Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver is an author I’ve been meaning to try for years, since I noticed all the hype surrounding her 2010 novel Dark Matter. For some reason I never got round to reading that book or any of her others, but I put her new one, Wakenhyrst, on my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would read it.

Wakenhyrst begins in the 1960s with the elderly Maud Stearne coming under pressure from journalists to tell the story of a murder committed by her father many years earlier. Maud is the only person who knows why Edmund Stearne left the house one day in 1913, armed with an ice-pick and a geological hammer, and killed the first person he came across ‘in the most bizarre and horrible way’. Edmund spent the rest of his life in an asylum and Maud stayed on alone in the family home – the old manor house, Wake’s End, in Suffolk – never speaking about the tragedy to anyone. But now the house needs urgent repairs and Maud can’t afford to pay for them. It seems that she will have to sell her story after all.

Maud then gives her account of the events leading up to the murder, beginning by describing her lonely childhood, growing up at Wake’s End on the edge of Guthlaf’s Fen, ‘the oldest, deepest, rottenest fen ever’, with a father who is cold and domineering and a mother who is constantly pregnant (although most of the pregnancies result in stillbirths or miscarriages). Edmund, her father, is a historian and enlists Maud’s help in transcribing a book believed to be written by Alice Pyett, a medieval mystic. The book that really interests Maud, however, is her father’s secret notebook in which he records his innermost thoughts and fears. Maud already knows that Edmund is not a nice person, but even she is shocked by some of the things she reads in his journal. And when he becomes obsessed with a medieval painting of the Last Judgement, known as ‘the Doom’, she worries about her father’s mental state. Are there really evil forces at work in the fens or are they all a product of Edmund Stearne’s imagination?

I enjoyed Wakenhyrst, but it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I think because I’d seen Dark Matter and Paver’s other recent novel, Thin Air, described as creepy ghost stories, I assumed this book would be the same, but I didn’t find it very scary at all – although I’m not necessarily complaining about that! There are plenty of Gothic elements, and the setting – a remote fenland community steeped in folklore and superstition – is certainly atmospheric, but it is not really a horror story in the usual sense. The horror in this book is more of the psychological kind, in the portrayal of a man’s descent into madness and obsession. Edmund’s notebook entries, which are interspersed throughout Maud’s narrative, become more and more disturbing and outlandish as his fears of the Doom and of demons in the fens spiral out of control.

I can’t really say that I liked Maud, but my sympathies were with her, particularly after her mother dies – weakened by too many pregnancies, or ‘groanings’ as the young Maud thinks of them (because that’s how each one ends). Maud’s life from this point becomes very isolated and unhappy, trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of Wake’s End as her father, never the most pleasant of men to begin with, gradually loses his grip on reality. The only bright spots in her life are her love for her tame bird, Chatterpie, and her relationships with Clem, the under-gardener, and Jubal Rede, the ‘wild man’ who lives in the fen.

After a slow start, I found Wakenhyrst quite an entertaining novel and I do still want to try some of Michelle Paver’s other books. I’m sure I will get round to reading Dark Matter eventually and will be interested to see how it compares.

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

This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Devil’s Slave by Tracy Borman

Almost a year ago, I read Tracy Borman’s The King’s Witch for last year’s 20 Books of Summer challenge; now the second novel in the trilogy is available and has become my fourth book for this year’s 20 Books of Summer!

In The King’s Witch we met Frances Gorges, a young 17th century noblewoman whose knowledge of the healing properties of herbs and flowers leads to accusations of witchcraft. The book ends shortly after the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, in which Frances has become embroiled, and The Devil’s Slave picks up the story just a few months later, in April 1606.

Following the dramatic events that brought the previous novel to a close, Frances has retreated to her family’s estate, Longford in Wiltshire, to mourn the loss of the man she loved and give birth to their child. But Longford is now in the hands of her hostile brother, Edward, and is no longer the safe place she remembers. When she receives a proposal of marriage from Thomas Tyringham, the king’s ‘Master of the Buckhounds’, who agrees to raise her young son as his own, she accepts, although she doesn’t think she will ever be able to love again. Promising to stay out of any more political or religious intrigue, Frances tries to settle into her new life at Tyringham Hall – but it is not long until she and Thomas are drawn back to court and Frances finds herself caught up in a new Catholic conspiracy.

