In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson is an author I’ve wanted to try for a while; I keep seeing her books on other blogs I follow and they always sound interesting. Her latest novel, In Place of Fear, turned out to be a good one for me to start with; it’s a fascinating historical mystery set in Edinburgh just after World War II.

It’s 1948 and Helen Crowther is about to start a new job as medical almoner for the newly formed National Health Service. Working alongside two doctors, Dr Deuchar and Dr Strasser, Helen will be making home visits to patients, giving them advice and ensuring that they get the help they need – a role similar to a modern-day social worker. She’s looking forward to the new job, but at the same time she knows there are going to be difficulties: first of all, she will have to convince the disbelieving public that healthcare under the new NHS really is free and they no longer need to worry about paying for their treatment; she also has to contend with the disapproval of her mother, who wishes she would get a job in a factory like other working class women. It comes as a relief when Dr Strasser offers Helen the upstairs flat in an empty building he owns, so that she and her husband, Sandy, can move out of her parents’ overcrowded house at last.

Helen’s marriage has not been a particularly happy one so far; Sandy has spent several years in a POW camp and since returning to Scotland has been struggling to cope with married life. Helen hopes the situation will improve now that they can be alone together, but just as she and Sandy are beginning to settle into their new home, she discovers the body of a young woman in the air raid shelter in the garden! The doctor is summoned and after examining the body he decides that it was suicide, but Helen is not convinced. Who is this young woman and how did she die? Helen is determined to find out, even though everyone else seems equally determined to cover up what has happened.

The mystery aspect of this novel takes a while to get started and never really becomes the main focus of the book until near the end when Helen begins to uncover some secrets that have remained hidden for several years. However, I thought it was a very intriguing mystery and although I had my suspicions as to who the culprit might be, I was unable to guess the other parts of the solution. Looking at other reviews of the book, it seems that a lot of readers were disappointed that the crime element wasn’t stronger but this didn’t really bother me as I was finding it so interesting to read about life in 1940s Edinburgh and the beginnings of the NHS. There’s also a heavy use of Scottish dialect which I suppose people will either like or they won’t, but I thought it added to the strong sense of time and place and I found it easy enough to follow what was being said.

A lot of time is spent on Helen’s visits to people in the community, particularly young mothers and those who are hoping to become mothers, so that she can advise them on diet and hygiene and make sure they are receiving the medical care they’re entitled to. I wasn’t familiar with the role of medical almoners before reading this book, so I found it fascinating to learn about what the job involved. Before 1948, the almoner would assess patients to decide how much they could afford to pay, but with the birth of a health service that was ‘free at the point of use’ this became unnecessary and the almoner could devote more time to actually helping the patients with their medical and welfare needs. However, Helen sometimes goes above and beyond what is required and sometimes she makes mistakes or is seen as interfering in things that are none of her business. It was watching her going about her daily work and trying to decide how to handle each difficult situation that I found particularly enjoyable, so it didn’t matter to me that the mystery was so slow to develop.

I would like to try more of Catriona McPherson’s books. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which one I should read next!

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

This is book 24/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

20 Books of Summer – 2022

20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, is a very simple idea: make a list of twenty books (there are also ten and fifteen book options) and read them during the summer months. However, it’s much more difficult than it sounds; I have taken part for the last five years and have never managed to complete it. I do usually read twenty books during the three month period – just not the twenty that were on my list! I should probably allow myself more flexibility and take advantage of the rule that says we can change our list halfway through.

This year’s 20 Books of Summer starts on Wednesday 1st June and finishes on Thursday 1st September. I have listed below the books I would like to read. These are a mixture of review copies from NetGalley, books from my Classics Club list, books for the Read Christie 2022 challenge (I’m planning to join in with the July and August Christies, but not the June one) and other books that have been waiting on my shelf for a long time.

