The Horseman by Tim Pears

Tim Pears’ The Horseman is the first in a trilogy of novels set in England’s West Country in the early 20th century. The final book, The Redeemed, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2020 and as some of you will know, working through the shortlists for that particular prize is one of my personal reading projects. As I don’t like to start a trilogy or series at the end, I decided to begin with The Horseman in the hope that I would like it enough to want to continue.

Starting in January 1911 and finishing in June 1912, the novel follows the daily life of young Leo Sercombe, the son of a carter who works on the estate of Lord Prideaux on the Devon-Somerset border. Leo has little interest in attending school, preferring to help his family with their work on the farm – and here he has gained a different kind of education: a knowledge of horses and an affinity with nature. Then one day, Leo meets Charlotte, Lord Prideaux’s daughter, and a friendship begins to form based on their shared love of horses.

There’s no doubt that The Horseman is a beautifully written novel, but I’m sorry to have to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much. I’m not necessarily the sort of reader who needs a very strong plot with lots of action on every page, but I do need at least a little bit of plot and this book didn’t seem to have any at all – just one description after another of various farming tasks. As the months go by and the seasons change we are given detailed accounts of grooming horses, gathering hay, ploughing fields, collecting eggs and anything else you can think of that takes place on a large country estate. I suppose it’s not quite true to say that absolutely nothing happens in the novel, because Leo is learning and growing all the time, but because there’s almost no conflict or drama in his life – until right at the very end of the book – I found it difficult to connect with him in any way.

Other reviews of this book are overwhelmingly positive and I can see why, as it’s a lovely, gentle portrayal of a rural community in a time gone forever; unfortunately, it just wasn’t the right book for me. This now leaves me with a dilemma as I had been expecting to go on to read the rest of the trilogy for my Walter Scott Prize project. Am I likely to enjoy the other two books any more than this one? I suspect not, so I might have to leave the 2020 shortlist incomplete.

Book 23/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

There have been several novels published recently retelling Greek myths from a feminine perspective; this is another – and one that I really enjoyed. As the title suggests, it’s the story of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphaë of Crete, but it’s also the story of another woman, her younger sister Phaedra.

As two princesses of Crete, Ariadne and Phaedra grow up in the comfort of the palace at Knossos, but their brother Asterion is not so lucky. Born half man and half bull, he has become known as the Minotaur and banished to the underground labyrinth designed by Daedalus. Each year fourteen young men and women arrive from Athens to be sacrificed to the Minotaur – until the year when Theseus, Prince of Athens, is one of the fourteen and Ariadne falls in love. Swept away by the prince’s good looks and courage, Ariadne decides to help him kill the Minotaur and escape from the labyrinth, but this means betraying her family and the people of Crete.

If you have any knowledge of Greek mythology, you probably already know all of this, but I think Ariadne’s adventures after she is forced to flee Crete with Theseus are less well known, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The Minotaur story only occupies the first few chapters of the novel, with much more time spent describing what happens after that, and it was fascinating to read about Ariadne’s relationship with the god Dionysus on the island of Naxos, as well as the fate of Phaedra, left behind to deal with the aftermath of her sister’s betrayal.

Jennifer Saint has a lot to say in this novel about heroes and hero worship, particularly in her depiction of Theseus (very much the villain of the book and certainly not the Theseus we meet in Mary Renault’s The King Must Die) and of the cult of Dionysus and his female followers, the maenads. She touches on why people feel the need to put their faith in heroes and what happens when their eyes are opened to the truth, as well as exploring the differences between mortals and gods, the position of women in Ancient Greek society and how, in Greek mythology, the gods usually make the women pay the price for the acts of men.

When I first began to read, I hadn’t expected part of the novel to be written from Phaedra’s perspective, but I think using her as a viewpoint character as well as Ariadne adds more scope to the story and makes it even more interesting than it would otherwise have been. However, I thought Phaedra’s storyline suffered near the end from the weak characterisation of Hippolytus, who plays such an important role in her later life. The conclusion of Ariadne’s story is slightly disappointing too; it felt rushed and didn’t have quite the impact it should have had. Still, I enjoyed this book, particularly the first half, and I think it compares well to Circe by Madeline Miller.

