Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

What an unusual book! Not having read anything by Jess Kidd before, I didn’t know what to expect from this new Victorian mystery, but I immediately fell in love with the playful writing and imaginative plot. I knew as soon as the ghost of a tattooed boxer arose from a tomb in Highgate Cemetery that this was going to be no ordinary detective novel.

The story takes place in 1863 and our heroine is Bridie Devine, a former surgeon’s apprentice from Dublin who, since arriving in London, has built a new career for herself as a private investigator. At the beginning of the novel, Bridie – ‘A small, round upright woman of around thirty, wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with the vivid red hair tucked (for the most part) inside her white widow’s cap’ – is asked to look into the disappearance of Christabel Berwick, a little girl whose strange physical characteristics make her a valuable prize for those who collect curiosities and oddities. With the ghost of boxer Ruby Doyle by her side, Bridie must try to find Christabel before she becomes a ‘thing in a jar’.

Things in Jars is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year. It reminded me, in different ways and at different times, of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, The Essex Serpent and Once Upon a River, but written in a style that makes it all Jess Kidd’s own. Bridie is a wonderful character; I admired her for her independence and intelligence but had a lot of sympathy for her as well, as the story of her troubled childhood unfolds in parallel with the 1860s one. Her romance with Ruby (as far as you can have a romance with a man who isn’t alive) is both moving and mystifying. Ruby claims to have known her for years, but Bridie can’t remember him. Who is he – and why has he come into her life again?

The secondary characters are excellent too, all described with Dickensian detail, from Bridie’s seven foot tall housemaid Cora Butter with the ‘unnerving glare’ to her landlord, the elderly bell maker Mr Wilks, who has the look of ‘something that has been carefully varnished and then put away for a long time’. The descriptions of London – sometimes written from the perspective of a raven flying over the rooftops – wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel either:

The raven levels off into a glide, flight feathers fanned. Slick on the rolling level of rising currents and down-draughts, she turns her head, this way and that. To her black eyes, as blacked as pooled tar, London is laid out – there is no veil of fog or mist or smoke-haze her gaze cannot pierce!

Below her, streets and lanes, factories and workhouses, parks and prisons, grand houses and tenements, roofs, chimneys and tree tops. And the winding, sometimes shining, Thames – the sky’s own dirty mirror.

As for the mystery of Christabel’s disappearance, it really takes second place to the setting and the characters and the humour, but it was interesting enough to keep me gripped until the end, wondering what the little girl’s fate would be. I also enjoyed the way legends of the mythical Irish being known as the merrow were worked into the plot.

I would love Jess Kidd to write another book about Bridie Devine but, failing that, I will have to look for her previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. Although they sound very different from this one, I am looking forward to reading more of her work!

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

The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J. Coleman

After reading Melanie Clegg’s new biography of Margaret Tudor a few weeks ago, I thought the perfect book to follow it with would be another new release, The Afterlife of King James IV: Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King, which looks at the myths and legends surrounding the death of Margaret’s husband, the king of Scotland. As I only knew the basic facts about James IV, I had no idea there was so much controversy about his death at Flodden Field in 1513, but it seems that there were many rumours and conspiracy theories that began to circulate following the battle and Keith J. Coleman discusses some of these in this book.

As penance for his involvement in the death of his father James III, James IV famously wore an iron chain around his waist and it was the fact that the body removed from Flodden did not have the chain that gave rise to the conspiracy theories. Had James switched places with another man on the battlefield? Did he escape and go into hiding? If so, why did he never return? And where is his body’s true resting place? These are just some of the questions the book explores and attempts to answer.

To understand some of the stories surrounding the king’s death, we need to consider where they originated and who might benefit from them. It’s easy to see why the Scottish people, who must have been shocked and disheartened by the scale of their defeat at Flodden, may have found comfort in the idea that somewhere, somehow, their king had survived and might one day come back to lead them again. But Coleman also looks at the situation from an English perspective and from the point of view of ambassadors from elsewhere in Europe, who may or may not have been happy to think that James was still alive.

The selection of legends are certainly interesting and varied. Some are more plausible (though still unlikely), such as the possibility that James went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or that he avoided being killed in battle only to be murdered shortly afterwards by one of his enemies, while others take us into the realms of the supernatural and stories of other worlds. The book also covers some accounts of the ghostly apparitions and prophecies that supposedly foretold the outcome of the battle and there is an examination of how the myths and legends about James compare with those about some of his predecessors such as Alexander III and Macbeth. I was also intrigued by a discussion of the short story Wandering Willie’s Tale, which appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, as that is one of the few Scott novels I have read!

