The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson

Clare Carson has previously written a trilogy of thrillers (the Sam Coyle trilogy) set in contemporary Orkney. I haven’t read those, but the title and cover of her new novel, The Canary Keeper, caught my attention and when I investigated I found that this one is a historical crime novel, still set in Orkney but during the Victorian period. I love a good Victorian mystery, so of course I had to give it a try.

The story begins in London in 1855, with the body of Tobias Skaill being found dumped in the Thames. Witnesses report seeing the body thrown from a canoe – surely the work of an Esquimaux! The suspect has disappeared without trace, but it seems he may have had an accomplice: Birdie Quinn, a young Irishwoman who was seen walking in the area at the time. We, the reader, know that Birdie is innocent; she had only met Tobias for the first time the day before when he had tried to give her a message. Her presence by the river that night was a coincidence and she has certainly never had any dealings with Esquimaux. But how can she prove her innocence?

Birdie knows that when the law catches up with her, she will hang, so she turns for help to Solomon, a policeman with whom she was recently in a relationship before they went their separate ways. Solomon advises her to get away from London for a while – and with evidence linking the dead man with the Orkney Islands off the north-east coast of Scotland, that is where Birdie decides to head. Can she uncover the truth surrounding Tobias Skaill’s death and identify his killer in time to clear her own name?

The Canary Keeper explores so many interesting ideas and topics. First, there is Orkney itself and the many traditions, myths and beliefs that are unique to those islands and their people. Then there is the famous Arctic expedition led by Captain John Franklin in search of the North-West Passage, ending in tragedy when both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, are lost. The Franklin Expedition takes place just a few years before the events of The Canary Keeper and as Birdie begins to investigate she find several surprising links between the doomed expedition and the murder of Tobias Skaill. The fur trade also plays a part in the story and, in the London sections of the book, we learn about some of the trade guilds and livery companies of the period.

Clare Carson also creates some interesting characters, at least on the surface. I found Birdie quite a likeable heroine and I enjoyed her scenes with Solomon, hoping that they might decide to give each other a second chance. There’s also Morag, whose unconventional lifestyle leads to her being labelled a witch, and the widowed Margaret Skaill who is determined to keep her husband’s shipping business going despite her inability to read and write. And yet, none of these characters ever came fully to life for me; there was a disappointing flatness throughout the novel, which I blame on the fact that it is written in third person present tense, probably my least favourite way for a novel to be written. I often find that it puts a distance between the reader and the characters and makes it difficult to engage on an emotional level, although maybe that’s just me.

There’s also a paranormal aspect to the novel, with Birdie experiencing visions and flashbacks, but I didn’t feel that these scenes added anything to the story. This could have been a fascinating book – and at times it was – but it wasn’t really for me.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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

The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop

It’s 1793 and Philippe Roberts is in one of the most notorious prisons in Paris awaiting the decision that could send him to the guillotine. The only reason it hasn’t happened already is that nobody seems able to establish his identity. According to the Committee of General Security, he is Philippe-Jean-Baptiste-Raoul, Vicomte de Lambrière, a French aristocrat and therefore a counter-revolutionary. The Committee of Public Safety, however, insist that he is an English gentleman, Anthony Buckland of Sandgate, and that he has been spying on behalf of the British government. Nobody will believe him when he tries to explain that his name is actually Roberts and both de Lambrière and Buckland are fake identities that he has used at various times for reasons entirely unconnected with the French Revolution.

How has Roberts ended up in this ridiculous situation? In his own words:

Some of my more disagreeable friends suggest that in my case there’s no need to look any further for the cause of my present predicament than my own character. I’m inclined to think that’s unjust. After all, there have been thieves, liars, and murderers who have ended up on thrones before now. The fact that I have been all three with less success needn’t necessarily account for my situation.

