Mystery and intrigue in the seventeenth century

Looking at the historical fiction I have read so far this year, it seems that the 17th century is displacing the Tudor, Victorian and early 20th century periods as the most common historical setting for my reading. Here are my thoughts on two more 17th century novels I’ve read recently, both of them historical mysteries.

The Wrecking Storm is the second book in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant series, following the adventures of a London spice merchant’s son in pre-civil war England. You could read this book without having read the first one, Rags of Time, but if you do read them in order you’ll have a better understanding of the background of the characters, their relationships and the political situation in England at that time.

The novel opens in 1641 with the murder of two Jesuit priests, one of whom was known to have been in hiding in a building close to the Tallant warehouse on the banks of the River Thames. Thomas Tallant’s friends, Member of Parliament Sir Barty Hopkins and Robert Petty of the Merchant Adventurers, ask for Tom’s help in catching the culprit, but before investigations have progressed very far, Tom finds that his own family has become the next target. Joining forces again with another friend, Elizabeth Seymour, Tom must find out who is responsible before the family business is ruined or one of the Tallants is killed.

I enjoyed the mystery element of the book and was surprised when the truth was revealed as I’d had no idea who was behind the attacks on the Tallant family! It was nice to see Elizabeth play such a big part in the investigations; her intelligence, puzzle-solving skills and interest in science and mathematics make her a better detective than Tom himself and her observations and suggestions prove invaluable to the solving of the mystery. I was particularly intrigued by her encounters with Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, a real historical figure who was also involved in political conspiracies during the civil war (and who I’ve discovered may have been the inspiration for Milady in The Three Musketeers).

As with the first book, the historical context was as interesting as the mystery. The story unfolds during the sitting of the Long Parliament, the execution of the Earl of Strafford and Charles I’s attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The conflict between King and Parliament is mirrored by the turmoil on the streets of London where opposing political and religious groups and unruly mobs of apprentices are creating a dangerous and unsettling atmosphere.

The Wrecking Storm is a short, fast-paced read; I think I slightly preferred the longer Rags of Time, but both books are entertaining and I hope to meet Tom and Elizabeth again soon.

The Protector by SJ Deas is a sequel to The Royalist, which I read several years ago and enjoyed. This second book was published in 2015 and there have been no more in the series since, which is disappointing but it seems the author has moved on to other things.

Anyway, The Protector continues the story of William Falkland, a former Royalist soldier who has reluctantly found himself in the service of Oliver Cromwell. It’s 1646, the First Civil War is over (the Second will begin within two years), and Henry Warbeck, Cromwell’s man, has again approached Falkland to ask for his assistance with another investigation. Anne Agar, sister of John Milton, the epic poet and writer of political pamphlets, has disappeared and Cromwell believes she has been abducted by Royalists in an attempt to convert the pro-Parliamentarian Milton to their cause.

Falkland is less than enthusiastic about taking on this mission; after four years of war he no longer feels any strong allegiance to either side and just wants to go home to his wife and children. However, that’s easier said than done, as he returns to find his house abandoned and his family missing, with no idea where they have gone or why they have left. Hoping that Cromwell will help him to locate his own family in return for tracking down Anne, Falkland sets out on her trail – but the biggest obstacle in his way turns out to be Milton himself, who takes an instant dislike to Falkland and is unwilling to cooperate.

As well as being an interesting and compelling mystery novel, The Protector is also quite a sad and poignant portrayal of the human cost of war, with families left divided, destroyed and separated once the fighting ends. William Falkland is a sympathetic and tragic hero as, lost and lonely, he begins the hunt for Anne Agar while despairing of ever finding his own beloved Caro. I was pleased to see him team up again with Kate Cain (whom we first met in The Royalist), but at the same time I was glad that Deas doesn’t push them into a romance, leaving us in no doubt that William is still devoted to Caro and the children and will continue his search unless and until there is no hope left. I enjoyed this book nearly as much as the first one and would love to know what the future holds for William Falkland, but sadly it looks as though we’re not going to find out.

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Have you read either of these books – or any other good historical mysteries set in the 17th century?

Books 29 and 30/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Historical Musings #66: June 2021

It’s been a few months since my last Historical Musings post, so I thought I’d start by taking a look at what’s going on in the world of historical fiction and then give an update on my own current reading.

First of all, the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been announced. Congratulations to Hilary Mantel and The Mirror and the Light!

There were five shortlisted titles this year and I’m sorry to say that so far I have only managed to read one of them…

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte
A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The one that I read was Hamnet and I’m quite surprised that it didn’t win. I wasn’t really a fan (I know I’m in a minority there) but I thought it was the sort of book the judges would go for.

