The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin

I’m a big fan, as you may have noticed, of historical fiction. My Mum started me off with Jean Plaidy which took me from the Norman Conquest up to the Victorian era, I got a taste for Anya Seton when I was at secondary school (Katherine and Devil Water were my favourites) and then joined Mum in a bid to read every Georgette Heyer regency romance. After 34 novels set between 1752 and 1825 I’d say that the Regency period is now one of my favourites for historical fiction. But, apart from romances, it is not a period which I find much in historical fiction – the Victorians seem to have taken over somewhat. Now I do enjoy a bit of Victoriana but it was refreshing to find the late Georgian/Regency period covered in Laura Carlin’s debut novel, The Wicked Cometh.

34812995Hester White lived her early life in Lincolnshire the daughter of a reasonably well-to-do parson. When her parents die, however, she is taken in by the family gardener and his wife and they end up living in London. Not the genteel end that we usually see in Regency romance but in the maze of dwelling places in the East End of London, surrounded by poverty, criminality and disease. What is even worse is that there seems to be a spate of mysterious disappearances – men, women and children vanishing without trace. Hester is desperate to get out of London so, when circumstances throw her into the path of Calder Brock, a young doctor, she grabs at the chance he offers her to travel to his family estate to get the education he assumes she lacks. Although Hester has, in fact, been fairly well-educated by the standards of the day she pretends to be an ignorant slum-dweller. When she reaches Waterford Hall, the Brock’s country house, she meets the doctor’s sister, Rebekah, a rather prickly, single woman who prefers logical reasoning to ballrooms, who is to be her teacher.

The action moves back to London and involves Hester and Rebekah with pawnbrokers, con-men, opium-eaters and killers. The two women become friends and fellow-investigators and, gradually, Hester falls in love. The battle to discover what happened to Agnes and Martha, two missing Brock servants, as well as all the others who have vanished becomes a race to discover all the Brock family secrets and to prevent the loss of all that the two women have come to hold dear. It takes a little while to get there but the ending is a thrilling answer to all the questions raised throughout the book. There are a dozen threads or so introduced – I lost track at one point – but they are all twisted together into a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. If you like your historical fiction dark and complicated, with a side order of unconventional romance then give this book a try.

Jane

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Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden (and The Bear & the Nightingale…)

As you can imagine my house contains an awful lot of books. There are bookcases in almost every room and even the rooms without actual shelves contain a small stack of reading material – it is hard to get bored here! However, this does result in the fact that I can lose track of what I’ve read and what is still waiting – especially if I’ve got a pile of goodies all at once and I have to squeeze them in to whatever shelf space is free. This also means that, sometimes, I forget to add books on to the right line of my spreadsheet (or even to add them at all). This is what I found had happened when I started reading Katherine Arden’s Girl in the Tower – about 20 pages in and I realised that I had the previous volume in the series (the first in fact) sitting in my living room, looking very lonely. Luckily it was good enough to be a very swift read so this will be a review of both…

33797941In the Bear and the Nightingale we meet Vasilisa, a young girl, and her family. They live on an estate at some distance from Moscow back in the early days of Rus’ (the forerunner of Russia), in the 14th Century. This is not so much a historical novel, although the settings are obviously very well researched and the rise of Christianity plays a very important role, but one of the battle between the old ways and the new. Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known in the traditional way of Russian naming) is a headstrong girl who resists the role she is expected to take up as a dutiful daughter. She has no interest in marriage or love, unlike her older sister Olga, but prefers to run wild with her brothers and to listen to the stories told by Dunya, the children’s nurse. These stories all revolve around various spirits and magical creatures – personifications of Frost, Death and the like and small household spirits who are connected to the hearth, home and stables – but Vasya, unlike her siblings, knows that these beings are real because she can see them. When their father remarries, their devout step-mother tries to quash the old ways (although she can also see the house spirits she believes them to be demons) and the consequences are felt by all. Vasya must fight to retain the old ways and to avoid her stepmother’s plan to either marry her off or incarcerate her in a nunnery. To make things worse dark powers, who were previously kept at bay by the household spirits, are stirring in the forest…

