Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram

Although Red Adam’s Lady was first published in 1973, I wasn’t aware of it until a few years ago when it was reissued by Chicago Review Press as part of their Rediscovered Classics series. This edition has a foreword by Elizabeth Chadwick, one of my favourite authors of medieval fiction, and knowing that she rates this book highly was enough to make me want to try it myself.

Julitta de Montrigord is taking shelter from the rain in an alehouse one evening when she is abducted by the drunken Red Adam de Lorismond, the new lord of Brentborough, who carries her off to his castle and into his bedchamber. She manages to defend her virtue by hitting him over the head with a stool and tying him to a bedpost, but is horrified when, in the morning, he insists on making amends by marrying her. Julitta can think of nothing worse – even being sent to a convent seems preferable to her – but her uncle and guardian sees his chance to form an importance alliance with Brentborough and she is eventually left with no option but to agree to the marriage.

Despite the efforts of Julitta’s new husband to redeem himself, she is determined that this will remain a marriage in name only. Meanwhile she has plenty of other distractions; after all, as Red Adam’s Lady she now has a castle to look after and servants to manage – including the jealous chatelaine, Constance, who seems set on making Julitta’s life as difficult as possible.

This vivid and detailed depiction of 12th century castle life is one of the things I particularly enjoyed about this novel. There’s nothing glamorous or fairytale-like about Brentborough Castle; when Julitta first arrives, she discovers that her new home is dirty, neglected and has been badly managed during the lifetime of the previous lord, Adam’s uncle, and it’s fascinating to see how she goes about setting things in order. Away from the domestic setting, we learn a little bit of what is going on elsewhere in the country, with Henry II’s son, the Young King, preparing to rebel against him and England’s nobility facing a choice between one side or the other. Julitta’s uncle and his friends are supporters of the Young King, but Red Adam’s loyalty to Henry II makes him a traitor in their eyes.

There’s also a mystery aspect to the novel, with Julitta and Red Adam trying to find out what really happened to the former lord’s pregnant wife, who was believed to have been murdered although no proof was ever found. When another young man claiming to be the true heir to Brentborough appears on the scene, it becomes more important than ever that the truth is uncovered at last.

As for the romantic element of the story, I think a romance that begins with the hero trying to rape the heroine is always going to be problematic from a modern point of view, though probably not so much in the 1970s when it was written. In this case, it seems so out of character for Adam that the whole opening scene felt to me a little bit contrived, as a way of getting Julitta into the castle and setting up the rest of the story. Apart from that, I thought the characters felt like believable and convincing 12th century people rather than present day people in medieval costume and there was none of the annoying anachronistic language I sometimes come across in the historical fiction being published today.

Grace Ingram’s other novels, Gilded Spurs and several that she wrote under the name of Doris Sutcliffe Adams, all still seem to be out of print. It would be nice if a publisher could give more of them the same treatment as Red Adam’s Lady and make them available to new readers.

Book 32/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 4/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

The Last Daughter by Nicola Cornick

I have read several of Nicola Cornick’s time slip novels over the last few years and enjoyed some much more than others, but I think her new one, The Last Daughter, is her best so far. It probably helped that the historical storyline is set during one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses, but the modern day narrative interested me too, which isn’t always the case!

Beginning in the present day, we meet Serena Warren, a young woman who is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her twin sister, Caitlin, eleven years earlier – an event so traumatic, she has blocked out all memory of it. Serena is staying with an aunt in California when she receives the news she has been dreading: Caitlin’s body has been found during an archaeological dig close to their grandparents’ old home in Oxfordshire, which stands near the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Determined to uncover the truth, Serena returns to England and finds that once she is back in the place where Caitlin vanished all those years ago, she begins to regain her memories.

