Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

I’ve been reading books so quickly this month that I am now far behind with writing about them, so this is just a short post about an excellent new book by Mark Mills, published on 17 November.

I’ve been meaning to read more of Mark Mills’ books ever since I read The Savage Garden in 2008, a book I enjoyed very much, so I was keen to read his latest book, Where Dead Men Meet. It is historical fiction set in 1937 in pre-Second World War Europe, with a fast-moving plot as Luke Hamilton, an intelligence officer at the British Embassy in Paris, tries to discover why someone wants him dead, why Sister Agnes, the nun who had been his mentor and guide at the orphanage for the first seven years of his life had been bludgeoned to death, and who his real parents were.

Although the war in Europe is imminent it is by no means the main focus of this book, but forms an excellent backdrop as the action moves from Paris across the continent. At first he assumes that the assassin has mistaken him for someone else, but the tension builds as Luke realises that he is not the victim of a mistaken identity, but that someone is determined to kill him. He finds himself on the run, helped by a number of people, including the first man who tried to kill him. It seems the answers lie in his past. It is a complicated story that had me unsure of who Luke could trust and whether he would ever escape, or find out about his real family.

I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant book with its interesting characters and a convincing plot full of mystery and intrigue. I shall now look out for more books by Mark Mills.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 972 KB
  • Print Length: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Review (17 Nov. 2016)

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

 

The Spy

Synopsis:

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless.

Soon she was feted as the most elegant woman in the city.

A dancer who shocked and delighted audiences; a confidant and courtesan who bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.

But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. Until, in 1917 she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees and accused of espionage.

Told through Mata’s final letter, THE SPY tells the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to break the conventions of her time, and paid the price.

My thoughts:

Before I read this book I didn’t know much about Mata Hari, beyond the facts that she was an exotic dancer and that she was executed as a spy during the First World War, so I was interested to know more.

The Spy is a gripping tale and one I read quickly, fascinated by the story of Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Zella, a name she detested. The book begins with a prologue describing the execution of Mata Hari in Paris on 15 October 1917. It is quite remarkable; she was calm, taking care with dressing herself and with her appearance and choosing to face the firing squad neither bound nor blindfolded.

It continues with her life story told through letters and news clippings and illustrated with photographs. She was accused of being a double agent, but claimed she was innocent and the evidence against her was indeed flimsy. The whole procedure was based on deductions, extrapolations and assumptions. Whatever the truth about her innocence, she comes across as a strong-minded, independent and arrogant woman, who believed she could use her beauty and charm to allure any man to get what she wanted.

I always like to know when I’m reading fictionalised biographies how much is based on fact and what has been fictionalised, so I appreciated the author’s explanatory note at the end of the book. Coelho writes that he had based his novel on facts, but he had created some dialogue, merged certain scenes, changed the order of a few events and left out anything he thought wasn’t relative to the narrative. His opening pages, for example are from a report for the International News Service by Henry G Wales in Paris and dated October 15, 1917 and he has borrowed some verbatim language from the report. He has used various sources such as the British Intelligence Service file on Mata Hari.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3598 KB
  • Print Length: 220 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1524732060
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital; 01 edition (22 Nov. 2016)

Many thanks to NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

Another Day Gone by Eliza Graham

 

Another Day Gone

In 2007 I read Eliza Graham’s debut novel, Playing with the Moon and loved it. I fully intended to read more of her books, but although I have her fifth book, The One I Was, I somehow missed the other three! So when I saw her latest book, Another Day Gone was available I was delighted to receive an advance copy through NetGalley.

I wasn’t disappointed – in fact I think it’s amongst the best books I’ve read this year.

It’s historical fiction, one of my favourite genres, beginning in 1939 just before the outbreak of the Second World War when a bomb went off in Coventry, killing some people and injuring many others. One of those injured was a girl who had seen a man prop a bicycle outside a store just before the bomb exploded. Her description led to his conviction and execution.

The action then moves forward to 1992 with Sara and her older sister Polly living in their family home in Oxfordshire on the banks of the Thames, with their grandfather and housekeeper (formerly their childhood nanny). The sisters’ parents had been killed in a car crash when they were very young. Polly is eighteen and is just about to leave home for university. All is not well and Polly hints that she knows a secret that she is not telling Sara – and then goes away with Michael, Bridie’s nephew, without saying where they are going or for how long.

Years later, in 2005 Sara returns to her family home, taking refuge from the London 7/7 bombings. Polly has now been missing for 13 years, their grandfather has died and Bridie is in a care home. The family secrets are still buried – until Polly returns!

Another Day Gone is a book about families, relationships and realising and living with the consequences of your actions. I loved the structure of this book with its different strands and time periods and all the twists and turns that kept me guessing about the nature of the secret that had remained hidden for so many years. I particularly liked the way it is only revealed drip by drip that meant I had changed my mind about what it was several times until fairly near the end of the book. The characters are so well drawn and sympathetically portrayed that I felt I knew them as people. It’s the type of book that I can get so involved with and whilst wanting to discover its secrets I just don’t want it to end.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2182 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1503940039
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (22 Nov. 2016)
  • Source: review copy via NetGalley

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Blurb:

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its rich natural resources to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.

Forrester leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Adventurous in spirit, Sophie does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband carves a path through the wilderness. What she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage and fortitude of her that it does of her husband.

My thoughts:

I didn’t really know what to expect when I began reading To the Bright Edge of the World as I hadn’t read anything by Eowyn Ivey before (I see she has also written The Snow Child a Sunday Times bestseller and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). I knew it was fiction but even so at first I wondered if it could be history, because it seemed so real with extracts from the reports, letters and journals of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, about his journey in 1885 from Perkins Island up the Wolverine River in Alaska. But the Author’s note reveals that the book was inspired by a historical military expedition and that all of the characters and many places in the story are fictionalised including the Wolverine River.

This is a lovely book, narrated through the journals not only of Allen Forrester, but also the diaries of his wife, Sophie. It begins with correspondence between Allen’s great nephew Walt (Walter) Forrester and Joshua Stone, the Exhibits Curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska about donating the writings and other material and artifacts to the museum. From then on these three strands of the book are interwoven and I was completely absorbed by each one – Allen’s expedition, Sophie’s life, pregnant and left on her own at Vancouver Barracks in Washington Territory and the letters between Walt and Joshua discussing the Forrester family history, the artifacts, and how life in Alaska changed after the expedition had opened up the area.

The facts of their lives make fascinating reading, demonstrating the difficulties and dangers of such a hazardous enterprise through unmapped and hostile territory as Allen travelled along the Wolverine River. Sophie’s story is equally fraught with difficulties left to cope with boredom and loneliness, the dangers of pregnancy and the antagonism of other women when she upset their social conventions. She takes up photography and I loved all the details of the early techniques of taking and developing photographs in the 1880s. As I read of her attempts to capture photos of birds, and especially a humming bird, I thought of the contrast between then and now – how we take digital photos with instant results and of wildlife programmes where the intimate life of birds is captured on film.

I also loved the mystic elements, the supernatural events that both Allen and Sophie experience, such as the raven and the mysterious old Indian man, the connection to folklore and the beautiful descriptions of the landscape. There are almost spiritual events that Ivey records without explanation that left me puzzling over what actually had happened and what they all meant.

And it is a book full of love, the love of Allen and Sophie and the love of the country, the landscape and its people. Although I said there are three strands to the book, as I read I moved between each one effortlessly, enjoying each one equally and from thinking it read like history, I soon realised it was a fictional story of great beauty, complete and whole, backed up by fact and elevated by Eowyn Ivey’s writing. I loved it.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 6490 KB
  • Print Length: 433 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0316242853
  • Publisher: Tinder Press (2 Aug. 2016)

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

His Name was David Freeman by Ruth Kipnis

When I saw His Name was David Freeman by Ruth Kipnis in NetGalley’s Read Now section I thought it looked interesting and different from most of the other books I read. And it has an unusual cover.

Blurb:

With the sudden death of his father, seventeen-year-old David is forced to leave the security of the estate his father managed in Prussia in search of an uncle living near Kiev in the Ukraine. Carrying with him the dream of owning a grand farm of his own someday. Fate plays into his hands as he’s given the opportunity to immigrate to America taking with him his new bride. In telling his story to his granddaughter he relives the joys, the sorrows and the hardships of raising a family in a world strange to him.

