The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens in 1785 with merchant Jonah Hancock sitting in his London counting house waiting for his ship to return. Imagine his horror when his captain arrives at the door and confesses that he has sold the ship in exchange for a mermaid. The captain assures him that people will come from all over the world to see the mermaid and that it will make him a fortune, but Mr Hancock is not at all convinced…

Angelica Neal has been living in comfort as the mistress of a rich duke. When the duke dies, leaving her with nothing, Angelica needs to find another way to support herself. The obvious solution is to return to her former employment in Mrs Chappell’s brothel, but Angelica is more ambitious these days and decides to make her own way in the world instead. Her path crosses with Mr Hancock’s when his mermaid is exhibited at a party she is attending and an unlikely friendship begins to form between these two very different people.

The first thing to say about The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is that although mermaids and the legends surrounding them are symbolically important to the story, the part they play in the novel is relatively small. This could be a good or a bad thing depending on how you feel about magical realism, but be aware that the mermaid element of the story might not be what you are expecting. Their role is similar, in some ways, to the role of the serpent in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, one of several books to which this one has been compared.

As for the humans, I thought Angelica and Mr Hancock were both interesting, well drawn characters. Whenever the ambitious, strong-willed Angelica appeared on the page I was reminded of Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair and Sugar from The Crimson Petal and the White. It took me a while to warm to her and I still can’t say whether I actually liked her, but I did have some sympathy for her and, by the end, some admiration as well. Jonah Hancock is a very different type of character – a quiet, humble, middle-aged widower who is haunted by memories of his wife and son. Since their deaths, he has allowed his sister Hester and niece Sukie to take charge of his life, but his relationship with Angelica introduces another dynamic into the household.

There’s a colourful cast of secondary characters too, particularly the girls from the ‘nunnery’ as they ironically call it, and their grotesque ‘abbess’, Mrs Chappell, but I found that I was less interested in finding out what would happen to these characters than I was in reading about Mr Hancock and Angelica. One of them, Polly – a prostitute from a mixed race background who finds herself, like the mermaid, viewed as a sort of curiosity by the men who visit the brothel – had a lot of potential but her storyline was not really developed until late in the book.

The novel’s setting (Georgian England) is one I usually like and I was quite impressed by the author’s attention to detail and her attempts to recreate an 18th century world. The language and dialogue generally feels suited to the period, although I think Francis Spufford’s wonderful Golden Hill does this more effectively. Actually, it’s difficult to read this book without drawing comparisons with Golden Hill and if you enjoy one of them I think there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the other!

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock will be published in the UK on Thursday and although I didn’t love it as unreservedly as I’d hoped, I predict it will be a big success for Imogen Hermes Gowar.

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

Traitor by David Hingley

This is the third in a series of novels featuring Mercia Blakewood, a 17th century Englishwoman recruited by Charles II to carry out secret missions on his behalf. If you think that sounds far-fetched, it is worth noting that while Mercia is a fictional character, the King really did employ female spies, among them the playwright and novelist Aphra Behn. I haven’t read Mercia’s earlier adventures, but Traitor sounded so intriguing that I jumped at the chance to read it despite my usual preference for starting a series at the beginning.

The novel opens in 1665 and even without having read the previous novels, I quickly picked up all the background information I needed to be able to understand and follow the story. I discovered that Mercia’s father has been branded a traitor and executed following the English Civil War. His manor house has ended up in the possession of Mercia’s uncle, Sir Francis, but Mercia has not given up hope of regaining it, hence her desire to win the King’s favour.

At the beginning of the novel she has arrived back in England from America where she had been sent on a quest for the King and became caught up in the capture of New Amsterdam, now renamed New York. She has barely set foot on the shore when she receives a summons from Charles’ mistress, Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine, who explains her next task to her. The country is now at war with the Dutch and it seems that someone close to the War Council is passing on secrets to the enemy. Mercia’s task is to identify the spy – a woman using the code name Virgo – but her investigations could endanger her own life as well as her young son’s.

I love books set in the seventeenth century but while I’ve read quite a lot about subjects such as the Civil War, the restoration of Charles II, the plague and the Great Fire of London, the specific setting for this novel – the Second Anglo-Dutch War – is something I’ve come across less often. Although the focus is on Mercia’s personal mission and her efforts to uncover the spy, the war provides an interesting backdrop for the story.