I loved this book; the reservations I had about the first one (mainly the slow pace at the beginning and the story being not quite what I’d expected) were not problems this time and I was engrossed from the first page. This is such a fascinating period of history, yet being sandwiched between the end of Elizabeth I’s reign in 1603 and the Civil Wars of 1642-1651, it often tends to be overlooked. There’s so much going on in this novel – the court of James VI of Scotland and I of England appears to be a hotbed of plotting and scheming, and with her Catholic background and previous connections with the Gunpowder conspiracists, Frances is right at the heart of it all. It’s never clear who can and can’t be trusted and Tracy Borman does an excellent job of showing how dangerous life at court is, particularly for a woman like Frances whose previous actions have already aroused suspicion.

When I read The King’s Witch, I felt surprised that the witchcraft element wasn’t as strong as the title had made me expect. This time, I had different expectations. I knew that it wasn’t going to form a very big part of the story, although it is always there in the background; every time Frances uses her skills to help someone who is ill or dying, you know that someone could be watching and remembering, storing away the information to bring up at a later date and use it against Frances and her family. Halfway through the novel we see Frances visiting Belvoir Castle, home of the Earl of Rutland, and there are hints that some of the castle servants are involved in witchcraft. Tracy Borman states in her author’s note that this will be brought to life in the third novel, so I’m looking forward to that!

Although Frances Gorges was a real person, very little is known about her, so not everything that she does in the novel is based on historical fact. However, we also meet some well-known figures of the period, ranging from Sir Walter Raleigh (imprisoned in the Tower of London for the duration of the novel), the king’s two sons Prince Henry and the future Charles I, and Arbella Stuart, a possible claimant to the throne. I was intrigued by the characterisation of Robert Cecil – he had been very much the villain of the previous novel but in this one there is a suggestion that there may be another side to him! I also loved Thomas Tyringham (who also really existed) and was pleased to see that Frances’s feelings towards him grew warmer as time went by.

The way the book ended made it clear that there is more trouble ahead for Frances, but I hope there will be happiness too. I can’t wait to see what Tracy Borman has in store for her in the third book in the trilogy.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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

The House of Hardie by Anne Melville

The House of Hardie is the first in a trilogy published between 1987 and 1990 and telling the story of several generations of the Hardie family. In this novel, set towards the end of the Victorian era, we meet Gordon Hardie who, ever since running away to sea as a boy, has dreamed of becoming a famous explorer and discovering new lands. Gordon has been back in England for several years, working in the family wine business in Oxford, but has informed his father that this won’t be a permanent arrangement as he intends to set off soon on a voyage to China in search of a rare and beautiful flower.

Meanwhile, Gordon’s younger sister Midge is preparing to begin an exciting new adventure of her own. She has been offered a place at Oxford University, with permission to attend tutorials and lectures – as long as she is chaperoned by an older woman at all times and sits separately from the male students. Midge is determined to make the most of the opportunity she has been given, but she finds an immediate distraction in Archie Yates, a young man who couldn’t be more different from herself. As the grandson of a marquess and with no need to worry about his future, Archie has little interest in studying and plans to spend his time at Oxford having fun. While Midge embarks on a romance with Archie, her brother Gordon also falls in love – with Archie’s sister, Lucy Yates. Because of her class, Lucy’s life has so far been much more conventional and constrained than Midge’s, but she longs to get away from her grandfather’s country estate and experience more of what the world has to offer.

The two storylines – one following Midge’s relationship with Archie and the other Gordon’s with Lucy – move forward in parallel with each other, a few chapters at a time spent on each one. I enjoyed getting to know three of the characters, at least; I didn’t like Archie at all and couldn’t understand what an intelligent woman like Midge saw in him! The book was much more than a simple romance, though, with lots of interesting issues covered through the stories of the main characters. First, there was women’s education and how progress in that area was slowly being made, while still being very far away from equality with men. We are shown how frustrating it must have been for Midge to be allowed to study at Oxford and take examinations like the men, yet not to be awarded the equivalent degree just because she is a woman. It’s even more ridiculous that she is forced to use separate entrances to the university buildings, that she has to bring a female companion with her to tutorials and that she could be sent home in disgrace if she is caught alone with a male student, however innocent the circumstances.

Class differences are also explored. The Yates family are upper class people with titles and estates, whereas the Hardies are wine merchants with a background in trade. It doesn’t matter that the Hardies still have a comfortable lifestyle and a nice home and that they are decent, hardworking people; because of the class system, the marquess will never consider them to be good enough for his grandchildren. Gordon and Lucy believe that love should be able to transcend these boundaries, but for Midge and Archie their difference in status will prove much more challenging.

