Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I read for the first time in 2020

This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is:

New-to-me authors I read in 2020.

There are lots of authors I read for the first time last year, but I have listed here a mixture of some that I loved and definitely want to explore further and some that I’m still not sure about.

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1. Robertson Davies – I enjoyed Fifth Business, the first book in Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, so the next logical step is to read the next book, The Manticore. I hope to get to it at some point this year.

2. Dorothy B. Hughes – I loved The Expendable Man, published by Persephone, and am looking forward to reading more of her books.

3. Hella S. Haasse – In a Dark Wood Wandering was another of my favourite books from last year. Her other novels all sound intriguing; I just need to decide which one to try next.

4. Ann Patchett – The Dutch House was a surprise; I hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as I did. I had previously dismissed her as not for me, but will now have to investigate her earlier books.

5. Matthew Plampin – Mrs Whistler is a fascinating novel about the artist James Whistler and his relationship with Maud Franklin; Plampin’s other books all seem just as interesting!

6. Maggie O’Farrell – I didn’t love Hamnet as much as most other readers seem to have done, but I liked her writing enough to want to give her another chance.

7. Carol McGrath – I enjoyed The Silken Rose, a novel about Eleanor of Provence, and am looking forward to reading Carol McGrath’s next novel about another medieval queen, Eleanor of Castile, when it is published later this year.

8. Georges Simenon – Now that I’ve read Simenon’s atmospheric 1934 novella, The Man from London, I think I’ll have to try his Maigret series next!

9. Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim was my first Joseph Conrad book, apart from an earlier failed attempt to read Heart of Darkness. I don’t think he’s my sort of author, although I could be tempted to try one more, possibly Nostromo.

10. Ethel Lina White – The Wheel Spins is the book on which The Lady Vanishes was based. Although I didn’t love the book as much as the film, I’m now interested in reading more of her work.

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Have you read any of these authors? Can you recommend which of their books I should try next?

The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

Having read six of Anne O’Brien’s previous novels, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from this one, but I was wrong. It couldn’t be more different! I’m not sure that every aspect of it really worked for me, but it’s nice to see authors trying something new now and then.

The Queen’s Rival is the story of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. As a prominent member of the House of York, Cecily has an important role to play in the Wars of the Roses, yet she is often just a minor character in novels set during this period. Joanna Hickson’s Red Rose, White Rose is the only other book I’ve read which focuses specifically on Cecily, so I was keen to see how O’Brien would choose to tell her story.

The way O’Brien chooses to tell her story is through a series of letters sent between Cecily and various members of her family, as well as diary entries, prayers, recipes and articles from a (fictitious) newspaper called England’s Chronicle. From Cecily’s perspective we see all of the major events of the Wars of the Roses unfold – the attempts of her husband, the Duke of York, to claim the throne of England for himself; the events that lead to the defeat of Henry VI and to Cecily’s eldest son Edward becoming king; the controversy surrounding Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville; and finally, the end of Edward’s reign and the coronation of Cecily’s youngest son, Richard.

The epistolary format gives the story a feeling of immediacy and intimacy, especially where Cecily is exchanging letters with her sisters Anne and Katherine (both of whom also see their fortunes rise and fall several times throughout the novel). However, as all of the other O’Brien novels I’ve read have been written in ordinary prose, this change in style and structure was completely unexpected and, as I’ve said, not completely to my taste. I particularly disliked the excerpts from the Chronicle, which were written in the gossipy style of a modern tabloid newspaper, but I’m sure Anne O’Brien knew that newspapers in this form didn’t exist in the 15th century, so I do appreciate that it was intended as a bit of fun, as well as a way to provide information that might not otherwise have been available to Cecily.

Still, I did find the book entertaining overall. This is such a fascinating period of history with so much still open to debate, so many mysteries and controversies, that it never fails to interest me – although sadly, the novel ends just as Richard III is coming to the throne, so the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is not explored. Cecily herself comes across as an intelligent, politically astute woman who is loyal to her family, but without being blind to their faults. I did wonder about the title: was she a ‘rival’ to Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, or Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen? It could refer to either or both, I think.

