My Week in Books: 10 February 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

IMG_1384-0

A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m reading two books:

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir, a proof copy – expected publication 5 May 2016. This is the first novel of the Six Tudor Queens series.

Blurb:

A Spanish princess. Raised to be modest, obedient and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years-old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection.

Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir has based her enthralling account of Henry VIII’s first wife on extensive research and new theories. She reveals a strong, spirited woman determined to fight for her rights and the rightful place of her daughter. A woman who believed that to be the wife of a King was her destiny.

History tells us how she died. This captivating novel shows us how she lived.

I’m also reading SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition.

Blurb:

Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. 

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us.

Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.

SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

I’ve recently finished Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane, crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders.

You can read my thoughts on this book in my previous post.

And next I’ll be reading Slade House by David Mitchell, or at least I think I’ll be reading this next. When the time comes I could fancy something completely different.

Blurb:

Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

What have you been reading this week and what have got in mind to read next?

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Dictator

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon. I’m currently reading Dictator by Robert Harris, the third in his Cicero trilogy.

Dictator

It begins:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium – their yearning, keening howls, like animals on heat – and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

Blurb:

‘Laws are silent in times of war.’
Cicero

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles.

His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

————————————————

I read in The Guardian that this last part of the trilogy marks the culmination of 12 years work. The trilogy as a whole has transported me back into the first century BC when Rome was engulfed in intrigue, conspiracies and civil war as the Roman Republic began to collapse and move into dictatorship and empire.  I’m loving the whole experience. Just as when I was reading the first two books, Imperium and Lustrum, I can’t wait to get back to it each time I have to stop reading.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

In 1945 Agatha Christie published two novels, Death Comes as the End and Sparkling Cyanide, neither of them featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. By chance these two books are the last full length crime fiction novels by Agatha Christie that I had left to read. There are plenty of short stories of hers that I still have to read and her Mary Westmacott novels as well as her plays, so it is not the end of my reading of her work.

Death Comes as the End

The idea to write a detective story set in Ancient Egypt came from a friend, Professor Stephen Glanville – Death Comes as the End was the result. It is set on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC. But in her Authors Note Agatha Christie explained that both time and place are incidental and any other time or place would have served as well. She based her characters and plot on some letters from a Ka priest in the 11th Dynasty:

The letters painted to perfection the picture of a living family: the father fussy, opinionated, annoyed with his sons who did not do as he said; the sons, one obedient but not obviously bright, and the other sharp-tempered, showy, and extravagant. The letters the father wrote to his two sons were about how he must take care of a certain middle-aged woman, obviously one of those poor relations who all through the ages live with families, to whom the heads of families are always kindly, whereas the children usually grow up disliking them because they are often sycophants and makers of mischief. (Agatha Christie’s Autobiography page 514)

From these letters she constructed her story, adding Renisenb, a daughter, Nofret, a concubine for Imhotep, the father, a spoilt younger son and a greedy but shrewd grandmother. He is besotted by Nofret who antagonises the family, setting Imhotep against them. Things come to a head after Nofret has manipulated Imhotep to disinherit his sons and marry her and she is found dead, apparently having fallen from a cliff. More deaths follow.

The mystery in this book is actually not too puzzling. For me, its interest lay in the setting and period details. Agatha Christie, according to her Autobiography had done a lot of reading from books lent to her by Glanville and had also bombarded him with questions about daily life and customs in the 11th Dynasty – such as what food did they eat, how did they cook it, did men and women eat together, what sort of rooms did they sleep in, where did they keep their linen, what sort of houses did they have, and so on?

The end result for me was of authenticity – it all came over as real, the characters were individuals, their relationships were convincing and although Agatha Christie wasn’t happy with the ending, which she changed on Glanville’s suggestion, I thought it was fine. And just as she had pleasure in writing it I had pleasure in reading it.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading ChallengeVintage Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category ‘A Green Object’.

The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay

The Abbess of Whitby is subtitled A Novel of Hild of Northumbria. As Jill Dalloway explains in her Author’s Note at the end of the book what we know about Hild (St Hilda) comes from the Jarrow monk Bede’s  A History of the English Church and People written 40 years after her death. He gave no information about her between the ages of 13 and 33, so Jill Dalloway has based her fictional account of her life up to the age of 33 on the works of various modern scholars, assuming that like other royal girls of the time she was married for dynastic or political purposes. The major characters are historical, with a few exceptions and Hild’s husband and son are fictional. Hild was born in 614 and died in 680.

Knowing very little about the historical background to the story I found this a fascinating book, but could not have followed it very easily without the list of characters, the family tree of the royal families of Northumbria and the maps showing the Peoples of 7th Century Britain and of Hild’s Northumbria. I was surprised by how much people travelled in the 7th century. It spurred me on to find out more and I am now reading The King in the North: the Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams. I would also like to read Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King both by Edoardo Albert.

About two thirds of the book covers Hild’s early life, from the time she was chosen to lead the handmaidens of the fertility goddess  Eostre. It’s a time of transition as people are gradually being converted to Christianity, although at first it appears to be a matter of politics rather than of faith. Her marriage to Cerdic of the Goddodin tribe took her to Din Edin (Edinburgh). When home and family are lost in Oswy’s sack of Edinburgh, she finds herself in enemy hands, but meets the charismatic Aidan (St Aidan of Lindisfarne). The final part of the book covers her life as she helped establish various chapels and finally settled in Whitby as the Abbess there, involved in resolving the Easter dispute at the Synod of Whitby in 664. This settled that the calculations to establish the date of Easter would be according to the customs of Rome, rather than the Celtic customs practised by Irish monks at Iona and also to observe the monastic tonsure.

For me the first two thirds  of the book, showing the disputes between the separate kingdoms in Britain in the 7th century, the  transition from pagan to Christian beliefs and the harsh conditions and plague people had to endure, came to life more successfully than the later chapters.

I received this book for review from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Lion Fiction; 1st New edition (21 Aug. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782641548
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782641544

Jill Dalloway is a classicist, historian and former head teacher who pioneered the Cambridge Latin Course. She lives in Whitby.

Silver Lies by Ann Parker

From out of the black hole that is my Kindle came Silver Lies by Ann Parker, a new-to-me author. Books have been known to disappear for ever in there and this one had been languishing down in the depths for three years, so I thought it was time to read it. It looked as though it would be a bit different from other books I’ve been reading this year. Apart from True Grit I don’t think I’ve read any westerns for years and actually this one is not a typical western. It’s not a Cowboys and Indians type western at all but is set in 1879/80 in the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colarado in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. It probably fits in more with the crime fiction genre than with westerns, but it was the setting  that attracted me to it.

It’s a really good story beginning when Joe Rose, a silver assayer, facing a bleak future as the last of his money has gone and the hope of making his fortune in silver has disappeared, is found dead in Tiger Alley propped up behind the Silver Queen saloon. Inez Stannert’s husband Mark had won the saloon in a poker game and eight months before the story begins he had left her and their friend and business partner, Abe Jackson to run it on their own. Inez has no idea where he is and whether he’ll ever return.

Joe’s death is just the start of the mystery – was his death an accident or was he murdered and if so why?  Inez sets out to discover the truth and although his wife Emma has asked her to settle his affairs for her what is she keeping from Inez? Where is Mark and why did he leave? There is a new Reverend in town. Inez falls for his charms but is he to be trusted? She had him pegged as a gambler rather than a man of the cloth. And she doesn’t trust the new marshall either – ‘a thin man with the look of a hungry rattlesnake’. Inez knows he is ‘just a two-bit gunslinger from Texas’ hired by the ‘silver barons to keep the peace after last month’s lynching’. So it’s no wonder that she uncovers a web of deceit, counterfeit, blackmail and murder.

With plenty of memorable characters I could easily imagine I was in the silver rush town, a town where:

People rush in – from the East, from the West – and collide at the top of the Rockies. They’re looking for riches or looking to escape. And running. Everyone’s either from their past or running toward some elusive vision of the future. (location 5896)

Leadville was a colourful place, a boom-town, bustling with life -everything is there – the Silver Queen saloon and the Crystal Belle Saloon, Leadville’s leading parlor house, a brick built opera house, whose patrons ‘swelled the after-midnight crowds’ in the Silver Queen saloon, five banks and a small white church with a steeple.

Silver Lies won the Willa Award for Historical Fiction and the Colorado Gold Award and was chosen as best mystery of the year by Publishers Weekly and The Chicago Tribune.  For more information about Ann Parker and her books see her website.

I was completely engrossed in this book with its multi-layered and intricate plot that kept me guessing all the way through.  I hope to read more of this series:
  1. Silver Lies (2003)
  2. Iron Ties (2006)
  3. Leaden Skies (2009)
  4. Mercury’s Rise (2011)

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeColor Coded Challenge

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

Nicola Cornick is a new-to-me author, but she is by no means a new author. She has written many books – see her website for more details. Not having read any of her books I wasn’t sure I’d like House of Shadows, her latest book due to be published on 5 November,  but the publishers’ press release persuaded me to read and review an uncorrected proof copy. I’m glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed House of Shadows.

Press Release synopsis:

One House, Three Women. And a lie that will change history.

February 1662

On the eve of her death Elizabeth Stuart hands her faithful cavalier William Craven an ancient pearl with magical properties to be kept safe for her rightful heir. Craven, distraught with grief, builds Ashdown Estate in Elizabeth’s memory and places the pearl at the centre.

February 1801

Notorious Regency courtesan Lavinia Flyte is brought to Ashdown House with her protector, Lord Evershot, who is intent on uncovering the Winter Queen’s treasures. Evershot’s greedy pillage of the ancient house will unleash a dark power which has lain dormant for a hundred and fifty years.

February 2014

Holly Ansell’s brother has gone missing. As Holly retraces his footsteps, she discovers that her brother was researching the mystery of Elizabeth Stuart and her alleged affair with William Craven. A battered mirror and the diary of a Regency courtesan are the only clues she has, but Holly is determined to discover the truth: Where is the fabled pearl that Elizabeth gave to William Craven? What happened to Lavinia Flyte? And who is the Winter Queen’s rightful heir?

My thoughts:

This is a successful time-slip novel as I had no difficulty in following each strand of the story. And each is set firmly in its historical context. It’s a fascinating mix of factual history combined with historical interpretation/imagination to fill in the gaps in the records. Elizabeth Stuart, known as the Winter Queen, the daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland was married to Frederick V, briefly the King of Bohemia, before his lands were taken from him after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. There are rumours from 1660 onwards, but no proof, that Elizabeth either had an affair or secretly married William, the first Earl of Craven.

Once I started reading the House of Shadows I didn’t want to stop as the history of crystal mirror and the Sistrin pearl, a jewel of rare beauty and price unfolds. Both were inherited by Elizabeth from her godmother Elizabeth I. They had previously belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth Stuart’s grandmother. They were said to hold great magic – the mirror was said to have the power to destroy its enemies by fire, whilst the ring was supposedly a talisman for good. It was reported that Frederick was involved with the Knights of the Rosy Cross and the legend is that the Knights used the mirror and the pearl together in their necromancy to create firewater in which they could both see and transform the future.

There is so much I loved in this book – the history, all the storylines,  the characters, and the settings against the backdrop of years from the 16th to the 21st centuries. It has mystery, elements of the supernatural as well as being a love story, not just the story of Elizabeth and William in the 17th century, but also of Lavinia in the early 19th century and Holly in the 21st. I loved the details of each period and in particular of Ashdown House, a real house in Oxfordshire that was built by William Craven for Elizabeth. It’s now owned by the National Trust, where Nicola Cornick has been a volunteer guide and historian for the last fourteen years. She has certainly done her research very well and incorporated it seamlessly into her book. The house shown on the front cover is Ashdown House

I also loved the details of Holly’s family history which her brother Ben had been researching before he went missing and how it all linked in to each time line. It’s the sort of thing you hope you be able to would find if you did your own family history.

It is a fascinating book. There is so much packed into its pages, a real page turner in each timeline, making me eager to find out what happened next. If this is representative of Nicola Cornick’s books there are plenty of others that I’m going to enjoy.

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: MIRA; First edition edition (5 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848454163
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848454163
  • Source: Uncorrected Proof Copy

A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody

Last year I read and enjoyed Dying in the Wool, the first of Frances Brody’s series of historical crime fiction books set in 1920s Yorkshire and featuring Kate Shackleton. The second book, A Medal for Murder is even better and I was thoroughly immersed in the mystery.

A pawn shop robbery brings Kate and her assistant Jim Sykes, an ex-policeman,  their second case. It leads on to her discovery of a dead body, that of Lawrence Milner, outside a Harrogate theatre where Kate had been watching a production of a dramatisation of Arnold Bennett’s novel, Anna of the Five Towns. Then Captain Wolfendale, a Boer War veteran asks Kate to find his granddaughter, Lucy, who had starred in the play, as she has disappeared and he had received a ransom note. The murder  brings Kate into contact again with Inspector Marcus Charles of Scotland Yard (she had first met him in Dying in the Wool).

The book is told from the different characters’ perspective, but mainly from Kate’s, with flashbacks to the Boer War at the turn of the century. This is a detailed, complex plot which kept me guessing almost to the end about the identity of the murderer.  What is Captain Wolfendale hiding in his attic that he doesn’t want Kate to see? Just what is his relationship with Lawrence Milner who had also fought in the Boer War? How/is the pawn shop robbery connected to the murder? Will Lucy be rescued? And why doesn’t Dan Root, a watch maker, who also rents a room in the Captain’s house want to Kate to see inside his workroom?

There is so much going on in this book, and yet it was easy to read and each sub-plot fitted in so well with the main mystery that I didn’t get confused – I just couldn’t see who could have killed Milner. I had several suspects, all of whom turned out to be innocent of the crime. I liked the historical setting and the characters rang true. I’m left wondering whether Kate’s relationship with Inspector Charles will develop further, and whether she will ever hear what happened to her husband, reported missing in the 1914-18 War.

These are the books in the Kate Shackleton Mystery series:

1. Dying in the Wool (2009)
2. A Medal For Murder (2010)
3. Murder in the Afternoon (2011)
4. A Woman Unknown (2012)
5. Murder on a Summer’s Day (2013)
6. Death of an Avid Reader (2014)
7. A Death in the Dales (2015) to be published 1 October 2015

For more information about the author and her books see Frances Brody’s blog and website.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge, 10 Books of Summer, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change of Climate is one of Hilary Mantel’s early books, first published in 1994 and  described on the back cover as ‘a literary family saga’ and ‘a first rate thriller’.

I quoted from the beginning of this book in this post. I noted that at the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’d just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else so I’m not saying what that secret is in this post.

The ‘enormous destructive secret‘ Hilary Mantel referred to is revealed just over halfway into the book. But the book abounds in secrets and it’s also about family, trust, disillusionment and tragedy, about bereavement and loss of faith, as one character observes, ‘faith is something people chase after, simply to give life meaning‘.

Hilary Mantel writes a compelling story, subtly mixing the past and the present, moving seamlessly between the Eldred family’s current life (in the 1980s) in Norfolk, with their earlier life in Africa in the 1950s. I like her writing very much, never drawing attention to its style and drawing me in effortlessly into both time frames and places.

It’s a family saga (most definitely not an Aga Saga) about Ralph and Anna Eldred, their four children and Ralph’s sister Emma. Ralph and Anna devote their lives to charity, filling their house with ‘Visitors’, described as either ‘Good Souls’ or ‘ Sad Cases’. Just after they were married Ralph and Anna went to South Africa as missionaries and under the system of apartheid there they ran up against the authorities, then moved to Beuchuanaland (Botswana) where a terrible and horrific event occurred and they returned to England.  However, their memories of these traumatic events refused to remain buried, eventually bringing their lives and those of their children into terrible turmoil.

There are many issues raised in this book – chief among them the struggle between good and evil. Ralph thinks:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principal of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do. (page 235)

But he discovered that it’s not that simple, as the rest of the book goes on to relate. Ralph and Anna can’t escape their past, Anna in particular cannot come to terms with what happened. The book explores questions about forgiveness and tragedy, as well as how to cope with grief.

Hilary Mantel states in the About the Author section that she found it the most difficult of her books to write – the secret just resisted being told:

I found that I was going round and round the point, yet I couldn’t put it on the page. I remember really struggling with it; it was like a wild animal that had to be civilised somehow, and in the end I just wrestled it on to the page by saying to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’. Writing this book stands out as one of the most difficult times of my writing life.

A great book on all counts, characters and locations beautifully described and a well constructed and convincing plot, powerful and challenging on several levels.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones: Book and TV

The Outcast

As I wrote earlier The Outcast by Sadie Jones is a book that has sat unread on my shelves for seven years until I noticed that it was being broadcast as a TV drama. I read half the book before the first episode and finished it before the second episode was broadcast.

First of all the blurb from Goodreads:

1957, and Lewis Aldridge is travelling back to his home in the South of England. He is straight out of jail and nineteen years old. His return will trigger the implosion not just of his family, but of a whole community. A decade earlier, his father’s homecoming casts a different shape. The war is over and Gilbert has recently been demobbed. He reverts easily to suburban life – cocktails at six thirty, church on Sundays – but his wife and young son resist the stuffy routine. Lewis and his mother escape to the woods for picnics, just as they did in wartime days. Nobody is surprised that Gilbert’s wife counters convention, but they are all shocked when, after one of their jaunts, Lewis comes back without her. Not far away, Kit Carmichael keeps watch. She has always understood more than most, not least from what she has been dealt by her own father’s hand. Lewis’s grief and burgeoning rage are all too plain, and Kit makes a private vow to help. But in her attempts to set them both free, she fails to predict the painful and horrifying secrets that must first be forced into the open. As menacing as it is beautiful, The Outcast is a devastating portrait of small-town hypocrisy from an astonishing new voice.

The TV adaptation, also written by Sadie Jones is faithful to the book, so for once I could enjoy them both – although maybe enjoy isn’t quite the right word. The TV drama is, of course a condensed version and whilst the cast was good the characters didn’t, of course, match up to my mental image of them whilst reading the book. I thought the boy (Finn Elliot) playing the young Lewis was excellent, whereas the adult Lewis (George MacKay) just didn’t seem to be right physically in episode one. However, he was much more convincing in the second episode. Overall, the themes of the book and the drama are relentlessly depressing, in post-war Britain, the men all maintaining a stiff upper lip, emotions securely repressed. Lewis witnessing his mother’s drowning is unable to express his grief and things just go from bad to worse as he resorts to self-harm.

Meanwhile, the Carmichael family, not fully portrayed in episode one, have a secret, again closely guarded in a world where child abuse is just not acknowledged. In episode two the secret comes out in a dramatic scene, which I thought was really well done. Nathaniel Parker as Dicky Carmichael made a terrifying bully and Jessica Barden as the teenager, Kit was impressive.

The book is written in the passive 3rd person narrative, which I wasn’t keen on. I didn’t like most of the characters, I didn’t like what happened to them and I’m not sure the ending is believable – it left me wondering what really happened next. But the descriptive passages are good, the characters of Lewis and Kit are well-defined, emotions are racked up high and it is truly tragic.

I’m glad I read the book before watching the drama – and I’m glad I watched it, the scenery is beautiful and the repressed and yet emotional atmosphere came over better than in the book.  I did have to watch behind my fingers at some scenes, which I was able to read without visualising them completely, but when it’s there in front of you on the screen it’s not so easy to cast a blind eye. Although you get an insight into Lewis’ mind and feelings when you read a description of him cutting his arm, it’s not as real as seeing it happen.

So, a powerful story, which compelled me to read on and also to watch. This was Sadie Jones’ debut novel. She has since written Small Wars (2009), The Uninvited Guests (2012) and Fallout (2014). I have Small Wars amongst my TBRs – I must dig that one out soon.

Reading challenges: Mount TBR 2015 and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2015.

The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick

William Brodrick’s books are meaty, books that make me think. Nothing is straight forward, they’re layered books, delving into the past, uncovering secrets and revealing crimes. They are well researched, bringing the past to life.

In The Day of the Lie (the 4th Father Anselm book) the past in question is post Second World War Poland, covering  the early 1950s, the early 1980s and the present day.

Blurb from the back cover of my paperback copy:

In present day Cambridge, Father Anselm receives a visit from an old friend with a dangerous story to tell – the story of a woman in Eastern Europe in the icy grip of the Cold War. She was brave, brilliant … and betrayed by someone close to her – someone still unknown. What became of this woman and the dark secret she kept?

No one can be trusted. Nothing is as it seems. Before more blood is spilt, Anselm must peel back years of history, decades of secrets and a half-century of lies in order to expose a secret so shocking that some would rather die than see it revealed.

Father Anselm’s old friend John has asked him to investigate who had betrayed  Roza Mojeska. She had been part of an underground resistance movement, had been arrested and tortured by the secret police, in particular by Otto Brack, in order to uncover the identity of the Shoemaker, the author of a dissident newspaper, Freedom and Independence.

Never explicitly graphic, Brodrick conveys the horror of the torture chamber and as Anselm’s Prior warns him he had to enter ‘the world of Otto Brack, this frightening man who learned how to bring about evil by exploiting someone who is good, laying – in part – the evil at their door.‘ (page 75-6) It’s a world where ‘twisted people lead twisted lives and the roads they build around them are never straight and true.’

My knowledge of the period is limited, so I found the historical setting quite difficult to follow, as the narrative switches between the time periods, but once I had sorted out the relationships between the characters (or I thought I had) it became clearer. But there is also the problem of working out who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’, just who is telling the truth, whose recollection of the past is ‘correct’? I thought I knew, but then there was a shift and I wasn’t sure right up to the end of the book.

Looking back on the book now (I finished reading it over a week ago) I can say I did enjoy it, but it was hard work in parts.

William Brodrick became a barrister, having been an Augustinian monk for six years (the other way round from his fictional character, Father Anselm). After 10 years at the Bar, his interest in writing led him to writing the Father Anselm books.

The Father Anselm books (with links to my posts) are:

  1. The Sixth Lamentation (2003)
  2. The Gardens of the Dead (2006)
  3. A Whispered Name (2008) – the best one in my opinion
  4. The Day of the Lie (2012)
  5. The Discourtesy of Death (2013)

And the latest book has just been published:

The Silent Ones by William Brodrick published 2 July 2015.

The Day of the Lie fits into the Mount TBR Challenge and is also a book I identified as one for the 10 Books of Summer Challenge.

Books Read in May 2015

I’m pleased that I’ve read 8 books in May as my reading and blogging was interrupted by gardening. The grass is now growing at a rate of knots and the weeds, especially the ground elder, are rampant, threatening to take over the borders. So I’ve spent a lot of time this month mowing, weeding and strimming.

But I’ve also read these books and written about all of them, except H is for Hawk – post to follow some time soon (I hope). Three of the books are non fiction, one is a book from Lovereading for review and six are library books – no TBR books (books acquired before 1 January 2015) this month! I must get back to reading from those books I’ve had for years very soon!

These are the books I read:

Bks May 2015

Gray Mountain by John Grisham (Library book) – this book is just as much a campaign against injustice and the misuse of power, about the good little guys against the big bad guys as his earlier books are. In this case it’s the big coal companies that come under the microscope, companies that are  ruining the environment by strip-mining in the Appalachian mountains. I liked the view of the small town community, the mountain scenery, the legal cases large and small and the tension created by the danger of opposing the big coal companies.

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz (Review book) – an emotionally intense novel of love, loss and grief, set in both the past and the present day, in a small village on the Cumbrian coast, a gentle story, well told and an enjoyable read. In 1919 Eleanor, the daughter of the vicar of Goswell, is struggling to adjust to the loss of her brother, Walter who died just before the Armistice was declared and in the present day half-sisters Marin and Rebecca are coming to terms with the death of their father and his wife.

Gently North West by Alan Hunter (Library book) – set in the fictitious village of Strathtudlem in Scotland in 1967 where Gently is on holiday with his friend, Barbara Merryn and his sister, Bridget and her husband. Gently gets involved in the investigations into the murder of Donnie Dunglass,  found, stabbed in the back, face down on the heather. I thought it was an enjoyable book although I thought the murder mystery was rather far-fetched.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (Library book, Non Fiction) – a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God. Interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating.

Dry Bones That Dream by Peter Robinson (Library book) – Banks investigates the murder of Keith Rothwell, an accountant, a  mild-mannered, dull sort of person it seems. But is that all there is to Rothwell? Banks unearths the secrets the characters have kept hidden from their family and friends. There’s also money-laundering and international and political shenanigans involved. Maybe not the best Banks book I’ve read.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (KindleNon Fiction) – no post yet. In some ways a difficult book to read – about training a goshawk and the author’s struggle with grief, mourning the death of her father.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves (Library book) This is the fifth Vera book and I loved it. It’s so good I read it twice because I watched the TV version after I finished reading the book – and it confused me as it’s different from the book! So I went back and re-read it. It is so much better than the TV adaptation, which I think suffered from being condensed into just one hour and a half length programme.

Poirot and Me by David Suchet (Library book, Non Fiction) – this consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. This is a fascinating account of both the Poirot series and of David Suchet’s career.

I have no difficulty this month with naming my favourite book of the month. All the time I was reading it I was thoroughly absorbed and intrigued by Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves.

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz

The Lost Garden is  an emotionally intense novel of love, loss and grief, set in both the past and the present day, in a small village on the Cumbrian coast.

In 1919 Eleanor, the daughter of the vicar of Goswell, is struggling to adjust to the loss of her brother, Walter who died just before the Armistice was declared and in the present day half-sisters Marin and Rebecca are coming to terms with the death of their father and his wife.

The link between the two stories centres around the walled garden at the back of the Bower House, a small house next to the church. It was said to have been the herb garden for the monastery before the Reformation.

In 1919 the garden is covered in brambles and Eleanor decides she wants to make it into a garden of remembrance, a place to just be, to remember or to forget as much as you need. And she begins to restore it with the help of the church gardener, Jack. As they do so the garden begins to blossom as winter moves into spring and summer, but the mood of both the family and the country remains sombre as they come to terms with the aftermath of the First World War.

In the present day, Marin has bought the Bower House, not knowing its history. Rebecca discovers the walled garden once more overgrown with brambles and weeds and it captures her imagination. And when Marin she sees a photo of a young woman in the garden, thought to have been taken around 1920 she is determined to find out more – just who was the young woman and what is underneath the brambles. With the help of the local gardener, Joss, she begins to restore the garden and in doing so they discover secrets about both the past and the present.

The Lost Garden is a gentle story, well told and an enjoyable read, switching between the past and the present. The differences in attitudes and social conventions of the times provide a distinct contrast and highlights the parallels between the two stories. I liked the story-lines for both Marin and Eleanor, both have difficult relationships with their sisters and both are coming to terms with their grief, but on the whole I was more interested in Eleanor’s story, set against the backdrop of the post First World War.

