The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville

The Daughter of Hardie, originally published in 1988 as Grace Hardie, is the second in Anne Melville’s trilogy of novels following the story of a family of English wine merchants throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think this book does stand alone quite well as it concentrates mainly on the younger generation of the Hardie family, but I would still recommend starting with the first one, The House of Hardie, if you can.

This second novel opens in 1898 with Grace Hardie growing up at Greystones, the family estate in the countryside near Oxford, where they have their wine shop. As the only girl in a family of boys and considered an invalid due to her severe asthma attacks, Grace is struggling to find her place in the world but she finds happiness in exploring the grounds of Greystones and playing with her beloved cat, Pepper. Then, one day, a tragic accident destroys Grace’s happiness and things are never quite the same again. Meanwhile, 1914 is approaching and with it the beginning of the First World War. With five brothers, four of whom are old enough to fight, there could be more tragedy ahead for Grace and her family…

I enjoyed the first Hardie novel, but I thought this one was even better. I wasn’t sure about it at first – I found the scenes describing the accident I alluded to earlier quite harrowing and I almost stopped reading at that point, but I’m pleased I didn’t because as the consequences of that incident and its impact on Grace and her brothers became clearer I started to understand why it was depicted in that way. By the time war broke out halfway through the novel I had been fully drawn into the story and was genuinely worried for the characters as they either went off to fight or were left behind to wait for news of their loved ones.

Anne Melville manages to cover almost every aspect of the war you could think of – men sent home from the front wounded, men left suffering from shellshock, gas attacks and zeppelin raids, conscription and desertion, women stepping into roles vacated by men, and the difficulties of keeping a large estate running during and after the war. This could easily have felt overwhelming, but it doesn’t…all of these storylines arise naturally from the stories of the various characters and the types of people they are.

But this is not just a book about war. One of the main themes of the first novel, women’s education, was at the forefront of this one too. Midge Hardie, my favourite of the ‘first generation’ characters, is now a school headmistress – a job she loves, even though she had been forced to make an unfair choice between marriage and a teaching career, as married headmistresses are considered ‘unacceptable’. Grace herself is not as certain as Midge about what she wants to do and it was interesting to follow her internal struggles over whether to marry and have children or to pursue a more independent way of life.

There was so much to enjoy in this book that I really don’t think the two big plot twists that come towards the end of the book were at all necessary. One in particular felt unbelievable and just a way of trying to tie up loose ends that didn’t need to be tied. That was a shame because otherwise I had loved the book, after that uncertain start. Despite those reservations, though, I will definitely be reading the final part of the trilogy, The Hardie Inheritance, and will look forward to finding out how the story ends.

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

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

The King’s Evil is the third in Andrew Taylor’s series of historical mysteries set during and after the Great Fire of London and featuring the characters of James Marwood and Cat Lovett. The first two, The Ashes of London and The Fire Court, were both excellent books so I had high expectations for this one as well, and I’m pleased to say that I think this might be my favourite of the three. If you’re new to the series, I don’t think it’s completely necessary to read the books in order but I would still recommend that you do so if possible.

‘The King’s Evil’ is another name for scrofula, a disease which causes the swelling of glands in the neck. Historically, it was believed that a touch from the king could cure the disease and as the novel opens we see James Marwood watching a ceremony at Whitehall where sufferers are being brought one by one to receive the touch of King Charles II. Marwood himself does not have scrofula, but is using the ceremony as cover for a rendezvous with Lady Quincy (a woman we first met in The Fire Court, which is one of the reasons why I think it’s best to read the series from the beginning).

Lady Quincy warns Marwood that his friend, Cat Lovett – who, as the daughter of a regicide responsible for the execution of Charles I, is in hiding under an assumed name – has been located by her stepson Edward Alderley. Worried that Edward is planning to take revenge on Cat after the events of The Fire Court, Marwood hurries to her hiding place to tell her she is in danger. Before Edward can do anything, however, he is found dead in a well in the grounds of the Duke of Clarendon’s London mansion. Cat, using her new identity of Jane Hakesby, has been helping the architect Simon Hakesby with his work on a garden pavilion at Clarendon House, and suspicion falls on her as the murderer. Marwood is asked to investigate on behalf of the government but, although those in power want him to find Cat guilty, he is sure she is innocent and must find a way to prove it.