As Roberts sits in his dungeon and waits, he remembers the events that have led him to this point and shares his memories with the reader. His story begins in England where, as an aspiring young actor, he is taken under the wing of the man he calls Manager Smith (or ‘M.S.’), from whom he learns ‘scraps of history, Latin, astrology, fencing, how to be a gentleman, mathematics, doctoring, geography – everything, in fact, from tips on farming to how to beat the law’. M.S. believes Roberts is destined for a great career on the stage and invests a huge amount of time and effort in his training, but success is slow to come and most of their ‘acting’ is limited to picking pockets and finding creative ways to escape from inns without paying.

Eventually, though, the two acquire their own small theatre, the Little Apollo. Their luck seems about to change – especially when the wealthy and eccentric Lizzie Weldon approaches Roberts after one of his performances and offers to pay him to carry out a simple task. It sounds like an easy way to make money, but Roberts soon regrets saying yes. His involvement with Lizzie and her ludicrous schemes gets him into so much trouble that he and M.S. are forced to flee the country, arriving in France at the worst possible time…the beginning of the Revolution.

The Way to the Lantern was published in 1961 and is the first book I’ve read by Audrey Erskine Lindop. Why it has been allowed to go out of print and fade into obscurity is a mystery to me. I thought it was a wonderful book and I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end! I can’t really say that I loved our narrator – after all, as he admits himself, he is a thief, a liar and a murderer, and his attitude towards women leaves a lot to be desired too – but I did love the way he tells his story, in the style of the picaresque novels of the 18th century, never losing his sense of humour no matter how bad things get. And they do get very bad! It seems that everything that can go wrong does go wrong for Roberts and he spends the entire novel stumbling from one disastrous situation straight into another. Sometimes he only has himself to blame, but often he is simply the victim of bad luck or bad timing.

Roberts’ relationship with M.S. was one of my favourite aspects of the book. From the beginning, M.S. fills the role not just of manager, but of mentor, friend and father figure and this never really changes, even as Roberts grows into a man and their disagreements and differences of opinion become more profound. One way in which they differ is in their political views – M.S. is a royalist while Roberts, whose mother was a French laundress, takes the side of the working classes (the sans-culottes) and the revolutionaries – and another is over Roberts’ romance with the beautiful Marie-Clarice, a woman he meets shortly after they arrive in Paris.

M.S. sees Marie-Clarice as a distraction which could ruin Roberts’ acting career, as well as a danger as Marie-Clarice is a countess (actually a ci-devant, or former, countess, since the nobility have had their titles removed during the Revolution). Roberts knows that she could be denounced at any moment and that he could also fall under suspicion because of his association with her, but he is sure that her true sympathies are with the revolutionaries and so he refuses to abandon her to her fate. At first I was inclined to agree with M.S. about Marie-Clarice, but I warmed to her later in the book; it would have been difficult not to, I think. The real star of the novel for me, though, was Suzon Dupont – or as Roberts nicknames her, the Puce (the flea). We first meet the Puce as a dirty, impoverished urchin of thirteen who proves to be a better pickpocket than Roberts himself, but over the course of the novel we see her blossom into a pretty and intelligent young woman with a fierce loyalty towards M.S. and Roberts.

Loyalty is something to be valued during the Revolution, at a time when there are spies around every corner and you can never be sure who may be about to denounce you as a supporter of the ancien régime. Although all of the major events are covered in the novel, such as the storming of the Bastille, the abolition of the monarchy and the execution of Louis XVI, the focus of the story is on the lives of the ordinary people and I was given a real sense of what it was like to live in Paris during that period. The balance between the historical detail and Roberts’ fictional adventures is perfect; it’s the sort of book where you learn a lot as you go along, while being entertained by a great story at the same time.

I’m sorry for the length of this post, but I did really enjoy The Way to the Lantern and found that I had a lot to say about it! It’s disappointing that none of Audrey Erskine Lindop’s books are in print, but I will definitely try to read some of her others – although they do all sound very different from this one.

The Butcher’s Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

Today I am taking part in a blog tour for The Butcher’s Daughter, a novel set in Tudor England during and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It’s a time period and subject that interests me, so I had high hopes for this book, my first by Victoria Glendinning.

