Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore’s Exposure was one of my favourite books of 2016, so when I saw that she had a new one coming out last year, I knew I wanted to read it. The early reviews seemed to be very mixed, though, so I didn’t rush to get hold of a copy and it wasn’t until the days between Christmas and New Year that I finally got round to reading it.

I mustn’t have read those reviews very closely because I had the impression that this was a book about the French Revolution – but that’s not really true. The story is set in England and although events taking place across the Channel do have an effect on the lives of our characters, all of this is happening at a distance and is not the focus of the novel. The main theme of Birdcage Walk, according to Helen Dunmore herself and hinted at in the opening chapters, is the temporary nature of human life and the way so many of us leave behind very little evidence of our existence when we die. Dunmore states in her Afterword that she wanted to show that everyone has shaped the future in some way, by influencing those around them, even if they then disappear without trace. This is particularly poignant when you consider that while she was writing this novel she was already seriously ill with the cancer that would soon take her life.

But back to the plot of Birdcage Walk. The main part of the story is set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes’ husband, John Diner Tredevant (known simply as Diner) is a property developer who has started to build a terrace of houses with magnificent views of the Avon Gorge. With war against France on the horizon, however, this is a bad time to be trying to sell houses. Lizzie can see that her husband is troubled but is he just worried about the failure of his building project or is there something else on his mind?

Dunmore’s portrayal of Diner is excellent; he is a jealous, possessive and controlling husband who resents Lizzie having relationships with any other friends or family members apart from himself – but it is clear that something terrible has happened in his past, leaving him unhappy and disturbed. We find out very early in the novel what that something probably is, which takes away part of the suspense, but I think there is still plenty of tension in waiting to see when and how Lizzie will learn the truth.

The characterisation in general is very good; I found Lizzie’s mother, the writer Julia Fawkes and her husband Augustus particularly interesting to read about. Julia’s role in the story is brief, but she is one of the characters Dunmore uses to illustrate her point about a person’s influence living on after their words have faded away. Augustus, with his strong political views but lack of insight when it comes to the everyday things going on around him, also feels believable and real.

As I’ve said, the French Revolution is played out in the background with news reaching our characters mainly in the form of letters and newspaper reports. This means we don’t have the excitement of being thrown directly into the events of the Revolution, but it is still interesting to see things from the perspective of people who were less directly involved. Most of the novel, though, is concerned with more domestic issues: Lizzie’s personal relationship with Diner and her efforts to care for her baby brother Thomas despite Diner’s opposition.

I didn’t like Birdcage Walk quite as much as Exposure, but I still found it atmospheric and beautifully written. It’s so sad that there won’t be any more books from Helen Dunmore, but as I have only read three of them so far (The Lie is the other) I can still look forward to reading her others.

Six degrees of separation: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to The Time Machine

This is the first time I have participated in Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Every month we are given the title of a book as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

I’ve seen other bloggers taking part in this every month and it always looks fun, so I thought I would try it myself. I picked a good month for my first attempt, as the opening book in the chain is one that I read and enjoyed just last year: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

This is the first in a series of novels about Mma Precious Ramotswe, a woman who runs a detective agency in Botswana. Another book I remember enjoying which is also set in an African country is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Cutting for Stone tells the story of a surgeon’s twin sons who grow up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and are raised by two doctors from the local hospital. This brings to mind another book about a doctor: A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov.

This is a fascinating and surprisingly funny book about a young, newly qualified doctor working at a small hospital in a remote Russian village. It’s the second book I’ve read by Mikhail Bulgakov; I also loved The Master and Margarita.

I remember feeling intimidated at the thought of tackling The Master and Margarita…until I picked it up and started to read. What a wonderful, original, unusual novel it is!

My next link is to another book with the word Master in the title. Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver.

Set during the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Master of Shadows is the first novel by historian and TV presenter Neil Oliver. Another historian who has recently started to write fiction is Ian Mortimer, so the next book on my list is one that I read a few months ago – The Outcasts of Time.

The Outcasts of Time is the story of two brothers who travel forward in time from 1348 to 1942, stopping in each century to see how things have changed. I have read a lot of books which feature time travel, but the obvious choice to finish my chain is H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my first Six Degrees of Separation! It has taken me from a detective agency in Botswana to a futuristic world, visiting Ethiopia, Russia and the Byzantine Empire along the way. I wonder where the chain will lead me next month, when we’ll be starting with Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

Have you read any of the books in my chain? What did you think of them?