Bewildered as the first generation rejects the old world customs and assimilates into the cultural, the story traces David’s family through the second and third generations from the 1880’s of the Russian Czars to 1960’s in America.

Biography

Raised in Northern California, Ruth developed a love for horses at an early age. She and her husband raised their family in Woodside, California where they participated in the local horse activities from horse shows to fox hunting.

Through a twist of fate they turned a hobby into a thriving business when they added a Thoroughbred Training Center to their already growing Thoroughbred broodmare operation.

After retiring Ruth and her husband spent two years aboard their boat, the Paradigm, sailing the waters of Mexico. Settling in Puerto Vallarta they returned to the States seven years later for medical reasons. They purchased a farm in South Carolina filling it with ex-race horses.

Writing came late in her varied career. Ruth believes all of us have some secret desire, be it to ride a bike, play a guitar, paint a picture, or in her case write a novel. Age should not dissuade anyone from the joy of following one’s bliss.

Seeing her stories in print, knowing people are enjoying what she has written she says is reward enough. All proceeds from the book are donated to charity.

My thoughts:

Overall it is an enjoyable book – it’s a love story and a family drama.

In the author’s note Ruth Kipnis clarifies that this is a novel based on the author’s research into her family history. Her story mirrors the stories of so many impoverished and poorly educated farmers who had left the Ukraine in the late 1880s during the brutal reign of Czar Alexander III. ‘Whilst some failed, most by sheer will and hard work created a better, richer life than they had ever known.’

I loved the first part in which David tells his granddaughter Maya the story of his life. He was born in Prussia (later Poland) where his father worked on the estate of Count Frederic Von Zoransky. After his father’s death he went to live with his uncle in Grodov, a Shtetl (a small village) near Kiev in the Ukraine before emigrating to America in the late 1880s.

The details of his early life, the horrors of the voyage to America and the difficulties the immigrants encountered are vividly described, bringing the story to life. The family’s struggles against anti-semitism, prejudice and hardship are fascinating. When he and Miriam, his wife, arrived at Ellis Island he gave his name as ‘David Freeman’ because he couldn’t chance using his real name in case he was identified as an Army deserter. He’d made it to America as a free man.

I loved the descriptions of all the places in the book – I could see the hustle and bustle of Kiev, with its wide streets crowded with people and filled with fine horse drawn carriages. Similarly the farm in Connecticut that eventually David was able to buy with a loan from the Jewish Agricultural Society is described in fine detail.

Whilst I did like the second part of the book in which Maya brings the story of her family up to date through the Second World War and upto the 1960s, I didn’t find that it had the same level of drama and appeal as the first part. There are also a number of grammatical and typing errors throughout the book.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 666 KB
  • Print Length: 263 pages
  • First published 15 September 2016
  • Publisher: First Edition Design Publishing
  • Source: my thanks to NetGalley for my copy

Highlanders’ Revenge by Paul Tors

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day), marking the anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. Remembrance Sunday is held to commemorate those who served the country in two world wars and in more recent conflicts. There will be the traditional two-minute silence at the Cenotaph on Whitehall at 11am today.

I think I should know more about the two world wars. There are many books and I’ve read some, mostly novels about the Second World War, but I haven’t read any military histories that go into the detail of the battles and the conditions the forces experienced. So when Victoria Richman emailed and asked me whether I would like to read Highlanders’ Revenge, a book that combines historical fiction and military history I accepted her offer. She is the co-author with her uncle, Paul Richman, writing under the pen name of ‘Paul Tors’.  Paul is a retired business man with a passion for military history and Victoria, also known as Tors, is a Creative Writing graduate who worked on a number of magazines before becoming a freelance writer.

Highlanders' Revenge

Blurb:

Highlanders’ Revenge combines a riotous story of battle and life during World War Two with an insight into the world of a little known, but fierce fighting unit; the 5th Camerons. This fast-paced historical novel will appeal to fans of military fiction who also appreciate historical accuracy.

Highlanders’ Revenge tells the story of Mash, the nickname Highland soldiers give to an Englishman in their ranks. Scarred both from the retreat before the Blitzkrieg advance across France and from the murder of his first love, Mash has to integrate himself into a new section that is wary of the sullen and secretive ‘Mash Man’.

Together they journey to Egypt where they encounter a way of life that tests them to their limits as they prepare for one of the greatest battles of the Second World War; El Alamein. Scorched by day, frozen by night and plagued by insects, they have to learn how to live and fight in the desert as they prepare for one of the greatest battles of the Second World War. They are then cast into the thick of the fighting at El Alamein and the Allies’ tumultuous battle to break through the Axis defenses.

My thoughts:

Highlanders’ Revenge is a meticulously researched and very detailed historical novel, about ‘Mash’, an Englishman in a Highland regiment, first as he fought with the 4th Camerons at St Valery in June 1940 during the Battle of France and then in the 5th Camerons at the second Battle of El Alamein between 23 October and 4 November 1942.

This novel vividly portrays the horror of war. I think it combines historical fiction and military history well and there is an extensive glossary at the end of the book that explains a lot of the terms that I hadn’t come across before. I learnt a great deal about World War Two, particularly about the second Battle of El Alamein. It brought home to me the devastating conditions that the troops encountered, not just the reality of war but the physical presence of the heat, the multitude of insects, the dust and the sand, and the almost constant dysentery.

There is an excellent Author’s Note explaining where the novel diverges from the historical record. The central characters are fictional, but the book is based on real events. There are also maps, a bibliography and as I mentioned an extensive glossary.

Highlanders’ Revenge is the first step in a journey that will take Mash through North Africa and the invasion of Sicily, onto the D-Day landings, the battles around Caen before the liberation of the Low Countries, the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine before ending the war in Bremen.

My thanks to the authors for a digital copy, via NetGalley.

  • Format: Kindle Edition – also available in paperback
  • File Size: 2747 KB
  • Print Length: 369 pages
  • Publisher: Troubador (14 July 2016)

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link

The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths

The Blood Card (DI Stephens & Max Mephisto, #3)The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths is the third in the DI Stephens and Max Mephisto series. Known as the ‘Magic Men’ they had been part of a top-secret espionage unit during the War.

This book captures the atmosphere of 1953 – a time of great change and optimism. Britain is looking forward with eager anticipation to the new Queen’s coronation. The newspapers and newsreels are full of it and more than half the homes in the country have bought a television in order to watch the coronation live- it was the first British coronation to be broadcast on television, a momentous occasion. But there are fears that an anarchist group is plotting to disrupt the coronation.

Max, a magician, and his daughter Ruby, also a magician, are preparing for a TV Coronation Variety show, whilst Edgar is leading the investigation into death of Madame Zabini, a gypsy fortune teller, on Brighton pier.  However, when their former war-time commander is murdered both Edgar and Max are instructed to investigate his death. A playing card, the ace of hearts had been found on his body, next to the knife still in his chest. Magicians call it the ‘blood card‘.

Whilst Max investigates the show business connection, Edgar flies to the States to interview a witness who has links to an anarchist group, leaving Sergeant Emma Holmes to look into Madame Zabini’s death. At first it looked as though she had committed suicide when her body had been found washed up near the Palace Pier but Emma suspects it was not an accident or suicide. As the investigations progress it appears there may be a connection between the two deaths and also links to the plot to disrupt the coronation.,

I loved the way this book is so firmly set in 1953, and conveys the public’s excitement about the new Queen and the coronation, especially as it was being broadcast live on television. I enjoyed the insight into the history of television as Max is sceptical about performing magic on TV thinking the ‘smug grey box’ will be the death of the days of music hall, that magic tricks needed to be performed on stage not in close up with a camera over his shoulder. But he is persuaded to take part in a new show after the coronation – Those were the Days ( that is The Good Old Days). And I also liked the character progression as Edgar and Max continue their friendship. Edgar is engaged to Ruby, although Max is not too happy about it. And Edgar appears to be unaware of Emma’s feelings for him. How this will end is yet to be resolved.

The Blood Card is a most entertaining book, with a convincing cast of characters. The mystery is expertly handled, with plenty of suspense and lots of twists and turns as the separate plot strands are intricately woven together. I loved it.

Thanks Quercus Books and Netgalley for an advance review copy of this book ahead of publication on 3rd November.

Amazon UK link

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

The Plague Charmer

Karen Maitland is a great storyteller.