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1. Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby
2. The Colour Storm by Damian Dibben
3. Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo
4. At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie
5. Haven by Emma Donoghue
6. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
7. Shadows and Strongholds by Elizabeth Chadwick
8. Death in the Andamans by MM Kaye
9. Summerhills by DE Stevenson
10. Fortune by Amanda Smyth
11. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
12. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse
13. Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie
14. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
15. Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull
16. The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon
17. Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb
18. The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
19. Something Light by Margery Sharp
20. The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

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Have you read any of these? Which should I read first? And are you taking part in 20 Books of Summer this year?

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting by Sophie Irwin

This was a gamble for me; I don’t usually read Regency romances other than Georgette Heyer’s and I was worried that this book might be silly and derivative. However, I’m pleased to say that I found it entertaining, intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable. Although some elements of the plot undoubtedly draw heavily on Heyer and Austen and we have a heroine who in many ways resembles Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Sophie Irwin still manages to make the story feel fresh and engaging.

Kitty Talbot is the eldest of five recently orphaned sisters whose father has left them with a mountain of debt and in danger of losing their home. Having just been jilted by her wealthy fiancé, Kitty decides that the only solution is to find another rich man to marry – but unless she can do so within the next twelve weeks, Netley Cottage will be repossessed and the family thrown into poverty. So, accompanied by her sister Cecily, Kitty heads to London for the Season, determined to launch herself into society and find a suitable husband as soon as possible.

Once settled in London at the home of her mother’s old friend, Aunt Dorothy, Kitty sets her sights on young Archie de Lacy, who quickly succumbs to her charms. But just as Archie seems to be on the verge of proposing, his brother Lord Radcliffe arrives from his country estate – and sees straight through her plans. This is going to make finding a husband much more difficult than Kitty had expected!

Although I could predict from early in the novel how it was going to end, that didn’t make it any less fun to read. Sophie Irwin throws just about everything into the story that you would expect to find in a Regency romance: balls, dinner parties, trips to the theatre and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, carriage rides, notorious gambling dens, elopements to Gretna Green and encounters with highwaymen. There are also plenty of interactions between our heroine and the man we can quickly guess is going to be the hero, allowing us to watch their relationship develop over the course of the novel.

Kitty is unashamedly open – at least to her family and friends – about her plans to marry for money. She’s ruthless and manipulative, yet it’s clear that everything she does is for the sake of her younger sisters and she is not motivated by greed or personal comfort. Even though you know that what she is doing is morally wrong, you can’t help hoping that she succeeds. I also hoped for some happiness for her sister, Cecily, who at eighteen is just a few years younger and has accompanied Kitty to London at their Aunt Dorothy’s suggestion. The bookish, intellectual Cecily is more comfortable reading poetry or visiting a museum, but she reluctantly tags along with Kitty to tea parties and dances and almost ruins her sister’s schemes by making one faux pas after another.

I noticed one or two words and phrases that don’t belong in a Regency novel (‘misgendering’ being the worst example), but the language is generally appropriate and the period is brought to life quite vividly. The book does have a lot of interesting things to say about wealth, the class system and why some people should be denied the same opportunities in life as others just because they come from a less privileged background. This gives the novel some extra depth and makes it more than just a light romance.

This is Sophie Irwin’s first novel, but I’m already looking forward to her next one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 23/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

The May theme for Read Christie 2022 is “a story set in Europe” and The Murder on the Links is the perfect choice as the story takes place almost entirely in France.

First published in 1923, this is a very early Poirot novel (just the second in the series, in fact) and one of several to be narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings, a close friend of Poirot’s, is on his way home to England from France when he meets a girl on the train who introduces herself only as ‘Cinderella’. For Hastings, it’s love at first sight, but when they part ways he doesn’t expect to ever see her again.