In the Shadow of Agatha Christie, edited by Leslie S. Klinger

Agatha Christie is an author most people have heard of, whether or not they’ve ever read any of her books. Ask someone to think of a female crime writer and she is probably the first name that will come to mind. Christie’s first novel, though, wasn’t published until 1920 – and she was by no means the first woman to write in the crime genre. This new collection of short stories, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, features some of the lesser known women crime writers who came before Agatha and could even have inspired her work.

The book is subtitled Classic Crime Fiction by Forgotten Female Writers: 1850-1917 and although I wouldn’t personally describe all of these authors as ‘forgotten’, there were certainly quite a few whose names were new to me. Of the sixteen stories included in the book, I had already read one of them – A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell (1917), which shows the different ways in which men and women evaluate the same situation and the different clues they pick up on – but it’s such a good story I was happy to read it again. Other names who may be familiar to many readers are Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and Scarlet Pimpernel author Baroness Orczy, although the stories included here – The Squire’s Story (1853) and The Regent’s Park Murder (1901) – didn’t particularly stand out to me.

As a fan of Victorian sensation novels, I was intrigued to come across stories by Ellen Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, two authors whose work I’ve loved in the past. The Braddon one, The Winning Sequence (1896), is more of a ghost story than a mystery and I found it disappointingly weak, but Wood’s story, Mrs. Todhetley’s Earrings (1873), was very enjoyable. It is narrated by her young hero, Johnny Ludlow, who is apparently the subject of a whole series of short story collections, although I had never heard of him until now.

Others that I think deserve a special mention include The Statement of Jared Johnson (1899) by Geraldine Bonner, a murder mystery with a twist I’ve come across several times in crime stories recently but which I always find clever, The Ghost of Fountain Lane (1893) by C.L. Pirkis, in which a link emerges between two seemingly unconnected mysteries, and The Case of the Registered Letter by the Austrian author Augusta Groner. There’s also A Point in Morals (1899) by Ellen Glasgow, an unusual story which considers whether murder is always morally wrong, The Blood-Red Cross (1902) by L.T. Meade which features a sinister villain called Madame Sara, and Anna Katherine Green’s Missing: Page Thirteen (1915), an eerie tale of a house with a secret room.

The other authors represented in the book, whose work made less impression on me, are Catherine Crow, Mary Fortune, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Elizabeth Corbett and Carolyn Wells – whose The Adventure of the Clothes-Line (1915) is a parody of a Sherlock Holmes story which I think a lot of readers would enjoy even though I didn’t.

There’s nothing here, in my opinion, which resembles an Agatha Christie story in any way, so the title of this book could be slightly misleading if someone picked it up expecting a selection of Christie-style mysteries. I didn’t find any new authors here that I liked enough to want to explore further, but it was still interesting to read this collection and see how crime fiction has developed over the years.

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

Top Ten Tuesday: New-to-me authors read in 2017

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) is:

Top ten new-to-me authors I read in 2017

I don’t take part in Top Ten Tuesday every week, but I thought this one would give me an opportunity to take another look back at 2017’s reading as well as looking forward to the future. The ten authors I’ve listed below were all new to me last year and I am now interested in reading more books by all ten of them, in 2018 if possible.

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1. Rebecca Mascull

Rebecca Mascull was the first author to come to mind when I saw the topic for this week. Until 2017 I had never read any of her books, but The Wild Air and Song of the Sea Maid both impressed me enough to win a place on my books of the year list. I still have her first novel, The Visitors, to look forward to.

2. Robert Graves

I read I, Claudius in 2017 and enjoyed it more than I’d expected to (Ancient Rome is not one of my favourite periods to read about). The sequel, Claudius the God, is on my Classics Club list and I will try to get round to it this year.

3. Helen Steadman

I was pleased to discover Helen Steadman in 2017 because she writes about the North East of England, which is where I am from. Her debut novel, Widdershins, is about the Newcastle witch trials of 1650 and apparently a sequel is on its way.