The Plague Charmer is a fascinating medieval tale full of atmosphere and superstition. It’s a long but an unputdownable book, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I received an uncorrected proof copy of this, her latest novel, from Lovereading. The book is set in Porlock Weir in 1361 where a village is isolated by the plague when the Black Death spreads once more across England.  Following an eclipse of the sun, as a storm rages along the coast, a ship is blown ashore bringing a dark stranger, Janiveer, to the village. She warns the villagers that the plague, raging in other parts of the country will soon spread to their village and offers to save them – but for a terrible price.

It’s a complex story, told from different characters’ perspectives, following the lives of Will, a ‘fake’ dwarf, Sara, a packhorse man’s wife and her family, Matilda, a religious zealot, and Christina at nearby Porlock Manor amongst others. It’s a tale of folklore, black magic, superstition, violence, torture, murder, and an apocalyptic cult – and also of love. As the plague spreads and more horrendous deaths pile up bringing  fear and hysteria, families are broken up, and hostilities surface as the village is isolated, left to fend alone.

I thought Will a fascinating character. He was not born a dwarf, but was subjected to horrific treatment as a baby, strapped into an iron bridle, compressed and deformed as he grew to form a squat little dwarf. He is remarkably free of bitterness and capable of more humanity than most of the other characters. Sara, too shows strength of character as she perseveres in her search for her two missing sons.

I like the Historical Notes, providing more detailed information about the period, the people and the location, as well as the legends, and the answers to the medieval riddles that head Will’s chapters. I particularly like the information about the plague and the various religious cults of the period. The Glossary is also invaluable, helping to flesh out the detail.

The Plague Charmer is a superb combination of historical fact and fiction. I really enjoyed reading this detailed and chillingly dark atmospheric book. It’s a memorable story with a colourful cast of characters, full of suspense and drama.

My thanks to Headline for also providing a proof copy via NetGalley.

  • Hardcover: 576 pages (also as an e-book)
  • Publisher: Headline Review (20 Oct. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472235827
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472235824

Amazon UK link

The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson

The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is his second novel about Tom Fleck: a Novel of Cleveland and Flodden, which I reviewed in 2011.

Blurb:

This story follows the struggles of a farm labourer in North-East England. The series began with the novel, ‘Tom Fleck’, in which we followed Tom’s adventures, loves, and troubles in the year 1513, the year of the Battle of Flodden. The present book re-enters his life twenty-three years later in 1536, in the dark year of the dissolution of the monasteries and the subsequent rebellion known as ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’. Tom is on a journey with his wife and blind daughter and must travel through the chaos.

My view:

Once again I was transported back to the 16th century with Tom Fleck and his family, this time it is 1536. He now has grown-up sons, Francis and Isaac, both at sea, part of the crew of the Plenty under Captain Ben Hood, a daughter of seventeen, Kate, who is blind and twins aged 15. Tom is now a farmer, living for the past twenty years at Crimond Hall on the Durham coast. As Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries begins Tom and Rachel, his wife, together with their daughter Kate set out for London to visit a lawyer as Rachel has been bequeathed five hundred gold sovereigns in her father’s friend’s will.

As the blurb indicates their journey is not without danger, bringing them into contact with the rebels led by Robert Aske (a real historical character who led the Pilgrimage of Grace protest). Tom’s sons, Francis and Isaac are also in trouble as the Plenty runs aground on the Goodwin Sands in the Dover Straits, encounters a ‘plague ship’, a grounded Portuguese caravel with just one man and a dog left on on board, and engages battle with Barbary pirates from North Africa.

The Black Caravel is a fascinating story about ordinary people set against the background of national affairs and how it affects their lives, for example one character refers to ‘poor Anne Boleyn what’s got no head‘ and he thinks that Richard of York was the true King, not Henry VIII. I was immersed in the time and place – the landscape, the bird sounds, the plants and animals, the towns and the seascape are all beautifully described; for example this passage describing the scene as the fog over the Goodwins lifted:

The fog shifted. Then swirled. Driven before a freshening breeze the murk swept away to the northeast. The shore boat approached the grounded Plenty in bright noon sun. In the shallows around her, the sea was a burnished duck-egg green. Farther out, the surface glowed steel-bright and sparkled with a million ripples. The drying sandbanks threw back white light, fierce to the eyes.

An urgent shout came from the Plenty. The rowers bent harder. A hoard of dark shapes undulated across the sandbank. The seals bugled in alarm while they jostled to plunge into the sea. A flock of pied birds lifted in panic before the approach of men who ran full tilt armed with crossbows and spears. The oystercatchers flew overhead, bleating. Urgent hands reached over the side to heave the heavy captain onto the deck of the cog.(page 59)

There is so much packed in this short novel, reflecting the way of life and the attitudes of the times such as the religious fervour as England broke away from Rome, the ways of treating illness (Kate is blind as a result of a blow to her head) and the anti-semitism that prevailed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

My thanks to Harry Nicholson for sending me a copy to read and review.

  • Paperback: 188 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (30 Aug. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1535378085
  • ISBN-13: 978-1535378086
  • Source: Review copy from the author

The Black Friar by S G MacLean

 

The Black Friar by S G MacLean is one of those books that has the power to transport me to another time and place. I was totally absorbed, convinced I was back in England in the 17th century.

It is the second book in the Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set in 1655 during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime. It’s a complex mystery, particularly as there are various factions and religious sects plotting rebellion against Cromwell.

A body, presumed by his black robe to be that of a Dominican friar, is found bricked up in a wall in Blackfriars, once a monastery and now a derelict building gradually falling into the River Fleet. But this was no friar, as Seeker recognised him as Carter Blyth one of Thurloe’s undercover agents, who had been working in the Netherlands, observing the Royalists colluding with foreign powers. As far as Seeker knew he had been killed in Delft three months earlier. Seeker’s task is to find why he had been killed and who killed him. He discovers that Blyth under Thurloe’s orders had in fact infiltrated a group of Fifth Monarchists who wanted to overthrow Cromwell and had been living with the Crowe family, members of the group, under the name of Gideon Fell.

It’s a complicated and intricate tale as Seeker, helped by Nathaniel Crowe, tries to discover what Blyth had been doing, and what trail he was following. There are missing children, whose whereabouts Blyth had been investigating, and plots to overthrow Cromwell as well as plots to reinstate Charles Stuart as King.

Although The Black Friar is the second book in the series, (the first is The Seeker, which I haven’t read) I think it works well as a stand-alone book. The characterisation is strong and I particularly like Damian Seeker, a man both respected and feared, and a man to trust.

I also like the way S G MacLean has based her book on solid historical research (she has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen) and weaves real historical figures into the story, such as the poet John Milton, now an old blind man, the Secretary of Foreign Tongues and the diarist Samuel Pepys, an Exchequer clerk, who though very personable was ‘prone to drink and some lewdness.’ It all brings to life the atmosphere and tenor of the 1650s. I loved it.

My thanks to Netgalley and Quercus books for my copy of this book. It is due to be published on 6 October.

Recent Additions at BooksPlease

books-sept-2016

From top to bottom: the first seven in the pile are from Barter Books in Alnwick, my favourite bookshop where you can either swap or buy books. I took seven books in and came home with another seven. I love browsing at Barter Books and always find books I want to read.

  • Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott – I had to search round the various places fiction is shelved in Barter Books before I found this book in the Romance section. It’s by Agatha Christie, writing as Mary Westmacott. The books she wrote under this pseudonym are a complete change from her crime fiction – she was such a versatile writer. Her daughter, Rosalind, called them “bitter-sweet stories about love”. It was first published in 1944.
  • Arms and the Women by Reginald Hill – I’ve been collecting his books in an attempt to read them in chronological order. This is the 18th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery in which Ellie, Pascoe’s wife is in danger at a decaying seacoast mansion.
  • An April Shroud by Reginald Hill – the 4th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery, set in a solitary mansion in the Lake District where Pascoe is spending his honeymoon.
  • The House by the Churchyard by Sheridan Le Fanu – the Horror section is right next to Crime Fiction and I don’t usually look there but as I walked past this book caught my eye as it was displayed in one of the holders on the side of the bookcase, maybe because I’m taking part in the R.I.P. event at the moment. Le Fanu was described by Henry James as in the ‘first rank of ghost writers‘. Set in the 1760s in Ireland, it begins with the accidental disinterment of an old skull and an eerie late-night funeral.
  • A Game of Sorrows by Shona MacLean – the second book in the Alexander Seaton series. I’ve read the first and the third so I was pleased to find this one. It’s set in 1628 in Ulster as Seaton investigates a family curse – a family divided by secrets and bitter resentments.
  • The Collector by John Fowles – another author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. This could also be a choice for the R.I.P. event. It’s described as a thriller with psychological and social overtones, the story of a kidnapping.
  • A Walk Along the Wall by Hunter Davies – I was really pleased to find this book Hadrian’s Wall is the most important Roman monument in Britain. Hunter Davies grew up at one end of the wall and was inevitably drawn to walk its length. It’s part history, part guidebook and part personal experience and gives readers a taste of what life was like in this remote part of Britain 2000 years ago.

