The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden

It’s 1852 and the recently widowed Margaret Lennox has just arrived at Hartwood Hall to take up a new position as governess to ten-year-old Louis Eversham. Margaret worked as a governess before her marriage, so has plenty of experience, but she quickly discovers that the Evershams are not quite like any other family she has worked for. Mrs Eversham is secretive and overprotective, isolating herself and Louis from their neighbours, and in the village rumours are spreading that Hartwood Hall is haunted. Although this makes Margaret feel uneasy – and the hostility she faces from one of the maids, Susan, doesn’t help – she does her best to settle into her new job, while also trying to conceal the truth about her own past.

The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is Katie Lumsden’s debut novel and is obviously heavily influenced by the work of the Brontës, particularly Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. One character turns out to be an author not dissimilar to Charlotte, Emily and Anne, while others are seen reading Brontë novels – and of course, there are elements of the plot and setting that feel very familiar as well. The descriptions of the locked east wing of Hartwood Hall, off-limits to Margaret, with its strange noises and flickering lights made me think of Jane Eyre’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ and had me wondering what exactly was going on in there! Of course, this is a book written in the 21st century, not the 19th, and I could never quite forget that; some parts of this story could never have been written by the Brontës – or would have had to be alluded to much more vaguely.

This is not the only recently published book to be inspired by classic Gothic novels and at first I thought it was going to be very similar to Stacey Halls’ Mrs England, Marianne Ratcliffe’s The Secret of Matterdale Hall or Beth Underdown’s The Key in the Lock, to name a few. However, although I think readers of those books would enjoy this one too, it’s still different enough to be a satisfying story in its own right. I didn’t guess the solutions of all the mysteries hinted at in the book – although I was convinced at one point that I’d worked it all out, some of the revelations still took me by surprise!

There’s a romantic thread to the novel too, as Margaret begins to form a relationship with a male member of the Hartwood Hall staff. However, I found this the least successful aspect of the story. I sensed very little chemistry between the two of them, neither was honest with the other and I felt that Margaret treated him unfairly. For this reason, the later stages of the novel didn’t have the emotional impact they probably should have done. I did enjoy watching Margaret’s relationship with the Evershams develop, as she gained the trust and respect of Louis and Mrs Eversham – and I was angry on Margaret’s behalf about the treatment she received from the scheming Susan! Although I didn’t always agree with Margaret’s decisions, I found her quite an engaging heroine and narrator.

This was an entertaining novel and while not every part of it worked for me, I would be happy to read more books by Katie Lumsden, particularly if they fall into this same subgenre.

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

These Days by Lucy Caldwell – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

I hadn’t really considered reading These Days until I saw it had been longlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize and as Lucy Caldwell is an author from Belfast I thought it would be a good choice for Reading Ireland Month.

I have previously read very little about the fate of Northern Ireland during World War II – Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture contains a very vivid description of the bombing of Belfast, but otherwise it has barely featured at all in any of my reading. In These Days, Lucy Caldwell gives this topic the attention it deserves, focusing on a series of attacks on Belfast that took place in April and May 1941 – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fire Raids. More than a thousand people were killed in these attacks and the Easter Raid alone caused the greatest loss of life in any night raid outside of London during the war.

This short but tragic period in Belfast’s history is explored through the stories of two sisters, Audrey and Emma Bell, the daughters of Dr Philip Bell and his wife, Florence. I have to confess, when I first started reading this book and saw that not only was it written in the present tense, the author had also chosen to omit speech marks, my heart sank. Not including speech marks seems to be an increasingly popular trend in fiction and maybe some readers like it, but it never works for me. I just find it distracting and annoying. However, I stuck with the book and settled into the story after a while.

Audrey is twenty-one and works as a junior clerk at the tax office. She is engaged to Richard, a doctor like her father, but is beginning to have doubts about the marriage. Becoming Richard’s wife will mean she’s expected to give up her job and conform to society’s expectations, and after witnessing the independence and freedom enjoyed by her unmarried friend, Miss Bates, Audrey is trying to decide what she really wants from life.

Emma is just eighteen and volunteers at a First Aid post, where she has met and fallen in love with Sylvia, a woman ten years older than herself. Emma has always been ‘awkward’ but when she’s with Sylvia she feels that she’s found her place in the world at last. Unfortunately, though, this is the 1940s so their relationship will have to remain a secret.