35004343In the second book, the Girl in the Tower, we move to Moscow – not yet the city it is today but still the home of the rulers of Rus’ and also of Vasya’s married sister, Olga. This is a vastly different world – women are confined to their luxurious homes, apart from visits to church, and politics and intrigue are at the front of everyone’s mind. Religion is of great importance – Olga is waiting for the return of her favourite brother, now a sort of warrior priest – and the old ways are nowhere to be seen. Into this world bursts Vasya who has run from her home, dressed as a boy, after tragic events have left her without most of her family and accused of witchcraft. Her actions against a group of bandits who are roaming the countryside, burning villages, stealing young girls and then vanishing, bring her to the attention of Dmitri – the Grand Prince of Moscow and, coincidently, her cousin. He assumes she is a boy, as does everyone else aside from Sasha (the warrior monk brother), and brings her back to Moscow as a reward. Sadly, dark forces once again follow Vasya and worse, she falls foul of Moscow’s strict gender rules when her true identity is discovered.

Both of these books are an almost seamless blend of Russian history and folklore set in a world where both the magical and the grimly political are very real. The characters are all beautifully well-drawn (and you have to pay attention to them all – even the seemingly minor can reappear as major sources of danger and romance), and the plot is richly detailed. The love story, which began tentatively in Vasya’s childhood, grows with her and she faces both passion and peril with intelligence and fortitude. I’ve not been so gripped by a series for years – I really hope the final volume comes out as promised in August: I can’t wait to see how this story ends.

Jane

 

The Crow Garden – Alison Littlewood

I do love a bit of period drama. On tv, or film, I enjoy almost anything with a good costume department (although I do prefer it if they get the costumes mostly right – I don’t know how old I was when I first saw the 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice but I just knew the costumes were far too Victorian for a proper Jane Austen adaptation…) and in book terms I’m happy with fiction set in almost any period ( yes, starting with the ice age novels of Jean Auel and working through most of history since – I’m particularly fond of a Regency romance). Some historical settings work well with particular genres (Regency romance, as I already mentioned, or Medieval murder mystery – they don’t have to be alliterative but that’s all that springs to mind…) but nothing seems to suit stories of spookiness and the macabre like the Victorian era. And nobody seems to do the spooky and macabre like Alison Littlewood…

crow gardenNewly qualified Nathaniel Kerner leaves his widowed mother behind in London to work in windswept Yorkshire. His father’s suicide seems to have made it hard for him to find work but the director of Crakethorne Asylum is willing to take a chance on him. All seems positive until he meets Vita, Mrs Victoria Harleston, a beautiful young woman whose husband wants her cured. Her insanity appears to Kerner to be that she doesn’t wish to perform her ‘wifely duties’ and he plans to cure her with new-fangled talking therapies. Against a backdrop of superstition and dubious mental health care (all, sadly, ones used up until scarily recently…) he falls in love with his patient and, it seems, under her spell. They find themselves back in London, living with Kerner’s mother, and caught up in the world of psychics,  mesmerists and other fraudsters. Or, in the case of Vita Harleston, could these mysterious powers be true?

This is a superbly researched historical novel which brings to life the Victorian era but also a wonderfully creepy tale of the uncanny. A perfect read for Halloween – unless you live on a moor. In Yorkshire. Surrounded by crows…

Jane

 

 

The Last Tudor – Philippa Gregory

There seems to me to be two main sorts of historical novelist. For one sort the history is the star of the story – if historical research can’t support a character trait, an action or an event, it doesn’t go into the book. On the other side are novelists who base their stories – stories of passion, danger or love – on history but want the story itself to take centre stage. History for these authors is the frame on which they hang their plot and characters – if they have to reinterpret the sources to fit it with their plot, well, so be it… As far as I’m concerned both sorts of fiction are worth reading – although sometimes the first can sacrifice some of the excitement of fiction for historical truth and the second can seem like it is making things up as they go along. So long as you know which you are reading, it’s all good…Philippa Gregory has, according to a review in The Telegraph, never claimed to be in my first category of historical novelist. The fact that she is one of the most popular contemporary authors of historical romance fiction seems to suggest that quite a few people are quite happy to settle for my second.