The bottom two books in the pile aren’t from Barter Books:

  • The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is a book the author sent to me for review. It’s his second novel, a sequel to ‘Tom Fleck‘ which I reviewed in 2011. It begins and ends at Hartlepool in 1536, the year of The Pilgrimage of Grace, as Barbary corsairs are raiding northwards.

and finally a birthday present (in August):

  • Rowan’s Well by C J Harter – a psychological thriller (another one for  R.I.P. maybe). Rowan’s Well is a remote house on the north-east coast of England, home to the charismatic Brooke family, the scene of murder and betrayal.

I want to start reading them all – now!

Favourite Books: September 2007 – 2010

Each month I’ve been looking back at some of my favourite books I read during the years 2007 – 2010. These are some of my favourite books I read in September in each of those years. September seems to have been a great month for books as I rated so many 5/5, but I’m highlighting just one for each month in this post. Revisiting these books makes me want to re-read all of them.

Click on the titles to see my original reviews.

2007


Crow Lake by Mary Lawson – this tells the story of a family of four children living at Crow Lake in the north of Canada in an isolated house miles away from any town, with just a few other families in the vicinity. The narrator is Kate Morrison and the story unfolds as she looks back on her life, triggered by an invitation to her nephew’s 18th birthday party.

When she was seven her parents were killed in a car crash, leaving her, her baby sister and two teenage brothers, orphaned. The trauma of their parents’ death affects the children in different ways and as Kate looks back on the events that followed she begins to see that not everything was as it seemed to her at the time.

Convincing characters combined with beautiful descriptions of Crow Lake and its ponds make this a memorable and lyrical novel.

2008

The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates made a great impression on me in 2008 and I wrote three posts about it – see here and here for the first two and here for my final thoughts.

This is a melodramatic and memorable book depicting a grim, dark world, a violent and pessimistic world, gothic and grotesque. In some ways it reminds me of Hardy’s novels – you know something terrible will happen whatever the characters do to try to avert tragedy.

The main character is Rebecca Schwart, born in New York Harbor, the daughter of Jacob and Anna escaping from Nazi Germany in 1936. They live a life of abject poverty whilst Jacob can only find work as a caretaker of Milburn Cemetery, a non-demoninational cemetery at the edge of the town.

Soon the town’s prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty results in unspeakable tragedy. In the wake of this loss, and in an attempt to put her past behind her, Rebecca moves on, across America and through a series of listless marriages, in search of somewhere, and someone, to whom she can belong.

The ending both surprised and touched me enormously.

2009

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear – the third book in her Maisie Dobbs series. This one is set in 1930 when Maisie is asked by Sir Cecil Lawton to prove that his son, Ralph really did die in 1917 during the First World War. Sir Cecil’s wife, who had recently died, had been convinced that Ralph was still alive and on her deathbed made him promise to search for their son. This takes Maisie on a traumatic and dangerous trip to France – to the battlefields where she had been a nurse.

I like the Maisie Dobbs books. They’re easy to read, but not simple, the plots are nicely complicated and Maisie’s own story is seamlessly interwoven with the mystery. They give a good overall impression of the period, describing what people were wearing, the contrast between the rich and the poor and the all-pervading poisonous London smog. The horror of the War is still strong, people are still grieving for friends and relations killed or missing, visiting the battlefields and working to improve life for the soldiers who had returned home injured, and for the homeless children forced into life on the streets.

2010

The Fall by Simon Mawer – beautifully written, I was enthralled by this book. This is the story of Rob Dewar and Jamie Matthewson from their childhood up to Jamie’s death 40 years later and also the story of their parents and how their lives are interlinked.

The narrative moves between the two generations beginning in the present day, when Rob hears on the news that Jamie, a renowned mountaineer has fallen to his death in Snowdonia. No one is sure whether it was an accident or suicide. Then it moves  back 40 years to the time when the two boys met, both fatherless – Jamie’s dad, Guy went missing when climbing Kangchenjunga and Rob’s parents are divorced, and back yet further again to 1940 when Guy Matthewson met the boys’ mothers – Meg (later calling herself Caroline) and Diana. And so the drama unfolds in the mountains of Wales and the Alps, culminating on the North Face of the Eiger.

My Friday Post: The Scent of Death

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City
Reader
 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.

This week’s book is a library book I’m thinking of reading. It’s The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor. I borrowed it because I’ve enjoyed some of his other books. It begins:

This is the story of a woman and a city. I saw the city first, glimpsing it from afar as it shimmered like the new Jerusalem in the light of the setting sun.

Synopsis:

August, 1778. British-controlled Manhattan is a melting pot of soldiers, traitors and refugees, surrounded by rebel forces as the American War of Independence rages on. Into this simmering tension sails Edward Savill, a London clerk tasked with assessing the claims of loyalists who have lost out during the war.

Savill lodges with the ageing Judge Wintour, his ailing wife, and their enigmatic daughter-in-law Arabella. However, as Savill soon learns, what the Wintours have lost in wealth, they have gained in secrets.

The murder of a gentleman in the slums pulls Savill into the city’s underbelly. But when life is so cheap, why does one death matter? Because making a nation is a lucrative business, and some people cannot afford to miss out, whatever the price…

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

You’re a thief, a damned pickpocket. There were two empty purses in your bundle. And those shoes you had on your feet – well they tell their own story don’t they?

I like the promise of this book – historical crime fiction set during the American War of Independence, a war about which I know only the briefest of details.

Books Read in August 2016

I read 6 books this August, three of them TBR books, and all are fiction, a mix of crime fiction, historical fiction and epic fantasy novels. One book is a library book and one a review copy. (The links are to my  posts on the books.)

  • The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (TBR), a fascinating novel about the Wars of the Roses and Richard III from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485 and one of the best historical novels that I’ve read.
  • The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas Hume (LB), the second The Sea Detective novel, set in an imaginary coastal village of Poltown in the north of Scotland, the story revolves around the main character,Violet who had been abandoned as a new-born baby.  It had been assumed that her mother, Megan had committed suicide, although her body had never been found.  Cal McGill helps Violet find out what really happened.
  • The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, a Miss Silver Mystery first published in 1961. It begins well as the main character finds herself in the dark in a cellar, not knowing who she is or how she got there. Overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.
  • The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, a review copy from Lovereading due to  be published in October. This is another unputdownable book by Karen Maitland, set in Porlock Weir in 1361, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My full review will follow later this month.
  • A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire,1) by George R R Martin (TBR), an epic fantasy novel  set in a grim and violent world full of tragedy, betrayals and battles; a tale of good versus evil in which family, duty, and honour are in conflict. It’s complex and multifaceted, and full of stories and legends and wonderful characters. I loved it.
  • The Mysterious Mr Quin (Agatha Christie…The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie (TBR) – I finished this collection of short stories yesterday. It’s one of her earliest books, first published in 1930, not at all like her Poirot or Miss Marple books, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s beautifully written. I’ll write about it in more detail soon.

It’s impossible to decide which is my favourite this month between books in different genres. I loved The Sunne in Splendour, The Game of Thrones and The Mysterious Mr Quin in almost equal measure, each book taking me to completely different worlds and times.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

Richard III (1452 – 1485), that controversial king – what was the truth about him? Did he murder his nephews, the ‘Princes in the Tower’, was he deformed, with a withered arm, a hunch back and a limp as Shakespeare portrayed him, was he a cold-blooded, evil villain? Or has he been maligned and been turned into a  monster who killed his brother’s sons in order to take the Crown?