My thanks to Lovereading for providing an advance proof of this novel, due to be published 15 May 2015. The Lost Garden is the second book in Katharine Swartz’s Tales from Goswell series – the first is The Vicar’s Wife.

Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring

Dacre’s War is compelling reading, a  thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written novel set in the Scottish and English Borders and London between 1523 – 1525 some ten years after the events described in Rosemary Goring’s earlier book, After Flodden. I wondered as I began reading whether it could equal After Flodden, a book I loved when I read it two years ago – it did. I think it even surpasses it.

I loved Dacre’s War and keen as I was to read to the end I didn’t want to leave the characters. Once again I was swept away by the story, re-living the scenes through Rosemary Goring’s vivid descriptions and the drama of the characters’ lives, people who came to life in the pages of this book.

Dacre’s War describes how Adam Crozier, the head of his clan, plots to take revenge on Lord Thomas Dacre, the Warden General of the English Marches and the Keeper of Carlisle, who had brought about the death of Adam’s father. Ten years after the Battle of Flodden, Dacre is the most powerful man in the north of England, but the Marches are a constant battlefield, dangerously out of control, and a hotbed of thieves and killers in thrall to the Warden. Without him Henry VIII believes the situation would be much worse.

It is against this background that Crozier forms an alliance with Dacre’s enemies, both English and Scots to inform Henry of Dacre’s crimes and bring about his downfall.

There are some remarkable scenes in this book, and amongst them are the scenes in the Star Chamber where Dacre is brought to answer the charges against him in front of Cardinal Wolsey and his imprisonment in the Fleet Prison. I felt as though I was there, watching, breathing the same air – not a pleasant experience. Similarly with Crozier, I could visualise his home, Crozier’s Keep, sense the tension and fear as his wife, Louise, is left at home, pregnant and in danger of losing the baby.

There is so much packed in this book, political intrigue, personal conflict and vengeance, and spies, manipulators and double crossers abound. It is impossible to write more without revealing the plot and the eventual ending. It’s a brilliant book.

Dacre’s War is due to be published in June 2015. My copy is a pre-publication review copy courtesy of www.lovereading.co.uk.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Polygon (16 June 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846973112
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846973116

Rosemary Goring was born in Dunbar and studied social and economic history at the University of St Andrews; and, after graduation, worked at W&R Chambers as a reference editor. Rosemary was the literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, followed by a brief spell as editor of Life & Work, the Church of Scotland’s magazine, before returning to newspapers as literary editor of the Herald, and later also of the Sunday Herald. In 2007 she published Scotland: The Autobiography: 2000 Years of Scottish History By Those Who Saw it Happen, which has since been published in America and Russia.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland, Historical Fiction Challenge.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

I was looking forward to reading The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. It had sat on my shelves for nearly 8 years and I decided it was time to read it this year, including it in my TBR Pile Challenge list of books. It’s historical fiction – a mixture of murder mystery and psychoanalysis with an interpretation of ‘Hamlet‘ thrown in.

It began well as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung arrived in New York in 1909 to give a series of lectures and to receive an honorary degree from Clark University. That much is fact, but this book is a work of fiction as Rubenfeld makes clear in his Author’s Note and most of the characters are fictional.

There are some things that I did think were well done, for example the descriptions of New York as the city grew, its architecture and streets, the building of the Manhattan Bridge; and as I mentioned earlier the interpretation of ‘Hamlet‘. But as I read on I began to lose interest and at times I felt it was slowed down too much by psychological exposition and debate. Rubenfeld is no doubt well grounded in Freud – as a Princeton undergraduate he wrote his senior thesis on Freud – and also in Shakespeare, which he studied at the Juilliard School of Drama. I found his ideas on interpreting ‘Hamlet‘ most interesting. But I was less enamoured with the dialogue between Freud and Jung, which as Rubenfeld explained is drawn from their own letters, essays and statements, which whilst being factually accurate, doesn’t come across as real conversation.

I thought the murder mystery was unconvincing and too convoluted. Briefly, the morning after Freud’s arrival a young woman is found brutally murdered and later a second, Nora Acton, is attacked in a similar fashion but she survives, although unable to speak. Freud is asked to help by psychoanalysing Nora and asks his young American colleague, Dr Stratham Younger to carry out the analysis. To cut a long story short Younger is helped in his investigations by Detective Jimmy Littlemore and together they discover what really happened.

Maybe I was expecting too much from this book, which is described in the blurb as’Spectacular … fiendishly clever‘, and a ‘thrilling heart-in-the-mouth read … Once you start reading, it’s impossible to put down.’  It jumps about a bit too much for my liking, between narrators and sub-plots, some of the characters came over a bit flat and I didn’t find it either ‘fiendishly clever‘ or ‘impossible to put down‘.

Stacking the Shelves

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

This is my first entry in Stacking the Shelves. These are last week’s new arrivals:

In the heart of the sea

First ‘real’ books. It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and my son bought me this book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick – wonderful!

From the back cover:

The sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex by an enraged spermwhale far out in the Pacific in November 1820 set in train one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time. Accounts of the unprecedented whale attack inspired Herman Melville’s mighty novel Moby Dick, but In the Heart of the Sea goes beyond these events to describe what happened when the twenty mixed-race crewmen took to three small boats and what, three months later, the whaleship Dauphin, cruising off the coast of South America, discovered when it spotted a tiny boat sailing erratically across an open ocean.

The other books in the photo above are library books:

  • Collins Artist’s Little Book of Inspiration by Hazel Soan – a lovely little book looking at the basics elements of a painting using watercolours, oils and acrylics, with demonstrations and projects to try. I like just looking at the paintings!
  • The Reckoning by Jane Casey, the second in her Maeve Kerrigan series. I reserved this because I’d enjoyed the first one, The Burning and wanted to read more. This one begins with the murders of two paedophiles.
  • Conan Doyle: the Man who Created Sherlock Holmes by Andrew Lycett. This book was on a display stand and even though it’s a huge, heavy book I fancied reading it. It was probably on display following the  recent TV drama Arthur and George, which I enjoyed. I read Julian Barnes’ book of the same name some years ago, which pre-dates this biography.

When Lovereading offered a review copy of Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring I didn’t hesitate because I’d loved Rosemary Goring’s earlier novel, After Flodden.

Dacres War

Dacre’s War is set 10 years after the battle of Flodden in the Scottish and English borders, a story of ‘personal and political vengeance’ as Adam Crozier sets out to take revenge on Lord Thomas Dacre, who had ordered the death of his father. It’s due to be published on 14 May 2015.

Lastly, the latest ebook I’ve downloaded is today’s Kindle Daily Deal, Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga. A. N. Wilson ‘was absolutely mesmerized by this novel’ and thinks ‘that Aravind Adiga is already, with this, his second book, the most exciting novelist writing in English today.’ 

Last Man in Tower

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

I wanted to read a novel by a local author so I checked the library website for North East writers, where I found Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton.

Summary from the book cover:

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.

When 1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley.

Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice.

But William is struggling with demons of his own–he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife.’Catching the Eagle’, the first novel in the Regency Reivers series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

This is not just by a local author, and set in Northumberland, it is also based on a true story –  that of Karen Charlton’s husband’s ancestors.

I liked the opening of Catching the Eagle beginning with a Prologue, setting the scene as an eagle soared over the Northumberland landscape:

… its huge shadow caressed the ruined walls of crumbling castles and the creaking rotting stumps of ancient gibbets.The eagle plucked unsuspecting prey from the bleak, snow-covered fells and drank from remote rocky waterfalls dripping with golden daggers.

It landed in a tree above a labourer’s cottage where Jamie Charlton lived with his wife Priscilla and their children. I like Karen Charlton’s leisurely descriptive style of writing and found the whole book to be fascinating.  She has written an even-handed account of the robbery and the subsequent trials, so much so that I began to wonder whether Jamie Charlton was innocent or guilty, although you know from the outset that he was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money? And what will happen to the eagle?

This is the type of historical fiction that I like. The characters come across as real people, with real problems in a real time and place (Northumberland 1809 – 1811). It highlights the social and cultural setting. Jamie was without influence or money behind him up against a judicial system run by people with power who needed to find a culprit. His family suffered along with him as he languished in goal in squalor, where he was caged as he awaited trial – not once, but twice.

I wondered whether Stephen Lavender, the detective employed by  Nathaniel Ogle, the owner of Kirkley Hall was also a real historical figure. Karen Charlton has also written Seeking Our Eagle, another fascinating book, an account of how she came to write Catching the Eagle whilst researching her husband’s family history.  And yes, Stephen Lavender did exist and he was a detective. He later became the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester after the formation of the police force by Sir Robert Peel.

Indeed reading Catching the Eagle reminded me of The Suspicions of Samuel Whicher by Kate Summerscale, featuring Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, the book that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.

Karen Charlton has done her research very well and has written a novel full of intrigue, tension and realism that kept me captivated from start to finish. See her website, Karen Charlton, to read more about Karen and her books.

She has also written The Heiress of Linn Hagh, a spin-off novel from Catching the Eagle, which features Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick, Constable Woods. And there are more Detective Lavender Series books on the way!

Catching the Eagle:

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1 edition (19 July 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0992803640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992803643
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Source: Library book

Seeking the Eagle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1969 KB
  • Print Length: 166 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1st edition (7 Aug. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008UZYOR2
  • Source: I bought it

As always I didn’t read either book just for any Reading Challenges, but Catching the Eagle does fit very well into a couple – the 2015  Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge, in the book with an animal in the title category and Seeking Our Eagle into the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Zig Zag Girl

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is: The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths, a book I have just finished reading.

It begins:

 ‘Looks as if someone’s sliced her into three,’ said Solomon Carter, the police surgeon chattily. ‘We’re just missing the middle bit.’

I must not be sick, thought Edgar Stephens. That’s what he wants. Stay calm and professional at all times. You’re the policeman, after all.

What do you think? Would you read on?

I did. I’m a squeamish reader and don’t like anything too graphically gory and you might think this opening would put me off. But it didn’t – for one thing, it doesn’t go into detail about how the body got cut into three. Well, yes later down the page there’s mention of ‘clotted blood and smell of decaying flesh‘, but that’s it, it’s all secondhand, no scenes where the murderer is described doing the terrible act, no dwelling on what he/she was doing to the other person.

Blurb from the inside flap:

Brighton, 1950 – a post-war world of rationing, austerity, pea-souper fogs and seedy seaside resorts. When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, DI Edgar Stephens recalls a magic trick that he saw as a boy. The illusion is called the Zig Zag Girl and its inventor, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of his. They served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men, formed to use stage trickery to confuse the enemy.

Edgar tracks down Max and asks for his help. Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, sword-swallowers and dancing girls. Max is reluctant to get involved but the changes his mind when the dead girl turns out to be his former stage assistant. Another death follows, again gruesomely staged to resemble a magic trick, the Sword Cabinet.

Edgar and Max become convinced that the answer to the murders lies back in their army days and the antics of the Magic Men.

When Edgar receives a letter warning of another ‘trick’, he knows that they are all in danger. The Wolf Trap is the deadliest illusion of all, but who will be the next victim?

I’ve read some of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist, crime novels, which I have enjoyed despite wishing they weren’t written in the present tense. So it was with relief that I came to The Zig Zag Girl and found it’s written in the past tense.

I enjoyed it in several ways – for its characters, particularly Edgar Stephens and its setting, recalling the atmosphere of the 1950s and how times were changing. The theatrical elements are fascinating – life on the variety circuit was not all glitz and glamour; and the activities of the  Magic Men unit during the war had of course an immense effect on all their lives. I worked out quite early on who the murderer was – but not why, which only dawned on me at the end of the book.

I don’t know if this is going to be the start of a new series – I’d read more if it is.

Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea

I have read some wonderful debut novels this year –  Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea is one of them. I loved it. It’s historical fiction and it captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland. If you have ever wondered,  as I have, what it must have been like to live in a Tower House in the Scottish Borders then this book spells it out so clearly. And it puts you firmly in the middle of the centuries old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, with all the drama of their battles, ambushes and schemes to further their standing with the young King James VI. It’s a tale of love, loyalty, tragedy and betrayal.

It’s no wonder that the book was  the Historical Fiction Winner in the 2011 Harper Collins / Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition and won the Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best First Time Author 2014.

There is a map setting the scene in Ayreshire on the west of Scotland between the Firth of Clyde and the Solway Firth, showing the major sites in the book. I found both the map and the list of main characters most useful whilst following the story. And to complete my understanding there is a Glossary of Scottish words at the back of the book, although the meaning of most of them was clear from the context.

It begins in 1586  with an ambush in which several of the Montgomerie Clan, on their way to James VI’s court at Stirling are killed, followed by the Clan’s reprisal on the Cunninghames. James, anxious to settle the feud between his nobles, asks them to swear to bring their feud to an end, which brings an uneasy peace between them – for a while.

Most of the characters are real historical figures, includingJames VI, the Cunninghames – William, the Master of Glencairn and the Montgomeries – Hugh, the Master of Braidstane and their families. The feud is also a matter of fact. It began in 1488 when James IV gave control of the Balliewick of Cunninghame to a Montgomerie! It didn’t come to an end until the beginning of the 17th century.

The main characters,  Munro and his wife Kate and a few of the others are fictional. Munro is a minor laird who whilst owing allegiance to the Cunninghames, has increasing sympathy and liking for the Montgomeries. His dilemma only increases throughout the book.

Margaret Skea has done her research well, not just the feud and battles but also the domestic settings are detailed down to descriptions of the clothing, the food and so on – even how the town house rooms were finished with limewash, which involved carrying bucket-load after bucket-load up four flights of stairs to rejuvenate the attic chamber where the children slept. But it slots seamlessly into the story, adding colour and life to the scenes.

It’s all fascinating  – the hunt arranged for the king, the account of his journey across the North Sea to bring home his bride, Anne of Denmark, the scenes as the royal party lands at Leith and the coronation in Edinburgh, as well as the jockeying for positions, and the battles all culminating in a tense and dramatic finale.

Not only is this riveting history it is also so well written, beautifully descriptive:

Across the valley the castle reared against the skyline, the town tumbling down the slope below, wisps of smoke beginning to unfurl, first one, then another, then too many to count, as Stirling awoke.

The countryside was spread out before him like a map; the distant hills to the south west smudged against the watery sky; the river a dark ribbon snaking through the marshland below, cradling Cambuskenneth in a giant u-shaped loop. (pages 98-99)

and this – such a startling image:

Daylight slipped into their bedchamber like wraith; grey and insubstantial, filtered through the grime and soot that coated the outside of the windowpanes. (page 247)

And I’m delighted that Margaret Skea is writing a sequel as I really want to know what happened next to Munro and his family. The working title is A House Divided, continuing the story in the late 1590s.

  • Paperback: 416 pages – also available on Kindle
  • Publisher: Capercaillie Books Limited; first edition (22 Nov. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1909305065
  • ISBN-13: 978-1909305069
  • Source: I bought my copy
  • Author’s website: Margaret Skea, Writing yesterday, today

New-To-Me Books

I took a bagful of books back to Barter Books yesterday and came home with these books:

Christie encyclopedia 01 P1010423From top to bottom

  • Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie – this is one of the few of her books that I have yet to read. I’ve been looking out for this one, first published in 1940. It’s a Poirot mystery in which there are two victims murdered by poison.

As I hope to finish reading Agatha Christie’s books this year I’ve decided to attempt reading as many of Ruth Rendell’s books and those she has written as Barbara Vine:

  • End in Tears by Ruth Rendell – an Inspector Wexford murder mystery in which the victim’s father discovers her body near the family house.
  • The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine – in this case a daughter discovers that her perfect father was not all he appeared to be.

Then I browsed the shelves and found the next two books:

  • The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne is set in Berlin in 1937, where Clara Vine, an actress is an undercover agent for British Intelligence.  I thought the author’s name was familiar but couldn’t remember reading any of her books – until I got home and found that I already have Black Roses, the first Clara Vine book (set in 1933),  unread on the black hole that is my Kindle. I’d better read Black Roses first.

and finally:

The Ravens Head by Karen Maitland

I loved Karen Maitland’s medieval mysteries, Company of Liars: a novel of the plague and The Owl Killers and although I didn’t think The Vanishing Witch had quite the same magic spark I still enjoyed it. So when Lovereading offered me a proof copy of The Raven’s Head for review I was keen to read it.

Publisher: Headline Review
Publication date: March 12, 2015
ISBN: 9781472215055

Summary from Karen Maitland’s website:

Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head.

Any attempt to sell the head fails … until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain – unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest. Once more Vincent’s life is in danger because Sylvain and his neighbours, the menacing White Canons, consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.

Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural.

My thoughts:

Set in 1224 in France and England this is a dark book. I found parts of it very uncomfortable and disturbing to read and yet also very compelling. Life in the medieval world was cruel and brutal and The Raven’s Head describes that world in minute detail, evoking the superstitious fear of the period.

The story is told from the three main characters point of view -Vincent, Wilky, a young boy taken from his family to live in a monastery in Norfolk where unspeakable terrors await him and the other young boys, and Gisa also living in Norfolk, working in her uncle’s apothecary’s shop. Their lives are connected through Lord Sylvain who is trying to find a way to bring the dead back to life and the abbot, trying to find the elixir of life – both experimenting with alchemy.

Karen Maitland provides a cast of characters and sets out the historical background and provides notes and a glossary on the practice of  alchemy during the Middle Ages, all of which I found indispensable. Each chapter is headed by a quotation taken from the writings of early Christian and Islamic alchemists – most of which I found incomprehensible.

She explains that alchemy was a dangerous practice, many chemical experiments could go horribly wrong – as in this book. Alchemists worked in secret. It was mystical, as they searched for the means to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as physical, searching for the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

Although long this is a fast-paced book and I read it quite quickly.  I enjoyed the historical setting and even though it took me right to the edge of my comfort zone as far as reading horrific detail the rest of the book made up for that in terms of a well constructed storyline and believable characters. Once I began I had to finish the book.

Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende

I picked up Portrait in Sepia up in a bookshop four years ago. As I knew nothing about it or the author it joined the other to-be-read books until just recently.

The opening pages of this historical novel grabbed my attention, about Aurora del Valle’s birth in 1880 in San Francisco in the Chinese quarter and referring to family secrets:

I have come to know the details of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain. (page 3)

Portrait in Sepia is part of a trilogy, with The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, and maybe it would have helped if I’d read the other two books, but I thought there was plenty of background history to the characters and I had no problem in following the story and distinguishing the characters.

Summary from the back cover:

After her mother dies in childbirth, Aurora del Valle is raised by her grandmother in San Francisco, but despite growing up in this rich and privileged environment, Aurora is unhappy. Haunted by terrible nightmares and the inexplicable absence of many of her childhood memories, and finding herself alone at the end of a love affair, she decides to travel to Chile to discover what it was, exactly, all those years ago, that had such a devastating effect on her young life. 

Aurora is the narrator and this the story of her family and after giving details of her birth, Aurora goes back to 1862 beginning her story with details about her grandparents. This is not a book you read quickly as there is a lot of detail, a lot of 19th century history of Chile, its mix of nationalities, politics and wars – at first I felt I was drowning in detail, but once I settled into the rhythm of the writing I began to appreciate Allende’s style. It takes you right into the characters, seeing them through Aurora’s eyes – her Chinese grandfather, Tao Chi’en, her uncle Severo and her two grandmothers, Paulina and Eliza, who both play a large role in her life. And there are many other colourful characters and momentous events in this book.

It’s a book about love, loss, identity, betrayal and about family relationships. It’s a portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of the characters and their struggle to survive. Aurora tells her family’s story through looking at photographs, snapshots in time, through her own disjointed, incomplete and vague memories of her childhood and through conversations with her family members. Whilst she was still very young her two grandmothers decided her future, thinking that time would erase the memory of the traumatic events she had seen, never realising that the scenes would live forever in her nightmares.

Portrait in Sepia explores the nature of memory, how each moment of our lives is so transitory and how the past becomes confused as we try to recapture the moments we’ve lived through. Through photographs we can keep memories alive. As Aurora discovered:

Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing. With these photographs and pages I keep memories alive; they are my grasp on a truth that is fleeting , but truth none the less; they prove that these events happened and that these people passed through my destiny. Thanks to them I can revive my mother who died at my birth, my stalwart grandmothers, and my wise Chinese grandfather, my poor father, and other links in the long chain of my family, all of mixed and ardent blood. (pages 303-4)

Reading a book like this inevitably leads me on to yet more books, because now I want to read the other two books in the trilogy.

Lamentation by C J Sansom

Once again I am behind myself with writing about the books I’ve read! So here are just a few thoughts about C J Sansom’s historical novel, Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake book.

I have enjoyed the earlier books in the series so I had great expectations for Lamentation and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. What I like about these books is their historical setting and the Historical Notes giving yet more background to the period and emphasising that because the sources are ‘very thin’ that inevitably this is Sansom’s own interpretation of events and clarifying that Catherine Parr’s book was not, in the real world, stolen.

The book evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension. It begins as Shardlake is ordered to watch the burning at the stake of Anne Askew and other heretics (a real event). I’m not good at reading horrific scenes, but I managed this one without too much mental aversion of my eyes. Along with the mystery of the missing book, Shardlake is working on the Cotterstoke dispute between rival siblings, and has problems at home with his domestic servants.

I was also very taken with Shardlake’s introduction in Lamentation to William Cecil, Mary Tudor and a young Elizabeth I. I hope Sansom has more Shardlake books in mind.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

I found The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland a little slow at the beginning, although it’s full of interesting and well drawn characters, set in Lincoln during the reign of Richard II. It’s the time of the Peasants Revolt, a time of murder and mayhem and when suspicions of witchcraft were high as people started to die unnatural deaths, but it just didn’t have the magic spark that I’d enjoyed in her other books that I’ve read – The Company of Liars and The Owl Killers. It’s a long book of nearly 500 pages and it’s not just the beginning that’s slow, but it picks up towards the end.

The story revolves around Robert of Bassingham, a rich wool merchant, and his family – wife Edith and sons, Jan and Adam. All is fine until Robert meets Catlin, a wealthy widow, who comes to him for advice. Catlin is, of course, not as kind and good as Robert thinks she is and Robert’s family soon suffers because of his involvement with her. There are many other characters, including Gunter and his family. Gunter is a river boatman, struggling to make a living, burdened by heavy taxes he can’t pay. His life goes from bad to worse.

I liked the elements of the supernatural and suspicions of witchcraft in this book and the historical setting. There are several narrators, including a ghost and each chapter is headed by weather-lore, anti-witchcraft charms and spells taken from medieval ecclesiastical writings, recorded British folklore and from medieval spell books known as grimoires. For example this is the heading for Chapter 2:

If you fear that you are in the presence of a witch, clench both your hands into fists with the thumbs tucked under your fingers. Then she cannot enchant your mind.

Now that advice could be useful!

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne


As I wrote in a First Chapter post  Time’s Echo mixes time as Grace Trewe is drawn into Hawise Aske’s life, four and a half centuries earlier in York, 1577. I saw this book in the library and although I hadn’t heard of Pamela Hartshorne I thought the title was interesting, and from the description on the back cover and the opening paragraphs, I thought it was worth borrowing.

RIP IXIt’s a good choice for Carl’s R.I.P. IX challenge, a time-slip story with an element of mystery and suspense in both time periods. Grace is staying in York to sort out the sale of her late godmother’s house when she experiences unnerving episodes in which she appears to be reliving the traumatic events in Hawise’s life beginning in 1577.  Grace likes to travel and although she survived the Boxing Day tsunami she is suppressing her memories of what happened. 

I think the suspense is somewhat diluted because right from the opening chapter it’s revealed that Hawise was drowned on All Hallows’ Eve, with her thumb tied to her toe – ie as a witch. But as Grace’s episodes continue she learns what happened in Hawise’s life to bring her to her dramatic death and this is interwoven with events in Grace’s life. It gets to the point where she dreads slipping out of current time into not only Hawise’s past but also into her own as what happened to her in the tsunami breaks through her mind.

What does add to the suspense is the unpredictability of the time-slips and the sense of malice and evil. So much so that the sceptic in me was unable to decide whether this was a question of whether Grace was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or was she really being “possessed” by Hawise, as she believed, feeling Hawise clamouring to be let into her mind. I found the historical sections more interesting than the modern story, which I think often happens when I read time-slip stories.

Pamela Hartshorne explains how she came to write this book in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. It grew out of her research on the wardmote-court returns of early modern York. These records dealt primarily with nuisances, things that affected the quality of life for the neighbourhood – such as noisy neighbours, blocked sewers. potholed streets etc (I note that local life hasn’t changed much over the centuries!). Some of the minor characters were real people, but this book is a work of fiction and Hartshorne is not intending this to be an accurate historical account, although she has tried to make it as convincing and as authentic as she could – I think she succeeded.

I thought the book was rather drawn out in parts, slowing the story down a bit too much for my liking. But, I like the fact that the book has a factual background, even though there are some liberties with the evidence – eg there was no plague in York in the 1570s or 1580s as featured in the book. So, on the whole I enjoyed Time’s Echo primarily because of its historical elements and I’ll look out for more books by Pamela Hartshorne. I see from her website that she has just published another time-slip book, The Memory of Midnight.

Almost Invincible by Suzanne Burdon

Almost InvincibleMary Shelley’s life and relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was truly remarkable, a story of scandal, love and loss. And Suzanne Burdon using letters and diaries has written a remarkable novel, Almost Invincible, about her.

Mary ‘s parents were two radical writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the advocate of women’s rights. At the age of sixteen she met Shelley, who was already married. They fell in love, abandoned their families and eloped, but significantly they took Mary’s step-sister, Claire with them. It was disastrous because Claire was in love with Shelley too and almost constantly in conflict with Mary.

The novel begins in Geneva in 1816 as Mary reads the opening pages of her novel, Frankenstein to Shelley, Lord Byron and their friends:

It was barely five on a summer afternoon but already eerily dark. The candles were lit and shivered in response to the wind and rain pounding against the panelled windows. Mary took up her scribbled pages and found her voice.

From then on the novel goes back to Mary’s meeting with Shelley in St Pancras churchyard in London two years earlier and follows their tempestuous lives until Shelley’s death in Italy in 1823. Mary went through so much; social outcasts they spent their time moving houses from France, England, Switzerland and Italy. She had two miscarriages and suffered the deaths of two of her children. Her father’s description of her shows her spirit:

She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes, almost invincible.

But above all, it was her love for Shelley that sustained her. I found this a very moving book as it weaves its way through the tangled and often turbulent relationships of Mary, Shelley, Claire and their friends and acquaintances. At times Claire’s behaviour was so manipulative and destructive that Mary could not bear to be with her. Yet through all the sadness, grief, illnesses, and financial difficulties she found solace in her writing.

