Bolsheviks as well as for British intelligence.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, by Kamal Al-Solaylee, The Globe and Mail, 25 May 2012, Matthew Hays
While family memoirs are often drenched in anguish, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable takes the genre to a new level. The former Globe and Mail drama critic and university professor reaches back to his parents’ history, from Yemen in the 1960s through Beirut, Cairo and then back to Yemen through the Arab Spring, in agonizing, heart-wrenching detail. Along the way, he illuminates the complex struggles and historical moments that have shaped the region, all through his very personal vantage point.

Children’s Books – Nonfiction
Barnum’s Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World by Tracey Fern, New York Times, 23 May 2012, Pamela Paul
Being named after a circus impresario (P.T. Barnum, “the most famous circus owner in America”) is a dubious birthright at best. But Barnum Brown’s parents hoped their son, born in 1873, would go on to accomplish unusual and excellent things. Brown grew up to become one of the nation’s foremost paleontologists and, among other things, discovered the first fossil of Tyrannosaurus rex.

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David Goodis’s `Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s’: Dark tales of losers, Washington Post, 24 May 2012, Dennis Drabelle

Queen Victoria’s Complete Diaries Released Online, New York Times, 24 May 2012, Jennifer Schuessler

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Posted by Richard Lee