Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Casanova and the Faceless Woman is the first in a series of historical mysteries by French author Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, set in pre-Revolutionary France. There are currently seven books in the series but this one, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is the first to appear in English. When I was offered a copy for review by Pushkin Vertigo I was immediately intrigued because although I read a lot of historical mysteries I don’t think I’ve read any set in this particular period.

It’s 1759 and Louis XV is on the throne of France. He is not a popular king – unrest is growing amongst those who feel they have been oppressed under his reign and his rumoured liaisons with innocent young girls have not helped his reputation either – and there are several different factions plotting to overthrow or discredit him. Not long before our story begins, Louis had been the target of an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being stabbed to death thanks to the quick actions of the Chevalier de Volnay. As a reward for his bravery, Volnay has been given the title of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, responsible for investigating particularly unusual crimes on the king’s behalf.

One such crime occurs when a young woman is found dead in a dark Paris courtyard with the skin torn away from her face. On arriving at the scene, Volnay removes a sealed letter from the corpse intending to examine it later, but it seems that someone – perhaps several people – have seen him do it. Over the days that follow, as Volnay sets about trying to identify the woman and hunt down her killer, he himself is hunted by those who want to retrieve the letter and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Volnay interested me from the beginning because he is such a mysterious character. We are told very little about him at first, with the secrets of his tragic and eventful past being revealed very gradually as the story progresses. He seems very alone in the world, his only companions being a monk (with whom he forms a fascinating crime-solving partnership) and a tame magpie. There is a sense that he is not somebody who finds it easy to love or to trust others, and so, when he enters into a relationship with the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, we worry that he is going to get hurt – especially as his rival in love is the legendary Casanova.

Giacomo Casanova is one of several real historical figures who have important roles to play in the novel; others include Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the alchemist, sorcerer and musician who has fascinated me since I first met him in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I don’t think Casanova has appeared in any other novels I’ve read, although his career as writer, adventurer, gambler and, most famously, seducer of women, makes him an ideal subject for historical fiction. His character is well developed and convincing here and Barde-Cabuçon explores events from his past in order to explain his present behaviour, but I could never quite warm to him because my sympathies were with Volnay from the start. While Casanova seems to treat his romance with Chiara – and his involvement with the stolen letter and all the intrigue surrounding it – as a game, for Volnay these things are literally a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure whether Louis was really as disgusting and depraved as he is depicted in the novel but his reign certainly wasn’t seen as very successful and I think the author does a good job of conveying the mood in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and the discontent of the people with the king and the aristocracy. However, as a mystery novel, I thought the plot felt a bit more complicated than it really needed to be and the action moved between one set of characters and another too quickly, so that there were times when I struggled to hold on to all the different threads of the story. I also found the ending unnecessarily dramatic with one twist too many – although I had been intrigued by some of the revelations near the end, which left me wanting to read the next book in the series. I hope it’s going to be available in English soon too as I would love to see more of the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

This new historical mystery – Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s first novel – deals with one of the darkest subjects in our history. Set in 1781, it follows the investigations of former army officer Captain Harry Corsham into the disappearance of his friend, the lawyer and abolitionist Tad Archer. It seems that Tad had been about to uncover a secret that, once exposed, could damage the reputations of those involved in the British slave trade. Could someone have killed Tad to prevent him from telling what he knows?

Captain Corsham is determined to find out what has happened to his friend, but to do so he will need to continue Tad’s enquiries into a shocking incident which took place onboard a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic. This brings him into conflict with some very powerful men who could destroy his hopes of a political career. But Harry Corsham is a man with principles and even when he, like Tad before him, begins to receive threatening letters and warnings, he refuses to walk away until he has discovered the truth.

There are many things I liked about Blood & Sugar. The setting and atmosphere are wonderful; with the action taking place partly in London, where Harry Corsham lives with his wife, Caro, and their young son, and partly in the nearby slaving port of Deptford, we see Harry move between both locations in search of answers to his questions. I loved the contrasting descriptions of Deptford, from the elegant homes of the wealthy slave merchants to the notorious dockside alleys with their brothels and opium dens.

We also meet a wide range of characters from very different backgrounds, including magistrates, politicians, mayors and surgeons, prostitutes, innkeepers, sailors and servants. Many of the latter group are black, which is interesting because I think we tend to forget (or are not aware of) how many black people there were living in eighteenth century Britain. It is estimated that there were more than twenty thousand in London alone, yet they rarely appear in fiction set during that period. As for the slavery aspect of the story, there are parts that are not easy to read, as you can probably imagine – particularly when we hear about what happened on the ship, something which is based on a real incident. But unpleasant as it is, we can’t ignore the fact that slavery did happen and I think it’s important that we remember and learn from it.

