A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

“The long petal of sea and wine and snow” is how the poet Pablo Neruda once described Chile, the country in which most of Isabel Allende’s latest novel is set, and Neruda himself plays a small but very important role in this epic story, based on true historical events.

Beginning in Spain in 1938, we meet Victor Dalmau, a young medical student from Barcelona, and Roser Bruguera, an orphan who has been taken in and raised by the Dalmau family. Roser is in love with Victor’s brother Guillem and is pregnant with his child, but like many others, they have their plans for the future destroyed by the civil war which is currently tearing Spain apart. Victor and Roser are Republicans, but when it becomes clear that General Franco and his Nationalists have won the war, they join half a million other refugees crossing the border into France in search of safety. It is here that they learn of Pablo Neruda’s plan to commission a ship, the Winnipeg, to transport two thousand of the refugees to Chile, where they will have a chance to build a new life. The only problem is, while Victor is offered a place on the ship due to his medical training, Roser’s skills are less in demand and she will only be allowed to join him if she can prove she is his wife…

A Long Petal of the Sea is the second book I’ve read by Isabel Allende. My first was The Japanese Lover and although I was disappointed by that one, I wanted to give her another chance to impress me. Sadly, I felt very much the same about this book and am coming to the conclusion that, despite her popularity, Allende is just not an author for me.

The story itself is fascinating. I have read very little about the Spanish Civil War and knew nothing about what happened in the aftermath, with Spanish refugees being placed in concentration camps on their arrival in France. I knew even less about the political history of Chile, which is the focus of the second half of the novel. I think My Beautiful Imperial by Rhiannon Lewis is the only other book I’ve read set in that country – but that story took place in a much earlier period than this one. It’s sad to think that refugees like Victor and Roser, who had already been through so much, would settle in Chile thinking they had found peace and safety, only to face more upheaval with the 1973 military coup and then years of dictatorship under General Pinochet.

My problem with this book was the style in which it was written. As with The Japanese Lover, I felt as though I was reading a long list of facts rather than a compelling story. I found it impossible to care about or engage with the characters because the author was just telling me how people thought and felt instead of showing me through their words and actions. This should have been a moving and emotional novel but instead I thought it was dry and impersonal and seemed much more like non-fiction than fiction.

I’m aware that Isabel Allende has a large and loyal fan base and other reviews of this book are overwhelmingly positive, so it’s obvious that I’m just not the right reader for Allende’s books. I’ve tried two now and I don’t think I need to try any more, but if you think this book sounds interesting don’t let me put you off reading it – you might be able to connect with it in a way that for some reason I just couldn’t.

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

Dark Queen Rising by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty is a very prolific author of historical mysteries; he has been writing since the 1980s and has written many series under several pseudonyms, set in a variety of periods including medieval England, Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. So far, my only experience of his work has been his standalone novel, Roseblood, which I really enjoyed, so when I came across Dark Queen Rising, the first in a new series set during my favourite period – the Wars of the Roses – I immediately wanted to read it.

The novel opens in 1471, just after the Battle of Tewkesbury, a battle which has ended in victory for the House of York and defeat for their rivals, the House of Lancaster. With the deposed Lancastrian king, Henry VI, held prisoner in the Tower of London, the victorious Yorkist army sets about destroying the other prominent noblemen who fought for Lancaster, including Henry’s heir, the young Prince of Wales. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, now sits securely on the throne of England – or does he? Margaret Beaufort, mother of one of the few remaining Lancastrian claimants, Henry Tudor, is making plans on behalf of her son, while Edward IV’s own brother – George, Duke of Clarence – is also gathering information that could bring about the king’s downfall.

Dark Queen Rising is described as the first in a series of ‘Margaret Beaufort mysteries’, which I think is slightly misleading – and looking at other reviews, it does seem that a lot of readers were expecting a different sort of book. There is a mystery, which develops when four men in the service of the Duke of Clarence are found dead in a tavern, but this doesn’t happen until the middle of the book and is never really the main focus of the novel. It’s more of a thriller, delving into the politics of the time and exploring some of the intrigue, plotting and controversy that makes this such a fascinating period of history.