Despite the fascinating subject, however, I didn’t find this book quite as enjoyable as I’d expected. The way it is structured made it difficult for me to become fully absorbed in the writing – I thought it jumped around too much from one idea or thought to another rather than being set out chronologically or in any other order that would have made sense to me. It felt repetitive and there was also less time devoted to the actual legends and folklore than I’d anticipated. It’s probably not a book I would recommend to people who are completely new to Scottish history either; it’s written in quite a scholarly style and if you have at least a little bit of familiarity with names and events I’m sure you’ll find things easier to follow. My reading of Rosemary Goring’s two novels After Flodden and Dacre’s War helped me here, I think!

Although this book was not as entertaining as it sounded, I’m pleased I’ve read it and added to my knowledge of the life – and particularly the death – of James IV.

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is almost always a delight to read and I found this 1956 novel, Sprig Muslin, particularly enjoyable and entertaining. Set in the Regency period she recreated so convincingly, it has all the humour, adventure and romance I expect from her work and although the plot is similar in many ways to the later Charity Girl, the two books are different enough that there’s no risk of confusing them with each other.

It’s been seven years since Sir Gareth Ludlow lost his beloved fiancée in a tragic carriage accident but he is still sure that he will never feel for another woman what he once felt for Clarissa. At the age of thirty-five, he knows he can’t put off marrying any longer so, having given up hope of falling in love again, he makes the decision to propose to his old friend, Lady Hester Theale. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however…

Stopping at an inn on the way to Hester’s estate, Sir Gareth encounters Amanda, who is ‘very nearly seventeen’ and is running away from home as part of a plot to force her grandfather into allowing her to marry the young army officer she loves. Aware of all the dangers that could befall a young lady travelling alone, Sir Gareth insists on taking Amanda with him to Brancaster Park where Hester can take care of her until he is able to discover her full name and return her safely to her family. Furious at what she calls her ‘abduction’ and determined to continue with her plans, Amanda soon escapes from Sir Gareth’s clutches and our hero sets off in pursuit. The rest of the novel follows their escapades as Amanda does her best to stay one step ahead of Gareth, often with hilarious results!

I think the Heyer novels that take place on the road, like this one and The Corinthian, are particularly fun to read. There’s never a dull moment during Amanda and Gareth’s journey and they meet a selection of colourful characters along the way, including Hester’s lecherous uncle, Fabian Theale, the aspiring poet Hildebrande Ross and farmer’s boy Joe Ninfield. As for the main characters, I really liked Sir Gareth who, although he’s not one of my personal favourites, is everything you could want in a Heyer hero, and I also loved the contrast between the book’s two heroines. Amanda is a bit silly, admittedly, but she kept me amused with her imaginative stories and inventions and the way she stumbles from one scrape to another, while I warmed to Hester more and more as the novel progressed and an inner strength was revealed beneath her quiet, gentle exterior.

Now I’m looking forward to my next Heyer; I just need to decide which it will be!

The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence

The Alchemist of Lost Souls is the fourth book in a series of historical mysteries set in Tudor England and featuring the character of Bianca Goddard, an alchemist’s daughter. Not having read any of the previous novels, I wondered whether I would be at a disadvantage in starting with this one, but that wasn’t really a problem. Although it would have been nice to have been more familiar with the backgrounds of the characters and to have followed them from the beginning, this novel works as a standalone mystery and it was easy enough to understand what was happening without any prior knowledge.

The story takes place in London in the spring of 1544 and opens with Bianca’s father, the alchemist Albern Goddard, discovering a new element – a stone which gives off a brilliant light and which has properties that are both powerful and dangerous. Before he has time to explore the potential of this new substance, it is stolen from him and the suspected thief is found dead in a street near the Dim Dragon Inn with a glowing green vapour rising from her mouth. Albern asks for his daughter’s help and soon Bianca is investigating both the theft and the murder, as well as looking for any trace that may remain of her father’s precious element.

This is an entertaining mystery and a more complex one than it appeared to be at first, with a range of suspects including alchemists, apothecaries, chandlers – and even Bianca’s mother, Malva Goddard. I didn’t manage to guess the solution correctly, but I was happy just to watch Bianca try to unravel it all. Bianca is a very likeable character; she is intelligent and independent, but her behaviour is usually believable enough in the context of being a sixteenth century woman. Like her father, she is interested in science, but her gender means she cannot be an alchemist so instead she works as a herbalist, making remedies for common ailments in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’.

Bianca’s relationship with her husband, John, is one area where I felt I may have missed out by not reading the previous books in the series. In this book he, like the other men from Southwark, has been called up to fight in Henry VIII’s army (as a pikeman after failing to impress with his archery skills) and faces being sent away from home to deal with the threats from Scotland and France. With Bianca pregnant with their first child, a separation at this time is obviously going to be particularly difficult for them both, but I think I would have found their storyline more emotional if I had known both characters better and had seen how their relationship developed.