I was very impressed with this book at the beginning. I liked Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s writing, the mystery seemed intriguing and I was starting to draw comparisons with one of my favourite historical crime authors, Andrew Taylor. However, as the plot continued to develop, I thought it became far too complicated and I struggled to remember who had said what to whom and what the various motives of the characters were. Towards the end, there were so many threads to tie up that everything seemed to take forever to be resolved (and there were one or two revelations which added very little to the overall story and weren’t really necessary, in my opinion). I also felt that as there were so many characters to keep track of, they really needed to be better defined – instead, I thought they were thinly drawn and not very memorable.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would at first, but I still think there were more positives than negatives and as this is the author’s first novel I would be happy to read more.

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

Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

It’s 1768 and Sara Kemp has just arrived in Spitalfields, the London parish which has become home to a thriving community of Huguenot silk weavers. Sara is full of hope and optimism, ready to start a new life, but before she’s had time to get her bearings she finds herself the victim of a cruel trick which leaves her with no choice other than to live and work in a notorious brothel.

In a much more respectable house nearby lives the master weaver Elias Thorel and his wife Esther. Their marriage is not a loving or happy one, but Esther has been trying to take an interest in her husband’s work and has discovered an aptitude for designing floral patterns. There’s nothing she wants more than to see one of her own designs woven in silk, but Elias is scornful and refuses to acknowledge her talent. Still determined to turn her dreams into reality, Esther approaches the journeyman weaver who has been using the loom in the Thorels’ attic to weave his master piece.

Two women leading very different lives – but their paths cross when Esther is distributing Bibles in the poorer areas of Spitalfields and sees Sara being abused by her madam outside the brothel. Soon Sara is working as a lady’s maid in Esther’s household, but how will she repay Esther for her act of kindness?

I was drawn to Blackberry and Wild Rose by the beautiful cover – and the mention of an 18th century setting and the comparisons to Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier made me want to read it even more. Of course, none of those things guaranteed that I would like the book, but I’m pleased to say that I did!

First of all, there are the fascinating details of weaving, of using looms, designing patterns, and everything else involved in creating beautiful figured silk. At the beginning of the novel, Esther knows very little of any of this – she only knows that she wants to see her designs brought to life – but she learns a lot from the weaver she befriends, and her enthusiasm (and, I think, the author’s) comes through very strongly:

By the time the candle had burned down to a waxy stump, the thinnest sliver of iridescent silk clung to the heddles. ‘I can’t believe it,’ I breathed. I was finally looking at the very beginning of a silk made to a pattern I had designed. My own creation. ‘How long will it take to finish it?’

I could feel Esther’s excitement and pride as her silk took shape, as well as her disappointment and anger at her husband’s lack of support. Through the stories of Esther’s weaver friend Bisby Lambert and some of the other Spitalfields weavers, we also learn about some of the issues and challenges the industry faced and how the workers had to fight for their rights against unscrupulous masters and the threat of cheap imports from abroad.

An even more engaging aspect of the book is the relationship between the two main characters, Esther and Sara, whose narratives alternate throughout the novel. At first, Esther feels sorry for Sara, as she would for any woman driven to prostitution, and she wants to do what she can to help. Once Sara is there, in the Thorel household, however, their relationship is an uneasy one and Esther begins to wonder whether she has done the right thing in bringing Sara into her home:

She was like a cat sidling in uninvited and looking about. You don’t want to turn it out straight away so you offer it a scrap of food. The next thing you know it’s curled up on your favourite chair, watching you with unblinking elliptic eyes.

As for Sara, she quickly becomes aware that Esther’s life is not as perfect as it seems and that she is hiding some secrets of her own. While a friendship does form between the two women, they are not entirely comfortable around each other and neither is quite sure whether the other can be trusted, which makes for a tense and exciting story! The plot kept me gripped throughout the book and although I thought I could predict how it would end, I was wrong and the ending was actually much more realistic than I’d expected. This is an impressive debut novel and I hope to read more from Sonia Velton in the future.

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

I am counting this book towards the What’s in a Name? challenge (a book with a fruit or vegetable in the title).

