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My cold weather reading: ‘After the Fire’ and ‘Those Who Know’

Pilk 51p9eUIXJ9LHere in the North West, we’ve had a sudden change of the weather from tropical to arctic, meaning my lockdown walks have been replaced by staying inside with a good book. Now my most recent novel is done, I’ve been able to let go of research reading, and read for my own pleasure.

My latest novel, Entertaining Mr Pepys, was set in the world of the 17th Century theatre, and whilst writing it I would never have read this book, ‘After the Fire’ , because it is set in a similar time and place, and I’d fear some of John Pilkington’s  world seeping into mine. But now my final Pepys book is out and done with, I can indulge my passion for all things 17th Century.

After the Fire by John Pilkington is a murder mystery that introduces us the the character of actress Betsy Brand, and she is a great character to root for. Impetuous yet astute, she is not afraid to enter the worst rookeries of Restoration London, or to confront danger when it arises. She is ably assisted by her doctor friend, Tom Catlin, who refers to her as ‘Mistress Rummager,’ and though sceptical initially about her sleuthing abilities, is able to make sense of the deaths, and throw light on what kind of poison might be employed. Their relationship is interesting, as she is the dominant character despite her lower status.

The plot hinges on events that happened during the Great Fire of London (hence the title), and just when you think the evil perpetrator has had his come-uppance, we find he is in fact part of a bigger conspiracy. The book is extremely well-researched with a wealth of historical detail. What better place for a murder to happen then during Shakespeare’s most notorious and murder-strewn play, Macbeth? This is rollicking good fun, and will appeal to both fans of historical fiction and mystery lovers.

After the Fire

Blurb: Before Jack the Ripper, there was the Salamander.
London, 1670. The Great Fire is all burned out. Now the city lies in ruins and a series of chilling murders is playing out on the London stage.
Betsy Brand is an actress performing in Macbeth at the new Dorset Gardens Theatre. Every night she watches Joseph Rigg, the company’s most dazzling talent, in the throes of death as Banquo. Until one night he stops playing.

Betsy watches in horror as Rigg collapses mid-performance, poisoned. London’s theatre world turns upside down as more deaths follow. The authorities are baffled. But Betsy is determined to get to the bottom of it all, even if it means solving the case herself.

Betsy hears rumours that a shadowy figure called the Salamander has returned. He had haunted London during the Great Fire and now he is wreaking revenge on his enemies. But her foe is more cunning than Macbeth himself. And time is running out. Can she unmask the killer before she becomes his next victim?

Alis 41ACoLB0rzLThose Who Know by Alis Hawkins

The other novel I have enjoyed this week is the third of a series, and I loved the other two, so couldn’t wait for this one to come out. I’ve been following the adventures of Harry Probert-Lloyd and his able assistant John Davies, and they are always a delight. Partly it is the two men’s voices – the posh self-deprecating Harry versus the much more down-to-earth wit of John, who is always trying to save Harry from himself.

Harry is partially-sighted, so John acts as his eyes. At the same time Harry acts as a kind of benefactor to John, who has ambitions to be a solicitor, but was born much lower in the pecking order.

After a school teacher falls out of his loft there is suspicion of foul play, and Harry is left to contemplate the verdict. Of course there are many who might have wanted to do the deed, and it all takes some unravelling. A man is convicted, but Harry is not convinced they have the right man. Adding to the difficulty is the forthcoming election for Coroner, where Mr Minnever the local Liberal wants Harry to canvas more actively to retain his post, thus involving him in politics which he could well do without. Naturally it is critical Harry should win the vote for re-election, not least so that John can remain in post, but his need to try to gain votes is constantly crashing up against what he needs to do to see justice done. There is also the complication of two women, Miss Gwatkyn the local lady of the manor, and Lydia Howell, recently employed as secretary to Harry, both of whom refuse to remain in the subservient roles Harry expects, not to mention the local doctor who is keen on dissecting any corpse that might come his way, to the horror of Victorian polite society.

This was a great book, and one that lived up to the previous two and more. Complex and interesting, with a well-drawn sense of time and place, and characters you can really get to know. I heartily recommend.

Those Who Know

Blurb:

Harry Probert-Lloyd has inherited the estate of Glanteifi and appointed his assistant John as under-steward. But his true vocation, to be coroner, is under threat. Against his natural instincts, Harry must campaign if he is to be voted as coroner permanently by the local people and politicking is not his strength.
On the hustings, Harry and John are called to examine the body of Nicholas Rowland, a radical and pioneering schoolteacher whose death may not be the accident it first appeared. What was Rowland’s real relationship with his eccentric patron, Miss Gwatkyn? And why does Harry’s rival for the post of coroner deny knowing him? Harry’s determination to uncover the truth threatens to undermine both his campaign and his future.

