Walter Scott Prize shortlist of ‘favourite historical novels of all time’ revealed!

The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction have revealed their shortlist of ten ‘favourite historical novels of all time’ as nominated by readers throughout the month of November. I’m pleased that one of my nominations (The Game of Kings) has made it onto the list, along with a lot of other books I’ve read, although I’m surprised by some of the titles as they are not necessarily books I would have expected to see shortlisted. Have a look at the list below and see what you think.

You can vote for the winner here on the Walter Scott Prize website. The poll closes on the 16th December and the winner will be announced in January.

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Waverley by Walter Scott
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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Have you read any of these? Which do you think should win? What is your favourite historical novel of all time?

Six Degrees of Separation: From Sanditon to The Song of Achilles

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we are starting with Sanditon by Jane Austen. I haven’t read it – I do like Austen but am not as big a fan as many people are and haven’t yet ventured past her main six novels. However, I do know that Sanditon was unfinished at the time of her death.

Thinking about other unfinished novels, The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens immediately came to mind, but I used that one in another Six Degrees post quite recently, along with another, Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished Wives and Daughters. This made me think a bit harder and then I remembered Lord Byron’s Fragment of a Novel (1), his attempt at writing a vampire story which he never completed. I’m particularly pleased with this link because apparently Sanditon was also first published under the title Fragment of a Novel.

The stories of Byron and his fellow Romantic Poets, Keats and Shelley, are told in Passion by Jude Morgan (2). I love Morgan’s writing and I thought this was an excellent book, focusing on the roles women such as Mary Shelley, Caroline Lamb and Augusta Leigh played in the poets’ lives.

Another book about poets is Possession by AS Byatt (3), although the poets in this one – Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte – are fictional. The novel follows two modern day academics as they study the lives of Ash and LaMotte, delving into letters, poems, fairy tales and journal entries, which Byatt presents as if they were authentic Victorian documents.

My copy of Possession has butterflies on the cover. So does The Specimen by Martha Lea (4), a book which had many of the elements I usually enjoy in a book – a mystery to be solved, a Victorian setting, strong female characters – yet it turned out to be disappointing. You can’t love every book you read, I suppose.

The main character in The Specimen is a young woman called Gwen who travels to Brazil to study and draw plants and insects. Another book about a woman trying to break into the male-dominated field of natural sciences is Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull (5), set in Portugal and the Berlengas islands in the middle of the 18th century. I did love that book!

For my final link, I’m taking the word ‘song’ in the title. I had a few books to choose from here, but decided on The Song of Achilles (6), Madeline Miller’s beautiful retelling of the Iliad, told from the perspective of Patroclus, who is portrayed in the novel as Achilles’ lover.

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Well, that’s my chain for this month. My links included unfinished novels, poets, butterflies and songs. In January, we’ll be starting with Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid which, coincidentally, I just started to read yesterday.

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan by Cynthia Jefferies

Cynthia Jefferies is probably better known as an established children’s author writing under the name of Cindy Jefferies, but she has recently turned her hand to writing novels for adults, of which The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was her first. It was the title and cover that caught my attention at first, then when I read what the book was about I thought it sounded like something I was almost certain to enjoy.

The story begins in 1660, with Christopher Morgan returning to England following the restoration of Charles II, having spent several years in exile with the others who fought on the side of the Royalists in England’s recent civil war. Christopher no longer has any interest in taking his place at court and intends to start a new life for himself and his family as owners of the wonderfully named Rumfustian Inn in the village of Dario, but his dreams are destroyed when his beloved wife dies in childbirth. Sinking into depression, he is sustained only by his relationship with his baby son, Abel, whom he raises alone with the help of the servants.

As the years go by, the two become closer than ever, but when Christopher makes an enemy of a local smuggler, he and Abel both pay a terrible price. Abel disappears while out riding his pony and Christopher’s only clue to his whereabouts is a mysterious map of Constantinople. Does this show where Abel has been taken? Christopher isn’t sure, but he’s determined to do whatever it takes to find his son. While he continues to search, however, Abel himself is having adventures of his own…

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is best described as a good old-fashioned adventure story – a sort of cross between Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. With smugglers, secret tunnels, sinister villains, pirate ships and action on the high seas, it’s a fun and entertaining read – yet I didn’t love it as much as I felt I should have done. While I had a lot of sympathy for Christopher, I never warmed to Abel at all; I found him quite selfish and some of his actions towards the end of the book made me actively dislike him. As half of the novel was narrated from his perspective, this was definitely a problem for me. I was also confused by the storyline which plays out in Constantinople as it seems to have very little bearing on the rest of the story and a villain introduced in this section didn’t have the impact I expected him to have.