4. Allan Massie

Death in Bordeaux is the first in a quartet of crime novels set in 1940s France. I liked it enough to want to read the others, which is fortunate as I need to read the fourth one for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project.

5. Elizabeth Jane Howard

Having heard so much about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, 2017 was the year I got round to starting the series myself. I enjoyed The Light Years and am looking forward to continuing with the second book, Marking Time.

6. Nicholas Blake

Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day-Lewis) is one of several classic crime authors I read for the first time in 2017 (Michael Innes is another). So far The Corpse in the Snowman is the only book of his that I’ve read, but I have another of his Nigel Strangeways mysteries lined up to read soon.

7. Nicola Cornick

I enjoyed reading two Nicola Cornick books in 2017 – The Phantom Tree and House of Shadows. Both are historical fiction involving dual time periods; her earlier novels don’t really appeal to me but I’m hoping she will write more books like these two!

8. RF Delderfield

Delderfield’s Long Summer Day was another of my favourite books of 2017. I’m planning to read the other books in his A Horseman Riding By trilogy this year, before going on to explore everything else he has written.

9. Antonia Senior

Antonia Senior’s The Winter Isles is a fascinating story set in 12th century Scotland. Although I didn’t quite manage to love it, it has made me curious about her other novels.

10. Gerald Durrell

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I did enjoy Gerald Durrell’s Three Singles to Adventure and Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons in 2017. Maybe 2018 will be the year I finally read his Corfu trilogy!

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Have you read anything by any of these authors? Which new-to-you authors did you discover in 2017?

My Commonplace Book: December 2017

A selection of words and pictures to represent December’s reading

My Commonplace Book

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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“Just so. A great warrior may be a poor father or a worse husband. A respectable cleric might hide a youthful crime in a lifetime of good deeds. Most often a man is remembered for the evils he commits. But there is no man who ever lived that did nothing worthwhile through the course of his life.”

Voice of the Falconer by David Blixt (2010)

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New Mexico

The nun took Father Latour to a window that jutted out and looked up the narrow street to where the wall turned at an angle, cutting off further view. “Look,” she said, “after the Mother has read us one of those letters from her brother, I come and stand in this alcove and look up our little street with its one lamp, and just beyond the turn there, is New Mexico; all that he has written us of those red deserts and blue mountains, the great plains and the herds of bison, and the canyons more profound than our deepest mountain gorges. I can feel that I am there, my heart beats faster, and it seems but a moment until the retiring-bell cuts short my dreams.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927)

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“But your husband-” He closed his eyes for a moment and said, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it. He did that, every day, for a long time.”

“You sent him, though,” she said, her voice as low as his. “You did.”

His smile was bleak.

“I’ve done such things every day…for a long time.”

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon (2017)

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Medieval Wales

Sybil’s Breton maid, Amelina, who is of a poetical turn of mind it seems, on seeing the princess, said, “She is very beautiful. She looks like Wales – her eyes like the brilliant blue wind-driven skies and the colour of her hair reminding me of the black rugged mountains.” But Lady Sybil clicked her tongue and told her this was nonsense. “She looks like a poor orphaned child to me,” she said.

Conquest: Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr (2016)

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“A mean between two extremes is apt to be satisfactory in results. If we don’t produce a Marcus Aurelius or a Seneca, neither do we produce a Nero or a Phocas. We may have lost patriotism, but we have gained cosmopolitanism, which is better. If we have lost chivalry, we have acquired decency; and if we have ceased to be picturesque, we have become cleanly, which is considerably more to be desired.”

A Point in Morals by Ellen Glasgow (1899) – taken from In the Shadow of Agatha Christie edited by Leslie S Klinger (2018)

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The French Revolution

Now it seemed that in France, everything my mother and her friends had long talked about was coming true. Human beings really were capable of uniting to defeat tyranny and injustice. A new order could be created, based on the rights of man. And woman too. I was the one who had been mistaken. Everything they had dreamed of and written about was coming to pass, not two hundred miles from London.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore (2017)

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Favourite books read in December: Voice of the Falconer and Death Comes for the Archbishop

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Happy New Year – and happy reading in 2018!

