The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes is well known, but how many people have heard of Helena Jans van der Strom? Helena was in a relationship with Descartes for over a decade and played an important role in his life, yet she has been given little attention by historians and the information we have about her is very limited. In The Words in My Hand, Guinevere Glasfurd attempts to redress the balance and gives Helena a voice, building a fictional story around the known facts.

At the beginning of the novel, Helena, a young Dutch woman, is working as a maid in the Amsterdam home of Mr Sergeant, an English bookseller. There are not many options open to girls of Helena’s class in the 17th century, which is why she has entered service, but, possessing a natural intelligence and curiosity, she is teaching herself to read and write, spelling out the words on the palm of her hand in the absence of paper:

Mr Sergeant had paper, but if I was caught with any of that I would be dismissed. I could not take it without asking. And if I asked, he’d want to know why, what I wanted it for. What would I say?

“I want to write, Mr Sergeant – I know you decided I couldn’t, but I’ve decided I can.”

Some excitement comes into Helena’s life one day in 1634 when Mr Sergeant takes in a new lodger – René Descartes, whom Helena thinks of only as the Monsieur. Getting to know the Monsieur is not easy as he is fiercely guarded by his valet, the Limousin (who takes his name from his place of birth), but eventually he and Helena become friends – and then something more than friends.

The Words in My Hand explores the relationship between Helena and Descartes, suggesting possible answers to the many questions that arise. What qualities did Helena have that made her attractive to Descartes? What did they teach other and learn from each other? What was the significance of the role she played in his life and he in hers? It is often a difficult relationship and not a very equal one either – it can’t be, because of their very different positions in society. It’s obvious that Descartes cares about Helena, but he is reluctant to give her the sort of conventional family life she would like, so she accepts what he is prepared to offer instead. She refers to him throughout the entire novel as the Monsieur and never as René, which says a lot about the barriers between them which are never quite broken down. It’s not a particularly romantic love affair and Helena deserves something better, but it feels realistic for the time period.

Other characters are pulled into Helena’s story too including Betje, a fellow maid whom she befriends and tries to introduce to the joys of reading and writing. I was particularly intrigued by the uneasy interactions between Helena and the Limousin, Descartes’ valet. And of course, I should mention the setting – I often seem to be drawn to historical fiction set in the Netherlands and I thought Guinevere Glasfurd captured the atmosphere of the time and place very well. I really enjoyed this book (despite feeling annoyed with Descartes at times); it was published in 2016 and is Guinevere Glasfurd’s only novel so far, but I hope she is going to write more.

Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Penman

This is the second book in Sharon Penman’s Justin de Quincy mystery series set in medieval England. I liked but didn’t love the first one, The Queen’s Man, which is why it has taken me a while to get round to continuing, but I’m pleased to report that I found Cruel as the Grave a stronger and more enjoyable book. You could start with this one if you wanted to – there are some recurring characters but it works perfectly well as a standalone mystery.

In this book, set in 1193, Justin de Quincy, illegitimate son of the Bishop of Chester, is investigating the murder of Melangell, a young Welsh girl found dead in a London churchyard. The main suspects are the two sons of a wealthy merchant – the handsome, favoured eldest son, Geoffrey Aston, and his bitter, envious, younger brother Daniel. The Aston family are expecting Justin to clear the boys’ names, but as he delves deeper into the circumstances surrounding Melangell’s death, he is not sure he will be able to do that. The more he learns about the girl, a poor pedlar’s daughter, the more he begins to feel an affinity with her and he becomes determined to bring her killer to justice no matter what.

Meanwhile, two other brothers are also causing problems for Justin. The King of England, Richard I – the Lionheart – has been captured by the Duke of Austria and handed over as a prisoner to the Holy Roman Emperor. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is looking for a way to free him from captivity. In Richard’s absence, his younger brother John is plotting to take the crown for himself and has seized control of Windsor Castle. As Justin has assisted Eleanor in the past, she turns to him again for help.

Justin’s two missions are quite separate – one having implications for the whole country and the other much more intimate, affecting only a small number of people – but there are some parallels, such as the relationship between Geoffrey and Daniel resembling the one between Richard and John. The two storylines alternate throughout the book, but plenty of time is devoted to each one and I found them both interesting. As a murder mystery it is more tightly plotted than the first book in the series and although the culprit turned out to be the person I had suspected almost from the beginning, I still enjoyed watching the truth unfold.

