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Recent Recommended Reads Private Lives by JG Harlond and Daughters Of India by Jill McGivering

cover193221-mediumWith lockdown in progress, and my new book just finished, I’ve made time for plenty of reading this month. Here are the first two reviews and I’ll be posting the rest of the reviews shortly.

Private Lives by J G Harlond

I read the first of these Bob Robbins mysteries set in WW2 and loved it, so couldn’t wait for more. This is the ultimate cosy read, full of humour, but also hiding some dark and dangerous depths. I think of it as Agatha Christie meets Dad’s Army, but the characters have plenty of depth. The mystery starts from the off, with Bob Robbins witnessing (from afar) what he thinks might be a shotgun murder. But when he searches the spot there is no body to be found, and the person he saw has simply disappeared. Bob is supposed to be on holiday, but of course he can’t help being curious, and is soon sucked into the investigation, forfeiting his longed-for summer break.

A body does eventually appear, but not the man they are looking for, adding to the mystery.

Bob Robbins  is aided in his investigations by raw recruit Laurie Oliver, who has a love of the ladies and of English Literature, and always has an apt quotation to hand. Fun is added by the setting which includes a chintzy seaside boarding house with a group of thespians preparing to entertain the holidaymakers. Nearly all of them have something to hide, and give Bob a run for his money. The vivacious  actress Jessamyn Flowers (who incidentally has several other names) who runs the lodging house is especially enjoyable. Anyone who does ‘Am Dram’ will recognise this world, and appreciate it. The background of wartime England is accurately and evocatively drawn, with preparations for ‘D Day’ going on all the time. Settle down with your cocoa for this ideal slice of entertaining escapism.

 

Daughters Of India by Jill McGivering

71wUcBYYImLI love to read anything set in India and was really impressed by the sense of place in this book. Right from the beginning, McGivering shows us the heat and colour of India then contrasts it with the chilly Yorkshire Dales, where Isabel must spend the holidays at boarding school and then away from her family and her beloved India. These early parts, seen through childhood eyes, add to the feeling of India as a place of golden memory. Later we are treated to the smells and sounds of Delhi, and then the Andaman Islands – a place I had never even heard of, in the Bay of Bengal. I feel now I have a picture of these places in my imagination.

The two main protagonists, Isabel, born into Colonial luxury of the British Raj, but always feeling an outsider, and Asha, a hindu, are both courageous women. From the cover, I thought this might be a light romantic read, but it is a hard-hitting exploration of attitudes during the final days of the Raj, when India looks for self-rule and the Raj looks to maintain control. The politics are well-researched and sensitively handled, the male characters real people not just ciphers. The book deftly explores the difference between what some call murderers and some call freedom fighters. If you want a book that will take you to a different time and place, that will surprise you, shock you and move you, then this is very highly recommended.

 

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Two contrasting novels of the 17th century #HistFic

I am always fascinated by the different writing styles that conjure an era, and these two contrasting books prove that there is no one style to bring an era to life. Both books are great reads and I recommend them.

Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

traitors_knot_4

This is a wonderful novel – richly detailed and full of the jargon and phraseology of the period. Set just as Prince Charles (later to be Charles II) is making his escape during the English Civil Wars, it centres around the difficult choices and strained allegiances that marked the tension of the Interregnum.

“Are we then to bow and scrape before these turncoats?”

“There is no other viable choice,” Piers said. “Ireland is being carved up by Cromwell while France offers nothing more than sympathy. Clearly, this marks our monarch as pragmatic, a trait sadly missing in his sire. We all must agree this is an improvement.”

“Why? Because he is willing to negotiate his morals?” Blount said.

“Life is a negotiation, death is not,” Piers snapped.

James Hart, a highwayman, (modelled on the real-life Royalist highwaymen of the day such as Hind) is defying Cromwell’s Oath of Allegiance, and making his own rules by not only robbing the rich to feed the poor, but by continuing to support the Crown against the Commonwealth. He falls for Elizabeth Seton, a herbalist and healer, who has chosen to leave her family for a distant aunt, rather than be condemned to life in her sister’s staunchly Puritanical household. When the two characters meet, they find they have much in common, and the romance soon grows wings. Elizabeth’s aunt is a supporter of the Knot, a fictional organisation that gives safe houses to Catholic recusants, and Elizabeth is drawn into helping them. However, The King needs James’s assistance, and our highwayman hero must leave Elizabeth prey to another suitor – the preacher who will show no mercy if he were to uncover a royalist, and a woman who supports papists, in their midst.

