The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

I originally intended to read The Ghost Bride for this year’s RIP challenge but ran out of time. I then thought it might be suitable for Chris and Lizzie’s Witch Week earlier this month (it seemed to fit their theme of Polychromancy – fantasy/sci-fi by authors from diverse backgrounds) but I didn’t finish it in time for that either. Never mind – I’ve read it now and enjoyed it, although it wasn’t really what I’d expected. Having previously read Yangsze Choo’s other novel, The Night Tiger, a story steeped in Chinese and Malaysian folklore but with only a small amount of magical realism, I had thought this book would be similar. However, I discovered that this one has a much stronger fantasy element.

The Ghost Bride is narrated by seventeen-year-old Li Lan, a young Chinese woman who lives with her opium-addicted father and her beloved amah (nursemaid) in 1890s Malacca, a city in what was then known as Malaya. The time has come for Li Lan to marry, but her father has fallen into financial difficulties and her options are limited. When she receives an offer from the wealthy Lim family to become the wife of their son, Lim Tian Ching, this should have been a wonderful opportunity for Li Lan, but instead she is horrified – because Lim Tian Ching is dead. This arrangement would provide financial security and comfort for Li Lan, but it would mean living the rest of her life as a widow.

Li Lan vows to resist the attempts of the Lim family to turn her into a ‘ghost bride’, but Lim Tian Ching has other ideas and begins to visit her in her dreams every night, claiming that he was murdered by his cousin, Tian Bai. Li Lan wants nothing to do with the whole situation, but when her soul becomes separated from her body during an illness, she finds herself thrust into the afterlife. In this world populated with ghosts and spirits, she must try to discover the truth about Lim Tian Ching’s death if she wants to have any chance of returning to her body and living in peace.

As you can probably tell, this is a book with a very strange plot – I’ve never read anything quite like it! It’s definitely not my usual sort of read and as I’ve said, I was expecting something more like The Night Tiger – historical fiction with just a little bit of fantasy. Instead, I found I was reading a book set almost entirely in the Chinese underworld, complete with dragons and ‘ox-headed demons’. It was interesting, though, and Yangsze Choo’s worldbuilding is excellent. I was fascinated by the way she incorporates the Chinese custom of burning ‘funeral money’ as offerings for the dead into the plot, with the paper money burnt in the real world corresponding to the appearance of paper houses, paper animals and even puppet-like paper servants in the afterlife.

Although a lot of time is spent on describing the bureaucracy of the world in which Li Lan finds herself, the court cases that take place in the Plains of the Dead and the ways in which the souls of the recently deceased are judged, the focus is always on Li Lan’s personal story and the people she meets in the underworld who can help her with her task. There’s even a touch of romance, although Li Lan’s love interest is certainly not Lim Tian Ching, whom she despises from the beginning. I won’t tell you who he is, but he ended up being my favourite character.

I felt that this book was longer than it really needed to be and some of Li Lan’s adventures in the Plains of the Dead were too drawn out, but overall I found The Ghost Bride an unusual and intriguing novel which has left me wanting to know more about the Chinese afterlife!

The Secret of Matterdale Hall by Marianne Ratcliffe

The Secret of Matterdale Hall is Marianne Ratcliffe’s new novel and the first book to be published by Bellows Press, a small independent publisher who describe themselves as ‘championing unagented writers of speculative & historical fiction, particularly queer, POC & marginalised authors’. In many ways Matterdale Hall seems like a traditional Victorian Gothic novel, but it also has some fresh new elements that make it feel original and different.

Our heroine, Susan Mottram, is a young woman whose family has fallen into poverty following her father’s death. Looking for a way to support her mother and younger sister, Susan finds work as a teacher at Matterdale Hall, a girls’ boarding school run by Dr and Mrs Claybourn in a remote part of Yorkshire. Susan immediately likes the eccentrically dressed doctor, who treats psychiatric patients in his infirmary within the hall, but she has a more difficult relationship with his wife and their daughter Marion, whose views on teaching and discipline conflict with Susan’s own. Some of the children also prove challenging, particularly the badly-behaved Isabella and the silent, withdrawn Mary.

One day, Susan crosses paths with Cassandra, a young woman from a neighbouring estate. At first Cassandra seems strangely hostile, but when Susan discovers that Cassandra is both mixed-raced and deaf, able to communicate only through sign language, she understands that what she had mistaken for hostility is actually shyness and a lack of trust. Gradually, a friendship begins to form between the two of them – and Susan finds that she desperately needs a friend to help her unravel the mysteries that are beginning to emerge at Matterdale Hall. What happened to Susan’s predecessor, who disappeared without trace? Why does little Mary never speak? And what is really going on in Dr Claybourn’s ‘infirmary’?