The next day, Hastings learns that Poirot has just received a letter from a Mr Paul Renauld requesting him to come to his home in France as soon as possible because he believes his life is in danger. The two set off at once, only to discover that Renauld had been murdered the night before, his body found on the new golf course which is under construction near his house. There are several suspects, but when Cinderella reappears and seems to have some involvement in the murder, Hastings will have to choose between his love for her and his loyalty to Poirot.

I enjoyed this, although I don’t think it’s one of the better Poirot novels I’ve read. None of the characters are particularly memorable or appealing; her characterisation would be stronger in later books in the series – maybe at this early stage she was still concentrating on developing the character of Poirot himself. In this book he has a rival – the French detective Monsieur Giraud – and we can see the contrast between their detecting methods. Poirot refers to Giraud as ‘a human foxhound’, someone who ‘sniffs out’ clues like footprints and cigarette ends while failing to see the bigger picture or to consider motive and psychology as well as physical evidence. Meanwhile, Giraud is equally scornful of Poirot’s approach to crime-solving. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which of the two detectives will eventually solve the mystery!

I usually like the books narrated by Hastings, who is a sort of Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock Holmes. He provides a viewpoint close to Poirot, while also being as mystified as we are by Poirot’s methods and deductions. I did find him slightly irritating in this book, with his tendency to instantly fall in love with every young woman he meets, but the romantic subplot does have a purpose as it leads to Hastings departing for Argentina, only to make occasional reappearances for the rest of the series.

Overall, this is a typically clever and entertaining Christie novel, but probably not one that I’ll be tempted to re-read. As a final note, don’t be put off by the many covers of this book that show people playing golf – apart from the golf course being the location of the dead body, golf has absolutely nothing to do with the plot!

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Having enjoyed Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s previous book, The Mercies, I was looking forward to reading more of her work. This new novel, The Dance Tree, sounded very different, but equally intriguing. It’s set in 16th century Strasbourg during a plague of dancing – yes, dancing, which sounds harmless but, as the novel shows, is anything but.

The Dance Tree begins in 1518 and introduces us to Lisbet, a young pregnant woman, who lives with her husband and mother-in-law. Lisbet has already lost several babies and is determined to carry this one to full term; while her pregnancy advances she finds comfort in looking after the bees that provide the family’s livelihood and visiting the tree she has decorated in memory of her lost children. One day, Lisbet’s sister-in-law, Agnethe, comes home from the nunnery where she has been doing penance for the last seven years; Lisbet has no idea what the sin was that resulted in Agnethe being sent away, but she does know that her return has changed the dynamics within the household and that life will not be quite the same again.

Meanwhile, in the centre of Strasbourg, Frau Troffea walks into a market square, lifts up her hands and begins to dance. She is soon joined by more women…and more…and more, all of them dancing until the soles of their feet bleed. As the women continue to dance day after day – a desperate, frenzied dance that shows no sign of coming to an end – the authorities try to bring them under control, without success.

I knew nothing about the dancing plague before reading this book, so I found that aspect of the novel fascinating. Many theories have been put forward over the years to explain why the women danced, ranging from demonic possession or religious trance to ergot poisoning or mass hysteria. Even today, historians don’t know for sure what was behind the epidemic, but to help us understand some of the possible reasons, Kiran Millwood Hargrave provides back stories for some of the individual dancers. These stories are presented as brief chapters interspersed between Lisbet’s chapters, and although I thought they could have been better integrated into the novel as a whole, they were interesting to read.

I liked Lisbet and had a lot of sympathy for her situation, and also for her best friend, Ida, who is married to a controlling bully who belongs to the ‘Twenty One’, the group of men who rule the city. Agnethe is another intriguing character, although I found the reason for her seven-year penance too easy to guess. However, despite finding the characters interesting, I didn’t manage to form the deep emotional connection with any of them that I would have liked. I’m not sure why this should be, because Hargrave does write beautifully, except that I often find the use of present tense very distancing and I think that was the case here.