Penman is better known for her long, sweeping historical novels such as Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour. Her mystery novels are much shorter, quicker reads but they still immerse the reader in the medieval period, giving us enough information to set the story in its historical context without going into a huge amount of detail. Justin himself, although perfectly likeable, continues to be slightly bland and forgettable, but the characters around him are strong and vibrant; his relationship with the queen’s lady, Claudine, is particularly intriguing and develops further in this book. I also loved Penman’s portrayal of the future King John – charismatic, complex and unpredictable:

Unlike Durand, John was not hostile. He seemed curious, almost friendly, as if welcoming a distraction midst the monotony of the siege. The Prince of Darkness. Justin wondered suddenly if John knew about Claudine’s private jest. He suspected that John would have been flattered, not offended. He must not let down his guard with this man. John could as easily doom him with a smile as with a curse.

I’ll think about reading the other two books in the series next time I’m in the mood for a medieval murder mystery, but first I really need to read The Reckoning, the final book in her Welsh Princes Trilogy, which I’ve had on my shelf since finishing the previous one, Falls the Shadow!

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: mystery).

The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault

Published in 1962, this is the second of Mary Renault’s two novels telling the story of Theseus. It’s been a few years since I read the first book, The King Must Die, and I was worried that I’d waited too long to read this one, but actually, although it does pick up where the first book left off, it wasn’t necessary to remember every little detail because The Bull from the Sea also works as a complete novel in its own right.

It begins with Theseus and his fellow bull-dancers returning to Athens from Crete, having defeated the Minotaur. Mistakenly believing Theseus to be dead, his father Aegeus has committed suicide, leaving Theseus to become the new king of Athens in his place. After his eventful time in Crete, Theseus finds it difficult to settle back into daily life, even with his new duties as king to occupy him. His restlessness soon leads him into a series of adventures with his friend Pirithoos, the pirate king of the Lapiths, and one of these journeys ends in a meeting with Hippolyta, the Amazon queen.

Theseus falls in love with Hippolyta and after challenging her to single combat and winning, he takes her back with him to Athens. A close and loving relationship develops between them, but Hippolyta can never become his wife – his people would not accept her as their queen, but in any case he is already promised in marriage to Phaedra, a princess of Crete. The fates of Hippolyta, Phaedra and the sons they bear Theseus are played out over the remainder of the novel.

Unlike The King Must Die which focused on only a few years in Theseus’ life, The Bull from the Sea covers a much longer period and as it’s not a particularly thick book, this means that several of the episodes in Theseus’ story are not explored in as much detail. His role in taming the bull of Marathon, for example, is dealt with relatively quickly without going into a lot of depth. Much more time is spent on his relationships with Hippolyta and Phaedra and their sons Hippolytos and Akamas, which was good because this was the part of the novel I found the most interesting. Having recently read For the Immortal by Emily Hauser which tells Hippolyta’s story from a feminine perspective, Mary Renault’s portrayal of her relationship with Theseus couldn’t be more different!

It’s the fact that different authors can take such different approaches to the same myths and legends that makes Ancient Greece so fascinating to read about. There is never just one version that everyone agrees on; so much is left open to interpretation. Mary Renault gives logical, realistic explanations for the various aspects of the myths rather than fantastical ones. I was intrigued by her representation of the Kentaurs (centaurs), for example, not as the half human/half horse creatures we would normally think of, but as a sort of ancient and primitive community of people who live in the wild and form close bonds with their horses.

It seems that most people prefer The King Must Die to this book, but I think I actually enjoyed this one more. This is probably because when I read the first novel in 2013 I had previously read very little about Ancient Greece and didn’t find the subject particularly appealing. Since then I’ve been dipping into the period more and more often and becoming more familiar with some of the myths, which could be why I found this book easier to get into and follow. I will be reading more by Mary Renault and am looking forward to starting her Alexander trilogy soon. I already have the first two books, Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy, ready and waiting on my shelf.

Court of Wolves by Robyn Young

Robyn Young’s New World Rising series got off to a promising start in 2016 with Sons of the Blood and now it continues with the second novel, Court of Wolves. I would recommend beginning with the first book if you can as the story is very complex and I’m not sure how easy it would be to follow if you were to jump straight into this one. For the rest of this review, I will assume that you have either already read Sons of the Blood or don’t mind coming across one or two spoilers here.