Despite this probably being my least favourite Anne O’Brien book so far, I will still look forward to her next novel, The Royal Game, about the 15th century Paston family, which is due to be published later this year.

Book 3/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Light Ages by Seb Falk

The Dark Ages is a term still used – although maybe not as often as it used to be – for the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, bringing to mind images of people living in an intellectual darkness, a time when little scientific progress and cultural advancement took place. In The Light Ages, historian Seb Falk dispels this idea by showing how this period was actually a time of discovery, invention and learning, and that the word medieval ‘rather than a synonym for backwardness should stand for a rounded university education, for careful and critical reading of all kinds of texts, for openness to ideas from all over the world, for a healthy respect for the mysterious and unknown.’

Instead of concentrating on the work of famous historical figures, Falk has chosen to focus on a man whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us: Brother John of Westwyk, a monk who lived in the late fourteenth century. Although there’s a lot we still don’t know about John, Falk takes us through the known facts and uses his general knowledge of the period to flesh things out, describing what John’s life may have been like at St Albans Abbey where he was ordained and outlining the type of education he would have received at Oxford University. Later, John continued his mathematical and astronomical studies at Tynemouth Priory and then went on crusade with Henry le Despenser in 1383 before returning to London where he produced his biggest scientific accomplishment:

He had made an equatorium – an equation-solver, a computer – and he was calibrating it to give the precise positions of the planets.

I won’t pretend that I understood the descriptions of John Westwyk’s famous Equatorie of the Planetis (once believed to have been the work of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer) – like a lot of the information in this book, it went completely over my head. However, before we get to the discussion of the Equatorie, Falk explores several of the other scientific, mathematical and astronomical advancements and discoveries that made such an invention possible. The topics covered include the Babylonian base-60 system of numbering, the development of early clocks, mapping and the magnetic compass, and the functions of the device known as the astrolabe. Some of it is fascinating (did you know how to count to 9,999 on your fingers?), but there are also a lot of geometric diagrams, equations and calculations that will probably be of much more interest to people with a background in physics and mathematics than to the general reader.

A line runs from the Middle Ages to modern science. It is not an unbroken line, of course, and certainly not straight. But if you struggled with any of the trigonometry in earlier chapters, you will admit that medieval people – who carried out such painstaking calculations without the help of any electronics – were not stupid.

Although the book often became too technical for me, I did enjoy all the insights we are given into medieval life. I loved the image of John trying to work on his astronomical tables in his room in St Albans while pigs roam the streets outside:

According to local tradition, pigs too small to sell were donated to the hospital. As they trotted through the streets, Londoners fed them up from runts to valuable livestock, in small but frequent gestures of civic charity. The hospital marked its porcine property with bells to prevent their confiscation and deter theft. For John Westwyk, though, the grunting and clanging from the street cannot have aided his attempts to comprehend Ptolemaic planetary theory.

The Light Ages has clearly been thoroughly researched, drawing on medieval documents and texts ranging from Pierre le Pèlerin’s Letter on the Magnet to Bernard of Gordon’s Lily of Medicine and making occasional diversions to other parts of the world to discuss the impact of the Crusades or to highlight the work of the Persian polymath, Tusi, to give a few examples. For readers who want to explore further, there’s a large selection of primary and secondary sources provided at the end of the book. This wasn’t the ideal book for me as I would have preferred something slightly less academic, but for the right reader I’m sure it would be a wonderful read!

Thanks to Penguin Press UK – Allen Lane for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

I’m taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year and the prompt for January is ‘a story set in a grand house’. Christie wrote lots of those and I’ve already read some of them, including The Hollow, which is the one the challenge hosts have chosen as the book of the month. Fortunately, they provided a list of alternative suggestions and I decided on the 1942 Miss Marple mystery, The Body in the Library, as my January book for the challenge.