It’s 1535 and Agnes Peppin is the ‘butcher’s daughter’ of the title – a young woman from Bruton in Somerset who, after giving birth to an illegitimate child, has been sent to live with the nuns at Shaftesbury Abbey as a novice. Agnes can read and write, having been taught by the canons at her local church, and these skills make her useful to the abbess, Elizabeth Zouche. Before she has time to take her vows and become a nun herself, however, Shaftesbury Abbey, like other great religious houses across the country, becomes a target of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to dissolve the abbeys and monasteries, seizing their assets for the crown and then demolishing the buildings.

The Butcher’s Daughter is narrated by Agnes herself in the form of a memoir as she first describes her life at the abbey and then tells us what happens afterwards as she and her fellow nuns and novices find themselves facing uncertain futures. It’s a slow-paced novel and definitely one which is driven more by character than by plot, but I still found it quite gripping because Agnes pulled me so thoroughly into her world. The chapters set within the abbey are informative and detailed; as a novice, Agnes has a lot to learn, from how to dress herself correctly to studying the Lives of the Saints, as well as getting to know the other women with whom she will be living within the confines of the cloister.

The second half of the book was even more interesting. While the inhabitants of Shaftesbury Abbey have been watching the downfall of other smaller, less profitable houses, telling themselves that ‘in our case, of course, surrender is unthinkable and indeed unthought of’, it eventually becomes evident that they will not be spared and must prepare to suffer the same fate. We see the final days of the abbey through our heroine’s eyes, before following her through a series of adventures as she rejoins the secular world and attempts to find a place for herself in society again. Although Agnes has spent a relatively short time at Shaftesbury, there are others who have known no other sort of life and who find it much more difficult to cope with the changes enforced on them.

Although Agnes is a fictional character and her personal story is invented, Shaftesbury Abbey was real and characters such as Elizabeth Zouche really existed too. Towards the end of the novel, Agnes crosses paths with Sir Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet of the same name), bringing more real historical events and political intrigue into the story, but the focus is always on Agnes herself and the things she experiences during this traumatic and eventful period of religious history. And yet, despite the upheaval Agnes goes through and the challenges she faces, there is still a sense of optimism…a comforting knowledge that, whatever happens, life must go on, “Beans will sprout. Children will be born. There will be butterflies”.

Thanks to Duckworth Books for providing a copy of this novel for review.

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

First of all, this is a quick note to say that I am moving house this week so won’t have much time for blogging for a while – there are just so many other things that need to be done! I have prepared and scheduled some posts in advance, so you probably won’t notice any difference, but I might be slow to respond to comments or to catch up with commenting on your blogs. I’m hoping to get settled in quickly so that things can get back to normal, but meanwhile here is my review of one of last month’s reads, The Night Tiger.

***

The Night Tiger was a surprise. I had been drawn to it mainly by the colourful cover and the fact that it was set in Malaya (now part of Malaysia), a country I know very little about, but I didn’t really expect to like it very much. I hadn’t read Yangsze Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, because the subject didn’t appeal to me, and it sounded as though this book, like that one, would have a very strong magical realism element – and I’m not much of a fan of magical realism. Well, I was wrong about that; although there are times when the story does veer towards the fantastical, most of it is concerned with simply describing the folklore and superstitions of the Chinese people of Malaya and asking us to accept that some of these things may actually be real.

The story is set in the 1930s and is told from two different perspectives. First there’s Ren, an eleven year-old houseboy whose master, Dr MacFarlane, has recently died. While on his deathbed, the doctor asked Ren to carry out a very special task for him: to find his severed finger and bury it in his grave beside his dead body. This must be done within forty-nine days, otherwise Dr MacFarlane’s soul will be condemned to roam the earth forever. In need of new employment, Ren enters the service of another doctor, William Acton, then begins his quest to locate the missing finger.