The Bell sisters, along with their mother Florence, are the main focus of the novel and although the writing style meant it took longer for me to connect with them than I would have liked, I did warm to all three of them and found each of their stories very moving as the bombings began and their lives were thrown into turmoil. We also get to know several other characters, from a range of backgrounds, who cross paths with the Bells at various points in the novel. I particularly loved six-year-old Maisie Gallagher, who becomes separated from her mother during a raid and has the good fortune to be discovered by Audrey.

The attacks were devastating for the people of Belfast, with so much destruction and loss of life, and as you can imagine the book is quite harrowing in places. How could it not be, particularly with images of Ukraine fresh in our minds? But it’s also a book I’m pleased to have read, especially as it has taught me so much about an aspect of the war I had known so little about.

This is book 10/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

It’s 1919 and Grace Armstrong, like many other young women, is mourning the loss of her fiancé and brother in the Great War. She has done her best to move on – having served as a VAD nurse during the war, she is now pursuing a career as a journalist with the London periodical Nursing World – but she is still haunted by the thought that her fiancé Robert, reported missing in action at the Somme, could still be alive. Meanwhile her mother, struggling to cope with the death of Grace’s brother Edward, is under sedation in a nursing home. It’s a difficult time for the Armstrong family – and is about to get worse when their lodger, Elizabeth Smith, is found drowned in the River Thames.

Elizabeth had lodged with the family for eight years and she and Grace had become good friends. Unable to accept the verdict from the police that Elizabeth had committed suicide, Grace is determined to find out what really happened. The only person who is prepared to help her is Tom Monaghan, who fought with Edward in France, but as they begin to investigate Elizabeth’s death, they make some shocking discoveries about Grace’s friend.

This is Helen Scarlett’s second novel; I haven’t read her first, The Deception of Harriet Fleet, but both are standalones so that didn’t matter at all. I will probably look for that earlier book now, as I did enjoy this one. It’s a slow-paced novel, but I still found it quite gripping, mainly because of the vivid portrayal of a world emerging from war, with people attempting to move forward while still struggling with the trauma of the recent past. Nobody in the novel has come out of the war unscathed; we meet men left damaged both physically and mentally by the horrors of the trenches, families grieving for the deaths of loved ones – and perhaps worst of all, people like Grace who are unable to grieve properly without knowing whether their loved one is dead or alive. Grace sees Robert everywhere – in the street, on the bus, in her dreams – and feels that she’ll never be able to rebuild her life until she knows the truth.

I found the mystery element of the book less successful. The story of Elizabeth’s past seemed too far-fetched to be very convincing and as more and more of her secrets were uncovered I felt that the plot was in danger of becoming much too complicated. There’s also a romance for Grace which was predictable but satisfying, although I would have liked to have seen her spend more time with her love interest; that would have helped me to become more invested in their relationship.

Despite the few negative points I’ve mentioned, The Lodger is an atmospheric and moving novel and the image it evokes of a London in the aftermath of war is one that will stay with me.

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

This is book 9/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy

First published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1880-81, A Laodicean; or, The Castle of the De Stancys: A Story of To-Day is one of Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novels and one that I very much enjoyed.

Architect George Somerset is exploring the countryside near the village of Sleeping-Green one evening when he stumbles upon a castle. He learns that this is Stancy Castle, the ancestral home of the De Stancy family which has recently been purchased by the wealthy railway contractor, John Power. Mr Power has since died, leaving the castle to his daughter, Paula, who is planning to carry out extensive renovations on the ancient building. When Paula is introduced to Somerset she considers commissioning him to do the work on the castle, but before the restoration even begins Somerset finds himself falling in love with her.

It seems that Somerset has a rival for Paula’s love, however – Captain De Stancy, an impoverished descendant of the aristocratic family who once owned the castle. The Captain’s son, William Dare, has seen a chance to get his hands on some of the Power fortune and is determined that his father must marry Paula, no matter what.

Paula herself is the Laodicean of the title, described by the local minister as ‘lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot’, like the people of the church of Laodicea in the Bible. Throughout the novel she vacillates between Somerset and De Stancy, attracted to both of them in different ways and unwilling to fully commit to one or the other. This reflects the way she feels about society in general. As an industrialist’s daughter who has installed a telegraph wire and a new clock at Stancy Castle, Paula represents science and progress but at the same time she likes the idea of marrying into an aristocratic family and becoming a De Stancy. The clash between tradition and a new way of life is one of the recurring themes that comes up again and again in Hardy’s novels.