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

Six Degrees of Separation: From Beezus and Ramona to The Duke’s Children

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.

Having a little sister like four-year-old Ramona isn’t always easy for Beezus Quimby. With a wild imagination, disregard for order, and an appetite for chaos, Ramona makes it hard for Beezus to be the responsible older sister she knows she ought to be…especially when Ramona threatens to ruin Beezus’s birthday party. Newbery Medal winner Beverly Cleary delivers a humorous tale of the ups and downs of sisterhood. Both the younger and older siblings of the family will enjoy this book.

This month we are starting with Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, who sadly died in March this year. This book was the first in her Ramona Quimby series for children and was published in 1955. I read some of the Ramona books as a child and although I can’t remember anything about them now, I know I used to enjoy them!

I’m sure I won’t be the only Six Degrees participant to use books about sisters as my first link this month, but as there are so many to choose from I’m hoping that nobody else will have linked to this one: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang (1). This is a biography of the three Soong sisters, all of whom played an important role in 20th century Chinese politics. Ei-ling or ‘big sister’ became one of China’s richest women through her marriage to the banker HH Kung, ‘little sister’ May-ling was First Lady of the Republic of China, and ‘red sister’ Ching-ling was a supporter of the Communist Party and the wife of revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen.

I’m sure I have used books with ‘red’ in the title in a previous chain, so I’m going to link now to a book with a different colour in the title. There were lots of options here, but I’ve gone with blue and The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie (2). This is a Poirot novel in which an heiress is murdered for her jewels during a train journey through France. I don’t think it’s one of Christie’s stronger novels (and in fact it was apparently her own least favourite), but it’s still quite enjoyable.

This makes me think of another novel set on a train, The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (3), the book on which Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based. There are a lot of differences between the book and the film but they share the same basic plot: a young woman makes a new friend during a train journey who later disappears, only for the rest of the passengers to deny that she ever existed.

The idea of a wheel spinning leads me to Fortune’s Wheel (4), one of Rhoda Edwards’ two novels about Richard III. This book covers the earlier part of Richard’s life, taking us through the reign of his elder brother, Edward IV, and ending with Richard’s marriage to Anne Neville in 1472. I enjoyed it, but thought the second novel, Some Touch of Pity, was much better.

There’s a picture of a crown on the cover of Fortune’s Wheel and also on the cover of The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon (5). First published in French in 1956, this is the third book in the Accursed Kings series telling the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. George R.R. Martin has described this series as the inspiration for his A Game of Thrones.

I haven’t finished The Accursed Kings yet; there are seven books in the series and so far I have only read the first five of them. It’s not the only series I’ve started and haven’t finished – I still need to read the final book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, The Duke’s Children (6). I nearly always love Trollope but the length of his books sometimes puts me off. This one is on my Classics Club list, so I’m hoping to get to it soon.

And that’s my chain for this month! My links have included: sisters, colours, trains and wheels, pictures of crowns and an unfinished series.

In June we are starting with The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. Will you be joining us?

My Commonplace Book: April 2021

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

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

~

This business of making your own life may sound dreary – especially if you have a dated mind and still think of yourself as belonging to the Weaker Sex. But it really isn’t. You can have a grand time doing it. You can – within the limitations imposed on most of us, whether we live singly or in herds – live pretty much as you please.

Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis (1936)

~

Fodor accepted that Alma might be both truthful and dishonest, gifted and fraudulent. He rarely dealt with snow-white, morally upright individuals, but rather with people who were damaged and divided. It was well known that when mediums found their powers fading, they would compensate, invent, create illusions to please their admirers or protect themselves. Psychics were natural transgressors, crossing all kinds of boundaries, from waking to trance, from the earthly to the spirit world. Their weaknesses – moral, physical, emotional – were the fissures through which the phantoms came.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale (2020)

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Eleanor Cross

‘I have helped heal soldiers wounded in battle. I’ve heard of many atrocities following sieges and all because one group or another thinks their right to this country is greater than another’s claim. In truth, Olwen, some leaders simply profit from war whilst others suffer. This cannot be God’s will.’ Glancing up she noted tears in his eyes and bowed her head.

