A Snapshot of Murder – Frances Brody

The Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are going strong – this is the tenth in the series – so I was interested what it is about them which has proved so popular. Some of it will be the nicely complicated plots, full of murder, scandal and intrigue but I suspect that some of the popularity is because of the glorious backdrop to those plots. I’m not ashamed to admit that I watch certain tv shows (like Poldark, Death in Paradise or Midsomer Murders) because they are shot in beautiful settings – if the plot drags or becomes too far-fetched I’ve something pretty to look at – so I can understand why this could be the case with these books. The settings are all very definitely ‘Yorkshire’ but also varied: they range from Harrogate to the mill villages of West Yorkshire and from the Dales to the Yorkshire coast – anyone who knows Yorkshire will recognise scenes; those who have yet had the joy of visiting ‘God’s own county’ will find plenty of ideas for an itinerary.

40023612A Snapshot of Murder opens in Headingley, Leeds, which isn’t a place I know hugely well apart from the area around St Michael’s Church and the Skyrack pub. Oddly enough, this is just where Kate Shackleton lives. The bulk of the book is then set in Howarth and Stanbury – villages I know well as they are just a few miles from my own home and popular tourist destinations because of their connection to the Brontë sisters – so I followed this story with particular interest. I also enjoy a bit of photography myself so the photography group plot was interesting – looking through a lens does certainly make you focus quite differently. The plot centres around Carine Murchison, a friend of Kate’s, and her fairly obnoxious husband Tobias: while the group are visiting Haworth (on the very weekend that the Parsonage first opened as a visitor attraction in August 1928) he is murdered. No-one will miss him but who killed him? Most of the group, and their hosts at Ponden Hall, have reason to want the man dead and we join Kate Shackleton as she delves deeper into their motives. Secrets are revealed about the realities of the Murchison’s marriage and their pasts and many suspects have to be eliminated from enquiries, including Kate’s young niece Harriet. Because we see all the angles (which are only gradually revealed to Kate) we are sure fairly early on who the killer is but, like a good episode of Columbo, this doesn’t distract from the telling of a good story.



The Witches of St Petersburg -Imogen Edwards-Jones

I sometimes ponder why it is I enjoy historical fiction so much and I think it is something to do with authors being able to portray a realistic sense of a particular era. Some people particularly admire the depiction of a place: I’m all about the time, it seems. Which means I do tend to concentrate on historical periods I feel I know reasonably well – Medieval, Victorian, Regency perhaps – so I do like to occasionally delve into eras I am not so familiar with. The years leading up to the Russian Revolution certainly fall into that category – I’ve a vague recollection of Tsars and an awful lot of peasants, Faberge eggs and Rasputin – so I decided I could learn something by reading Imogen Edwards-Jones novel set in the early years of the twentieth century.

9781788544023This is a big and slightly rambling novel centred around two sisters, Militzia and Stana, who marry into Russian nobility. They are princesses from Montenegro – then, as now, a small and unregarded country – but are seen as being far less worthy of attention than native-born Russians. They are called the Goat Princesses, to smell of goats and to be involved in witchcraft – it is easy to see why the early part of the book, when Tsar Alexander III’s court led a life of glittering formality. However, when the new Tsar Nicholas inherits the sisters ingratiate themselves with his socially distant young wife. They continue to become more influential as the Tsarina, after the birth of four daughters, becomes desperate for a son – they introduce her to first to a French mystic called Philippe and then, possibly fatally, to Rasputin. In the second half of the book Militzia in particular engages in a power struggle with Rasputin – who she believes she created with her magic – and gradually comes to join the growing group who are trying to get rid of him by any means possible.

I enjoyed this book, although it did slow down in places, and I feel I learned a lot about the history of the period. I’ve since spend a little time on the internet checking out the details of the characters: Militzia and Stana, Philippe and the various members of the Imperial court are all real and the sisters did have a dark reputation. Even the decadence of the court, drugs and all, seems to be based on reality  – one of the facets of the age which did surprise me was the stark contrast between the modern age (telephones, cars, aspirin) and the older ways. Largely this was the difference between the educated and the peasantry but even the rich and privileged were in thrall to superstition.