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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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Interview with Victoria Delderfield, author of The Secret Mother

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I first met Vicky on the MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster, and loved the premise of this book, which she was working on at the time. Now, at last, two children and a whole lot of work later. The Secret Mother is finally out, and getting the recognition it deserves. Winner of the Hookline Competition for Book Group reads, this is a book that will make you ask questions about your cultural expectations, your relationships with your children, and what it is to be a mother.

 

 

What inspired you to start a book set in China?

The novel emerged out of a short story I wrote featuring a Chinese factory worker called Mai Ling. She wouldn’t let me go until I’d written more of her story. Mai Ling is one in a million – or several million – but her life became special to me, I think because I wanted to understand what it might be like growing up in a culture so vastly different to my own. For me, an exciting part of writing – and reading – is making journeys through time and place that everyday life precludes.

I felt strongly that the best way to explore China’s massive social change would be through the life of an individual whose life was also in a state of economic, social and emotional flux. Whilst researching the novel, I was personally moved by the many stories of women, like Mai Ling, who leave homes and families and undertake physically exhausting work in factories in order to earn their own living and support their families. Mai Ling’s journey – both physical and psychological – from peasant girl to dagongmei (‘working girl’) and eventually mother is particular to China and the era in which it became a market economy.

The novel developed into a story about overseas adoption when I realised that the global significance of Mai Ling’s life exceeded pure economics.

Are there any Chinese images from your novel that have particular resonance for you?

I was very inspired by the photographic work of Polly Braden, Michael Wolf and Edward Burtynsky when writing The Secret Mother. Their work documents the lives of workers, like Mai Ling, caught up in the largest migration in human history as it occurred in China in the early nineties. I was haunted by their visual depictions of the mechanisation of the female body that’s required to support mass production and consumerism: factories teeming with identical uniforms, workers seated in grid formation – all carefully spaced and monitored to ensure maximum productivity. I liked the idea that Mai Ling’s pregnant body is in revolt against this homogeneity.

Secret Mother

You started this book before having children of your own. Has being a mother made a difference to how you view Mai Ling as a character?

I have an incredibly close relationship with my mum and this undoubtedly influenced Mai Ling’s characterisation, especially the fiercely protective and tenacious nature of Mai Ling’s love for her daughters. Letting go of one’s children is something all parents do to varying degrees and at various ages and stages so I hoped this theme would resonate with readers. Mai Ling must face the heart-wrenching decision of who will care for her babies, but she never relinquishes the emotional bonds. Mai Ling’s predicament is all the more poignant now that I’m a parent. I also appreciate more fully the absolute horror and fear that Nancy (the twins’ adoptive mother) feels at the prospect of losing her girls.

Motherhood and family are themes I am sure to return to because my own family relationships are so personally significant.

I loved the way the twins were so different. Which was the easier twin to write, and why?

I’ve breathed my sixteen year old self into both girls – sixteen is a fun age to write about because characters are naturally evolving and identity is in flux. The twins definitely change throughout the course of the novel as their sense of identity matures. Jen is exceptionally smart, hard-working, brave, curious, sensitive and caring. Ricki would probably call her the goody two shoes of the family. I chose to write certain chapters from Jen’s point of view to show what was going on beneath the surface: her uncertainties, fears and deep desire for acceptance – especially from her twin. Jen has been learning GCSE Mandarin and wants to reconnect with her cultural heritage. Her openness is contrasted with Ricki’s seemingly stubborn refusal to confront the past. Ricki has internalised a lot of her hurt and confusion concerning her Chinese birth mother and I wanted her to heal. The scene featuring Ricki and May towards the end of the book was one of the most moving to write, but writing about characters with intense emotions is never easy because there’s always a big risk of tipping over into melodrama.

What is your favourite book club read, and why? Can you recommend a book to read as a companion volume to The Secret Mother?

I love my book club – we’re a small group of friends that spend half our time getting passionate about books and the rest catching up on life and sharing our laughter and troubles over tea and cake. The books that we read have become special to me because through them I can chart the ups and downs of our lives. Our most recent read was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. We heard him speak at Manchester Central Library the day after its publication. This greatly helped our understanding and appreciation of the novel – which is enigmatic, imaginative, ambitious and very moving. He is a writer I have long admired for his thoughtful ability to re-invent genres.

A good companion to The Secret Mother might be Emma Donoghue’s Room, a novel which also depicts the tenacity of a mother’s love for her child, albeit in very different circumstances.

find Victoria on her website or chat to her on twitter @delderfi