Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

I enjoyed Gill Hornby’s previous novel, Miss Austen, about the life of Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra. Her new one, Godmersham Park, is also inspired by the Austens, telling the story of Anne Sharp, who became one of Jane’s closest friends after taking up the position of governess to her niece, Fanny.

We first meet Anne in 1804 on the day of her arrival at Godmersham Park, the estate in Kent that is home to Edward Austen Knight, his wife Elizabeth and their many children. (If you’re in the UK and have a current £10 note to hand, Godmersham Park is the house depicted on the back beside the portrait of Jane Austen). At thirty-one years old, Anne has no experience of teaching or caring for children, but following the death of her mother she has found herself in need of employment and somewhere to live. This change of circumstances comes as a shock to Anne and it takes her a while to settle into her new job and way of life.

When Anne’s eleven-year-old charge, Fanny, shows her the letters she has been receiving from her Aunt Jane (yes, that Jane), Anne finds them charming and immediately decides that Jane is her ‘favourite Austen’. Anne will have to wait a long time for her chance to meet this mysterious letter-writer, but first she makes the acquaintance of another Austen – Jane and Edward’s brother Henry, who comes to stay at Godmersham Park and quickly befriends the new governess.

This is a lovely novel and, like Miss Austen, although it doesn’t self-consciously try to recreate the style of Jane Austen’s work, the language still transports you back to the early years of the 19th century. There are no glaring anachronisms that I noticed and it even feels like the sort of story Austen herself could have written. The pace is slow and apart from a subplot involving a mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Anne’s father, nothing very dramatic happens, yet I was drawn in by the characters and the setting and found it quite absorbing. It was particularly interesting to read about Anne’s experience of working as a governess and how she struggled to find her place within the household, not being fully accepted either as one of the family or one of the servants.

The novel is inspired by the diaries kept by Fanny Austen Knight, letters exchanged between Anne Sharp and Jane and Cassandra Austen, and a first edition of Emma that Jane signed for Anne. All of these things add to our knowledge of Anne’s life and personality and provide evidence of her close friendship with Jane Austen. However, almost nothing is known of Anne’s background before she arrived at Godmersham Park and Gill Hornby explains in her author’s note that she had to use her imagination to create a backstory for Anne. The overall result is a convincing blend of fact and fiction, which I really enjoyed.

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

This is book 6/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 31/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

‘Once you’ve lived in this valley, you’ll never be free of it. Its uncanny beauty gets inside you, right into the marrow. It has its own climate, its own peculiar character. In the same way as people can draw you in and repel you at the same time; both beguile and frighten you.’

I love Jane Johnson’s books; they always have such fascinating settings – 17th century Morocco in The Sultan’s Wife, 15th century Spain in The Court of Lions, and the author’s native Cornwall in The Tenth Gift. She returns to Cornwall again for her new novel, The White Hare, a book steeped in the myths and legends of that region of England.

The novel begins in 1954, with Mila Prusik, her mother Magda and five-year-old daughter Janey arriving at White Cove near Eglosberyan on the Cornish coast. Having left Poland for England during World War II, the family had been settled in London until a disastrous relationship with a married man left Mila desperate to make a fresh start. She and Magda have bought a neglected old house in the Cornish countryside and are planning to restore it to its former glory and turn it into a guest house. However, not everyone is happy to see the house under new ownership and the Prusiks receive a hostile welcome.

As Mila and her mother begin their restoration work, they hear hints from their neighbours that the house has a sinister past and should be left alone. The two women think this is nonsense and continue with their plans, but Mila becomes increasingly concerned about the changes in Janey’s behaviour – particularly her obsession with Rabbit, a stuffed toy that seems to have a mind of its own. How is all of this related to sightings of the legendary White Hare and to the strange symbols and carvings Mila finds all over the house and its grounds?

The White Hare is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read for a while, not just because of the supernatural aspects – which are subtle, ambiguous and unsettling – but also because of the way the setting is so beautifully described. As Jane Johnson explains in her author’s note, the town of Eglosberyan and its valley are not real but are inspired by several real places. I could picture the white house surrounded by dark woodland, the stream tumbling between mossy rocks, the lonely beach framed by granite cliffs – they are all brought so vividly to life.