The Last Hours & The Turn of Midnight – Minette Walters

Now for a bit of unashamed historical fiction covering an era I am hugely interested in – the Black Death. Call me odd, but I’ve been interested in the history of disease for some time – Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating read – and one of my favourite books ever involves time travel to a plague-ridden village near Oxford in 1348. What I find most interesting is the way people cope during such an event – how they deal with the disease, how they explain its existence to themselves and, tellingly, who they blame for the outbreak.

35820576In The Last Hours, the first of Walters’ forays into historical fiction, the Black Death sweeps through the county of Dorset in the summer of 1348. The Lord of the manor of Develish is away at a neighbouring estate, arranging the marriage of his only daughter, and his wife, Lady Anne, takes the bold decision to isolate the community to prevent the disease spreading. This comes as a shock to Sir Richard when he returns, with only three of his retinue left, and to his steward, trapped within Develish’s moat, and enrages his daughter, a thoroughly spoilt  fourteen year old who idolises her father and seems to loathe her mother. The estate serfs and servants, however, love and admire Lady Anne who, since her arrival as a teen bride has worked to improve their lives. Her greatest admirers are Gyles, eventually the only survivor of Sir Richard’s trip, Thaddeus, the illegitimate son of one of the more feckless serfs and Isabelle, a young girl who acts as a maid to Eleanor, Sir Richard’s daughter: but it won’t be easy for a woman of Saxon heritage to lead her people during such a time of peril. Their seclusion doesn’t prevent them from pondering the cause of such devastating sickness (given the times the majority are willing to blame sinners and blasphemers) or from there being a murder within the village. Eventually dwindling supplies lead one brave man to lead a small group to search for food, other survivors and answers: but greater dangers seem to remain within the community as Eleanor continues to fight against her mother’s rule.

9781760632168We read the Last Hours for our Book Group in October and one comment we all had was that the ending was fairly abrupt. The version I read even said ‘to be continued…’ which was a little frustrating. Luckily the second volume was available – albeit just in hardback – so I dove straight in to discover what became of Lady Anne, Thaddeus, Gyles and the rest of the people of Develish. Thaddeus and the young men who left the estate in the first book report back on the terrible consequences of the plague – deserted villages, unburied dead and crops left to rot in the fields – and the whole community is aware of the bands of villans (ironically, mostly nobility rather than actual villeins, or peasants) who are travelling the countryside taking whatever they can find: food, gold and women. However, after surviving the worst of the sickness it seems that many of the serfs are now starting to contemplate what the future will bring – the work they were forced to do as virtual slaves of the nobility will have to be done by a much reduced workforce so could they now be in a position to demand a better life. Maybe even freedom. To do this they need to go back out into the wider world and to make things happen.

I enjoyed the glimpse of history Walters gives us in these books – with the added touches of gruesome detail of victims of both the Black Death and villany which you’d expect from the author of numerous crime thrillers – and I enjoyed the way that she has thought about the attitudes to gender, class and religion of the times. While the Black Death obviously didn’t do away with the power of the church or medieval attitudes to women and the labouring classes I find it easy to believe that some people began to question the status quo. My only quibble would be that I think the pacing of the two books was a bit uneven – lots of discussions of Church versus faith, whether women having any power is a sign of witchcraft or heresy etc mixed in with the more dramatic scenes – but I’m not sure I could identify which scenes could be cut. Maybe instead of a two book series it should have been spread out over three slightly less weighty tomes – but then, of course, I’d have to have waited longer for the satisfying conclusion to the story of Lady Anne and Thaddeus Thurkell, and the other inhabitants of Develish.


The Clockmaker’s Daughter – Kate Morton

Although my main interest, in terms of fiction, tend to be history, science fiction or contemporary issue-led novels, I do quite enjoy the odd romance. Obviously if I can combine the love story with one of my favourite genres, or just make it really quirky, all to the good so I’m not sure why I’ve never read any Kate Morton before. Maybe I felt they sounded a little formulaic? They always involve multiple generations, a grand house, which is usually rather run down, and a mysterious secret waiting to be revealed – none of which are bad things but, somehow, I’d never taken the time to try one. Morton’s most recent book, however, adds some interesting bits into the mix. Art and the Victorian era: much too ‘me’ to resist…

