Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; he writes beautifully and I’ve loved some of his previous books – in fact, the only one I’ve read that I didn’t like much was Days Without End, mainly because the subject (army life in the American West during the Indian Wars) didn’t really appeal to me. His new novel, Old God’s Time, has a very different setting – Ireland in the 1990s – and I hoped it would be another good one.

Old God’s Time is the story of Tom Kettle, a recently retired police detective who lives in the annex of a castle in Dalkey, a coastal resort to the southeast of Dublin. The castle overlooks the Irish Sea and Tom is finding some contentment in the quietness and solitude of his retirement…until, one day, two younger policeman arrive at his door. They are reopening an historic case Tom worked on in the 1960s and they want to hear his thoughts on it.

Forced to confront moments from his past that he would have preferred to forget, Tom begins to remember. He remembers his beloved wife June and his two children Joseph and Winnie, all now dead, in separate tragic incidents. He remembers his career as a detective and his time in the army. And he remembers that terrible, disturbing thirty-year-old case, linked to one of the darkest episodes in Ireland’s recent history.

When I first read the blurb for this book, it sounded like a crime novel, but being familiar with Sebastian Barry’s work, I knew it would probably be something quite different! In fact, the crime element is pushed into the background until much later in the book, and instead we spend time inside Tom’s head, watching him go about his daily business while memories fleet in and out of his mind, almost at random. The memories don’t come to him chronologically, but in a haphazard, disordered way and sometimes it is unclear whether he is even remembering things accurately. This doesn’t make for easy reading and I spent the first half of the novel feeling very confused. ‘Stream-of-consciousness’ writing is not my favourite style at the best of times and although it does usually work for me in Barry’s novels, I wasn’t won over until the second half of the book. From that point, I was gripped.

The story that does eventually unfold in Old God’s Time is very sad and very grim. It’s a subject that is painful and difficult to read about, but it’s one that needs to be discussed and not ignored. My heart broke for Tom, June and the other characters, but at the same time it’s not a completely miserable book and the beautiful descriptions of the Irish landscape provide a bit of respite from the sadness of the story. I didn’t like this book as much as The Secret Scripture or On Canaan’s Side, but it’s a powerful novel and one I’m pleased I read.

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

I’m counting this towards Reading Ireland Month 2023, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.

My Commonplace Book: February 2023

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

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


Children are not born with memories of who insulted their mother or slew their grandfather or stole their land. Those hates are bequeathed to them, taught them, breathed into them. If adults didn’t tell children of their hereditary hates, perhaps we would do better.

Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb (2016)


My opinion is that, to be happy, it is best to think that, as we are the product of events, events will continue to produce that which is in harmony with us.

A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy (1881)


Medea the Sorceress by Valentine Cameron Prinsep, 1880

This was another lesson she had taught Meena: the world need not know your heart if it does not benefit you. And when your feelings do not suit the moment, conceal, pretend if you need to. Whatever you need to do to survive.

Savage Beasts by Rani Selvarajah (2023)


What he had not seen, he could not speak of. In his master’s employ, he had always followed that rule. Wise men have neither eyes nor ears.

Rivers of Treason by KJ Maitland (2023)


“Miss O’Connell is right,” he said gravely. “We are all human beings with equal rights, with liberty to regulate our own lives, and to choose for ourselves what we shall do, or not do. The only thing I want you to remember is that before our liberty comes our duty to each other – not any one person to anybody else, but each to all.”

The Empty World by D.E. Stevenson (1936)


First edition of The Square of Sevens by E. Irenaeus Stevenson, 1897

‘You have to dream,’ I said. ‘That’s how the impossible becomes possible. Show me a grand triumph that didn’t start out as a dream.’

The Square of Sevens by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (2023)


Nowhere was there cohesion or form. Unrelated incidents and people whirled round in space. But Poirot knew quite well that somehow and somewhere there must be a pattern. Possibly several patterns. Possibly each time one shook the kaleidoscope one got a different pattern…But one of the patterns would be the right pattern. The question was where to start…

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie (1955)


I think, says Doreen, a lot of people go through life not-knowing a lot of things. It does take courage, you know. To live a life that, at least to yourself, is true. For a lot of people that’s too high a price to pay.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)


The Race between Atalanta and Hippomenes. Nicolas Colombel (1644–1717)

Jason thought the world was built for heroes. I knew we had to build it ourselves.