Mercia is a strong heroine and despite not having read the first two books in which she appears, I felt that I knew her well by the end of the novel. Other characters who stood out for me were Nicholas Wildmoor, the servant who has accompanied Mercia to and from America, and One-Eye, a sinister old woman who runs a ring of smugglers. There are also five suspects who could each be Virgo and although some of these characters are less developed than others, they are representative of different opinions and different positions in society. Helen Cartwright, for example, is delighted with the black boy, Tacitus, whom she receives as a gift and uses as a sort of fashion accessory, whereas Lavinia Whent has seen the results of slavery first hand in Barbados and has returned with more progressive ideas. Mercia herself is modern enough in her views to make her easy for a modern reader to like and identify with, but not so much that she feels entirely out of place in the seventeenth century either.

The mystery element of the novel worked well. I didn’t guess who Virgo was, although I did have my suspicions as to who else might be involved and wanted to scream at Mercia not to trust anybody! Along the way there’s plenty of suspense as both Mercia and Nicholas get themselves into some difficult and dangerous situations.

This was the first book I finished in 2018 but I have held back my review until now so I could take part in the Traitor blog tour. Other stops on the tour are shown in the image below. As I’ve said, I prefer to read a series in the correct order, but I enjoyed this book so much I think I’ll have to go back and read Birthright and Puritan now!

Thanks to Allison & Busby for providing a copy of Traitor for review.

The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Pearl Sister is the fourth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series based loosely on the mythology of the Pleiades (or ‘seven sisters’) star cluster. There will eventually be seven novels each telling the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious millionaire known as Pa Salt.

The girls, who are all from very different backgrounds and who grew up together in Switzerland on Pa Salt’s Lake Geneva estate, are named after the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but for some reason which has not yet been revealed only six girls were adopted rather than seven. Pa Salt dies at the beginning of the series, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their real parents, if they wish to do so.

The books could be read in any order as they all work as standalones, with only a small amount of overlap. The first book in the series, The Seven Sisters, tells Maia’s story, the second, The Storm Sister, tells Ally’s, and the third, The Shadow Sister, concentrates on Star. This time it’s CeCe’s turn. CeCe and Star are nearly the same age, being adopted as babies just a few months apart, and have always had a very close relationship. In the previous novel we saw the shy, quiet Star stepping out from CeCe’s shadow to build a life of her own, while The Pearl Sister begins with CeCe feeling rejected and left behind as Star moves on.

Pa Salt has left CeCe the name of an Australian pioneer and a black and white photograph to point her on her way, so she sets off for Australia, stopping in Thailand for a few weeks first. Following a trail which she hopes will lead to her own birth family, CeCe makes some discoveries which help her to understand who she really is.

CeCe’s story is set in the modern day, but we also follow the story of another woman and this one takes place in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s 1906 and Kitty McBride has left her home in Edinburgh to travel to Australia as a lady’s companion. Here she meets the Mercer family, who own both a pearl business and a cattle station, and becomes entangled with twin brothers Drummond and Andrew Mercer. When it becomes obvious that both of them are hoping to marry Kitty, she will have a big decision to make. Her choice will affect not only her own life but the lives of future generations as well.

Having read most of Lucinda Riley’s novels now, I think she deals with multiple time periods very well, spending long enough in each one for us to become fully immersed in the story before switching to the other. I enjoyed both of the storylines, but Kitty’s was more dramatic, filled with plot twists and surprises (as well as one or two coincidences which I thought stretched things a bit too far, although that wasn’t a big problem). I loved reading about Kitty’s involvement in the pearl industry and about her friendship with another strong and courageous woman, her maid Camira. CeCe’s storyline kept me turning the pages too. There’s a subplot involving a man she meets in Thailand which feels slightly disconnected from the rest of the story, but once she leaves Thailand and arrives in Australia things become more interesting.

Until I read this book, CeCe was one of my least favourites of the sisters; because of the way she behaved whenever we saw her together with Star, I thought she was a bossy and controlling person, but it seems I had misjudged her. In this novel, we see a very different side of CeCe and discover just how dependent she had been on Star. She has a lot of insecurities as a result of her dyslexia and her appearance – she is convinced that her sisters are all much prettier than she is – and after a bad experience at art college she has even lost confidence in her abilities as an artist. As she gets closer to discovering her roots, CeCe begins to grow as a person; she finds some independence, makes new friends and enters into new relationships. The CeCe we leave behind at the end of the book seems a much happier person than the one we met at the start!