large_903110711c55a1dad67a46b08a57f62cThe Last Tudor is the story of two sets of siblings – Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, the heirs of Henry VIII and Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey, granddaughters of Henry VIII’s sister. Each of the Grey sisters’ stories are told separately (although their tales obviously overlap) and while Jane’s is set during the reigns of Edward and Mary the other two are largely set in the Elizabethan period.  Jane’s fate is the best-known – married to Guildford Dudley, thrust onto the throne and then deposed nine days later by Mary Tudor – but her personality much less so. What I particularly enjoyed about this book (since I sort of knew how the plot would turn out…) was the way that each sister’s voice was different. Jane is serious and pious – you could even call her a bit sanctimonious and quick to judge others as falling below her own, high, standards – whereas Katherine is rather more flighty, thinking more of her appearance and her pets than her faith. Mary, the youngest sister who was, according to Gregory, a dwarf and who was certainly disregarded by the whole court and treated as a child even when she was old enough to be thought of as an adult, was the most interesting to me. Pragmatic, rather blunt and under no illusions about herself she seems the most modern of the three – and because she was the sister whose story I knew the least I really hoped she’d be the one with a happy ending…

This may not be the story that you think you know about Elizabeth and the Grey sisters. All of the sisters are adamant that Elizabeth Tudor is not the virgin Queen that history paints her as. I don’t think that Gregory is telling us, as a historian, that Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were definitely lovers – she is showing us, however, that the gossip of the day tended to believe they were. What does become very apparent is that Elizabeth ruled her court as well as her country with an iron fist. If she couldn’t find love, marry and produce an heir  – the last Tudor – for whatever reason, then she wasn’t going to let her court, and her Grey cousins in particular, do so in her stead. As Katherine Grey herself points out Elizabeth may have been a good Queen but she was a terrible person to have as a relative.

Jane

Vindolanda – Adrian Goldsworthy

As well as reading and talking about books I’m quite partial to a laugh. Rob too, especially when politics is happening. We are prone to relieving the tension by trying to have whole conversations made up of quotes from some of our favourite comedians. Monty Python and Blackadder feature heavily, of course, as does the Mighty Boosh but our fall-back funnyman usually seems to be Eddie Izzard. Not sure why – apart from him being a pretty amazing guy, hilarious, clever and able to do stand-up in multiple languages – but bread guns and spider-gravy are part of our natural vocabulary. I mention this because it is impossible for me to think about the people who invaded these islands back in  AD43 without saying (quite possibly out loud) ‘we’re the Romans’ in a very squeaky voice. Which made reading historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s novel, Vindolanda, entertaining in a way he probably didn’t expect.

9781784974688Vindolanda was a Roman fort near to Hadrian’s Wall (although it was built before the wall itself) which I have visited a few times – full of low walls (another Izzardism) and with fascinating displays of what everyday life would have been like in the first century AD. It is in this area that the novel is set and where the hero, centurion Flavius Ferox, is responsible for keeping the peace between the Romans and the British tribes. His job is being made all the harder by a mysterious druidic figure known as the Stallion and the possibility of a Roman traitor. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Ferox is a bit of a maverick, with a past involving a missing woman and a drinking problem. This kind of policeman is a standard figure in crime thrillers (which this is despite its historical setting) – I can see no reason why they shouldn’t have existed in Roman Britain…

Goldsworthy’s detailed historical knowledge is obvious here. The military systems, the layout of forts, the life of the wives of senior officers, the politics of the relationships between the invaders and the native peoples all flow effortlessly onto the page. I never felt, however, that I was reading anything but a gripping crime thriller. Story always seemed as important as the historical facts. If you are looking for a series for fans of authors like Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden or Robert Fabbri from the ending of the book it seems obvious that Ferox will have further crimes and mysteries to solve in future volumes.

Jane

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession – Alison Weir

There are some times in life when you suddenly find yourself doing something that, not so long ago, you would never have believed possible. For example, I recently joined a running club. Yes. An actual running club – I even actually go out most weeks and run with them. The me from a few years ago who used to get out of breath running for a bus is absolutely gobsmacked so it is perfectly okay for you to express astonishment. To be fair, I’m mostly surprised that I’ve given up a couple of hours of reading time each week (not to mention a lie-in on any Saturday I’m off work) but, so far, it has been worth it. Slightly achy legs, the occasional soaking and only one major set of bruises is a fair return for all the fresh air, country views and second breakfasts eaten after a parkrun. It is probably not immediately obvious how this preamble about running fits in with Alison Weir’s second volume in the series of six historical novels about the wives of Henry VIII but bear with me…