The ‘grand house’ in this novel is Gossington Hall in St Mary Mead, home to Dolly Bantry and her husband, Colonel Arthur Bantry. When the Bantrys are woken by the maid early one morning to be told that a dead body has been found on their library floor – the body of a blonde young woman in a white satin evening dress and silver shoes – suspicion immediately falls on the Colonel. But the Colonel insists that he has never seen the woman before and there is no evidence to connect him with the murder, so attention then turns to other suspects.

Could the culprit be Basil Blake, a newcomer to the village who is involved in the film industry and whose lifestyle has made him the centre of village gossip? What about George Bartlett, a guest at the nearby Majestic Hotel where the murdered woman, Ruby Keene, had worked as a dancer? Or maybe it’s Conway Jefferson, who had been planning to adopt Ruby as his daughter after losing his wife and children in a plane crash several years earlier. As the police begin to investigate, Dolly Bantry enlists the help of her friend Miss Marple because she’s ‘very good at murders’. And Miss Marple once again proves just how good she is at murders by using her usual blend of observation and knowledge of human nature to piece together the clues and solve the crime.

The Body in the Library is a short, quick read and like most of Christie’s novels it is cleverly constructed so that most of the information you need to be able to solve the mystery is there from the beginning, but very easy to overlook. As Miss Marple says once or twice, most people are too trusting and too ready to believe everything they are told; even bearing that in mind, I still didn’t suspect the right person and the murderer had me completely fooled! The murderer also had the police fooled – although we don’t actually see very much of Miss Marple in this novel and the focus is more on the police investigation, she is the one who provides the necessary insights that lead to the identification of the killer.

In the foreword to the novel, Christie states that the ‘body in the library’ story is a cliché of detective fiction and that she wrote this book as a variation on that cliché: ‘The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body, on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body.’ Well, the library at Gossington Hall certainly sounds conventional and the body caused plenty of sensation in St Mary Mead, so I think Christie achieved what she set out to do! This has not become a favourite Marple novel but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading February’s book for the challenge.

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

I’ve found this a difficult book to write about because, although it is undoubtedly very well written and has a lot of the elements I would usually find interesting, for some reason I just didn’t like it very much and have struggled to explain why. It was particularly disappointing as I’ve enjoyed the other Rose Tremain books I’ve read – Restoration, Merivel and The Gustav Sonata – so I had high hopes for this one too.

Anyway, Islands of Mercy begins in 1865 in Bath, ‘a place where very many rich people assembled, to take the waters, or simply to take their leisure’. Jane Adeane is the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a renowned Bath surgeon and works with him as a nurse, gaining a reputation for herself as The Angel of the Baths. She has caught the eye of her father’s fellow doctor and business partner, Dr Valentine Ross, but his attentions are unwelcome to her and she decides to go to London for a while to stay with her Aunt Emmeline, an artist. Here she meets one of Emmeline’s friends, the beautiful Julietta Sims, and feels an instant attraction to her. Soon, Jane finds that she is falling in love with Julietta, and when she returns to Bath she must decide whether she wants the security that marriage to Dr Ross could give her or whether she would prefer to be free to pursue her relationship with Julietta.

Jane’s story alternates with that of Sir Ralph Savage, an eccentric Englishman who lives on the island of Borneo with his servant and lover, Leon, and calls himself ‘the Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. Leon is an ambitious and resourceful young man who is always coming up with new money-making schemes, but he is also a jealous man and is not at all happy when Edmund Ross, a naturalist who has come to Borneo in search of new species, arrives on Sir Ralph’s estate.

Edmund is the younger brother of Valentine Ross and this provides a link between the two storylines – however, it is a very weak link and for most of the novel they seem like two completely different, unconnected stories. Borneo is certainly a fascinating and unusual setting, but I didn’t have any interest in Sir Ralph and Leon and felt that their chapters could probably have been left out entirely as they added very little to the overall plot of the novel. This made the whole experience of reading this book feel disjointed and every time the narrative switched to Borneo I couldn’t wait for it to return to Bath again.