Suzanne Burdon has written a most impressive story. She has done extensive research, using original letters and stories in the Abinger Collection in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Carl Phorzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle in the New York Public Library. Almost Invincible is her first novel, based on fact but conveying the emotions, thoughts and feelings of her characters so convincingly. I was entranced.

  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Criteria Publishing
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0992354005
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992354008
  • Source: review copy from the publishers

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Time’s Echo

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne, historical timeslip fiction.

It begins:

I feel no fear, not yet. I am just astounded to find myself in the air, looking down the murky rush of the river. It is as if time itself has paused, and I am somehow suspended between the sky and the wate, between the past and the present, between then and now. Between disbelief and horror.

It is All Hallows’ Eve, and I am going to die.

Time’s Echo mixes time as Grace Trewe is drawn into Hawise Aske’s life, four and a half centuries earlier in York, 1577. I saw this book in the library and although I hadn’t heard of Pamela Hartshorne I thought the title was interesting, and from the description on the back cover and the opening paragraphs, I thought it was worth borrowing.  From what I’ve read so far I’m hoping it will be an enjoyable book.

What’s In A Name 7: Completed

Whats in a name 7Hosted by  by Charlie at The Worm Hole this challenge runs from January to December 2014. During this time you choose a book to read from six categories.

I’ve now completed the challenge and these are the books I read:

  • A reference to time – The Time Machine by H G Wells, first published in 1895, is a work of imagination and an early example of science fiction, but it is also a commentary on late 19th century society and a vehicle for H G Well’s views on socialism and industrialisation.

  • A position of royalty – The King’s Evil by Edward Marston. This is historical crime fiction set in London in September 1666, just as the Great Fire of London has begun, eventually devastating a large part of the old medieval City of London

  • number written in letters – Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, a Poirot mystery
    first published in 1943. Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.
  • forename or names  Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  a beautifully told tale – a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a ‘smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Ethan Frome
  • type or element of weather – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

  • A book with a school subject in the title – The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier  fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. 

My favourite of these books is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

Thanks to Charlie for an interesting challenge that helped me reduce my to-be-read piles.

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

I love historical fiction – books that take me away to another time and place. I think one definition of historical fiction is that it should be written about 50 years after the events it describes and so The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop just falls short of that, set 40+ years ago in Cyprus, but I think it would be pedantic to say it’s not ‘historical fiction’.

Forty years ago Famagusta, on the east coast of Cyprus was one of the island’s most visited and most glamorous tourist resorts with its beautiful coastline and its luxury hotels and apartments in the modern district, now known as Varosha. The medieval walled city to the north of the beach resort was a historian’s dream, with its Byzantine churches, treasures and14th century cathedral. Then in 1974, following a Greek military coup, Cyprus was split in two as Turkish forces invaded the northern part of the island to protect the minority Turkish Cypriots. The population of Famagusta fled and the city was sealed off with barbed wire, leaving it a ghost town.

The Sunrise begins in 1972 before the war erupted. Everything is looking good – on the surface – the tourist trade in Famagusta is booming. But beneath the surface tension is building as fear and suspicion grows not only between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, but also amongst the Greek Cypriots themselves, a minority wanting unification with Greece.

‘Cyprus was like a vine leaf that looked opaque and green in the hand but held up to the light was lined with veins. The threat of violence coursed invisibly through the island, and while its sunny, sensual image continued to attract visitors, conspiracies were being hatched and whispers clandestinely exchanged behind closed doors.’

I liked The Sunrise very much – a story of human tragedy in the face of war. It’s a novel about love, friendship and war, the love between parents and their children, and the relationships between men and women. It’s about the struggle for power, about greed, betrayal and deceit. It’s about religion and nationality and the conflict these can cause. Above all it’s about the effect war has on individuals, in particular the brutality and the horrors it engenders.

See my full review of The Sunrise in the Autumn edition of Shiny New Books.

The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis

When I saw The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis in the mobile library I thought I’d seen reviews of her books on other blogs, so I borrowed it. It is the eighteenth Wesley Peterson Mystery, but I think it reads well without knowing the background to the main characters. Although I suppose if I went back in the series I’d find that I know things that maybe I shouldn’t.

Summary:

It’s the Palkin Festival in Tradmouth, a town in Devon, when the body of a strangled women is discovered floating out to sea in a dinghy. A year earlier Jenny Bercival had disappeared from the festival and her mother returns to look for her bringing with her anonymous letters claiming she is still alive. DI Wesley Peterson and his boss DCI Gerry Heffernan are investigating the two cases. Are they connected and is there a link to a fantasy website called ‘Shipworld’ which features the 14th century mayor and privateer of Tradmouth, Palkin as a supernatural hero with a sinister, faceless nemesis called the ‘Shroud Maker’?

 When Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson finds a skeleton on the site of Palkin’s warehouse, the question is whether an ancient crime has been uncovered, or is it Jenny’s body?

My view:

I liked the way the historical mystery intertwines with the modern one, through the archaelogical evidence, and the extracts from a 19th century biography of John Palkin written by his descendant, Josiah Palkin-Wright and letters from Josiah’s wife to her sister, worried about her marriage and that her sister does not reply. Kate Ellis’s style of writing is deceptively simple, so much so that the locations and characters came to life in my mind, whether it was Tradmouth in the past or the present.

There is plenty of mystery in this novel. I really had to concentrate to keep all the characters, red-herrings, twists and turns, and sub-plots in my mind. I thought I’d followed it as I read it, but now I’m not sure that I can give a clear account of what happened and why. However, as I do like complex mysteries I think I’ll have to look out for the first books in the Wesley Peterson series.

A note on the title:

From the title I thought that the ‘Shroud Maker’ would be a person who makes shrouds ie cloths used to wrap a body for burial, but that is not so in this book. Instead the name of ‘Shroud Maker’ is taken from a rope maker, shrouds being the ropes that support a ship’s masts. He or she is a mysterious figure, who in the Shipworld website appears as a faceless monster, wearing what looks like a white ski mask, a malevolent dark force.

The Author’s Note:

It didn’t take me long reading this book to realise that ‘Tradmouth’ is an inversion of the name of Dartmouth in Devon and Kate Ellis’s note at the end of the book clarifies that. She refers to Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales which features a character called the Shipman, a seaman from ‘Dertemouth’, who like her own invented character, was little better than a pirate. She writes that during the 19th century people were fascinated with the medieval period, perhaps as a reaction against industrialisation and her fictional writings of Josiah Palkin-Wright reflected that interest. And coming up to the present day she reflects that fantasy fiction is as popular today as it ever was, with the influence of J R R Tolkien’s works and fantasy fiction websites.

Reading Challenges: R.I.P. Challenge, the My Kind of Mystery Challenge, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt is the second book of his that I’ve read. The first one Death of a Chief I read 5 years ago! Both books are set in late 17th century Scotland (1686 and 1687) and feature a Gaelic speaking, Edinburgh lawyer John MacKenzie and his clerk Davie Scougall. I like the way Douglas Watt incorporates the historical background into the narrative without detracting from the story.

In Testament of a Witch MacKenzie investigates the death of Grissell Hay, Lady Lammersheugh accused of witchcraft in a village overwhelmed by superstition, resentment and puritanical religion. Then the same accusations are made against the Euphame, Grissell’s daughter.  I wasn’t too keen on the horrifying and explicit descriptions of how the witch hunter identified and dealt with women accused of being witches, which involved torture and sleep deprivation, but apart from that I enjoyed this book.

I liked the interaction between Mackenzie, a Highlander and Scougall, a Lowland Scot. Scougall is convinced of the reality of witchcraft, whereas Mackenzie has ‘grave doubts about the crime of witchcraft‘, believing ‘it is nothing more than superstition‘. The religious fervour and political unrest are clearly demonstrated in this book, setting the frenzied persecution of those suspected of witchcraft in context. Watts’ Historical Note on The Scottish Witch-hunt at the end of the book gives the background, when Scottish society was in a state of flux.

Change caused anxiety and fear, unleashing frenzies of witch-hunting . … It has been estimated that the Scottish witch-hunt was ten times more deadly than the English one in terms of executions per head of population. Probably more than a thousand men and women were executed for witchcraft in Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The witch-hunt could not have occurred without a widespread belief in magic, charming and divination, and the acceptance of Satan as a real presence in the life of the people.

Witch-hunting declined when the revolutionary zeal of the Scottish Reformation ran out of steam in the late seventeenth century. Scotland began to turn its back on persecution and look towards the more tolerant and commercial age of the Enlightenment.

Testament of a Witch is well-researched and although it gets off to a slow start and I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Death of a Chief, I was immersed into the fascinating and terifying world of the witch-hunt in 17th century Scotland as I was reading. It’s a book that qualifies both for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge and this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, as well as the Historical Fiction Challenge and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Douglas Watt is a Scottish historian, poet and novelist, who lives in Linlithgow. He has a PhD in Scottish History from Edinburgh University and is the author of The Price of Scotland, a history of Scotland’s Darien Disaster, which won the Hume Brown Senior Prize in Scottish History in 2008. 

Still Catching Up

I’ve been missing from my blog for most of September, but I’ve still been reading. We’ve just returned from a  few days in the Lake District – such a beautiful part of the UK!

Caldbeck, Cumbria
Caldbeck, Cumbria

I managed to squeeze in some reading time as well as walking in the fells near Caldbeck and visiting the Pencil Museum in Keswick, Castlerigg Stone Circle, the Honister Pass, Ullswater and Aira Force. I’ll post some photos later on.

I took two books with me that I had already begun reading and finished one of them – Entry Island by Peter May. I’ve previously read May’s Lewis Trilogy – The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen all of which I loved and whilst I did enjoy Entry Island I don’t think it quite lives up to the Lewis books. However, as I discovered when I came home this weekend Entry Island has been awarded the third annual Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival.

Entry Island is set in present day Magdalen Islands, part of the province of Quebec, in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and in the nineteenth century on the Isle of Lewis at the time of the Highland Clearances.  It mixes together two stories and two genres, crime fiction and historical fiction. It has a strong sense of place in both locations and beautiful descriptions of the landscape as for example in this passage:

It was another ten minutes before the ferry slipped out of the harbour, gliding past the outer breakwater on a sea like glass, to reveal Entry Island in the far distance, stretched out on the far side of the bay, the sun only now rising above a gathering of dark morning cloud beyond it. The island drew Sime’s focus and held it there, almost trancelike, as the sun sent its reflection careening towards him, creating what was almost a halo effect around the island itself. There was something magical about it. Almost mystical. (page 14)

The characters are convincing – Detective Sime Mackenzie, based in Montreal is part of the team sent to Entry Island to investigate the death of the wealthy businessman, James Cowell found stabbed to death. His wife, Kirsty is the obvious suspect. Sime is suffering from insomnia, a situation made worse by the fact that his ex-wife is also on the investigating team. Sime is convinced that he knows Kirsty, although they have never met before and he doubts that she is the culprit. Running parallel to this crime fiction element is the historical one, linked by Sime’s ancestor, also called Sime who was a crofter’s son on the Isle of Lewis and whose love for the laird’s daughter seemed doomed from the start. The story of life on Lewis and the harsh treatment the crofters received during the potato famine, followed by the terrible conditions they endured during their transportation to Canada is powerfully and emotionally portrayed.

The two stories are linked together well, but I found the present day investigation not too convincing and rather contrived as the team seemed to jump to conclusions without much thought or thorough investigation of the evidence. And I thought that the historical element was dominant at the expense of the modern day crime story making the book a little unbalanced. However, as I said I liked the book, which is an entertaining read that held my interest to the end.

Peter May is a prolific author. He was born and brought up in Scotland, but he now lives in France. As well as The Lewis Trilogy he has also written The Enzo Files, a series of seven books featuring Scottish forensic scientist, Enzo MacLeod, who lives in France, teaches at a university in Toulouse, and is working on solving seven of France’s most famous cold cases by applying the latest scientific techniques and The China Thrillers, a series of six books featuring Beijing detective Li Yan and Margaret Campbell, forensic pathologist from Chicago. He has also had a successful career as a television writer, creator, and producer. 

I still have three other books to write about, including my first book for this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, Testament of a Witch, which like Entry Island also qualifies for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge. Will I ever catch up with myself?

Catching Up With My Reading

Once more I’ve been reading books and moving on without writing about them. Here are just two of the books I’ve read recently:

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – I really liked this book, historical fiction about the life of Honor Bright after she emigrated from Dorset to America in 1850 where she joined a Quaker community in Ohio. It intertwines her story with that of the ‘Underground Railroad’, helping the runaway slaves from the southern states to escape to Canada.

Honor is a quilter, but finds that American quilts are not the same as English ones, just as America is very different from England, both in landscape, temperature and culture. She struggles to fit in, finding it hard to adjust. I thought this was well handled and the sense of period and place is impressive, with a wealth of detail about the land and the struggles of the settlers. She can’t face the journey back across the Atlantic and marries Jack Haymaker, a young farmer whose mother and sister disapprove of her.

The slavery question caused Honor a real dilemma, as she became involved in the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and people willing to provide food and shelter for the runaways. Should she abide by the law, or follow her Quaker beliefs about equality, thus putting the rest of her family at risk as well as herself? This is compounded by her relationship with Belle Mills and her disreputable brother Donovan who has taken a liking to Honor, but is also a slave-catcher, ruthless in his pursuit.

I think it’s a very entertaining book, full of colourful characters, although some, like Jack are not as well developed as others. I liked the detail about quilting, even though I have never done any! But it was the account of life on the frontier and the Underground Railroad that made the book for me. Here are Honor’s thoughts about slavery:

She had begun with a clear principle born of a lifetime of sitting in silent expectation: that all people are equal in God’s eyes, and so should not be enslaved to one another. Any system of slavery must be abolished. It had seemed simple in England; yet in Ohio that principle was chipped away at, by economic arguments, by personal circumstances, by deep-seated prejudice that Honor sensed even in Quakers. …

When an abstract principle became entangled in in daily life, it lost its clarity and became compromised and weakened. (page 259)

I borrowed this book from the library.

In complete contrast I moved on from The Last Runaway to Wycliffe and the Four Jacks by W J Burley, crime fiction set in Cornwall, featuring Chief Superintendent Wycliffe, who is on holiday but still gets drawn into a murder investigation.

Author David Cleeve, who writes under the pseudonym Peter Stride asks for Wycliffe’s advice about a series of sinister warnings he has received in the form of a playing card – the Jack of Diamonds. Then, a young woman is found dead, an apparently motiveless crime, but, as Wycliffe discovers, it follows a series of crimes, the clues all seeming to centre on an archaeological dig on Cleeve’s land. A further murder helps to pinpoint the culprit.

This is a quick read, with plenty of red herrings, but not too difficult to unravel. I liked it and I liked the personal touches that make Wycliffe a real person, a somewhat irritable man who likes his food, and gets on well with his wife. He is a thoughtful detective:

He was in a strange mood, suddenly everything had become unreal: the bare schoolroom with its peeling green walls, the battered tables, the scratched filing cabinets, his colleagues bending over their reports … He had known such experiences since childhood when, suddenly, everything seemed remarkable, nothing was ordinary any more. His mother would say: ‘Why aren’t you playing with your toys, Charles?’ Later, at school, it was ‘Day-dreaming again, Wycliffe!’ Now DS Lane was watching him and probably thinking, ‘Why dies he just sit there?’ (page 165)

It’s periods like this, however, that help Wycliffe focus his thoughts.

Wycliffe and the Four Jacks was first published in 1985. It’s the 12th in Burley’s series of 22 Wycliffe books.

The Dance of Love by Angela Young

Angela Young‘s new novel The Dance of Love is historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century between 1899 and 1919. It is outstanding and I loved it so much. At times as I read it I could hardly see the pages through my tears – and there have not been many books that have that effect on me.  It’s a brilliant book, both a heart-rending love story and a dramatic story too, as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the devastating and tragic effects of the First World War impact on the characters’ lives.

It’s the story of Natalie, the daughter of Sir Thomas Edwardes, a wealthy business man, a self-made man who is socially unsure of himself, but who wants his daughter to be accepted into society. It begins in 1899, a period when young ladies were presented at Court for the London Season, an opportunity to meet their future husbands. Natalie’s friends, the daughters of Lady Bridewell, are looking forward to the London Season. But Natalie has little desire to be presented at Court, relishing the idea that she would be free to live without such restraints and marry for love, someone who will care for her for herself, not because of her family connections. However, she falls in with her father’s wishes and when she meets a handsome artist-soldier, Lieutenant Haffie, it seems her wish for a happy marriage will come true.

What I really liked about this book is the way historical background is seamlessly interwoven with the narrative and how it captures the changes in society as the years went by. Natalie grows from a young, impulsive teenager with passion for romance and dancing into a responsible young woman whose hopes for a happy marriage are in the balance.  The portrait of the Edwardian upper classes, with their lavish life style, glittering balls and all their extravagances is fascinating, contrasting with the enormous changes in society as the War takes its effect.

I liked all the details about paintings as Haffie shows his work to Natalie – Angela Young’s beautiful descriptions draw such vivid full colour images that I could easily visualise the paintings, which Natalie says are ‘mysteries made of light.’  And her portrayal of the settings, whether in London, Devon or the Scottish Highlands are just as vivid, making this a richly descriptive book.

But it is the effect of the War and the effect on the families of those people travelling across the Atlantic on the Titanic that really brought home to me the whole human tragedy that people lived through, much more than any historical account has done. I think it’s seeing these events through the eyes of the people left at home that has the most impact.

I had enjoyed Angela Young’s first novel, Speaking of Love and so was pleased to accept her offer of an uncorrected proof copy of The Dance of Love. I’m so glad I did as it’s a beautifully written, brilliant book that moved me deeply, and one I shall most definitely re-read (always proof of a good book for me).

The Dance of Love will be published on 31 July 2014.

Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett

Sometimes I get requests from authors/publishers to review books and occasionally a book just turns up in the post unannounced. Over a year ago now I unexpectedly received a copy of Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett and although it appealed to me I put it to one side whilst I finished other books. It has taken me until now to get round to actually reading it.

And I’m glad I did as it is an interesting book – historical fiction beginning in 1911 in pre-revolutionary Russia with Inna Feldman travelling by train to St Petersburg to escape the pogroms in Kiev hoping to stay with her distant cousin, Yasha Kagan. She is welcomed into the Lenin family where she and Yasha are apprentices in their violin-making workshop. Inna is a talented, albeit shy, violinist and she falls in love with Yasha through their shared love of music.

The book is split into three sections – September – December 1911, 1916-17 and 1918-19 as Russia enters the First World War and is plunged into Revolution and life becomes increasingly dangerous for them all. Inna is torn between her love for Yasha, wildly rebellious and an activist in the revolution, and the older and more secure Englishman, Horace Wallick who works for the jeweller, Faberge, painting miniatures. It’s a story of survival under extreme conditions.

I liked the way Vanora Bennett intermingled Inna’s personal story with the historical characters of the time, including Father Grigory, Prince Youssoupoff and Lenin. I particularly liked the Father Grigory sections. Inna first met him on the train to St Petersburg when he helped her and I had my suspicions about who he really was, although it was a while before Inna discovered his identity. I also thought the details of violin-making were fascinating and I really liked the sections about Horace and his work for Faberge. What is perhaps even more fascinating is that Horace Wallick was a real person, Vanora Bennett’s great-great-uncle who really did work for Faberge from 1910 to 1919, which makes the story all the more authentic.

However, I thought the pace of the novel wasn’t very well structured as after an attention grabbing opening I thought it dragged a bit in the middle and that it was drawn to a too hasty conclusion. Overall, though I thought this portrayal of the Russian Revolution and the effect it had on ordinary people was well done and I did enjoy it.

This is the second of Vanora Bennett’s books I’ve read – the first was Portrait of an Ordinary Woman the story of Sir Thomas More’s fall from Henry VIII’s favour and that of his adopted daughter Meg Giggs. I shall look out for more of her books.

North Sea Cottage by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen’s latest book, North Sea Cottage, is an e-book, a novella set in Denmark. It’s another dual time period book – it seems that each book I’ve read recently is one of these. This one is split between the present day and 1943/4 and it works very well.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book; the cottage in the title is owned by Tora’s aunt, Bergatora. As soon as I began reading I was immediately transported in place away to the other side of the North Sea to Denmark with Tora, and in time back to the Second World War, with her aunt, Bergatora. In just a few words Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen draws a vivid picture of the old fisherman’s cottage surrounded by dense sea fog.

Tora is struggling to overcome her own problems when she is faced with a new problem. The old stable next to the cottage catches fire during a thunder storm and in the aftermath of the fire Tora finds a skeleton in the potato cellar under the ruined stable. Who is it who had died in the cellar? Bergatora is reluctant to talk about the war years and her brother, Tora’s father, was too young at the time to help. It was a time when Denmark was under German occupation and a resistance movement was under way. Inspector Thomas Bilgren suspects the victim may have been related to the German occupation.

Tora, helped by Bilgren attempts to discover the truth, but is hampered by the strong character of her aunt and the silence surrounding what happened during the war. I loved this aspect of the book – the delving back into history, the way the narrative switches backwards and forwards, gradually revealing what had happened. North Sea Cottage is only about 90 pages but it has depth both in mystery and in characterisation and the setting is so atmospheric. I was fearful for Tora’s safety as she dug deeper into the mysteries from the past.

Thanks to Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, who kindly sent me a copy of her book. She has a blog – Djskrimiblog and used to be a teacher. She writes both serious mysteries as well as humorous and cosy stories about the Gershwin family in Knavesborough, a fictional village in Yorkshire, publishing in Danish and English. I like her humorous stories but prefer the serious ones like North Sea Cottage and her previous novel, Anna Märklin’s Family Chronicles. She is currently at work on her next novel – Crystal Nights, to be published in 2014/5.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson

I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson very much. It’s a dual time period novel moving between the present day and the Second World War, a format I think that can be hard to do successfully. In this book, Camilla Macpherson’s first published novel, I think it is successful as I was equally keen to find out what happened next in both periods.

Pictures at an Exhibition is structured around Daisy’s letters to her cousin Elizabeth telling her about the paintings on display at London’s National Gallery during the war years – one a month. In the present day Claire reads the letters, left to her husband Rob, by his grandmother, Elizabeth. They are not just about the paintings but also about Daisy’s life and the man she meets and loves. Claire meanwhile, is struggling to recover from a tragedy that threatens to overwhelm her and wreck her marriage. She decides to read the letters, one a month, and visit the National Gallery to see the paintings and compare them with Daisy’s descriptions.

I found the characters thoroughly convincing, the settings and the time periods contrasting vividly and loved all the details about the paintings. I also liked the way the characters developed throughout the book. For example, at the beginning of the book, which I found so devastatingly sad, Claire is full of anger and grief, affecting her relationship with Rob:

It was the grief speaking. It could do strange things grief. She had not known that until now. She had never had to know. It had brought with it this desperate, physical need to blame someone, someone who would be right there when she had to lash out – Rob. The only person who was always there. (page 106)

She becomes obsessed with the letters, the paintings and with Daisy’s life. It’s a remarkable portrayal of a woman in crisis and how she managed to find herself again. Daisy’s story is just as convincing describing life in London during the Blitz and along with Claire I really wanted to know more about her and what happened to her.

I think it was the art that drew me to this book in the first place and I found those parts of the book absolutely fascinating. The National Gallery did display one painting a month after most of them had been transported away from London and the bombs for safe keeping. You can see the paintings described by scanning the QR codes at the beginning of each chapter and also see them on Camilla Macpherson’s website, and of course on the National Gallery’s site too. I knew of most of them before, but not all of them and as I was reading I printed copies to see what Daisy and Claire saw.

But by the end of the book it was the characters and the story that had captivated me too.  It’s about life and death, love and loss, grief and relationships and I found it compelling reading – when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it and keen to get back to it. It’s a book I want to re-read at some time – and there aren’t many of those.

My thanks go to Camilla Macpherson, who kindly sent me a copy of her book. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

The Sea ChangeSet in lost landscapes, The Sea Change is Joanna Rossiter’s debut novel revolving around a mother and daughter caught up in catastrophic events. The lost landscapes are the village of Imber, a Wiltshire village that was requisitioned by the army during World War Two, where Violet had grown up, and the coastal village of Kanyakumari in Southern India, where her daughter Alice was caught up in the tsunami that devastated the area in 1971.

It’s about lost lives too, wrecked relationships, the isolation of people through their inability to communicate with each other, about love, loss and grief and above all about the relationship between mothers and daughters and sisters.

I enjoyed reading this beautifully written book; I could easily visualise the different landscapes as I read. It begins with drama in the ‘present’ (1971) as the tsunami sweeps through Kanyakumari, separating Alice from her new husband, James and she is in danger of drowning. The story is a dual time novel told alternately by Alice and Violet. After the dramatic opening scenes it then moves immediately to Imber in 1971 as Violet returns to Imber and recalls how they were forced to leave, clinging to Imber ‘as if it were a lost soul.

There are parallels between their stories, both caught up in events outside their control. I was more interested in Violet’s story as she and her mother and sister try to carry on with their lives during the war, mourning the death of her father. And yet Alice’s story is also moving as she desperately searches for James.  Alice and Violet had not parted on good terms when Alice had left home to go on the hippy trail and I liked the way the two stories gradually came together and details of their lives became clearer.

I wrote about the opening paragraphs of this book in this earlier post.

Thanks to Penguin for providing a review copy of this book. I’m sorry to say that it has sat unread apart from the opening pages on my bookshelves since last year when I received it. This is one reason I’m reluctant sometimes to accept review copies – there are so many books clamouring to be read!

Joanna Rossiter has her own website where you can see a YouTube video of her reading from the beginning of the book and talking about her book. I hope she writes more books!

Books Read in May

I can’t quite believe it but despite spending many hours in the garden in May mowing the grass and weeding (there are still too many weeds!) I managed to read ten books, bringing my total for the year so far to 45. They’re a bit of a mixed bag of excellent and not very good, with some good ones in between!

They are, in the order I read them, with links to my reviews (* marks crime fiction novels):

  1. The Big Four* by Agatha Christie – a bit of a let down, not up to her best!
  2. The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman – goodish
  3. The Dance of Love by Angela Young – her second book due out at the end of July. I loved it!
  4. The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart – good
  5. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – very good
  6. Nemesis* by Agatha Christie – disappointing
  7. The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff – good
  8. No Stranger to Death*by Janet O’Kane – very good, her first book
  9. The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez -not very good and I don’t intend to write about it
  10. A Whispered Name* by William Broderick – excellent – see my thoughts below.