Although I didn’t love this book as much as I hoped, I would recommend Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books to readers interested in historical fiction dealing with women’s lives in unusual settings and circumstances – in this book, the Strasbourg dancing plague, and in The Mercies, the witch trials on the Norwegian island of Vardø.

Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 22/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Historical Musings #72: From the TBR…Russia and Ukraine

Welcome to another of my not-quite-monthly posts on all things historical fiction!

This month I’ve decided to share with you some of the historical fiction waiting on my TBR. With everything going on in the world and with other projects taking place in the book blogging community such as Brona’s Understanding Ukraine, I thought I would focus on books set in Russia or Ukraine. There are a lot that I’ve already read (mainly Russia rather than Ukraine) and you can find reviews elsewhere on my blog using the Russia tag (there are some classics/contemporary novels amongst those too); I’ve just finished The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn, about a female Soviet sniper, so my review of that one should be coming soon as well.

The titles below are all books that I haven’t read yet. Maybe you can help me decide which I should try to read as soon as possible and which, if any, I could remove from my TBR.

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The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

Russia, 1854. As the Crimean War grinds on, Rosa Barr – young, headstrong and beautiful – travels to the battlefields, determined to join Florence Nightingale and save as many of the wounded as she can.

For Mariella, Rosa’s cousin, the war is contained within the pages of her scrapbook, her sewing circle, and the letters she receives from Henry, her fiancé, a celebrated surgeon who has also volunteered to work within the shadow of the guns. But when Henry falls ill, and Rosa’s communications cease, Mariella finds herself drawn inexorably towards the war.

Following the trail of her elusive and captivating cousin, Mariella’s epic journey takes her from the domestic restraint of Victorian England to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea. As she ventures deeper into the dark heart of the conflict, Mariella discovers her own strengths and passions through Rosa’s tough lessons of concealment, faithfulness and love.

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The Siege by Helen Dunmore

Leningrad, September 1941.

German tanks surround the city, imprisoning those who live there. The besieged people of Leningrad face shells, starvation, and the Russian winter. Interweaving two love affairs in two generations, THE SIEGE draws us deep into the Levin’s family struggle to stay alive during this terrible winter. It is a story about war and the wounds it inflicts on people’s lives. It is also a lyrical and deeply moving celebration of love, life and survival.

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Sashenska by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution.

Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.

Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. Yet she is about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.

Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice…

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The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

Russia, 1915: Sixteen year old farmer’s son Georgy Jachmenev steps in front of an assassin’s bullet intended for a senior member of the Russian Imperial Family and is instantly proclaimed a hero. Rewarded with the position of bodyguard to Alexei Romanov, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II, the course of his life is changed for ever.

Privy to the secrets of Nicholas and Alexandra, the machinations of Rasputin and the events which will lead to the final collapse of the autocracy, Georgy is both a witness and participant in a drama that will echo down the century.

Sixty-five years later, visiting his wife Zoya as she lies in a London hospital, memories of the life they have lived together flood his mind. And with them, the consequences of the brutal fate of the Romanovs which has hung like a shroud over every aspect of their marriage…

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To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams

St Petersburg, 1879. A shot rings out in Palace Square. Cossack guards tackle the would-be assassin to the ground. In the mêlée no one notices a striking dark haired young woman in a heavy coat slip away from the scene.

Russia is alive with revolutionaries. While Tsar Alexander II remains a virtual prisoner in his own palaces, his ruthless secret police will stop at nothing to unmask those who plot his assassination and the overthrow of the Imperial regime. For Dr Frederick Hadfield, whose medical practice is dependent on the Anglo-Russian gentry, these are dangerous times. Drawn into a desperate cat-and-mouse game of undercover assignations, plot and counter-plot, he risks all in a perilous double life.

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The Romanov Empress by CW Gortner

Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage — as her older sister Alix has done, moving to England to wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir, Alexander, and once he ascends the throne, becomes empress. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie — now called Maria — must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.

Her husband’s death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas’s strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has led her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.