Although I found Jane’s chapters much more compelling, I was disappointed by the character arc Valentine Ross goes through; I did have some sympathy for him at first after Jane’s initial rejection of him, but he quickly becomes so unpleasant and controlling that he feels like a stereotypical villain rather than a believably flawed character. I didn’t doubt Jane’s love for Julietta, so I don’t really think it was necessary to make Valentine so needlessly cruel and selfish – in fact, I think it would have been more interesting if Jane had faced a choice between the woman she loved and a man whom she at least liked.

There is a third thread to the novel that I haven’t mentioned yet and this follows the story of Clorinda Morrissey, a woman from Dublin who opens a tea shop in Bath, where she gets to know Jane and her father. Clorinda was the one character in the book I really liked and would have been happy to visit for a cup of tea and a cake! I wished we had spent more time with her rather than some of the other less engaging characters.

I will continue to read Rose Tremain’s books as it’s only this one so far that I haven’t enjoyed. Luckily there are plenty of her earlier novels left for me to explore.

Book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Historical Musings #64: My Year in Historical Fiction – 2020

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. For my first Musings post of the year, I am looking back at the historical fiction I read in 2020 and have put together my usual selection of charts and lists! I have kept the same categories as in the previous four years so that it should be easy to make comparisons and to see if there have been any interesting changes in my reading patterns and choices (my 2019 post is here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here).

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Time periods read about in 2020

For the last four years, the 19th century has been the most popular time period for my historical fiction reading (in 2019, it was the setting for more than a third of the books I read). In 2020, there was a different winner: the time period I read about most often was the 17th century, with the 19th in second place, just ahead of the 20th and 16th.

I read 12 books in total set during the 17th century, with topics ranging from the Pendle Witch Trials (The Familiars by Stacey Halls) to the 1617 Vardø storm (The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave) and the Barbary pirate raid on Cornwall (The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson).

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32% of the historical fiction authors I read in 2020 were new to me.

This is down on 2019’s 54%, but I’m pleased that I still discovered a lot of new authors as well as reading books by favourite authors.

Three books I’ve read by new-to-me historical fiction authors in 2020:

The Almanack by Martine Bailey
Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin
The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

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Publication dates of books read in 2020

As usual, most of the historical fiction books I read were published in the current year. Not even a quarter of the books I read were published before 2000, which is disappointing for me as those older books are the ones I usually end up loving the most. I need to stop being tempted by all the new books on NetGalley!

The oldest one I read was The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883).

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10% of my historical reads in 2020 were historical mysteries.

This is lower than 2019’s 20% and 2018’s 14%.

Three historical mysteries I read last year:

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor
The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson
The Butcher of Berner Street by Alex Reeve

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I read historical fiction set in 19 different countries in 2020.

This is slightly more than the 16 different countries I read about in 2019, but I still want to make an effort to visit more countries in my reading this year, particularly African and Asian ones.

Three books I read last year set in countries other than my own:

The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies (Myanmar)
The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting (Norway)
Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten (Russia)

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Four historical men I’ve read about this year:

Bram Stoker (Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor)
Raphael (The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle)
Charles of Orléans (In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse)
Henry VIII (The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett)

Four historical women I’ve read about this year:

Eleanor of Provence (The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath)
Joan Vaux (The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson)
Aoife MacMurchada (The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick)
Belle Bilton (Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor)

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What about you? Did you read any good historical fiction last year? Have you read any of the books or authors I’ve mentioned here and have you noticed any patterns or trends in your own reading?

The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Penman

The first book I have finished in 2021 is actually one that I started last summer, but as with many of the books I tried to read last year I found that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for anything long and complex. And at almost 700 pages, this novel is certainly long – and with a plot dealing with the history and politics of Outremer, or the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it is certainly complex! As I’m finding it a lot easier to concentrate on reading now, I picked the book up again and have enjoyed immersing myself in it over the last week or two.

Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, at the end of the First Crusade, and the kingdom they established there became known as Outremer or ‘the land beyond the sea’. The Crusaders who stayed in Outremer and made it their home were mainly of French origin and Penman refers to them (and their descendants) as Franks or Poulains. The novel covers the period from 1172 to 1187, a period when the kingdom is becoming divided by disputes over the succession to the throne and when the Muslim Arabs (referred to as Saracens in the book), led by their sultan Saladin, are taking advantage of this to try to reclaim their lands.

With Outremer under threat from Saladin’s armies, strong leadership is more important than ever, but the young king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, has been forced to confront an unwelcome truth: he is suffering from leprosy and can expect an early and unpleasant end to his life. As rival Poulain lords begin plotting and scheming to become the influence behind the next king or queen, the Saracens advance further into Outremer, with their eye on Jerusalem itself…

The Land Beyond the Sea is a fascinating novel. I have read a lot about Europe in the medieval period, but not so much about other parts of the world. Apart from Elizabeth Chadwick’s Templar Silks, I can’t really think of anything else I’ve read that focuses entirely on the Holy Land and its people. As my knowledge of the subject was so limited, I didn’t always know how or when a character would die, or who they would marry, or what the outcome of a battle would be, which made a nice change from reading about the Tudors or the Wars of the Roses, where I usually have a good idea of what is going to happen next! It also meant that it wasn’t a particularly easy read; the number of characters introduced in the first half of the book was overwhelming, especially as so many of them were used as viewpoint characters, which made it difficult to really settle into the story. By the middle of the novel, though, I felt that I was getting to know some of them much better and they were starting to feel like real people rather than just names on the page and from this point on I really enjoyed the rest of the book.

Most of the novel is written from the perspective of the Franks, with a focus on three of them in particular: Baldwin, the ‘Leper King’, who is depicted as a courageous and intelligent young man determined to take care of his kingdom until his illness makes it impossible; William, Archbishop of Tyre, tutor to Baldwin, whose chronicle History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea is one of our most important sources of information on the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and Balian d’Ibelin, one of the leading Poulain noblemen who, due to the respect he commands amongst the other lords and his marriage to the king’s stepmother Maria Comnena, often finds himself drawn into the kingdom’s military and political affairs. I’ve noticed that a few other readers have said they found Balian too good to be true, or even anachronistic, but I disagree – there are plenty of other characters in the book who are selfish, weak or untrustworthy, so why shouldn’t there also be one who is decent and honourable? Balian was the only character I fully connected with emotionally; I sympathised with him as he struggled with some very difficult decisions and shared his frustration at the behaviour of some of the other Franks whose inability to put the welfare of the kingdom before their own interests led Jerusalem towards disaster.

We do occasionally see things from the Saracen point of view, particularly when Balian crosses paths with Saladin and his brother al-Adil, and I think Penman does give a balanced portrayal of both sides in the conflict. Although for most of the book the Saracens are the ‘enemy’, whenever the perspective switches to their side we see that Saladin and al-Adil are more admirable than many of the Franks, are prepared to be reasonable in negotiations and to show compassion where necessary. My only complaint is that I would have liked to have spent more time with them instead of just a few pages here and there.

As with Sharon Penman’s other books, this one has clearly been very well researched and her afterword and author’s note are almost as interesting as the story itself. Apart from maybe two or three words and phrases out of a 700 page book, I didn’t have any problems with inappropriately modern language (and I’m usually the first to complain about that sort of thing). However, I didn’t love this one as much as some of her others such as The Sunne in Splendour or Falls the Shadow, which I think is down to finding the writing slightly dry in places and the lack of emotional impact until nearer the end. Still, I really enjoyed The Land Beyond the Sea and am determined to find time soon to read the final book in Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, The Reckoning, which has been waiting on my shelf for years!

Book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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