My commonplace book: May 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

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

Collins English Dictionary


He could put the young king aside as some nameless bastard; he could take England into his hand to shape to what greatness he would. In that moment, he never questioned his power. It was his to claim kingship or forgo it. On the strains of the dirge drifted to him a sound of King Edward’s voice: “Richard hath failed me never; him I do well to trust!”

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1913)


Vaux le Vicomte

The scaffolding had disappeared, flowers and shrubs were gradually covering the bare earth, bringing the flowerbeds to life, and Vaux was slowly taking shape, little by little revealing its full majesty.

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée (2016)


Thus at two on a Sunday morning, on the second day of September, in the year of our Lord, also the year of the Beast, 1666, London begins to burn.

Fire by C.C. Humphreys (2016)


Phileas Fogg

The mansion in Savile Row, though not sumptuous, was exceedingly comfortable. The habits of its occupant were such as to demand but little from the sole domestic, but Phileas Fogg required him to be almost superhumanly prompt and regular. On this very 2nd of October he had dismissed James Forster, because that luckless youth had brought him shaving-water at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit instead of eighty-six.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873)


Even after all this time, grief threatens to overwhelm me when I think about my family…so powerful, so vigorous, yet all destroyed in a few short years. But still, we left our mark on history; never again will the world see our equal.

The Sons of Godwine by Mercedes Rochelle (2016)


Mary Anne Clarke

This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954)


“The worst of it is, I’ll have to tell him so myself. He’ll never dare to mention the subject again, after what I said to him that night he proposed last. I wish I hadn’t been so dreadful emphatic. Now I’ve got to say it myself if it is ever said. But I’ll not begin by quoting poetry, that’s one thing sure!”

Love and Other Happy Endings edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)


She could not even recall his features properly nor remember the colour of his eyes, but she could recall how her heart had leaped when he looked at her. She could remember the sound of his voice but not the words he had spoken, as one remembers the perfume of a flower long after it has been pressed out of shape between the pages of a book.

The Queenmaker by Maureen Peters (1975)



Sometimes the apprentice fainted with exertion and had to be revived with a cup of water dashed in his face. Thomas often thought, when a veneered surface had been subsequently polished to a satin-like shine, that it was doubtful if the future owner of the piece would ever have the least idea what sweaty, strength-wrenching effort went into the making of it. Hell held no fears for him. It could be no worse than a veneering shop.

Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker (1982)


“Jack, Jack,” cried Stephen, running in. “I have been sadly remiss. You are promoted, I find. You are a great man – you are virtually an admiral! Give you joy, my dear, with all my heart. The young man in black clothes tells me you are the greatest man on the station, after the Commander-in-chief.”

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (1977)


Favourite book this month: Around the World in Eighty Days

Fire by C. C. Humphreys

Fire 1666 is famous for being the year of the Great Fire of London. For the religious sect known as the Fifth Monarchists it was also the year in which they believed the monarchy would be overthrown, clearing the way for the kingdom of Jesus. These two events form the basis of C.C. Humphreys’ new novel, Fire, a sequel to Plague, which I read in 2014. Don’t worry if you haven’t had the opportunity to read Plague yet – you will still be able to understand and enjoy Fire, which works as an exciting historical thriller in its own right as well as being a sequel.

As the novel opens we are reacquainted with our old friends, Captain Coke, a reformed highwayman, and Pitman, a ‘thief-taker’. These two men fought on opposite sides in the recent Civil War, but have now formed an unlikely partnership to fight crime in the London area. With Charles II the target of a plot by the Fifth Monarchists, Coke and Pitman have been given the task of foiling the attempt on the king’s life. Assisted by Dickon, a young homeless boy rescued by Coke from a life on the streets, the pair begin to investigate, determined to save the king even if it means putting their own lives in danger.