Cryssa Bazos is equally at home writing battle scenes as writing romance, and the pace keeps the reader turning the pages. The book is chock-full of historical facts, and these are seamlessly woven into the plot. Fans of English Civil War fiction will lap this up, and it would also suit readers who enjoy classic historical fiction by for example Kathleen Winsor, Georgette Heyer, Michael Arnold or Pamela Belle.

The Witchfinder’s Siser by Beth Underdown

Witchfinders Sister

“For it is a choice, I think, to close the heart, just as it is a choice to open it. It is a choice to look at what distresses you, and a choice to shut your eyes. It is a choice to hold tight your pain, or else let it slip your grasp, set it free to make its mark upon the world.”

Set in 1645, this is a story based on the real events surrounding the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, and his fictional half-sister Alice. After her husband’s death, Alice returns home to Manningtree after many years absence, and hopes to find a good home with her brother. Her position in the household is precarious, but worse, Matthew has changed from the boy she remembers, and what she encounters now is a zealot, hell-bent on ridding the county of witches.

Beth Underdown succeeds in putting us in Alice’s shoes; we feel her discomfort that she must be witness to her brother’s manipulation of the evidence and his tortures of the women in his enthusiasm to get a confession. Alice is a believable character – she is not a modern woman, she too is fearful of the devil and sensitive to the unseen, and this makes her complicity with events more likely. Matthew was burned in a childhood accident, and Alice loves her brother and wants some sort of redemption for this oddly scarred human-being she remembers. Instead, she finds herself caught in his powerful world-view, which sounds plausible but which feels so wrong. In this isolated community, gossip, suspicions and accusations soon spread, with chilling results.

“The number of women my brother Matthew killed, as far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six.”

The writing style is simple and sparse, but each word is carefully chosen. The reader has to think carefully about the ramifications of the revelations in each scene, and this makes the pace a leisurely one, but one to savour. The slow build of suspense is masterfully done. This novel will appeal to those fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, who can find parallels in the English equivalent, and would suit fans of Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier, or Rose Tremain.

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Blog Reviews Seventeenth Century Life

Three great books on The Great Fire of London

Rebecca Rideal – 1666 Plague, War and Hellfire

Plague War Hellfire

For most of my research books I prefer hard copy, and this is a brilliantly and evocatively written hardback, beautifully produced.

Here’s are some of the the opening sentences to whet your appetite:

‘Pale winter sun brought the dawn. Casting a mottled-grey glow on glazed windows and icy puddles, it offered light but little warmth. London was a month into a deep frost. Across the capital people woke to clanging church bells and the hubbub of the streets: barking dogs, clattering carts calling pigeons and chattering early risers.’

Written in three distinct sections covering the War with the Dutch, the Plague and the Fire, it is written chronologically beginning with the explosion of the ship, the London and ending with the Fire.  Lavishly illustrated with colour photographs and peopled by contemporary accounts, this is an account full of the vigour of the changing times. Just get it – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Ashes LondonAshes of London by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London is a murder mystery set in the burnt-out remains after the Great Fire. The opening chapter is a tour-de-force. We accompany James Marwood as he watches in amazement and horror as the edifice of St Paul’s Cathedral, the biggest landmark in seventeenth century London, burns before his eyes. He is spurred into action when he sees a young boy try to run into the flaming building. When he throws his cloak over him, he discovers the boy is actually a young woman, but before he can find out more, she runs off taking the cloak with her.

Who is she, and why was she taking such a risk? Later Marwood suspects she may have known something about a body, found in the smouldering remains – a man stabbed to death, with his thumbs tied behind his back.

The Ashes of London is about the search for these answers. Told in chapters alternating points of view between Marwood, and the young woman, Cat Lovett, we learn how little London has settled after the tumultuous events of the beheading of Charles I and the restoration of his son to the throne. The novel deals withn the fact that there is still a royal search for the regicides responsible for the execution, and particularly for the actual executioner himself.