Although I found some of the secrets of Matterdale Hall quite easy to guess, there was still plenty of suspense as I waited to see whether I was right and how and when Susan would also discover the truth. The lonely Yorkshire setting, with much of the story taking place in the winter, added to the atmosphere and it was difficult not to think of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, while I was also reminded of Stacey Halls’ Mrs England. But as well as the secrets and mysteries, I was fascinated by the portrayal of a small school in the 19th century and the attitudes to education and methods of teaching.

Despite the darkness and the sense of foreboding, there are still some moments of happiness for Susan. The patience and kindness she offers to the girls in her care is rewarded when they begin to open up to her and allow her to help them and her relationship with Cassandra also starts to flourish, first as a simple friendship and then as something more. I liked the way the two women’s feelings for each other develop slowly and realistically rather than being a love at first sight romance, giving the reader time to get to know them both and become invested in their stories. Deaf people don’t get a lot of attention in historical fiction (Shadow on the Highway by Deborah Swift is the only other book I can think of with a deaf heroine) so I found that aspect of the book interesting too.

The Secret of Matterdale Hall is written in a formal style that mimics the Victorian novels that have obviously influenced it and the long chapter titles, giving us an idea of what the following pages will contain, also add to the 19th century feel. It’s an entertaining read and I’ll be interested to see what Marianne Ratcliffe writes about in her next book.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

Book #60 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Blue Postcards by Douglas Bruton – #NovNov22

This little book published by Fairlight Moderns came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize earlier this year. I wasn’t sure it would be my sort of book but it sounded intriguing and at only 160 pages I knew it would be perfect for Novellas in November.

The book opens in the present day with our unnamed narrator buying a postcard from a Parisian market stall beside the Eiffel Tower. The postcard is completely blue on one side and date stamped 1957. The young woman who sells it to him has no idea of its significance, but the narrator knows exactly what it is: an invitation to an exhibition of the French artist Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings which was held in that year. He takes the card away with him but is drawn back to the stall again and again hoping to find more blue postcards and slowly a relationship begins to develop between the narrator and Michelle, the postcard seller.

Two other narratives are woven into the story. In one, we follow the career of Yves Klein, who becomes famous as the creator of International Klein Blue (IKB), an intense shade of aquamarine. In the other we meet Henri, a Jewish tailor – the only one left on what was once called the Street of Tailors. Henri also has a connection with blue: he sews a blue thread, in a shade known as ‘tekhelet’ in Hebrew, into the leg of every suit he makes in the belief that it will bring good luck to the wearer. One day, Yves Klein visits the tailor to order a suit and so the three separate parts of the novel fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

There was something to interest me in each of the three storylines. In the modern day one it was the unreliability of the narrator who admits that some of the things he is telling us didn’t necessarily happen and that memories can change over the years. The most compelling parts of Henri’s story involve his memories of the 1930s when he and his family were victims of the Night of Broken Windows. And I was struck by the descriptions of Klein’s monochrome exhibition where he displayed eleven identical blue (IKB) squares, placed at different angles and priced differently because he argued that the experience of viewing each one was different. I knew nothing about Klein before reading this book and his art is not really the kind I like, but it was good to learn a little bit about him.

What makes this book unusual, however, is the structure – and as I suspected, it wasn’t entirely successful with me! There are five chapters and each chapter is made up of one hundred numbered paragraphs, some only one or two sentences long but all what you could describe as ‘postcard-sized’. The three narratives alternate rapidly throughout the book, so we have one or two paragraphs telling the narrator’s story then one or two telling Henri’s or Yves Klein’s. I found it easy enough to follow but it does feel fragmented and meant I didn’t have time to become invested in one story before switching back to another.

Bruton has also set himself the challenge of including the word ‘blue’ at least once in every single paragraph, so we have characters with blue eyes, clothes with blue ink stains, mussels with blue shells, memories lost in the blue mists of time, and so on. Add to this the narrator’s obsession with finding blue postcards, Klein’s obsession with creating blue artworks and Henri’s obsession with blue threads and I started to feel overwhelmed with blue. There’s no doubt that it’s all very cleverly done and can’t have been an easy book to write, but I personally prefer books that allow me to become fully absorbed in the story without any distractions. I wasn’t the ideal reader for this book, but I knew that before I started and wanted to try it anyway, so I don’t have any complaints!

Have you read anything by Douglas Bruton – or any of the other books in the Fairlight Moderns collection?

I’m counting this book towards Novellas in November hosted by 746 Books and Bookish Beck.