Bearing in mind that Margaret Beaufort is one of the main characters in this book, I was surprised when, early in the novel, I saw a reference to her husband, ‘Sir Humphrey Stafford’. Margaret’s husband, of course, was Henry Stafford. Henry did have a brother called Humphrey who, coincidentally, was also married to another Margaret Beaufort, so I can see where the confusion has come from, but there’s really no excuse for not knowing which Margaret your novel is about. I was even more disappointed when, later in the book, references were made to Margaret’s future husband, William Stanley. This should have been Thomas Stanley, William’s brother. As the names of not just one but two of Margaret’s husbands were wrong, this made me question the accuracy of everything else in the novel, which is a shame as I do love this period and really wanted to enjoy this book.

George, Duke of Clarence has clearly been cast as the villain in this series, which is fair enough as history certainly tells us that he wasn’t the most honourable or trustworthy of people, but the way he is depicted in this book made him feel more like a caricature than a real person. When I think of the much more nuanced portrayals in books like Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour and Patrick Carleton’s Under the Hog, it’s disappointing. The character who did intrigue me in this book was Christopher Urswicke, who appears to be in Margaret’s employ but whose motives and true loyalties are not always very clear. I found the parts of the story written from Urswicke’s perspective much more interesting.

The second book in the series – Dark Queen Waiting – is out now, but because of the inaccuracies in this one, I’m not planning to read it, although I could possibly still be tempted by a sequel to Roseblood if one is ever written. Meanwhile, I’m now reading Thomas Penn’s new non-fiction book on the Wars of the Roses, The Brothers York, so I should be posting my thoughts on that one soon.

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

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

I loved this! I have read all of Nancy Bilyeau’s previous novels – The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, set in Tudor England, and The Blue, about an 18th century porcelain painter – and enjoyed them all, but I think Dreamland, her new historical thriller, is her best yet.

It’s the summer of 1911 and twenty-year-old Peggy Batternberg, one of America’s wealthiest heiresses, has just started an unpaid job at New York’s Moonrise Bookstore. Her family disapprove, but Peggy has been feeling uncomfortable with her sheltered, privileged lifestyle and is enjoying the experience of doing something useful for a change and getting to know people from different backgrounds. However, she has hardly had time to settle into her new job when she is ordered to join the rest of her family at the Oriental Hotel near Coney Island to spend the summer there at the invitation of her sister’s fiancé, Henry Taul.

Peggy is disappointed and angry. She resents having to leave her position at the Moonrise and she dislikes Henry, so it is with a lot of reluctance that she agrees to change her plans. Shortly after her arrival at the hotel, she slips away from her Batternberg relatives and ventures through the gates of Dreamland, the newest and most impressive of Coney Island’s three huge amusement parks. It is here that she meets and falls in love with Stefan, a Serbian artist who sells hot dogs from a cart – definitely not the sort of man considered suitable company for a Batternberg heiress! Her family would be even more shocked if they knew that she had become mixed up in a murder investigation, but that’s exactly what happens when the body of a young woman is found on the beach near the hotel…

There was so much to enjoy about this book. First, the setting. I have never been to Coney Island but Nancy Bilyeau describes it all so well – the luxurious hotels, the beach and, most importantly, the rides, shows and other attractions of Dreamland itself – that I could form a clear picture of everything in my mind. In reality, the events that take place towards the end of the novel happened in May 1911, but Bilyeau plays around slightly with the dates so that the story unfolds during the summer heatwave instead, adding even more atmosphere to the novel.

