Death in Kenya by M.M. Kaye

This is the fourth in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… mystery series, although the books can be read in any order as they each stand entirely on their own. Like the other novels in the series, this one, Death in Kenya (originally published in 1958 as Later Than You Think), is set in one of the many locations in which Kaye herself lived for a while with her husband, an officer in the British army. In the 1950s, Kenya was still a British colony but the Mau Mau Uprising had been causing unrest across the country throughout the decade and this forms the backdrop for Kaye’s story.

The mystery takes place in and around Flamingo, an estate in Kenya’s Rift Valley which belongs to Lady Emily DeBrett, an eccentric elderly woman who has lived there for many years. When some mysterious, inexplicable events begin to occur at Flamingo – and rumours of a ghost begin to circulate – Lady Em acknowledges that she needs help and sends for her niece in England, Victoria Caryll, to come and join her as companion and secretary. Victoria is tempted by the invitation: Kenya is where she grew up and she longs to return to the country she loves so much, but she knows that Em’s grandson, Eden DeBrett also lives at Flamingo with his wife, Alice – and Eden is the man Victoria was once engaged to, before he ended their relationship with no explanation and broke her heart.

Torn between going and staying, the pull of the Rift Valley eventually wins and Victoria finds herself boarding a plane for Kenya. But when she arrives, she discovers that she has much more than an old lover and a jealous wife to worry about. A murder has been committed and the estate is in turmoil. Will the murderer be found before he or she kills again? Do the people of Flamingo face danger from the Mau Mau leader known as General Africa? And what is the significance of the haunting piece of music called the Rift Valley Concerto?

The mystery aspect of the book is quite enjoyable. I didn’t guess who the murderer was so I was surprised when the truth was revealed, although looking back I feel as though I should have guessed – we were given enough clues to be able to work it out, I think. The descriptions of Kenya are wonderful too, of course; it helps that Kaye lived there herself so could draw on her own experiences and memories when writing the book. I’ve read about the Mau Mau Uprising before, in Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh, so I already had some basic background knowledge, but that is a recent historical novel whereas Death in Kenya was a contemporary one, so the authors are looking at the same events from different perspectives and from different points in time. Kaye’s sympathies here seem to be more with the white European settlers, which is interesting because that’s not always the case in her novels – as anyone who has read The Far Pavilions or Shadow of the Moon will know, she usually takes a much more balanced view when writing about colonialism. However, she does state in her author’s note that “the opinions voiced by my characters were taken from life and at first hand.”

Although Death in Kenya has the same elements as the previous three books – an interesting, atmospheric setting, a courageous young heroine, a murder mystery to solve and a touch of romance – I found this one slightly different. While the others followed a similar formula (with the heroine actually being on the scene at the time of the murder and falling under suspicion herself), in this book Victoria Caryll doesn’t enter the story until some of the key events have already been played out. This makes Victoria feel somewhat like an outsider and no more or less important to the story than any of the other characters. That lack of one strong, central character to really focus on and connect with probably explains why I felt less engaged with this novel than I did with some of the others, particularly Death in Kashmir and Death in Cyprus.

I still have the last two books in the series – Death in Zanzibar and Death in the Andamans to read – and as they are set in two places I know nothing at all about, I’m looking forward to reading them and learning more!

The Walter Scott Prize 2019 Shortlist

Following last month’s announcement of the 2019 longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the shortlist was revealed yesterday. As you probably know by now, I am currently working my way through all of the shortlisted titles for this prize since it began in 2010 (you can see my progress here). There are six books on this year’s list and here they are:

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A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

Irene Bobs loves fast driving. Her husband is the best car salesman in rural south eastern Australia. Together with Willie, their lanky navigator, they embark upon the Redex Trial, a brutal race around the continent, over roads no car will ever quite survive.

A Long Way from Home is Peter Carey’s late style masterpiece; a thrilling high speed story that starts in one way, then takes you to another place altogether. Set in the 1950s in the embers of the British Empire, painting a picture of Queen and subject, black, white and those in-between, this brilliantly vivid novel illustrates how the possession of an ancient culture spirals through history – and the love made and hurt caused along the way.

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After The Party by Cressida Connolly

It is the summer of 1938 and Phyllis Forrester has returned to England after years abroad. Moving into her sister’s grand country house, she soon finds herself entangled in a new world of idealistic beliefs and seemingly innocent friendships. Fevered talk of another war infiltrates their small, privileged circle, giving way to a thrilling solution: a great and charismatic leader, who will restore England to its former glory.