In the fifteenth century, our narrator is Anne FitzHugh, a niece of the powerful Earl of Warwick. Anne is only five years old when a marriage is arranged for her with eight-year-old Francis Lovell, a ward of Edward IV. Her new husband grows up to become a close friend and supporter of Edward’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), and he and Anne are drawn into all the conflict and intrigue surrounding Richard’s rise to the throne – including the mystery surrounding the fate of Richard’s two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

These two narratives are linked in a very intriguing way; I can’t say too much as it would risk spoiling the story, but it involves both a ghost story based on the famous legend of the Mistletoe Bride and the theft of a mysterious relic known as the Lovell Lodestar. Although, as with all time slip novels, there are some elements of the supernatural here, I thought everything felt reasonably convincing in the context of the story and all the different threads of the plot tie together perfectly in the end.

I liked both protagonists, Serena and Anne (and I would love to have Serena’s job, researching and arranging ‘bespoke historical tours’). Serena’s story is probably the more complex; not only is she investigating her sister’s disappearance, she is also trying to uncover the secrets of her family history with the help of her grandfather, who is suffering from dementia. I was surprised to see Lizzie Kingdom, a character from Nicola Cornick’s previous book, make an appearance as an old friend of Serena’s, and I was wary of this at first as the book featuring Lizzie, The Forgotten Sister, is my least favourite novel by Cornick. However, Lizzie fits into this particular story very well and as both books are set in Oxfordshire, it’s believable enough that she and Serena could have known each other.

I also enjoyed reading about Anne and Francis Lovell, who are usually just minor characters in the background of Richard III’s story. Their marriage is portrayed as a loving one, despite it being arranged for them as children, but not without its challenges and its ups and downs. The solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is fascinating and certainly not one I’ve come across before, although I can’t say any more about it than that!

I’m looking forward to Nicola Cornick’s next book and hoping it will be as interesting and entertaining as this one!

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

Book 31/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

Mystery and intrigue in the seventeenth century

Looking at the historical fiction I have read so far this year, it seems that the 17th century is displacing the Tudor, Victorian and early 20th century periods as the most common historical setting for my reading. Here are my thoughts on two more 17th century novels I’ve read recently, both of them historical mysteries.

The Wrecking Storm is the second book in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant series, following the adventures of a London spice merchant’s son in pre-civil war England. You could read this book without having read the first one, Rags of Time, but if you do read them in order you’ll have a better understanding of the background of the characters, their relationships and the political situation in England at that time.

The novel opens in 1641 with the murder of two Jesuit priests, one of whom was known to have been in hiding in a building close to the Tallant warehouse on the banks of the River Thames. Thomas Tallant’s friends, Member of Parliament Sir Barty Hopkins and Robert Petty of the Merchant Adventurers, ask for Tom’s help in catching the culprit, but before investigations have progressed very far, Tom finds that his own family has become the next target. Joining forces again with another friend, Elizabeth Seymour, Tom must find out who is responsible before the family business is ruined or one of the Tallants is killed.

I enjoyed the mystery element of the book and was surprised when the truth was revealed as I’d had no idea who was behind the attacks on the Tallant family! It was nice to see Elizabeth play such a big part in the investigations; her intelligence, puzzle-solving skills and interest in science and mathematics make her a better detective than Tom himself and her observations and suggestions prove invaluable to the solving of the mystery. I was particularly intrigued by her encounters with Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, a real historical figure who was also involved in political conspiracies during the civil war (and who I’ve discovered may have been the inspiration for Milady in The Three Musketeers).

As with the first book, the historical context was as interesting as the mystery. The story unfolds during the sitting of the Long Parliament, the execution of the Earl of Strafford and Charles I’s attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The conflict between King and Parliament is mirrored by the turmoil on the streets of London where opposing political and religious groups and unruly mobs of apprentices are creating a dangerous and unsettling atmosphere.

The Wrecking Storm is a short, fast-paced read; I think I slightly preferred the longer Rags of Time, but both books are entertaining and I hope to meet Tom and Elizabeth again soon.