Our other main character is Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who has been secretly working in a dance hall in Ipoh to earn the money to pay off her mother’s gambling debts. While dancing with a salesman one night, she sees a little glass bottle fall from his pocket and, catching it before it hits the ground, she finds that it contains a shrivelled finger. This gruesome discovery leads Ji Lin to cross paths with Ren and when they each begin to have recurring dreams involving a train journey, it seems that their lives are becoming intertwined in other ways as well.

I enjoyed The Night Tiger much more than I thought I would. The setting is fascinating, of course; I have read two other books set in Malaya (The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng and The Separation by Dinah Jefferies) but they are very different types of books and don’t explore Chinese and Malaysian myths and legends the way this one does. The folklore surrounding the legend of the weretiger was particularly intriguing; there are hints that one could be responsible for the unexplained deaths that have been occurring around the town, and we can either believe that this is true or we can just believe that the characters in the story believe it is true, if that makes sense!

Both main viewpoint characters are easy to like; I felt closer to Ji Lin, because her story is told in the first person whereas Ren’s is told in the third, but I did love Ren too. He often seems very mature for his age – probably because he has been forced to grow up quickly due to his personal circumstances – but at other times he behaves more like the child he still is.

I’m still not sure whether I want to read The Ghost Bride, but I will look out for Yangsze Choo’s next book and see if it appeals.

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

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor

Being from the North East of England, Grace Darling is something of a local heroine, but although I remember hearing her story at school, I couldn’t really have told you very much about her. Hazel Gaynor is an author I’ve been interested in reading for a while and I already have one of her previous books, The Cottingley Secret, on the TBR, but when I saw that her latest book, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, was about Grace Darling I thought it might be a better one for me to start with.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is divided between two different time periods, but unlike most dual timeline novels where one storyline is set in the past and the other in the present, both periods in this book are historical. One thread begins in 1838 and introduces us to Grace, a young woman whose father runs the lighthouse on Longstone Island, one of the Farne Islands just off the coast of Northumberland. The family live with him at the lighthouse and although it’s an isolated, unconventional lifestyle, Grace loves it and can’t imagine living anywhere else. One night, she helps her father with a rescue when a paddle steamer, the Forfarshire, gets into trouble during a storm and is wrecked on the rocks. News of Grace’s bravery quickly reaches the public and suddenly she finds herself the centre of attention, but all she wants is to continue living a quiet, simple life in her beloved lighthouse…how will she cope with her unexpected fame?

The other storyline is set in America in 1938 and follows Matilda, a young Irish woman who has been sent away from home in disgrace after becoming pregnant. Matilda is staying with an older relative, Harriet, who happens to be a lighthouse keeper in Newport, Rhode Island. At first she finds Harriet unwelcoming and difficult to talk to, but as she gets to know her better she starts to understand what has made Harriet the person she is.

I was interested in both storylines, but although it was the promise of learning more about Grace Darling that drew me to this book, I think I preferred reading about Matilda. To be honest, I didn’t feel that there was much difference between the narrative voices of Grace and Matilda, especially considering that they were living in different centuries, but of the two I felt closer to Matilda and more emotionally invested in her story. I wanted to understand the nature of her relationship with Harriet and I enjoyed watching that aspect of the story unfold, as well as discovering the connections between Matilda and Grace. Grace’s chapters deal mostly with the events of the sea rescue and the unwanted, unlooked for fame she experiences in the aftermath, but the author also imagines a romance for her, which feels believable and is also quite moving and poignant.

There was some added interest for me in that I was familiar with so many of the places which form the setting for Grace’s story, including North Sunderland, Seahouses, Alnwick and Bamburgh. The Matilda sections are more fictional, but do also incorporate some real places and events such as the New England Hurricane of 1938. Although there were one or two small things that stopped me from enjoying this book as much as I would have liked to – particularly the use of present tense, which I almost always find annoying – overall I thought this was a good, interesting read. I’m looking forward to reading more by Hazel Gaynor, starting with The Cottingley Secret.

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

This is book 7/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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.