Apart from Henry VIII’s military endeavours, which are kept mainly in the background of the novel, the story concentrates very much on fictional characters and fictional events, but I could see that Mary Lawrence was making an effort to capture the atmosphere of Tudor England and the details of how people may have lived and worked at that time. The focus is on ordinary, working class Londoners rather than the royalty and nobility, which gives the story a gritty feel and a sense of reality, despite the more fantastical elements of the plot (not just the alchemy but also the mysterious character of the Rat Man, whose role I’m not sure I fully understood). I also appreciated the author’s attempts to use vocabulary appropriate to the period and although some of the slang didn’t feel quite right to me, it did add colour to the writing and there is a glossary at the back of the book if you need to look up any unfamiliar words.

It was nice to meet Bianca Goddard and now I’m wondering if there will be more books in the series.

Thanks to Mary Lawrence and Kensington Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

This week Ali is hosting a Daphne du Maurier Reading Week and as du Maurier is one of my favourite authors, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to read one of the few remaining books of hers that I still haven’t read. As I’ve enjoyed some of du Maurier’s short story collections in the past, I decided to read The Doll, her book of ‘lost short stories’, most of which were written very early in her writing career (mainly between 1926 and 1932) but not published until more recently. My expectations for this book weren’t too high as I thought there might be a reason why these particular stories had been forgotten for so long, but actually I was pleasantly surprised by it. Although some of the stories in the collection feel too short and incomplete, there are some great ones amongst them too.

As is often the case when you read an author’s early work, it’s possible to see the seeds of du Maurier’s later work being planted and future themes and ideas being experimented with. The title story, The Doll, written when the author was twenty years old, follows a man who falls in love with a violinist by the name of Rebecca. As his love turns into obsession, he discovers that he has a rival in the form of a life-sized doll called Julio. This is a dark and creepy story and the name of the character makes it difficult not to think of du Maurier’s most famous novel Rebecca (especially as there are some similarities between the two Rebeccas).

The Happy Valley also foreshadows Rebecca in some ways and involves a woman who has recurring dreams of a house in a place she calls the Happy Valley. With its ghostly undertones and supernatural twist, this was one of the stories that particularly impressed me. It also has the strong sense of place and beautiful descriptive writing I associate with du Maurier’s work, as does another of the stories – East Wind – in which the wind changes direction and blows a boat full of sailors ashore on a remote island. The arrival of the newcomers brings a great deal of excitement to the isolated island community, but temptation and evil have also come in with the tide and will leave their mark when the wind changes again.

It was almost as if there were no such place, as if the island were a dream, a phantom creation of a sailor’s brain, something rising out of the sea at midnight as a challenge to reality, then vanishing in surf and mist to be forgotten, to be half-consciously remembered years later, flickering for a bewildered second in a dusty brain as a dead thought. Yet to the people of St Hilda’s the island was reality, the ships that came and went were their phantoms.

Another story that stood out for me was Tame Cat, a disturbing tale of an innocent young girl referred to only as Baby who returns home from a long absence in France and is reunited with her mother and the man she calls Uncle John. Baby has always thought of Uncle John as being like a tame cat, but now that she is growing up and becoming a woman she finds that his position in the family is not quite as she’d always assumed.

Some of the topics that seem to come up again and again throughout this collection are young couples falling in and out of love and husbands and wives growing disillusioned with their marriages. Sometimes du Maurier treats this in a humorous way, such as in Frustration, where a newly married couple embark on their honeymoon and everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and Week-End, where another couple go away for the weekend believing themselves to be madly in love, but gradually discover that they don’t even like each other – something which comes as a relief when they realise they won’t have to speak to each other using ridiculous baby talk anymore! Other stories are more poignant; I loved Nothing Hurts for Long, a sad story about a woman preparing to welcome her husband home after three months in Germany. When a friend tells her about the disintegration of her own marriage, she is sympathetic but convinced that the same thing couldn’t possibly happen to her…

She went and stood before the looking-glass. Perhaps he would creep in suddenly and stand behind her, and put his hands on her shoulders, and lean his face against hers.

She closed her eyes. Darling! Was that a taxi? No – nothing. ‘This wasn’t how I imagined it at all,’ she thought.

There are thirteen stories in the collection so I’m not going to discuss all of them here, but there were only one or two that I didn’t like very much. The overall quality is not as good as some of the other du Maurier collections I’ve read, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, The Birds and Other Stories or The Breaking Point: Short Stories, and I don’t think I would recommend this book as a starting point for readers who are new to du Maurier’s work, but if you’re already a fan I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

Historical Musings #50: Presidential Historical Fiction

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I got the idea for this month’s post when my blogging friend Judy commented on one of my reviews that as an American she knows a lot more about American history than British history. I’m sure most people would say the same – that we have a better knowledge of our own country’s history than any other – and it’s certainly true in my case, which is why I’ve been making an effort over the last few years to branch out and read more historical fiction set in places I’m less familiar with. In previous posts I’ve asked for some suggestions of novels set in Japan, Australia, India, China and Wales, to give just a few examples.