Book #59 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Winter Garden by Nicola Cornick

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot,
For I see no reason why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot

There are different variations on this rhyme, but that’s the version I grew up with. It refers, of course, to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The name most often associated with the plot is Guy Fawkes, the man caught in the cellars below Parliament on November 5th preparing to ignite the gunpowder, but the leader of the conspirators was actually the less well known Robert Catesby. Nicola Cornick’s new novel The Winter Garden tells the story of not just Catesby himself but also his wife, Catherine, and mother, Anne.

Like Nicola Cornick’s other recent books, this one is set in more than one time period. In the present day, we meet Lucy Brown, a young woman suffering from the long-term effects of a viral infection that have left her unable to continue her promising career as a violinist. Not yet ready to return to her home in London and face up to a life without her beloved music, Lucy accepts an offer from an aunt to go and stay in her cottage in Oxfordshire while she recuperates. Gunpowder Cottage, as it is now known, was once the home of Robert Catesby and almost as soon as Lucy arrives she begins to have visions of a woman dressed in Tudor clothing. Could this be Catherine Catesby and if so what is she trying to tell Lucy?

The other thread of the novel begins in the late 16th century and is written from the perspective of Anne Catesby. The Catesby family are recusant Catholics – they remained loyal to the Catholic church after the Reformation and refuse to attend Church of England services. In 1593, Anne’s son, Robert, marries Catherine Leigh, the daughter of a wealthy Protestant family, who begins to create a beautiful garden in the grounds of her new home. Anne is pleased to see her son and daughter-in-law settling into married life, but the happy times don’t last for long and soon Robert is deeply involved in treason and conspiracy.

There’s so much going on in this novel: an archaeological dig aimed at finding and restoring Catherine’s vanished winter garden, rumours of hidden treasure dating back to the days of the Knights Hospitaller, and a mystery surrounding the death of one of the experts working on the garden project. There’s also a romance for Lucy, which, although it was completely predictable as soon as the love interest made his first appearance, felt believable and never came to dominate the plot. If you’ve read Nicola Cornick’s The Forgotten Sister, there’s a small part in this book for Johnny Robsart, whom you’ll remember was Amelia Robsart’s psychic brother. There are some paranormal elements in this novel too, but they provide the link between the two time periods and again, don’t really dominate.

When a book has two separate storylines set in different periods, there is usually one I like more than the other and in this case it was the historical one. I felt a stronger connection with Anne Catesby than I did with Lucy, maybe because Anne’s story was narrated in the first person while Lucy’s was written in the third. Although there wasn’t as much focus on the actual Gunpowder Plot as I’d expected, I found it interesting to read about the female influence on Robert Catesby’s life and how events at home may have led to him becoming involved in the conspiracy.

Have you read any other books about the Gunpowder Plot or Robert Catesby? I would love to hear about them!

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

Book #58 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck – #1929Club

It’s always interesting, when an author has become famous for books written later in their career, to go back to the very beginning and read their earliest work. Cup of Gold, John Steinbeck’s first novel, was published in 1929 and is my second choice for this week’s 1929 Club hosted by Simon and Karen.

I’ve previously only read two of Steinbeck’s books (East of Eden and The Pearl) and hadn’t even heard of this one until I started to look at options for 1929 Club. I was intrigued because it sounded so completely different from his other books – not the sort of plot or genre I would have associated with Steinbeck at all. It’s also a short novel (just over 200 pages) so I could easily fit it into my busy October reading schedule!

Cup of Gold opens in 17th century Wales where a fifteen-year-old boy, Henry Morgan, lives on a farm with his parents and his grandmother, Gwenliana, who claims to have second sight. Growing up in a remote part of the Welsh countryside, Henry is growing restless to leave home and see more of the world. When Dafydd, an old farmhand who left many years earlier to go to sea, returns to the farm to tell the family of his adventures, Henry becomes determined to do the same. His mother, who still considers him a child, tells him not to be ridiculous, but his father accepts that this is something his son must do and sends him off with his blessing.

Before leaving, Henry consults the wise, white-bearded poet known as Merlin, who lives alone with his red-eared dog in the hills above the Morgans’ valley. Merlin makes the following observation, words Henry will remember for the rest of his life:

“You are a little boy. You want the moon to drink from as a golden cup; and so, it is very likely that you will become a great man – if only you remain a little child. All the world’s great have been little boys who wanted the moon; running and climbing, they sometimes caught a firefly. But if one grow to a man’s mind, that mind must see that it cannot have the moon and would not want it if it could – and so, it catches no fireflies.”