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The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

When twenty-two-year-old Gerty Freely travels to Russia to work as a governess in early 1914, she has no idea of the vast political upheavals ahead, nor how completely her fate will be shaped by them.

In 1917, revolution sweeps away the Moscow Gerty knew. The middle classes – and their governesses – are fleeing the country, but she stays, throwing herself into an experiment in communal living led by charismatic inventor Nikita Slavkin, inspired by his belief in a future free of bourgeois clutter and alight with creativity. Yet the chaos and violence of the outside world cannot be withstood forever. Slavkin’s sudden disappearance inspires the Soviet cult of the Vanishing Futurist, the scientist who sacrificed himself for the Communist ideal. Gerty, alone and vulnerable, must now discover where that ideal will ultimately lead.

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* To Kill A Tsar and The Vanishing Futurist are both books I need to read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project (I’m particularly interested in The Vanishing Futurist after reading Cyber Kitten’s recent review).
* I have had an unread copy of The Rose of Sebastopol for more than ten years, so I should really read it soon!
* Sashenka was added to my TBR after reading Montefiore’s One Night in Winter, then I saw some negative reviews that put me off reading it.
* I started reading The Siege years ago, but didn’t get very far because I kept thinking of The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons which I’d just read and which is also about the Siege of Leningrad.
* I love John Boyne’s books, so I definitely still want to read The House of Special Purpose – and I haven’t read very much fiction about the Romanovs so the CW Gortner book should be interesting.

Have you read any of these? Which other historical fiction novels set in Russia or Ukraine have you read?

The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau

A new Nancy Bilyeau book is always something to look forward to. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her so far: her Joanna Stafford trilogy, about a nun displaced in Tudor England after the dissolution of the monasteries; Dreamland, set in a Coney Island amusement park; and The Blue, a wonderful historical thriller involving spies, art and the race to create a beautiful new shade of blue. The Fugitive Colours is a sequel to The Blue and another great read; the two books stand alone, so it’s not necessary to have read the first novel before beginning this one, although I would recommend doing so if you can.

It’s 1764 and Genevieve Planché, heroine of The Blue, is now a married woman running her own silk design business in Spitalfields, London. With the help of her two young assistant artists, Caroline and Jean, Genevieve is beginning to find buyers for her silk designs and is determined to make the business a success. However, she has not given up on her dream of becoming a serious artist and when she is invited to a gathering at the home of the portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, it seems she could still have a chance of achieving her ambition.

This in itself would have been the basis for an interesting novel – a woman trying to build a career for herself in what was still very much a male-dominated field – but there’s a lot more to the story than that. Due to the parts played by Genevieve and her husband in the recent search for the blue, their names have come to the attention of some very powerful people who are hoping to enlist them in further conspiracies. Yet again Genevieve is forced to wonder who she can and cannot trust, but this time one wrong decision could mean the end of her dreams, the loss of her business and even the destruction of her marriage.

The Fugitive Colours is perhaps not quite as exciting and fast-paced as The Blue, but I found it equally gripping. Set entirely in London, it’s a very immersive book taking us from the Spitalfields workshops of the Huguenot silk-weaving community to the grand homes of the rich and famous and the nightlife of Covent Garden. While Genevieve and most of the other main characters are fictional, we do meet some real historical figures too – not just Joshua Reynolds but also Giacomo Casanova, the Earl of Sandwich and the fascinating Chevalier d’Eon. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the 18th century art world, the snippets of information I picked up (not coming from an art background myself, I didn’t know what ‘fugitive colours’ were, but now I do), and the insights into how difficult it was for women like Genevieve and the real-life Frances Reynolds, Joshua’s sister, to gain recognition for their work.

I hope there will be another book in the Genevieve Planché series as I think there’s certainly a lot more that could be written about her. If not, I’ll look forward to seeing what Nancy Bilyeau decides to write next.

Thanks to Lume Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 21/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.