Although I haven’t read The Mirror & the Light, I’m sure it’s a deserving winner. I did actually start to read it last year and enjoyed what I read, but it was a victim of my pandemic-induced reading slump at that time and I found it impossible to concentrate on such a long and complex novel. I have every intention of picking it up again soon!

This means that Hilary Mantel has now won the Walter Scott Prize twice, with two of the books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy: Wolf Hall in 2010 was the other, although Bring Up the Bodies lost out in 2013 to Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.

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Last week also brought some more sad news for historical fiction readers; not only did we lose Sharon Penman earlier this year, the family of Lucinda Riley announced on 11th June that Lucinda had died following a four year battle with cancer. Not all of her novels were historical, but most featured dual timelines covering a wide range of historical periods and settings. I recently reviewed her latest novel, The Missing Sister. For those of you who have been following the Seven Sisters series, here’s a recent interview in which Lucinda talks about her research for the new book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrzJyFMOjxQ

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My current historical reading:

I have just finished The Wrecking Storm, the second book in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant mystery series set in 17th century London during the events leading to the Civil War, and am now reading Alison Weir’s Katherine Parr, the Sixth Wife, the last of her Six Tudor Queens novels. The next book I’m planning to start is Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram, which is on my 20 Books of Summer list. I think it’s already safe to say that I’m not going to read all twenty books on that list before September, so I’m going to focus on the ones I’ve been most looking forward to reading.

New to my historical TBR this week:

Mrs England by Stacey Halls (set in the Edwardian era) which was published earlier this month, and The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters (set in the 1640s), via NetGalley, due to be published in November.

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Have you read any good historical novels lately? Which book do you think should have won the Walter Scott Prize?

Still Life by Sarah Winman

I picked up Sarah Winman’s new novel, Still Life, with vague memories of enjoying one of her earlier books, When God Was a Rabbit. That was ten years ago and although she has had two other books published since then, I never got round to reading either of them. The pretty cover of Still Life caught my eye and the Italian setting sounded appealing, so I thought I would give this one a try.

The novel opens in wartime Tuscany in 1944 with a chance meeting between two very different people: Evelyn Skinner, almost sixty-four years old, is an art historian who has come to Italy to try to salvage important works of art; Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, formerly a globe-maker from London. As the Allies advance across Italy, a brief friendship forms between Evelyn and Ulysses before they are parted and return to their separate lives.

For most of the novel, we follow Ulysses and his friends, first back at home in London and later in Florence, where some of them decide to relocate after the war. There’s Ulysses’ ex-wife, the talented but troubled Peg and her young daughter, Alys; Col who runs the Stoat and Parrot pub and Pete the pianist; Old Cress, who talks to trees and has visions which have a habit of coming true; and a Shakespeare-quoting blue parrot called Claude. It took me a while to warm to these characters, but eventually I became quite fond of some of them, particularly Cress and Alys. None of them are perfect – they all have their flaws and all make mistakes – but they feel like real and believable human beings.

Evelyn, though, appears only occasionally after that opening scene and we have to wait almost until the end of the novel to hear her story – by which time I found I’d lost interest in her and would have preferred to continue reading about Ulysses and the others. Evelyn’s story, which should have been fascinating as it involved a meeting with EM Forster and a pre-war romance with an Italian maid, felt as if it had been squeezed into the end of the book as an afterthought and in my opinion would have worked better if it had unfolded gradually alongside the other storylines.

The novel is beautifully written, there are some lovely descriptions of Florence and the influence of Forster’s A Room With a View can be seen in several different ways throughout the story. With a timespan of several decades, Winman also writes about various historical events that take place during that period; for example, there’s a memorable section set during the devastating flood of the Arno river in 1966. Unfortunately, there was one thing I really disliked about Winman’s writing in this book – and that was the lack of speech marks. I’m never sure what authors are trying to achieve in leaving out basic punctuation. A more ‘literary’ style? A stream of consciousness feel? Whatever it is, it never works for me and I end up just finding it distracting and annoying.

Still Life wasn’t completely successful with me, then, but I did enjoy getting to know the characters and spending some time in Italy in virtual form, which is the closest I will get to a holiday abroad this year!

Thanks to 4th Estate for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 28/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

China by Edward Rutherfurd

I loved this! It’s been a long time since Edward Rutherfurd’s last novel was published (Paris in 2013), but China is so good I think it’s definitely been worth the wait. It’s slightly different from his earlier novels – all of which I have read and enjoyed – because whereas those previous books follow the history of a country, city or region over a period of many centuries, this one covers a much shorter period, telling the story of China in the 19th century. At nearly 800 pages, that decision to concentrate only on one century allows for more character development and more time spent exploring each historical event or incident in detail.