9780230759282The house in this novel is Birchwood Manor and we see it first as the home of Edward Radcliffe, a young artist who is at the heart of the Magenta Brotherhood (an avant-garde art movement in the mid-1800s) who visits with other artists, his sisters and his muse, Lily Millington. During the book we see the group spending a summer of art, creativity and romance at the house which ends abruptly with the death of Radcliffe’s fiancée (who turns up, uninvited…). The modern-day part of the story centres on Elodie Winslow, an archivist who, it seems, would rather deal with the reassuringly boring nature of old documents than plans for her own wedding. The items she finds – a lovely old leather satchel containing a sketchbook and a picture of a beautiful young woman, a photograph of her mother and a male friend, taken just before her tragic death and a collection of tapes of her mother’s work as an acclaimed musician – all, eventually, link back to the events at Birchwood Manor over a century earlier. In between is an ill-fated school for girls and an escape from war-torn London and, in the present day, we also have a young man secretly searching for an heirloom missing since 1862.

I enjoyed this book as both a historical novel and as a mystery. The romance side was interesting, and actually less of a feature than I was expecting, and there is an intriguing hint of a ghost story too. Maybe this is the secret to Morton’s huge success – this is her sixth bestseller since winning the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year in 2007 – a bit of something for everyone. Or maybe, just refusing to be limited to one genre…


Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

I used to live and work in Durham, in the University bookshop. It’s a beautiful city and I loved working there (although I lived in a pit village outside the city – the centre was way beyond my budget as a bookseller living on my own). I really enjoyed working with academics and students (no, honestly, I loved it), we coped with the waves of tourists who replaced students in the summer and, best of all, we had our own literature festival. It was, as they say, small but perfectly formed – all the bookstalls were done by me and one other bookseller (with Rob providing the motorised transport of books to venues) – and attracted some pretty big names. As I recall there were probably about a dozen or so events over a week and the biggest name we got was Richard Dawkins. Which is pretty big. I also recall wearing a Mog costume for one event (I think I wore it, but seem to recall a photo of me with Mog so maybe it was Michael in the suit) and dressing up in medieval kit for another (I vaguely recall it may have been a kids event based on a Robin Hood theme…). Happy days. Anyway, one person who was a bit of a shoo-in for the festival was Pat Barker, because she was a local author. This was, I think, after the publication of Regeneration but before Barker won the Booker with Ghost Road so she was a biggish name but not huge. I’m happy to say she is also a lovely person (the festival used to invite us booksellers along to the post-event meals, all the authors were polite to us but Pat Barker was especially friendly).

38470228In The Silence of the Girls Barker returns to the wartime setting she worked with so well in the Regeneration trilogy but with a few key differences: this time she is focussing on the events of the Trojan War and she writes largely from the point of view of the women whose lives are so brutally changed by the conflict. Life for women in this period is a bit of a mixed bag. The women of the upper classes have all the material benefits – palaces, jewels, beautiful clothes, the best food and wine – but they don’t have the freedoms we take for granted. They can’t walk around freely, they have to be heavily veiled, and they are not free. Even the women who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or husbands – the only women who are not property are the prostitutes and they are, effectively, treated as common property. Of course the main character, Briseis, Queen of a city near Troy, doesn’t realise that her life is as good as it will get. She is very young and feels dominated by her mother in law but this is nothing compared to her life once the Greeks have defeated her city. The men and boys are killed – even pregnant women are slain in case the child they carry is male – and the women are now become the property of the Greeks. Briseis is awarded to Achilles as a trophy – property once again, but now she has no power or status and, in fact, becomes a pawn in the struggles between Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon.

The history here is told well – I don’t know the Iliad that well but I’m pretty certain Barker sticks to the events within it – but the real meat of the book is Briseis and the way she survives what life (and the Trojan War) has thrown at her. Her inner strength as she submits, in body at least, to the change from Queen to bed-slave; her determination to stay alive, even as some of the women who share her fate chose suicide; her certainty that, even though she must share the bed of a Greek hero, and may even grow to love or respect them, she is still a Trojan woman. And, thanks to Pat Barker, the voices of those Trojan women are silent no longer.