Court of Wolves begins in 1486 with Jack Wynter arriving in Florence where he plans to seek an audience with Lorenzo de’ Medici. He has reason to believe that Lorenzo will be able to answer some of his questions regarding his father, Sir Thomas Vaughan, who was executed during the recent Wars of the Roses in England. He is also hoping for help in locating his old friend, the priest Amaury de la Croix, who has been taken captive and may be hidden somewhere in the city. As ruler of Florence, however, Lorenzo already has enough worries of his own with his power coming under threat from a secret society known as the Court of Wolves. If Jack can infiltrate the society and report back to Lorenzo, then maybe Lorenzo will help him.

Before he died, Sir Thomas Vaughan had entrusted Jack with a map hinting at undiscovered lands and new sea routes. This map has been stolen by Jack’s half-brother, Harry Vaughan, and is now in the possession of the newly crowned Henry VII. If these lands really exist, then Henry wants England to benefit from discovering them – but with the sailor Christopher Columbus seeking funding from Queen Isabella of Spain to finance his own voyage of exploration, Henry fears that the Spanish could get there first. He sends Harry Vaughan to Isabella’s court to find out what is happening and to ensure that Columbus never sets sail, but once there, Harry becomes drawn into Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s war in Granada.

Court of Wolves is set during a fascinating period in Europe’s history and the chapters alternate between Jack in Florence and Harry in Spain. There’s a sense that the world is changing and looking towards the future, with England, Spain, the Italian city states and others all searching for new opportunities to grow, expand and trade. Jack’s sections of the book were my favourites, partly because Jack is our hero while Harry is more of a villain, but also because I loved the descriptions of Florence and the Medici court – always a wonderful setting! I wasn’t very keen on the secret society storyline, but it was only one aspect of the novel and there were plenty of other things to enjoy.

The Harry chapters were interesting too, especially as I haven’t read about Isabella and Ferdinand’s Granada War in as much detail as this before. The war was a series of campaigns by the Spanish monarchs aimed at taking control of Granada, the last remaining Islamic stronghold in Spain, and Harry is at the heart of the action, present at the bombardment of Loja and the siege of Malaga. I can’t say that I liked Harry any more than I did in the first book, but I did care about what happened to him; even in another country, hundreds of miles from England, he seems to be very much under the control of Henry VII and is starting to face the consequences of his earlier actions during the reign of Richard III as well.

Although Jack and Harry are having separate adventures in this novel, there are still some links between them and no doubt their paths will cross again in the future. I haven’t seen any news on a third book yet, but I’m sure there will be one as the final chapter sets everything up perfectly for a continuation of the story.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my autumn TBR

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, asks for ten books on our fall/autumn TBR. I’ve already mentioned some of the books I’m hoping to read for the R.I.P. challenge this month and next, so I’ve chosen a different ten to list here.

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1. Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

“Spring, 1917, and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy stories.

Into this turmoil come D. H Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist struggling to console her beloved cousin, John William, who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell-shock.

Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape…”

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2. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

“When a handsome, unscrupulous fortune hunter approaches Harriet, a young woman of means whom most people would call half-witted, no good can result. Elizabeth Jenkins’s artistry, however, transforms the bare facts of this case from the annals of Victorian England’s Old Bailey into an absolutely spine-chilling exploration of the depths of human depravity.”

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3. The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

“Two Montenegrin princesses, Militza and Stana, are married into the Russian aristocracy of the last Tsar by their father. Initially shunned by society and, in Stana’s case, married to a man she detests, life isn’t easy.

Fascinated by the occult, the sisters soon become close to the Tsarina Alexandra who is willing to try anything to precipitate the birth of the son and heir the country longs for. If she puts her faith in them, Militza and Stana promise they can help the Tsarina produce a boy.

The girls hold seances, experiment with a variety of rituals and bring various men to the Tsarina who they feel have spiritual power. Their closeness to the Empress and power in court is undisputed: until, that is, Grigori Rasputin arrives. Militza and Stana, along with most of female Russian society, are intoxicated, but by bringing Rasputin into their lives, have they taken a fatal step too far?”

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4. The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley

“After the death of her father – Pa Salt, an elusive billionaire who adopted his six daughters from around the globe – Tiggy D’Aplièse, trusting her instincts, moves to the remote wilds of Scotland. There she takes a job doing what she loves; caring for animals on the vast and isolated Kinnaird estate, employed by the enigmatic and troubled Laird, Charlie Kinnaird.