Still, I was kept in suspense throughout the novel, wondering whether Christopher and Abel would ever meet again. The main theme of the love between father and son is handled with sensitivity and emotion and I had tears in my eyes several times towards the end of the book – which I always think is a sign that an author is doing something right! I would be happy to read more of Cynthia Jefferies’ adult novels; her new one, The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, is out now.

Thanks to Allison & Busby for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones

I love learning about the histories and cultures of different countries, so I was pleased to find that Australian author Carol Jones’ new novel, The Boy with Blue Trousers, is set in not one location but two – the mulberry groves of China and the goldfields of Australia – and introduces us to two women leading very different lives.

In 1850s China, seventeen-year-old Little Cat is growing up in a small village on the Pearl River Delta. Like the other girls in her community, she spends her days picking mulberry leaves and teasing out the threads from silkworm cocoons to produce reels of silk. It’s hard work, but it is the only life Little Cat has known and, now that she is approaching adulthood, she is growing nervous about what the future may hold. What sort of marriage will the matchmaker arrange for her? Will her husband and his family be kind? Will she have to go and live in another village far away from her own?

In the end, though, none of these things matter to Little Cat, because a disastrous encounter with the village headman, Big Wu, forces her to flee the country in fear of her life. Disguised as a boy, she embarks on a ship bound for Australia where she will join the hundreds of men heading there from China who are hoping to make their fortune in the goldfields.

Meanwhile, another young woman, Violet Hartley, has recently arrived in Australia. Violet, a governess, is trying to escape from her own past in England, and Australia seems like a place full of opportunities. When her first job, looking after two small children, proves to be not quite what she’d hoped for, she decides to accompany the Chinese immigrants on their journey – a decision that leads to her path crossing with Little Cat’s and tying the two separate threads of the story together.

The Boy with Blue Trousers is written in the form of two alternating narratives, so that we spend one or two chapters with Little Cat before switching to Violet for a while and then back again. This allows us to get to know both characters equally well and to see how, although they are living in very different environments, they face similar struggles as unconventional, independent women who don’t conform to the expectations of their respective societies. I have to admit, I didn’t like Violet at all; while I did have sympathy for her situation and the loss of her reputation following an affair with a married man in England – unfair when the man involved didn’t suffer in the same way – I just didn’t find her a very appealing character, especially in comparison to Little Cat, whom I loved.

I had a few problems with this book – apart from not liking Violet, I thought the way in which her story came together with Little Cat’s and the reaction they had to each other felt odd and unconvincing – but I was impressed by the sense of place Carol Jones creates. I particularly liked the descriptions of the mulberry trees, river banks, alleys and courtyards of Sandy Bottom Village, Little Cat’s home in the Pearl River Delta, but the coastal landscape of Robetown in South Australia is also beautifully portrayed.

Carol Jones is not an author I’ve come across until now, but I see she has written another novel, The Concubine’s Child, set in Malaysia, which also sounds interesting. If any of you have read that one, let me know what you thought.

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

My Commonplace Book: November 2019

A selection of words and pictures to represent November’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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It had made Sarah think mournfully of the wasted potential of Mrs Simpson’s sister, Mina, her talents and intelligence unnurtured as she sought only to marry well. And this was to say nothing of the wasted potential of all those women who inhabited the realm below stairs, where she, until recently, had been confined. How many Shakespeares, how many Newtons – how many Simpsons for that matter – had we lost because they were born of a gender that was denied the chance to shine?

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry (2019)

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If you take the time and the trouble to look at his life he will emerge as a man of courage and ambition, a man of self-doubt and modesty. He could be merciful or he could be ruthless, depending on the situation and whatever he felt was required. But he could equally be seen as someone who was also filled with humanity.

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor by Phil Carradice (2019)

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‘Things get difficult,” she said. ‘As one gets more money and more conventional in one’s ordinary routine, conventional people get in. Then the trouble is that the word “conventional” doesn’t mean what it used to any more. I mean, people aren’t necessarily honest or pleasant or kind just because they happen to be conventional. You get them in the house, and they play the devil with you because you’re unprepared and unarmed. You’re simple, unsuspecting, natural people. Everyone can see what you are at a glance. Their conventionality cloaks them. It’s their disguise. They beat you when it comes to it.’