I also found it interesting to follow the relationship between Mila and Magda. When they first arrive in Cornwall, Mila is timid and submissive, allowing herself and Janey to be bullied by the hard and domineering Magda, but both characters do grow and change throughout the novel as the valley works its magic on them. There’s also a love interest for Mila, but although I did like him I felt that this part of the story took too much of a dramatic turn towards the end. Still, this is a very enjoyable novel and, while it’s quite different from the other Jane Johnson books I’ve read, being set entirely in one period and not as far into the past, I liked it just as much.

I still have three novels by Jane Johnson left to read: The Sea Gate, The Salt Road and Pillars of Light. If you’ve read any of them, please help me decide which I should read next!

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

The Colour Storm by Damian Dibben

Damian Dibben’s previous novel, Tomorrow, was a fascinating and unusual story of an immortal dog searching for his master across two centuries (it was better than it sounds, honestly!). I was curious to see what his next book, The Colour Storm, would be like, but it turns out that it’s a much more conventional historical novel this time. It’s also a very good one; although the subject reminded me of another of my recent reads, The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau, the setting gives it a very different feel.

The Colour Storm is the story of the Italian painter Giorgio Barbarelli, who lived and worked in Venice during the Renaissance. He was a real person, as are many of the other characters in the novel, and you may already be familiar with his paintings – if not, you can easily find images online of some of the pieces attributed to him which will give you an idea of the quality of his work.

At the beginning of the novel, Barbarelli – or ‘Zorzo’ as he is called throughout the book – is finding life difficult. Work is becoming hard to find, the competition from other artists is fierce and Zorzo’s debts are increasing. He’s responsible not only for himself, but also for his team of young apprentices and assistants, so he urgently needs to find some way of gaining commissions from rich clients. An opportunity arises when a wealthy German merchant, Jakob Fugger, arrives in Venice and is said to be looking for an artist to paint an altarpiece for St Peter’s Basilica. When Zorzo hears that Fugger also possesses a new colour, a pigment known as ‘prince orient’, he becomes even more determined to bring himself to the merchant’s attention.

In an attempt to win Fugger’s favour, Zorzo agrees to paint a portrait of his wife, Sybille – but as he becomes closer to Sybille, he finds that he has become involved in a conspiracy which could have huge implications for the people of Europe. And then, while Zorzo is still considering his next move, a new threat arrives in Venice…the plague:

Only the poorest folk, who have no choice but to go to work, are continuing as normal, but they’re wary, treading more carefully than usual. Many cover their faces with their sleeves or improvised masks and everyone keeps their distance. From behind closed windows and shutters, Zorzo’s aware of families pressed together, restless shadows, watching and fretting as to whether this episode will pass – as most do – without significant horror, or if this one will be severe.

Still very relevant, isn’t it? The plague plays a part in the later stages of the novel, but before that we follow the story of Zorzo’s search for the prince orient and his entanglement with Jakob and Sybille (also real historical figures). We are given some insights into the workings of an artist’s studio in Renaissance Venice and there are appearances by other famous names from the art world, including Bellini, Titian, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. By focusing on the dark side of life in 16th century Venice, Dibben creates plenty of atmosphere, and although the parts of the book that concentrate on Zorzo’s relationships with Sybille and her husband interested me less, I found this an enjoyable read overall.

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

This is book 4/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 30/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Privilege by Guinevere Glasfurd

I enjoyed both of Guinevere Glasfurd’s previous novels, The Words in My Hand and The Year Without Summer, so I hoped for good things from her latest novel which sounded just as intriguing as the other two. The title Privilege could refer to all sorts of things, but in this case it’s a reference to the system in pre-Revolutionary France where publishers had to obtain a ‘royal privilege’ before a book could be published.

The novel begins in Rouen in 1749, where Delphine Vimond is being raised by her father, having lost her mother at an early age. Delphine’s father runs a pottery, but he is also a collector of books and Delphine inherits from him a love of literature and a desire for learning. Finding the key to his library, she discovers a whole new world of adventure and knowledge in the pages of his books. However, when a volume by Milton on the killing of kings is found in his possession, Delphine understands for the first time that not all books are seen as appropriate and that some are even forbidden.

Meanwhile, in London, we meet Chancery Smith, an apprentice printer. A box of papers from Paris signed only with the letter ‘D’ has been received at the print shop and Chancery is given the job of visiting France to try to identify this mysterious author. It’s not going to be an easy task – as the papers contain potentially dangerous writings, Chancery must avoid letting them fall into the hands of the censors who would see the papers destroyed and the courier punished. On arriving in Paris, his path crosses with Delphine Vimond’s and together they set off in search of ‘D’, while trying to stay one step ahead of the royal censor, Henri Gilbert, and his spies.