Although Peggy is a fictional character, she is loosely based on the real American heiress and art collector, Peggy Guggenheim. It was interesting to follow her personal development over the course of that summer at Coney Island as she becomes increasingly aware of the disparity between the world in which she has grown up and the world populated by those who are less advantaged. Her visits to Dreamland open her eyes to a whole different way of life and her relationship with Stefan shows her the difficulties faced by immigrants in a society where they are viewed with suspicion and distrust.

I think the mystery aspect of the novel was actually my least favourite part of the book. There were only a few suspects and the eventual solution didn’t surprise me. What interested me more was the prejudiced way in which the investigation was handled by the police and the assumptions they made about various people based on factors such as name, nationality, gender and level of wealth.

The way Dreamland ended seemed to leave things open for another book about these characters; I would love to read a sequel, but if there’s not going to be one then I’m sure Nancy Bilyeau will find another equally fascinating setting and time period to write about next!

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

Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

This is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell in fictional form the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. I enjoyed the previous three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – but I was particularly looking forward to reading this one, on Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Before I began, all I really knew about Anne was that Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in arranging her marriage to Henry, that the King was disappointed when he saw her in the flesh as she didn’t live up to the Hans Holbein portrait he had seen, and that after their divorce she lived in comfort and was given the honour of being described as the King’s ‘beloved sister’. I knew there must be more to Anne’s story than this and I hoped to learn more about her from this new novel.

Alison Weir refers to Anne as Anna, so I will do the same for the rest of this post. She also uses the spelling Kleve rather than the Anglicised version, Cleves, and tells us that this should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘waver’. The duchy of Kleve, in what is now Germany, is the setting for the first section of the novel, which describes Anna’s life prior to her marriage. Her journey to England and brief time as Henry’s wife follows, and finally an account of the period after the divorce, taking us all the way through to her death in 1557 at the age of forty-one.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’ve always considered Anna to be much luckier than most of Henry’s other wives: she wasn’t beheaded, she didn’t die in childbirth while providing the king with an heir, and unlike the other divorced wife, Katherine of Aragon, she was treated with respect and generosity (at least while the king still lived). Of course, this doesn’t mean that life was always easy for her – it can’t have been very nice, after all, to have to leave your family and friends behind and travel abroad to marry a man you’ve never met, only to be rejected by your bridegroom almost on first sight. As portrayed here by Alison Weir, she is a sensible, pleasant and good-natured woman and I did have a lot of sympathy for her, but her story is certainly less tragic and turbulent than some of the other wives’.

Bearing in mind that this is a novel with around 500 pages and that there isn’t really a lot of factual information available on Anna von Kleve, I felt that there was too much padding and at times I found the book quite tedious and repetitive. Because Weir takes us right up to the time of Anna’s death, towards the end of the book a lot of attention is given to the next two queens, Katheryn Howard and Catherine Parr, as well as various incidents and plots that took place during the reigns of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. Unfortunately, by this point Anna is living away from court on her various estates, so she has little personal involvement and most of these events are described from afar which made them less exciting to read about than they should have been.

To flesh out Anna’s story and make it more interesting, Weir has imagined a romance for her in Kleve before she marries the king and this has repercussions that affect the rest of her life. I won’t go into too much detail, but looking at other reviews of this book, some readers liked this imaginary storyline while others hated it. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility as Henry did allegedly tell people that he ‘doubted Anna’s virginity’, but that could have just been an excuse for not consummating the marriage and demanding a divorce. However, even if it was true, there is no evidence to suggest who her previous lover may have been, so this aspect of the novel is entirely fictional.

Although this is my least favourite book in the series so far, I have a copy of the next one, Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen, on my NetGalley shelf and am anticipating a more entertaining read – and hopefully, given Katheryn’s much more dramatic life, one that needs to rely less heavily on fiction.

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

Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard by Melvyn Bragg

I’ve never read anything by Melvyn Bragg before, although he has been writing since the 1960s and most of his novels fall into my favourite genre, historical fiction. His new book, Love Without End, a retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise – often described as one of the greatest love stories of all time – sounded appealing to me, so I thought I would give it a try.