I remembered merely the brief details about the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between the house of York and Lancaster for the throne of England,  from my school history lessons and only became interested in Richard III years later when I read Alison Weir’s non-fictional The Princes in the Tower, which examined the available evidence and came to the conclusion that Richard III was responsible for their deaths. Some years later I read Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time, which also investigates his role in the death of his nephews and his own death at the Battle of Bosworth and concluded that Richard hadn’t murdered his nephews.

The discovery of his skeleton buried beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012 revealed that although ‘the curved spine on the skeleton does show he had Scoliosis, he did not have a withered arm or other details attributed to him in some characterisations’ (see the Incredible Discovery at the King Richard III Visitor Centre ).

But it wasn’t the discovery of his skeleton that nudged me into reading  The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Penman’s detailed historical novel, first published in 1982. It was watching A Game of Thrones, which is based in part on the Wars of the Roses – Stark and Lannister/York and Lancaster etc.

The Sunne in Splendour is a fascinating novel about his life from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485. Much has been written about Richard, from the time of his death onwards, that Sharon Penman points out has to be considered in the light of the writers’ bias, stating in her Author’s Note at the end of the book:

I once came upon the definition of history as ‘the process by which complex truths are transformed into simplified falsehoods’. That is particularly true in the case of Richard III, where the normal medieval proclivity for moralizing and partisanship was further complicated by deliberate distortion to suit Tudor political needs.’ (page 884)

She states that she had tried to be as accurate as possible, drawing upon facts that are not in dispute, relying on contemporary chroniclers, and when dealing with conflicting accounts ‘to choose the one most in accord with what we know of the people involved.’ 

I think this is one of the best historical novels that I’ve read. It is full of detail, but her research sits very lightly in this book, none of it feels like a history lesson, and it all brings Richard’s world to life. Penman portrays a very likeable Richard, from his childhood onwards he comes across as a kind, generous and brave man, a skilled leader on the battlefield, a loving husband to his wife, Anne, and devoted and loyal to his brother, Edward IV, who was by no means a saint. I particularly liked the way Penman showed his relationship with his family, especially with his brothers Edward and George, the Duke of Clarence.

I could easily visualise the battle scenes, that eventually brought the Wars of the Roses to an end and was fascinated by the view of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) – I’d like to know more about him. It’s his view of Richard that prevailed after his accession to the throne. During his life Richard he had a good reputation and was loved, particularly in the North of England. But he fell victim to treachery and intrigue.

One of the drawbacks of reading historical fiction is that if you have any knowledge of the period you know the eventual outcome. Penman’s skill is such that even though I knew Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field I kept hoping he would survive and defeat Henry Tudor.

As for her solution to who killed the princes, that is one spoiler I’m not going to reveal – I was convinced though by her version of events. I think The Sunne in Splendour is a brilliant book, I was absolutely gripped by it and was sad when I came to the end. It’s a long book, nearly 900 pages and it took me a while to read it, but never once did I think it was too long, or needed editing. I loved it.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve left too long unread as it’s been on my shelves for 5 years!

Books Read in June

I read seven books in June, all of them ones that I’d included on my 20 Books of Summer Challenge, six of them books that qualify for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (ie books I’ve owned prior to 1st January 2016). And I’ve managed to write about six of them – see the links to the books listed below.

  1. High Rising by Angela Thirkell (TBR) – an entertaining and witty social comedy, set in the 1930s.
  2. Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham (TBR) – crime fiction introducing DC Fiona Griffiths, one of the most original fictional detectives I’ve come across.
  3. Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine (TBR) – a murder mystery, a missing child, a question of identity and overarching it all are the stories of two families – the Westerbys and the Ropers. A brilliant book.
  4. A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (TBR) – Inspector Alan Grant investigates the apparent suicide of a young and beautiful film star, Christine Clay, who was found dead beneath the cliffs of the south coast.
  5. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (TBR) – a gripping novel that had me on tenterhooks as well as being a beautifully written book, set in a Europe at war and its aftermath. I loved it.
  6. Heat Wave by Penelope Lively (TBR) – an in depth study of angst, frustration and conflict, set against the changing landscape of the countryside, the effect of the heat on the land, the crops and the people.
  7. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin by W J Burley – a search for a missing person turns into a murder case. (My post on this book to come later.)

During June I continued reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain, which has reminded me of all the difficult times we have lived through in the years after the Second World War and continue to experience.

I’ve been reading some excellent fiction and my favourite book has to be Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine:

closely followed by The Glass Room by Simon Mawer:

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer 

Synopsis from Amazon:

Cool. Balanced. Modern. The precisions of science, the wild variance of lust, the catharsis of confession and the fear of failure – these are things that happen in The Glass Room.

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor’s lover and her child.

But the house’s story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events become full-circle.

The house and its setting are not fictional, but are based on the Tugendhat House, Brno in the Czech Republic. A few of the characters are non-fictional but the rest are imaginary and their story has no basis in fact. In his introduction to the Abacus edition of the book, published in 2013, Simon Mawer describes his first visit to the house, which was then a museum. He hadn’t planned to write a novel centred on the house. To him is not a museum, but ‘vibrant and alive’, and the novel was born.

I found it a gripping novel that had me on tenterhooks as I was reading. It is, as the synopsis relates, the story of a house, the Landauer House, and specifically of a room within that house called the ‘Glass Room’.

Liesel and Viktor stood and marvelled at it [the Glass Room]. It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the gardens, light reverberating from the glass. It was as though they stood inside a crystal of salt. Isn’t it wonderful,’ she exclaimed, looking round with an expression of amazement. ‘You feel so free, so unconstrained. The sensation of space, of all things being possible. Don’t you think it is wonderful, Viktor? Don’t you think that Rainer has created a masterpiece for us?’ (pages 64-5)

The whole wall of the lower ground floor is plate glass. The room is a huge space, white walls, furnished with little decoration beyond a piano, specially designed chairs in the sitting area in front of an onyx wall veined with amber and honey, polished to a mirror-like gloss, reflecting the light, and a circular dining table in the dining area enclosed in a semicircle partition of Macassar wood.

But it was the story of the people who lived/worked in the house that captivated me and made me so anxious for them and about what would happen to them as the events of the Second World War and beyond overtook their lives. It’s not only a gripping novel, but also a beautifully written book with interesting and likeable characters, set in a Europe at war and its aftermath; and a book about architecture, ideas, about love and loss, about prejudice and persecution. A deeply moving and haunting book.

I’ve read two of Simon Mawer’s earlier books, The Gospel of Judas (2000) and The Fall (2003), both of which I also thoroughly enjoyed. He has also written:

Chimera (1989)
The Bitter Cross (1992)
A Place in Italy (1992)
A Jealous God (1996)
Mendel’s Dwarf (1997)
Swimming to Ithaca (2006)
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2012)
aka Trapeze
Tightrope (2015)

For more details see his website.

The Glass Room is my 27th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2016 challenge and the 5th book I’ve read in the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

I’m currently reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, so I’m delighted to see that he has won the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his novel Tightrope.


Tightrope follows Marian Sutro, who has survived Ravensbruck and is back in dreary London trying to pick up the pieces of her post-War life. It is Simon Mawer’s tenth novel; his seventh,The Glass Room, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2010.

My Friday Post: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader 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.

This week’s book is The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which I’ve just begun to read. It begins:

Oh yes, we’re here.

She knew after all these years. Something about the slope of the road, the way the trajectory of the car began to curve upwards, a perception of shape and motion that, despite being unused for thirty years, was still engraved on her mind, to be reawakened by the subtle coincidence of movement and inclination.

Friday 56

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Her eyes were blue, so pale that they gave the curious illusion of transparency, as though you were looking through them and seeing the sky.

He fumbled for his lighter and watched as she bent towards the flame. She wore a grey cloche hat and her hair was dark and cut short, not cropped as severely as Liesel’s and her friends’, but short enough to be a statement that she was a modern woman. A Slav he fancied.

It looks from the opening sentences and the extract from page 56 that this is going to be a detailed, descriptive book. I like that.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House has been built for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But, when the storm clouds of WW2 gather, the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor’s lover and her child. But the house’s story is far from over, as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian.

This is a work of fiction, but the house in Prague is real. Mawer follows it through all of the upheavals of 20th century Czech history.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetNatasha Pulley’s first novel made a great impact on me from the start of the book. It is one of those books that I enjoyed very much, but don’t feel that I can really do it justice in a blog post. Even after a second reading I’m not at all sure I understand some of it. It’s long, complicated, packed with detail and an awful lot happens in it.