Privilege is a thought-provoking read, exploring issues such as censorship, the power of the monarch, and the freedom – or lack of it – to write and think about topics that matter to us. Before reading this novel I didn’t really know how the ‘royal privilege’ system worked and how it lead to books written in France having to be published in other countries and smuggled back in, so I found that aspect of the story fascinating. I also picked up lots of other snippets of information on the early publishing industry along the way – I had never heard of France’s ‘blue library’, for example.

I found the mystery/thriller aspect of the novel slightly less successful, maybe because the identity of the unknown author seemed too obvious. Still, with two engaging protagonists in Delphine and Chancery, as well as a strong cast of secondary characters, and with such an interesting subject at the heart of the story, it’s a book that I enjoyed reading.

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 29/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

I loved The Rose Code by Kate Quinn – it was one of my favourite books last year. Because of that, I think my expectations for her new novel, The Diamond Eye, were slightly too high. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it will be one of my books of the year this time.

The Diamond Eye is the story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a female sniper in the Soviet Army during World War II (and a real historical figure). Lyudmila, or ‘Mila’ as she is called in the novel, was born in Ukraine but considered herself Russian. The book was written before the current war in Ukraine began earlier this year, which gives something as simple as Mila’s choice of identity new relevance.

When we first meet Mila, she is a twenty-one-year-old history student in Kiev (now known as Kyiv, of course) and is trying to get a divorce from her husband Alexei, who seduced her as a teenager then left her to raise their son, Slavka, alone. After an encounter with Alexei at a shooting range during which Mila embarrasses herself by missing a shot, she decides to join an advanced marksmanship course so that she’ll never miss again and can prove to Slavka that she’s the equal of his father. This decision changes Mila’s life because, when Hitler invades Russia a few years later, she is handed a rifle and enlisted into the Red Army as a sniper.

We then follow two alternating storylines – one which describes Mila’s time in the army and how she acquires her reputation as ‘Lady Death’, being credited with 309 kills, and another set in 1942 as Mila embarks on a US tour in an attempt to persuade the Allies to provide support for Russia against the Nazis. The chapters set in America explore Mila’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and a fictitious plot to assassinate the President. This invented storyline adds some tension and excitement to the book, but with Mila’s own life being so fascinating I’m not sure that it was really necessary!

The factual parts of the novel are based on Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s own memoir, Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper, which I haven’t read. In fact, I knew nothing at all about Mila before reading this book so everything in it was new to me. Quinn includes a very comprehensive author’s note at the end in which she explains where she tried to stick to the known facts and where she had used her imagination to fill in gaps or make the story more interesting (mainly the bits concerning Mila’s marriage to Alexei and her romantic relationships with two men she meets in the army). Some of the most surprising parts of the story, such as Mila’s friendship with the First Lady are actually true.

There’s a lot of focus on military life, weapons and tactics, which I suppose is to be expected in a novel about a sniper, but that’s never been a particular area of interest to me and reading about the Bletchley Park codebreakers in The Rose Code was much more to my taste. Still, it’s always good to learn something new and I did enjoy the parts of the book about Mila’s personal life and ambassadorial work, if not so much the parts about shooting and killing. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of Kate Quinn’s books.

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

This is book 28/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

I was drawn to The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by the setting – 18th century Constantinople – but I wasn’t sure that it would really be my sort of book. From the blurb, I was expecting a strong magical realism element, something I don’t always get on with. However, I was pleased to find that this aspect of the novel was actually much more subtle than I’d expected.

The story begins in London in 1754 with the birth of Zachary Cloudesley. Sadly, his mother dies giving birth to him, leaving little Zachary to be raised by his father Abel, a clockmaker and inventor of automata. Fortunately, Abel doesn’t have to do this alone – help soon arrives in the form of wet nurse Mrs Morley and the eccentric Aunt Frances, two very different women who go on to play important roles in Zachary’s life.

From an early age, it becomes apparent that Zachary possesses the gift of ‘second sight’ which allows him to see into the future and this gift only becomes stronger following a serious accident for which Abel blames himself. In order to keep his son safe, Abel is persuaded to accept a commission which takes him far away from his London workshop, to Constantinople (Istanbul). But when Abel fails to return from his journey, Zachary is determined to follow him and do whatever it takes to rescue his missing father.