Earlier this week I said that I wanted to incorporate more books set outside my own country into my reading this year. The Pearl Sister takes place in two: Thailand and Australia. I particularly enjoyed the Australian settings – Broome and then Alice Springs – and I was as interested as Kitty and CeCe in learning about the history and culture of the Aboriginal people.

Having had the chance to get to know four of the D’Aplièse sisters now, I’m looking forward to the next two books on Tiggy and Electra.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton

This 1908 novel from the author of the Father Brown mystery series is subtitled A Nightmare and it certainly does have a dreamlike feel. I picked it up expecting a vintage detective novel and emerged at the other end wondering what on earth I had just been reading and what it meant.

The novel opens with a conversation between two men who meet for the first time one evening in Saffron Park in London. One, Lucian Gregory, is an anarchist poet; the other, Gabriel Syme, is a member of the secret anti-anarchist police. They spend the whole of the first chapter debating the meanings of anarchy and of law and order, using arguments like this:

Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at the tree. “About this and this,” he cried; “about order and anarchy. There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself—there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”

“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

And this:

“An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

“So it is,” said Mr. Syme.

“Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox.

It seems they will never agree, but to at least prove that he is serious about his cause, Gregory invites Syme to accompany him to an underground meeting of anarchists. Gregory gets more than he bargained for, however, when Syme puts himself forward for a position in which he himself had been interested: one of seven coveted seats on the Council of the Seven Days, the central council of the European anarchists.

Elected to the council and given the code name Thursday, Syme is introduced to his fellow days of the week, but will he be able to prevent them from guessing that he is an undercover policeman? And who is Sunday, their mysterious and sinister leader who is so big, so powerful and so much larger than life?

I don’t think there is much more I can say about the plot without spoiling the story. I can’t discuss the themes of the novel either, or the symbolism it contains, because those things are also spoilers. It’s such a strange and unusual book that I really think it’s best not to know too much about it before you begin. Just be aware that it’s not a conventional mystery or detective novel (or a conventional anything). There are parts that I loved, such as a scene where Syme is followed through the streets of London in the snow; there are funny moments too, some witty and amusing dialogue, and lots of thought-provoking philosophical ideas. At other times it becomes a little bit too bizarre, particularly after the action moves to France halfway through the book.

There are plot twists throughout the novel, some of which are quite predictable – but the revelations near the end of the book were not what I had been expecting at all. Looking back, there were plenty of hints and clues, but I didn’t pick up on them. I’m sure I didn’t fully grasp what Chesterton was trying to say, but I think there are probably different ways to interpret this book anyway. It certainly left me with a lot to think about and I love it when that happens – when you continue to engage with a story even after you’ve turned the final page.

I don’t have any more of Chesterton’s books, but I see there are some I could read for free at Project Gutenberg. I have previously read two of his Father Brown short stories (included in Miraculous Mysteries and Murder Under the Christmas Tree); should I read more of those or is there another of his books that you would recommend?

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon

No, this is not a new novel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, but a collection of seven stories featuring characters from the series, written over a number of years. The first five have previously appeared in other collections, such as 2013’s A Trail of Fire, or as standalone novellas, but the final two are new ones. I hadn’t really intended to read this book; although I loved the earlier Outlander novels, I’ve been less impressed with the more recent ones, mainly because of the increasing focus on Lord John Grey’s family, and as most of these stories seemed to involve the Lord John characters I wasn’t in any hurry to read them. When I found a copy in the library a few weeks before Christmas, though, I thought I would give it a try in the hope that at least one or two of the stories would interest me – and some of them did, but maybe not the ones I would have expected!

The first story (they are all really novellas rather than ‘short stories’; I don’t think Diana Gabaldon is capable of writing anything that can truly be described as short!) is The Custom of the Army. Lord John gets into trouble at an electric eel party and when he is forced to fight a duel which goes disastrously wrong, he takes the opportunity to escape to Canada to serve as character witness for an officer who is facing a court martial. While he is there he finds himself caught up in the Battle of Quebec of 1759. Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for reading about Lord John, I found the setting interesting and thought this was a good start to the collection.