My favourite books of 2017

With only two days left of 2017, I think it should be safe to post my books of the year list now. I always enjoy putting this post together, looking back over my reading year and picking out favourites. As usual, the list I’ve come up with is a long one, though not as long as some from previous years! I’ve also given a special mention to some books which didn’t quite win a place on the list – and re-reads have their own separate section this year too.

Here they are, in the order that I read them:

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The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas (1865)

From my review: “Well, it may be only January but I think I already know one book which will be appearing on my books of the year list this December! Bearing in mind that this is a later Dumas novel, written towards the end of his career on the urging of his publishers, I was pleased to find, almost as soon as I started reading, that it was living up to my expectations!”

The Red House Mystery by AA Milne (1922)

From my review: “I had always thought of A.A. Milne solely as the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories and it had never occurred to me to wonder what else he had written. It turns out that The Red House Mystery, originally published in 1922, was his first and only detective novel – which is a shame, because it’s excellent.”

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

From my review: “I loved His Bloody Project; although it’s not a traditional crime novel and there’s never any mystery surrounding the identity of the murderer, it’s the sort of book that leaves you with more questions at the end than you had at the beginning.”

Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933)

From my review: “I’m very happy with the way my reading is going so far this year. I’ve read some great books already and this is another one…It’s a fascinating story and very absorbing – I started it on a Saturday and was finished by Sunday; at just over 200 pages it’s a quick read but also the sort of book that leaves the reader with a lot to think about after the final page is turned.”

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

From my review: “I found East of Eden a surprisingly compelling read; I honestly hadn’t expected to love it as much as I did or to find myself wanting to turn the pages so quickly. I now feel much more enthusiastic about reading more Steinbeck…”

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (2016)

From my review: “I would like to tell you more about the plot of Golden Hill, but I’m limited as to how much I can say without spoiling things for future readers. I think it’s enough to say that it’s a hugely entertaining story involving duels, card games, imprisonments and a chase across the rooftops of New York…There’s so much to love about this unusual, imaginative novel.”

Wintercombe by Pamela Belle (1988)

From my review: “Although I was looking forward to reading it, I have to admit that after being so captivated by the adventures of the Heron family, I doubted whether I could possibly enjoy this book as much. Of course, I was wrong. What I found was another beautifully depicted setting, another moving story to become absorbed in and another set of characters to fall in love with (or to hate, as the case may be).”

I also loved the second book in the Wintercombe series, Herald of Joy.

They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie (1951)

From my review: “This book is not one of Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries – it’s a standalone and actually much more of a spy novel or thriller than a mystery. With an exciting plot involving kidnappings, conspiracies, impersonations, disguises and secret messages, I found it a lot of fun to read – one of those books I genuinely didn’t want to have to put down until I was finished!”

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull (2017)

From my review: “This wonderful story of a young woman with a passion for aviation is the first book I’ve read by Rebecca Mascull, but I enjoyed it so much I will certainly be going back to read her previous two novels. Set in the Lincolnshire town of Cleethorpes in the first two decades of the 20th century, The Wild Air is both fascinating and inspirational, with a heroine I loved and connected with immediately.”

Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge (1937)

From my review: “Not all of Goudge’s novels are historical, but it’s the historical ones that I’ve been drawn to first. Towers in the Mist is set in Oxford in the Elizabethan period and, like the other two I’ve read, it’s a truly beautiful novel.”

Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull (2015)

From my review: “Song of the Sea Maid is a wonderful exploration of what it was like to be a woman trying to forge a career in science in a period when it was not considered normal or socially acceptable to do so…There’s really nothing negative I can say about Song of the Sea Maid; even the use of first person present tense, which I often dislike, didn’t bother me – in fact, I barely noticed it because I found Dawnay’s voice so strong and real.”

The Liveship Traders trilogy by Robin Hobb (Ship of Magic; The Mad Ship; Ship of Destiny)

From my review: “Having become quite attached to the characters and swept away by the story over the course of the three novels, I’m sorry to have come to the end..I loved the world Robin Hobb created here and I was impressed by her ability to handle multiple storylines and keep track of who knows what! Also, as someone who doesn’t read a lot of fantasy, I found the dragon element fascinating.”

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (2016)

From my review: “This is a fascinating exploration of the harm that can be done, often unintentionally, by superstition and a lack of understanding and the basic knowledge we take for granted today. I thought The Wonder was…well, wonderful. Highly recommended!”