At a party hosted by her new friends, Phyllis lets down her guard for a single moment, with devastating consequences. Years later, Phyllis, alone and embittered, recounts the dramatic events which led to her imprisonment and changed the course of her life forever.

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The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (See my review here)

15th century Oakham, in Somerset; a tiny village cut off by a big river with no bridge. When a man is swept away by the river in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, an explanation has to be found: accident, suicide or murder? The village priest, John Reve, is privy to many secrets in his role as confessor. But will he be able to unravel what happened to the victim, Thomas Newman, the wealthiest, most capable and industrious man in the village? And what will happen if he can’t?

Moving back in time towards the moment of Thomas Newman’s death, the story is related by Reve – an extraordinary creation, a patient shepherd to his wayward flock, and a man with secrets of his own to keep. Through his eyes, and his indelible voice, Harvey creates a medieval world entirely tangible in its immediacy.

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Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (See my review here)

One rain-swept February night in 1809, an unconscious man is carried into a house in Somerset. He is Captain John Lacroix, home from Britain’s disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain.

Gradually Lacroix recovers his health, but not his peace of mind – he cannot talk about the war or face the memory of what happened in a village on the gruelling retreat to Corunna. After the command comes to return to his regiment, he sets out instead for the Hebrides, with the vague intent of reviving his musical interests and collecting local folksongs. Lacroix sails north incognito, unaware that he has far worse to fear than being dragged back to the army: a vicious English corporal and a Spanish officer are on his trail, with orders to kill. The haven he finds on a remote island with a family of free-thinkers and the sister he falls for are not safe, at all.

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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel.

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The Long Take by Robin Robertson

Walker, a young Canadian recently demobilised after war and his active service in the Normandy landings and subsequent European operations. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and unable to face a return to his family home in rural Nova Scotia, he goes in search of freedom, change, anonymity and repair. We follow Walker through a sequence of poems as he moves through post-war American cities of New York, Los Angles and San Francisco.

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What do you think?

I’m pleased I’ve already read two of the books from this year’s shortlist – it gives me a chance of actually reading the other four before the winner is announced in June. I enjoyed the Andrew Miller and would be happy to see it win and although The Western Wind wasn’t really my sort of book I think it will be a strong contender too. I’m looking forward to reading Warlight but I’m not sure about the other three, especially The Long Take which is written in verse. I’m a bit nervous about reading that one!

Have you read any of these books? Which one do you think deserves to win the prize?

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

When The Western Wind was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in March, I decided to read my copy of the book before the shortlist was announced so that I could see whether I agreed with its inclusion or omission. Now that I’ve read it, although I can’t really say that I particularly enjoyed it, I wasn’t surprised to see this morning that it has been shortlisted as I found it a complex, multi-layered novel with an unusual structure and some interesting ideas to explore. The sort of book judges usually like, I think!

The Western Wind is, on the surface, a murder mystery set in a small English village in 1491. Oakham in Somerset is an isolated place, cut off from the rest of the world by a river without a bridge. The wealthy Thomas Newman, who understands the importance of trade, has plans to rebuild the bridge, but before work can begin he disappears, presumed to have been swept away by the river and drowned. But was it an accident or was it murder? Lord Townshend, who has been losing some of his lands to Newman, would seem to have the most obvious motive, but he is not the only suspect…

Under pressure from his dean to discover what really happened, village priest John Reve listens to the confessions of his parishioners and is surprised by how many of them are willing to confess to having some involvement in Newman’s death. It is up to Reve to use his judgement and his knowledge of his friends and neighbours to decide who is telling the truth. The story, however, is told in reverse, beginning on day four and then moving back in time to a point just before Newman’s disappearance – and by the time we reach the end of the novel, it has become clear that Reve himself knows much more than he seemed to at first.

Despite the mystery at the heart of this novel, I didn’t feel that it was the main focus of the book. The fate of Tom Newman acts as a starting point from which we – through the eyes of John Reve – explore the daily lives of the people of Oakham, their personalities and relationships, the way their community is structured, and the superstitions and traditions that rule their lives. Social and economic change is another theme; even Newman’s name is symbolic, as he is a relevant newcomer to the village, bringing with him new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

Although we are told that the book is set in February 1491 (at the beginning of Lent) I would otherwise have found it hard to say exactly when the story is taking place. There are very few references to anything happening in the wider world that give us any clues to the precise time period, but maybe that is the point – news from outside would be slow to reach the isolated, insular Oakham after all. I’m not sure how much importance the author places on historical accuracy in any case; she has acknowledged that the confession box which plays such a big part in the story wouldn’t have arrived in English churches until the following century, but she decided to keep John Reve’s box in her novel anyway. I have to admit, I’ve never given any thought to when confession boxes first came into use – but I am fairly sure that fifteenth century men didn’t wear trousers with waistbands as Herry Carter does in the opening chapter of the book. This is the sort of thing that will either bother you or it won’t, I suppose.