Now We Shall Be Entirely Free – Andrew Miller

After a brief run of science fiction books I found myself, a week or so ago, sitting in a field in Oxfordshire enjoying interesting music, supping the odd glass of wine and going back to one of my other literary loves: historical fiction. Since I was, at the time, making my annual pilgrimage to Cropredy for a folk festival it is probably a very Good Thing that I remembered a drawer at work which contained a supply of clear plastic rain ponchos (intended for the possibility of rain during queuing for Harry Potter midnight launch events). I can happily report that it is perfectly possible to read through a clear plastic rain poncho so long as the daylight lasts. I was frequently distracted by some of the music (even I wouldn’t read through Brian Wilson performing the whole of Pet Sounds and I wasn’t going to miss two of Barnsley’s finest gifts, Kate Rusby and the Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican…) but I did manage to spare the time to read most of Andrew Miller’s novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, mostly in the Hebrides. Like I said – my kind of book.

9781444784695The book centres on John Lacroix, a young man who joined the army to help defeat the forces of Napoleon. He left as an officer, in all his finery, thinking war would be an adventure – he returns a broken man, virtually in rags. Although he regains his physical health he is haunted by his memories of war and its brutalities – we are not told at this point what these events are – and when a fellow officer calls to remind him of his duty to rejoin his regiment he instead flees his home. He travels northwards, from his Somerset home, via his sister’s home in Bristol and on to Glasgow. He eventually arrives on a Hebridean island, on the back of a cow, and falls in with a family of free-thinkers. A future of island life, wild landscape and haunting local music beckons but Lacroix’s past is following him in the form of Calley, an amoral and vicious corporal sent by a shadowy but powerful figure in the British Peninsular Army to kill him. The war and, in particular, a shameful incident in the village of Morales during the army’s retreat to Corunna, will not let Lacroix, or any of those near to him, escape unscathed.

This book gives us a blend of a remote, bleak but beautiful Scottish island landscape and the brutality of war. Lacroix carries this horror within him, deeply affected by his own small part in the conflict, but it also stalks him in the form of Calley (and Medina, the Spanish officer accompanying him). The fact that these horrors can touch the lives of civilians, both in Spain and hundreds of miles away in Scotland, makes us aware that no-one is immune to their effects. This is tempered by the bleak grandeur of the Scottish landscape and also the developing relationship between Lacroix and Emily, one of the group of siblings he ends up living with on the islands. War is seen as an inevitable factor of most lives but love is also possible.


Illumination of Ursula Flight – Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Reading historical fiction can help to give insights into lives in other times in ways that straight history can’t. History itself needs to be true to reality (even if it is an individual historian’s view of what is real) but fiction can help us to see what it would be like to not just read about the 17th century but to actually live it. The non-fiction gives us an interpretation of primary source documents and other record but the fiction, which is usually equally well researched, can give us an idea of how it would feel to be there when those documents were being written. I love reading both but I have a particular weakness for good historical fiction. The Illumination of Ursula Flight, opening with the titular heroine’s birth just as a comet heralds the Restoration of Charles II, looked like just my cup of (newly fashionable in the C17th) tea.

9781760632014Ursula is an interesting character – she adores her father, wants to love her rather distracted mother, is fascinated by plays and the theatre and is the centre of a small group of local children for whom she writes a series of short dramatic pieces. Her education and rebellious nature make her seem very modern so it would be easy to think that she isn’t very typical of her age – but this was the age of Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish and Lady Mary Wortley Montague so not every girl was confined to sewing and childbirth. There is plenty to disturb Ursula’s happy life – a spoilt brother, a lost youthful romance and then, more seriously, the death of her father and an arranged marriage to an older man. The marriage isn’t happy – mostly because of her husband’s slightly odd sexual needs and a fraught relationship with her mother-in-law – and the religious differences which arose during the age of Cromwell continue to cause problems within even within the happiest of families. Eventually Ursula breaks with convention completely, runs away and tries her luck in the London theatre world.

I enjoyed this book. The historical period is one I’ve only read a few books about so I found it quite educational but it was also a good story. Ursula was an engaging character and I cared about what happened to her – I really loved the way that she turned key events in her life into short plays. And her plays were really rather funny too… This is a good read if you enjoy strong female leads and a historical setting.