So instead of me trying to write something coherent about it I’ve copied the synopsis from the inside cover:

In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.

When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.

As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses.

Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius – and a clockwork octopus – collide.

My thoughts:

These are just a few thoughts that struck me both as I was reading the book and later thinking about it. It’s a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan, following the lives of the main characters, Thaniel Stapleton, Keita Mori and Grace Carrow. I like to know what is historical fact and what is the author’s own creation. So I was pleased to read in her Acknowledgements, that Natasha Pulley explains that there is some historical accuracy and cites Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London for resources on the early days of the London Underground, the Knightsbridge Japanese show village, the bombing of Scotland Yard and numerous other interesting things.  (As I read the book I was very tempted to leave the story to find out more about these topics, but the story drew me on and I left them for later.)

I was completely convinced by the setting in a different time in a world that was familiar and yet so different. I  liked the writing style, although in parts it’s a bit ‘clunky’ and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘they’ or ‘them’ made it a bit difficult to follow, but this is only a minor quibble. I also liked the characterisation and how the characters’ history was revealed and how their personalities were developed. Keita Mori is an interesting character and as I read my opinion of him kept changing – just who is he? He is an enigma, why is he living in London, is he the bomb maker, does he in fact know what is going to happen, is he a magician? He baffled and confused me as much as he baffled and confused the other characters.

Equally fascinating are the sections set in Japan; Grace’s story, her research into luminiferous ether (a bit hard to follow), her relationship with Akira Matsumoto, the elegant son of a Japanese nobleman; the Japanese show village in Hyde Park where Gilbert and Sullivan went to research for the Mikado; the early days of the London Underground; and of course the clockwork inventions, in particular Katsu, the clockwork octopus.

There is so much in this book, so many passages I underlined in my e-book, so many intertwining stories and lines that I have not mentioned – politics, the Fenians, bombs, the workings of the Home and Foreign Offices, suffragettes, racism, and class snobbery – I could go on and on. It may seem that this is a hotch-potch of a book, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. In fact I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity, producing a fantastical tale that occupied my mind during and after my reading.

I reserved The Watchmaker of Filigree Street at the library but before it was available the e-book was on offer on Amazon, so I ended up reading from both editions. And in doing so, I can now see the benefits of both – I can underline in an e-book and make notes without any damage to the book and as it has X-Ray it’s easy to find passages about the characters and places etc. But the physical book is a joy to read – the text is set in Bell, originally cut for John Bell in 1788, and the cover is beautiful.

A close-up of the hard back front cover showing the cut-out of the watch face

A close-up of the hard back front cover showing the cut-out of the watch face

and the inside cover has this map:

The Watchmaker map P1020045

This book also fits so well into the Once Upon a Time Challenge in the Fantasy Genre. I’ve seen it described as ‘steampunk’ but I’m not at all sure what that is – to me it’s historical fantasy.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: The Silver Pigs

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.

This week I’m featuring The Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis, a book that I started reading last night. Whilst this is a new-to-me series, The Silver Pigs was first published in 1989 and there are now 20 books in the series. Lindsey Davis also writes the Favia Alba Mystery series. She has won many literary awards, and was honorary president of the Classical Association from 1997 to 1998.

It begins:

When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.

It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the street unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist – and in the backstreets of Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women.

This is historical crime fiction, the first of the Marcus Didius Falco novels. Set in Rome in 70AD, Vespasian is the new Roman emperor and Falco is a private informer, or private eye. In this first book he and his partner Helena Justina rescue a young girl in trouble. He is then catapulted into a dangerous game involving stolen imperial ingots, a dark political plot and, most hazardous of all, a senator’s daughter connected to the traitors Falco has sworn to expose.

My copy has an introduction by Lindsey Davis in which she tells of how she began to write historical fiction, setting a typical private eye figure in Rome two thousand years ago. It has maps and a Dramatis Personae.

And I do like the cover.

 

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

When I began reading People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks I wondered why I’d left it nearly eight years on my book shelves before I  got round to reading it. I loved it; it’s a real gem! It has joined the ranks of my favourite books and is definitely a book for keeping and (I hope) for re-reading.

How could I not love a book about books, in particular an ancient book, one that was thought to be lost or destroyed, a book that escaped burning by the Inquisition and the Nazis, a book that survived shelling during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, a book known as the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah – a medieval Jewish prayer book containing the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Feast of Passover.

In Geraldine Brooks’ Afterword she explains that People of the Book is fiction, inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Some of the facts are true to the haggadah’s known history but most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary. She then goes on to define what is true and what is fictional, which I think is the best way of presenting historical fiction.

Australian Hanna Heath is a rare-book restorer and it’s not only the content of the haggadah that interests her, it is the hidden history of the book that captured her imagination and also mine. She finds tiny clues to its history as she restores the book – a fragment of an insect’s wing, wine stains, salt crystals and a tiny white hair – clues to unlock its mysteries. The story of the book is told in reverse chronological order beginning in 1996 and working back to 1480. Interwoven with each story is Hanna’s own story as she too discovers her roots. It’s a story too of love and war, of family relationships, of Anti-Semitism and of historical religious conflicts as the haggadah survived disaster after disaster. It’s also a novel about preserving the past, its culture and history for future generations. It has depth and breadth and is beautifully written. I was irresistibly engrossed in this book and full of wonder at its stories, reaching back in time from Sarajevo to Vienna, Venice, Tarragona to Seville in 1480 and also Hanna’s story from 1996 to 2002.

There are many descriptions of the haggadah throughout the book, all of which made me eager to know more about it. This is just one example from the chapter on wine stains set in Venice in 1609:

Aryeh released the catches, admiring the work of the silversmith. Each clasp, closed, was in the form of a pair of wings. As the delicate catch released – still smoothly after more than a century – the wings opened to reveal a rosette enfolded within. Aryeh saw at once that the book was a haggadah, but unlike any he had seen before. The gold leaf, the pigments … he stared at the illuminations, opening each page eagerly. He was delighted, yet a little disturbed, to see Jewish stories told in an art so like that of the Christians’ prayer books. (page 163)

And here, by way of contrast, is a description of Arnhem Land in the north east corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, where Hanna is working in the caves studying the Aboriginal rock art to document and preserve it before the uranium or bauxite companies blasted it into rubble:

I stepped out of the cave and blinked in the bright daylight. The sun was a big disc of brilliant madder, reddening the stripes of ore that ran through the sheer black-and-ocher rock face. Down below, the first shoots of new spear grass washed the plain in vivid green. Light silvered the sheets of water left behind by the previous night’s downpour. We’d moved into Gunumeleng – one of six seasons the Aborigines identified in a year that whites simply divided into Wet and Dry. Gunumeleng brought the first storms. In another month, the entire plain would be flooded. The so-called road, which was actually virtually a marginal dirt track, would be impassable. (pages 339-340)

I just had to know more about the Sarajevo Haggadah and found these illustrations (see Wikimedia Commons for more illustrations and these sites for more information –  WikipediaThe Times of Israel and About Haggadah:

Copies of Sarajevo Haggadah in parliament building – from Wikimedia Commons

The Sarejevo Haggadah, 15th century Spain – from Wikimedia Commons

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016

Stacking the Shelves: 2 April 2016

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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.

I bought three books this week.

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I loved watching The Night Manager, adapted from John le Carré’s novel, so when I went to Main Street Trading on Tuesday I hoped they would have a copy. They didn’t – but they did have Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a book I’ve wanted to read ever since I watched the BBC adaptation many years ago (Alec Guinness was George Smiley).

Blurb:

George Smiley, who is a troubled man of infinite compassion, is also a single-mindedly ruthless adversary as a spy.

The scene which he enters is a Cold War landscape of moles and lamplighters, scalp-hunters and pavement artists, where men are turned, burned or bought for stock. Smiley’s mission is to catch a Moscow Centre mole burrowed thirty years deep into the Circus itself.

Yesterday I went shopping and passing Berrydin in Books I had to go in and, of course, I had to buy a book – well two actually. First another book that I was prompted to read by a TV adaptation in 2012 – Birdsong by Sebastian Foulks.