Arriving in Cardiff – the first time he has seen a large town – Henry secures passage on a ship to Barbados, where he finds himself indentured to a plantation owner. This is not what Henry had been hoping for, but he knows it will only be for a few years and then he’ll be free again to achieve his dream of becoming a buccaneer and making his fortune.

If the name Henry Morgan is familiar to you, then you’ve probably already guessed that this is the story of the notorious pirate of the Caribbean, a real historical figure (and the inspiration for Captain Morgan rum). In fact, the full title of the novel is Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History. ‘Occasional reference’ is not an exaggeration because it seems that very little of Steinbeck’s account has anything to do with historical fact – although, to be fair, there are lots of gaps in our knowledge of Morgan’s early life and career so plenty of scope for an author to use their imagination. It’s unclear whether I should even be referring to Morgan as a pirate; many sources describe him as a privateer, although the only difference I can see is that one is declared ‘legal’ by the government who stands to gain from their raiding and pillaging and the other isn’t.

The ’cup of gold’ of the title, which Merlin compares to reaching for the moon, refers to two things – Panama, which Henry sees as the ultimate prize just waiting to be captured from the Spanish, and a beautiful woman known as La Santa Roja (the Red Saint). Henry’s yearning for both of these is what drives him – and the narrative – forward. Yet I found this book to be neither the swashbuckling adventure novel nor the romance I’ve seen it described as and it’s certainly not as much fun as Georgette Heyer’s Beauvallet or Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. It’s a more serious novel than either of those and never loses sight of its central themes: the quest for happiness and the question of whether we can ever be truly content with what we have or will go on searching for something that’s always out of reach. However, I discovered that I didn’t really care about Henry’s happiness as I found it so difficult to relate to somebody who deliberately set out on a life of piracy and committed so many terrible acts! That was a bit of a problem with so much of the story told from Henry’s perspective.

This is a beautifully written novel, though, and the sections set in Wales – or Cambria, as Steinbeck usually calls it – feel mystical and dreamlike. The inclusion of Merlin in the plot is intriguing: are we supposed to believe that he is really the legendary magician, alive in the 17th century, or is he just an eccentric old man who believes he is Merlin? Either way, Arthurian legend is obviously something that interested Steinbeck and he would later go on to write The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which was posthumously published in 1976.

I wouldn’t describe this as a must-read classic, but it’s worth reading if the subject or setting appeal or if you’re interested in experiencing the work of a famous author at the very start of his career.

I’m also counting this as book #57 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Blue Water by Leonora Nattrass

This is the sequel to Black Drop, Leonora Nattrass’ 2021 debut novel which introduced us to the character of Laurence Jago. Blue Water works well as a standalone historical mystery, but I would recommend reading both books in order if you can.

It’s December 1794 and former government clerk Laurence Jago has just left Britain aboard the packet ship Tankerville. The ship’s destination is Philadelphia, where one of Jago’s fellow passengers, Theodore Jay, will deliver a treaty to President Washington. The Jay Treaty, negotiated by Theodore’s father, the American envoy John Jay, is designed to promote peace between the two nations and prevent America from joining forces with France against Britain. War Office official Mr Jenkinson, also on board the Tankerville, has offered to hide the Treaty in a safe place, but when he is found dead and the papers disappear Jago realises it’s up to him to find them and prevent them from falling into French hands.

Well, I enjoyed Black Drop but this second book is even better! With almost the entire story taking place at sea and therefore with a limited number of characters, the mystery has a ‘locked room’ feel and kept me guessing until the end. Leonora Nattrass very skilfully casts suspicion on first one character then another and it soon appears that almost everyone on the ship has a secret to hide. Although I correctly predicted a few of the plot twists (and was impatiently waiting for Jago to discover them too) the eventual revelation of the fate of the Treaty came as a complete surprise to me. I was also surprised when I read the author’s note at the end and saw that some parts of the plot were based on historical fact, although the details have been added to and embellished using the author’s imagination.

Laurence Jago continues to be an engaging narrator, though not always the most reliable one due to his occasional poor judgement, the secret sympathies we learned about in the previous book and his tendency to succumb to the temptations of ‘black drop’ laudanum. I was pleased to see the return of some other characters from the first book including the journalist William Philpott (whose attempts to compile a dictionary of seafaring superstitions add some humour to the book) and Theodore Jay’s slave and companion Peter Williams, always a calm and wise presence amid the onboard chaos. And of course, there are plenty of colourful new characters amongst the passengers, including two French aristocrats, an American plantation owner and an Irish actress with a dancing bear!