Atalanta by Jennifer Saint (2023)


Is it disrespectful to the House to love some Statues more than others? I sometimes ask Myself this question. It is my belief that the House itself loves and blesses equally everything that it has created. Should I try to do the same? Yet, at the same time, I can see that it is in the nature of men to prefer one thing to another, to find one thing more meaningful than another.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)


The sublimity of the music reached a nerve deep within her and stirred up feelings and emotions she had thought long buried, for the music brought a sense of hope. Perhaps it was an idealistic, naive view of what the future might be – yet surely hope was part of what makes us human, she reflected. The future can’t be forever blighted.

The Lodger by Helen Scarlett (2023)


Favourite books read in February:

The Empty World, A Laodicean and The Square of Sevens

Authors read for the first time in February:

Helen Scarlett, Rani Selvarajah, Lucy Caldwell

Places visited in my February reading:

India, South Africa, England, Scotland, Greece, Ireland, France, Germany


Reading notes: February was another good month for me; although I didn’t read as many books as in January, I enjoyed most of those I did read, which I think is more important. I’ve also read a good variety of books, including fantasy, crime, historical fiction, mythology and science fiction! Now I just need to get on with posting the reviews. In March, I will be taking part in Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, and am also hoping to join in with Reading Wales, hosted by Paula at Book Jotter.

How was your February? Do you have any plans for your March reading?

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie

February’s prompt for the Read Christie 2023 challenge is a murder method – the use of a blunt object. A lot of Christie’s novels involve murders carried out in this way and there were plenty of suggestions on the official challenge page this month. I chose a book I hadn’t read, Hickory Dickory Dock, which is a Poirot mystery first published in 1955.

The novel begins with the unthinkable – Poirot’s very efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, has made a mistake! Several mistakes, in fact, in a letter she has been typing. When Poirot asks her if something is wrong, she confesses that she’s worried about her sister, Mrs Hubbard, who has recently begun working at a student hostel on Hickory Road. Strange things have been happening at the hostel, Miss Lemon explains – a number of items have been stolen, but there seems to be no logic behind the thefts. A diamond ring, light bulbs, a stethoscope, lipstick, one shoe…what can be the connection? Finding an excuse to visit Hickory Road for himself, Poirot begins to investigate. At first it seems that there could be a fairly innocent explanation, but as these little incidents begin to take a more malicious turn, Poirot needs to discover the truth before somebody is killed.

This is one of several Christie novels that uses part of a children’s rhyme as its title, but apart from the name of the street, it doesn’t have any significance to the plot this time – unlike, for example, A Pocket Full of Rye or Five Little Pigs. That was a bit disappointing (surely a mouse or a clock could have been worked into the plot somehow!) but otherwise I enjoyed this book. I don’t think it’s one of the very best Poirot novels, but even a slightly weaker one is still fun to read. Although the crimes being committed seem quite trivial at the beginning, it gradually becomes clear that something more serious is going on in the background and once the murder takes place, the plot becomes much more compelling.

Setting the novel in a house full of students gives it a busy, bustling feel and means there’s a large cast of characters to provide both victims and suspects. The students are of all nationalities, some British, some French, with others from Africa, Jamaica, India and a whole range of other places. As the book was written in the 1950s, you can probably guess that the way these characters are portrayed is not always politically correct; there’s some racist language and some attitudes that aren’t considered acceptable today. However, for the most part, the students seem to mix together across racial and class boundaries, forming the usual friendships and rivalries you would find in any large group of young people.

I can’t really claim to have solved the mystery, as I worked out part of it but not all of it, but I don’t think it was one of Christie’s cleverest plots and the solution wasn’t as surprising as some of her others. Still, it was entertaining, as all of her books are, and I’m looking forward to reading more as Read Christie 2023 progresses. The March prompt is a motive – anger. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be joining in with that one, but will see if I can fit it into my March reading.

Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb

It’s been almost nine years since I decided to read Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in Robin Hobb’s sixteen-volume fantasy sequence following the adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer, his friend the Fool, and the people of Bingtown and the Rain Wilds. Not being a big reader of fantasy, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I trusted the opinions of the fellow bloggers who had recommended it – and I loved it! I went on to read the other books in the individual trilogies and quartets that make up the sequence: the Farseer Trilogy, the Liveship Traders Trilogy, the Tawny Man Trilogy, the Rain Wild Chronicles and, finally, the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy. Assassin’s Fate is the final book in this final trilogy, bringing the entire series to a close.

Naturally, I can’t really discuss the last of sixteen books without spoiling certain aspects of the fifteen previous ones, so be warned! If you haven’t read any of these books yet, I strongly recommend starting at the beginning, with Assassin’s Apprentice – and I hope you’ll enjoy your journey through Robin Hobb’s world as much as I did. This particular novel, though, hasn’t become a favourite and even now, more than a week after I finished it I can’t really decide how I felt about it.

Assassin’s Fate picks up the story from the previous book, Fool’s Quest, with Fitz and his companions heading for the distant city of Clerres in pursuit of the people who have captured his young daughter, Bee. As well as Fitz, the party consists of the Fool, in his female guise of Amber, the trainee assassin Spark, Chade’s illegitimate son Lant, and the stableboy, Per. Fitz is convinced that Bee is dead and their mission is one of vengeance only, but Amber senses that she is still alive. Either way, now that they have embarked on their journey, they need to reach Clerres as quickly as possible and passage has been arranged on the liveship Paragon.

The story of Fitz’s journey alternates with chapters narrated by Bee as she describes her ordeal at the hands of her captors, led by the evil Dwalia. I’ve had mixed feelings about Bee throughout this trilogy – on the one hand, I like her as a character and I can see that her viewpoint allows us to witness things that Fitz does not and so fills in the gaps in the story; on the other, having spent the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies solely inside Fitz’s head, I would have preferred to continue like that. I often find that I start to lose interest slightly when a long series or saga begins to move on to the next generation and the older characters I have grown to love start to take a back seat. In this book, the earlier Bee chapters felt drawn out and repetitive, although later on, when she and her captors arrived in Clerres, I found her story much more compelling.

A bigger problem for me was the amount of time spent on characters from the Liveship Traders and Rain Wilds novels. As this is the book that wraps up the whole sequence, it’s understandable that Hobb would want to give us a chance to say our farewells to the characters from those books as well as the Farseer ones, but I felt that they came to dominate the story too much. I was happy to see Paragon again and his captains Althea and Brashen, but I had no interest in their son Boy-O or in Kennitson of the Pirate Isles. Instead, I would have preferred more interactions between Fitz and the Fool (not Amber, as I shared Fitz’s dislike of her), more communication with Verity, which was hinted at in the previous book but not followed through, and while we were saying our goodbyes to various characters, I would have liked a better send-off for Chade.

I probably sound as though I didn’t enjoy this book much at all, but that’s not true! I did find plenty of things to like, such as the dramatic scenes within the walls of Clerres, the roles of Nighteyes and Motley the crow, and the final few chapters which, despite not being quite the ending to Fitz’s story I would have chosen, still made me cry. I’m just slightly disappointed that so much of this final novel was devoted to characters and storylines I didn’t feel very invested in. I’m sure people who loved the Liveship and Rain Wilds books more than I did will feel much more satisfied with it.

I’m not sure whether any of Robin Hobb’s other books appeal to me (she has also written as Megan Lindholm) but I’m pleased to have read these ones as overall, apart from a few that have been less successful, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them.

The Empty World by D.E. Stevenson

Did you know that D.E. Stevenson had written a post-apocalyptic novel? I didn’t, until I read the description of this one and was intrigued by how different it sounded from her usual light romances and family sagas. First published in 1936, it’s available in ebook format from independent publisher Lume Books. I’m not sure whether ebooks count towards Karen and Lizzy’s #ReadIndies month, but this book seems to be currently out of print in physical form.

The Empty World begins with historical novelist Jane Forrest and her secretary, Maisie, boarding a flight from New York to London. Jane is prepared for a turbulent journey, but she and the other passengers are alarmed when a particularly violent electrical storm seems to knock them off course and cut off communication with the world below. Finally managing to land in Glasgow, the passengers and crew immediately sense that something is horribly wrong – the airport is eerily deserted and nobody comes to meet the plane. And it’s not just the airport…the city of Glasgow itself also appears to be completely empty of people, animals, birds and any other form of life. Eventually, Jane and her companions are forced to face the possibility that they could be the only human beings left in the whole world.