If I have one criticism of the novel, it is that Marwood himself is rather passive; though I can see why – Cat is a vengeful and active protagonist, and two of those in one novel might have been excessive! However it does make for rather slow going in the middle of the novel. Persevere though, because the climax of the novel is another wonderful set piece and well worth waiting for. As a fly-on-the-wall re-imagining of seeing London go up in flames this is superb.

Permission HeavenBy Permission of Heaven – Adrian Tinniswood

As a novelist, I love the specifics – small details of time and place that are often overlooked in the tellings of history. Adrian Tinniswood gives me this is spades, in his book about the Fire of London. From the particulars of the evil portents, to the bungling attempts to control the spread of the flames, this is a close examination of the week that saw the end of Tudor London’s half-timbered houses and jettied windows, to be replaced with Wren’s elegant stone.

One of the things I liked was the use of maps at the start of the chapters to show the spread of the fire, and the extensive descriptions of fire equipment – the billhooks for pulling down hoses, the fire ‘machines’ that proved ineffectual against such a blaze.

The aftermath is also particularly well covered. More than 13,o00 houses were desroyed, innumerable churches and public buildings, leaving London economically impoverished, and half the population as refugees in Moorfields or other open spaces. Do get the paperback rather than an ebook, you’ll want to refer to it over and over.

Fire

Still on my list, is CC Humphey’s ‘Fire’.  And via Twitter, I’ve just heard of another – ‘The Prospect of This City’ by Eamonn Griffin. And if you have had enough of all this destruction , do try The Phoenix by Leo Hollis, which I really enjoyed and tells of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire.

So why all the interest? My third book in the Pepys series (still in the research phase) takes place during the Great Fire, but is scheduled for publication in 2019, so do enjoy these whilst you wait!

 

PhoenixProspect

 

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Historical Fiction : Recommended reads set in the Spanish Civil War & Colonial India

BOTA-AW-smallAndalusia 1938

During the Spanish Civil War,  Professor Pinzon and his young grandson are taken hostage by Republican soldiers and imprisoned in an old church. The church is built upon an even more ancient Moorish site, and so begins a dual narrative, set in medieval Andaluz and in 20th century Spain – two interlinked tragic stories told 100 years apart.

The characters in this book are extremely believable. It portrays with chilling accuracy the warring factions who have gone too far down the road of terrorism to retreat, and yet are still all too human.These men are juxtaposed with the innocents caught up unwittingly as hostages; men women and children who hang on to the hope that some vestige of humanity, or reasonable behaviour, will prevail. This drama is set against a previous war, back when Christianity obliterated the Muslim culture, and the two stories reflect and inform each other in a very satisfying way – each lending depth to the other. The novel explores what it means in Spain to be a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim, and how earlier history has shaped later events.

This is a page-turner – gripping and well-written, with a nod to mysticism and how the ways of wisdom embedded in architecture. The dialogue is particularly good; I felt I could acrtually hear the characters speak. The only weakness in this book was the inevitable one in a dual narrative – there is always one story I tend to favour over the other, and this time it was the more modern story that held my interest. But for you, it might be different!

As a writer, if you are interested in how to weave two different time-frames together, then this is a fine example of how to include two cultures in one book and make them different and distinct.

strangler-vineColonial India 1837

A young naive recruit to the English Army, William Avery, is given the task of tracking down Xavier Mountstuart, a disgraced agent who has, they fear, ‘gone native.’ He is accompanied on this trek through the jungles of India by his worst nightmare – Jeremiah Blake, a scruffy unkempt individual, who refuses to play by army rules, and holds a sceptical, not to say caustic, view of the whole enterprise.

The heart of this book is a disappearance, and a quest through dangerous Thugee territory (Thugees being supoosed gangs of native assassins).We follow Blake and Avery to Maharajah’s palaces, to army camps ruled with iron grip by despotic Majors, and to salons of women obsessed by marriage with no real understanding of Hindu culture. We are given a down-to-earth and very well-researched portrait of India at this time, and of the weaknesses of the East India Company in particular.

Although described on the back as a ‘rip-roaring romp’ – I  found it to be a much more thoughtful read. The descriptions of Indian life are detailed and specific. Avery and Blake are a great partnership – always at war with each other, yet each having his particular strengths. This is a novel where nobody is what he seems, and this is one of its delights. Towards the end, we unravel the double-dealing, the hypocrisy and the betrayal that as a reader, I always suspected lay just beneath the surface. So this is skilful writing, to convey the shifting of allegiances in such a subtle way.