Beginning in 1839, the first few sections of the novel deal with the First Opium War, taking us through the complicated background to this conflict from the perspectives of several different characters: Shi-Rong, secretary to Commissioner Lin, the man responsible for trying to end the illegal import of opium into China; John Trader, a British merchant who has become involved in the opium trade to improve his financial situation so that he can marry the woman he loves; Nio, a Chinese pirate and opium smuggler; and John’s cousin Cecil Whiteparish, who is a missionary. This range of viewpoints helps to build a full picture of the events leading to the Opium Wars and what happens in the aftermath. These characters and their families appear again and again throughout the novel as the years go by and they are drawn into other key events such as the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising.

In a novel of this length, it was inevitable that I would find some parts much more interesting than others – for example, the chapters involving Nio’s adopted sister Mei-Ling who makes the decision to have her little girl’s feet bound while her husband is in America working on the railroads were particularly compelling. However, my favourite sections of the book were those narrated by ‘Lacquer Nail’, a eunuch in the service of the Empress Dowager Cixi. I’m not sure whether it’s because Lacquer Nail is the only character whose story is told in the first person instead of third, but he really comes to life in a way that some of the others don’t. I could have read a whole book about his adventures alone.

Like all of Rutherfurd’s novels, this one is clearly the result of a huge amount of research; as well as the coverage of major political and military events, we are given lots of fascinating little snippets of information on Chinese folklore, crafts such as calligraphy and pottery, and the details of the tea ritual and other traditions. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the various locations in which the action takes place, including Guangzhou (Canton), Hong Kong, Macao and, in Beijing, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. I think anyone with even the slightest curiosity about China, its history, geography and people, will find a lot to interest them in this book – just be aware that it’s quite a commitment and will take a while to get through, even for the fastest of readers!

If China doesn’t appeal, I can highly recommend almost any of Edward Rutherfurd’s other books, particularly Sarum, Russka and his two novels about Ireland.

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

Book 27/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Missing Sister is the seventh book in the Seven Sisters series inspired by the mythology surrounding the star cluster known as the Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Looking at other reviews of this book, it seems that a lot of people were expecting this to be the final book in the series and were disappointed to find that it’s not; it didn’t bother me as I’d seen Lucinda Riley’s announcement on Twitter regarding an eighth book, but if you weren’t already aware, it’s probably best to know before you start that you will need to wait another year for all of the series’ mysteries to finally be resolved.

The first six Seven Sisters novels each tell the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious billionaire known as Pa Salt who dies at the beginning of the series, leaving the sisters some clues to help them trace their biological parents. The girls all grew up together at Atlantis, Pa Salt’s estate by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but they were born in different countries and come from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but only six girls were actually brought home to Atlantis by Pa Salt.

In this seventh volume, the D’Aplièse sisters have decided to find Merope and invite her to join them to mark the anniversary of Pa Salt’s death. However, the only clue they have to her identity is a picture of a star-shaped emerald ring. Their search will lead them first to a vineyard in New Zealand and then right across the world to a farmhouse in West Cork, Ireland, but I can’t really say too much about who and what they discover, as to do so would risk spoiling the story and I would prefer to allow other readers to enjoy the hunt for the missing sister without knowing too much in advance.

Although I think the previous six books could probably be read in any order, I would recommend saving this one until you’ve read the others and are already familiar with the D’Aplièse sisters and their stories. All six of them have important parts to play in this book and while some of the methods they use in trying to track down Merope are a bit far-fetched and not always very kind, it was nice to see all of the sisters getting involved (with some help from other characters from earlier in the series – I particularly enjoyed meeting Star’s eccentric friend Orlando again).

The search for Merope is set in the modern day, but as some possible clues to her identity and background emerge, we also spend some time in the past, particularly in Ireland in 1920 where we follow the story of Nuala Murphy, a young woman who has joined her country’s struggle for independence. I found the historical sections of the book fascinating and completely gripping, as well as educational. For example, I knew nothing about the work of Cumann na mBan, the Irish republican women’s association who played a part in the rebellion and the subsequent civil war of 1922. It isn’t clear at first how Nuala’s story will be connected to Merope’s, but things do start to come together later in the book.

As for the overall story arc of the seven sisters, this book has left me with more questions than I started with! I’ve been forming a few theories of my own, but will have to wait for the publication of Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt for everything to be revealed.

Thanks to Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review

Book 26/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Edited 11th June 2021: I was so sorry to hear the sad news today that Lucinda Riley has died after a four-year battle with cancer. Maybe we will never get to know Pa Salt’s secrets now, but Lucinda has left a wonderful legacy of work behind for her fans to treasure and new readers to discover.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Bass Rock to The Last Summer

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice 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.

This month we’re starting with The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. I haven’t read this book, but it sounds like one I might enjoy:

Surging out of the sea, the Bass Rock has for centuries watched over the lives that pass under its shadow on the Scottish mainland. And across the centuries the fates of three women are linked: to this place, to each other.