The Protector by SJ Deas is a sequel to The Royalist, which I read several years ago and enjoyed. This second book was published in 2015 and there have been no more in the series since, which is disappointing but it seems the author has moved on to other things.

Anyway, The Protector continues the story of William Falkland, a former Royalist soldier who has reluctantly found himself in the service of Oliver Cromwell. It’s 1646, the First Civil War is over (the Second will begin within two years), and Henry Warbeck, Cromwell’s man, has again approached Falkland to ask for his assistance with another investigation. Anne Agar, sister of John Milton, the epic poet and writer of political pamphlets, has disappeared and Cromwell believes she has been abducted by Royalists in an attempt to convert the pro-Parliamentarian Milton to their cause.

Falkland is less than enthusiastic about taking on this mission; after four years of war he no longer feels any strong allegiance to either side and just wants to go home to his wife and children. However, that’s easier said than done, as he returns to find his house abandoned and his family missing, with no idea where they have gone or why they have left. Hoping that Cromwell will help him to locate his own family in return for tracking down Anne, Falkland sets out on her trail – but the biggest obstacle in his way turns out to be Milton himself, who takes an instant dislike to Falkland and is unwilling to cooperate.

As well as being an interesting and compelling mystery novel, The Protector is also quite a sad and poignant portrayal of the human cost of war, with families left divided, destroyed and separated once the fighting ends. William Falkland is a sympathetic and tragic hero as, lost and lonely, he begins the hunt for Anne Agar while despairing of ever finding his own beloved Caro. I was pleased to see him team up again with Kate Cain (whom we first met in The Royalist), but at the same time I was glad that Deas doesn’t push them into a romance, leaving us in no doubt that William is still devoted to Caro and the children and will continue his search unless and until there is no hope left. I enjoyed this book nearly as much as the first one and would love to know what the future holds for William Falkland, but sadly it looks as though we’re not going to find out.

~

Have you read either of these books – or any other good historical mysteries set in the 17th century?

Books 29 and 30/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Still Life by Sarah Winman

I picked up Sarah Winman’s new novel, Still Life, with vague memories of enjoying one of her earlier books, When God Was a Rabbit. That was ten years ago and although she has had two other books published since then, I never got round to reading either of them. The pretty cover of Still Life caught my eye and the Italian setting sounded appealing, so I thought I would give this one a try.

The novel opens in wartime Tuscany in 1944 with a chance meeting between two very different people: Evelyn Skinner, almost sixty-four years old, is an art historian who has come to Italy to try to salvage important works of art; Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, formerly a globe-maker from London. As the Allies advance across Italy, a brief friendship forms between Evelyn and Ulysses before they are parted and return to their separate lives.

For most of the novel, we follow Ulysses and his friends, first back at home in London and later in Florence, where some of them decide to relocate after the war. There’s Ulysses’ ex-wife, the talented but troubled Peg and her young daughter, Alys; Col who runs the Stoat and Parrot pub and Pete the pianist; Old Cress, who talks to trees and has visions which have a habit of coming true; and a Shakespeare-quoting blue parrot called Claude. It took me a while to warm to these characters, but eventually I became quite fond of some of them, particularly Cress and Alys. None of them are perfect – they all have their flaws and all make mistakes – but they feel like real and believable human beings.

Evelyn, though, appears only occasionally after that opening scene and we have to wait almost until the end of the novel to hear her story – by which time I found I’d lost interest in her and would have preferred to continue reading about Ulysses and the others. Evelyn’s story, which should have been fascinating as it involved a meeting with EM Forster and a pre-war romance with an Italian maid, felt as if it had been squeezed into the end of the book as an afterthought and in my opinion would have worked better if it had unfolded gradually alongside the other storylines.

The novel is beautifully written, there are some lovely descriptions of Florence and the influence of Forster’s A Room With a View can be seen in several different ways throughout the story. With a timespan of several decades, Winman also writes about various historical events that take place during that period; for example, there’s a memorable section set during the devastating flood of the Arno river in 1966. Unfortunately, there was one thing I really disliked about Winman’s writing in this book – and that was the lack of speech marks. I’m never sure what authors are trying to achieve in leaving out basic punctuation. A more ‘literary’ style? A stream of consciousness feel? Whatever it is, it never works for me and I end up just finding it distracting and annoying.