The next story, The Space Between, is entirely different from the first. It’s set around the time of An Echo in the Bone, I think, and our protagonists this time are Joan MacKimmie (whom readers of the Outlander series will remember as Laoghaire’s daughter) and Michael Murray (one of Jenny and Ian’s sons). Michael is escorting Joan to Paris where she is to become a nun, but on their arrival they become entangled with the sinister Paul Rakoczy, a character who has previously appeared in the series under a different name. I found this story quite enjoyable; it was good to meet some old friends again and also to learn more about the time travel aspects of the series. I think it’s funny that in the first Outlander novel (or Cross Stitch as it used to be called here in the UK), Claire’s ability to time travel seemed to be something unusual, yet by this point in the series almost everyone is doing it!

Now we’re back to Lord John again with Lord John and the Plague of Zombies. This time John is in Jamaica where he has been sent on army business to deal with a slave rebellion in the mountains. When the Governor of Jamaica is found murdered, it seems that a zombie could be responsible for his death…but Lord John knows nothing about zombies so needs to learn quickly. I have to admit, the title of this story was enough to put me off before I’d even read it! These particular ‘zombies’ do have a rational explanation, though, and are only one element of the story. In the overall timeline of the series, this story seems to take place shortly before the events of Voyager, when a certain Mrs Abernathy is still living at Rose Hall…

Next, we have A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows, which answers the question of what happened to Roger’s father, Jerry MacKenzie, a Spitfire pilot whose plane went down over Northumberland during World War II. This fascinating story, another which involves time travel, gives a different perspective on an episode from Written in My Own Heart’s Blood which we have already read from Roger’s point of view. I enjoyed this one as Roger is one of my favourite Outlander characters and I found it interesting to learn more about his parents.

You may be starting to wonder whether Claire and Jamie appear in any of these stories; sadly, we don’t see anything of Claire (although she is mentioned once or twice), but the next novella, Virgins, does feature a young Jamie Fraser. A straightforward prequel to Outlander, it is set during the period following Jamie’s flogging by Black Jack Randall when he joins his friend Ian Murray in France. This was the biggest disappointment in the collection, for me. It didn’t even feel as though it was written by the same author as the other stories, at least at first, although I can’t put my finger on the reason why. It does pick up halfway through, with a subplot involving the marriage of a young Jewish girl, but I still didn’t like it. I think I’m so used now to an older Jamie that I found it disconcerting to meet him as a nineteen-year-old!

Next comes my favourite story in the book: A Fugitive Green. Set in 1744, this is the story of Lord John Grey’s brother Hal, the Duke of Pardloe, and his future wife, Minnie Rennie. The young Minnie makes a wonderful heroine and I loved this tale of spying, blackmail and family secrets which takes us from Paris to London and back again. Both Hal and Minnie have appeared in other Outlander and Lord John novels, but they are not characters who ever interested me before. This story was a real surprise!

Finally, there’s Besieged, a sort of follow-up to Plague of Zombies. Lord John is still in Jamaica, but has received news that his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Pardloe, is in Havana, which is about to become the centre of a battle between Britain and Spain. Heading for Cuba to rescue her, John finds that he is too late to avoid the British invasion and the siege which follows. Like the other Lord John stories, this is set at an interesting moment in history, but the story itself was not very memorable.

So, they are the seven stories – the ‘seven stones’ of the title. They do all stand alone and it’s not completely necessary to have read anything else by Gabaldon first. However, if you’re new to her work I don’t think this would be a good place to start. I would recommend this book more for existing fans of the Outlander books (in particular, the spin-off Lord John series) who are waiting for the next full-length novel to be published.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore’s Exposure was one of my favourite books of 2016, so when I saw that she had a new one coming out last year, I knew I wanted to read it. The early reviews seemed to be very mixed, though, so I didn’t rush to get hold of a copy and it wasn’t until the days between Christmas and New Year that I finally got round to reading it.

I mustn’t have read those reviews very closely because I had the impression that this was a book about the French Revolution – but that’s not really true. The story is set in England and although events taking place across the Channel do have an effect on the lives of our characters, all of this is happening at a distance and is not the focus of the novel. The main theme of Birdcage Walk, according to Helen Dunmore herself and hinted at in the opening chapters, is the temporary nature of human life and the way so many of us leave behind very little evidence of our existence when we die. Dunmore states in her Afterword that she wanted to show that everyone has shaped the future in some way, by influencing those around them, even if they then disappear without trace. This is particularly poignant when you consider that while she was writing this novel she was already seriously ill with the cancer that would soon take her life.