In the early 1700s, Sarah, accused of being a witch, flees for her life.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Ruth navigates a new house, a new husband and the strange waters of the local community.

Six decades later, the house stands empty. Viv, mourning the death of her father, catalogues Ruth’s belongings and discovers her place in the past – and perhaps a way forward.

Each woman’s choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men in their lives. But in sisterhood there is the hope of survival and new life. Intricately crafted and compulsively readable, The Bass Rock burns bright with anger and love.

I’m not feeling very creative this month, so I have chosen an obvious link to start with: witchcraft. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (1) is the story of Gilly Ramsey, who inherits a cottage in the countryside which belonged to her mother’s cousin. On arriving at the cottage, Thornyhold, Gilly discovers that Cousin Geillis had a reputation as a witch and has left behind her collection of magic spells and herbology books. Despite the witchcraft theme, though, this is a lovely, gentle read!

Lesley Frewen, the heroine of The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp (2) also relocates to the countryside. Lesley is a London socialite who finds herself volunteering to adopt Patrick, a four-year-old orphan, and decides to start a new life for them both in a cottage in Buckinghamshire. I had already linked to this book through the country cottage setting before I noticed that the title also contains the word ‘thorn’ – a double link!

The next book in my chain is by another author called Margery. The Oaken Heart (3) is crime writer Margery Allingham’s memoir in which she writes about life in her village (Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex, renamed ‘Auburn’ in the book) during World War II. I found it particularly interesting that the book was written in 1941, so Allingham would have had no idea while she was writing it how much longer the war would last and what else might happen to the people of Auburn before it was over.

I don’t read a lot of authors’ memoirs, but another that does come to mind is Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (4), the first in Lee’s autobiographical trilogy. I still haven’t read the other two books, but in this first volume he looks back on his childhood, his school, his friends and family and the village of Slad in which he grew up. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a world on the brink of change and a way of life about to disappear forever.

The cover of Cider with Rosie reminded me of the cover of The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (5) – similar colours, pictures of nature, figures in silhouette. The war referred to in the title is the First World War and the novel follows the story of Beatrice Nash, a young woman who starts a new job as a school Latin teacher in the summer of 1914.

The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn (6) is also set during that same idyllic summer with war just on the horizon. Through the story of seventeen-year-old Clarissa Granville, the novel shows us the effects the outbreak of war will have on society, class structure and the life Clarissa has always known. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, it has just occurred to me that all of the books in my chain this month are about people starting new lives or seeing the world around them beginning to change.

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And that’s my chain for June! My links have included: witchcraft, moving to the countryside, the name Margery, memoirs, similar covers and the summer of 1914.

Next month we’ll be starting with Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.

My Commonplace Book: May 2021

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

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

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In the corner sat the old fellow as he always sat, astride a childish stool, sharpening the horseshoe nails a Crocker son had cut from an iron rod; hunched over an ancient anvil this gatfer sat beneath a window festooned with cobwebs, and put a point on the nails with a small hammer. Did the old man ever move from that spot, night or day, or was he welded to it? Perhaps he had been there for ever, tapping at the nails since the first horses were shod a thousand years ago, crouching with his little hammer like a hobgoblin smith at the oldest forge in the known world.

The Horseman by Tim Pears (2017)

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Illustration by Walter Crane: “Sing a song of sixpence”

“Is St. Mary Mead a very nice village?”

“Well, I don’t know what you would call a nice village, my dear. It’s quite a pretty village. There are some nice people living in it and some extremely unpleasant people as well. Very curious things go on there just as in any other village. Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?”

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie (1953)

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The lane twisted, turned, then became narrower as we drove towards Clogagh.

At this moment, I felt it was a metaphor for my life:

What if I was to turn left instead of right in my own life at this moment? Is all life simply a series of twisting and turning paths, with a crossroads every so often when fate allows humanity to decide their own destiny…?

The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley (2021)

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Daphne du Maurier

The child destined to be a writer is vulnerable to every wind that blows. Now warm, now chill, next joyous, then despairing, the essence of his nature is to escape the atmosphere about him, no matter how stable, even loving. No ties, no binding chains, save those he forges for himself. Or so he thinks. But escape can be delusion, and what he is running from is not the enclosing world and its inhabitants, but his own inadequate self that fears to meet the demands which life makes upon it.

Myself When Young by Daphne du Maurier (1977)

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Favourite book read in May:

The Missing Sister

Authors read for the first time in May:

Tim Pears

Places visited in my May reading:

England, Ireland, New Zealand

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This hasn’t been a great month of reading for me, due to a combination of health problems over the last week (nothing too serious, I hope) and being in the middle of several very long books at the same time. I’m sure I’ll be back to my normal reading and blogging routine soon.

Have you read any of these? What did you read in May and do you have any plans for June?