Her decision alters her future irrevocably when Chilly, an ancient gipsy who has lived for years on the estate, tells her that not only does she possess a sixth sense, passed down from her ancestors, but it was foretold long ago that he would be the one to send her back home to Granada in Spain …

In the shadow of the magnificent Alhambra, Tiggy discovers her connection to the fabled gypsy community of Sacromonte, who were forced to flee their homes during the civil war, and to ‘La Candela’ the greatest flamenco dancer of her generation. From the Scottish Highlands and Spain, to South America and New York, Tiggy follows the trail back to her own exotic but complex past. And under the watchful eye of a gifted gypsy bruja she begins to embrace her own talent for healing. But when fate takes a hand, Tiggy must decide whether to stay with her new-found family or return to Kinnaird, and Charlie…”

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5. The Green Gauntlet by RF Delderfield

“World War II is over. But for Craddock and his family there are new battles to be fought and won. The new property laws enable speculators to reap huge profits from agricultural lands, and Paul’s livelihood is threatened. With the help of his children and children’s children, Paul struggles to preserve the happiness and peace he has built up over the years. In doing so, he comes to discover deeper, richer ties with those around him. Ties which hold a ripe promise for the future…”

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6. The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

“In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river.

Why does Birchwood Manor feel so familiar to Elodie? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph? Will she ever give up her secrets?”

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7. The Magick of Master Lilly by Tobsha Learner

“In 1641, the country of England stands divided. London has become a wasps’ nest of spies, and under the eyes of the Roundheads those who practice magic are routinely sent to hang.

Living in exile in the Surrey countryside is the Master Astrologer and learned magician William Lilly. Since rumours of occult practice lost him the favour of Parliament, he has not returned to the city. But his talents are well-known, and soon he is called up to London once more, to read the fate of His Majesty the King.

Only Lilly and a circle of learned astrologers – Cunning Folk – know that London is destined to suffer plague and fire before the decade is through, and must summon angel and demon to sway the political powers from the war the country is heading toward. In doing so, Lilly will influence far greater destinies than his own and encounter great danger. But there will be worse to come…”

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8. Transcription by Kate Atkinson

“In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathisers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.

Ten years later, now a producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.”

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9. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

“If you look hard enough, you can find stories pretty much anywhere. They don’t even have to be your own. Or so would-be writer Maurice Swift decides very early on in his career. A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann gives him an opportunity to ingratiate himself with someone more powerful than him. For Erich is lonely, and he has a story to tell. Whether or not he should do so is another matter entirely.

Once Maurice has made his name, he sets off in pursuit of other people’s stories. He doesn’t care where he finds them – or to whom they belong – as long as they help him rise to the top. Stories will make him famous but they will also make him beg, borrow and steal. They may even make him do worse.”

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10. Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard

“Confusion is the third novel in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s bestselling Cazalet Chronicles.

London and Sussex, 1942. The privileged English family in turmoil…

The long, dark days of struggle provide the poignant background to the third book of the Cazalet Chronicles. As the war enters its fourth year, chaos has become a way of life.

Both in the still peaceful Sussex countryside, and in air-raid-threatened London, the divided Cazalets begin to find the battle for survival echoing the confusion in their own lives.”

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Have you read any of these books? What do you have coming up on your own TBR?

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors and when I saw that her birthday – today – was going to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, it seemed a good opportunity to pick up one of the few Stewart novels I still hadn’t read. I decided on Thunder on the Right, one of her earliest novels which was first published in 1957. I had seen a few reviews which suggested this wasn’t one of Mary Stewart’s better books, but I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read one of her romantic suspense novels, having taken a break from them to concentrate on her Arthurian series instead, and I’d forgotten how much fun they are.

The novel begins with Jennifer Silver, a young woman from England, arriving in the French Pyrenees to visit her cousin, Gillian Lamartine, who has written to her to say that she’s planning to enter a convent there. Waiting at Jennifer’s hotel in Gavarnie is Stephen Masefield, an old friend who may have become more than just a friend if it hadn’t been for the disapproval of Jennifer’s parents. She is unsettled by the unexpected meeting after an absence of two years, but pleased to see him again – especially as she is beginning to think that something terrible must have happened to Gillian.