It’s not only themselves they need to worry about, of course. Pitman is a married man with children, while Coke’s lover, the actress Sarah Chalker, is pregnant. Acting is not considered a suitable career for a respectable woman, but Sarah enjoys it and relies on it as a source of income. Unable to work because of her pregnancy, Sarah is left alone and penniless when Coke finds himself the victim of a cruel betrayal. And then, in the early hours of a September morning, a fire breaks out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane…

Fire is an enjoyable read and a fascinating journey through 17th century London life. I’ll have to be honest and say that it’s maybe not the deepest or most literary of historical novels but, like Plague, it’s entertaining and fun to read. Before I started reading I had been afraid that it might be too similar to another book I read earlier this year – The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor – which is also set during the Great Fire of London and features a plot by the Fifth Monarchists, but the two books are actually completely different.

This is an action-packed novel, taking us to a variety of different settings. We visit the theatre for a production of Hamlet, we find out what conditions were like for those unlucky men pressed into the navy against their will, and we see inside a debtors’ prison, where women and children live in squalor praying that their fortunes will change soon. A map is provided at the front of the book to help us locate each of the London sites mentioned in the story and to show how the fire spreads and progresses day by day.

Something that surprised me about this novel is that the Great Fire itself doesn’t start until we are more than halfway through the book. Instead, Humphreys spends most of the novel setting the scene, moving the characters into place, so that by the time the fire breaks out we are already emotionally invested in the story and are desperate to find out whether our heroes and heroines can find their way out of the dangerous situations they are in.

If C.C. Humphreys brings some of these characters back for a third adventure, I would love to read it; otherwise I’ll investigate his earlier books – I’ve already read Vlad: The Last Confession, but some of his others look interesting too.

Thanks to Century for providing a copy of this book for review.

Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys

Vlad the Last Confession I discovered C.C Humphreys in July when I read Plague, a novel about, unsurprisingly, the plague. Looking at the other books he had written, I came across one called Vlad: The Last Confession and thought it might be a good choice for this year’s R.I.P. challenge. Despite my best intentions I didn’t manage to start it in time for R.I.P. but decided to read it anyway.

Vlad, of course, is Vlad Dracula (also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler due to the particularly brutal method of punishment he used to torture his victims) but apart from the name, there are very few similarities with Bram Stoker’s famous vampire. I think it’s important to know, before you decide whether to read Vlad: The Last Confession, that this is not a vampire novel and not a retelling of Dracula. It’s a fascinating and thoroughly researched novel about a fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia (a region of Romania) who devoted most of his life to trying to secure his throne against rival claimants and fighting off the threat of the Ottoman Empire.

Born in 1431 in Transylvania, Vlad is the son of Vlad II, voivode of Wallachia and a member of the Order of the Dragon, hence the name Dracula (son of Dracul, the dragon). Vlad’s hatred of the Ottoman Turks begins at an early age when he and his younger brother, Radu, are held hostage in Edirne for several years. During their time in captivity they are educated in the Turkish language, religion and culture, but while Radu eventually converts to Islam and joins the household of the Sultan Mehmet II, Vlad remains resentful and defiant. Following the murder of his father, he returns to Wallachia to reclaim the throne.

Vlad’s story is told through the recollections of the three people who knew him best: his closest friend, his mistress and his confessor. These three are brought together after Vlad’s death and give evidence to help a jury – and the reader – to make up their minds about Vlad. So who was he, really? A brave leader who fought for what he believed in or a cruel, sadistic tyrant? I think the answer was probably both.

Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler

One of the things I liked about this novel was the fact that C.C. Humphreys’ depiction of Vlad is fair and unbiased; he doesn’t try to make excuses for his behaviour but at the same time he helps us to understand how and why Vlad came to commit some of the appalling acts he is known for. For example, during Vlad’s time as a Turkish hostage he is taken to a torture chamber and forced to learn some horrific medieval torture techniques. Although he resists at first, he soon adapts and tells himself that “we torture others so they cannot torture us”. While this certainly doesn’t justify any of his later actions, at least we can see some of the early experiences and influences that shaped the man he would become.