Still Life wasn’t completely successful with me, then, but I did enjoy getting to know the characters and spending some time in Italy in virtual form, which is the closest I will get to a holiday abroad this year!

Thanks to 4th Estate for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 28/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

China by Edward Rutherfurd

I loved this! It’s been a long time since Edward Rutherfurd’s last novel was published (Paris in 2013), but China is so good I think it’s definitely been worth the wait. It’s slightly different from his earlier novels – all of which I have read and enjoyed – because whereas those previous books follow the history of a country, city or region over a period of many centuries, this one covers a much shorter period, telling the story of China in the 19th century. At nearly 800 pages, that decision to concentrate only on one century allows for more character development and more time spent exploring each historical event or incident in detail.

Beginning in 1839, the first few sections of the novel deal with the First Opium War, taking us through the complicated background to this conflict from the perspectives of several different characters: Shi-Rong, secretary to Commissioner Lin, the man responsible for trying to end the illegal import of opium into China; John Trader, a British merchant who has become involved in the opium trade to improve his financial situation so that he can marry the woman he loves; Nio, a Chinese pirate and opium smuggler; and John’s cousin Cecil Whiteparish, who is a missionary. This range of viewpoints helps to build a full picture of the events leading to the Opium Wars and what happens in the aftermath. These characters and their families appear again and again throughout the novel as the years go by and they are drawn into other key events such as the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising.

In a novel of this length, it was inevitable that I would find some parts much more interesting than others – for example, the chapters involving Nio’s adopted sister Mei-Ling who makes the decision to have her little girl’s feet bound while her husband is in America working on the railroads were particularly compelling. However, my favourite sections of the book were those narrated by ‘Lacquer Nail’, a eunuch in the service of the Empress Dowager Cixi. I’m not sure whether it’s because Lacquer Nail is the only character whose story is told in the first person instead of third, but he really comes to life in a way that some of the others don’t. I could have read a whole book about his adventures alone.

Like all of Rutherfurd’s novels, this one is clearly the result of a huge amount of research; as well as the coverage of major political and military events, we are given lots of fascinating little snippets of information on Chinese folklore, crafts such as calligraphy and pottery, and the details of the tea ritual and other traditions. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the various locations in which the action takes place, including Guangzhou (Canton), Hong Kong, Macao and, in Beijing, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. I think anyone with even the slightest curiosity about China, its history, geography and people, will find a lot to interest them in this book – just be aware that it’s quite a commitment and will take a while to get through, even for the fastest of readers!

If China doesn’t appeal, I can highly recommend almost any of Edward Rutherfurd’s other books, particularly Sarum, Russka and his two novels about Ireland.

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

Book 27/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Missing Sister is the seventh book in the Seven Sisters series inspired by the mythology surrounding the star cluster known as the Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Looking at other reviews of this book, it seems that a lot of people were expecting this to be the final book in the series and were disappointed to find that it’s not; it didn’t bother me as I’d seen Lucinda Riley’s announcement on Twitter regarding an eighth book, but if you weren’t already aware, it’s probably best to know before you start that you will need to wait another year for all of the series’ mysteries to finally be resolved.

The first six Seven Sisters novels each tell the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious billionaire known as Pa Salt who dies at the beginning of the series, leaving the sisters some clues to help them trace their biological parents. The girls all grew up together at Atlantis, Pa Salt’s estate by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but they were born in different countries and come from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but only six girls were actually brought home to Atlantis by Pa Salt.