Visiting the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages the next day, Jennifer’s worst fears are confirmed when she is told that Gillian died after being injured in a car crash several weeks earlier and has been buried at the convent. Jennifer is devastated, but when she begins to ask questions of the nuns who nursed Gillian in her final days, she becomes convinced that something is not quite right. Is her cousin really dead? Jennifer has her doubts and, with Stephen’s help, she sets out to discover the truth.

Although Thunder on the Right hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it’s as entertaining as any of her others and I flew through the pages, desperate to see whether Jennifer would find her cousin and what other secrets were being hidden in the convent. The early chapters, in which she encounters the sinister Spanish nun Doña Francisca and hears the details of Gillian’s alleged death, are wonderfully eerie and the tension builds slowly as Jennifer explores the chapels, courtyards and tunnels of the convent in search of clues. In the second half of the novel, though, things become very melodramatic – almost too fast-paced and too exciting, at the expense of atmosphere and character development.

There are other problems – the main villain is too obviously villainous to be convincing, while the romance between Jennifer and Stephen is less engaging than some of Stewart’s other romances, possibly because they already know each other before the story begins and then spend a relatively small amount of time together over the course of the novel. But the setting is wonderful, of course. A Mary Stewart novel wouldn’t be a Mary Stewart novel without lots of vivid and evocative descriptions and there are plenty of them here, as the search for Gillian is played out high in the mountains while the wind blows and the thunder crashes.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, I would agree that this isn’t one of Mary Stewart’s very best books but it was still an enjoyable read. If you’re new to her suspense novels, I would recommend starting with Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk? or This Rough Magic. Those are my favourites, along with the Merlin trilogy which begins with The Crystal Cave.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: suspense).

Historical Musings #42: Reading Diana Gabaldon

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. This month I am looking at the work of Diana Gabaldon, an author I first read in the 1990s, when only the first four books in her bestselling Outlander series had been published. Since then I have joined other readers in the long wait for each new book – there are now eight of them, with a ninth on the way, as well as some spin-off novels and collections of novellas and short stories. There’s also a successful TV adaptation, which I’m sure some of you will have seen even if you haven’t read the books.

The novels are a mixture of romance (mainly in the first book), adventure, mystery and a small amount of science fiction and take us across the world from Scotland and France to America and the Caribbean. The first book, Outlander (which I originally knew as Cross Stitch – its UK title), introduces us to Claire Randall, a 1940s nurse who is visiting Scotland when she walks through a stone circle in the Highlands and finds herself transported back in time to the 18th century. The first person Claire meets is Black Jack Randall, an army officer who becomes convinced that she is a spy. It seems that the only way she can escape his clutches is to marry Jamie Fraser, a young Scottish outlaw – the problem is, she already has a husband in the 20th century…

The Outlander novels

The series currently consists of the following eight books:

Outlander/Cross Stitch (1991)
Dragonfly in Amber (1992)
Voyager (1993)
Drums of Autumn (1996)
The Fiery Cross (2001)
A Breath of Snow and Ashes (2005)
An Echo in the Bone (2009)
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014)

The ninth book – which will not be the last one, by the way – will be called Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone but no publication date has been announced yet.

I have read the first four books in the series several times each and although I think Gabaldon’s writing has improved over time, those earlier books are still my favourites, particularly Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager. The later books, in my opinion, have become too complex and ambitious, with too many storylines and characters and written from too many different perspectives. An Echo in the Bone and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood also draw in a lot of characters from the Lord John series (more on that below), which I just couldn’t seem to get interested in, and I feel that the focus on Jamie and Claire has been lost. I am still looking forward to the final books, though – I’ve come too far now to not find out how the series ends!

The Lord John series

Gabaldon has also written a series of historical mystery novels which are spin-offs from the main series. These novels focus on Lord John Grey, who had a small part in Dragonfly in Amber before going on to play an increasingly significant role in the other Outlander novels.

Lord John and the Private Matter (2003)
Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (2007)
The Scottish Prisoner (2011)

I have read the first two books, but not the third as by that point I had decided that, although I like Lord John himself, the secondary characters in the series didn’t interest me and I didn’t really want to read any more about them.

There are also several Lord John novellas – and a few featuring other characters from the main series – and some of these were collected together in Seven Stones to Stand or Fall.

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You can find out more about Gabaldon and her work by visiting her website, DianaGabaldon.com.

I will be looking at more historical fiction authors in future posts, but for now I would like to hear your thoughts on Diana Gabaldon.

Have you read any of her books? Which are your favourites?