I’m not taking The Dance of Love into account in considering which book is my favourite book of the month because I’m saving my review for July when the book is published – but I can say now that it is brilliant!

The Graveyard Book and No Stranger to Death are both really good books and as I was reading each one I thought either could be my favourite book for May but then I read A Whispered Name and that decided it – it is my favourite book of the month and also my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise)!

 

A Whispered Name by William Brodrick is the third Father Anselm novel, which won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2009.

I think this is a most remarkable book and it kept me glued to the pages as I read about the First World War and the effects it had on those who took part, those left at home and on future generations. It is, of course, historical fiction.

From the back cover:

During the slaughter of Passchendaele in 1917, an Irish soldier faced a court martial for desertion. On the panel was a young captain, Herbert Moore, charged with a responsibility that would change him for ever.

After the war Herbert became a monk, one of the founders of Larkwood monastery, where Father Anselm came across two visitors, Kate Seymour and an unnamed old man, searching for Father Herbert. But he had died in 1985 and no one could answer their questions about the trial of a deserter, Joseph Flanagan and Father Herbert’s part in it. Father Herbert was revered and loved by all who knew him and Anselm was deeply dismayed at the thought that there was anything in his past that he had lied about and he set out to discover the truth.

I think the whole book is so well thought out with chapters revealing what happened from different characters’ viewpoints during the war and what Anselm discovered as he went through the records and talked to people. Nothing is straight forward, the records are ambiguous and there is confusion about identities. The horror of the war is there:

After the wallop, Herbert found himself prostrate with his face against the dirt, vaguely aware that time had passed, that water was creeping on him; that he would have to move or he’d drown.

… Herbert slid through a sludge of intestines and grit, hauling himself into the open. Staring across the beaten land he tried to gain his bearings … he couldn’t see anyone else from the regiment. (page 35)

And Herbert did indeed serve on a court martial that condemned Joseph Flanagan to death. But there is not just the horror of war in this book, it’s an intricate, evocative novel focussing on the themes of morality, justice, sacrifice and human redemption. It is a book above all that identifies the place of the individual within history, written so lyrically putting the past under a searching spotlight. One of the best books I’ve read for quite some time.

A Whispered Name is a thoroughly researched book with a list of sources at the end of the book, but it never reads like a dry factual account – it comes so vividly to life. Although based on fact, gathered from memoirs, reports, published research, Battalion War diaries and the original transcripts of trials, William Brodrick explains in his Author’s Note:

This novel is not about FGCMs [Field General Court Martial] in general. It does not imply a comprehensive critique of First World War executions from any perspective, be that historical, legal or moral. Rather, one might say, it is a parable of how a man found meaning in death, and how another – on seeing that – found faith in life. And it is about a fictional trial that cannot be compared with any genuine case. (p 344) (my emphasis)

William Brodrick became a barrister, having been an Augustinian monk for six years (the other way round from his fictional character, Father Anselm). After 10 years at the Bar, his interest in writing led him to writing the Father Anselm books.

The Father Anselm books are:

  1. The Sixth Lamentation (2003)
  2. The Gardens of the Dead (2006)
  3. A Whispered Name (2008)
  4. The Day of the Lie (2012)
  5. The Discourtesy of Death (2013)

I’ve now read the first three books and think A Whispered Name is probably the best. I have yet to read the next two – I hope to do so soon.

The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors when I was a child, but it’s been years since I read any of her books. I came across her children’s book, The Witch’s Brat after reading Mary Delorme’s novel, St Bartholomew’s Man about Rahere, the founder of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. I wanted to know more about Rahere and discovered that he featured in Rosemary Sutcliff’s book set in 12th century England.

The Witch’s Brat, first published in 1971, tells the tale of Lovel, a boy born crippled with a twisted leg and crooked shoulder, but also with a gift for healing. His grandmother was the local Wise Woman whom people feared thinking she was a witch, and after she died he was driven from his village in a shower of stones, both because he was her grandson and because he was a cripple. He is taken in by the monks at a priory and it is here that he meets Rahere, who encourages him to be a healer. This is how Rahere looked when Lovel first met him:

Lovel gazed with his mouth open in awed delight at this mad and magnificent man with the monk’s face and the cool mocking voice and long fantastic legs like a crane fly, who spoke English, but in such splendid and far-off words that much of it was as far beyond his reach as the Norman French spoken by most of the knights and wealthy travellers who passed that way, and by some of the brethren among themselves. (page 29)

It’s a beautifully written little book (112 pages), full of period detail, including herbal lore and vivid imagery. Like St Bartholomew’s Man it’s about the building of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, but seen through Lovel’s eyes instead of through Rahere’s. As well as being historical fiction, this book is about overcoming prejudice and and disability. Rahere is seen as a charismatic character, an inspiration to Lovel, a man who thought there must be more to life than entertaining a king and who vowed to raise an infirmary, a hospital for the poor sick.

This a ‘feel good’ book that is a delight to read.

The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart

The Wicked Day is a sequel to Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, telling the story of Mordred, King Arthur’s illegitimate son, who was foretold by Merlin as Arthur’s bane. It blends together fact and fiction as Mary Stewart explains in her afterword, Arthur was a real historical figure and she based her books on him using Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written in the twelfth century and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, written in the fifteenth. Mordred, however, is probably as fictional as Lancelot.

I liked most of this book, the first part about Mordred’s early life is the best part. He grows up in the Orkneys, living with foster parents, until he is taken to the court of King Lot and his wife Queen Morgause as one of Lot’s bastard sons, unaware that Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister, is his real mother. This part of the book parallels the ending of The Last Enchantment but told from Mordred’s perspective.

All the characters from the legends are there, with the exception of Merlin – the High King Arthur, his beautiful Queen, Guinevere, his knights, Gawain and his brothers, AgravainGaheris and Gareth (Arthur’s nephews) and the sorceress, Morgause, still plotting against Arthur. Mordred is portrayed as a good person, courageous but misunderstood and controlled by his destiny:

If Merlin saw it written in the stars that you would be Arthur’s doom, then how can you escape it? There will come a day, the wicked day of destiny, when all will come to pass as he foretold. (page 240)

After a good opening third the book lost some of its appeal for me. Unlike the earlier books, The Wicked Day is narrated in the third person, which is probably why it seems less engaging to me. With the exception of the Epilogue, the passion and the magic are missing from the last part of the book which is a dry account of battles.

I wondered how Mary Stewart was going to resolve the story because in her version of it Arthur and Mordred, who is traditionally depicted as the villain, become reconciled to each other and Arthur acknowledges Mordred as his son and heir. Mordred is no villain, but not exactly a hero either. So, how come they ended up as enemies? She managed a plausible conclusion but I thought it was rather an anti-climax.

This is my third book for Carl’s Once Upon A Time VIII challenge and also qualifies for the Historical Fiction Reading challenge and the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

Added 17 May 2014:

Mary Stewart died in 10 May 2014 aged 97 – her obituary in The Telegraph describes her as an ‘author of romantic thrillers who wrote for love not money, and had an intuitive feel for the past.’

Books read in April

April was a good reading month – I finished reading 9 books, bringing my total for the year so far to 35:

  1. The Last Enchantment (Arthurian Saga 3) by Mary Stewart
  2. The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson
  3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (a re-read for book group)
  4. St Bartholomew’s Man by Mary Delorme
  5. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers (to be reviewed)
  6. The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones
  7. Black Dogs by Ian McEwan
  8. Tantalus by Jane Jazz
  9. Burial of Ghosts by Ann Cleeves (to be reviewed)

They were all good reads, although I wouldn’t have re-read The Bell Jar if it hadn’t been my book group’s choice. I can’t say that I enjoyed that one, it is so depressing, but it is well written. All bar the first one are either library books or books I’ve acquired this year – a reaction, I suppose to finishing three months of reading only books I’ve owned before 1 January 2014!

It’s been difficult this month deciding which book to choose as my Best Book of the Month as they’ve all been enjoyable in different ways.

With so many good books by both established and new authors to choose from, after much thought, my all-round Best Book of the Month for April is The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson, a remarkable novel about the Wedgwood family, their lives, loves, work, illnesses, depressions, addictions and deaths. I found it fascinating throughout, whether it was set in America during the fight for independence, or in England in Wedgwood’s factories, or his grand new house Etruria Hall, or travelling through England on the new canals.

And I should also flag up Tantalus by Jane Jazz, a love story with a difference, set in the Yorkshire moors and Tuscany. There is so much in this book that I loved – the characters, the story, the charged emotions and longing, the setting and the art.

Reading Challenges progress up to 30 April (for details of these challenges see my Challenges page):

  • Mount TBR Reading Challenge – 24 of my own unread books. My target is 48.
  • Read Scotland Challenge – 6 books. My target 13+.
  • What’s in a Name 7 – I’ve completed 5 of the 6 sections – just  a ‘book with a school subject in the title’ to read.
  • Historical Fiction Challenge – 6 books. My target is 25 books.
  • Colour Coded Challenge – 3 books. The target is to read 9 books in the different colour categories.
  • The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – 2 books. This is an open-ended challenge to read all her books. So far I have read 57.
  • My Kind of Mystery Challenge – 10 books. My target is 31+.
  • Once Upon a Time VIII challenge – 2 books, both read this month – The Last Enchantment and Tantalus, both excellent fantasy novels.

St Bartholomew’s Man by Mary Delorme

I was intrigued when I was asked if I would like to read Mary Delorme’s book St Bartholomew’s Man, about Rahere, a man who was a court jester to Henry I and who was also instrumental in the foundation of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1123. I was intrigued because it seemed an odd combination, that a jester and the founder of St Bartholomew’s should be one and the same person. And I wondered how that had come about.

It is historical fiction but as Mary Delorme clarifies in her Author’s Note it is based on fact with this proviso:

Almost nine hundred years lie between Rahere and myself; enough to blur historical facts, and leave room for doubt. Rahere is often described as a man of lowly origins, and a jester – something I find difficult to accept, bearing his mind his outstanding achievements and experiences. I therefore began my novel assuming that he was more highly born; not of the highest, but still an educated man. (Loc 26)

It seems to me that she has thoroughly researched her material, and managed to incorporate it seamlessly into her book. St Bartholomew’s Man follows the life of Rahere, from his childhood growing up as an orphan in a monastery, where he was one of the singing children, and he helped the monks in their healing work.

It is a book that left me knowing a lot more about the late 11th and early 12th centuries. It tells of the lives of ordinary people, of the monastic life and above all of the dangers and turbulence of life, moving through the oppressive reign of the irreligious William II (William Rufus), the more settled and peaceful reign of Henry I, followed by the violent conflict that ensued with the reign of Stephen and Matilda. I liked the historical setting and the detail both about healing and building methods. The plot kept me interested to read on to find out whether Rahere succeeded, despite all the suffering he endured and the challenges he had to overcome, in fulfilling his vow to build a hospital to care for the poor in London. The characterisation is good and I felt all the main characters came over as real people, who grew and developed throughout the book.

I enjoyed reading this book, which made me want to find out more about Rahere and St Bartholomew’s. St Bartholomew’s Hospital website outlines the history of the Hospital and St Bartholomew the Great’s website gives some information about the founding of the Priory church and Prior Rahere. Rahere’s tomb is in the church:

Rahere's tomb
Rahere’s Tomb (Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is Rudyard Kipling’s poem Rahere, based on the legend that Rahere founded St Bartholomew’s Hospital after suffering a bout of depression and seeing a family of lepers in a London street. I also see that Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s book The Witch’s Brat is set in the reign of Henry I and features Rahere – I’m hoping to read that one too.

My thanks to Jon Delorme for providing a copy of St Bartholomew’s Man for review, a book that entertained me and led me on to other sources of history and literature. I really want to know more about the 12th century. My knowledge is limited to schoolgirl history and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth!

The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson

Now that the TBR Triple Dog Dare has finished I am free to read anything I want. I have bought/borrowed a few books since the beginning of the year and I immediately turned to The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson, a library book I borrowed in March and fortunately I’ve been able to renew it. I had actually read the first couple of chapters, because I just couldn’t stop myself once I’d glanced at the dramatic opening paragraph, which I wrote about in a Book Beginnings post in March, but I resisted reading any more until April!

The novel begins in 1768 and roughly follows the fortunes of the Wedgwood family until 1805, 10 years after the death of Josiah Wedgwood, an English potter and the founder of the Wedgwood company. I say roughly because the narrative moves back and forth in time and place. It is a most remarkable book, which kept me wanting to read it each time I had to stop reading – it’s a long book which took me several days to read.

As Wilson explains in an Afterword the broad outlines of the story and most of the details are true, but he has altered dates and rearranged historical events and nearly all the letters are invented. It is ‘meant to be read as fiction, even thought it is intended in part, as an act of homage to one of the great men of our history.’

For me it really did convey what it must have been like to live in that period – whilst the the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, were taking place. It was a time of great change (what time isn’t?) both social and political change as the industrial revolution got under way in England. It’s full of ideas about colonialism, the abolition of slavery, working conditions, and women’s rights. It brought about small changes as well as big ones – for example, before Josiah’s time many families ate off pewter plates or wooden platters, but with his production of creamware ‘there was hardly a respectable household in the kingdom which did not eat its dinner off well-glazed delicate plates.’

Wedgwood’s fame was international and resulted in an order to supply Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia with an enormous dinner service – the Frog Service, decorated with illustrations of grand houses, scenes of country estates, parks and gardens and numerous other British landscapes. And his great creation towards the end of his life was the Portland Vase, a copy of the original cameo glass Roman vase. But Wedgwood was not only a master craftsman, he was also involved with his friends – philosophers, scientist and inventors – in the development of the canals and roads improving transportation as his factory grew and prospered .

It’s big on character (lots of them), the main ones being Josiah Wedgwood himself, ‘Owd Wooden Leg‘, his daughter Sukey, his nephew Tom Byerley, his childhood friend Caleb Bowers and Blue Squirrel, an American Cherokee Tom fell in love with in America. But there are plenty more who come in and out of the narrative along the way, both fictional and historical, including Voltaire, George Stubbs (who painted the Wedgwood family portrait) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I was particularly interested in Dr Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, with his stammer and familiar way with his lady patients (if Wilson’s depiction is true to life) and his ideas on creation and evolution.

Overall it is the story of a remarkable family, their lives, loves, work, illnesses, depressions, addictions and deaths. I found it fascinating throughout, whether it was set in America during the fight for independence, or in England in Wedgwood’s factories, or his grand new house Etruria Hall, or travelling through England on the new canals.

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, so I was immediately interested to read that the shortlist for the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been announced. The Prize honours the achievements and legacy of Sir Walter Scott, the founding father of the historical novel and the winner will be announced at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland, on 13 June.

To qualify, books must be by authors from the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth.

The shortlist is:

  • LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson
  • THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
  • HARVEST by Jim Crace
  • FAIR HELEN by Andrew Greig
  • AN OFFICER AND A SPY by Robert Harris
  • THE PROMISE by Ann Weisgarber

Life After Life (which won the Costa Novel Award) is the only one of these books that I have, but I fancy reading some of the others, such as Luminaries, which won the Man Booker Prize and Fair Helen set in the Borders in the 1590s, based on a Border Ballad and legend often called ‘the Scottish Romeo and Juliet’. And I’ll certainly take at least a look at the others before June.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Magic is the door through which mortal man may sometimes step, to find the gates in the hollow hills, and let himself through into the halls of the other world. (The Last Enchantment, page 121)

I love books that take me away to another time and place – The Last Enchantment (1979) by Mary Stewart is just such a book, magically whisking me back to the time of King Arthur and Merlin. This is not a book to read quickly, but a book to savour both for the story and for Mary Stewart’s descriptive writing.

I’ve been fascinated with the legend of King Arthur from childhood, the tales of the Sword in the Stone, the Knights of the Round Table, the Lady of the Lake, and of Merlin and so on. The Last Enchantment is the third book of the Arthurian Saga, a book of myth and legend and about the conflict between good and evil.

The narrator is Merlin and this book is set after Arthur has become the High King of Brtian, he has drawn the sword, Caliburn (Excaliber) from the stone and he is now plunged into battle against the Saxons , whilst Merlin is in a battle of a different kind, against Arthur’s half-sister, Morgause, the rose-gold witch. Merlin is now getting older and although he is losing his powers, they have not totally deserted him.

In fact this is a story of power, peopled by many richly depicted characters from Bedwyr, Arthur’s companion, who takes the place of Lancelot in this book, to Nimue (Niniane, Vivien), Merlin’s pupil who Merlin initiates into his magic powers. There is the story of Mordred’s birth (his mother Morgause had seduced Arthur), of Guinevere and her rape by King Melwas, and Merlin’s illness and recovery in the wild forest, and his incarceration in the Crystal Cave.

Above all, it is about Merlin and his relationship with Arthur and towards the end of the book with Niniane. As it narrated through Merlin’s eyes the battles that followed Arthur’s acsension are not the main focus of the book. He travels around the country and there is a helpful map on the endpapers of my hardback copy showing the routes he took and the places he visited.

Last Enchantment map 001
Click to see enlarged map

(I spent quite some time studying the map and working out what the places are called today.)

Merlin’s travels took him to numerous places including Dunpeldyr in the north-east, possibly on the site of the hill-fort on the present day Traprain Law, not far from Haddington and Dunbar, now in Scotland, then part of Northumbria; Caerleon (now the northern outskirts of Newport in South Wales); Galava (near present day Ambleside in the Lake District; and Vindolanda on the Great Wall of the Emperor Hadrian, where he visits his friend Blaise, to name but a few. It tells of how Merlin built Camelot on the hill then known as Caer Camel (caer is Welsh for fort or castle), a fictional place on a flat topped hill, not far from the sea and the Lake with its Isle of Glass.

Many years ago I read the first two books, The Crystal Cave (1970), about Merlin’s early days and The Hollow Hills (1973), in which Arthur learns who he is and becomes King.  I’d borrowed the books from the library, but never read the third book, so I was really happy when I found it in a library sale a few years ago for just 10p. I can’t think why I’ve not read it until this year, just too many other books clamouring to be read all at once, I expect.

Mary Stewart was born Mary Rainbow in January 1916 in County Durham. She currently lives in Scotland. On Goodreads I found this video of an interview with Mary Stewart in 1992 in which she talks about her writing and another interview with her in 1999, published by the University of Rochester. There are 2 other books following on from the Merlin TrilogyThe Wicked Da(1983), in which Mordred is the main character and The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995).

This historical fantasy is a perfect book not only for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, but also the Once Upon a Time Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and because Mary Stewart lived in Scotland the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge too.

New-To-Me Books

Just eleven days left to go before the end of March and the end of the TBR Triple Dog DareThe basic idea of the Triple Dog Dare is to spend the first three months of the year cleaning house by reading only books in your TBR stack as of midnight, Dec. 31 and with a few allowed exceptions I’m still on track. But I’ve downloaded books onto Kindle and got some books from Barter Books over these last three months and I’m really looking forward to reading them from April onwards. I wrote about some of them in an earlier post.

Here are some more of the ‘physical’ books I have waiting not-so-patiently to be read:

Sweet Thursday P1090384

  •  Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck – because I loved Cannery Row and this is the follow-up story. ‘Set in Monterey, on the California Coast, Sweet Thursday is what they call the day after Lousy Wednesday, which is one of those days that’s just naturally bad.’ I was really pleased to find this on the shelves at Barter Books – it just jumped out at me.
  • The Last Girl by Jane Casey – because I’ve read good things about her books, crime fiction of the thrilling kind. It’ll probably be a while before I read this book as I haven’t read the first in the Maeve Kerrigan series and this one is the third.
  • A Medal for a Murderer by Frances Brody – because I enjoyed the first Kate Shackleton mystery, Dying in the Wool. This is the second in the series, set in the 1920s in Harrogate where the leading lady in a play at the theatre is found dead in a doorway.
  • The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick – because I’ve read two of the earlier Father Anselm books and enjoyed them. In this one Anselm investigates events in Eastern Europe in the grip of the Cold War.

The books on Kindle include these:

Books on Kindle P1090385The one I’m most interested in is The King in the North: the Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams – because it’s history of the area where I live, set in the 7th century about Oswald, a prince of the Northumbrian royal house. He reigned briefly, from 634 – 642, but during that time he re-united and re-Christianized the North-East; forged a hybrid culture of Briton, Irish, Scot and Anglo-Saxon; and founded a monastery on Lindisfarne. He was the first British king to die a Christian martyr. Max Adams is a biographer, archaeologist,  traveller and writing coach who lives in North-east England.

I think I’ll be reading this book very soon!

The King’s Evil by Edward Marston

I’m still reading from my own unread books and turned to The King’s Evil for some historical crime fiction. It’s the first in Edward Marston’s Restoration series, featuring Christopher Redmayne, an architect and Jonathan Bale, a parish constable.

The King’s Evil is set in London in September 1666, just as the Great Fire of London has begun, eventually devastating a large part of the old medieval City of London. I liked Marston’s description of the fire, conjuring up the sights and sounds, the fear and panic it caused and the efforts to stop its spread – although I’m sure they didn’t use ‘dynamite’ to blow up houses to create a fire break. Anyway this anachronism didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this book.

Redmayne, a Royalist – a supporter of the Court and King Charles II – has designed a new house for Sir Ambrose Northcott and Bale is a Puritan who views Charles with great disapproval and is wondering if the fire is a consequence of the corruption in society as a result of the Restoration of the Crown:

England was once more ruled by a Stuart king. A monarchy which Jonathan had been pleased to see ended was now emphatically restored. As a result, London was indeed a wicked city and nobody was better placed to see the extent of its depravity than someone who patrolled the streets in the office of constable. Jonathan was a God-fearing man who always sought guidance from above and he was bound to wonder if the conflagration really was a sign of divine anger. There were Biblical precedents of cities being punished for their corruption. (page 26)

The two men are brought together with the discovery of Sir Ambrose’s dead body in the cellars of his partly built new house. It’s a good story with some interesting characters, including Jesus-Died-To-Save-Me Thorpe and Redmayne’s older brother Henry, elegant, fashionable and a dissipated rake, who had introduced Christopher to Sir Ambrose. But it’s the setting in time and place that interested me most – the period when Christopher Wren was the leading architect in rebuilding London – the bustle and energy of the times and the lingering conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians.

The mystery of who killed Sir Ambrose moves along swiftly, with a few surprises along the way, as you would expect, but nothing too surprising. Redmayne travels to Sir Ambrose’s country house, Priestfield Place in Shipbourne, Kent and crosses the Chanel to Paris following the trail of the killer. It’s the ending of the book that let it down somewhat for me – it’s all a bit rushed and abrupt, but overall I enjoyed it and will read more in the series.

Edward Marston, who also writes under the name of Keith Miles, is a prolific author. He is a former chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association. He has several series of books, listed on his website and also on Fantastic Fiction.

The King’s Evil fits into several challenges I’m doing – The Mount TBR Reading Challenge, TBR Triple Dog Dare,the Historical Fiction Challenge, My Kind of Mystery Challenge and What’s in a Name (royalty category).

Book Beginnings: The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson

Whilst I’ve been reading from my own book shelves this year so far, I’ve accumulated a pile of library books that are tempting me away from them. One of these books is The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson.

It begins:

The unoiled hinge joined its melancholy whine to the opium-dosed whimper of the patient who st gagged in his chair, and to the swift rasping of the saw. The door creaked ajar in the very moment that the doctor sawed off the leg of Sukey’s pa.

Such a dramatic opening that immediately grabbed my attention, conjuring up such a vivid picture complete with sound effects! The year is 1768. Sukey (Susannah), who later became the mother of Charles Darwin, was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood,  an English potter and founder of the Wedgwood company.

The Potter’s Hand is a novel about Josiah Wedgwood and his family. Wilson explains in an Afterword that the broad outlines of the story and most of the details are true, but he has altered dates and rearranged historical events and nearly all the letters are invented. It is ‘meant to be read as fiction, even thought it is intended in part, as an act of homage to one of the great men of our history.’

I’ve read the first two chapters and think I’ll have to read on soon, after I’ve finished Death Under Sail by C P Snow, a crime fiction novel, if not sooner.

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Gilion at Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday, where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Book Beginnings – The Flower Book

Yesterday I finished reading Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I thought was an amazing book that kept me captivated even though it’s a challenging book to read because of its subject matter. I’ll write more about that in a later post.

It has left me with the usual problem of deciding what to read next and I’ve picked up and started so many books, none of which seem good enough after Purple Hibiscus. I’ve been reading from my own bookshelves this year, but I’m thinking of having a little break from that and reading a library book. It’s one I picked off the mobile library van, not knowing anything about it or about the author, Catherine Law – The Flower Book. It’s set in 1914 and also in 1936.

It begins in Cornwall in March 1914:

On certain nights if the wind was right, you could hear the sea from Old Trellick. So the legend has it, although Violet had never heard the waves and her parents would not try, due to the fact, she decided, that they had no imagination.

As a child she’d stand at the French windows and implore them to be quiet, to stop what they were doing and to concentrate with her, to catch this magical and elusive sound.

Every Friday Gilion at Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday, where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I like the images the beginning of this book conjures and also the sounds. I always like the sight and sound of the waves breaking on the shore; to me too that has a certain magic. So this appealed to me straight away. Couple that with a story set against the backdrop of World War I as Aster Fairling searches for the truth behind her parents’ tragic love through the pages of her mother journal and I want to know more.

The Flower Book is Catherine Law’s third book.

Crucible by S G MacLean

Once again I was transported back to 17th century Scotland with Crucible by S G Maclean, the third of her Alexander Seaton books. I read the first, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton in February 2013 and now a year later I’ve been just as engrossed in Crucible. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions and it’s just full of atmosphere. I loved it.

It’s set in 1631 in Aberdeen, where Alexander is now a Master at Marischal College. On Midsummer’s eve he stumbles across the body of his friend, Robert Sim, the college librarian, a few feet from the library steps, with his throat cut, blood congealing around the wound. Dr Dun, the college principal asks Alexander to investigate the matter, to look into Robert’s private life, hoping he’ll find nothing to reflect badly on the college.

I found it absolutely compelling reading. Robert had been cataloguing a new acquisition to the library before he was killed and Alexander is convinced that Robert was troubled by what he found there, amongst the books of history, alchemy  and hermetics – the quest for ‘a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients’ since lost to us. There are many twists and turns and another man is killed before he finally arrives at the truth.

This is the third book in the series, but although I haven’t read the second book, I don’t think that matters as I think Crucible stands well on its own. The fourth book in the series is The Devil’s Recruit – the hardback and Kindle versions are available now, whilst the paperback will be available on 14 May. Now I’ve lifted my book buying ban I think I may just have to get the Kindle version soon.