The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau

Since reading the Joanna Stafford trilogy (The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry) a few years ago, I’ve been waiting and hoping for a new book from Nancy Bilyeau and here it is at last: The Blue. Bilyeau wrote so convincingly about Tudor England in the Joanna Stafford books that I was surprised to find she was switching to an entirely different period for this latest novel – the Seven Years War of 1756 to 1763, a war which involved most of Europe, with Britain and France on opposite sides. Set against this backdrop, The Blue is an exciting, thrilling tale of espionage, art, religious persecution – and the race to create a new and beautiful shade of blue.

Our heroine, Genevieve Planché, is a young Huguenot woman whose family fled France when it became impossible for them to openly practise their religion. Despite her French ancestry, Genevieve has grown up in London among the silk weavers of Spitalfields and considers herself to be English, viewing the French king as someone to be feared. As a talented artist, she longs to have the chance to study painting and develop her skills, but as a woman she discovers that most of the opportunities open to men are closed to her. Her grandfather has made plans for her to go to a porcelain manufactory in Derby where she can paint pretty designs on plates and vases, but that’s not what Genevieve wants out of life. Then, just as she’s losing hope, she meets Sir Gabriel Courtenay at a party and receives a very tempting offer…

Sir Gabriel urges her to take up the position she has been offered at the Derby Porcelain Works and track down their chemist who is working on the development of a new colour blue. If Genevieve can steal the formula for blue and pass it to Sir Gabriel, he will help her travel to Venice where, he tells her, she will be taken seriously as a female artist. Genevieve is quick to agree, but once she is in Derby and the true scale of her mission becomes apparent, she begins to have doubts. Why is Sir Gabriel so desperate for the blue? What is the colour’s significance? And what will happen if she is caught?

The Blue is a fascinating novel – I learned so much about the production and decoration of porcelain, the meanings of different colours, and the ways in which art and science can combine to create things of beauty – but it is also a gripping and suspenseful historical thriller. One of the things I enjoyed most about the story was that it was so difficult to decide who could and could not be trusted. From the young woman Genevieve shares a room with at the Porcelain Works to Sir Gabriel himself, she has no idea who is on her side and who is likely to betray her. Although she sometimes makes silly mistakes, that is to be expected when she is faced with trying to navigate her way through so many dangerous situations!

This is the first book I have read via The Pigeonhole, a website/app which makes books available in daily instalments (referred to as ‘staves’). Each stave ended on a cliffhanger which left me desperate to get back to the story the following morning and reading it over a period of ten days was a wonderful experience. The book is written in present tense, something I usually find off-putting, but it seemed to work much better in the serialised format because it helped me to feel closer to Genevieve, almost as if I was sharing in her adventures as they happened.

I would love to read a sequel to The Blue, but if that doesn’t happen then I will look forward to whatever Nancy Bilyeau chooses to write about next.

Thanks to The Pigeonhole and Endeavour Quill for the opportunity to read this novel.

The Ghost Tree by Barbara Erskine

I’m finding that I usually like the sound of Barbara Erskine’s books much more than I like the books themselves! I thought Sleeper’s Castle was an enjoyable read, but I’ve had very mixed feelings about the others that I’ve tried, even Lady of Hay, which I’d heard so much about. Still, when I saw her latest novel, The Ghost Tree, in the library, I couldn’t resist picking it up.

Like most of Erskine’s other books, this one is set in two time periods and includes elements of the supernatural which link them together. In the present day we meet Ruth Dunbar whose father has just died, leaving her his house in Edinburgh. On arriving at the house, she is surprised to find that it is already occupied by a stranger who tells her his name is Timothy and that he has been caring for her father during his final months. According to Timothy, it is actually he and not Ruth who will inherit the house – and although Ruth’s lawyer assures her this is not the case, it seems that Timothy is not prepared to give up his claim.

As she begins to sort through her parents’ possessions, Ruth finds a collection of old diaries and letters written in the 18th century by Thomas Erskine, an illustrious ancestor of her mother’s. Thomas led an eventful, dramatic life and Ruth quickly becomes captivated by his story, but when she starts to think she can see Thomas standing beside her as she reads, the boundary between past and present seems to have been broken.