Although Paula irritated me with her inability to make up her mind and give either man a definite answer, I found Somerset’s infatuation with her quite annoying as well – I wanted him to notice Paula’s friend, Charlotte, who I think would have been a much better choice for him! Irritating characters aside, I found the story very entertaining, mainly because of the machinations of William Dare, who will stop at nothing to ensure Paula chooses his father. He uses forged telegrams, fake photographs and all sorts of other devious tricks to try to get what he wants and this makes the book more of a pageturner than I’d expected at first.

A Laodicean doesn’t really have the pastoral feel of most of Hardy’s other novels; in fact, most of the second half is set in Europe where the various sets of characters wander around the casinos of Monte Carlo, the spas of Baden and the busy streets and squares of Strasbourg. Things do become a bit far-fetched in this section, with lots of coincidental meetings, but I enjoyed reading something different from Hardy after so many books set in his Wessex countryside.

Although this hasn’t become one of my favourite Hardy novels, it’s still a very good one. I think I only have three more of them to read, as well as some of his short story collections. Have you read this one? What did you think?

This is book 36/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Shadows of London by Andrew Taylor

A new book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series is always something to look forward to. This is the sixth in the series and another one I thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re new to these books they do all work as standalones, but I would recommend reading all of them in order if possible so you can watch the relationship develop between James Marwood and Cat Lovett.

The Shadows of London is set around six years after the devastation of the Great Fire of London in 1666. The city is continuing to rebuild and Cat Lovett – now the widowed Mistress Hakesby – is working on the restoration of an ancient almshouse. Having taken over the running of her late husband’s architecture business, Cat is establishing a reputation for herself as a talented architect in her own right, and she and her partner, Brennan, have received a commission to rebuild the almshouse and construct new brick houses on the adjoining land. When a dead body is found on the site, bringing the project to a halt, Cat approaches her friend James Marwood to ask for his help in speeding up the investigations so that work can continue.

Marwood is now working as private secretary to the powerful statesman Lord Arlington. When it emerges that the dead man could be a clerk employed at the Council of Foreign Plantations, Arlington instructs Marwood to find out all he can about the murder. As he and Cat begin to investigate, however, they begin to uncover a trail that seems to be leading to the royal court and to Marwood’s old enemy, the Duke of Buckingham.

The investigation also has implications for another young lady, Louise de Kéroualle, formerly a maid of honour to Charles II’s sister, Minette. The King has his eye on Louise and she has been brought to England to serve as lady-in-waiting to his queen, Catherine of Braganza. It will suit certain people in both England and France to have a Frenchwoman in the King’s bed, but Louise has other things on her mind. Her lover, a French tutor, has gone missing – could he be involved in the almshouse murder?

As with the other five books in this series, Andrew Taylor blends fact and fiction together perfectly. Although the story of the dead man on the building site is fictional, it weaves in and out of the government intrigues and court conspiracies in a way that almost convinces you it could really have happened. While it was good to meet Cat and Marwood again, as well as some of the recurring characters I’ve become quite fond of, such as Marwood’s servants Sam and Margaret Witherdine, I also enjoyed getting to know Louise de Kéroualle. It was interesting to read Taylor’s author’s note where he discusses the politics behind Louise’s seduction by Charles II – with letters from the period as evidence – and why his interpretation of her story is more sympathetic than some.

Long-term readers of the series will be wondering whether this is the book where Cat and Marwood finally get together after what has been a bit of a love-hate relationship. Well, I’m not going to tell you that, but I do think you’ll be pleased to know that, unlike in some of the previous novels, there are plenty of interactions between the two of them and they work closely with each other to solve the mystery. I found the ending of the book quite satisfying, but I’m hoping there will be a book seven as I would love to see what’s in store next for Marwood and Lovett!

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

This is book 8/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

There are so many Greek mythology retellings around at the moment I thought this one might be too similar to others I’ve read recently (particularly Jennifer Saint’s Elektra) – but I needn’t have worried. With Clytemnestra, Costanza Casati makes a familiar story feel fresh and different, and as a debut novel it’s quite impressive.

Clytemnestra, Helen of Troy’s sister, is most often remembered as the wife of Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae who sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia to summon a wind so he can sail off to join the Trojan War. The heartbroken Clytemnestra takes her revenge on Agamemnon, which in turn provokes their other children, Electra and Orestes, to plot a revenge of their own. Casati’s novel does cover all of this, but a large part of the book is actually devoted to Clytemnestra’s early life as a princess of Sparta, daughter of Tyndareus and Leda, the King and Queen.