In this seventh volume, the D’Aplièse sisters have decided to find Merope and invite her to join them to mark the anniversary of Pa Salt’s death. However, the only clue they have to her identity is a picture of a star-shaped emerald ring. Their search will lead them first to a vineyard in New Zealand and then right across the world to a farmhouse in West Cork, Ireland, but I can’t really say too much about who and what they discover, as to do so would risk spoiling the story and I would prefer to allow other readers to enjoy the hunt for the missing sister without knowing too much in advance.

Although I think the previous six books could probably be read in any order, I would recommend saving this one until you’ve read the others and are already familiar with the D’Aplièse sisters and their stories. All six of them have important parts to play in this book and while some of the methods they use in trying to track down Merope are a bit far-fetched and not always very kind, it was nice to see all of the sisters getting involved (with some help from other characters from earlier in the series – I particularly enjoyed meeting Star’s eccentric friend Orlando again).

The search for Merope is set in the modern day, but as some possible clues to her identity and background emerge, we also spend some time in the past, particularly in Ireland in 1920 where we follow the story of Nuala Murphy, a young woman who has joined her country’s struggle for independence. I found the historical sections of the book fascinating and completely gripping, as well as educational. For example, I knew nothing about the work of Cumann na mBan, the Irish republican women’s association who played a part in the rebellion and the subsequent civil war of 1922. It isn’t clear at first how Nuala’s story will be connected to Merope’s, but things do start to come together later in the book.

As for the overall story arc of the seven sisters, this book has left me with more questions than I started with! I’ve been forming a few theories of my own, but will have to wait for the publication of Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt for everything to be revealed.

Thanks to Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review

Book 26/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Edited 11th June 2021: I was so sorry to hear the sad news today that Lucinda Riley has died after a four-year battle with cancer. Maybe we will never get to know Pa Salt’s secrets now, but Lucinda has left a wonderful legacy of work behind for her fans to treasure and new readers to discover.

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

I enjoyed Elizabeth Macneal’s first novel, The Doll Factory, so was looking forward to reading her new one, Circus of Wonders.

Beginning in the year 1866, Circus of Wonders tells the story of Nell, a young woman who has always been made to feel like an outsider in her small village on the south coast of England. The unusual birthmarks which cover her skin set her apart from the rest of the community and although her brother does his best to protect her, Nell knows she will never fit in. When Jasper Jupiter’s travelling circus arrives in the village, Nell is horrified to learn that her father has sold her to Jasper, who is looking for a new ‘curiosity’ to draw in the crowds. Once she settles into her new life, however, she begins to think that joining Jasper’s show is the best thing that could have happened to her. Her performance as ‘the Queen of the Moon and Stars’ proves to be a huge success, but how will Jasper feel if she becomes a bigger star than he is himself?

Nell’s story alternates with chapters written from the perspectives of two other characters, Jasper and his brother Toby. There’s a strong bond between the brothers, but they are two very different men. Jasper is very much the leader, an ambitious and ruthless businessman who sees the exploitation of other people as his way to fame and fortune. Toby, who helps him to run the circus, is a gentle, compassionate man desperate to find a way out from his brother’s shadow, but still haunted by his experiences as a photographer in the recent Crimean War. As the novel progresses we learn more about all three main characters as each of them tries to find their place in the world.

Although this is not always a very comfortable book to read, I think Macneal handles a sensitive topic very well. Nell and the other ‘circus attractions’ are treated as commodities to be bought and sold by collectors and showmen, but they are all presented as fully developed characters who, despite their unusual appearances, are normal human beings like anyone else. I have read a few other novels that deal with the same subject, so I was pleased to come across references to Charles Stratton, who appears in The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin and Julia Pastrana from Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch. Unlike Stratton and Pastrana, who both really existed, Nell is a fictional character but her story is no less moving and believable. I was also interested in the flashbacks to the Crimean War, where we gradually find out what really happened to Jasper and Toby, shaping them into the men they are when we meet them at the beginning of the novel.

Of Elizabeth Macneal’s two books, I think I preferred The Doll Factory, but I enjoyed both and will be looking out for whatever she writes next.

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

Book 25/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.