She pondered his words as they walked on. He was right. So many wasted lives because they all sought God’s Kingdom on earth.

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath (2021)

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‘All of history is fiction,’ Jasper said, dipping a cloth in oil and polishing the barrel of his rifle. ‘I’ve said this to you before. Everyone is a liar whether they know it or not. Bias, you know? You might describe life here as untenable and dismal, and I’d say there’s a thrill in fighting, and who’s to say which one of us is right? Or – I might say Dash is a jolly good fellow, and the wife of a soldier he shot might call him a monster. There are no simple answers.’

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal (2021)

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He dropped his gaze to the pond’s rippling surface. Her voice had deepened a shade, he thought. Her lips were fuller too. He had not set eyes on her since the glimpse outside the chapel. Now her reflection shimmered, dissolving then magically restoring itself. But nothing would dissolve the nature of its owner, he reminded himself. No amount of sugar would sweeten Lady Lucy’s sourness.

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (2012)

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“King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London” by Paul Delaroche

If British royal children disappeared today, the media frenzy would be intolerable. There were no newspapers in the fifteenth century. The most we have is a scattering of private correspondence, for example the Paston and Cely letters. We have official documents that shed virtually no light on murky events like murder. We have chronicles, ‘histories’ both official and unofficial, often compiled by churchmen, miles from the action and written years afterwards.

There was no police force, no structure to investigate the boys’ disappearance. There was no forensic science, so that even had the boys’ bodies been found, the cause of death could not definitely have been ascertained, still less who was guilty of the murder.

The Killer of the Princes in the Tower by MJ Trow (2021)

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I have never been much of one for letters, but I will admit a fondness for the scents that often attend them. I have twice visited a house boasting a library, the first time as a welcome guest, the second as a victorious invader with a carbine in my hand and a sabre at my hip. Both times I was struck by the peculiarly unique smell, and Moseley’s bookshop was the same way.

The Protector by SJ Deas (2015)

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There were consequences, almost always, for what you did or failed to do in life. He believed that. Fate could play a role, and chance, but your choices and decisions mattered. Mattered to someone else, too.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (2013)

~

“And his beard’s quite real,” I put in.

Ma soeur,” said Poirot, “a murderer of the first class never wears a false beard!”

“How do you know the murderer is of the first class?” I asked rebelliously.

“Because if he were not, the whole truth would be plain to me at this instant – and it is not.”

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie (1936)

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“Bacchus and Ariadne” by Titian

Asterion. A distant light in an infinity of darkness. A raging fire if you came too close. A guide that would lead my family on the path to immortality. A divine vengeance upon us all. I did not know then what he would become. But my mother held him and nursed him and named him and he knew us both. He was not yet the Minotaur. He was just a baby. He was my brother.

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint (2021)

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He smiled, and his charm briefly enveloped me like a warm cloud of nothingness. I watched his tall figure receding down the passage, with the dog pattering after him.

Only a fool would rely on the goodwill of Charles Stuart. But the dog did, and so did I. A little kindness makes fools of us all.

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor (2021)

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‘Elizabeth Woodville is out of favour,’ said Mark, ‘and has long been banished to a nunnery. They say she was intriguing with the Pretender before Stoke.’

‘And is it possible?’

He shrugged. ‘Anything is possible in this day and age,’ he said. ‘John will tell you. Tis hard to find an honest man in the Government of the country.’

The Rich Earth by Pamela Oldfield (1980)

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Decagon

“What mystery novels need are – some might call me old-fashioned – a great detective, a mansion, a shady cast of residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes and never-before-seen tricks played by the murderer. Call it my castle in the sky, but I’m happy as long as I can enjoy such a world. But always in an intellectual manner.”

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (1987)

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Trish had been brought up to believe that nothing was impossible. Any kind of achievement, she had been taught, was the result of determination, willpower, commitment – the adults in her life used different words but all said the same thing. Any kind of failure, in whatever sphere it might show itself, had its roots in the mind. It was hard for her to accept that there were some physical obstacles which could never be surmounted.