I’ve mentioned the torture scenes; I should warn you that there are also a lot of impaling scenes (and they are described in graphic detail) but I think this was necessary to illustrate the darker side of Vlad’s character in a way that makes a real impact. There are a lot of battle scenes too – and fights, jousts and descriptions of falconry. This is quite an action-packed novel, but Humphreys also explores Vlad’s relationships with his childhood friend, Ion Tremblac and his lover, Ilona Ferenc, as well as with enemies such as Mehmet. I have to admit, I would much rather have had more time spent on the personal storylines and less on the fighting and brutality, which I thought started to become very repetitive.

I found some of the history difficult to follow because of my complete lack of knowledge of what was happening in Eastern Europe during this period, but by the time I finished the book I felt I’d learned a lot. And even though my interest started to wane towards the end, I was glad I’d persevered. Vlad III is apparently considered to be a national hero in Romania and although a lot of the shocking things described in Humphreys’ novel are based on fact – he lists them in his author’s note at the end – I was left wondering whether Vlad may in some ways have been unfairly treated by history. As one of the characters in the novel remarks, “What the world knows is the story his conquerors told. And since they controlled so many printing presses, it was their stories that were widely spread”.

Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Plague I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Plague of 1665. I know that probably makes me sound morbid, but it’s true – with my interest in the history of medicine, I love reading about the theories suggested by 17th century people to explain what was happening to them, the weird and wonderful ‘cures’ they came up with and the impact of the epidemic on English society. So when I saw a novel called Plague in my library’s ebook catalogue, I was immediately intrigued, especially as it’s by C.C. Humphreys, an author I’ve been wanting to try since I saw Audra’s review of one of his other books, Jack Absolute.

Plague, I quickly discovered, is not simply a novel about the plague (although it’s always there in the background affecting the lives of all our characters in one way or another) but it’s also an action-packed historical mystery set in Restoration London.

In 1665, England is still recovering from the aftermath of the recent Civil War which had resulted in the execution of King Charles I. Although his son, Charles II, has now been restored to the throne, lots of former royalists are still struggling after losing everything in the war. One of these is Captain William Coke, who has had to resort to highway robbery to survive.

One night, Coke is surprised to find that his shouts of “stand and deliver” have no effect on the approaching carriage. The reason: the driver and the passengers have all already been brutally murdered. Coke takes an expensive necklace from the neck of one of the bodies before running away, but leaves one of his pistols behind in his hurry to escape. This is found by the thief-taker, Pitman, who becomes determined to capture Coke and receive the reward for bringing him to justice. We, the readers, know that Coke is innocent – but who is the real killer?

Two women also become embroiled in the mystery. One of them, Lucy Absolute, is the sister of a wartime comrade of Captain Coke’s. She is now an actress at a London theatre – and the mistress of the notorious Earl of Rochester. The other woman is Lucy’s friend, Sarah Chalker, another actress. When Sarah’s husband goes missing, the unlikely pairing of Coke and Pitman must work together to investigate his disappearance…and meanwhile, plague is continuing to spread through London. As the novel’s subtitle tells us, ‘murder has a new friend’.

Although the story deals with serious subjects such as murder, illness, robbery and treachery, and can be quite graphic at times, Plague is an entertaining novel that I found fun to read. Humphreys’ writing style is clear and engaging and I knew from the first page that this was a book I was going to enjoy. It’s always a relief when that happens! It’s a very atmospheric novel too, taking us from the dark, dirty cells of Newgate Prison and the squalid, claustrophobic homes of the plague victims to the splendour of the royal court and the drama of the theatrical world. Each location is brought to life vividly and realistically and the author doesn’t shy away from describing some of the less pleasant sights, sounds and smells of the period!

We meet lots of interesting characters in Plague, including some real historical figures such as Charles II and the fascinating Earl of Rochester. But my favourite was Captain Coke. He’s a complex, flawed character and I liked him from the beginning, even though we first see him as a highwayman and a thief. I enjoyed watching his relationship with Pitman develop from hunter and prey to unlikely partners. One aspect of the book I was less happy with, though, was the inclusion of a conspiracy plot involving a religious sect called the Fifth Monarchists. I think this sort of thing is overused in historical crime and I’m starting to get a bit bored with it. Other than that, I really enjoyed this book. The ending sets things up nicely for a sequel; I don’t know if there will be one, but I would like to have the chance to meet some of these characters again.