Choosing to set this novel at sea gives it a very different feel from Black Drop. Apart from a few glimpses of Madeira and then Praia, capital of Cape Verde, the whole story unfolds aboard the Tankerville and we are given lots of insights into life during a long sea voyage. The use of nautical terminology never becomes too overwhelming but it all feels authentic and due to the setting, time period, elegant prose and frequent encounters with French warships, I was strongly reminded of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I was quite sure Leonora Nattrass must have read O’Brian and when I reached the acknowledgements at the end of the book I found that I was right!

If it’s not already clear, I loved this book and hope there’s going to be a third in the series.

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

Book #5 read for R.I.P. XVII

Book #56 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Recent reads: The Drums of War; Ashes in the Snow; Ithaca

I’m falling behind with my reviews again, so here are my thoughts on three recent reads – all very different books.

The Drums of War is the third in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant mystery series, continuing the story begun in Rags of Time and The Wrecking Storm. It also works as a standalone novel, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two in the series.

This third novel opens in London in 1642. With the divisions between King and Parliament becoming greater, England is rapidly heading towards Civil War and spice merchant Thomas Tallant and his friends are being forced to choose sides. Soon Tom finds himself assisting the Puritan leader John Pym in his search for a consignment of stolen gunpowder being smuggled out of London by Royalist forces. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Seymour is carrying out investigations of her own as she sets out on the trail of a mysterious jewel thief. Although Tom and Elizabeth are separated for most of the book and I missed their interactions, I did find both storylines interesting, particularly Elizabeth’s as she suffers a personal trauma and begins to fall back into some of her former bad habits as a result!

As with the first two books in the series, real historical figures appear alongside the fictional ones and as well as John Pym and the commander of the London Trained Bands, Philip Skippon, we also meet the scientist and physician William Harvey and are reacquainted with the intriguing Lucy, Countess of Carlisle. In the second half of the novel, the focus moves away from the mystery-solving for a while to concentrate on the events of the Civil War, particularly the battles of Edgehill and Brentford. This aspect of the story was of less interest to me, but that’s just down to personal taste (I’m not really a fan of battle scenes) and I still found this an enjoyable novel overall.

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Ashes in the Snow is Oriana Ramunno’s debut crime novel, written in Italian and translated into English by Katherine Gregor. The book is set in Poland during World War II and begins with a young boy, Gioele Errera, finding the body of an SS officer in the snow. The man appears to have choked on an apple, but it soon seems that there is more to his death than that and German criminologist Hugo Fischer is summoned to investigate. Finding the murderer will not be easy, particularly as the dead man’s wife seems reluctant to cooperate, but Gioele agrees to help – if, in return, Hugo will help him to find his family from whom he has become separated.

This is a beautifully written and translated novel but not an easy one to read because, as we quickly discover, Gioele has a twin brother and the two of them have become subjects of the infamous Josef Mengele’s experiments. Of course this sort of thing is not supposed to be pleasant to read about, but I wasn’t really prepared for the level of detail Ramunno goes into in describing this and other parts of Gioele and Hugo’s stories. Hugo is an interesting and likeable character, a man suffering from a degenerative illness who must keep his condition a secret to avoid becoming a target of the Nazi regime himself. He’s an unusual detective and the crime element of the novel works well, but this book wasn’t for me.

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Ithaca by Claire North is the latest of many Greek mythology retellings based on the events surrounding the Trojan War. What makes this one different from the others I’ve read is that it focuses on the story of Penelope as seen through the eyes of the goddess Hera.

It has been seventeen years since Penelope’s husband Odysseus, King of Ithaca, sailed away to war with Troy and although the war is now over, she and her son, Telemachus, are still awaiting his return. Penelope is kept busy running the kingdom with the help of her women, while also trying to defend the island of Ithaca from raiders and fend off the attentions of the crowd of suitors who have descended upon her home in the hope of marrying her if Odysseus never comes back. Meanwhile, Penelope’s cousin Clytemnestra has fled to Ithaca looking for somewhere to hide after murdering her husband, Agamemnon.

Ithaca is quite a long novel and moves at a slow pace; it’s the first in a planned trilogy and Claire North takes her time setting the scene and introducing the characters. I liked the choice of Hera as narrator; she provides a different perspective on a well-known story and I enjoyed her observations of the mortal world and her interactions with other goddesses such as Athena. However, it does mean we are kept at a distance from Penelope herself, which could explain why I found it difficult to form any kind of connection with her – or with any of the other characters. For that reason, I don’t think I’ll be continuing with the second book. Claire North writes beautifully but I needed more than that to sustain my interest and I preferred Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad – I didn’t love that one either, but it was a shorter and more memorable read.