The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson

It’s been a four-year wait but The Silver Collar, the fourth book in Antonia Hodgson’s wonderful Thomas Hawkins series, is here at last. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting ‘Half-Hanged’ Hawkins and Kitty Sparks, this book does work as a standalone, but I would recommend going back to the beginning and starting with The Devil in the Marshalsea.

The Silver Collar is set in 1728. After their adventures in Yorkshire in the previous novel, Tom and Kitty are back in London running Kitty’s bookshop, The Cocked Pistol – ‘an establishment of such ill repute that a brief glance through its window could tarnish the soul‘. The couple still aren’t married and their relationship is still affectionate but stormy – and there are those who seem to want to drive them apart, such as Sir John Gonson, Tom’s old enemy, and the sinister Lady Vanhook.

When Tom is attacked in the street one day by men who appear to be intent on killing him, he is saved only by the intervention of his young ward Sam Fleet, son of an infamous underworld villain. With Sam’s help, Tom begins to investigate, determined to find out who was behind the attack, but while he is preoccupied, Kitty is facing problems of her own and has become reacquainted with a very unwelcome face from her past.

The Silver Collar also introduces another intriguing character by the name of Jeremiah Patience. Jeremiah’s story unfolds in the middle of the book, incorporating escaped slaves, a plantation in Antigua and a little girl forced to wear a silver collar – this was interesting, sensitively written and certainly very topical, but I felt it was a bit too similar to other storylines I’ve been coming across in historical fiction recently. I did like Jeremiah, though, and had a lot of sympathy for his situation.

It was also lovely to meet Tom and Kitty again after such a long wait. Tom, who narrates most of the novel in the first person, is such a great character – a lovable rogue who is always trying his best to reform himself but never quite managing it. In this book, though, his associations with other disreputable figures such as Sam Fleet and his mother Gabriela prove to be very helpful! Kitty is another strong character; I’ve enjoyed getting to know her over the course of the four books and I keep forgetting how young she still is. I didn’t think the parts of the book written from her perspective worked as well as Tom’s, though; they are written in the second person, which always feels a bit strange, I think.

This book is less of a mystery novel than the previous one (A Death at Fountains Abbey); historical thriller is probably a better description. However, we do see Tom keen to put the mystery-solving skills he gained in Yorkshire to good use by establishing a sort of Georgian-style detective agency. Sadly, he becomes too distracted by his own problems to spend much time worrying about other people’s, but maybe this is something that will be returned to in a future book.

I’ve enjoyed all four books in this series, including this one, but I still think The Devil in the Marshalsea was the best. Such a high standard was set with that book, it was always going to be hard for the others to live up to it. They are all entertaining reads, though, and I will look forward to a fifth book and finding out what the future has in store for Tom and his friends.

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

This is book 7/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Top Ten Tuesday: Colourful titles on my TBR

The theme for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) is Books with Colours in the Titles. Looking at the books I have waiting to be read on my TBR, I was surprised to see how many have a colourful title! Here are ten of them:

1. Red Sky at Night by Jane Aiken Hodge – I have had mixed experiences with Jane Aiken Hodge’s books so far – I’ve enjoyed some but been disappointed by others. I hope this book, which is set in England during the Napoleonic Wars, will be a good one.

2. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West – I’ve been interested in reading this book about Rebecca West’s journey through 1930s Yugoslavia for years but have been put off by the length. I will make a start on it eventually!

3. Dawn of the White Rose by Mary Pershall – I found this in a charity shop last year. It looks a bit too light and romance-y for my taste, but I was drawn to it because it’s about Isabel de Clare and William Marshal, whom I’ve enjoyed reading about in Elizabeth Chadwick’s books.

4. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – I’ve read some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories but none of his novels. I’ve had a copy of this one on my shelf for a long time and still haven’t read it.

5. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss – This is a non-fiction book on the life of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers (two of my favourite classics). It has been on my TBR since just after it was published in 2012.

6. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan – Another book that has been on my TBR since 2012, when it was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I still want to read it; it’s just one of those books that I never seem able to get around to!

7. Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram – I downloaded this when it was on special offer for Kindle a while ago. It sounds like an entertaining romantic adventure novel set in medieval England, originally published in the 1970s but recently reissued.

8. A Thread of Gold by Helen Cannam – I found this on the same day as the book above. From the blurb, it seems to be a family saga set in the vineyards of France in the late 19th and early 20th century.

9. The Turquoise by Anya Seton – I read a lot of Anya Seton’s books years ago and loved them, but there are still a few that I haven’t read. This book, set in 19th century New York and New Mexico is one of them.

10. White Corridor by Christopher Fowler – I enjoyed the first four books in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May detective series, then for some reason stopped and never continued with the fifth one, White Corridor. I’m determined to read it soon.

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Have you read any of these? Do you have any colourful titles on your own TBR?

Classics Club Spin #24: My list

I shouldn’t really be taking part in this Classics Club Spin as I still haven’t finished my book from the last Spin, Daniel Deronda (in fact, I’ve only just started it). We have until the end of September to read our books for Spin #24, though, so I will see what comes up – and hope it’s a short one this time!