Crucible qualifies for four of the challenges I’m doing this year – the Mount TBR challenge, the Historical Fiction Challenge, My Kind of Mystery Challenge and the Read Scotland Challenge.

Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody

After I finished reading The Grass is Singing (see my previous post) I felt I needed to read something lighter and easier, so I turned to Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody and it turned out to be just the right book – not too taxing on either the brain or the emotions and a rather interesting mystery too.

It’s the first of Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton Mysteries set in Yorkshire in 1922, with flashbacks to 1916. Bridgestead is a peaceful mill village, until the day in 1916 when mill owner Joshua Braithwaite went missing after apparently trying to commit suicide. Seven years later his daughter, Tabitha, who is getting married, still can’t believe her father is dead and she asks her friend Kate Shackleton to find out what really happened to him.

This is another post World War 1 crime novel, along the lines of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple books, with an independent female amateur detective. Kate is a widow, her husband was missing in action during the war, presumed dead, her father is a police superintendent and she is a keen amateur photographer. On her father’s recommendation she hires Jim Sykes, an ex-policeman to help her. Once they start asking questions things start to happen with disastrous effects.

I liked the characters, Kate and Jim in particular, and the setting is lovely. The novel is well grounded historically in the aftermath of the First World War. I also liked the way the chapter headings were textile related with an explanation of the terms used and relevant to the events described in the chapters – very skilfully done, I thought. And just like woven cloth this mystery has many separate strands that Kate and Jim have to bring together to reveal what had happened in 1916.

This book fits well into several challenges – see the categories listed above.

Other books in the Kate Shackleton series are:

2. A Medal For Murder (2010)
3. Murder in the Afternoon (2011)
4. A Woman Unknown (2012)
5. Murder on a Summer’s Day (2013)
6. Death of an Avid Reader (2014)

First Chapter: The Observations

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is a book I’ll be reading soon. It’s The Observations by Jane Harris and Chapter 1 ‘I Find a New Place‘ begins:

I had reason to leave Glasgow, this would have been about three or four years ago, and I had been on the Great Road about five hours when I seen a track to the left and a sign that said ‘Castle Haivers’. Now there’s a coincidence I thought to myself, because here I was on my way across Scratchland to have a look at Edinburgh castle and perhaps get a job there and who knows marry a young nobleman or prince. I was only 15 with a head full of sugar and I had a notion to work in a grand establishment.

Jane Harris was born in Belfast and grew up in Scotland before moving to England in her 20s.  The Observations, her first book is set in Scotland in 1863. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in 2009. Her second novel Gillespie and I, which I read just over two years ago, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards in 2011 and the Scottish Book Awards in 2012.

I enjoyed Gillespie and I, a book that lingered in my mind long after I’d finished reading it, so I’m hoping I’ll have a similar reaction to this book.

Cloud Atlas: The Book and The Movie

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell:

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation — the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small. (Copied from David Mitchell’s website.)

Over the Christmas period we watched the movie, Cloud Atlas and I was surprised at how good I thought it was. In the past I have not appreciated movies based on books, but as I hadn’t read the book (despite beginning it several times) I wasn’t influenced by it and could watch the movie with a completely open mind. It is fantastic – a kaleidoscope of visual delights, the scenery, the settings and the costumes are blazes of colour and drama. It made me want to read the book because some of the dialogue was difficult to follow – words spoken quickly and not clearly and in a sort of abbreviated English (we put the subtitles on!) and there are many changes of scene and storylines as the movie switches backwards and forwards between the six stories, sometimes only showing short scenes.

So after watching the movie I read the book.  Cloud Atlas covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It is an amazing creation (‘amazing‘ is a very overused word, but in this instance very apt), at times confusing and at times brilliant. I think seeing the movie first was for me the best way to enjoy it. Where the dialogue and plot were confusing in the movie they were clearer in the book – where each separate story is dealt with in much more detail and I could read the dialogue in the post-apocalyptic episodes slowly and take it in more easily.

But the movie really brought the whole thing alive for me and captured my imagination. I think the book is over-long, at times I began to count the pages of each section wanting it to finish – it’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

The main difference between the book and the movie is the structure – the book sets out each story in some detail, whereas the movie streamlines each one and moves quickly between them at times overlapping the dialogue. The beginning and the ending are different, with scenes in the movie that are not in the book. The actors play several roles, which actually helps identify their characters and some of the characters in the book don’t appear in the movie. So, really the book and the movie are two different creations – that complement each other.

Cloud Atlas is about good and evil, about truth and greed – for power and money – and love; it’s about freedom and slavery, about the value of the individual; and about morality and evolution, civilisation and savagery. It’s a powerful book and if it wasn’t so long I’d read it again!

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

On The Black Hill (Vintage classics) by…

Synopsis (from the Vintage Books website):

On the Black Hill is an elegantly written tale of identical twin brothers who grow up on a farm in rural Wales and never leave home. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed, touched only occasionally by the advances of the 20th century. In depicting the lives of Benjamin and Lewis and their interactions with their small local community Chatwin comments movingly on the larger questions of human experience. 

The book was awarded the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award.

I quoted the opening paragraphs in a Book Beginnings post back in 2011, when I first bought this book, but I think it’s worth repeating them here as they are typical of the style of the book:

For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as ‘The Vision’.

The bedstead, an oak four-poster, came from their mother’s home at Bryn-Draenog when she married in 1899. Its faded cretonne hangings, printed with a design of larkspur and roses shut out the mosquitoes of summer, and the draughts in winter. Calloused heels had worn holes in the linen sheets, and parts of the patchwork quilt had frayed. Under the goose-feather mattress, there was a second mattress, of horsehair, and this had sunk into two troughs, leaving a ridge between the sleepers. (page (9)

I love this book with its rich descriptions of both the landscape and the characters on the border between England and Wales. It follows the lives of identical twins, Lewis and Benjamin Jones on a farm, barely touched by the 20th century, a period of over 80 years. They are inseparable, Benjamin in particular suffering whenever they are apart. Their lives are hard, lonely, brutal at times, but full of love for their mother and the land they farm.

Most of all I love they way Chatwin brings the characters to life, not just Lewis and Benjamin, but all the other personalities, some eccentric, some comic and some tragic. His attention to detail is remarkable – at no time does it seem excessive, or intrusive but all the little minutiae of daily life are essential to the book. At the same time Chatwin highlights questions of love, religion, death and above all relationships. It is most definitely not a book to race through to find out what happens, although I did want to know, but one to savour – and one to re-read.

2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Historical Tapestry will be hosting the challenge again next year. The challenge runs from Historical Fiction 20141 January to 31 December 2014 and you can choose from the following levels:

20th century reader – 2 books
Victorian reader – 5 books
Renaissance Reader – 10 books
Medieval – 15 books
Ancient History – 25 books
Prehistoric – 50+ books

I’ve been thinking about the definition of ‘historical fiction’. It’s not as straight forward as it seems – a historical novel is obviously one set in the past. But have far back in the past? Does it have to have been written by someone who did not live through the events described?

I’ve been a bit unsure sometimes whether a book is actually historical fiction, for example yesterday, 5 years ago, 10, 20 years ago are all in the past, but are books set so recently ‘historical fiction’? I don’t think so. So to make it clear for myself I have decided that next year I will be using the Historical Novel Society’s definition:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

We also consider the following styles of novel to be historical fiction for our purposes: alternate histories (e.g. Robert Harris’ Fatherland), pseudo-histories (eg. Umberto Eco’sIsland of the Day Before), time-slip novels (e.g. Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay), historical fantasies (eg. Bernard Cornwell’s King Arthur trilogy) and multiple-time novels (e.g. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours).

I will be aiming for Ancient History (25 books) again but will see how close I can get to the Prehistoric level!

Gone With the Wind: Historical Fiction

Gone with the wind 001In a previous post on Gone With the Wind I wrote that I had learned a lot about the American Civil War and Reconstruction, about slavery (very different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and a lot about Georgia and Atlanta. In the comments Jane pointed out, quite correctly, that the book ‘shouldn’t be taken as history, but as reflective of a very strong point-of-view of American history, circa 1930.’

I hadn’t meant that I was taking GWTW as historical fact, but that it had led me to wanting to know more about the period and in that respect it had opened up new areas for me. For example, I’d never heard of ‘Reconstruction’ before in the sense of what happened to the southern states following the Civil War and I knew next to nothing about the causes of the war, other than the fact that the southern states wanted to leave the Union, that they wanted to be an independent nation. I was in no doubt, however, that the book is a novel – historical fiction, not historical fact.

All written history is a selection of facts and involves to a greater or lesser extent an interpretation of those facts. Its accuracy depends on the sources used, and in turn those sources inevitably are subject to perspective and bias. Similarly, historical fiction can throw light on the past; it can flesh out the facts, bringing the past to life – and it can be subject to the bias and opinions of the author.

I was fascinated to read that Margaret Mitchell, who was born in Atlanta in 1900 grew up listening to the war stories of Confederate veterans and yet she didn’t know until she was ten years old that the South had lost the war!

Margaret Mitchell was writing from a Southerner’s perspective, but that does not mean that her book is any the less invalid. She presents the Civil War period and its aftermath as seen through southern eyes and basically it is the story as seen through the women’s eyes. There is little about the actual battles, but this is still a war novel, even though it’s set mostly in the homes of the characters – in Tara, and in Atlanta. It depicts the hardships and suffering of the civilian population as well as the wounded soldiers, their grief and desolation and the devastating effect on the land and townships. You can see Atlanta going up in flames, the devastation of the countryside as the railroads and plantations were destroyed, and feel the hunger as the people starved.

Then there is the question of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, both essential elements in the novel. The depiction of slaves divides them into two categories – house slaves and field hands, raising racial issues and the different attitudes between the North and the South towards the slaves. The plantation owners are portrayed as viewing their slaves, in particular the house slaves, as part of their family, protecting them and caring for them, treating them as children and of lower intelligence, and the slaves responded with loyalty to their owners. Again this is one perspective on the past, one that is at variance that of the northern states – clearly indicated in the novel. There are several references in Gone With the Wind to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Margaret Mitchell contradicts Harriet Beecher Stowe’s scene of bloodhounds chasing runaway slaves. Similarly the view she gives of the Ku Klux Clan is not what I expected. This led me to want to know more about the history of slavery in America and I turned to the one book I own, specifically on American history – Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America by Carl N Degler to find out more.

This is one of the things  I like about reading historical fiction – as well as giving me a glimpse into the past, showing me areas of history I know little or nothing about, bearing in mind that there is always more than one side to a story. And I really need to do more research into these matters.

Julius by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was one of the first adult books that I remember reading and it has remained a favourite ever since I first read it. It led me on to read more of her books and in my teens and twenties I read and re-read Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, The Scapegoat, Mary Anne and The King’s General. They were the type of books that I loved.

Later on I discovered that she had written many more books and I’ve gradually been reading them, but, with perhaps the exception of My Cousin Rachel, they have not had the same magic quality that had kept me enthralled in the past. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began reading Julius, her third book written when she was twenty-six. It may lack that magic quality of her later books, but it is still compelling and disturbing reading, rich in detail and characterisation.

Julius (originally published in 1933 as The Progress of Julius) is the life story of a ruthless man, driven by his lust for power, and his dedication to getting ‘something for nothing’. It’s a chilling tale about a man whose love for his daughter brings about his ruin.

But that is jumping ahead in the story. It begins with his birth in Paris in 1860. Julius Levy grows up in a peasant family in a village on the banks of the Seine and caught up in the Franco-Prussian War, he escapes to Algeria, where he learns to swindle and manipulate. He moves on to London, all the time scheming and making money, getting richer, regardless of who he hurt, or indeed of whose death he caused as he built up his empire of cafés and married Rachel, the daughter of a diamond merchant.

It’s a dramatic story covering the years 1860 -1932, as the old century ended and the new one began:

Now came the close of the century and the death of the Queen followed by peace in South Africa, and these things also served as a milestone in the life of Julius Lévy. They marked the end of an era  showing him the path to greater prosperity than he had as yet achieved. It was the beginning of a new age – the age of progress and speed and efficiency that he had long foreseen and the dawn of mechanism in all things, electricity, motor-cars and soon flying-machines in the air. The spirit abroad was one he understood, the demon of restlessness unsatisfied stretching hungry fingers to the skies in a superhuman effort to conquer insatiable hunger, a spirit of rapacity and greed and excitement burning like a living flame. (page 195)

Julius is half-Jewish and the book veers on anti-Semitism, indeed in later years Daphne du Maurier considered excising those elements from the novel. But that would have meant the novel would have lacked depth as it is his Jewishness that lifts him from being a complete monster. As a mixed-up, lonely child he found in the temple that he was among his own people, and the music took hold of his heart, giving him peace. It is his tragedy that he lost that peace and struggled throughout the rest of his life trying to re-capture it.

His love for his daughter, Gabriel overwhelms him, but it is a possessive, suffocating love that leads him to extremes. His inability to love without the need to possess and control is shown early on in the book when forced to leave home and unable to take his cat he ties a stone around her neck and throws her in the Seine, rather than leave her to fend for herself or for someone else to take care of her. That made me shudder, but it is little compared to how he treated people.

I’ve read that Du Maurier based the character of Julius on that of her father, Gerald, that the possessiveness, the emotional demands and the sentiments Julius expresses were Gerald’s, and the words Gabriel speaks were her own thoughts. (Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster page 84)

At times melodramatic, this is a powerful novel, of a deprived, starving child who sold rats on the streets of Paris, and who dragged himself up from poverty and obscurity to become a man of  wealth and status and a cold-blooded sadist and murderer. I wrote about the beginning  of the book in an earlier post, describing how as a baby he was reaching for things beyond his grasp. The book ends as it began with Julius still reaching for the clouds:

He cried to them and they did not come. They passed away from him as though they had never been, indifferent and aloof, like wreaths of smoke they were carried away by the wind, born of nothing, dissolving into nothing, a momentary breath that vanished in the air. (page 308)

Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts

Gone with the wind 001Yesterday I finished reading Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece, Gone With The Wind. I loved it. When I started it I decided that I wouldn’t take any notes as I read and neither would I mark any passages. I just wanted the pure reading experience, reading to get immersed in the story and Margaret Mitchell was a superb storyteller. There are parts full of description that enabled me to see the scenes and parts where I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to discover what happened next, or how the characters would behave. It was a grand experience, and not just a reading experience but a learning experience too.

I saw the 1939 film many, many years ago and my memories of it are vague, not much beyond its setting, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, and a few quotes: ‘Tomorrow is another day’ and Frankly, my dear I don’t give a damn’ – this is actually a misquote from the book – Rhett says ‘lightly but softly: ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’

 My knowledge of American history is quite limited, so I learnt a lot about the American Civil War and Reconstruction, about slavery (very different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and a lot about Georgia and Atlanta – I couldn’t even have placed them on a map before!!!

I liked the structure of the novel – straightforward chronological sequence told in the third person.

The characters are well-defined and are developed as the book progresses. Even the minor characters are distinct and I had no trouble identifying them. But the main characters are magnificent: Scarlett O’Hara, wilful, spirited, supremely self-centred and single-minded, a cheat and liar, but also charming, brave and fearless, as her character develops from a frivolous flirt to a much darker personality. She is obsessed by her infatuation for Ashley Wilkes, by her need for money and her desperate desire never to be hungry ever again. I swung between not liking her, admiring her courage, then thoroughly disliking the person she became and willing her to change – she didn’t of course.

Rhett Butler, black-hearted, flashy, a speculator, blockade runner and scallawag, who scandalises Atlanta, is the anti-hero who is gradually revealed as a hero, a tender-hearted, over-indulgent father, who really does love Scarlett, even though he can’t tell her. He’s a much more complicated character than Scarlett who understands human nature much better than Scarlett, seeing both the goodness and strength in Melanie Hamilton (Scarlett’s sister-in-law and Ashley’s wife).

There is so much to write about this book, (and I’m thinking of writing at least one more post about it) but for now I’m ending with these words from Margaret Mitchell when she was asked what Gone With The Wind was about:

… if the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors  used to call that quality ‘gumption’. So I wrote about people who had gumption and those who didn’t. (1936) (About the Author)

Books Read in October

October was a good reading month for me. I read 11 books, which were a mixed bag of different genres, but all fiction this month, with two books from my to-be-read shelves. I’ve already written about some of the books (the links are to my posts):

1.The Shining by Stephen King (Kindle)

2.Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie

3. Over My Dead Body by Hazel McHaffie

4. The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin

5. The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (library book)

6. A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (a book from my to-be-read shelves)

When I started this blog I wanted to write something about each book I read. I’ve never managed to do that and now I’ve decided that there are some books I don’t want to write about at all and for some I just want to write a few words. That’s not because I didn’t enjoy the books but simply because sometimes I just want to read and then go on to another book.

These are the books without posts (with links to Amazon UK):

6.Once Upon a Castle by Alan S Blood (Kindle, LibraryThing Early Reviewers) – a story about children evacuated to Northumberland during World War II, this had so much potential and it just wasn’t achieved. It is basically a series of short stories and I thought there were too many episodes packed into it. It needs more detail and development to be convincing. It’s unevenly paced, as though the author didn’t know how to finish it and rushed the ending. The supernatural elements come across as confusing rather than mysterious or spooky.

5. The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate – I liked this novel, which chronicles the events of one day at a shooting party on an Oxfordshire country estate. There is a great sense of foreboding right from the start with the statement: ‘It was an error of judgment which resulted in a death. It took place in the autumn before the outbreak of what used to be known as the Great War.’ Although I could see how this was foreshadowing the slaughter of the First World War, for me it was the knowledge that a death was going to take place, right from the opening paragraphs, that was uppermost. I kept wondering who was going to die, what was the error of judgment, who was going to do the killing. I was surprised.

I did think it was rather too slow, too drawn out in parts but that maybe because I’m used to much faster paced books. I also had to keep reminding myself of the characters – their relationships to each other and at times I got confused and had to back track.

But its main attraction for me was the focus on a society that was soon to be destroyed by the devastation wrought by the First World War. Isabel Colegate writes beautifully depicting the class structure of the times, the rich aristocrats and their servants, ‘the stranglehold of the rich on the life-blood of the working man‘, ideas about manliness, the realization that civilisation as they knew it was coming to an end, contrasting it to a vision of England that had not existed even then for many years:

Doesn’t England mean a village green, and smoke rising from cottage chimneys, and the rooks cawing in the elms, and the squire and the vicar and the schoolmaster and the jolly villagers and their rosy-cheeked children? (page 100)

7. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (a re-read). I really like this book – a portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess.

8. Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths (library book) – This is the fifth of her Ruth Galloway books. Ruth travels from her home in Norfolk up to the north of England – Lancashire, to be precise Blackpool, Lytham, Pendle, Preston and Fleetwood – because Dan Golding a friend from university has died in a house fire. He had written to her just before his death with news of an amazing find. It turns out that Dan was murdered and Ruth and Inspector Harry Nelson are instrumental in discovering the truth. It’s yet another book I’ve read about the whereabouts of King Arthur’s Bones – this time it seems he’s the Raven King. A satisfying if undemanding read.

11. Mrs Harris goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico (a book from my to-be-read shelves). This is a lovely little book. Mrs Harris is a London char lady who wins a trip to Moscow, where she wants to find her employer’s long-lost love. Mayhem ensues when she is thought to be Lady Char (the Russians not understanding what a ‘char lady’ is had converted it to ‘Lady Char’) and also a spy.

I sometimes borrow books and after reading the first few pages return them without reading any more, with no qualms. But it is very rare that I return a book unfinished after reading just over a quarter of it. That is just what I did with The Assassin’s Prayer by Ariana Franklin. I thought it was repeating much the same sort of scenarios (albeit in different locations) than her earlier books and I got fed up – so back it went.

First Chapter First Paragraph: Julius

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Julius by Daphne du Maurier. The first chapter is called Childhood (1860-1872). It begins:

 His first instinct was to stretch out his hands to the sky. The white clouds seemed so near to him, surely they were easy to hold and to caress, strange-moving, things belonging to the wide blue space of heaven.

They floated just above his head, they almost brushed his eyelids as they passed, and he only had to grasp the long curling fringe of them with his fingers and they would belong to him instead, becoming part of him for ever. Something in him whispered that he must clutch at the clouds and bring them down from the sky. So he held out his hands to them and they did not come. He cried out to them and they did not come. They passed away from him as though they had never been, indifferent and aloof; like wreaths of white smoke they were carried away by the wind, born of nothing, dissolving into nothing, a momentary breath that vanished in the air.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

I did and I’m finding it quite captivating. The ‘he’ in these first two paragraphs is Julius and right from his birth you can see him reaching out for things beyond his grasp.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

I’d included My Antonia on my Classics Club list of books to read because I’d enjoyed reading A Lost Lady a few years ago (my post on that book is here). So when it popped up in the Classics Club Spin as the book to read in August/September I was pleased.

I liked it, but not as much as A Lost Lady. I think it’s because it’s a bit fragmented, made up of  a series of short stories. But it’s beautifully written with vivid descriptions of people and places. Published in 1918 it’s set in America at the beginning of the 20th century – the story of immigrant settlers and in particular that of Antonia Shimerda and her family as told by Jim Burden. Jim and Antonia meet as children, when he had come to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. Antonia’s family is from Bohemia, speaking very little English and living in a sort of shed, little more than a cave. They spend a lot of time together as Jim teaches Antonia to speak English.

Jim recounts various episodes as they grow up together. Gradually they drift apart and lose contact, as Jim left for college eventually becoming a lawyer, whilst Antonia stayed in Nebraska. They meet again years later. It’s a story of hardship and suffering, of poverty, people struggling to make a living from the land, and of the attitudes towards immigrants, women and children. It’s also about being an outsider and the importance of belonging, which makes it most poignant that to her father Antonia is ‘My Antonia’.

But the thing that stands out for me is the beauty of Cather’s descriptions of the countryside and as I read I highlighted many passages – this for example:

Presently we saw a curious thing: there were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles the tongue, the share black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie. (page 186)

But it’s not just descriptive, it conveys the timelessness of human nature, of how people interact and think, their prejudices, unreliability and of their love for each other. I was struck by this definition of happiness:

I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep. (page 11)

Yet this is a sad book, full of nostalgia and poignancy. There’s such a contrast between the hardness of the life of the settlers and the loving gentle family life that Jim’s grandparents provide for him and their generosity towards their neighbours. Overall, though it is the character of Antonia that caught my attention and in the episodes that weren’t about her I lost interest somewhat. So, a mixed reaction – there are parts that I thought were outstanding and parts that left me rather unsatisfied.

Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin

As soon as I’d finished reading The Death Maze I began Ariana Franklin’s third book in her Mistress of the Art of Death series, Relics of the Dead. Now this one was more to my liking and I enjoyed it very much.

The date is 1176, the setting is Glastonbury where the monks, after a fire had destroyed their monastery, discovered two skeletons buried in their graveyard. The question is  – are these the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere? The problem is that Henry II needs evidence that they are not – that the legendary Arthur is indeed dead and not the ‘Once and Future King’, sleeping but waiting for the right time to lead the belligerent Welsh against him. Henry’s solution is to send Adelia Aguilar, the anatomist, to examine the bones for evidence, preferably to establish that no one can say that the bones are not that of Arthur and his queen. Given that this is the 12th century and the technology wasn’t there to prove the age and identity of the bones, Adelia assisted by Mansur, does a pretty good job in her investigation, despite attempts on her life.

Where Relics of the Dead stands out is in the depiction of Glastonbury, a mysterious, spiritual place, ‘one of the world’s sacred centres, a place where the division between man and God was thinner than anywhere else‘, a place where ‘there was a special magnetism that pulled people to worship a presence her long before Christ had set foot on his native heath.’ But Adelia, that down-to-earth, practical woman couldn’t feel it – for her all mysteries had to have an explanation. And she was determined to find it.

I’ve always liked the stories about King Arthur and the beliefs about his life and death, about Excalibur (which does feature in this book), about Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot,  and the Holy Grail (which do not). As well as a strong sense of place and atmosphere the characters are well-drawn and believable, even if some aspects of the plot required quite a hefty suspension of disbelief (which I managed easily enough).

Similarly I wasn’t bothered by Franklin’s use of modern language – in her Author’s Note, she had noted that she was sometimes criticised for making her characters use modern language and explained that ‘in 12th century England the common people spoke a form of English even less comprehensible than Chaucer’s in the 14th, the nobility spoke Norman French and the clergy Latin. Since people then sounded contemporary to each other, and since I hate the use of what I call ‘Gadzooks’ in historical novels to denote a past age, I insist on making them sound contemporary to us.’ If she had used such ‘gadzooks’ language I don’t think I’d have got very far into the book. And, it didn’t occur to me that her dialogue was anachronistic.

Franklin also used a lot of terms common to the age, such as ‘Mort d’Ancestor’, which she did explain within the text, so that that too did not bother me. In fact I liked it, I think it added to the atmosphere and I did enjoy looking up such terms for more information in a book I used to use a lot when I worked in a local archive repository – The Local Historian’s Encyclopedia by John Richardson, a fascinating book.

Ariana Franklin was the pseudonym of Diana Norman. She died in 2011. The last book in the series is The Assassin’s Prayer (published as Murderous Procession in the US), continuing Adelia’s story.

The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin

Normal service has been resumed – thankfully!! – I’m back to writing on this blog thanks to my son.

It seems quite a while since I finished reading Ariana Franklin’s The Death Maze (published as The Serpent’s Tale in the US), so these are just a few thoughts about the book.

Back in 2007 I’d really enjoyed her first book, Mistress of the Art of Death (which I wrote about here) and I was eager to read the next book about Adelia Aguilar, the 12th century anatomist employed by Henry II. But I was a bit put off by reports that The Death Maze was not as good, and other books grabbed my attention. Time passed, the third book came out – Relics of the Dead – and curiosity got the better of me so I bought both books, and eventually I got round to reading them – one after the other.

Yes, The Death Maze does not live up to the first book for me, but it’s still enjoyable. Rosamund Clifford, Henry II’s mistress has been poisoned, allegedly by Eleanor of Aquitane, Henry’s wife. Adelia is summoned to investigate her death. So, she sets off to Oxford, accompanied by her baby daughter, Allie, her servant Gyltha and the Saracen, Mansur, who has to pose as the doctor whilst Adelia pretends to be his assistant. Adelia was a graduate of the School of Medicine in Salerno, which, unlike England, allowed women to train as physicians; in England her forensic skills would have been considered witchcraft.

Rosamund had lived in a strange and sinister tower surrounded by a maze, constructed of walls of granite with blackthorn planted against them. So, the first problem Adelia had to solve was to find the way through the maze. She was then faced with the gruesome discovery of Rosamund’s dead body. The main thrust of the book centres on Eleanor’s moves to overthrow Henry II, and after Eleanor and her supporters capture Adelia, they take her to the nunnery at Godstow, where they wait snowbound for the right moment to launch their rebellion.