The first half of this novel has a very Dickensian feel. I was particularly reminded of Dombey and Son, which also begins with a baby being born, the death of the mother in childbirth and the arrival of a wet nurse. I enjoyed getting to know the characters who make up the Cloudesley household: the forthright, opinionated but warm-hearted Grace Morley and her little daughter Leonora; the larger-than-life Aunt Frances who takes her crow and two parrots everywhere she goes; and Abel’s apprentice Tom, an intelligent, talented young man with a not-so-well hidden secret. All of these people have interesting histories of their own, which are revealed during the early stages of the novel.

When the action moves away from London, to the heart of the Ottoman Empire, we are treated to some colourful descriptions of Constantinople, the sultan’s palace, and the seraglio, presided over by the kizlar agha (the head of the eunuchs). However, this is where I felt the story lost its way a little bit and for a while I struggled to stay interested. I think this could have been partly due to the focus switching to Zachary who, despite being the title character, was not as engaging as Frances or Mrs Morley. I’m also not quite sure what the point was in the ‘second sight’ aspect of the book as it didn’t really seem essential to the plot. Still, this was an entertaining debut novel by Sean Lusk – if you read and enjoy it, I can recommend Cynthia Jefferies’ The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan for another adventure in Constantinople or The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola if you’re interested in the world of 18th century automata.

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

This is book 27/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Fortune by Amanda Smyth

My first book for this year’s 20 Books of Summer is also one of the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The winner is going to be revealed at the Borders Book Festival on Friday 17th June, so I wanted to read this one before the announcement. It’s the second of the four titles on the shortlist that I’ve read – the other is the excellent Rose Nicolson; I am currently halfway through the third, The Magician, but am not sure if I’ll finish it in time, and I won’t get to the fourth one, News of the Dead, now either.

Anyway, Fortune is set in Trinidad in the 1920s and begins with a chance meeting between two men. One of them, Eddie Wade, has spent the last few years working in the US oilfields and has recently returned home, hoping to make his fortune on the island. He’s convinced that the land beneath Sonny Chatterjee’s cocoa plantation is rich in oil and is on the verge of persuading Sonny to let him start drilling when his truck breaks down on the road. Businessman Tito Fernandez stops to help and when he hears about Eddie’s project, he agrees to invest.

Soon Eddie and Tito are the best of friends and their trust in each other pays off when the oil begins to flow. However, as Eddie spends more and more time visiting the Fernandez family and becoming part of their social circle, he finds himself increasingly drawn to Tito’s beautiful wife, Ada – and the attraction is mutual.

The novel is inspired by a real event which took place in Trinidad in 1928, but I would recommend not looking it up before reading the book. Although I did eventually guess what was going to happen, I’m glad I didn’t know for certain as it would have taken away some of the impact of the story. The characters also seem to be loosely based on real people, but with different names and obviously with fictitious storylines created around the historical facts.

I can’t think of any other books I’ve read set in Trinidad and I’m ashamed to admit that it’s a place I know very little about, but Amanda Smyth, who is an Irish-Trinidadian author, brings it to life beautifully – the landscape, the plants and wildlife, the bustling streets of Port of Spain, and the cultures, beliefs and traditions of the Trinidadian people. At the time of our story, the island is going through a period of change; the cocoa trees that had formed such an important part of the economy are dying and new sources of income are needed. With the growing popularity of cars and planes, Trinidad’s oil boom comes at just the right time. Smyth does a wonderful job of portraying the ambition and greed of the various oil prospectors, the reluctance of Sonny Chatterjee to give up on his cocoa farming and allow drilling on his land, the fears of his wife Sita, who is mistrustful and suspicious of the whole business, and the excitement the characters feel when the first well is struck.

The tensions between the characters are also very well done; the relationship between Eddie and Ada develops slowly but once their affair begins they take so many risks it seems inevitable that Tito will find out and you wonder what will happen when he does. The personal stories of the characters play out against the backdrop of the oil rush, with all the different elements of the novel falling into place to build towards a dramatic conclusion. Although I still prefer Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, this is an impressive novel too and while it hadn’t sounded very appealing to me at first, I can see now why the Walter Scott Prize judges decided to shortlist it.

This is book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 26/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.