30231546The first volume – on Katherine of Aragon – looked at the role of women in general and Queens in particular. Henry’s first queen is sure that she must live up to those roles but Anne Boleyn, his second, is, we have always been told, a rebel who wants to overthrow this system. This novel gives us Anne’s view of the world: her childhood, her family relationships and her girlhood in the courts of Renaissance Europe. Here she is enthralled by female monarchs who think in a new way, who feel that women have greater roles to play than just wives and mothers, who value women’s independence, intelligence and opinions. Most importantly she is told, by the women she respects at court that, above all, a woman’s most important quality is her virginity.

This is not the story of Anne Boleyn which I expected. Cleverly, Weir doesn’t give us the obvious – Anne as seductress or Anne as pawn in parental plan – but a highly original view of a much written-about woman. Once again, her knowledge of her subject and meticulous research has led her to a highly original, if fictional, version of events. There is overlap with Katherine’s story, of course, and what has been particularly interesting for me has been the  fluctuating character of Henry himself. The courtly lover, the tyrannical husband, the statesman and the would-be head of a dynasty are all there but, at the heart of it all is a man afraid that he will never have a son to inherit the kingdom he rules. Like me with running Anne, according to Weir, didn’t set out to become a queen – but when she did accept this as her role (had queen-ness thrust upon her as it were) she tried to do the best she could. I feel the same way about running (but hope that it all ends better in my case). I am also now looking forward to the Jane Seymour novel – I think Weir may even make her interesting for me…

Jane

 

Playing catch-up. Again…

Oh dear. I’ve gotten behind again with reviews and I don’t even have the excuse of a big work event to blame. I think I just got distracted and lost my mojo a little – so here is a round-up of some of the books I’ve been reading in the past few weeks. It looks like quite a varied mix of adult and YA fiction with a little history thrown in. Story of my reading life really (although I do usually read a better mix of male/female authors).

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

the-cows-by-dawn-o-porterThis is the story of three modern women: Tara, a single mother, Stella, a PA who is haunted by thoughts of her dead twin and Cammie, a take-no-prisoners lifestyle blogger. It would be wrong to say they represent a full range of women today – they are all much of an age, all based in London, all white, all working in the arts in some way – but they do show different ways of being a youngish woman in their world. Women are often judged by their appearance, their sexuality and their ability to produce children – very much like the cows of the title – and these three are no exception. Their lives start to entwine when Tara becomes an internet sensation (after being filmed in an extremely compromising, and solo, position on the Tube) and we explore all three women’s attitudes to sex, motherhood, life and, possibly, death.

The book is very funny, fairly rude and, at some points, pretty sad. O’Porter doesn’t pull too many punches about the way women are expected to live their lives: her characters, rather wonderfully, end up refusing to conform to these expectations. Not because feminism told them to but because they realise that they need to live a more honest life – to be themselves rather than the women they are expected to be.

The Walworth Beauty – Michèle Roberts

walworthThis is the story of Walworth, a district of South-East London which I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with (turns out it’s the bit with the Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road). The story is told through two timelines: in modern-day Walworth Madeleine moves into a small garden flat after losing her job as a lecturer and in the 1850s Joseph Benson is working for Henry Mayhew on the articles which later became London Labour and the London Poor. Benson’s job is to interview the less virtuous poor – thieves, rogues and prostitutes – and, in the course of his work, he becomes fascinated with a Mrs Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house on the street where Madeleine will live 160 years later.

This book is an insight into the lives of various underclasses in the mid-Victorian era – Benson has a weakness for strong drink and working girls, Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman in a world which treats both her sex and her race as inferior, the girls who live with her struggle to survive without turning to prostitution. In the parts of the book set in the present day some of the characters are generally better off financially but they still have struggles – young women still have to fight hard to make their way in the world, older ones find themselves neglected and the pace of modern life leaves many struggling to make sense of the world. There is an air of slight menace as the two timelines wash up against each other – each era haunts the other as if the layers of history were two decks of cards being shuffled together. It is both a contemporary and a historical novel and we find that the two have as many similarities as differences.