The Ghost Tree, as the title would suggest and as I have hinted above, is a ghost story, so I am counting it towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge. Thomas himself, as Ruth’s many times-great-grandfather, is no threat to Ruth, but he is not the only ghost who finds his way into the 21st century – there is another, who is a much more menacing and evil presence. Ruth (as seems to be a standard requirement of a Barbara Erskine heroine) just happens to have several friends and acquaintances who are experts in the paranormal and she enlists their help in dealing with her ghostly visitors. As far as ghost stories go, I didn’t find it either particularly scary or very atmospheric, but if you enjoy reading about séances, exorcisms and other aspects of the supernatural, you will probably find a lot to interest you here.

The narrative switches between past and present throughout the novel and as usual it was the historical one that I found most compelling. Thomas Erskine is a real life ancestor of Barbara Erskine’s and she has based his story on what we already know about him and on her own research into his life. Born in Edinburgh in 1750, he served in the Navy in the Caribbean and later joined the army, before returning to Britain to concentrate on a career in politics and the law. You can easily find a wealth of information about him online if you’re interested in knowing more, but if you’re thinking about reading The Ghost Tree you might prefer to read the novel first before looking up all the facts. Personally, I think there would have been enough material for a whole book just about Thomas and his adventures, without needing to involve ghosts or anything else!

I had other problems with the modern day sections of the book. For a start, the villains (one of whom is Timothy, the man contesting Ruth’s inheritance) are stereotypical and lack the sort of nuance and depth I prefer – and I quickly lost patience with the way Ruth and her friends repeatedly put themselves at risk, despite knowing how dangerous the villains were. There’s also an unpleasant storyline involving some cases of ghostly rape, which added very little apart from shock value.

This book was a bit of a disappointment, especially after enjoying Sleeper’s Castle so much, but at least I found Thomas Erskine’s story interesting, so I didn’t feel that it had been a waste of time. I just wish we could have spent more time with Thomas and less with Ruth and the ghost hunters! Can any Barbara Erskine fans tell me whether there are any of her earlier books that I might enjoy more, particularly any that spend a more substantial amount of time in the past or that use the supernatural elements more convincingly?

This is my fourth book read for the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: supernatural).

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

When I discovered that there was a new Jane Harris book coming out last year, I couldn’t wait to read it. It had been a long time since the publication of her last one, Gillespie and I, in 2011, but I could still remember how much I loved that book – and her previous one, The Observations, which I read a few months later. I’m not sure why it has taken me until now to get round to picking up Sugar Money, then, but it’s probably just been a combination of too many other books to read (as usual) and a fear that, after anticipating a third Jane Harris book for so long, I might be disappointed by it.

While Gillespie and I and The Observations are both set in 19th century Scotland, Sugar Money takes us to a very different time and place: the Caribbean in the year 1765. Our narrator, teenage Lucien, and his older brother Emile were brought up on the island of Grenada before being taken to nearby French-controlled Martinique as slaves. Their French masters need more workers to labour on the sugar plantations, so the brothers are entrusted with a secret mission: to return to Grenada, once also a French colony but now ruled by the British, and bring a group of forty-two slaves back to Martinique.

Emile and Lucien are the obvious choices to be given this task, with their prior knowledge of Grenada and its people, as well as Lucien’s ability to speak English. It’s not going to be easy, though; there is no guarantee that they will be able to persuade the slaves to join them, when they cannot offer freedom but only the exchange of one master for another – and even if the slaves do agree to come, will they be able to escape from the island without being caught?

Sugar Money, however unlikely it may seem, is based on real historical events which are described in the Afterword at the end of the book. The true story of slaves being involved in the smuggling of other slaves is certainly an interesting idea to base a novel around. Jane Harris grew up in Scotland and she highlights both the Scottish and English involvement in the slave trade, as well as drawing comparisons with slavery in the French colony of Martinique. She doesn’t shy away from describing the brutality of slavery and there are some quite graphic details of the ways in which slaves are treated by their masters and the horrific punishments given to them for the most minor of ‘crimes’, but she writes about all of this in a matter-of-fact sort of way, showing us the evils of slavery without preaching about it, which is something I liked and found quite effective.

I also loved the relationship between Emile and Lucien. Lucien has all the enthusiasm and sense of adventure you would expect in a boy of his age and, of course, it sometimes leads him into danger. Emile, who is much older and wiser, protects him as far as he can, but understandably loses patience at times, while Lucien admires and respects his big brother but doesn’t always understand his actions! I liked them both, but we naturally feel closer to Lucien because he is our narrator. Jane Harris really excels at giving her narrators strong, distinctive voices of their own. To immerse us more fully in the Caribbean of the 18th century, she has Lucien narrate in a sort of Creole mixed with French and English, and an explanation for his unusual speech is given towards the very end of the book. He couldn’t be more different from Bessy Buckley and Harriet Baxter, the narrators of her previous two novels!