I did like Samantha Harvey’s writing but, as well as the points I’ve made above, there was something about the story that left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I think part of that was due to the fact that, with the exception of John Reve as our narrator, I struggled to connect with any of the characters. This was probably because the way the novel is structured makes it difficult to tell whether we can trust or rely on anything they say or do, especially as we only witness their words and actions from Reve’s perspective. I’m sure that if I’d taken the time to go back and read the whole book again from the beginning, it would have been a very different experience the second time. I didn’t enjoy the book enough to want to do that, but I think it would have helped me to fully understand and appreciate it.

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

My Commonplace Book: March 2019

A selection of words and pictures to represent March’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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‘Very few people are interested in art,’ he replied.

‘That’s true,’ I agreed. ‘But the lack of an audience should never be a deterrent to the artist.’

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (2018)

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Down in the toilet-goods stockroom Moke and Poke, self-styled because they were both named Mary Smith, managed between them to spill a few drops of “Chinese Lily” perfume. They apologised profusely to each other for such carelessness and removed the evidence with fingers that flew swiftly and accurately to ear lobes and neck hollows. It was a crying shame, they said. The buyer would have a fit if she knew and they wouldn’t blame her…They exchanged long looks and rubbed their elbows in the remains.

Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence (1947)

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Dick Whittington buying a cat, illustration c. 1850

“The doctor always mistrusts an alibi. Nine times out of ten the fact that anyone has an alibi pretty nearly proves them the person who did it. An innocent person seldom has an alibi. He doesn’t need to go round making one, or looking for one, because he doesn’t know one is likely to be wanted.”

Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E & MA Radford (1947)

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“Man, you are young!” he exclaimed. “You are like the rest of us. You carry your life in your hands. Don’t nourish past griefs. Cast the memory of them away. There’s nothing which narrows a man more than morbidness.”

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1920)

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John Ball encourages Wat Tyler’s rebels – 1381

“Tomorrow, on Corpus Christi day, let us go to the King,” he concluded, “and show him how we are oppressed. And we shall tell him that we want things to be changed, or else we will change them ourselves!” He stopped, waiting for the noise to die down. “The time has come for us to cast off the yoke of bondage and live as free men!”

A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle (2019)

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There was some sadness in how that could happen, Tai thought: falling out of love with something that had shaped you. Or even people who had? But if you didn’t change at least a little, where were the passages of a life? Didn’t learning, changing, sometimes mean letting go of what had once been seen as true?

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010)

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‘I’m not willing to give more money. And business is just what it is – a man of business builds a bridge and waits for people to pay tolls to cross it; a man of the spirit seeks across the bridge himself, pays with his faith and opens his heart.’

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (2018)

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The new world was the same as the old. The houses were different, the streets were called Closes, the clothes were different, the voices were different, but the human beings were the same as they had always been. And though using slightly different phraseology, the subjects of conversation were the same.

The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side by Agatha Christie (1962)

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The Welsh mining village from How Green Was My Valley, 1941 film version

“And another thing let it do,” my father said. “There is no room for pride in any man. There is no room for unkindness. There is no room for wit at the expense of others. All men are born the same, and equal. As you saw to-day, so come the Captains and the Kings and the Tailors and the Tinkers. Let the memory direct your dealings with men and women. And be sure to take good care of Mama. Is it?”

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn (1939)

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Althea folded her lips tightly for a moment. Then she said, ‘I choose to believe whatever my ship tells me about himself. If he tells me I have forgotten, then I don’t ask him to recall anything about it. Some memories are best left undisturbed. Sometimes, if you forget something, it’s because it’s better forgotten.’

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb (2009)

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‘You’ll be good at all the things I was never good at,’ he had said, smiling at me, and when I had said: ‘I want to be like you,’ he had said that wasn’t important because the most important thing of all was that I should be myself. ‘If you try to be someone other than yourself you’ll never be happy,’ he had said. ‘You’ve got to be honest with yourself so that you can be honest with other people.’

Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (1974)

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Favourite books read in March:

How Green Was My Valley, A Ladder to the Sky and my re-read of Cashelmara

New authors read in March:

E and M.A. Radford, Hilda Lawrence, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Richard Llewellyn, Samantha Harvey

Countries visited in March:

England, USA, Wales, an alternative version of China, Germany, Italy, the fictional Rain Wilds, Ireland

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Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy in March?

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

This month’s book for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge is one of her later Miss Marple mysteries, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, published in 1962. I tend to prefer the Poirots to the Marples, so I was curious to see what I would think of this one.

The novel opens with the elderly Jane Marple recovering from a recent illness and deciding to take a walk around ‘the Development’, a new housing estate near her home in St Mary Mead. She falls and is helped to her feet by Heather Badcock, one of the new residents, who rushes out of her house to assist. Later, Mrs Badcock is poisoned during a party at nearby Gossington Hall hosted by its new owner, the famous American actress Marina Gregg. It seems unlikely, however, that Mrs Badcock had been the intended victim…it was only through an unfortunate set of circumstances that she came to drink the poison instead of Marina.

Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock begins to investigate, interviewing all those who were present at Gossington Hall at the time of Heather Badcock’s death and delving into Marina Gregg’s past, uncovering stories of adopted children, jealous rivals and a series of failed marriages. Miss Marple, however, is conducting some very different investigations of her own, based around what she knows of human nature. She is sure that the key to the mystery lies in discovering what caused the strange expression on Marina Gregg’s face just before Mrs Badcock dropped dead – an expression which other guests at the party described as reminding them of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott (“Out flew the web and floated wide – The mirror crack’d from side to side; ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried The Lady of Shalott).

This hasn’t become a favourite Christie novel and I didn’t find it quite as clever as some of her others, but I did still enjoy reading it. It seems that she got the idea for the plot from the tragic true story of a real American actress, although I won’t tell you her name because if you look it up it will completely spoil the surprises contained in the solution to the mystery. I correctly guessed who the murderer was very early in the story, but I had no idea what the motive could have been and had to wait for Miss Marple to explain it all for me at the end of the book!

As well as being a murder mystery, this book is also an interesting study of some of the social changes taking place in 1960s Britain with a lot of time devoted to describing the houses on the ‘Development’ and the type of people who live there – with Miss Marple coming to the conclusion that, whatever the time and place, people are still people with the same hopes and ambitions, fears and uncertainties. It is through observations like this that she is able to move towards solving the mystery, drawing parallels between the suspects and other people she has known in the past. Miss Marple is also having personal problems of her own in this book, with her companion/housekeeper Mrs Knight, who treats her like a child and is generally overbearing and domineering. It’s clear that, however much Miss Marple’s age might be catching up with her physically, there is nothing wrong with her mind and she resents Mrs Knight’s condescending attitude. Again, I don’t want to spoil things, but there is a happy ending to this part of the story too!

I can’t say that I loved this one, but I am looking forward to working through the rest of the Marple novels that I haven’t read yet.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

‘You’re right, of course,’ he said finally. ‘I’m not very good at thinking up plots, that’s the problem. I feel like all the stories in the universe have already been told.’

‘But that’s just not true,’ I insisted. ‘There’s an infinite supply for anyone with an imagination’.

This month is Reading Ireland Month. I wasn’t sure whether I’d have time to join in, but then I remembered I had A Ladder to the Sky on the TBR pile and, of course, John Boyne is an Irish author. I have read and enjoyed several of his books and this – his most recent, published in 2018 – sounded as though it would be another good one.

John Boyne’s books are always imaginative and always a little bit different to anything else I’ve read and this one is no exception. It tells the story of Maurice Swift, an aspiring novelist whose ambition knows no bounds and who is prepared to do whatever it takes to climb the ‘ladder to the sky’. The first section of the book, however, is written from the perspective of Erich Ackermann, a successful author who is touring Europe to promote his latest novel. Erich, a gay man in his sixties, has almost given up on the idea of finding love, but when he meets Maurice at a hotel in West Berlin in 1988, he feels an instant attraction to the young man and offers him a job as his assistant. Soon he finds himself confiding in Maurice, telling him all the secrets of his past and his youth growing up in Nazi Germany. But can Maurice be trusted – and what might he do with the information he has been given?