I don’t want to go into the plot in too much more detail as part of the enjoyment of reading this book was first in wondering what had happened to destroy life on earth and then in wondering how Jane and the other survivors would react. It would be nice to think that if a disaster threw you together with a random group of people you would all work together and cooperate, but of course that’s not what happens here and divisions and tensions within the group are apparent from the start. Some of these are romantic tensions, due to there being seventeen men in the group and only five women. Others arise from different views over how their new society should be run and whether everyone should be allowed to be part of it.

It seemed at first that the whole book would be written from Jane’s perspective and I did find her a likeable heroine, but we also get to know the other people who survived the disaster – thirteen passengers and nine crew members – and some of them go off and have adventures of their own as the novel progresses. As well as Jane and her secretary, these include newspaper proprietor Sir Richard Barton, who becomes the de facto leader of the group, Hollywood actress Iris Bright and her bullying manager, two elderly spinster sisters, and an assortment of pilots and engineers.

A few pages into the book, it began to occur to me that something didn’t feel quite right. I eventually looked back at the first page and discovered that although the book was published in 1936, the story is actually set in 1973, Stevenson’s future. That obviously hadn’t registered with me when I first started reading, although the description of a transatlantic flight only taking twelve hours should have told me it wasn’t the 1930s! To be fair, the setting is only vaguely futuristic and overall it does feel much more like the 30s than the 70s.

I don’t read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, but Stevenson seems to explore most of the issues that are usually raised in this kind of novel. Why did some people survive and not others? How should they go about rebuilding their lives and how will each survivor fit into the new community that begins to emerge from the ruins? Which ideas, inventions and customs of the former civilisation are worth preserving and which should be consigned to history? Money, for example, no longer has any meaning when you can walk into an abandoned shop and take whatever you need.

I loved the eerie atmosphere Stevenson creates as she describes a world without life, with inanimate objects frozen in place exactly as they were when the catastrophe struck. Trying to travel anywhere is an ordeal as the roads are blocked with crashed or stationary vehicles (although I don’t think Stevenson had fully appreciated how much busier the roads would have become between the 1930s and 1970s – and can you imagine how bad this problem would be in 2023!). I found it particularly poignant when three members of the party take a small plane and fly to Europe, only to find that the places they’d always dreamed of visiting – Rome and Venice, for example – have completely lost their magic now they are devoid of life. At least you can have the museums and galleries all to yourself!

It’s sad that The Empty World seems to have been almost forgotten and has never received the attention or acclaim of other dystopian novels. Maybe it was just too different from Stevenson’s other work to appeal to her existing readers while her reputation as an author of gentle, domestic fiction may have led to the book being overlooked by science fiction fans. I loved it anyway and found it a fascinating, thought provoking read. I would definitely recommend trying it if you can get hold of it – if you need it in physical format, used copies seem to be quite rare and expensive but maybe you’ll be lucky. The book has also been published in the US under the title of A World in Spell.

Historical Musings #78: Real people or fictional?

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction! This month, I’m going to look at two different kinds of historical novel – those that insert fictional characters into historical settings and those that focus on real historical figures. The second type of book is sometimes referred to as a ‘biographical novel’ and ranges from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius to Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. I read and enjoy all sorts of historical fiction, but I know some people like their novels to be completely fictional while others prefer to read about real kings, queens, artists, musicians, politicians etc, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

I’m happy to read either of these kinds of book and they both seem to be equally popular, although I’m aware that a lot of readers don’t like reading fiction about real historical figures and would rather read non-fiction about them instead. Personally, I often seem to struggle to digest information through non-fiction, which is why I prefer to get to know historical figures in fictional form first and then use that as a starting point to find out more. I think if I’d just read a non-fiction biography of Thomas Cromwell, I would have forgotten half of what I’d read by the time I finished the book, whereas his story as told in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy has stayed with me. I know, though, that Wolf Hall only gives me one author’s interpretation of Cromwell’s character and that to get a full picture I would need to explore as many versions as possible, both fictional and factual. We also need to consider an author’s personal prejudices, their target audience or the information and sources available to them at the time of writing. Just look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III!