If you’re not sure what a Classics Spin is, here’s a reminder:

The rules for Spin #24:

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* On Sunday 9th August the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by 30th September 2020.

And here is my list:

1. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
2. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
3. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
4. A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy
5. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
6. The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
7. Armadale by Wilkie Collins (re-read)
8. I Will Repay by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
9. La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
10. The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott
11. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
12. Germinal by Emile Zola
13. Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner
14. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
15. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
16. Goodbye Mr Chips by James Hilton
17. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
18. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
19. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
20. Sandokan: The Tigers of Mompracem by Emilio Salgari

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Have you read any of these? Which number should I be hoping for on Sunday?

Six Degrees of Separation: From How to do Nothing to The Great Impersonation

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 How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. As usual, I haven’t read it, but here is the blurb:

This thrilling critique of the forces vying for our attention re-defines what we think of as productivity, shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world.

When the technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding, and products to be monetized, nothing can be quite so radical as…doing nothing. Here, Jenny Odell sends up a flare from the heart of Silicon Valley, delivering an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity and techno-determinism, and to become more meaningfully connected in the process.

I don’t think this is a book I would be interested in reading, but if you’ve read it let me know what you thought.

Another word for ‘nothing’ is ‘zero’, so my first link takes me to Towards Zero by Agatha Christie (1), one of only five Christie novels to feature the detective Superintendent Battle. In this book, which I remember enjoying, Battle is investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian in her home by the sea.

Tressilian is also the name of the main character in Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea-Hawk (2). Sir Oliver Tressilian is a gentleman from Cornwall who is betrayed and sold into slavery before being liberated by Barbary pirates who operate from the city of Algiers. I love Sabatini’s books and can highly recommend this one!

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett (3) is also set partly in Algiers, as well as several other beautifully described locations around the Mediterranean and North Africa. This, and the other five novels that make up Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, are some of my absolute favourites, but if you haven’t read them yet you really need to start with The Game of Kings.

All of the books in the Lymond Chronicles have titles inspired by the game of chess. So does Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle (4), a novel set at the Tudor court and telling the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. The story is told partly from Katherine’s perspective and partly from her maid, Dorothy Fownten’s. Although I think some of Fremantle’s later books are better, I did enjoy this one.

My next link is to another book about a queen – a self-proclaimed queen this time, rather than a real one! Queen Lucia by EF Benson (5) is the first book in Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series; it was my choice for the 1920 Club earlier this year and kept me entertained during the early stages of lockdown when I really needed something fun and light!

Like Queen Lucia, The Great Impersonation by E Phillips Oppenheim (6) was also published in 1920 and is also a lot of fun to read. It has a very clever plot involving a case of mistaken identities and keeps the reader guessing until the end.

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And that’s my chain for this month. My links have included synonyms for ‘nothing’, the name Tressilian, Algiers, chess-related titles, queens and the year 1920. In September we will be starting with Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham.

My Commonplace Book: July 2020

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

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

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“Yes, I do like to read mysteries. They’re very helpful in my line of work. Of course, real life and fiction are very different, but the way of thinking – the logical thought process – is useful practice for anything life throws at you.”

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo (1946)

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Portrait of Amy Robsart by Charles Robert Leslie

Her eyes met mine and I felt a ripple of shock at the pain and disillusionment I saw there. This woman and I were not so dissimilar though she was Queen of England in her own right and surrounded by all the trappings of majesty. She could not command a man’s good opinion or his loyalty, nor could she, apparently, bear his child.

The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick (2020)

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Literary festivals all over the country turn writers into performers and open doors into their private lives that, I often think, would be better left closed. In my view, it’s more satisfying to learn about authors from the work they produce than the other way round.

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2020)

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I want to call it coincidence but I have occasionally wondered whether time can fold in on itself and allow some people, if they are sensitive enough, a glimpse of the future. Some are more receptive to the invisible workings of the world, can intuit things in the way a dog can smell fear. It is often called a gift but to me it seems more of a blight.

The Honey and the Sting by EC Fremantle (2020)

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Female pilot of the Air Transport Auxiliary.

She smiles awkwardly. ‘Is it really so perplexing for you to see a woman in a cockpit?’

‘No. Why?’

‘You look at me so oddly, and when you first saw me you seemed…’

‘What?’

‘Shocked.’

When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby (2020)

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My point is that while I was fretting over such nonsense, I failed to notice the one thing that mattered: we were happy. Other people had noticed, however – and they were most decidedly not happy. Envy snaps its teeth at the heels of good fortune, and there is nothing in the world more destructive than a man who wants what he cannot have.

The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson (2020)

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Here was where one came to buy goods from the Rain Wilds: perfume gems with their eternal fragrances; wind chimes that played endless, never-repeating melodies; objects made of gleaming jidzin; and hundreds of other magical items…Containers that heated or chilled whatever was put into them. A statue that awoke as a babe every day, aged through the day, and ‘died’ at night as an old man, only to be reborn with the dawn. Summer tapestries that smelled of flowers and brought warmth to the room when hung. Items that existed nowhere else in the world and were impossible to duplicate.