Blurb:

A novel of overwhelming emotional power, Birdsong is a story of love, death, sex and survival. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in Amiens in northern France in 1910 to stay with the Azaire family, and falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters, and Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front. His love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, he experiences the unprecedented horrors of that conflict – from which neither he nor any reader of this book can emerge unchanged.

And also Citadel by Kate Mosse, because I like time-slip books. The main story is set in 1942-44 in Nazi-occupied  Carcassonne in France and moves back in time to 342, with a monk, Arinus trying to find a hiding place for a forbidden Codex.

Blurb:

1942, Nazi-occupied France. Sandrine, a spirited and courageous nineteen-year-old, finds herself drawn into a Resistance group in Carcassonne – codenamed ‘Citadel’ – made up of ordinary women who are prepared to risk everything for what is right.

And when she meets Raoul, they discover a shared passion for the cause, for their homeland, and for each other.

But in a world where the enemy now lies in every shadow – where neighbour informs on neighbour; where friends disappear without warning and often without trace – love can demand the highest price of all…

As soon as I read some of my TBR books (6 in March) it seems I just have to find more – at least it’s only three this time.

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir

I received a proof copy of Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen as a member of the reader review panel for Lovereading.co.uk. It’s the first book in a series of novels about Henry VIII’s Queens and is due to be published in May 2016.

This is fictional biography at its most straight forward, written in an uncomplicated style. Told from Katherine’s point of view it follows her life from the time she arrived in England at the age of sixteen to marry Prince Arthur, the elder of Henry VII’s two sons, to her death in 1536.

I knew the brief facts about Katherine, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, married first to Prince Arthur and then to his brother Henry after a papal dispensation allowing the marriage after Arthur’s death; her subsequent failure to produce a living male heir, suffering a series of miscarriages; the only baby to survive was a daughter, Mary; and her divorce in 1533 from Henry VIII, who was by then besotted with Anne Boleyn.

This novel fills in the facts in great detail including the question of whether her first marriage was consummated. Katherine maintained it wasn’t and based on research Weir takes her word as the truth. In her Author’s Note she refers to recent research by Giles Tremlett and Patrick Williams that shows ‘we can be fairly certain that Katherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated and that he died of tuberculosis.’  She cites the basis of her account of Arthur’s illnesss on Dr. Alcaraz’s testimony, given on 1531 at Zaragoza. She portrays Katherine as a determined woman who never ceased loving Henry and above all who did everything she could to protect the legitimacy of her daughter.

Katherine is portrayed as a woman of her time – obedient to her parents and her husband, conscientious about doing her duty  and active in maintaining an alliance between England and Spain. But even so, she resisted Henry in his demands for an annulment of their marriage. She was heart-broken both at her failure to produce a living male heir and to keep Henry’s love – because they were in love at the beginning – and maintained that she was the true queen right up to her death. I tend to forget the length of their marriage, glibly remembering the mnemonic ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived‘. Katherine and Henry were married for over 20 years. I did get tired of the account of their endless wrangling, going over and over the same arguments, never getting anywhere – but then I suppose that was how it was for them both.

Overall I enjoyed this book. It’s a long and comprehensive study, which has increased my knowledge and understanding of Katherine of Aragon and the early 1500s. It is obviously based on extensive research and written with great attention to historical accuracy, but in places this made it tedious and too drawn out.

  • Hardcover: 624 pages – also available as a Kindle edition
  • Publisher: Headline Review (5 May 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472227476
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472227478
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 5.6 x 23.4 cm
  • Source: Review copy

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

I quoted an extract from the opening paragraph of The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark in an earlier post, whilst I was in the middle of the book. I finished reading it a few days ago and have been wondering what to write about it ever since. It’s one of those books that has received a mixed reception with some reviewers thinking it’s a well written book whereas others think it isn’t. I enjoyed it very much.

It’s a story centred on the lives of two women – Elizabeth Pringle and Martha Morrison. Elizabeth has lived all her life on the Isle of Arran and knowing that she is dying and has no living relatives, leaves her house, Holmlea in Lamlash, to Anna Morrison, a woman she had seen years before, pushing her daughter’s pram down the road outside. Anna Morrison, had fallen in love with the house and written to Elizabeth asking her to get in touch if she ever thought of selling it. But Anna is now suffering from dementia and it is her daughter, Martha who goes to Arran to see the house on her mother’s behalf.

What follows is a dual narrative moving between Elizabeth’s account in her own words of her life up to the present day and Martha’s current situation, told in the third person, as she meets the people Elizabeth knew, in particular, Saul, a Buddhist, Niall, a young man who is passionate about gardening, and Catriona his sister who runs a hotel on the island. It’s a deceptive book in that it appears that not much happens and it is gentle and leisurely paced, but it is actually packed with events, some of them dramatic and devastating in their effect on the characters’ lives. And it has a vivid sense of place and of Arran’s history, which I loved.

I much preferred Elizabeth’s story beginning when she was just four and her father went off to fight in the First World War; her relationship with her mother; her life as a teacher and her love life. I found the ending of her life very moving. Martha’s story seems rather pat, everything falls into place a bit too easily – especially her relationship with her mother and sister and the instant friendships she makes on the island.

It’s a book about family, relationships, especially mother/daughter/sister relationships, about happiness, love and heartbreak, old age, memories and the contrast between life in the early part of the twentieth century and the present. It’s strong on description, which is important to me as I like to visualise the locations – and I had no difficulty at all with that in this book.

All in all, I was captivated by this story.

Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who hosts a variety of BBC programmes. Her home has always been Scotland and her family’s connection to Arran goes back over many years.

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Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve had for two years, and Read Scotland 2016 – a book by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is another short post as I am still trying to catch up with writing about the books I’ve read in February. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of them. It is narrated by the Reverend John Ames as he nears the end of his life. Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 John Ames is 76, dying of heart disease, and writing a letter to his young son aged 7 telling him the things he would have told him if he had lived to see him grow up. A letter for his son to read when he is an adult.

Ames writes stories of his brother, and his father and grandfather, including tales of what had happened in Gilead, such as the story of the horse that sank into the ground into one of the tunnels the inhabitants had made and the lengths they had gone to get it out and fill in the hole. He also wrote about his beliefs and his relationship with his friend, also a preacher, Boughton and Boughton’s son, Jack. There is a mystery surrounding Jack, what is the ‘great sin’ he committed, why he had left home, what happened to him and why he had come back. Jack is named after John, who struggles to forgive and understand Jack.

In parts I found this a bit rambling and repetitive, reflecting the fact that Ames wrote over a period of time and probably forgot he’d mentioned things before, or because he was emphasising their importance – such as the first time he met his wife, who is a lot younger than him.

I took my time reading because you do have to concentrate and not rush to find out what happened. I enjoyed it and think I would probably get even more out of it on a second reading, especially for the philosophical and religious ideas.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge ( a book I’ve owned for about 8 years).

A House Divided by Margaret Skea

One of the best historical fiction books I read last year was Margaret Skea’s debut novel, Turn of the Tide, which captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland.  So I approached its sequel, A House Divided, hoping it would be just as good, and it is. Indeed it’s even better. Once more I was whisked back to the world of the feuding clans of Cunninghame and Montgomerie. It is the most gripping story of warring factions in Scotland, the French Wars of Religion, superstition and horrific witchcraft trials.

It’s now 1597, six years after the events in Turn of the Tide. The Munro family are believed to have died in a fire at their home, Broomelaw but Kate Munro and her three children are living at Braidstane in Ayrshire under the protection of the Montgomerie family. They have the assumed the name of ‘Grant’, in hiding from the Cunninghame family, particularly from William Cunninghame, the son of the Earl of Glencairn, head of the Cunninghame clan. Kate’s husband is in France, fighting with the Scots Gardes for the French Henri IV. Meanwhile William Cunninghame has taken possession of Broomelaw and is rebuilding the tower house. And it’s becoming more difficult and dangerous to keep their identity secret; the children are asking questions and the eldest, Robbie, wants to go to join his father in France.