I think the book works well as historical fiction, even though as Ariana Franklin wrote in her Author’s Notes that there is only a brief reference to Rosamund Clifford in the historical records and so this is a fictional portrayal based on legend. And she inserted a fictional rebellion in England in a gap in the medieval records. It has whetted my appetite to know more about the period. But as crime fiction, I was rather disappointed because although I found the details of Rosamund’s death interesting, there was actually very little about Adelia’s investigation, very little for her to exercise her forsenic skills, which was one of the elements I’d enjoyed in Mistress of the Art of Death. 

This is my second book for Carl’s  R.I.P.VII challenge and it also slots into the Historical Fiction Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge 2013.

New-To-Me Books

I went to Barter Books in Alnwick last week and was really delighted to find these books:

Heatwave etcFrom the bottom up they are:

  • Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell – this was right at the top of a bookcase, far too high up for me to reach, but a helpful member of staff got it down for me. It’s one I’ve had on my wishlist since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which I thought was excellent. This is her sixth book and is a portrait of a family in crisis during the heatwave in 1976.
  • The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate – this is the book to read in October for Cornflower’s Reading Group. I read about on the morning I was going to Barter Books  was amazed to find a good hardback copy just as though I’d reserved it. The shooting party takes place in autumn 1913 – ‘Here is a whole society under the microscope, a society soon to be destroyed.’ I began reading it in the shop whilst having a cup of coffee and it promises to be really good.
  • Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie – I always check which Agatha Christie books are in at Barter Books. Sometimes there aren’t any I haven’t read, but this time there were two. This one does not feature Poirot or Miss Marple, not like the TV adaptation that had Miss Marple (in the form of Geraldine McEwan), solving the mystery. In her Autobiography Agatha Christie wrote that ‘of her detective books the two that satisfy me best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence.’ (An Autobiography page 538)
  • Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie – I was so pleased to find this book as it’s one of the best-selling books of all time and one I’ve never read, although I remember the basics of the plot from TV/film versions. I’ve beenlooking out for it for ages. The book was originally published in 1939, when the title would have given little offence in the UK, but it was different in the USA and it was first published there in 1940, a few months later, as And Then There Were None. This copy was published in 1968 in the UK and still has its original title, as the book continued to be published under this title until 1985 . I was quite startled, though, to see the cover picture showing a golliwog:

Ten Little Niggers

I’m looking forward to reading all of them – and the pleasurable problem now is deciding which one to read first – it maybe Ten Little Niggers! Again quoting from her Autobiography, Agatha Christie wrote that:

It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been. (page 488)

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I’ve been working my way through some of the books I’ve owned for ages – books I really wanted to read when I bought them, but have since just sat on the bookshelves unread for a variety of reasons. I’ve had The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett for five years! The main reason I haven’t read it before now is its length – it has 1,076 pages!

I can’t remember now why I bought this book, possibly it was because I like historical novels and I like historic buildings and The Pillars of the Earth is set in 12th century England during the time of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda/Maud (she’s known by both names – in this book she’s called Maud, but at school we were taught her name was Matilda). It’s also the story of the building of a cathedral.

I was interested in the details of building a cathedral, the architecture and building techniques, but it is in essence a family saga. However it is so long-winded and repetitive that I began to think Follett must have written it as maybe three books and then joined them together without editing them, or maybe he was reminding himself of what he’d written earlier – it took him years to complete the book.

It’s a bit like a soap opera – terrible things happen, the characters overcome them and recover only to be knocked down again by more terrible events –  violence, power struggles and rape and pillage abound. It’s a bit simplistic with a really bad, evil character and a saintly one, a beautiful woman and a witch-type and so on. But it kept me entertained without having to think too hard and I even found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading, wondering what could possibly happen next. Parts of the novel came to life more than others – one being near the end of the book with the story of Thomas á Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

There is a sequel, World Without End, set in the same place and featuring descendants of the original characters nearly 200 years after the events in The Pillars of the Earth. I’m not rushing to read it!

There was a TV version – I didn’t see it!

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

 I was absolutely fascinated by The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition. It’s narrated by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the other four men who died in the Antarctic having reached the South Pole – Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans in June 1910; Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, July 1910; Captain Scott: The Owner (Con), March 1911; Lt Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers, July 1911; and Capt Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates, March 1912.

It’s fascinating not just as an account of the expedition, but also because it gets inside each man’s mind, it seemed to me, vividly describing the events as they progressed to the South Pole and the terrible conditions they had to endure. Beryl Bainbridge’s imagination and research combined make this a dramatic heroic story and an emotional roller-coaster set in the beautiful but deadly dangerous frozen landscape of the Antarctic.

Each character is distinctly drawn, each one revealing his thoughts, fears and hopes and the interaction between them reveals their personality clashes and friendships. The prejudices and class distinctions of the period come through strongly. The setting is superb – I could see the landscape and feel the dangers.

I finished reading this book nearly two weeks ago and apart from their final days one other episode stands out in my mind and that is the journey to the Emperor Penguin rookery at Cape Crozier undertaken by Wilson, zoologist Cherry-Garrard (Cherry) and Bowers. This section is narrated by Bowers. The journey was nearly seventy miles – Bowers described it:

I never thought the Owner would let us go, not with the Polar trek only three months off, but somehow Bill managed to talk him round. To reach the rookery where temperatures often register 100 degrees of frost, it’s necessary to scramble down cliffs exposed to blizzards sweeping ferociously across hundreds of miles of open snow plain. And all this in the dark! Exciting stuff, what? (page 133)

It took them far longer than they had anticipated and they endured dreadful conditions; at times they were ‘half delirious with exhaustion‘ and had ‘frost-bitten fingers bulging like plums.’ But Bowers thought:

It may be that the purpose of the worst journey in the world had been to collect eggs which might prove a scientific theory, but we’d unravelled a far greater mystery on the way – the missing link between God and man is brotherly love. (page 158)

Scott comes over as a sympathetic character, complicated, introspective and at times indecisive, and impatient at others. He is concerned that Amundsen will beat them to the Pole and is able to talk over his feelings with Wilson:

He understands me well enough to know that my continual harping on Amundsen’s  chances of beating us to the Pole isn’t down to self-interest, or a longing for glory, simply a desire to reach, in an endless process of addition and subtraction, a kind of mathematical peace. One hundred dogs, none of them presumably having fallen down a crevasse, must surely equal formidable odds.

It’s ironic that the same situation should be happening to me all over again. It’s barely three years since Shackleton sneaked off and nearly pipped me to the post. There again, I’d made no secret of my intentions. I’m not stupid enough to think of the Pole as mine, but I do detest underhandedness. (pages 116 – 117)

At times I had to remind myself that I was reading a novel, but then again there were passages where I had to remind myself that these events really did take place as they seemed so fantastical. Beryl Bainbridge has written a most remarkable book, full of facts seamlessly woven into the narrative, and full of emotion and feeling. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Reading The Birthday Boys has made me keen to read other books about the Polar expeditions and as I wrote in this post I have South with Scott and Race to The End to look forward to reading.

Note: The Birthday Boys fits into these Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge and What’s In a Name Challenge (book with a celebration in the title).

Books in Synch

South with Scott, The Birthday Boys, Race to The End

Birthday Boys & SWS Race to the End 2

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Birthday Boys is a fictionalised version of Scott’s 1912 Antarctic expedition. Ever since I bought South with Scott by Lord Mountevans when I was at school I’ve been fascinated by race to reach the South Pole and reading The Birthday Boys made me take down South with Scott from my bookshelves to compare the two. But even so I was wanting to know more and so, when I went to the library yesterday morning I thought I’d see if there was anything else I could read about. AND THERE WAS!

Race to The End cover

As Alex said last week when I wrote about the coincidence of finding The English Spy in the library when I had reserved Road to Referendum it really does seem as if books do call out to each other, because sitting there on the library shelves just as though it was waiting for me was this beautifully illustrated book – Race to The End: Scott, Amundsen and the South Pole by Ross D E MacPhee.

As I read The Birthday Books I was wondering how true to the facts Bainbridge had been in her novel. I’ve had time just to compare one event that is common to all three books, when Dr Wilson (Uncle Bill), Lieutenant ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard set off to Cape Crozier to recover emperor penguin eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter – and Bainbridge’s version seems remarkable accurate, bringing the terrible hardships vividly to life. I think she must have read South with Scott. I shall write more about these books.

Birthday Boys & SWS Race to the End 1(Click to enlarge photos)

The English Spy by Donald Smith

I’d gone to my local library to collect Road to Referendum by Iain Macwhirter, a book I’d reserved after I read about on FictionFan’s blog, and was browsing the shelves when this book, The English Spy caught my eye. Road to Referendum is about the run up to the Independence Referendum to take place in Scotland in September 2014. It also has chapters on Scottish history leading up to the present day as background.  So, it was quite a coincidence finding The English Spy as this is a novel about the build up to the political Union of England and Scotland in 1707 – the Union that Independence for Scotland would break.

My knowledge of the Act of Union in 1707 was limited to just the fact that by that union Scotland and England, together with Ireland and Wales, became the United Kingdom and I thought it was to settle the successor to Queen Anne who was childless and ill. Of course, it was much more complicated than that and The English Spy tells the story of how Daniel Defoe, at that time still known as Daniel Foe, was sent to Scotland under secret instructions from the English government to persuade the Scots to give up their independence. It’s a fascinating story of intrigue and backstabbing amongst the members of the Scottish parliament!

The narration moves between multiple viewpoints, mainly in the first person and some in the third person of various characters, some obviously historical figures and others possibly(?) fictional ones. There are Foe’s own account, letters between Isobel Rankin, his landlady in Edinburgh and her friend Nellie in Glasgow, the journal of Lord Glamis and a third person narrative of Robert Harley, the first Earl of Oxford. There are several other characters who pop in and out of the story – Lady O’Kelly and Aeneas Murray amongst others. This is a story about spies and the struggle between various factions for power and once I had got the characters sorted in my mind I was swept along with the intrigue and dangers of the times, keen to see how the Union came about.

The English Spy is a mix of fact and fiction but A Warning to the Reader at the beginning of the book clarifies that Daniel Defoe had indeed been sent to Scotland and was required to provide London with ‘clandestine reports on affairs in the north’. The Scottish Government was led by the Marquis of Queensberry who favoured union with England and the Duke of Hamilton was opposed to the union. Donald Smith warns:

Yet why did Scotland surrender its hard won and long cherished independence? The historians remain divided. What is offered here is fiction, yet as Defoe himself shows, the truths or apparent deceits of fiction may be uncomfortably closer to home.

Now, over 300 years later the question of independence for Scotland is still in question!

Dr Donald Smith is a founding member of the Scottish Storytelling Forum and of Edinburgh’s Guid Crack Club, and he is currently Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre at The Netherbow.  He has written, directed or produced over fifty plays and is a founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

Now to read what Road to Referendum has to offer.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

I first read Treasure Island as a child. It’s a book that has remained in my memory as a great adventure story, so I was interested to see that Andrew Motion (poet laureate of the UK from 1999- 2009, now professor of creative writing at the University of London and fellow of the Royal Society) had written a sequel: Silver: Return to Treasure Island. I was intrigued and when the publishers offered me a copy to read and review I immediately accepted it.

Silver

Description from the back cover:

Silver is the rip-roaring sequel to the greatest adventure ever told: Treasure Island. Almost forty years following the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver have seemingly put their maritime adventures to rest. Jim has settled on the English coast with his son Jim, and Silver has returned to rural England with his daughter Natty. While their escapades may have ended, for Jim and Natty the adventure is only just beginning. One night, Natty approaches young Jim with a proposition: return to Treasure Island and find the remaining treasure that their fathers left behind. As they set sail in their fathers’ footsteps, Jim and Natty cannot imagine what awaits them. Murderous pirates, long-held grudges, noxious greed, and wily deception lurk wickedly in the high seas, and disembarking onto Treasure Island only proves more perilous. Their search for buried treasure leaves every last wit tested and ounce of courage spent. And the adventure doesn’t end there, since they still have to make their way home…

My view:

The book, narrated by young Jim Hawkins has a good beginning. I was immediately captivated by Jim’s encounter with Natty and his subsequent meeting with her father, Long John Silver, now a disintegrating body, emaciated, blind, shrunken and shrivelled but still raging with anger with a core of steel. As I had imagined a book by Motion would be, it’s beautifully written, and the scenes came to life as I read. The scenes at the beginning, on the island and in the final scenes are powerful and for me are the book’s greatest strength.

There is a lot packed into its pages, with plenty of references to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, so much so that part way through Silver I decided I had to re-read Treasure Island (so for me Silver really was a return to Treasure Island!). But this is not just a story about pirates, or the search for the silver that was left behind, it’s also a story about the island itself, about what happened to the three pirates marooned there for forty years and about the horrors of slavery and savagery.

On the whole I enjoyed Silver, but at times its pace slows, almost to a standstill and not just when the voyage on the Nightingale comes to a dead calm and the crew subside into a lethargy for several weeks, but also during some passages on the island which seemed to last an eternity – I felt I was languishing in the doldrums. There were times when I began to tire of the book, but it does pick up, with danger and death during a terrific storm.

One little touch amused me – one of the crew is a certain Mr Stevenson – ‘a Scotsman and a wisp of a fellow, whose place was generally in the crow’s nest, where he acted as our lookout.’ (page 115)

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (4 April 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099552655
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099552659
  • Source: review copy
  • My Rating: 3/5

Sunday Selection: Sisters

One of my aims this year is to reduce my massive backlog of unread books, hence the reason for joining the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.  I’m not doing too badly as so far I’ve read 19, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean. In June I wrote about some of the books I’ve owned for more than a year and today I’m looking at some more the books on the list – in some cases I’ve had these books for several years! It’s about time I read at least one of these sometime soon. I don’t like to plan too far ahead what I’m going to read but I like to have some titles in mind.

When I looked through my books I realised that I was picking out books about SISTERS:

First up for consideration are two non fiction books (the blurbs are extracts from Amazon/Goodreads):

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle – this is the story of the tumultuous lives of Lady Jane Grey, known as the “Nine-Day Queen” and her sisters. I’ve had this book for 3 years. I was full of enthusiasm when I first bought it because I’d been reading novels about the Tudor period and thought I’d balance them with non fiction.

Lady Jane Grey is an iconic figure in English history. Misremembered as the ‘Nine Days Queen’, she has been mythologized as a child-woman destroyed on the altar of political expediency. Exploding the many myths of Lady Jane’s life and casting fresh light onto Elizabeth’s reign, acclaimed historian Leanda de Lisle brings the tumultuous world of the Grey sisters to life, at a time when a royal marriage could gain you a kingdom or cost you everything.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley – a selection of unpublished letters between the Mitford sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. I’ve had this book for 5 years! I think two of the reasons I’ve not read it before now is that it is so long – over 800 pages and it’s in a very small font.

Carefree, revelatory and intimate, this selection of unpublished letters between the six legendary Mitford sisters, compiled by Diana Mitford’s daughter-in-law, is alive with wit, passion and heartbreak. The letters chronicle the social quirks and political upheavals of the twentieth century but also chart the stormy, enduring relationships between the uniquely gifted – and collectively notorious – Mitford sisters. 

And then some novels featuring sisters:

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton. I’ve not had this one for that long – just since last November. I down loaded it on my Kindle because it’s a free book and I thought maybe I should try another book by Edith Wharton, having failed to finish The House of Mirth. At the time I was not in the mood for it.

In the days when New York’s traffic moved at the pace of the drooping horse-car, when society applauded Christine Nilsson at the Academy of Music and basked in the sunsets of the Hudson River School on the walls of the National Academy of Design, an inconspicuous shop with a single show-window was intimately and favourably known to the feminine population of the quarter bordering on Stuyvesant Square. It was a very small shop, in a shabby basement, in a side-street already doomed to decline; its fame was so purely local that the customers on whom its existence depended were almost congenitally aware of the exact range of “goods” to be found at Bunner Sisters’.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger – I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book, but it’s about three years. I’m not sure I’ll like it as I wasn’t keen on The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it was the time travelling aspect that irritated me with that book – the constant switching backwards and forwards in time. This one looks a bit different.

Set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers with an abnormally intense attachment to one another. The girls move to their aunt’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London and as the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including–perhaps–their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen, a book I’ve had for six years! I bought it because I’d enjoyed Blessings a satisfying but sad novel about an abandoned baby. 

A novel about two sisters, the true meaning of success, and the qualities in life that matter most. It’s an otherwise ordinary Monday when Meghan Fitzmaurice’s perfect life hits a wall. A household name as the host of Rise and Shine, the country’s highest-rated morning talk show, Meghan cuts to a commercial break–but not before she mutters two forbidden words into her open mike. 

In an instant, it’s the end of an era, not only for Meghan, who is unaccustomed to dealing with adversity, but also for her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx who has always lived in Meghan’s long shadow.

I’ve nearly finished reading Third Girl by Agatha Christie, also one of my to-be-read books, so now all I have to do is decide which book to read next. At the moment I’m leaning towards Her Fearful Symmetry, despite my misgivings about The Time Traveler’s Wife.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 I often find with well-known books that all the world seems to love that they don’t live up to the hype, but To Kill a Mockingbird certainly does! It’s a wonderful book!

It was first published in 1960 and is set in the Deep South of  America in the 1930s. To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Scout (Jean Louise Finch) as she looks back as an adult to the Depression, the years when with her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, she witnessed the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. Scout’s father, Atticus, a lawyer defends Tom. It’s also the story of Boo Radley, their neighbour, a man who is never seen, who is said to only come out at night. The children are scared of him, people said he was ‘a malevolent phantom‘, but their curiosity makes them fascinated by the idea of getting him to come out.

It’s the story seen through the eyes of a child, but narrated by an adult. And it’s told as a series of episodes in the fictional town of Maycomb, revealing the hypocrisy, prejudice and social injustice of the times. I was immediately drawn into Scout’s world, seeing Maycomb and its inhabitants through her eyes.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. (page 5)

Scout is a feisty character, always prepared to stand up for what she thinks is right, but Atticus, who also stands for justice and the moral and ethical ideal, has to reign her in sometimes. The book is full of strong characters and for me the outstanding scenes are those when Atticus sat reading outside the jail to stop the lynch mob attacking Tom and the trial itself at the court-house. It is all so vivid I believed I was right there with them.

There is so much to think about reading this book and I could write page after page! But here are a few quotations that particularly struck me:

‘First of all,’ he [Atticus] said, ‘if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -‘

‘Sir?’

‘- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ (page 33)

and

 Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

… Mockingbirds don’t do one thing, but make music for us to enjoy. they don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. (pages 99 – 100)

and

‘People in their right minds never take pride in their talents,’ said Miss Maudie. (page 109)

and

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for … (page 192)

On equality:

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.

But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is the court. (page 226)

The sticking point, however, is that a court is no better than the people sitting on the jury …

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

When Alma Books contacted me to ask if I would like a review copy of The Bookman’s Tale: a novel of love and obsession by Charlie Lovett I was delighted. How could I resist a book about books, involving a search to discover the truth behind what could be a priceless Shakespearean manuscript? The book arrived the next day and I made the ‘mistake’ of looking at it whilst I drank a cup of coffee. I couldn’t put it down and by the end of the day I had read half the book.

The Bookman's Tale

Synopsis from the back cover:

 A mysterious portrait ignites an antiquarian bookseller’s search – through time and the works of Shakespeare – for his lost love.

After the death of his wife, Peter Byerly, a young antiquarian bookseller, relocates from the States to the English countryside, where he hopes to rediscover the joys of life through his passion for collecting and restoring rare books. But when he opens an eighteenth-century study on Shakespeare forgeries, he is shocked to find a Victorian portrait strikingly similar to his wife tumble out of its pages, and becomes obsessed with tracking down its origins. As he follows the trail back to the nineteenth century and then to Shakespeare’s time, Peter learns the truth about his own past and unearths a book that might prove that Shakespeare was indeed the author of all his plays.

My view:

There are three different strands to this book, which interconnect and are interwoven throughout the book: the present day ie 1995 with Peter in England, the 1980s in America when Peter met and fell in love with Amanda, and the story of the Pandosto manuscript, a romance by Elizabethan poet Robert Greene, on which Shakespeare based The Winter’s Tale, from 1592 to 1879.

It began really well and Peter is not the only bookseller involved in the story – there is Bartholomew Harbottle in the Elizabethan/Stuart period and the Victorian Benjamin Mayhew both of whom play important roles. I really liked the historical sections and the details about the book trade and forgery is fascinating. I found the love story between Peter and his beloved Amanda rather cloying. Peter himself, suffers from an anxiety disorder and it is only his love for books and Amanda that seemed to make it possible for him to function at all – a good portrayal of an obsessive neurotic character.

By the second half of the book however, my enthusiasm for it began to droop a little as the chase around England became more frantic and a bit improbable. The many story lines as the book progressed became a series of cliff hangers, culminating in what seemed to me like something out of a cross between a Dan Brown novel, an Enid Blyton Famous Five book and a murder mystery. But, although there are just too many coincidence, twists and turns, and at times it is a bit melodramatic I still enjoyed it, swept along by the plot, an absorbing mix of historical fact and fiction, mystery and romance set in a book lovers’ world.

Charlie Lovett is a writer, teacher and playwright of plays for children. He is also a former antiquarian bookseller and an avid book collector. All this is evident in The Bookman’s Tale! He has a website with more information about the book and the sources he used.

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

It was a treat to read Tamburlaine Must Die, a short book that I read in a day. I can’t remember when I last read a book in a day!

Sometimes novellas, such as this is with just 140 pages, can seem lacking, needing more depth of character or plot, leaving me feeling that it should really have been a full length novel, or an even shorter story. But Tamburlaine Must Die has an immediacy, that drew me in to the late Elizabethan world.

I wrote about the opening paragraph and synopsis on Tuesday and almost immediately after I began to read the book. Written in the first person and set in May 1593, it’s a tense, dramatic story of the last days of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet and spy. Accused of heresy and atheism, his death is a mystery, although conjecture and rumours abound. Louise Welsh has used several sources in writing this novella, but as she writes in the Author’s Note:

History has bequeathed us a tantalising framework of facts – the Elizabethans were as prolific as the Stasi when it came to official documents. Yet the facts can’t tell us the full tale and historian’s theories on Marlowe’s death are ultimately well informed, meticulously researched speculation.

We know that Marlowe dies in a house in Deptford. We know the date of his death and the three men present. We know the nature of the wound that killed him. Everything else is educated guesswork, or in this author’s case, a fiction.

Tamburlaine Must Die conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of danger surrounding Marlowe; who can he trust, and who is behind the pseudonym of ‘Tamburlaine’, who posted a libellous handbill referencing Marlowe’s plays? He is very aware that death is just around the corner:

A dagger can find its way into a belly or a back before the victim spies it. I thought I felt the prickle of surveillance on my shoulders. And though I knew it was most likely the effect of my own blood running faster in my veins, I made my way from the crush of people, trying to keep note of who was around me, checking  if any faces lingered in the thinning crowd. (page 31)

As well as Marlowe, Louise Welsh throws in Dr Dee and Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s patron and refers to Walter Raleigh too. In such a brief book she has managed to convey the political and the seedy underworld of the Elizabethan period, the dishonesty and love of intrigue, the dangers of the plague and the threat of war. Has much changed since then, I wonder.

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at  Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, sharing the first paragraph or (a few) of a book she’s reading or thinking about reading soon.

Today I’m in the mood for reading short fiction and picked this book off my to-be-read shelves. It’s Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh, set in 1593 it tells the story of playwright, Christopher Marlowe’s last days, weaving together fact and fiction. It’s only 140 pages.

Tamburlaine

It begins:

I have four candles and one evening in which to write this account. Tomorrow I will lodge these papers with my last true friend. If I survive the day, they will light our pipes. But should I not return, he has instructions to secrete this chronicle where it will lie undiscovered for a long span, in the hope that when these pages are found, the age will be different and my words may be judged by honest eyes.

When I read the first four words I immediately thought of the Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett sketch from years ago in the Two RonniesThe Four Candles. I don’t suppose that is the response Louise Welsh would have expected, but there it is, that’s what came to my mind. But this is not a comedy as this summary from Amazon reveals:

London, 1593. A city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, strangers are unwelcome, suspicion is wholesale, severed heads grin from the spikes on Tower Bridge. Playwright, poet and spy, Christopher Marlowe walks the city’s mean streets with just three days to find the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer escaped from the pages of his most violent play. Tamburlaine Must Die is the searing adventure of a man who dares to defy both God and the state and whose murder remains a taunting mystery to the present day.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

I really enjoyed reading Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. It’s been sitting unread for several years on the to-be read shelves and I’ve been meaning to read it for ages after reading her earlier book, Girl with a Pearl Earring. I should have got round to it sooner.

It begins:

I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed. The head of blond hair beside me was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.

Well, I thought, here’s a novel way to begin the new century.

It is 1901, the day after Queen Victoria’s death and the ‘I’ in this opening is Kitty Coleman, one of several narrators in this novel set in Edwardian England.

Synopsis from Tracy Chevalier’s website:

Two families visit neighboring graves in a fashionable London cemetery. One is decorated with a sentimental angel, the other an elaborate urn. The Waterhouses revere the late Queen and cling to Victorian traditions; the Colemans look forward to a more modern society. To their mutual distaste, the families are inextricably linked when their daughters become friends behind the tombstones. And worse, befriend the gravedigger’s son.

As the girls grow up and the new century finds its feet, as cars replace horses and electricity outshines gas lighting, Britain emerges from the shadows of oppressive Victorian values to a golden Edwardian summer. It is then that the beautiful, frustrated Mrs Coleman makes a bid for greater personal freedom, with disastrous consequences, and the lives of the Colemans and the Waterhouses are changed forever.

A poignant tale of two families brought reluctantly together, Falling Angels is an intimate story of childhood friendships, sexual awakening and human frailty. Yet its epic sweep takes in the changing of a nation, the fight for women’s suffrage and the questioning of steadfast beliefs.

My view:

This book covers the years from 1901 – 1908 when the world was on the cusp of change just before the outbreak of the First World War, and I found myself wondering what my grandmothers, who would have been much the same age as Kitty Coleman and Gertrude Waterhouse, had thought about it all. What would they have thought about the suffragettes for example? I suspect it would have been similar to one of the characters, Jenny Whitby, the Colemans’ maid servant, as they too were domestic servants. Jenny is horrified when she listens to the suffragettes, whilst she served them with scones at Kitty Coleman’s ‘At Home’:

What I heard made me want to spit. They talked about helping women but it turns out they are choosy about who exactly gets the help. They ain’t fighting for my vote – only for women who own property or went to university. (pages 227 – 228)

Maybe my great aunt who never married and became a matron at a public school would have had more sympathy and agreed with the suffragettes that all women would not get the vote all at once and they had to start somewhere. These are the early years of the suffragette movement culminating in the book in June 1908 with the Women’s March in Hyde Park to demand Votes for Women.