While I was reading this opening section, I was beginning to feel confused. It wasn’t really what I’d expected from the blurb – it seemed as though Erich Ackermann was the protagonist of the novel rather than Maurice and instead of reading a story about an ambitious young author I was reading one about Nazis and the fate of a family of Jews during the war. Eventually, though, I understood the point of all this and saw where the plot was heading. As one of the characters in the novel remarks, sometimes you need to give a book at least one hundred pages before making up your mind (“Yes, perhaps you’ll be bored at the start, but what if it gets better and suddenly everything that went before falls into place”) and that was certainly the case here. The book became more and more enjoyable the more I read, and by the time I reached the end I could appreciate the clever structure and the way in which Maurice’s true nature was revealed.

I won’t go into too many details about the things Maurice does as he tries to climb the ladder of ambition, but I can tell you that he is not a pleasant person at all. He is ruthless, cruel, completely without morals and doesn’t seem to care how much he hurts and betrays people. As an author, he suffers from a problem which will be familiar to many aspiring writers – he knows he can write, but he doesn’t know what to write about. Unable to think of any stories of his own, he decides to steal other people’s. But these are not just simple cases of plagiarism; the methods Maurice uses to obtain these stories and pass them off as his own are much worse than anyone could imagine.

Although the novel is quite dark at times (the section narrated by Maurice’s wife, Edith, is particularly disturbing) there’s also some humour, especially when Boyne is having fun satirising the literary world and various author stereotypes – for example, we meet Henry Etta James who writes an award-winning novel called I Am Dissatisfied with My Boyfriend, My Body and My Career and Garrett Colby whose books all feature talking animals, including one about an ‘unrequited love affair between a man and a raccoon’. At one point Maurice also picks up a book by Maude Avery, the fictitious author from Boyne’s previous novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I thought was a nice touch. Real authors find their way into the novel too, such as Gore Vidal, whom Maurice visits at his villa on the Amalfi Coast.

I ended up loving this book; in fact, with the exception of The Thief of Time, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by John Boyne so far. I still have four of his earlier adult novels to read: The Congress of Rough Riders, Next of Kin, Mutiny on the Bounty and The House of Special Purpose. If anyone has read one or more of those, I’d love to know which you’d recommend I read next.

Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

“All Spain seems to seek me, señor,” answered the stranger merrily. “But who shall slay Nick Beauvallet? Will you try?”

Having read and loved many of Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian romances, I’ve been interested in trying one of her historical novels set in earlier periods – and at the same time, I’ve been a bit wary because they don’t seem as popular or well-liked as the Regencies. I needn’t have worried, though, because I made a good choice with her 1929 novel Beauvallet, set in sixteenth century Spain and England; I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to all Heyer readers, but it was definitely my sort of book!

Sir Nicholas Beauvallet is a notorious English pirate whose name is spoken of in the same breath as Sir Francis Drake’s and at the beginning of the novel his ship, the Venture, is engaged in conflict with the Spanish galleon Santa Maria. The Spanish vessel is captured and the people aboard taken captive, among them the beautiful Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva and her father, Don Manuel. After a futile attempt to fight off Beauvallet with his own dagger, Dominica knows the situation is hopeless – and so she is very surprised when Beauvallet offers to take them safely home to Spain, swearing to return at a later date to make her his wife. This seems like a ridiculous plan – no Englishman in his right mind would attempt to enter Spain while the two countries are at war – but our hero is not known as ‘Mad Nicholas’ for nothing…

The plot is over the top and not to be taken too seriously, but the book is great fun to read – the perfect way to escape from the pressures of modern day life for a while and retreat into a good old-fashioned adventure story complete with swordfights, sea battles, abductions, imprisonments and daring escapes! Heyer’s attention to period detail is as evident in this novel as in her others, and being set in an earlier century means she has adjusted the language and the dialogue accordingly. While I thought Dominica was quite thinly drawn and not as memorable as many of Heyer’s other heroines, Nick Beauvallet is a wonderful character. He reminded me very much of some of Rafael Sabatini’s irrepressible swashbuckling heroes, particularly Peter Blood – and of course, Captain Blood, another pirate novel, was published just a few years before Beauvallet. As a Sabatini fan, it was probably inevitable that I would enjoy this book!

As a romance, the book is quite predictable; right from their first encounter, where Dominica shouts “I hate you! I despise you, and I hate you!”, it’s easy to guess that her hatred will not last long, especially as Nick is not the sort of man to accept defeat, in love or in anything else. But sometimes predictability is not a bad thing, and there were plenty of other twists and turns along the way to make this an exciting and entertaining read. I would like to read the earlier Simon the Coldheart, about one of Beauvallet’s ancestors, but first I will be heading back to the Regency period as the next Heyer novel I have lined up to read is Sprig Muslin.