This series is getting better and better. We are moving further away from the time of the Great Fire now, but its effects are still being felt across London as rebuilding takes place and people try to move on with their lives. The aftermath of the fire is less important to the plot of this novel than it was to the previous two, though, with the focus this time on the royal court and the question of who will succeed to the throne if Charles II fails to produce a legitimate heir. The king’s brother James and his two daughters are currently next in line, placing James’s father-in-law, the Duke of Clarendon, in a position of power. As Marwood begins to look into the circumstances of Edward Alderley’s death, he finds himself caught up in a rivalry between Clarendon and one of the king’s favourites, the Duke of Buckingham. Andrew Taylor is so good at blending fact and fiction, so that the fictional events of the story feel quite plausible within the context of the period and the murder mystery fits smoothly into the history and politics of the time.

When I read the first book, I mentioned that I didn’t find James Marwood a particularly strong character, but after three books he feels much more real to me now. I love his relationship with Cat – it’s not what you could describe as a romance and sometimes not even really a friendship, but it’s clear that there is still a strong bond between them. I enjoy spending time with both of them and am hoping it won’t be too long before they are back with another mystery to solve!

The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve

One of the first books I read this year was Alex Reeve’s The House on Half Moon Street, the first in a new mystery series set in Victorian London. I enjoyed it and couldn’t wait to meet its hero, Leo Stanhope, again. Now that I’ve read the second book, The Anarchists’ Club, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this one just as much as the first. If you’re wondering whether it’s necessary to read the series in order, I don’t think it’s essential…you will have a better understanding of Leo and his background if you do, but otherwise both books work well as standalone mysteries.

Catching up with Leo again at the beginning of The Anarchists’ Club, it seems that not much has changed in his life. He is still renting a room above a pharmacy, still working as a hospital porter, still meeting his only friend Jacob for an occasional game of chess. One day he is helping out in the pharmacy when a woman comes in to buy some bromide. Lacking the money to pay, she asks for credit, but Leo refuses, telling her she will have to speak to the owner. It’s only a brief interaction but one which Leo will remember forever, because a few days later he receives a visit from the police. The woman, Dora Hannigan, has been murdered and a scrap of paper with Leo’s name and address on it has been found on her body.

Among the suspects is John Thackery, a man Leo knew many years ago – when he was quite literally a different person. If John makes his former identity known, the whole new life Leo has built for himself could be destroyed, so he agrees to give John an alibi in return for his silence. Has Leo done the right thing or is he allowing a murderer to walk free? The only way to be sure is to investigate the murder himself…

Leo’s investigations lead him to, as the title of the book suggests, a club of ‘anarchists and socialists’ with whom the dead woman had become involved. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t find out as much about these people and their work as I’d expected; although the division between the rich and poor in society is one of the book’s main themes, the mystery itself doesn’t really have much to do with any of that. As with the first novel, the most interesting aspect of the story is the character of Leo himself. Although he is known as Leo Stanhope now, he grew up as Lottie Pritchard before deciding as a teenager that he could no longer continue living as a woman and denying who he really was. Being transgender in the 19th century is not easy and a few words from someone who knows the truth – someone like John Thackery – could ruin everything for him. For Leo, though, being true to himself is worth the risk and the danger. As I am not transgender myself and, as far as I know, Alex Reeve isn’t either, I can’t really say whether the portrayal of Leo and his thoughts and feelings is accurate or not, but it does feel believable to me.

The books are narrated by Leo in the first person and I find him a very likeable character. For obvious reasons, he tries not to attract too much attention to himself and has a quiet, unassuming nature. In this second novel, I loved his relationship with Aiden and Ciara, Dora Hannigan’s children, whom he befriends and tries to look after once it becomes obvious that nobody else is going to. This is particularly touching because there are so few people in Leo’s life whom he still cares about or who care about him, having become estranged from his parents and sister after making the decision to leave his life as Lottie behind.

I was also pleased to meet Rosie Flowers, the pie maker, again; I said earlier that Jacob is Leo’s only friend, but that’s not quite true because although Rosie and Leo exasperate each other at times, they formed a close bond during their investigation of the previous mystery and work together to try to solve this one as well. I’m hoping to see them both again in future books; I haven’t seen any news of a third Leo Stanhope mystery yet, but I will certainly be looking out for it.

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

This is book #3 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

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.