Long Summer Day by RF Delderfield (1966)

From my review: “Long Summer Day is one of my books of the year so far, without a doubt. It’s written in the sort of warm, comforting, old-fashioned style that I love, and despite its length I felt that the pages were going by very quickly because I was so absorbed in the lives of Paul and his friends – it’s one of those books where you truly feel as though you’ve escaped into another world for a little while!”

Soot by Andrew Martin (2017)

From my review: “You know when you can tell as soon as you start reading that you’re going to enjoy a book? That’s how I felt about Soot, Andrew Martin’s new historical mystery set in 18th century York. The plot, the characters, the atmosphere, the writing style…I loved them all!”

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye (1957)

From my review: “Whether or not the romance captures your imagination, though, I think there should be something in this novel to interest most readers…the fascinating historical background, the colourful portrait of another time and place or maybe the adventure (plenty of daring escapes, disguises, ambushes and secret meetings by moonlight). I loved it.”

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Three of my reads this year were re-reads…and I loved all three:

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)

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And these books deserve a special mention too:

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (2017)
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)
Under the Hog by Patrick Carleton (1937)
Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2016)
Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton (2017)
Chocky by John Wyndham (1968)
Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes (1938)
Voice of the Falconer by David Blixt (2010)

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Have you read any of these books? Which books have you enjoyed reading in 2017?

Voice of the Falconer by David Blixt

This is the second volume in David Blixt’s Star Cross’d series, combining the history and politics of 14th century Italy with characters and storylines inspired by Shakespeare. I read the first novel, The Master of Verona, in 2012 and it won a place on my ‘books of the year’ list that year, which gives you an idea of how much I loved it. I really hadn’t meant to let so much time go by before continuing the series, and I worried that I might have trouble picking up the threads of the story again, but as soon as I started to read Voice of the Falconer things fell back into place and I felt as if only five days had passed since reading the first book rather than five years!

Voice of the Falconer opens in 1325, eight years after the events described in The Master of Verona. Pietro Alaghieri, son of the late poet Dante, has been living in exile in Ravenna, entrusted with the guardianship of the illegitimate heir of Cangrande della Scala, the ruler of Verona. The child, Cesco, has already been the target of several assassination attempts so it has been decided that he should be raised in secret, with as few people as possible aware of his location. When news of Cangrande’s death begins to circulate, however, Pietro must hurry back to Verona to ensure that the eleven-year-old Cesco receives his rightful inheritance – but as other members of the della Scala family also have their eyes on the throne of Verona, this won’t be an easy task. And now that Cesco’s existence has been revealed, his life could be in danger again…

Cesco, who was only a baby in the previous novel, has developed into a wonderful character – even if you do need to suspend disbelief to accept that a boy of his age could be so intellectually advanced, quick-witted and talented in every way! I loved the little circle of friends and protectors who surround him, too: Morsicato the doctor, Antonia the nun, Tharwat the Moor and, of course, Pietro himself. The characters in the novel are a mixture of those who are fictitious and those who are based on real historical figures, such as Cangrande and the rest of the Scaligeri family. If you don’t know the history, I would recommend not looking things up until you’ve finished the book; if you just let the story carry you along, there will be one or two surprises in store for you as there were for me.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, then, but I do need to mention another very important aspect of the book…the Shakespearean connection. In The Master of Verona we witnessed the beginnings of a feud between Pietro’s two friends, Mariotto Montecchio and Antonio Capulletto. In this book, we meet Mariotto’s young son Romeo and Antonio’s baby daughter Giulietta (Juliet), as well as Giulietta’s cousin Thibault (Tybalt); obviously there is still a long way to go before the tragedy of the star-cross’d lovers is played out, but the foundations of the story have now been laid. I also had fun spotting other characters from Shakespeare’s plays such as Shalakh (Shylock) from The Merchant of Venice and Petruchio and Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, but if you have no knowledge of Shakespeare I don’t think it would be a problem at all – it’s just another of the novel’s many layers.

In case you can’t tell, I enjoyed this book as much as the first one! I am looking forward to visiting Renaissance Italy again soon with the third in the series, Fortune’s Fool…and certainly won’t be waiting five years this time.