Travel and exploration form another important part of the plot. Most of the final section of the book is set in China where Gordon is hunting for the lily he hopes will make his name as an explorer and botanist. This is fascinating and reads almost like a Victorian travel memoir, describing the scenery, the culture and the people our characters meet along the way. However, the feel of the novel changes at this point with the decision to leave Oxford – and Midge and Archie’s storyline – behind. The balance and variety of the earlier chapters are lost and I finished the book feeling a bit less enthusiastic about it than I had at first. I did enjoy The House of Hardie, though, and I have a copy of the second book in the series ready to start soon.

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

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

With its cold Icelandic setting, dark atmosphere and shades of classic Gothic novels, this would have been an ideal winter read, but for me it was a spring one, finished towards the end of April – and now here I am writing about it in June, at the beginning of summer. An indication of how far behind I am with everything, but I know I will catch up eventually!

Anyway, The Glass Woman opens in November 1686 with a body rising to the surface of the frozen sea just off the coast of Iceland. Amongst the crowd who gather to watch and to try to pull the body from the water is one man who knows more than he’s willing to admit. A man who ‘remembers carrying the heavy body in the winding sheet, weighted with stones; remembers his wound paining him as they scraped through the snow and smashed the ice with long staves before sliding the body in’.

We then go back a few months to the August of that year, when Rósa comes to live in the village of Stykkishólmur with her new husband, Jón. She knows very little about Jón but he had promised to see that her ailing mother was cared for if she married him, so she felt she had to accept his proposal. Rósa finds it difficult to settle into her new life; she misses her mother and her childhood friend Páll and her husband is proving to be disappointingly cold and distant. The other women of the village seem to be reluctant to befriend Rósa and she soon discovers that this is because there is some sort of mystery surrounding the death of Jón’s first wife, Anna.

Alone and isolated in Jón’s croft, Rósa listens to strange noises coming from the loft above but she is unable to investigate because her husband keeps the loft door locked and has forbidden her to try to enter. He expects her to be meek and obedient, as symbolised by the small glass woman he gave her as a wedding present, but Rósa has other ideas. She has questions that must be answered. Who or what has been hidden away in that secret locked room? What really happened to Anna? And what sort of man has she married?

The Glass Woman is a beautifully written novel; Iceland is a setting I always find atmospheric and interesting and in this book it is more than just a setting – the landscape itself plays a part in the development of the story. I liked Rósa and understood how difficult the situation was that she found herself in, unable to trust her husband yet doing her best to make the marriage work, while suspecting that he may have done something terrible and that she herself could be in danger.

Most of the novel is written from Rósa’s point of view, but there are also some chapters narrated by another character and set at a slightly earlier time. Although this did help to fill in some of the gaps in Rósa’s knowledge, I thought it was done in a way that confused things rather than clarified them. The structure seemed to slow the story down and I didn’t find myself becoming fully absorbed until near the end of the book when the various threads began to come together and the truth started to emerge.

Overall, though, I did enjoy reading The Glass Woman. Some of the plot elements in the first half of the book made me think of Jane Eyre and others of Rebecca, but as the story moved forward I knew it wasn’t going to be exactly like either of those other novels and that Caroline Lea had written something quite different.

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

The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick

One day in 2004, thirteen-year-old Fenella Brightwell is on a school trip to Lydiard House in Swindon when she becomes separated from the rest of the class. Following a disturbing encounter with a drunken old man who appears to be dressed in period costume, Fen manages to find her way out of the stately home to rejoin her friends – but not before picking up a beautiful golden dress left carelessly on a chair and pushing it into her bag. Fen doesn’t know why she keeps feeling such a compulsion to take things that aren’t hers, but perhaps it is a way of coping with her difficult home life. She hasn’t seen her father for years, and with her mother away on a series of archaeological digs, Fen has been left to care not only for herself but for her alcoholic grandmother, Sarah, as well.

In the present day, Fen is now a woman of twenty-seven trying to build a new life for herself as an antique dealer after leaving her abusive husband. Sarah has recently died and has left Fen a package containing the gold dress, which Fen has never even thought about for years, along with a cryptic message warning her to be careful. Fen has no idea what her grandmother means – how can a dress be dangerous? – but now that she has it in her possession she becomes aware of the strange, almost supernatural powers it wields.