But Judy’s comment reminded me that there are also some areas of American history than I know very little about – not so much the major events (I’ve read quite a lot of fiction set during the Civil War and Revolutionary War, as well as books that span several centuries of history like New York by Edward Rutherfurd) but the people. I’m ashamed to admit that there are many presidents and First Ladies who are little more than names to me.

This month, then, I’m looking for your recommendations of historical fiction about US presidents and/or their wives and families. I’m sure some of you will have read non-fiction books about the lives of presidents and I’m happy to hear about those too, but when I don’t know much about a subject I often find it easier to learn through fiction at first. The only one which comes to mind that I’ve read so far is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; apart from that, I’ve read some books where presidents make brief appearances, but I can’t think of any others where they have been the main focus of the story. Here are some lists I found that might provide a starting point, but as I don’t know anything about any of these books I will need some advice!

Historical Fiction about Presidents or Their Wives (Goodreads)
Presidential Historical Fiction Books (Bookbub)
Historical Fiction Books about First Ladies (Bookbub)

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Have you read any Presidential/First Lady fiction? Which books would you recommend?

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Over the last few years, I’ve read and loved Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Liveship Traders Trilogy and Tawny Man Trilogy, but I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading Dragon Keeper, the first in her four-book Rain Wild Chronicles series. Although I found the dragon storylines in the earlier trilogies quite enjoyable, I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to read a series in which the dragons would be the main focus – and also, after coming to the end of the Tawny Man books, I just wanted to continue Fitz’s story rather than have to get used to a whole new set of characters. It was tempting to go straight to Hobb’s final and most recent trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, but I knew I should keep reading in order of publication as the books do all form part of one larger sequence and it’s possible that things could happen in the Rain Wild series that I need to know before returning to Fitz.

Anyway, Dragon Keeper picks up the story that was set into motion at the end of the Liveship Traders. Guided by the dragon Tintaglia, a group of sea serpents have made the long journey up the Rain Wild River to the shores of Cassarick, where they have formed the cocoons where they will await their transformation into dragons. When the day of the hatching finally arrives, the people of the Rain Wilds – among them eleven-year-old Thymara and her father – gather round to witness this historic moment: the moment that will mark the return of dragons to the world for the first time in generations.

The dragons that emerge from the cocoons, however, are weak and malformed due to the inappropriate conditions they had lived in as serpents and the difficult circumstances surrounding their cocooning process. These creatures are unlikely ever to fly like their ancestors and can barely even manage to feed themselves. It seems that their only hope of survival is to make their way to Kelsingra, the ancient city of the Elderlings, but if they are to get there safely they will need some human help. Thymara, born with claws and scales – a more extreme example of the mutations that affect many of the Rain Wild people – is chosen to be part of a team of dragon keepers who will escort the dragons to their legendary homeland.

And there’s not really much more to the plot than that. There’s a sense that, with this first in the series, Hobb is setting things up for the three that will follow and the story is just beginning to get started when the book comes to an end. I liked it enough to want to continue, but it is certainly my least favourite of Hobb’s books so far. Maybe because so many of the dragon keepers are children (they are seen as more dispensable, not having families who rely on them), it felt almost as though this book was aimed at younger readers than the others.

There were several characters who intrigued me, though, and I’ll look forward to seeing how their storylines develop in the next book. One of these is Alise Kincarron, a young woman from Bingtown who looks destined for spinsterhood before entering into a loveless marriage with a local trader, Hest Finbok. The dragons hold a special fascination for Alise and the chance to accompany them on the journey to Kelsingra is both a dream come true and a way to escape from her husband. Hest has no interest in the dragons himself, so asks Alise’s childhood friend Sedric to chaperone her – but we, the reader, know something about Sedric that Alise doesn’t and that makes us think of him more as a villain than a friend.

As a setting, I prefer the Six Duchies of the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, but I did enjoy the descriptions in this book of Trehaug, the city built in the treetops above the Rain Wild River. We did visit Trehaug and the Rain Wilds at several points throughout the Liveship Traders trilogy, but they lose some of their mysterious aura in this book as we learn much more about them and the people who live there. In case you’re wondering, we do meet some of the Liveship characters again (I was particularly pleased to see Paragon) but their appearances are very brief and the focus is definitely on Thymara, Alise and the other new characters. And the dragons, of course! Part of the story is told from the perspective of Sintara, a blue dragon who is not quite as weak and stunted as some of the others, and it was interesting to see things from her point of view now and then.

Although I couldn’t quite love this book, I did find it a relatively quick and easy read, in comparison to some of Hobb’s others which are usually much longer and more emotionally demanding. I’ll continue the series soon with the second book, Dragon Haven.