Kate, who has gained a reputation as a ‘wise woman’ from her knowledge and skill in the use of herbs and plants for healing and as a midwife, is called to help Margaret Maxwell, the wife of Patrick, a Cunninghame supporter, with the birth of her baby. When Patrick meets Kate and her daughter, Maggie, he is suspicious. thinking they look familiar, reminding him of Munro’s wife, and so the danger begins. And it increases as Kate’s reputation grows and she is summoned to the Scottish court as Queen Anne (James VI’s wife), having heard of Kate’s expertise, needs her advice in carrying a baby to full-term.  She had been advised to try a number of methods to avoid a miscarriage:

I have eaten crushed orchid leaves, powdered fox’s lungs and crab’s eyes; drunk wolf oil and tincture of foxglove; been bled and leeched till I think I have little blood left; told to lie on my side and on my stomach, even upside down. Few treatments convenient and none effective. (location 3242)

It’s no wonder they failed and a wonder she survived!

There is so much I loved in this book – first of all the story itself, expertly narrated, full of tension and surprise, and then the characters, some based on real historical figures and others fictitious, such as the Munro family. The story is well grounded in research and based on facts – James VI, whilst waiting to inherit the English crown, wanted to bring peace to Scotland and to put an end to the wars between the clans. His interest in, or rather his obsession with witchcraft comes to the fore in this novel as Kate is accused as a witch and brought to trial as part of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597. Also historically accurate is the Scots involvement in France as under the terms of the ‘Auld Alliance’ they had citizenship rights in France as well as trading agreements and the Scots Gardes were an elite Scottish regiment whose duties included the provision of a personal bodyguard to the French King.

But it’s the personal touches that brought home to me what life was like in the 16th century, what their houses were like, the food they ate, the dangers that faced them in their daily lives, as well as the growing interest in science and medicine as opposed to superstition and religious bigotry and fervour.

This is an excellent book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Not only is the story absolutely fascinating, but it is also well written and well paced. The historical facts all blend seamlessly into the narrative, with beautiful descriptive passages not just of the landscape and the Scottish Court, but also of the grim details of warfare, of the horrors of the witch trials and of sickness, typhoid and plague, of wounds, of childbirth and of death. It’s strong, compelling reading, a book that made me keen to find out what would happen next and at the same time one I didn’t want to end.

  • Format: Kindle Edition – also available as a paperback
  • File Size: 1017 KB
  • Print Length: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Sanderling Books; 1 edition (15 Oct. 2015)
  • Author’s website: Margaret Skea, Writing yesterday, today

Margaret Skea is currently working on her third novel – I’m looking forward to reading it!

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016

Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

I always intend to write about the books I read soon after I’ve finished them, whilst the details and my reaction are fresh in my mind.  But recently I haven’t managed to do so and now have four books to review. I can deal with one of them quickly because I don’t have much to say about it – Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn. This is the seventh book in the Daisy Dalrymple Mystery series (there are 22 in total so far). I’ve read the first three and have been waiting to find the fourth to read them in order, but gave in when I saw this secondhand copy.

Set in the 1920s this is a cosy mystery that doesn’t tax the brain too much. Daisy’s brother-in-law, Lord John Frobisher, asks her to investigate a series of poison pen letters that many of the local villagers including himself have been receiving. So Daisy and her step-daughter, Belinda, go to stay with her sister and brother-in-law. Lord John is anxious to avoid a scandal, but when a murder is committed the local police have to be informed about the letters. Daisy’s fiancé, Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard is concerned about Daisy and Belinda, so he gets involved informally, all the time trying to keep Daisy out of danger. The village is a hotbed of gossip, intrigue and resentment, with plenty of people with possible cause to commit murder. I liked the interaction of the members of the WI, bossed by the vicar’s wife and the way Daisy managed to get each of them to talk to her.

Styx and Stones is a quick and easy read, (although I didn’t guess the identity of the murderer until quite near the end) with the focus on Daisy and Alec’s relationship as well as on the poison pen and murder mysteries.

Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I’d enjoyed the first book in Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, Imperium. So I’d been looking forward to reading Lustrum, the second in the trilogy (published as Conspirata in the US and Italy) . It didn’t fail to live up to my expectations – it surpassed them. I think it’s historical fiction at its best. I immediately went on to read Dictator, the third book in the trilogy, which I also enjoyed very much, but I think Lustrum is the outstanding book of the three.

I had intended to write a more detailed post about Lustrum and Dictator but life and medical issues decided otherwise, so this is just a short post on both books.

Lustrum begins where Imperium finished in 63 BC with a dramatic scene, as the body of a child is pulled from the River Tiber, a child who had been killed as a human sacrifice, grotesquely mutilated. What follows is an account of the five year period (a lustrum) of Cicero’s consulship and the battle for power between him, Julius Caesar, Pompey the republic’s greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath, and Clodius an ambitious playboy. It ends with his exile from Rome.

Once I began reading I was immediately drawn into the world of Cicero. The story is once again narrated by his secretary, the slave Tiro, giving access to Cicero’s thoughts and feelings. Tiro is an interesting character in his own right – he is reported to be the first man to record a speech in the senate verbatim and some of the symbols in his shorthand system are still in use today, such as &, etc, ie, and eg. As in Imperium and in the third book, Dictator, Harris has used Cicero’s actual words, adding to the books’ authenticity. Harris states that he hopes it is not necessary to read the books in order but I think it adds much to the enjoyment if you do.

Dictator covers the last 15 years of Cicero’s life when he was no longer a dominant political figure in Rome. The book begins with Cicero in exile, separated from his wife and children and in constant danger of losing his life. Apart from the first part of the book when Cicero is working towards returning to Rome, I didn’t find it as exciting or as compelling as the first two books. This is mainly because there is so much happening such as the civil war and the downfall of the republic from which Cicero is excluded first because on his return to Rome he is sidelined, and then retired.

All three books are based on extensive research but Harris is such a good story teller that they don’t read like text books. Roman history has always fascinated me and reading this trilogy has revived my interest, so much so that I am now reading Mary Beard’s book, SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome, that goes right back to the beginning describing how Rome grew and became such a dominant power.

When I saw Catilina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor sitting in the mobile library shelves I just had to borrow it. It’s historical crime fiction in which Gordianius the Finder gets involved in the Catilina conspiracy to overthrow the republic.

And I would also like to re-read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series to compare with Harris’ trilogy, or at least some of the books involving Cicero and Caesar. Oh for more time to read!

Lustrum is one of my Mount TBR Mountain Challenge 2016 books (ie books I’ve owned before 1 January 2016) .

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.

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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.

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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’.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

A Month in the Country (Penguin Modern…‘Ah, those days … for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

As an old man Tom Birkin is looking back to the summer of 1920 when he was asked to uncover a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. J L Carr’s A Month in the Country is a beautifully written little book of just 85 pages, set in the aftermath of World War I. Tom, his ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke‘,  is still suffering from shell shock after the battle of Passchendaele. Living in the church bell tower, he begins to uncover the painting, excited and engrossed in his work.

Another war veteran, Charles Moon is also in Oxgodby, an archaeologist, camping in a meadow next to the church, whilst he looks for a lost 14th century grave. There are also two more people who are relatively new to the village – the vicar and his beautiful wife, Arthur and Alice Keach. Tom and Moon decide their marriage is an ‘outrage’ and Tom finds her enchanting – reminding him of Botticelli’s Primavera.

I loved this quiet novel, in which not a lot happens and yet so much happens as Tom describes the events of that summer – his relationships with the local people as well as with Moon and Arthur and Alice Keach. There’s the unforgettable Sunday School outing and a visit to Ripon with the Wesleyans looking for an American organ to replace the harmonium in their chapel. It’s during this visit Tom learns more about Moon.

I loved the detail of the wall-painting – the original methods of painting, the colours, the people in the painting. It’s a masterpiece, a Doom, a Christ in Judgement painting. Tom wonders about the original artist, the nameless man and why the painting had been covered and as he uncovers more of the painting thinks that he has lived with a great artist and had shared with the unknown man the ‘great spread of colour’ and feels ‘the old tingling excitement’.

But above all it is the writing that I loved the most – words that took me back in time to that glorious summer in Oxgodby. At the end Tom looks back at that summer with nostalgia for the things that have disappeared, contemplating that

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

I wanted to read A Month in the Country because years ago I’d watched a TV adaptation of the book and loved it. So after I finished reading it I thought I’d look for the film and watch it again. But the film was lost for years and the only available copies now are rare and expensive. So, I won’t be watching it and thinking about it I realise that it would be a mistake to watch it – as I enjoyed the book so much. But it would be good to see the wall-painting …

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and maybe What’s In a Name? in the ‘Month of the Year’ category if I don’t read a book naming a month of the year!

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.