Like other Spartan women, Clytemnestra and her sisters are taught to fight, run and wrestle as children and grow up enjoying more independence and freedom than women elsewhere in Ancient Greece. This means that whenever life doesn’t go quite the way they hoped it would, they have the determination and the inner strength to take steps to change things. Early in the novel, a priestess delivers a prophecy that ‘the daughters of Leda will be twice and thrice wed…and they will all be deserters of their lawful husbands’ and over the course of the story we see this prediction begin to come true.

The thing I particularly enjoyed about this novel – and the thing that makes it different from others I’ve read – is that it focuses not just on Clytemnestra and Helen, whose stories are well known, but also on their other siblings. We get to know Castor and Polydeuces (sometimes called Pollux), their twin brothers who go in search of the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts, their sister Timandra, who marries King Echemus of Arcadia, and the two youngest sisters, Phoebe and Philonoe, who don’t have large parts to play but are not left out of the story either. By spending so much time on Clytemnestra’s childhood and her relationships with her family members, her character is given more depth, so that by the time she is married off to Agamemnon and the familiar, tragic part of her story is set into motion, we have come to know Clytemnestra well and to understand how her environment and upbringing have made her into the person she is.

Something else I found interesting was the portrayal of Clytemnestra’s first marriage to Tantalus, King of Maeonia, shown here to be a marriage made for love, in contrast to her later forced marriage to Agamemnon. Some versions of the Clytemnestra myth don’t make any reference to Tantalus at all, but including him here and showing how Clytemnestra’s life could have followed an entirely different course if he had lived adds another layer to the story.

Clytemnestra is written in present tense, which is never going to be a style I particularly like, but otherwise I found this book very enjoyable. I hope Costanza Casati will write more like this – if so, I think I’ll be adding her to my list of favourite modern Greek mythology authors, along with Natalie Haynes, Madeline Miller and Jennifer Saint.

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

Lady MacBethad by Isabelle Schuler

The character of Lady Macbeth is known to many of us through Shakespeare’s play, but who was she really? What kind of person was she and what were the events that led to her marriage to Macbeth and the beginning of the story we think we know? These are the questions Isabelle Schuler attempts to answer in her new novel, Lady MacBethad.

The book is set in the first half of the 11th century and is narrated by Gruoch, the woman who will become Lady Macbeth. With royal blood in her veins, Gruoch has grown up listening to her Picti grandmother’s prophecies that one day she will be Queen of Alba. When she is betrothed to Duncan, heir to the throne, it seems that the prophecy is going to come true and although she is sorry to leave behind her family and her close childhood friend MacBethad, she heads for Scone to join Duncan’s court. However, she is unprepared for the hostility of Duncan’s mother, Bethoc, the scheming of her pagan friend, Ardith, and the arrival of another young woman, Suthen of Northumberland, who also catches Duncan’s eye.

When a dramatic turn of events leads to her having to flee Scone before the marriage can take place, Gruoch falls into the hands of Mael Colum of Moray and his brother, Gillecomghain. Her chances of becoming queen seem out of reach again, but Gruoch refuses to give up on her dream.

Lady MacBethad ends before Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins, so is not a retelling of the play but more of a prequel to it. Also, the characters in Schuler’s novel are based on the real historical figures rather than on Shakespeare’s interpretation of them, which of course can’t be taken as being particularly accurate! I was pleased to find that she tries to use language appropriate to the period and authentic medieval Gaelic naming, such as MacBethad mac Findlaich rather than the anglicised Macbeth. This was a relief after reading Joanna Courtney’s Blood Queen a few years ago, which renamed Gruoch as Cora and Gillecomghain as Gillespie, just in case the original names were too difficult for modern readers.

Schuler works some quotes from Shakespeare into the conversations between her characters – “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent beneath it” is advice given to Gruoch by her grandmother, for example – but no knowledge of the play is necessary to be able to understand and enjoy this book. It can be read as a straightforward work of historical fiction, bringing to life a fascinating and complex period of Scotland’s (or Alba’s) history. It explores the conflict between Christianity and the old pagan beliefs, the fading culture of the Picts and the warring factions trying to gain control of the throne.

Gruoch (or Groa, as her pagan friends call her) is portrayed as ambitious, determined and driven by her desire to become queen no matter what. Yet her narrative voice feels slightly too young and immature for me to find her completely convincing. I think having read Dorothy Dunnett’s wonderful King Hereafter, it was just too difficult for me to put Dunnett’s Groa out of my mind and fully embrace a different version of the character.

The way the book ends sets things up perfectly for a sequel, maybe incorporating some of the more familiar events of Macbeth. I wonder whether there will be one or whether Isabelle Schuler is moving on to other subjects now.

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

This is book 7/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.