The Allingham Minibus by Margery Allingham (1973)

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An Australian goldfield c. 1855

In her entire life, Violet had not been alone for longer than a few hours. What might it be like to be alone in the bush for days, a dog one’s only companion? Yet being alone wasn’t a prerequisite for loneliness. One could be alone in a house full of people. One could find oneself alone, lying abed with a lover. One could find oneself alone in the midst of a conversation.

The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones (2019)

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In my analogy, the production of a man is likened to the manufacture of a photographic print. The flash of creation (by which I mean conception in the case of the human and a timed exposure of light in the case of the photograph) determines the influence of Nature. It is then Nurture (upbringing in the case of the human, or the developing process in the case of the negative plate) which provides the detail, the finesse and the fulfilment of the final outcome. Any photographer, amateur or otherwise, will tell you the many ways in which inadequate skills in the developing room can alter or indeed ruin a perfectly good image.

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby (2019)

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Fiction had never been Jackson’s thing. Facts seemed challenging enough without making stuff up. What he discovered was that the great novels of the world were about three things – death, money and sex. Occasionally a whale.

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (2010)

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Portrait of Elizabeth Woodville c. 1472

The subject of this present study seems recently to have become known in historical fiction as ‘the White Queen’. But of course, historical fiction is not reality. In reality, as she herself knew very well (and it worried her greatly), it was and is definitely questionable whether Elizabeth Widville should really be accepted as a genuine queen. As for her associated colour, on the basis of the flower emblem which she herself chose and adopted, it seems it would actually be more accurate to call her ‘pink’ rather than ‘white’. An additional advantage of referring to her colour as pink lies in the fact that it also highlights her having been eventually acknowledged as of royal status by both white rose and red rose kings (Edward IV and Henry VII).

Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey by John Ashdown-Hill (2019)

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Perhaps, James considered, for a contented life to be possible, no man could have everything he wanted, because if he did, he would want not to have everything, or else to die. Life was not a life if there was nothing left to achieve.

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan by Cynthia Jefferies (2018)

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‘Beauty is for everyone,’ he continued. ‘It’s not just for the rich. Why should less fortunate people live in cheap and ugly places?’

‘There’s no reason!’ Andreas agreed with enthusiasm.

It was in an equal society that Nikos believed and it motivated every stroke of his pencil.

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop (2019)

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(L to R) Ching-ling, Ei-ling and May-ling – the Soong sisters

‘We learn from observation that no nation can rise to distinction unless her women are educated and considered as man’s equal morally, socially, and intellectually…China’s progress must come largely through her educated women.’

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang (2019)

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Favourite book read in November:

Those Who Are Loved

New authors read in November:

Phil Carradice, Carol Jones, Carolyn Kirby, John Ashdown-Hill, Cynthia Jefferies

Countries visited in my November reading:

Scotland, Wales, England, China, Australia, Greece, Turkey, Jamaica

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Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy reading in November?

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Hester Why, the narrator of Laura Purcell’s latest gothic novel Bone China, is a woman with secrets. We know that Hester Why is not her real name, but what is the reason for her new identity? Why is she fleeing to Cornwall from London, who is she hiding from and how did she come to be addicted to gin and laudanum? These are questions we ask ourselves in the very first chapter and they are answered eventually, but first we must follow Hester to Morvoren House, perched high on the Cornish cliffs, where she is taking up a new position as nurse to Miss Louise Pinecroft.

Hester quickly discovers that her job is not going to be easy and soon she is asking questions of her own. What is wrong with Miss Pinecroft, who barely moves, never speaks and spends her days sitting in a cold room surrounded by china cups and plates? Who is Rosewyn, the strange, child-like young woman described as Miss Pinecroft’s ward? Is there any truth behind the claims of the superstitious servant Creeda that Rosewyn needs to be protected from fairies who are trying to steal her away and replace her with a changeling?

Bone China moves between three different timelines; as well as following Hester at Morvoren House, we also go back to an earlier time in her life, when she was known as Esther Stevens, and learn what went wrong in her previous employment, leading to her decision to run away and start again. Finally, in a third narrative we meet Louise Pinecroft as she was forty years earlier, when she and her father first arrived at Morvoren House after losing the rest of their family to consumption.

Laura Purcell has become known for writing dark, creepy Victorian novels and Bone China does have a lot of classic Gothic elements, including a gloomy, imposing clifftop house, family secrets and hints of madness. Despite this, I didn’t think this was a particularly scary or chilling story and although the exploration of Cornish folklore added atmosphere, I never doubted that the fairies and changelings existed only in legends and in Creeda’s stories. How much more spine-tingling it would have been if I had found myself feeling convinced that they could be real after all!