What Regency Women Did For Us – Rachel Knowles

I recently reviewed a wonderful book of biographies of women aimed at primary-age children. This book is a little more specific, focussing on women who lived between the 1730s and 1850s, and is aimed more at an adult market but I feel it would still be useful for older children who were interested in women’s history. I love history and will happily (if I can make the time) read lovely big, thick, detailed histories of medieval queens or scientific movements. This book seems to be more along the lines of popular history so if you just want a quick overview of the lives of women in the Regency period this could be the way to go.

WRWDFU cover for blogThe book covered an interesting selection of women including those I’m sure most people will have heard of, like Jane Austen or Madame Tussaud, some known to those with a little knowledge of the era, like Maria Edgeworth (for those who know more on the literature side) or Caroline Herschel (for those who lean to the scientific). There are short biographies, a summary of their work and achievements and also of their legacy, and they should serve as a great starting point for any more detailed reading. I think I may now be led on to investigating further into the life and works of some of the women here who I was either unaware of or only knew by name. Harriot Mellon sounds like a place to start, or maybe Mary Parminter….Ah well, all the best reading just leads onto more books!

Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

The whole ‘difficult second album’ thing seems to be an accepted thing and it can also apply to novelists. I, like an awful lot of people, absolutely loved Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project. I read the follow-up and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have quite the same impact. The first book, however, was wonderful enough that I will leap on anything new which the author produces so I was glad to find that this book is at least as good as the previous one.

41Ui3mMfFfL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_Adam Sharp is an IT consultant approaching his 50th birthday. He earns decent money, has a house, as much work as he needs and is a fixture on the local pub-quiz scene (specialist subject probably pre-eighties music). But he has worries, he’s not as fit as once was, his mother is getting frail in her old age and his marriage could be described as amicable at best. This situation could have been enough for Adam if, out of the blue, an email from an old flame hadn’t reminded him of the heady days of his youth when he fell in love with an Australian actress, played piano in a bar for tips but turned his back on that life when his IT job demanded he move on.

The novel shows us how that relationship played out twenty odd years ago, and how it ended. We also see Adam’s rather staid relationship with his wife, Claire, and the rather more unusual one, in the present day, between the actress, Angelina, and her husband Charlie. Although these relationships are at the heart of the story for me the main point of the book was Adam’s gradual acceptance of the fact that he was a real adult. As a young man of 26 he was torn between what appeared to be the love of his life and the need to establish himself in his chosen career. At 50 his decisions will affect more people than just himself – he has to be the grown-up he thought he already was twenty years ago.

There is a lot of music in the book – like all ‘best of…’ albums it highlights moments of the characters lives with songs – mostly from the 60s and 70s. I was good with most of the pop and rock songs although I’ll admit to not knowing quite a few of the more jazzy tracks. So as well as giving me a story I enjoyed Simsion is adding to my ongoing musical education…

Running on the Cracks – Julia Donaldson

If the previous book was a departure from the author’s previous books (less obviously humorous, change of main character) then so is this one. Julia Donaldson is known and loved by virtually every child and parent I have ever met and she is, quite possibly, the queen of storytellers in the 0-5 and 5-8 age groups. Lets face it, I probably don’t need to even tell you this, you probably (like most of us) know most of the words to The Gruffalo without needing to look at the book….This book, however, is a bit different since it is aimed at a much older readership and is being marketed at the younger end of the teen market.

978140522233415-year-old Leonora (Leo to her friends) has run away. Her parents have died in an accident and she is living with her aunt, her bitchy cousins and her slightly creepy uncle. She runs to Glasgow in the hope of finding her chinese father’s family but ends up sleeping on a bench until she is taken in by an odd but kind woman named Mary. She makes friends with would-be Goth Finlay and sets about searching for her family, avoiding her uncle (who gets even creepier) and working out how best to help Mary, who is obviously struggling with her mental health. I would say this is a book firmly aimed at the younger teen – it is generally restrained in its language (hovering at the ‘bloody’ level of swearing), the slightly predatory uncle is creepy but never gets as far as being overtly sexual and there is no romance angle to the relationship between the youngsters. There are serious issues covered, the plight of runaway children, the problems inherent in mental health care, immigrant communities and the difficulties youngsters have in feeling like they ‘fit in’. I liked the main characters, particularly Finlay and Mary, and thought the plot was good. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2009, but I hope that Donaldson makes some time to write more for older children.

Jane