The change between Victorian and Edwardian England was a gradual one, as attitudes to life and death were transformed and the middle-class Colemans and the Waterhouses reflect these changing attitudes with the Colemans looking forward to the modern era, whilst the Waterhouses still value the Victorian traditions. I was interested in the discussion about cremation/burial, with Kitty favouring cremation  in opposition to her mother-in-law as they visited the columbarium (a place for keeping cinerary remains, ie ashes) that had recently been opened at the cemetery. Their discussion with Mr Jackson, the superintendent of the cemetery was a theological one in which he ends the discussion of how God could reunite the body and soul if the body has been burnt by saying:

Surely there is no difference between the decomposed remains of a buried body and the ashes of a burned one. … I would simply say that God is capable of all things, and nothing we do with our remains will stop Him if he wishes to reunite our souls with our bodies. (pages 37 – 38)

I liked the multiple first person narrator structure of the book, giving an all round view of events and the characters’ views and thoughts. It was easy to distinguish between them all, the two daughters, Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse in particular are very well depicted. The setting too is so well described that I could imagine myself wandering round the cemetery with all its gothic symbology, and see the suffragettes’ march with their banners ‘Deeds not Words’ and hear their cries of ‘Votes for Women’.

It’s an easy to read book that still manages to contain depth both of characterisation and of themes – family relationships, in particular that of mother and daughter, attitudes towards death and mourning, the change in social codes, the perils of being an unmarried mother and the beginnings of the women’s movement. I was fascinated by it!

This page on Tracy Chevalier’s website lists her books – I have one more of hers – The Lady and the Unicorn, I mustn’t wait too long before I read it!

Although I didn’t read this to take part in any challenges I realise that it fits in with several I’ve signed up to do – the Mount TBR Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of book with the word ‘down’ or an equivalent in the title).

June’s Books & Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

I read six books in June, a bit less than usual as one of the books, Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens is a long book. Three are books from my backlog of to-be-read books, two are historical fiction and one was a re-read. All but one are crime fiction!

June 2013

  • A Fearful Madness by Julius Falconer – after the violent death of a part-time cathedral verger the dead man’s sister, anxious to see justice done, and two of the police suspects, both released without charge carry out their own investigations into his death. A complex mystery that kept me guessing right to the end.
  • The Third Pig Detective Agency by Bob Burke – a fairytale detective story in which Harry, the third little pig is employed by Aladdin to find his stolen lamp, aided or hindered by numerous characters, and finding himself in all sorts of tricky and dangerous situations.
  • The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland – a tale of witchcraft and pagan superstition set in 1321, mystical and mysterious and tragic as it explores the struggle to survive and the battleground between the old pagan beliefs and Christianity.
  • Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell – this begins with the shooting of Sergeant Martin of Kingsmarkham CID whilst he was standing in a queue at the local bank. Then DCI Wexford is faced with more murders a few months later, when author Davina Flory, her husband and daughter, are shot dead at Tancred House.
  • Raven Black by Ann Cleeves – a re-read. This is the first of the Inspector Perez books set on Shetland, in which Perez investigates the death of a schoolgirl. I had forgotten who the culprit was and as on my first reading I failed to identify the murderer.
  • Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – historical murder mystery set in England in the 1770s and the Gordon Riots of 1780. This  is now one of my favourite of Dickens’s books.

My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is: Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell, a book I just did not want to put down.

Kissing the Gunner's DaughterFor more Crime Fiction Picks of the Month see Kerrie’s blog, Mysteries in Paradise.

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

I knew absolutely nothing about Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty before I started to read it. It’s not a book that I’ve seen dramatised. But whilst reading (very slowly) Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens A Life I came across the following information. In May 1836, the year that Dickens, then 24, married Catherine Hogarth on 2 April, he agreed he would write a three volume novel, called Gabriel Vardon by November. But by November he was trying to withdraw from the agreement, due to his commitments in writing Pickwick and Sketches by  Boz. He began writing Gabriel Vardon in 1839 and it was only in February 1841 that its serialisation began. By then he had renamed it as Barnaby Rudge.

It’s a murder mystery as well as a historical novel, mainly concerning the events surrounding the Gordon Riots of 1780. The Riots began in protest to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which granted Roman Catholics exemption from taking the religious oath when joining the British Armed Forces and granted them a few liberties, previously denied to them. Led by Lord George Gordon the protests quickly turned violent, Parliament was invaded and Newgate prison was burned to the ground. I was rather surprised that Tomalin gave away most of the plot in describing Barnaby Rudge and gave away the identity of the murderer. I don’t intend to do the same as it spoilt the mystery for me.

Barnaby Rudge begins in 1775, five years before the riots as a group of customers in the Maypole Inn in the village of Chigwell, on the borders of Epping Forest and about 112 miles from London, recollect the murder of Reuben Haredale, the owner of The Warren, 22 years earlier to the day. His steward, a Mr Rudge was found months later, stabbed to death.The murderer had never been discovered. Reuben’s brother Geoffrey had lived at The Warren with his niece, Emma ever since.

From then on the book becomes much more complicated with many characters and sub-plots. There is the love story of Emma, a Catholic and Edward Chester, the son of Sir John Chester, a Protestant and opponent of her uncle, who is dead against their marriage. Also crossed in love are Joe Willet, whose father John Willet is the landlord of the Maypole and the captivating Dolly Varden whose father Gabriel Vardon is a locksmith. Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip. (Edgar Allen Poe was inspired by Dickens’s portrait to write his poem The Raven).

It’s a long book and in parts loses its impetus, but picks up when Dickens jumps five years forward into the Riots and I was taken aback by his vivid and dramatic descriptions of the violence and horror:

If Bedlam gates had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. … There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their hands and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax.

And then there is the attack on Newgate prison, the release of the prisoners and finally the scene as the mob set fire to the prison, scenes that rival the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities.

By the end of the novel the murderer is revealed and all the plot strands are completed. There are a number of themes running through the novel – the relationship between fathers and sons, the position of authority, justice and the question of punishment for crime, and religious conflict. Dickens paints a picture of London, the dirt and poverty, the terrible condition of the roads, the perils of footpads and highwaymen which is in contrast to the countryside that still at that period surrounded London making it a cleaner, purer place to live in. There are detailed descriptions of the old inn, the Maypole and Vardon’s house and shop with their individual irregularities and strangeness.

And alongside all this are the characters, the restless innocent that is Barnaby, his over-protective and distracted mother, the melodramatic servant Miggs, the pure evil of Hugh, an idle servant at the Maypole who becomes one of the leaders of the riots, and Mr Dennis, the hangman to name but a few.

It wasn’t such a success as some of Dickens’s other novels but I think that that is not a fair reflection of its qualities. It’s almost a book of two parts and the dramatic second half, to my mind, more than makes up for the slow beginning which I had to read slowly and carefully. The portrayal of Barnaby Rudge is also masterly – a sympathetic but totally unsentimental characterisation of his ‘madness’ and his underlying common sense.

Barnaby Rudge was number 6 in the Classics Club Spin, which is the reason I’ve been reading it this June, rather than later.  I’ve had the book on my Kindle since March 2013, so not as long as some of my to-be-read books, so it also counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge too. There are numerous editions of Barnaby Rudge and each one gives different page numbers, depending, I suppose on the format and font size. The Kindle edition estimates its length at 845 pages, so it also counts towards the Tea and Books Challenge.

Mount TBR: June Checkpoint

Mount TBRIt’s time for the second quarterly check-in post for the Mount TBR Challenge 2013.  Bev asks:

1. Tell us how many miles you’ve made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you’re really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you’ve read correlates to actual miles up Pike’s Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc.
  • I’ve read just a quarter of my target – 12 books, reaching Pike’s Peak, so I’m not looking too good to reach Mount Ararat, that is, to read 48 books from my own bookshelves.

These are the books I’ve read:

  1. The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  3. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
  4. Small Kindnesses by Fiona Robyn
  5. The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien
  6. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
  7. Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine
  8. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart
  9. The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris
  10. The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland
  11. Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell
  12. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
2.
What has been your most difficult read so far.  And why?  (Length?  Subject matter?  Difficult style?  Out of your comfort zone reading?)
  • That has to be The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Although it began and ended well, I got bored several times in the middle. I felt there was something missing, the personal elements that brought the story to life for me were few and far between; I couldn’t feel involved and just wanted it to end. I persevered because it has had such good reviews and recommendations, but sadly it dragged for me.
Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?
  • This is Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell, which I’ve had for about 20 years! It was well worth the wait and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Once Upon a Time VII – Quest Completed

Once upon a time VII

Carl’s  Once Upon a Time VII has now ended and I completed Quest the First

which was to read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time categories of fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology. I read a mixture, four of which were books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

  1. The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien – a fantasy adventure story of Bilbo Baggins’s quest to recover the dwarves’ treasure stolen by Smaug the dragon and regain possession of the Lonely Mountain. Fantastic!
  2. Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine – a time slip novel focussed on the legends surrounding Cartimandua, a Celtic queen. This was a bit of a disappointing read.
  3. The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris – a story about good versus evil, the power of the mind and the use of spells, but lacking the charisma of Chocolat, and not as good!
  4. The Third Pig Detective Agency by Bob Burke – a fairytale detective story, in which the third little pig, Harry is faced with recovering Aladdin’s lamp. I really enjoyed reading this.
  5. The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland – a tale of witchcraft and pagan superstition, full of tension and suspense, that kept me guessing to the end.

Hobbit & Pig

My favourite out of these is The Hobbit, followed by The Third Pig Detective Agency, and I think these two books were the best choices for the Once Upon a Time theme.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

I can’t remember how I first came across Karen Maitland‘s books, but after I’d read Company of Liars I was hooked and bought The Owl Killers, a tale of witchcraft and pagan superstition set in 1321.

Karen Maitland has written four medieval thrillers, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse, and Falcons of Fire and Ice, with The Vanishing Witch to be published later this year. She also writes joint medieval crime novels with a group of historical authors known as the Medieval Murderers.

I was going to summarise the novel but I think this description on Fantastic Fiction does it very well:

‘The Owl Killers’ is a novel of an embattled village and a group of courageous women who are set on a collision course – in an unforgettable storm of secrets, lust, and rage.

England, 1321. The tiny village of Ulewic teeters between survival and destruction, faith and doubt, God and demons. For shadowing the villagers’ lives are men cloaked in masks and secrecy, ruling with violence, intimidation, and terrifying fiery rites: the Owl Masters.

But another force is touching Ulewic – a newly formed community built and served only by women. Called a beguinage, it is a safe harbor of service and faith in defiance of the all-powerful Church.

Behind the walls of this sanctuary, women have gathered from all walks of life: a skilled physician, a towering former prostitute, a cook, a local convert. But life in Ulewic is growing more dangerous with each passing day. The women are the subject of rumors, envy, scorn, and fury, until the daughter of Ulewic’s most powerful man is cast out of her home and accepted into the beguinage – and battle lines are drawn.

Into this drama are swept innocents and conspirators: a parish priest trying to save himself from his own sins.a village teenager, pregnant and terrified,a woman once on the verge of sainthood, now cast out of the Church … With Ulewic ravaged by flood and disease, and with villagers driven by fear, a secret inside the beguinage will draw the desperate and the depraved – until masks are dropped, faith is tested – and every lie is exposed.’

My View:

The Owl KillersA long, historical novel well founded in its time and place; the historical detail is easily absorbed within the story, without feeling intrusive. There is a glossary of medieval terms and words at the end of the book which also helps to flesh out the detail. The story does indeed come alive through the descriptions of the physical and emotional lives of the characters in the small isolated community where the villagers have interbred – a sign of their belonging is their webbed fingers. Superstition, fear and belief in the supernatural rule their lives.

The novel is told through five narrators, which means there is a rounded picture of events, portraying the characters through their own eyes and also showing how they appear to others. I thought that was particularly well done, illustrating the tensions and misunderstandings between the characters.

The suspense builds as the tension increases, and I began to wonder if all the narrators were to be trusted. Fear of the ‘outsider’ is prevalent, the struggle for power dominates and the outsider is seen as the cause for events, such as floods, famine and disease, outside the villagers’ control. Religious and pagan beliefs clash, and the equality between men and women is challenged.

I found The Owl Killers a compelling story, at the same time down to earth and grounded in reality, yet mystical and mysterious and tragic as it explores the struggle to survive and the battleground between the old pagan beliefs and Christianity.

Sunday Selection

I finished reading The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland yesterday. It is a book that I’ve had for nearly three years and like many of the other unread books that I own, I wish I’d read it long before now – it’s good and I’ll be writing down my thoughts about it soon.

But it has got me thinking that I should spend more time reading books I’ve owned for more than a year and still haven’t got round to reading. I get sidetracked by new books and by library books and it’s got worse with the ease of having books to read on Kindle. There are all those free e-books and really cheap ones too, which may or may not be any good, and, click they’ve been downloaded.

So, as one of my aims this year is to reduce my massive backlog of unread books I’m going to concentrate on reading some of these for a while, all books I’ve owned a long time!

First up for consideration a selection of historical fiction (the blurbs are from Amazon):

  • The White Queen by Philippa Gregory – the TV dramatisation of this book begins tonight on BBC1, maybe I should read it in tandem, or leave it for later? It’s the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen. A woman who won the love of a king and ascended to royalty by virtue of her beauty, Elizabeth fought tenaciously for the success of her family — her daughter who would one day unite the warring dynasties, and her two sons whose eventual fate has confounded historians for centuries: the Princes in the Tower.
  • The Constant Princess – another Philippa Gregory book – Katherine of Aragon is born Catalina, the Spanish Infanta, to parents who are both rulers and warriors. Aged four, she is betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and is raised to be Queen of England. She is never in doubt that it is her destiny to rule that far-off, wet, cold land.
  • Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier – January 1901, the day after Queen Victoria’s death: two families visit neighbouring graves in a fashionable London cemetery. One is decorated with a sentimental angel, the other an elaborate urn. The Waterhouses revere the late Queen and cling to Victorian traditions; the Colemans look forward to a more modern society. To their mutual distaste, the families are inextricably linked when their daughters become friends behind the tombstones. And worse, befriend the gravedigger’s son.

Then, a selection of crime fiction:

  • The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter – The murder of Yvonne Harrison had left Thames Valley CID baffled. A year after the dreadful crime they are still no nearer to making an arrest. But one man has yet to tackle the case – and it is just the sort of puzzle at which Chief Inspector Morse excels. The final Morse book, which I bought after watching the TV version. I’ve just checked and this was way back in 2000! I decided at the time that I would read it later – I never meant it to be 12 years later! 
  • I’ve borrowed several Christopher Brookmyre books from our son and have been meaning to read them before now. I see from a bookmark that I did start Not the End of the World a while back. The crew of an oceanic research vessel goes missing in the Pacific along with their mini-submarine. An evangelical media star holds a rally next door to a convention in LA devoted to ‘nubile’ cinematic entertainment. The cops know there’s going to be trouble and they are not disappointed. What they didn’t foresee was the presence in their state of a Glaswegian photographer with an indecipherable accent and a strong dislike of hypocrisy, or of a terrorist who seems to have access to plutonium as well as Semtex. In his unique style, Christopher Brookmyre throws a harsh light on the selfish preoccupations of 1990s society and at the same time provides uproarious entertainment.
  • Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell. It’s inevitable, I suppose that when I double shelve books that I forget I’ve got them. If I thought 12 years was a long time to have owned and not read a book, then I was astonished when I checked this book to find that I’ve had it since 1992! No!! It’s another book I bought after watching the TV version, which was broadcast in November 1992. I did start it – there’s a bookmark at the start of Chapter 6. I see from Amazon that the book has been reprinted several times since I bought my copy. The blurb is: The fifteenth book to feature the classic crime-solving detective, Chief Inspector Wexford. The thirteenth of May is famously the unluckiest day of the year. Sergeant Caleb Martin of Kingsmarkham CID had no idea just how terminally unlucky it would prove, as he embarked upon his last day on earth… Ten months later, Wexford is confronted with a murder scene of horrific brutality. At first the bloodbath at Tancred House looks like the desperate work of a burglar panicked into murder. The sole survivor of the massacre, seventeen-year-old Daisy Flory, remembers the events imperfectly, and her confused account of the fatal night seems to confirm this theory. But more and more, Chief Inspector Wexford is convinced that the crime lies closer to home, and that it has sinister links to the murder of Sergeant Martin…

That’s enough to be going on with for the time being.

Hilary Mantel at the Borders Book Festival

Festival Marquee P1080856I was looking forward to Hilary Mantel’s talk last night at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose. I was not disappointed – far from it. It was a memorable evening as we sat in the packed Festival Marquee as Hilary Mantel and Kirsty Wark carried on their conversation. It was brilliant, or as Kirsty said at the end thanking Hilary – ‘it was absolutely fantastic’!

Here are some of my impressions:

Hilary Mantel is not only a fantastic writer she is also an articulate speaker – she is so enthusiastic about her subject and spoke with fluency, clarity, conviction and with power. She began by reading a short extract from Bring Up the Bodies, describing Thomas Cromwell, his appearance and his view of the portrait Hans Holbein had painted.The passage came to life as she spoke the words she had written.

After that the conversation between the two women flowed effortlessly. I’ve seen both on TV and read many of Hilary Mantel’s book but they both have so much more presence in person. It was magnetic and mesmerising as they talked about the process of writing – does Hilary Mantel write her historical novels sequentially moving forward through history? No, she doesn’t. She researches, surrounds herself with her notes, her ideas and jots down descriptions, sections of dialogue and scenes, so that at no point can she answer where she is up to in the book – she cannot tell you the year, how many pages she has written, only that she needs another eighteen months before it will be finished.

She lives in a parallel world – in the present and in the world of Cromwell and Henry VIII, plus all the characters, at one and the same time. It is always with her. When she started to write about Cromwell it was just going to be one book, but that soon changed and at present she is writing about the third book (The Mirror and the Light), leading up to Cromwell’s death. She tries as far as possible to be historically accurate, for the dialogue to be correct, but as a lot of what happened was not recorded – eg there is no transcript of Anne Boleyn’s trial – what she writes is her offering, her interpretation as it were.

I was pleased Kirsty Wark asked her about writing in the present tense (something I often have difficulty reading, but didn’t in either Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies). I can’t remember precisely but I think Hilary Mantel replied that she saw the people as though the scenes were being acted out before and wrote it as it happened. If that is not what she said that is the impression I came away with. I only know that for me in these books it all came to life as I read it with an immediacy that I don’t often find in novels – I was there, not just an observer.

What does Hilary Mantel do in her ‘down time’, what does she read when she is not writing. Well, she doesn’t really have ‘down time’ and she doesn’t read novels when she is writing, she is so immersed in the world she is writing about that she can’t enter anyone else’s world. She reads round the subject, history, sociology etc.

What will she write next – more historical fiction or a contemporary novel? She is not sure – she’s thinking about writing about writing historical fiction – I do hope she does. Maybe not historical fiction itself, as that’s a huge project taking several years to research and plan. When she was 22 she had dreamed of writing historical fiction and wrote her novel about the French Revolution. Then she hadn’t realised that most people this side of the Channel weren’t really interested in the Revolution. Well, actually, I was and I’ve read that novel – A Place of Greater Safety and that’s another epic novel that kept me intrigued, even though I knew the outcome before I read it.

Kirsty Wark even touched on the question of the criticism Hilary Mantel had had over her comments about Kate Middleton. Her reply was a master of diplomacy, but it had upset her that her words had been taken out of context and she expressed her amazement at being woken one morning to find the press camped outside her house two weeks after her speech.

There were a few questions from the audience – would she write a prequel about Thomas Cromwell’s life on the continent, before the events in Wolf Hall. She liked that question but answered that she probably wouldn’t – there was little documentary evidence about all the places he’d been to and what he did, but I’m guessing she would have liked to have attempted it.

There was so much more said  – but I’ll stop here. It was a grand night out – an event I’m delighted to have experienced.

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

A few thoughts on Sarah Thornhill:

I wrote about the opening paragraphs of this book in a Book Beginnings post; paragraphs that made me want to read on with promise of a good story. And that is what I got – it’s basically a love story set in 19th century Australia, where the convicts, transported or ‘sent out‘ are  now called ‘old colonists‘.

There is prejudice – some people, those who had ‘come free‘,  thought being ‘sent out‘ meant you were tainted for all time, but for others having money and land overcame their distaste. And then there is the prejudice about the ‘blacks’. When Sarah, the daughter of William Thornhill, an ‘old colonist’ and now a landowner on the Hawkesbury River, falls in love with Jack Langland, whose mother was a native woman, racial prejudice and hatred rear their ugly heads.

I loved this book, which kept me captivated from start to finish, as the secrets of the Thornhill family are brought to light. I liked the narrative, told in Sarah’s voice, that of an uneducated young woman, struggling to understand what had happened and why. I found the dialogue convincing, and I could visualise the landscape and the hardships of life in that place and time. I was also totally involved with the characters, all of which made the book come alive for me.

I think it stands well alone, but it is the sequel to The Secret River and it does reveals a significant part of that book, so be aware of that if you haven’t read The Secret River.

May’s Books 2013 & Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

I’ve read ten books this month and have only written about five of them – I don’t think I’ll get round to writing about all of them now. More reading means less writing!

I read five crime fiction novels:

May bks

  • The Chessmen by Peter May. This is the third in his Lewis Trilogy, a fascinating and compelling book in which the body of an old friend of Fin McLeod’s is discovered seventeen years after he had disappeared. Whilst the books in this trilogy can be read as stand-alones I think it’s best to read them in sequence, because the second and third books refer to events and characters covered in the first book.
  • The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards, the sixth in his Lake District Mysteries with another cold case and a possible copycat murder five years later for Daniel Kind and DI Hannah Scarlett to solve. An excellent book.
  • Requiem for a Mezzo by Carola Dunn, Daisy Dalrymple and DI Alex Fletcher are faced with the murder of an opera singer during a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. A quick, easy read.
  • Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie (Poirot 4 short stories), longer than the average short stories (and so more satisfying) these feature some of Agatha Christie’s plot elements and endings, with Poirot performing his usual final denouements.
  • Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie – an excellent murder mystery – I want to write about this in more detail in a later post.

CF Pick of the month

My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards. See Kerrie’s blog, Mysteries in Paradise for more Crime Fiction Picks of the Month.

The other five books I finished reading in May are:

  • The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris – I wasn’t too keen on this one.
  • Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé by Joanne Harris and again was rather disappointed. I may write more about the latter book and feel a bit differently about it. Sometimes writing about a book makes me appreciate it more. It’s as though it crystallises my thoughts and I can evaluate it better.

I may also write about these books:

May bks

  • Ignorance by Michèle Roberts on Kindle – historical fiction set in France before and during the Second World War. a book about guilt, desire and love.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, non-fiction, about his journey from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, although this book only covers his journey to the Danube between what were in 1934 Slovakia and Hungary.
  • Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville – a beautiful book, also historical fiction set in Australia during the early/mid 19th century. A book about race, family, secrets and love.

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville: a Book Beginnings post

Book Beginnings Button

Book Beginnings on Friday at Gilion’s blog Rose City Reader is the place to share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’m currently reading Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville. It begins:

The Hawkesbury was a lovely river, wide and calm, the water dimply green, the cliffs golden in the sun, and white birds roosting in the trees like so much washing. It was a sweet thing of a still morning, the river-oaks whispering and the land standing upside down in the water.

They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves. (page 3)

I heaved a sigh of relief when I read these opening paragraphs. They paint such a beautiful picture in the first paragraph – I love the peaceful image of a dimply green river reflecting the world upside down – and then the contrast of the strongly individual statements in the second paragraph. The narrator is Sarah Thornhill, a young girl at the beginning of the book, the youngest daughter of William Thornhill, who had been transported to Australia for stealing timber and whose story is told in Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River.

My sigh of relief is because recently I’ve been rather disappointed in my choice of books. Sarah Thornhill is the follow up book to The Secret River, a book I absolutely loved and I was concerned that this book wouldn’t live up to my expectations (see my previous post on Joanne Harris’s book The Lollipop Shoes).

I’m now over half way through the book and although it’s written in different style from The Secret River, so far it’s living up to its early promise. My sigh of relief is now a sigh of contentment.

Book Notes: Daisy Dalrymple

I’ve now read the first three books in Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series – all borrowed from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. I wrote about the first book Death at Wentwater Court in this post. It’s a typical country house murder mystery.

I’ve recently read the second and third books, The Winter Garden Mystery, another country house murder mystery and Requiem for a Mezzo. These are quick, light, easy and enjoyable to read, not requiring much brain power to work out who did the murders. They provide an interesting glimpse of life in the 1920s..

Set in 1923 Daisy is visiting Occles Hall in Cheshire, the home of her school friend Bobbie, to write an article for the Town and Country magazine and discovers a corpse buried in the Winter Garden. It’s the body of Grace Moss, the blacksmith’s daughter and parlour maid at the Hall. She had gone missing three months earlier.The under-gardener is arrested. Daisy convinced of his innocence contacts Detective Inspector Alex Fletcher of Scotland Yard and their relationship develops as they set about discovering the murderer.

In this book Daisy and DI Alex Fletcher are at the Albert Hall watching a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in which her neighbour, Bettina Westlea is singing , until she drops dead, apparently from cyanide poisoning.  Alex reluctantly lets Daisy help with the investigation into her murder.

Bettina had made many enemies and it surfaces that there are several possible motives and suspects. Daisy has a knack of getting people to talk to her, but I did find this just a little repetitive as Alex tried to stop her involvement. However, this didn’t detract from their continuing relationship.

Saturday Snapshot

This is the Flodden Visitor Centre. It’s in a former telephone box in the village of Branxton in Northumberland. Flodden Visitor Centre P1080503It claims to be the smallest visitor centre in the world:

Flodden Visitor Centre P1080499

It’s part of the commemoration of the Battle of Flodden which took place 500 years ago in September between the English and Scottish armies in the fields near Branxton.

Flodden Visitor Centre P1080501Inside there is a map showing the routes of the two armies and indicating several sites related to the battle. There are leaflets and even a button to press the hear about the battle.

If you are in London on 14 May you can get tickets for a lunchtime lecture on the Battle of Flodden 1513 by historian Clive Hallam Baker at the Tower of London. He is the author of The Battle of Flodden: Why and How.