What I did find very disturbing and unsettling was the storyline set in Louise Pinecroft’s younger days, describing the work of her father, a doctor, who is looking for a cure for consumption (tuberculosis), the disease which took the lives of his wife and his other children. With Louise’s help, Dr Pinecroft carries out a revolutionary experiment, taking a group of prisoners who are suffering from the illness and lodging them in a cave beneath the cliffs where he claims the salty sea air will be good for their health. This part of the book was based on historical fact – cave air really was suggested as a possible cure for consumption at one time – and it was horrifying to read about the barbaric treatment of sick people due not to cruelty but to ignorance of modern medical procedures and a lack of understanding.

There are lots of interesting ideas incorporated into Bone China, then, but in the end I felt that the three threads of the story didn’t come together as neatly as they should have done. I also found the pacing uneven; in the second half of the book, the sense of mystery and carefully building tension of the earlier chapters was replaced by a sudden race to reach the conclusion. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to, but I’m planning to read Laura Purcell’s first novel, The Silent Companions, soon and will see if I get on better with that one.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, so when I saw her new biography, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, available on NetGalley, I knew I wanted to read it. As the title suggests, this is the story of three sisters – the Soong Sisters – who were at the heart of twentieth century Chinese politics. Like Wild Swans, it gave me some fascinating insights into a country whose history I know very little about, but unlike Wild Swans, the author has no personal connection with the women she is writing about and I thought that made it a much less immersive and powerful read.

Despite their important roles in Chinese history, I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of the three Soong Sisters before reading this book. In case anyone else hasn’t heard of them either, here’s a quick introduction:

‘Big Sister’ Ei-ling, born in Shanghai in 1888, was the eldest daughter of Charlie Soong and Ni Kwei-tseng. Through her marriage to the banker H.H. Kung – who later became Minister of Finance in the Nationalist government – Ei-ling was one of China’s richest women.

‘Little Sister’ May-ling was the youngest of the three. As the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, who was chairman of the Nationalist party (the Kuomintang) and later President of the Republic of China, May-ling was China’s First Lady. With her American education and excellent command of the English language, she provided a link between Chinese and Western cultures.

In the middle was Ching-ling, or ‘Red Sister’. In 1915, she married the much older Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary leader who helped to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. After Sun’s death, Ching-ling’s continued involvement in left wing politics and her support for the Communist Party often put her in direct opposition to Big and Little Sister.

The book takes us through the lives of all three of these women from birth to death, comparing the different paths they choose to follow and describing their achievements and their influence on Chinese politics and society. Rather than devoting a separate section of the book to each sister, Chang jumps from one to the other and back again, moving forward chronologically over a period of more than a hundred years. As this is the first time I’ve read about the Soong sisters I’ve no idea how they are usually portrayed, but it seemed to me that Chang’s account was quite fair and balanced, showing sympathy for all three women but an awareness of their faults and weaknesses as well.

I found Ei-ling the least interesting to read about. With her wealth and position, there’s a sense that she is very detached from the realities of life, although she does come across as a generous and dutiful sister who tries to help her younger siblings in any way she can. May-ling is more appealing; although she is depicted as ambitious and sometimes extravagant, she also seems warm and compassionate, with a genuine interest in carrying out humanitarian work. But it was Ching-ling who intrigued me the most, with her unwavering dedication to the communist cause that sets her apart from her sisters and creates divisions in the family that never really heal. Was she, as one observer says, ‘most responsive and likeable, quiet and poised but misses nothing’ or was she, in the words of another, ‘basically a cold, hard, ruthless woman who knows what she wants and how to get it’?

Although the three Soong sisters all found themselves in positions of influence and power, these positions initially came about because of the men they chose to marry and that, for me, was one of the problems with this book. Almost as much time was spent describing the lives and careers of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and H.H. Kung as was spent on May-ling, Ei-ling and Ching-ling, who were supposed to be the subjects of the book. Overall, it felt more like a general political history of twentieth century China than a biography of three specific people. I found it a much more challenging read than Wild Swans, which was as gripping as fiction, and it has taken me more than a month to finish it as there was just so much information to take in and digest. I can’t pretend that I am now an expert on Chinese politics, but I do feel that I learned a lot from this book and although it was a struggle at times, I’m glad I persevered and finished it!

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