I found this a very entertaining read, but it didn’t impress me quite as much as the other two Jane Harris novels. It works well as an adventure novel (Robert Louis Stevenson is mentioned as an inspiration in the acknowledgements), but it lacks all the clever twists and turns that I loved in Gillespie and I. It has impressed the judges of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, though, and has been included on this year’s shortlist. The winner will be announced in June; if Sugar Money wins, I’ll be very happy for Jane Harris, but as I haven’t read the rest of the shortlist yet I don’t know whether there’s another book that is more deserving.

Ill Will by Michael Stewart

Have you read Wuthering Heights? If so, you’ll remember that in the middle of the book, Heathcliff disappears after hearing Cathy say that it would degrade her to marry him. When he returns after a three year absence he has undergone a transformation, but we never find out where he has been and what he has done during that period. In Ill Will, Michael Stewart has created a story for Heathcliff to fill in the gaps.

In Stewart’s version of events, Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights with two main goals in mind: first, to find a way to get revenge on Hindley and Edgar Linton, and second, to discover as much as he can about his own background. Knowing that old Mr Earnshaw, Hindley and Cathy’s father, brought him back to Wuthering Heights as a child after a trip to Liverpool, Heathcliff (taking the name William Lee) sets off for the west coast hoping that Liverpool will hold clues to the truth of his parentage. On the way, he rescues a ten-year-old girl, Emily, from a brutal whipping and as she is all alone in the world he allows her to join him on his mission.

As the daughter of a highwayman who has recently met his fate at the end of a hangman’s noose, Emily is used to living by her wits and she suggests that they make use of her unusual talents to earn some money for the journey. If her scheme goes wrong, however, they could find themselves in serious trouble. Will they make it safely to Liverpool – and if they do, what will they find there? Will the secrets of Heathcliff’s past be revealed and will he be able to return to Wuthering Heights as a rich and educated gentleman?

As Wuthering Heights is one of my favourite classics, I was immediately drawn to this book when I saw it on NetGalley, but at the same time I didn’t want to set my expectations too high as I have often been disappointed with sequels, prequels and retellings of classic novels in the past. This had the potential to be a good one – Heathcliff may not be the most pleasant of characters but he is certainly an interesting one and there are an endless number of stories which could be invented to fill in his missing years – but as I suspected, there were things that I disliked as well as things that I liked.

Starting with the positives, there’s some lovely descriptive writing which brings to life the countryside Heathcliff and Emily pass through on their way to Liverpool. These descriptions could only have been written by someone who had visited the area and felt a connection with it, so I was not surprised to read that Michael Stewart had spent some time walking across the moors as part of his research. The novel is set in the 1780s (although Wuthering Heights was published in the nineteenth century, most of the action takes place earlier than that), which is a time of change as the industrial revolution begins to transform the landscape and the lives of the people who inhabit it. The north of England is at the heart of this, and Heathcliff, who has been isolated at Wuthering Heights for years, takes note of the canals, bridges, factories and other signs of technological progress that they see on their journey.

A fascinating setting and time period, then; my main problem with the book was the language. I don’t mind some swearing in a book, if it feels like the natural way that a character would speak, but I didn’t really expect to pick up a novel based on Wuthering Heights and find the f-word and c-word on almost every page, especially coming from a ten-year-old girl (although to be fair, I suppose she is described as ‘foul-mouthed’ in the blurb). I found it irritating and a constant reminder that I was reading a contemporary take on Wuthering Heights, rather than being swept back into the world Emily Brontë had created, which is what I would personally have preferred. It won’t bother everyone, I’m sure, and I know that people did obviously swear in the eighteenth century, but it just didn’t feel right to me in this particular book.

The actual story is quite engaging, which is why I kept reading – and although the explanation of Heathcliff’s origins is predictable, it’s realistic given the time and place and the few clues we have to work with from Brontë’s novel, but despite my love of Wuthering Heights or maybe because of it, this book just wasn’t for me. Stewart’s portrayal of Heathcliff was too different from the way I have always imagined him, so I never felt convinced that I was reading about the same character. I’m sure Ill Will is going to be a big success with other readers, though, and as there’s already talk of a television adaptation I think we could all be hearing a lot more about it in the future.

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