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.

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.

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.

Weyward by Emilia Hart

Witchcraft is a subject I always find interesting to read about, so I was curious to see how Emilia Hart would approach it in Weyward, her debut novel published in the UK earlier this month. It’s a book set in three different time periods, something which doesn’t always work for me, but in this case the three storylines are so closely linked I found the structure very effective.

In Shakespeare’s First Folio, the three witches in Macbeth are referred to as the ‘weyward sisters’, a term which evolved into ‘weird sisters’ in later versions – and just like Macbeth, Emilia Hart’s novel features three ‘weyward’ women.

In 2019, we meet Kate, a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Finally making the decision to leave, she flees London for Crows Beck, a village in Cumbria where she has inherited a cottage from her great-aunt, Violet. Settling into the house, known as Weyward Cottage, Kate begins to uncover some family secrets that help her to understand the great-aunt she barely knew. A second thread of the novel is set in 1942 and introduces us to Violet as a girl of sixteen living at Orton Hall with her father. She longs to know more about her mother, who died when she was a small child, but her father refuses to talk about her, except to say that Violet resembles her – and not in a good way. As Violet’s story unfolds, we find out how she came to leave Orton Hall and build a new life at Weyward Cottage.

The third of the weyward women in the novel is Altha Weyward who lives in Crows Beck in the early 17th century. Altha, who has a knowledge of healing and herbs passed down to her by her mother, is on trial for witchcraft, having been accused of killing a local man. As Altha waits to hear whether she will be found guilty, we learn more about her life in the village and the truth behind the man’s death.

The three women are linked not just by a family connection, but also through a shared love of nature. In fact, it’s more than just a love – it’s an affinity so strong that they are able to draw power from the natural environment and find comfort in surrounding themselves with plants and animals even at the most difficult of times. I could have done without so many detailed descriptions of insects and spiders, but on the other hand the affection these women have for even the least pleasant of creatures is what makes them unusual and different. None of them conform to society’s expectations and for Violet and Altha at least, this can lead to suspicion and distrust.

The male characters don’t come out of this book very well; from Kate’s violent, manipulative ex-partner and Violet’s cold, strict father to the men who hold Altha’s fate in their hands, they are very much the villains of the book. However, I did like Violet’s brother Graham and the little we learn of Kate’s father, so not all of the men are shown in a bad light. As for the three female protagonists, I liked all of them, although Violet was the one I felt the closest connection with. The three narratives are written in different styles using different combinations of first and third person and past and present tense, so I never felt confused as to whose story I was reading. Parts of Kate’s story towards the end were quite predictable, but otherwise all three storylines were gripping, staying with one character for just the right length of time before switching to the next, and with plenty of cliffhanger chapter endings to keep things moving forward.

I enjoyed Weyward, although there wasn’t as much focus on witchcraft as I expected – it’s more a book about the magic of nature and the obstacles faced by women over the centuries. It wasn’t always comfortable to read as all three of the main characters go through some very traumatic experiences, but I found it an interesting and unusual novel and will look out for more from Emilia Hart.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK/The Borough Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 6/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

This is the second book I’ve read by Laura Purcell; I liked, but didn’t love, the first one I read, Bone China, so was hoping for better things from this one. It certainly sounded good – a Gothic novel set in the theatres of Victorian London – and I wasn’t disappointed at all. I was gripped from start to finish!

Our narrator is Jenny Wilcox, a young woman who has been left to support herself and her younger siblings after her brother Gregory ran off to America with an actress, taking the family savings with him. Jenny is deeply grateful when Gregory’s former employer, Mrs Dyer of the Mercury Theatre, offers her a job as dresser to the new leading lady, Lilith Erikson. Before she even begins work, however, Jenny discovers that Mrs Dyer has not just offered her the position out of kindness – she believes that her husband is having an affair with Lilith and she wants Jenny to spy on them.

At first, Jenny shares Mrs Dyer’s dislike of Lilith, but gradually she becomes concerned about the behaviour of the beautiful young actress. Why is she so obsessed with a watch engraved with the face of Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy – a watch that once belonged to the actor Eugene Grieves, who died on stage while performing Dr Faustus? Could Lilith have formed some sort of pact with Melpomene, to help her achieve her dream of becoming London’s greatest tragic actress? And if so, what will Melpomene demand in return?

The Whispering Muse is divided into five acts, mirroring the five tragedies performed by the Mercury Theatre Company over the course of the novel, beginning with Macbeth. Theatrical settings are usually atmospheric and this one is no exception! I loved the insights we are given into what goes on behind the scenes and the descriptions of Lilith’s powerful stage performances are so vivid I could almost imagine I was watching them from a seat in the front row. The book is wonderfully creepy in places – and a bit gory in others, although not excessively so. What makes it so compelling is that we’re never quite sure whether Lilith really has made a pact with her muse and supernatural forces are at work within the Mercury Theatre or whether the strange events that begin to take place have a more human explanation.

As well as enjoying the fascinating plot, I also found it interesting to see how Jenny’s relationships with the other characters change over the course of the novel. Although I didn’t always agree with Jenny’s decisions, I had some sympathy for her situation – she needs to keep Mrs Dyer happy in order to stay in her job and earn money to support her younger brothers and sister, but the closer she becomes to Lilith the more she starts to feel that Mrs Dyer’s hatred of the actress is unreasonable and the more her conscience begins to bother her. The dynamics between these three characters add extra depth to the story and make it something special. I loved it and look forward to reading Laura Purcell’s other books!

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

This is book 5/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.