The novel opens in 12th century Paris, where Heloise is living with her uncle, the canon Fulbert. She is intelligent, resourceful and exceptionally well educated for a woman of her time, particularly in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. When the renowned philosopher and scholar Peter Abelard returns to Paris after an absence of a few years, Heloise longs to go and sit with the male students listening to his lectures, but she is aware that this is an opportunity open only to men. A solution is found when Canon Fulbert allows Abelard to join his household as private tutor to Heloise, but he quickly comes to regret this decision when he discovers that his niece and her tutor have fallen in love.

I’m not going to say any more about the legend of Heloise and Abelard – if you don’t already know the story you probably don’t want me to spoil it for you, and it’s so well documented the details can easily be looked up online anyway. All I will say is that, like Romeo and Juliet and other legendary lovers, their romance is dramatic and tragic. Melvyn Bragg’s account follows the usual, accepted outline of the story, using sources such as the Penguin Classics collection of the translated letters of Abelard and Heloise, although he also uses his imagination to fill in some of the gaps and mixes some fictional characters in with the real historical ones.

Despite all the drama and tragedy, however, I found this novel strangely flat and emotionless. There seemed to be no real chemistry between Heloise and Abelard; although Bragg tells us that they are passionately in love, I never really felt that for myself. Even the setting never came to life; I wanted to know what it felt like to live in 12th century Paris, what it looked like, sounded like, smelled like…but instead I came away with the feeling that the story might as well have been taking place in any city and at any time.

Even so, I might have still enjoyed this book if it had just concentrated solely on the story of Abelard and Heloise. Recently, though, I’m finding that authors rarely seem to write books set entirely in the past anymore. Instead we get two alternating storylines – one set in the past and one in the present. In this case, the present day story follows an author, Arthur, who is visiting Paris with his daughter, Julia, to finish researching and writing a novel about Abelard and Heloise. It is supposedly Arthur’s novel that we are reading in the historical chapters, while in the modern day chapters he and Julia talk about his work and how he has interpreted various parts of the Abelard and Heloise legend.

The Arthur and Julia storyline appears to exist purely as a way for Bragg to discuss and comment on various aspects of the relationship between Heloise and Abelard or to explain things for the benefit of the modern reader, rather than leaving us to reach our own conclusions. Most of the discussions involve Julia questioning Abelard’s behaviour and Arthur trying to defend him by pointing out that she needs to put things into historical context and judge Abelard by the standards of the 12th century instead of the 21st. I found both Arthur and Julia very irritating; their dialogue seemed unnatural and not the way two people would speak to each other in real life. They just didn’t feel like real human beings at all and were a distraction from the Heloise and Abelard story rather than an interesting addition to it.

This was disappointing, but if you’ve enjoyed any of Melvyn Bragg’s other books maybe you can convince me to give him another chance? Also, if anyone has read anything else about Abelard and Heloise – or even some of the original letters and writings – please let me know what you would recommend.

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

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Violet Speedwell is a ‘surplus woman’ – a woman whose fiancé was killed in the First World War and who, like more than a million other British women, is now unlikely to find a husband because there are simply no longer enough men to go around. Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, A Single Thread, tells Violet’s story beginning in 1932 when Violet, who has stayed at home with her mother until the age of thirty-eight, decides that it’s finally time to move out and build a life of her own.

Moving from Southampton to nearby Winchester, Violet is determined to be financially independent but it’s not easy on the low wages she earns as a typist in the office of a small insurance company. By the time she’s paid to rent a room in a house shared with two other women she finds that she’s struggling to buy a hot meal or put coal on the fire. This is all very depressing at first, but a visit to Winchester Cathedral changes everything. Here she meets a group of women who call themselves the Winchester Cathedral Broderers and who devote their spare time to embroidering cushions and kneelers for the cathedral seats and benches. Violet decides to attend one of their weekly meetings and soon she is learning new skills and making new friends.