There are some obvious advantages to an author in writing about fictional characters – more freedom to invent personalities, dialogue and storylines without having to worry about readers saying, “but that never happened” or “she would never have said something like that”. However, these fictional stories still need to be believable and plausible within the context of the historical period in which the characters are living. And while some authors populate their entire book with imaginary characters only, others include a mixture of real and fictional. In some books, the interactions between the two feel natural and convincing (in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, for example, her fictional characters mix seamlessly with Mary, Queen of Scots, Ivan the Terrible and John Dee, to name just a few), while others don’t feel quite right to me (I didn’t like seeing Prince Philip appear in Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code, a book I otherwise loved).

In general, I’m much more comfortable reading about historical figures from previous centuries rather than people who have only recently died or are even still alive, as Prince Philip was at the time the Kate Quinn book was published. I’m also not very keen on books that put real people into completely imaginary situations, for example the current trend for using historical figures such as the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens or Josephine Tey as detectives in mystery novels. I know a lot of people love these, but they don’t really appeal to me.

What is your opinion on this? If you’re reading a novel set in the past, do you prefer to read about real or fictional characters – or both?

Weyward by Emilia Hart

Witchcraft is a subject I always find interesting to read about, so I was curious to see how Emilia Hart would approach it in Weyward, her debut novel published in the UK earlier this month. It’s a book set in three different time periods, something which doesn’t always work for me, but in this case the three storylines are so closely linked I found the structure very effective.

In Shakespeare’s First Folio, the three witches in Macbeth are referred to as the ‘weyward sisters’, a term which evolved into ‘weird sisters’ in later versions – and just like Macbeth, Emilia Hart’s novel features three ‘weyward’ women.

In 2019, we meet Kate, a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Finally making the decision to leave, she flees London for Crows Beck, a village in Cumbria where she has inherited a cottage from her great-aunt, Violet. Settling into the house, known as Weyward Cottage, Kate begins to uncover some family secrets that help her to understand the great-aunt she barely knew. A second thread of the novel is set in 1942 and introduces us to Violet as a girl of sixteen living at Orton Hall with her father. She longs to know more about her mother, who died when she was a small child, but her father refuses to talk about her, except to say that Violet resembles her – and not in a good way. As Violet’s story unfolds, we find out how she came to leave Orton Hall and build a new life at Weyward Cottage.

The third of the weyward women in the novel is Altha Weyward who lives in Crows Beck in the early 17th century. Altha, who has a knowledge of healing and herbs passed down to her by her mother, is on trial for witchcraft, having been accused of killing a local man. As Altha waits to hear whether she will be found guilty, we learn more about her life in the village and the truth behind the man’s death.

The three women are linked not just by a family connection, but also through a shared love of nature. In fact, it’s more than just a love – it’s an affinity so strong that they are able to draw power from the natural environment and find comfort in surrounding themselves with plants and animals even at the most difficult of times. I could have done without so many detailed descriptions of insects and spiders, but on the other hand the affection these women have for even the least pleasant of creatures is what makes them unusual and different. None of them conform to society’s expectations and for Violet and Altha at least, this can lead to suspicion and distrust.

The male characters don’t come out of this book very well; from Kate’s violent, manipulative ex-partner and Violet’s cold, strict father to the men who hold Altha’s fate in their hands, they are very much the villains of the book. However, I did like Violet’s brother Graham and the little we learn of Kate’s father, so not all of the men are shown in a bad light. As for the three female protagonists, I liked all of them, although Violet was the one I felt the closest connection with. The three narratives are written in different styles using different combinations of first and third person and past and present tense, so I never felt confused as to whose story I was reading. Parts of Kate’s story towards the end were quite predictable, but otherwise all three storylines were gripping, staying with one character for just the right length of time before switching to the next, and with plenty of cliffhanger chapter endings to keep things moving forward.

I enjoyed Weyward, although there wasn’t as much focus on witchcraft as I expected – it’s more a book about the magic of nature and the obstacles faced by women over the centuries. It wasn’t always comfortable to read as all three of the main characters go through some very traumatic experiences, but I found it an interesting and unusual novel and will look out for more from Emilia Hart.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK/The Borough Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 6/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.