But back to the plot of Birdcage Walk. The main part of the story is set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes’ husband, John Diner Tredevant (known simply as Diner) is a property developer who has started to build a terrace of houses with magnificent views of the Avon Gorge. With war against France on the horizon, however, this is a bad time to be trying to sell houses. Lizzie can see that her husband is troubled but is he just worried about the failure of his building project or is there something else on his mind?

Dunmore’s portrayal of Diner is excellent; he is a jealous, possessive and controlling husband who resents Lizzie having relationships with any other friends or family members apart from himself – but it is clear that something terrible has happened in his past, leaving him unhappy and disturbed. We find out very early in the novel what that something probably is, which takes away part of the suspense, but I think there is still plenty of tension in waiting to see when and how Lizzie will learn the truth.

The characterisation in general is very good; I found Lizzie’s mother, the writer Julia Fawkes and her husband Augustus particularly interesting to read about. Julia’s role in the story is brief, but she is one of the characters Dunmore uses to illustrate her point about a person’s influence living on after their words have faded away. Augustus, with his strong political views but lack of insight when it comes to the everyday things going on around him, also feels believable and real.

As I’ve said, the French Revolution is played out in the background with news reaching our characters mainly in the form of letters and newspaper reports. This means we don’t have the excitement of being thrown directly into the events of the Revolution, but it is still interesting to see things from the perspective of people who were less directly involved. Most of the novel, though, is concerned with more domestic issues: Lizzie’s personal relationship with Diner and her efforts to care for her baby brother Thomas despite Diner’s opposition.

I didn’t like Birdcage Walk quite as much as Exposure, but I still found it atmospheric and beautifully written. It’s so sad that there won’t be any more books from Helen Dunmore, but as I have only read three of them so far (The Lie is the other) I can still look forward to reading her others.

In the Shadow of Agatha Christie, edited by Leslie S. Klinger

Agatha Christie is an author most people have heard of, whether or not they’ve ever read any of her books. Ask someone to think of a female crime writer and she is probably the first name that will come to mind. Christie’s first novel, though, wasn’t published until 1920 – and she was by no means the first woman to write in the crime genre. This new collection of short stories, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, features some of the lesser known women crime writers who came before Agatha and could even have inspired her work.

The book is subtitled Classic Crime Fiction by Forgotten Female Writers: 1850-1917 and although I wouldn’t personally describe all of these authors as ‘forgotten’, there were certainly quite a few whose names were new to me. Of the sixteen stories included in the book, I had already read one of them – A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell (1917), which shows the different ways in which men and women evaluate the same situation and the different clues they pick up on – but it’s such a good story I was happy to read it again. Other names who may be familiar to many readers are Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and Scarlet Pimpernel author Baroness Orczy, although the stories included here – The Squire’s Story (1853) and The Regent’s Park Murder (1901) – didn’t particularly stand out to me.

As a fan of Victorian sensation novels, I was intrigued to come across stories by Ellen Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, two authors whose work I’ve loved in the past. The Braddon one, The Winning Sequence (1896), is more of a ghost story than a mystery and I found it disappointingly weak, but Wood’s story, Mrs. Todhetley’s Earrings (1873), was very enjoyable. It is narrated by her young hero, Johnny Ludlow, who is apparently the subject of a whole series of short story collections, although I had never heard of him until now.

Others that I think deserve a special mention include The Statement of Jared Johnson (1899) by Geraldine Bonner, a murder mystery with a twist I’ve come across several times in crime stories recently but which I always find clever, The Ghost of Fountain Lane (1893) by C.L. Pirkis, in which a link emerges between two seemingly unconnected mysteries, and The Case of the Registered Letter by the Austrian author Augusta Groner. There’s also A Point in Morals (1899) by Ellen Glasgow, an unusual story which considers whether murder is always morally wrong, The Blood-Red Cross (1902) by L.T. Meade which features a sinister villain called Madame Sara, and Anna Katherine Green’s Missing: Page Thirteen (1915), an eerie tale of a house with a secret room.

The other authors represented in the book, whose work made less impression on me, are Catherine Crow, Mary Fortune, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Elizabeth Corbett and Carolyn Wells – whose The Adventure of the Clothes-Line (1915) is a parody of a Sherlock Holmes story which I think a lot of readers would enjoy even though I didn’t.

There’s nothing here, in my opinion, which resembles an Agatha Christie story in any way, so the title of this book could be slightly misleading if someone picked it up expecting a selection of Christie-style mysteries. I didn’t find any new authors here that I liked enough to want to explore further, but it was still interesting to read this collection and see how crime fiction has developed over the years.

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