City of Dragons by Robin Hobb (2011)

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Favourite book read in July:

Moonflower Murders

New authors read in July

Seishi Yokomizo

Countries visited in my July reading:

Japan, England, Poland, fictional Realm of the Elderlings

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

City of Dragons by Robin Hobb

This third novel in Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles is my favourite of the series so far – although it doesn’t really have a lot of competition, as I was disappointed with the previous two books. If you’re new to Robin Hobb, don’t start with the Rain Wild quartet; they are part of a larger sequence and not only are they not as good as the earlier books, they also fall towards the end of the sequence. You need to begin with the Farseer Trilogy, the Liveship Traders Trilogy and the Tawny Man Trilogy, all of which are excellent!

Anyway, getting back to City of Dragons, it continues the story where the previous novel, Dragon Haven, left off: with our band of stunted, poorly formed dragons and their human keepers within reach of the fabled Elderling city of Kelsingra at last. Separated from the city by the swollen, fast-flowing waters of the Rain Wild River, the group need to make their way across – but only one of the dragons, Heeby, has successfully learned to fly. The magical properties of Kelsingra could restore the dragons to their former glory, but first they need to find a way to get there…

I think the fact that I enjoyed this book more than the first two in the series is mainly due to the wonderful, atmospheric descriptions of Kelsingra. Although most of the dragons and keepers are stranded on the opposite banks of the river, a few of the characters do manage to make trips back and forth to explore the abandoned city. Different characters hope for different things from Kelsingra. Historian Alise Finbok tries to leave the buildings and treasures untouched, determined to make a careful record of everything she finds before word of the discovery begins to spread and traders and scavengers from Bingtown descend upon the city. Rapskal and Thymara, however, part Elderling now themselves, know that Kelsingra is not quite the dead, empty place it may at first appear, and they are able to connect with the memories it holds in a way that Alise cannot:

“Some of the streets she [Thymara] ran through were dark and deserted. But then she would turn a corner and suddenly be confronted by torchlight and merrymakers, a city in the midst of some sort of holiday. She had shrieked the first time, and then she recognized them for what they were. Ghosts and phantoms, Elderling memories stored in the stone of the buildings she passed.”

Although the Kelsingra sections of the book interested me most, the action moves away from the city now and then so that we can catch up with some of the other characters and subplots from earlier in the series: Alise’s estranged husband, Hest, waiting in vain for Sedric to return to Bingtown with dragon parts to cure the invalid Duke of Chalced; Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, who is heading back to Cassarick to claim the keepers’ payment for the expedition; and Malta and Reyn Khuprus, expecting the birth of their first child at any moment. There’s a lot going on in this novel and the way the various storylines begin to converge towards the end sets things up nicely for the fourth and final book, Blood of Dragons, which I hope to read soon.

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (I think we can see why the title is usually shortened) was originally published in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848. It’s the book I was supposed to read for a Classics Club Spin over a year ago, but I struggled to get into it at the time and decided to wait until I was more in the mood for Dickens. And you definitely need to be in the right mood for a book of this length – more than 900 pages in the edition I read! I’ve loved other very long Dickens novels, though, such as the wonderful Our Mutual Friend, so I hoped I would end up loving this one too. Unfortunately I didn’t, but I did still find a lot to enjoy.

The Dombey of the title is the wealthy owner of a shipping company who dreams of having a son and heir who will be able to continue the family business. Dombey gets his wish early in the novel when his wife gives birth to a son, Paul. However, she dies shortly after the birth, leaving Paul to become the sole focus of his father’s attention – even though Dombey already has a six-year-old daughter, Florence. Florence loves her father and does her best to please him, but no matter how hard she tries, it’s obvious that all of Dombey’s hopes and ambitions lie with Paul and that Florence is just a useless girl and an inconvenience.

Whether or not the proud and arrogant Dombey will ever come to love and value his daughter as she deserves is the question at the heart of the novel, but as you would expect from Dickens, there are also plenty of diversions and subplots and lots of larger than life characters to get to know. Of these, my favourites were Captain Cuttle, the kind-hearted retired sea captain with a hook for a hand, and Susan Nipper, Florence’s loyal nurse and one of the few people who will stand up to Dombey for his neglect of his daughter. There’s a great villain too: James Carker, the scheming manager of Dombey and Son, with gleaming white teeth and a devious brain. There are too many others I could have done without, though – mainly the ones who seem to be there purely for their comedy value, such as Major Bagstock, Sir Barnet Skettles and Cousin Feenix, without actually adding much to the central plot.

Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his treatment of female characters (I think Dora in David Copperfield is his worst), but the women in this book are well-drawn and interesting. Yes, Florence can be too good to be true at times, but her father’s rejection of her is so cruel and hurtful that it’s impossible not to have sympathy for her. Her stepmother, Edith Dombey, though, is one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across in a Dickens novel: a woman filled with self-loathing after being pushed into marriage by her mother, who then decides to take her fate into her own hands.

Although I really enjoyed parts of this book, other sections dragged and I’m afraid I can’t list it amongst my favourite novels by Dickens. Nicholas Nickleby is the next one I’m planning to read, so I’m hoping for better luck with that one.

This is book 17/50 read from my second Classics Club list.