The Hardie Inheritance by Anne Melville (1990)

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Favourite books read in April:

The Royal Secret and The Hardie Inheritance

Authors read for the first time in April:

MJ Trow, Marjorie Hillis, Lawrence Norfolk, Jennifer Saint, Yukito Ayatsuji and Pamela Oldfield

Places visited in my April reading:

England, China, USA, Iraq, Ancient Greece, Japan

~

Have you read any of these? What have you been reading in April?

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

This is the fifth book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series and one of my favourites so far. Set in England during the reign of Charles II, each book in the series works as a separate mystery novel, but if it’s possible for you to read them in order (starting with The Ashes of London) you will have the pleasure of getting to know James Marwood and Cat Lovett from the beginning and watching their relationship develop.

The Royal Secret opens in 1670 with two young women plotting a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards, their target, Mr Abbott, meets his death under unusual circumstances. The dead man had been a clerk working in the office of Lord Arlington, Secretary of State, and James Marwood, also a government clerk, is asked to investigate. Beginning with a visit to Abbott’s lodgings to look for some confidential files the man had taken home from Arlington’s office, Marwood is soon on the trail of the mysterious Dutch merchant Henryk Van Riebeeck – a trail which will lead him first to the notorious Blue Bush Tavern and then to the home of Mr Fanshawe, owner of a captive Barbary lion called Caliban.

Meanwhile, Cat Hakesby, formerly Lovett, has taken over her late husband’s architect firm and has been given a commission by the king himself to design a poultry house for his sister Minette. Another of Cat’s clients is Mr Fanshawe and through him she meets Van Riebeeck, a man to whom she finds herself drawn romantically. Although she is unaware of it at first, Cat quickly becomes entangled in the same mystery that Marwood is trying to investigate, but with a very different perspective on what is happening.

Those of you who have read the previous books in the series will be familiar with Cat and Marwood’s uneasy relationship and their obvious attraction to each other which they seem unable to acknowledge even to themselves. That continues in this one and is becoming frustrating, but I’m grateful that Andrew Taylor didn’t just give us an instant romance that was resolved by the end of the first book. It’s another reason to keep reading the series!

As usual with Taylor’s books, the story unfolds against a backdrop of real historical events. In fact, they are often more than just a backdrop and become a significant part of the plot. In this particular novel, there is a focus on the political intrigue between England, France and the Dutch Republic, as well as on the tensions in the marriage between Charles II’s sister Minette (Henrietta Anne) and the Duke of Orléans, the king of France’s brother. These storylines take our characters to Paris where Minette has summoned Cat to discuss the designs for the poultry house and to Dover where secret negotiations are underway. With so much going on, as well as the mystery to be solved, this was a difficult book to put down and I was sorry to come to the end. I hope there’s going to be a sixth adventure for Marwood and Lovett!

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

Book 22/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Killer of the Princes in the Tower by MJ Trow

The fate of the Princes in the Tower – Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York – remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time. Reportedly last seen in the grounds of the Tower of London in the summer of 1483, the disappearance of the two boys has divided historians ever since. Their uncle, Richard III, is the man most often accused of being responsible for their deaths, while the names of Henry VII and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham have also been suggested as possible culprits. In all three cases there is a logical political motive: to remove rival claimants to the throne. But what if the murder (assuming that it was actually murder) was not politically motivated at all? What if the princes were killed for an entirely different reason, by someone completely unexpected?

MJ Trow’s new book, The Killer of the Princes in the Tower, is subtitled A New Suspect Revealed, and I have to admit, when I first started reading, I was very sceptical about this. The Wars of the Roses and Richard III’s reign in particular is a period of history I’m very interested in and I’ve read a lot of books over the years, both fiction and non-fiction, that deal with the subject of the Princes in the Tower. Could Trow really come up with a ‘new suspect’? Well, yes he does – or at least, one that I can’t remember being suggested in any of the other books I’ve read.