To understand the history of the dress and the secrets it holds in its fabric, we need to follow another storyline, this one set in the eighteenth century. In 1765, Lady Isabella Gerard is surprised when she receives a lovely golden gown as a gift from her husband. Eustace, Lord Gerard, is a cruel and manipulative man and doesn’t usually show her any generosity. She doesn’t really want to accept his gifts, but tells her maid, Constance, to take the dress away and keep it until the day comes when she feels like wearing it. Constance, however, is later approached by Lord Gerard, who seems to have changed his mind about the dress and tells her to destroy it. Who should she obey? What is so important about the golden gown? And what effects might it have on Constance herself?

This is the third Nicola Cornick novel I’ve read (The Phantom Tree and House of Shadows are the previous two) and it has many of the things I’ve come to expect from her books: multiple narratives set in different time periods, a big country house, objects from the past finding their way into the present, and a touch of the supernatural. The house in this book is based on a real place, Lydiard House, set in beautiful parkland in Swindon, Wiltshire, and can still be visited today. In reality, it was home to the St John family, rather than the Gerards in the novel, although one of its residents – Lady Diana – was apparently the inspiration for Isabella Gerard. A mixture of fact and fiction, then, but with the emphasis more towards the fiction.

I preferred the historical storyline to the modern day one, although I can’t say that I liked either of our historical narrators, Isabella and Constance. They had both been treated badly in various ways, so I felt that I should have had more sympathy for them, but I just didn’t – I found Isabella self-absorbed and Constance bitter and spiteful. Having said that, the story probably wouldn’t have worked if they had been different sorts of people. I did appreciate the fact that neither of them revealed everything about themselves too early in the book, which meant that there were secrets to be discovered later on.

As for Fen, I never quite warmed to her either, but I did enjoy seeing her storyline tie together with Isabella’s and Constance’s as the book headed towards its conclusion. There are lots of little snippets of information on Swindon’s history which helps to form links between the two periods and I particularly loved a subplot involving a gang of ‘Moonrakers’ (smugglers). I couldn’t help feeling that there were too many things left unexplained, though. The time travel that seemed to occur in Lydiard House at the beginning of the book never happened again, which was disappointing, and I didn’t fully understand why the dress exerted so much power over the present day characters either – except to add a spooky, Gothic element to the story.

I found more to like than to dislike about The Woman in the Lake, but if you’re new to Nicola Cornick I would recommend starting with The Phantom Tree.

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

This is book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

One of the things I love about reading is that it gives me the opportunity to learn about places and cultures I would otherwise be likely to go through life knowing little or nothing about. Before reading Lisa See’s latest novel, The Island of Sea Women, I had never heard of the haenyeo communities of Jeju in South Korea, but now I have been enlightened!

The haenyeo, for anyone else who doesn’t know, are female divers who gather seafood such as abalone, octopus and conch from the waters surrounding the island of Jeju. The Island of Sea Women is narrated by Young-sook, a haenyeo whom we follow over a period of many years, from the 1930s to 2008. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal, war and suffering, and the importance of forgiveness – but most of all, it’s a fascinating study of a society of ‘sea women’ and how their way of life changes as the decades go by.

At the beginning of the novel, we see Young-sook joining her village’s diving collective, of which her mother is the leader, and starting to learn the skills she will need in her career as a haenyeo. Although she is excited about taking her first dives with the other women, she is also nervous about the many dangers lurking in the depths of the sea. Fortunately for Young-sook, she has a friend the same age – a girl called Mi-ja – with whom to share her experiences.

Mi-ja is the daughter of a ‘Japanese-collaborator’, at a time when Japanese colonists are disliked and resented across Jeju, but Young-sook loves and trusts her and is closer to her than to her own brothers and sisters. The friendship between Mi-ja and Young-sook endures through loss and tragedy and political turmoil, through marriage and motherhood, through times of peace and times of war, until the day comes when one of the women is faced with a difficult choice – and the decision she makes that day means that nothing will be the same again.

I enjoyed The Island of Sea Women, but it wasn’t always an easy or pleasant book to read – Young-sook and her family live through a very eventful and turbulent period of Korea’s history, including Japanese colonialism, World War II and the Korean War, and Jeju’s strategic location means it is often at the heart of the action. The most memorable part of the book for me was the section covering the ‘4.3 Incident’, the horrific massacre of protesters by police and government forces that took place in April 1948. Although I’d felt that for the first half of the book, the balance between fact and fiction wasn’t quite right and that we were being given a lot of information and detail at the expense of characterisation and plot, from the 4.3 Incident onwards, the story became much more compelling and the characters began to feel very real to me.