One of these friends is Gilda Hill, another single woman, who introduces her to Arthur, an older man who volunteers with a group of bell-ringers at the cathedral. Violet likes Arthur immediately but she is aware that he has a wife and daughter, so anything more than friendship must be out of the question. Still, with the help of Gilda, Arthur and others, Violet begins to find her place in her new community – until events back in Southampton force her to make an important decision.

This is a quiet, gentle book – not one with a dramatic, exciting plot – but I found it completely absorbing. I liked Violet and sympathised as she tried to navigate a society designed for men and married women; as a single woman she faced a large number of challenges and I particularly admired the way she dealt with her male employer who had never even considered the pay and working conditions of his female workers. Some of the other women amongst the Winchester Broderers had interesting stories of their own too, especially Gilda and Dorothy, and I was intrigued to learn that the woman leading the embroidery project, Louisa Pesel, was a real person.

I have to admit, the detailed descriptions of different types of embroidery stitches and patterns didn’t interest me all that much, but the enthusiasm of Violet and the other Broderers and the pride they took in their work came across strongly. Similarly, I didn’t share the passion of Arthur and his friends for bell-ringing, but I did enjoy hearing them explain what was involved and why they found it so rewarding.

I wasn’t completely satisfied with the way the book ended as I found it too predictable and would have preferred something more unconventional for Violet, but I still thought it was an enjoyable and insightful read, highlighting a section of 1930s society we don’t hear enough about.

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

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is the second book in a new series of historical mysteries written by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. The books are set in 19th century Edinburgh, where great advances are taking place in the world of medicine, and with Brookmyre being an experienced crime writer and Haetzman a consultant anaesthetist, they each bring different strengths to their collaborations.

The Art of Dying opens with a brief and dramatic section set in Berlin in 1849, before the action switches back to Edinburgh, where Will Raven has just returned from studying medicine in Europe to take up a position as assistant to the renowned obstetrician Dr James Simpson. Will had previously served as Simpson’s apprentice (as described in the previous novel, The Way of All Flesh), but he is now a qualified doctor himself and is eager to start building his own career and reputation.

Working with Simpson again brings Will back into contact with Sarah Fisher, Simpson’s former housemaid who is now assisting him at his clinic, having displayed a passion and aptitude for medicine. Sarah is deeply frustrated by the lack of equality for women, as she is sure she has the ability to become a doctor herself if only she could be given the same opportunities as men. This had been a source of conflict between Will and Sarah when we met them in the first book, but he has still been looking forward to seeing her again and is disappointed to find that during his absence she has married another man. When one of Dr Simpson’s patients dies under suspicious circumstances, however, and his rivals start to point the finger of blame, Will and Sarah must work together to try to clear Simpson’s name.

The crime element of the novel comes in the form of a number of unusual, unexplained deaths taking place around the city. At first Will is excited, thinking he has discovered a new disease to which he’ll be able to give his name, but Sarah is convinced that something more sinister is happening. My main criticism of The Way of All Flesh was the weakness of the murder mystery, but I found this one much stronger. It was easy enough to guess who or what was causing the deaths, because we are given plenty of hints right from the start, but what I didn’t know was why or exactly how it was being done and I enjoyed watching Will and Sarah (mainly Sarah at first) putting the clues together to find the culprit.

As with the first book, though, it was the medical aspect of the story that I found most interesting. In The Way of All Flesh, we learned that James Simpson had been carrying out experiments into the use of chloroform to ease the pain of childbirth. This book continues to explore the development of anaesthetics, showing not only the potential benefits for surgery and obstetrics, but also the dangers of administering too much of a substance which was still not fully understood.

I enjoyed this book more than the first one and I think it does work as a standalone, but I would still recommend starting with The Way of All Flesh so you will understand the background to Will and Sarah’s relationship. Both characters have changed and grown since the beginning of the series and I’m sure there’s lots of scope for more development ahead; I’m hoping we won’t have to wait too long to find out!