If you have any prior knowledge of the period and the controversy surrounding the princes, it will probably be helpful, but if not Trow does provide plenty of background information, describing the whole sequence of events following the death of the boys’ father, Edward IV, and explaining how Richard III came to take the throne before the young Edward V could be crowned. He spends some time discussing the idea that the princes could have been secretly released from the Tower and not murdered at all – a theory some people believe is supported by the appearance a few years later of a ‘pretender’, Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the younger of the princes, Richard of York – but (sensibly, in my opinion), he doesn’t consider this as a serious possibility. He then looks at all of the potential suspects one by one, presenting the evidence for each one being the murderer and then dismissing it, until only one name is left…

Trow approaches the mystery like a modern day police investigation, believing that no stone should be left unturned and looking for motive, means and opportunity. Beginning with the three most obvious suspects, he moves on to consider their supporters, servants and family members; even Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville, and the princes’ own mother, Elizabeth Woodville, are discussed – because, as Trow says, they would certainly have been interviewed by the police if the boys had disappeared today. He also examines the reliability of the various sources and what we can learn from them.

The revelation of the new suspect did take me by surprise because it’s not someone who would ever have occurred to me. It’s true that this person certainly had the means and the opportunity, but I wasn’t at all convinced about the motive, even though Trow devotes a whole chapter to drawing comparisons with other people throughout history who have killed for similar reasons. Although what Trow suggests is not impossible, I don’t think it’s very likely either and as far as I’m concerned the mystery remains unsolved! Still, it’s good to read a theory that is neither pro-Ricardian nor anti-Ricardian and that looks at the whole subject from a very different angle. I found this book almost as gripping as fiction, so despite not agreeing with the conclusion I still really enjoyed reading it.

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea

I enjoyed Caroline Lea’s previous book, The Glass Woman, but even if I hadn’t already known that I liked her writing I would have been drawn to The Metal Heart anyway by that beautiful cover! Books don’t always live up to their covers, of course, but I think this one almost does.

Set during World War II, the novel takes as its inspiration the building of a chapel in the Orkney Islands by Italian prisoners of war. Around this, Caroline Lea has created a fictional story involving two identical twin sisters, Dorothy and Constance – known as Dot and Con. The sisters have very different personalities but are devoted to each other, so when Con suffers a traumatic experience which leaves her afraid to be around other people, the two of them leave their home in Kirkwall on mainland Orkney and take refuge on the small, uninhabited island of Selkie Holm. Needless to say, Con is not at all happy when hundreds of Italian prisoners arrive on the island, along with their guards, and when a romance begins to blossom between Dot and Cesare, one of the Italians, the sisters’ bond becomes strained.

The novel is written from several different perspectives, giving Con, Dot and Cesare each a chance to tell their own side of the story. Despite their identical appearance, the twins have opposite outlooks on life – Dot is warm, friendly and trusting, while Con, understandably, is withdrawn, cautious and slow to trust. There is a romantic element to the novel, of course, but although the love story between Dot and Cesare is important, its real significance is in the impact it has on the relationship between the sisters. When we first meet Dot, she has sacrificed her own freedom and happiness for Con’s sake, but over the course of the novel, through her romance with Cesare – and also her work in the prisoners’ hospital on the island – she must find a way to lead her own life while helping Con to lead hers.

Although the author has changed some of the historical and geographical details, such as names and dates, we know that there really was a prisoner of war camp in Orkney and that the Italian prisoners really did create a chapel from metal and concrete, which can still be seen on the island of Lamb Holm today. Through the story of Cesare and the other prisoners, we see what conditions were like in the camp and the treatment they received from the guards, as well as their reaction to being ordered to build barriers to prevent further attacks on the harbour at Scapa Flow (these would become known as the Churchill Barriers). At the end of the book, Caroline Lea explains which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are fictional, but while I could understand why she adjusted the timeline to give the story more urgency, I couldn’t see why it was necessary to create a fictional island, Selkie Holm, when we know that the name of the island where the camp was located was Lamb Holm.

Anyway, this is a beautifully written novel (apart from the fact that it is written in the present tense, which is never going to be my favourite style). The descriptions of the Orkney Islands – the landscape, the sea, the people and the Orcadian folklore – are atmospheric and vivid; I have never been, but I’m sure it must be a fascinating place to visit. Of the two Caroline Lea books I’ve read, I preferred this one, although I did love the Icelandic setting of The Glass Woman too and will look forward to seeing where her next book will be set!

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley. The book will be published on 29th April 2021.

Book 21/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.