Lisa See writes so well about female friendships. Like Pearl and May in Shanghai Girls, Lily and Snow Flower in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and the three girls in China Dolls, Young-sook and Mi-ja have a special, unbreakable bond, yet they also go through some very dark and difficult times that stretch their bond to its limits. As I read, I kept thinking about how important perspective is; we only see things from Young-sook’s point of view in this novel, but had we been given Mi-ja’s side of the story it would have become a different book entirely.

The haenyeo culture is fascinating to read about and See weaves several of their myths, legends and proverbs into the story, showing us the importance haenyeo place on praying to the goddess of the wind and attending religious rituals led by their female shaman. It is in many ways a matriarchal society where the women are the ones who go out to work and provide for their household, while the men stay at home to look after the children. In the haenyeo community, the birth of a girl is welcomed as much as a boy because she will eventually be able to earn money and feed the family, yet it is only men who can perform the ritual of ‘ancestor-worship’ and who are allowed to inherit property.

I thought it was interesting that Young-sook’s husband is insistent that their daughters should be sent to school and given the same opportunities as their sons, while Young-sook, illiterate herself, can’t see the need for female education because it won’t be necessary for a life spent diving into the sea. There is logic behind her viewpoint, because when the story comes up to date in the 21st century, we see that with improvements in education, many of the island’s young women are leaving Jeju for less dangerous jobs on the mainland. Most of the remaining haenyeo are aged over fifty-five – and some are in their seventies and eighties, still spending hours each day submerged in cold water, holding their breath for more than two minutes at a time.

If you would like to find out more about these amazing women and their work, Lisa See has a collection of photographs and videos of the haenyeo on her website.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer

The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge

I’m enjoying working my way through Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels but, as I suppose is the case with many authors’ work, I’m finding that the quality varies a lot. The Adventurers (first published in 1965) is certainly much better than the last one I read, First Night, but not as enjoyable as Marry in Haste, Watch the Wall, My Darling or Strangers in Company.

The novel is set towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars when, following the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the defeated French army begin their retreat through Germany. The von Hugel castle lies in their path and seventeen-year-old Sonia von Hugel hides in the hayloft as her family and servants are massacred around her. When the violence is over, Sonia escapes from the castle disguised as a boy, intending to make her way to her aunt’s home across the mountains. Stopping at an inn along the way, she has an encounter with the mysterious Charles Vincent, who makes her an offer which causes her to change her plans and agree to accompany him to France instead.

In England, meanwhile, we meet Lord Denbigh and his nephew Philip Haverton, who are preparing to travel to France on diplomatic business. What will happen when their paths cross with Charles and Sonia’s? What is their connection with Sonia’s friend, Elizabeth Barrymore? And, most importantly, where does Charles keep disappearing to without explanation?

As this novel, like many of Aiken Hodge’s, is set in the Regency period, it’s difficult not to make comparisons with Georgette Heyer. The opening sequence, with the heroine dressing as a boy and meeting the hero at an inn – and the misunderstandings that follow – is exactly the sort of storyline that will be familiar to Heyer readers. After this promising beginning, though, the story becomes much less Heyer-like, with very little humour and lightness and a more serious, sombre feel. The politics of the period also form quite an important part of the novel, with Napoleon facing defeat and a plot to restore the Bourbon monarchy gathering pace.

I have described Charles and Sonia as the hero and heroine – and it did seem that way at first – but I quickly began to lose interest in them, especially as Charles was absent for such long sections of the novel (for reasons I found too easy to predict). It was disappointing that their plan to travel across Europe as ‘adventurers’, making their living from winning money at cards, didn’t really come to much and there was far less adventure in the book than I had hoped for. One character who did interest me was Elizabeth Barrymore; I felt that it was her story rather than Sonia’s that the author really wanted to tell. She is given a romantic interest of her own and although I found the way it develops predictable as well, I thought it was more engaging and more moving than Sonia’s – a story of mistakes, regrets and second chances, a bit like Anne Elliot’s in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Aiken Hodge wrote biographies of both Austen and Heyer, so it’s not surprising that their influence can be seen in her work.

The Adventurers is not a favourite by this author, then, but I did enjoy getting to know Elizabeth and learning a little bit about the political situation in Europe in the aftermath of the Battle of Liepzig.

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