Other books about Flodden, with links to my reviews:

Fiction:

Non fiction:

  •  Flodden: the Scottish Invasion of Henry VIII’s England by Nigel Barr
  • New Light on Floddon (sic) by Gerard F T Leather – I have not written about this short book published in 1938, which Leather, a member of the Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club had written after studying the battle for a talk. As he explained there were actually four distinct fights going on a more or less the same time and the old name of the battle was that of Branxton Moor, a more correct title, in his opinion, as the battle scene was a mile and a half from Flodden.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

April’s Books

I read 8 books in April.

The book I enjoyed the most is After Flodden by Rosemary Goring, which is to be published in June (I read an Advanced Proof Copy supplied by Love Reading).

The full list is (with links to my posts on the books):

  1. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton (TBR book) – historical fiction
  2. After Flodden by Rosemary Goring – historical fiction
  3. The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn (Daisy Dalrymple 2) (Kindle) – historical crime fiction
  4. Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine (TBR book) – historical fiction
  5. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart (TBR book) (review to follow)
  6. Short Sentence: A crime short story collection from Bloomsbury: 10 stories of dastardly deeds (Kindle) – crime fiction
  7. The Blackhouse by Peter May (library book) – crime fiction
  8. The Lewis Man by Peter May (Kindle) – crime fiction

My Crime Fiction Books of the Month:

Blackhouse& Lewis Man

CF Pick of the monthOf the 8 books, 4 are crime fiction. It’s a tie this month for Crime Fiction Book of the Month between The Blackhouse  and The Lewis Man both by Peter May. I really couldn’t decide between them. I’ll post my thoughts about The Lewis Man soon. For more Crime Fiction Books of the Month go to Kerrie’s blog Mysteries in Paradise.

 

Notes on the books without reviews:

  • The Winter Garden Mystery* by Carola Dunn (Daisy Dalrymple 2). A quick, easy and enjoyable read. Set in 1923, Daisy is visiting Occles Hall in Cheshire, the home of her school friend Bobbie, to write an article for the Town and Country magazine and discovers a corpse buried in the Winter Garden. It’s the body of Grace Moss, the blacksmith’s daughter and parlour maid at the Hall. She had gone missing three months earlier.The under-gardener is arrested and Daisy convinced of his innocence. Enter Detective Inspector Fletcher of Scotland Yard.
  • Short Sentence: A crime short story collection from Bloomsbury: 10 stories of dastardly deeds*.  This is a free Kindle edition of short stories from Parker Bilal, Alex Cooper, Sarah Evans, Conor Fitzgerald, Calum Macleod, Jan Snook, Mary Waters, Anne Zouroudi, Thomas Mogford and James Runcie. Very quick reads – each just 1000 words or less on the themes of Deception, Bad Judgement, Payback, Secrets and Lies and Obsession. I prefer a more complicated plot and character development, but these are OK for their length. My favourite was Secrets and Lies by Jan Snook (a new-to-me author).

After Flodden by Rosemary Goring

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden between the forces of James IV of Scotland and Henry VIII of England. After Flodden by Rosemary Goring is the dramatic story of what happened after the battle on 9 September 1513. Well written, well researched this is a compelling and powerful book, bringing the characters and the Edinburgh and Borders of 1513 vividly to life. Once I started reading the book I didn’t want to stop. I read it quickly, devouring the pages, completely involved in this dramatic story.

I was swept away with the action, re-living the scenes through Rosemary Goring’s vivid descriptions – the court at Edinburgh, the wild Borderlands, the violence of the battle scenes and the interaction between the characters. It’s a brilliant book.

Louise Brenier is determined to find out what happened to her missing brother Benoit, was he killed in action, or was he captured? Interspersed with the story of Louise’s search for Benoit Brenier, her brother, are flashbacks to the Battle as the two sides gathered together and engaged in warfare, the political intrigue and danger always present.

There is Patrick Paniter, James’s secretary and right-hand man – full of remorse at the death of his king, and tormented by memories he would rather keep buried. Louise appeals to him for help, and when he tells her that Benoit must either be dead or a prisoner she sets off to search for him. Soon Gabriel, Viscount Torrance, a courtier and advisor to Paniter, joins her in her search, which takes them deep into the Border country, the stronghold of the Crozier clan and the retribution that Thomas Dacre, the Lord-Warden of the English Marches has vowed to impose.

After Flodden is due out in June 2013. I read an Advance Proof Copy supplied by Lovereading.co.uk.

FF monumentI’ve written about Flodden Field before, after our first visit to the Flodden Monument. The monument was erected in 1910 at the place where it was then thought that James IV fell in battle. However, more recent opinion is that this happened further south of the village, in the shallow valley close to the road at the foot of Branxton Hill.

There is a programme of events to commemorate this battle that led to the death of 15,000 Scots and English soldiers, 100 noblemen and the Scottish King, James IV. For more information about the battle and the Ecomuseum go to Flodden 1513. As the website explains the Ecomuseum links ‘together 12 sites from across north Northumberland, the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh, which have an intimate connection with the story of Flodden. These sites are all existing attractions, where access and interpretation are already available. They include churches, bridges, castles, museums and of course the battlefield itself.

Also have a look at Remembering Flodden 1513 – 2013, where the Stop Press News is that the One Show on BBC1 is featuring Flodden on Tuesday 30th May at 7pm – showing presenter and historian Dan Snow’s visit to the battlefield and castles of the borderlands.

Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine

Daughters of Fire is historical time-slip fiction switching between the present day and the first century CE Britannia, a mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance.  It was with relief that I finished reading it – relief, because although the story of Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes tribe is fascinating and that of historian Viv Lloyd Rees is initially interesting, the book is too long, and too wordy.

Daughters of Fire intermingles two stories, that of  Viv and Cartimandua. Viv has published a book on Cartimandua, a book using alternative as well as traditional historical sources – ie using legends, her dreams and visions as well as the writings of Roman historians. She has ‘borrowed’ an ancient cursed brooch from her boss, Professor Hugh Graham, who has criticised her book as fantasy. The rest of her story is their obsession with and struggle to gain control of the brooch.

Cartimandua, back in the first century is beset by enemies on all sides, Romans and  the leaders of the other tribes. It all goes from bad to worse when she betrays Caradoc (Caractacus), the leader of the Catuvellauni tribe, who led the tribes in resisting the Roman invaders and hands him over in chains to the Romans.

For me the essential story was good, but lost impact as it dragged on, drowned in words and by the repetition of the struggles between the characters. Because of this the ending was drained of any impact and suspense for me. I like time-slip stories, the supernatural and the paranormal, so that wasn’t a problem. And I liked the sections explaining Celtic beliefs – their belief in the immortality of the soul, in reincarnations and transmigration of the soul. As one of the characters said:

Remember the world he lived in was an animistic, rainbow world of links and connections which included vast echelons of spirits and gods and ancestors, people dead and people yet to be born, all of whom could be summoned to his aid. (page 258)

In the Author’s Note, Barbara Erskine emphasises that this is above all fiction:

In the absence of written information one has to make do with imagination, dreams and deductive techniques of a dubious nature! … (page 562)

and regarding Cartimandua:

We don’t know her tribe, or if she had children, and although far more is known about her life than that of he much more famous contemporary, Boudicca, she is still an enigma.

So, for all that is historically known about Cartimandua I refer the reader to the Roman historians.

For the truth of her life we must consult archaeology and the oracles.

The rest is silence. (page 562)

A couple of years ago I read Barbara Erskine’s book, The Warrior Princess, another time-slip book, which I also thought was too drawn out and would have been better if the plotting had been tighter. I own one more of her books, which I’ve yet to read – Sands of Time, a collection of short stories, described on the back cover as ‘spine-tingling‘ tales all with ‘a touch of the unexpected … suspense, romance, passion, unexpected echoes of the past.’ I hope, because these are short stories, they will be more succinct than the two books I have read.

This book qualifies for several challenges – Mount To-Be-Read 2013 (it’s been on my shelves for about 4 years), The Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeWhat’s in a Name 6 (in the Fire category) and Once Upon a Time VII (Fantasy).

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

I was hoping that The Distant Hours, Kate Morton’s third book would be as good as the first,The House at Riverton, which I loved. I’ve read her second book The Forgotten Garden, which disappointed me, because it was predictable and I thought it was a re-working of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, The Secret Garden. However, I think The Distant Hours is the least satisfying, which is a shame as it promised to be so good at the beginning and the story itself is fascinating …

A dilapidated castle, aristocratic twins, a troubled sister and a series of dark secrets cast a whispery spell … (from the back cover)

It begins with a creepy tale, The True History of the Mud Man, a children’s story written by Raymond Blythe, the owner of the castle. It begins:

Hush … Can you hear him?

The trees can. They are the first to know that he is coming.

Listen! The trees of the deep, dark wood, shivering and jittering their leaves like papery hulls of beaten silver; the sly wind, snaking through their tops, whispering that it will soon begin.

The trees know, for they are old and have seen it all before.

A tale which haunts the book. The dark secrets begin to surface when Edie Burchill’s mother receives a long-lost letter written fifty years earlier from one of the sisters at Milderhust Castle. Edie is intrigued but her mother is reluctant to talk about it and about the time that she was an evacuee at the castle during the war.

The story slips backwards and forwards in time between the 1990s and the Second World War and the characters and the descriptions of the settings are fine – up to a point. But the book moves at a snail’s past over its 670 pages. There is just too much unnecessary detail, about things on the periphery that never go anywhere. There is so much that it stifles the narrative and the heartaches, betrayals and tragedies become a catalogue of events. I just wasn’t involved. But this is still an enjoyable book, if over long and not as good as her earlier books.

Books Read in February 2013

I enjoyed all the books I finished reading in February and my Pick of the Month goes to two excellent books – Dead Water (Shetland series 5) by Ann Cleeves and The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean, both books being crime fiction.

Dead Water & Alex Seaton

The other books I read are also fiction, although Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon is fictionalised autobiography. Two of the books are from my stock of unread books bought before January 2013, two are books from my local library and one is an e-book borrowed from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

The links are to my posts on the books – I have yet to write my thoughts about Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons.

  1. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (from TBR books). This novel tells the story of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father. It’s told through his diaries and letters together with genuine newspaper articles, although whether they reported truth or lies is questionable.
  2. Dead Water by Ann Cleeves, crime fiction continuing the Shetland series featuring Inspector Jimmy Perez. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this –  a mixture of mystery and the creation of totally believable characters, set in Shetland Mainland.
  3. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sasson (library book). Sassoon was born in 1886 and in this book he relives his childhood, youth and experiences as an officer during the First World War. He comes across as a likeable young man, shy, reserved, and modest, happy-go-lucky but aware of his own shortcomings. But all this changed with the onset of the First World War.
  4. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean (library book)  I think this is one of the best novels I’ve read recently. It’s historical crime fiction set in Scotland in the 1620s, mainly in the town of Banff, where on a stormy night Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s assistant collapses in the street. The next morning he is found dead.
  5. Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn (Kindle) – this is crime fiction, the first in the Daisy Dalrymple series and it’s a quick and easy read, a mix of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse, set in 1923
  6. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie (Poirot)

I’ve also been reading two non-fiction books in February and am still reading them –  Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain and Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin. It takes me longer to read non-fiction than fiction as I read it more slowly, especially these two books that are packed with facts and ideas. But I’m nearing the end of both of them.

After that I’m planning to finish reading The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell, which I first started reading last year and put to one side. I’ve had to start reading it again!

Other books waiting to be read, if not in March then later in the year are Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon, which I’ve borrowed from my local library. This is the next book in his fictionalised autobiography  I’ll also be reading (because it’s my book group choice for March) The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas, a story of wartime, family secrets and forbidden love, set against in the 1940s in Kashmir.

I’ve got a pile of other books from the library which I’m itching to read soon – I think I’ll do a separate post on these books. I’m always tempted to borrow more books than I can possible read in the loan period, but that’s me! As if I don’t have enough of my own unread books to keep me going all year and beyond.

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean

Redemption of AS 001There are some books that have the power to transport me to another time and place and The Redemption of Alexander Seaton is one such book. I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve read recently. It’s quite long and detailed but each time I put it down I wanted to get back to it as quickly as possible. It’s a fantastic book, historical crime fiction, full of atmosphere and well-drawn characters.

It’s set in 17th century Scotland, mainly in the town of Banff, where on a stormy night Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s assistant collapses in the street. The next morning he is found dead in the school house of Alexander Seaton, a failed minister, now a schoolteacher. Davidson was poisoned and when Charles Thom, one of Alexander’s few friends in the town is arrested for the murder, he sets out to prove his innocence. It’s not an easy task, and Alexander finds himself embroiled in an apparent Spanish Catholic plot to invade Scotland, and bigoted prejudices that result in a witch hunt.

As the story unfolds details of Alexander’s history are gradually revealed, his family background, friends and education and the disgrace that prevented him from becoming a minister. The religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants during the reign of Charles I is slotted into the plot seamlessly, explaining the beliefs and prejudices that struck fear into many hearts. It’s a story of murder and cruelty, but also of love and the power of good over evil. For Alexander it’s a trial that eventually sees him beginning to regain his faith in God.

I found the book totally absorbing, convinced I was back in Scotland in the 17th century, eager to find out who the murderer was and the motivation for killing Patrick Davidson. Alexander Seaton is an engaging character and I’m keen to read more about him as there are other books in the series.

The author originally wrote under her name – Shona Maclean, but now her books are published under the truncated name, S G MacLean. She explained in an interview in Shots magazine that “the thinking was that my name was too soft and feminine and men wouldn’t buy my books.” She has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen. Her Alexander Seaton books are:

1. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton (2008)
2. A Game of Sorrows (2010)
3. Crucible of Secrets (2011)
4. The Devil’s Recruit (2013)

Note: The cover shown above is from the 2009 paperback edition published by Quercus, which I borrowed from my local library.

First Chapter First Paragraph

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile By the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where she shares the first paragraph or (2) of a book she is reading or thinking about reading soon. Here’s my contribution this week:

This is the opening of The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean, from the Prologue:

Banff, 26 March 1626, 10 o’clock

The younger of the two whores rifled the man’s pockets with expert fingers. she cursed softly. Nothing.

‘Leave off, then,’ said her sister. The baillie will be here any minute.’

Mary Dawson rolled the man back over onto his face. He groaned, then retched, and she cursed once more as he vomited bile over her foot. ‘Pig’, she said, and kicked him. The wind sent a barrel careering past them down the brae to smash into a wall below. Somewhere a dog took up a demented howling.

What do you think ? — Would you keep reading? I haven’t read much further on, but I will do.

I came across this book whilst reading blogs a few weeks ago and can’t remember which one referred to this author. I was interested firstly because I like historical mysteries,and secondly because this one is set in Banff on the Moray coast where Shona Maclean lives, and where some of my husband’s family came from. It’s a place I’d like to visit one day.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Some years ago I was browsing in a bookshop at Gatwick airport to add to the books I’d brought with me to read on holiday and I bought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I loved it. I’ve read some of her other books, but none as good as The Poisonwood Bible. When I saw that she had written The Lacuna and it had won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, (actually beating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall!) I bought it, expecting great things. That was two and half years ago and it’s only this year that I’ve read it.

I was disappointed as I don’t think it’s as good as either Wolf Hall or The Poisonwood Bible. There some good parts, but overall I was glad to finish reading it. It’s a long tale (670 pages), moving from Mexico in the 1930s to the McCarthy trials of alleged communists in the USA of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it began and ended well, with good descriptions and fascinating characters, but I got bored several times in the middle.

It’s the story of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father and it’s told through his diaries and letters together with genuine newspaper articles, although whether they reported truth or lies is questionable. It begins in Mexico where Harrison’s mother took him to live when she left his father to live with a Mexican businessman, she calls Mr Produce the Cash behind his back. I thought this part came to life with lyrical descriptions of the people and the landscape. But it is only in the second half of the novel that I felt Harrison himself came alive as a character, no longer talking about himself in the third person, ‘the boy’, and referring to himself as ‘I’.

Throughout the book Kingsolver intermingles real characters and events with her fictional ones and I thought that worked well. There are the artists Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. Harrison works for Diego, mixing plaster for his huge murals he painted in Mexico City. Whilst working for Rivera, who was a communist he met and subsequently worked for the exiled Bolshevik leader, Lev Trotsky. And it is this connection that eventually lands him in difficulties later on when he had moved to live in the USA and became a novellist writing historical fiction about the Aztecs. He is accused of being a communist and being Un-American.

I found the historical parts very interesting as I knew nothing about Rivera, or his wife, and very little about Trotsky and the McCarthy trials. But eventually I found the level of detail was just too much and the story meandered, losing impetus. Harrison himself comes across as too passive, too accepting of what ever happened to him, a victim of circumstances. Much more interesting is the second narrator, Violet Brown who becomes his secretary and friend, who saved his diaries from being burnt.

There are several instances of lacunas, missing parts and gaps, scattered throughout the book. For example, some of Harrison’s diaries and notebooks go missing. As a boy he loved swimming and diving into a cave, which is only available at certain tides:

Today the cave was gone. Saturday last it was there. Searching the whole rock face below the cliff did not turn it up. Then the tide came higher and waves crashed too hard to keep looking. How could a tunnel open in the rock and then close again? … Leandro says the tides are complicated and the rocks on that side are dangerous, to stay over here in the shallow reef. He wasn’t pleased to hear about the cave. He already knew about it, it is called something already, la lacuna. (page 45)

But although The Lacuna is well written and well researched I felt there was something missing, the personal elements that brought the story to life for me were few and far between; I couldn’t feel involved and just wanted it to end. I persevered because it has had such good reviews and recommendations, but sadly it dragged for me.

First Chapter, First Paragraphs: The Unquiet Bones

Uetred thought he had discovered pig bones. He did not know or care why they were in the cesspit at the base of Bampton Castle Wall.

Then he found the skull. Uetred was a villein, bound to the land of Lord Gilbert, third Baron Talbot, lord of Bampton Castle and had slaughtered many pigs. He knew the difference between human and pig skulls.

I was browsing in the library, when the medieval style script on the spine of this book caught my eye. Taking it from the shelf I was also struck by the dramatic cover, showing a strange wooden or leather artificial foot. When I read the opening paragraphs and flicked through the pages I decided to borrow the book. It seems it’s a good choice because the library assistant said she had enjoyed it as she likes historical crime fiction – so do I. And there are more books in the series.

It’s The Unquiet Bones: the first chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, surgeon by Melvin R Starr.

I was interested in the foot – is it a genuine medieval prosthetic? I discovered that it is actually an Ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe found on a female mummy at Luxor. The big toe is carved from wood and has holes for lacing it to a leather-type casing.

Now, as far as I know, this is nothing to do with The Unquiet Bones, which is set in the English village of Bampton, but I think it’s fascinating. It certainly drew my attention to the book.

First Chapter, First Paragraphs is a weekly event hosted by Diane at Bibliophile By the Sea.

My Day in Books 2012: a meme

Today I was going to write a post about one of the books I’ve read recently but then I saw that Cornflower had posted this meme: “My Day in Books”. I did this last year and fancied doing it again with this year’s books. The task is to complete the sentences using the titles of books you have read this year.  Here’s what I came up with:

I began the day by The Secret River

before breakfasting on Red Bones (that’s all there was!)

and admiring The Victorian Chaise-Longue.

On my way to work I saw The Woman in White

and walked by The House of Silk

to avoid Our Mutual Friend

but I made sure to stop at The Village.

In the office, my boss said, Death Comes to Pemberley

and sent me to research The Murder on the Links.

At lunch with My Cousin Rachel

I noticed A Man Lay Dead

in A Room Full of Bones

greatly enjoying  A Quiet Life!!

Then on the journey home, I contemplated Endless Night

because I have A Weekend with Mr Darcy

and am drawn to Dancing Backwards.

Settling down for the evening in A Place of Greater Safety

I studied Dark Matter

by Blue Lightning

before saying goodnight to (the) Bad Boy.

I’ve written posts about most of them. Here are the links If anyone wants to to read what I thought about the books:

R.I.P. VII wrap-up

R.I.P. VII, hosted by Carl, has come to its end – the time has just flown by.

I chose Peril the First – ‘Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be King or Conan Doyle, Penny or Poe, Chandler or Collins, Lovecraft or Leroux…or anyone in between.’

Mystery.
Suspense.
Thriller.
Dark Fantasy.
Gothic.
Horror.
Supernatural.
Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

I completed the challenge as many of the books I read in September and October fitted into these categories. I read:

  1. Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xialong
  2. Dark Matter: a Ghost Story by Michelle Paver
  3. The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick
  4. Maigret and the Ghost by Georges Simenon
  5. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells
  6. The Four Last Things by Andrew  Taylor
  7. The Judgement of Strangers by Andrew Taylor
  8. Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson
  9. The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas
  10. The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
  11. Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie
  12. The Expats by Chris Pavone

The ones that stand out as the scariest are The Four Last Things by Andrew Taylor and Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. Sometimes life gets in the way of blogging  so I haven’t had time to write about The War of the Worlds or The House of Silk, but those are good books too and I am aiming to write about The House of Silk – the new Sherlock Holmes Novel!

October Prompt: A Classics Challenge

This month’s prompt in Katherine’s Classics Challenge 2012 is:

Chapter Musings
Jot down some notes about the chapter you’ve just read or one that struck you the most. It can be as simple as a few words you learned, some quotes, a summary, or your thoughts and impressions.

I’ve just started to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. (I have read this book years ago and seen the film.) The first chapter is very short and sets the scene in a few paragraphs. The narrator is looking back to March 1867, presumably from the twentieth century. Three characters are present, none named in this first chapter, a man and a woman walking along the Cobb, ‘ a long claw of old grey wall that flexes itself against the sea’, and a solitary figure, standing at the end of the Cobb:

It stood right at the seawardmost end, apparently leaning against an old cannon-barrel upended as a bollard. Its clothes were black. The wind moved them, but the figure stood motionless, staring, staring out to sea, more like a living memorial to the drowned, a figure from myth, than any proper fragment of the petty provincial day.

The narrator is authoritative, contrasting the Victorian Lyme of a hundred or so years earlier with that of the present day and contrasting the style of dress and manners. There are literary and historical allusions, including the verse (quoted at the beginning of the chapter) from Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Riddle‘, and the vocabulary is also formal and academic. There are some unfamiliar words – just what I wondered are ‘dundrearies’ that the gentleman (for that is what is implied) was wearing:

… the taller man, impeccably in a light grey, with his top hat held in his free hand, had severely reduced his dundrearies, which the arbiters of the best English fashion had declared a shade vulgar – that is, risible to the foreigner – a year or two previously.

I had to look up this word – ‘dundrearies’ were long sideburns worn with a clean-shaven chin (a bit like Bradley Wiggins, who won this year’s Tour de France, maybe?).  There is also a hint that there is more to this story than a love story, for there is also a ‘local spy’.

This first chapter promises an intriguing novel.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: U

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is U.

I’ve chosen Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight, the fourth novel featuring Josephine Tey, which I read on Kindle.

Summary from Fantastic Fiction:

Summer, 1936. The writer, Josephine Tey, joins her friends in the holiday village of Portmeirion to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, are there to sign a deal to film Josephine’s novel, A Shilling for Candles, and Hitchcock has one or two tricks up his sleeve to keep the holiday party entertained – and expose their deepest fears. But things get out of hand when one of Hollywood’s leading actresses is brutally slashed to death in a cemetery near the village. The following day, as fear and suspicion take over in a setting where nothing – and no one – is quite what it seems, Chief Inspector Archie Penrose becomes increasingly unsatisfied with the way the investigation is ultimately resolved. Several years later, another horrific murder, again linked to a Hitchcock movie, drives Penrose back to the scene of the original crime to uncover the shocking truth.

My thoughts:

I have mixed thoughts about this book, good and not so good. Overall I enjoyed it but I found it confusing with so many characters, introduced very quickly in the novel, and it was difficult to distinguish who they all were, with the exception, of course, of Josephine Tey and Alfred Hitchcock. So, not well-defined characters.

However, the setting in Portmeirion is very well done and if you like lots of description that’s a bonus. I do like description, up to a point, but in this book I thought it intruded too much and held up the action. (Portmeirion is Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s Italianate creation in the Welsh countryside. It’s also the setting for the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, if you remember that as I do.) Set in the thirties it does give a good sense of the period between the two world wars with the shadow of the Great War still lingering and the threat of another war getting ever nearer. There is a general air of unhappiness, as Alma, Hitchcock’s wife says:

Perhaps it’s the times we have lived through, but we seem very good at destroying each other and not just through wars. We wear each other down all the time through little acts of jealousy or cruelty or greed. (location 1731)

And there are many such acts in Fear in the Sunlight as the murders pile up. I didn’t really have much idea what was going on until about halfway into the book when the writing became sharper, more focussed on the plot and characters.

I was interested in Nicola Upson’s inclusion of a discussion about writing, about mixing fact and fiction and also about the difference between a book and the film of the book. Here Josephine and Marta are talking about mixing fact and fiction, which is exactly what Nicola Upson does in her books:

‘Mix fact and fiction?’ Josephine asked, and Marta had to laugh at the disapproval in her voice. ‘How would that help restore the reputation of a much aligned man? No one would know what was true and what wasn’t.’

‘Exactly. That’s the fun of it. And a biography would only be your interpretation. At least calling it fiction is honest.’ (location 3548)

Josephine is at Portmeirion to discuss making a film of her book, A Shilling for Candles, with Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. She’s sceptical about the process of using her book as the basis for a film, but Alma tells her:

‘A film can’t just be a visual record of a book or it will never have a life of its own,’ she said.  … ‘It’s like any marriage, I suppose. The two things can coexist if they’re both good in their own right, and it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other.’ (locations 1612-1620)

I’ll try to remember that next time I get irritated at the way a film or TV drama alters a book.

I think that Alfred Hitchcock is really the main character and I don’t know enough about him to be able to distinguish fact from fiction in Fear in the Sunlight, nor do I know that much about the thirties either to judge whether that’s an accurate picture, but I have no doubt that Nicola Upson has done her research. Hitchcock seems to have been a complicated and difficult character, a practical joker and a manipulator:

An experiment in fear and guilt, he had called it, but an exercise in control would have been more accurate. Staging a joke, like making a film, was a way of holding on to power, and Hitchcock had discovered long ago that the manipulation involved in both helped him to forget his own anxieties and doubts. (location 1088)

As you would expect he is a master of suspense:

‘Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight, perhaps fear in this very restaurant, where it is so unexpected – that is interesting’. (location 3465)

 

  • Format: Kindle Edition (also available in paperback)
  • File Size: 821 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber Crime (3 April 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007JVF6U2
  • Source: My own copy
  • My Rating 3/5