One set piece near the end seemed just a little too easy, and the pair’s escape from a trap just a little too conveniently staged. Yet all in all, this was an excellent read, a real evocation of the stifling heat not just of India, but also of the British Army, and I recommend it.

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Historical Fiction – The Dark Lady’s Mask by Mary Sharratt

Dark LadyIt is a brave writer that sets out to tackle anything about William Shakespeare and how he wrote his plays. Even more so when the author posits the idea that Shakespeare relied on a female poet as his collaborator. I dare say the novel will have its detractors, particularly those who find the portrait of Shakespeare doesn’t live up to their expectations of him as a romantic hero. But this is a superb novel that immerses the reader firmly into the seamy world of the Elizabethan Court, viewed through the eyes of court musicians and courtesans, and then into the olive groves and vineyards of Renaissance Verona.

Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the Dark Lady of the book’s title, is a strong and engaging protagonist. Well-educated, musical, and with an ear for poetry ‘that intoxicated her like wine’ she teams up with the not-yet-famous Shakespeare to bring sparkle to his plays. A long sojourn in Italy consolidates their romantic relationship, where together they write some of the most well-known of his plays, such as Twelfth Night. The relationship is filled with artistic and sexual tension, and undercurrents of themes which appear in the plays. The idea of turning Aemilia into a Viola – a cross-dressing disguise – works very well in this Elizabethan context. Mary Sharratt has incorporated many references to Shakespeare’s plays, and these add enjoyment to the narrative as the reader spots the allusion. The passionate liaison between Aemilia and Will lasts until Will hears of the death of his son, when, filled with guilt, he decides to return to his wife.

After this episode the book becomes more Aemilia’s own, and we come to appreciate what a remarkable talent she had, and how hard it was for a female poet to find an audience in those times. Filled with extracts of Lanier’s own poetry, which is seamlessly integrated into the narrative, this is a literary tour de force. Aemilia’s situation forces us to examine what role women had (and have) in the role of poetry as a means of expressing deeper engagement with the human condition, and how religious views about woman’s ‘fall from grace’ affected Lanier’s life, and by reflection, female poets of today. Anyone interested in the cultural climate of Elizabethan England will find much to engage them, and I learnt a lot about both Shakespeare and about Aemilia Lanier from this novel. Highly recommended.

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Red Rose, White Rose – Joanna Hickson researches Cecily Neville

My article on Red Rose White Rose by Joanna Hickson – Queen of the Castle. is featured in the Historical Novel Society Magazine this month. You can find it here on their website if you are a member of the HNS. If you like historical fiction, why not join?

Red Rose White Rose

For those who are not members, here’s a little insight…

The article describes how Joanna Hickson’s research for this densely researched novel took her on a journey to visit a number of  castles where Cecily Neville lived, in order to build a picture and soak up the atmosphere. A heavy fall of snow made two particularly difficult. She tells us that Maxstoke Castle, a place where Cecily was under house arrest later in her life, was a classic four-square medieval moated castle, ‘a small jewel as opposed to a rambling fortress.’ Joanna explained, ‘The gates are still fortified with the iron-cladding installed by Cecily Neville’s brother-in-law, Humphrey, 1st Duke of Buckingham and bear his cypher.’ Here is Joanna’s picture of that snowy day – there was no room for it in the article.

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Maxstoke Castle

The other difficult castle to visit was apparently Ludlow. Looking round these castles in the snow, she says, ‘gave me a very good impression of the dangers faced by the inhabitants of a freezing, draughty castle in winter.’

Ludlow
Ludlow Castle

According to Joanna, ‘Fotheringhay was Cecily Neville’s favourite castle. ‘It is where Richard III was born and, a hundred years later, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded – two monarchs whose tragic histories may have caused it’s subsequent decline into a mere footprint in the soil of the Northamptonshire landscape.’

Fotheringhay Castle

Cecily Neville is a fascinating character, and in Red Rose, White Rose we watch her mature against the background of constant in-fighting by her male relations. If you are a fan of the Wars of the Roses period, then this is a wonderful read. By the introduction of Cuthbert, Cecily’s fictional illegitimate half-brother, we get an insight from a male as well as a female perspective into the feuding Plantagenets and their bloody battles for land and stronghold. Recommended.