The Last Daughter by Nicola Cornick

I have read several of Nicola Cornick’s time slip novels over the last few years and enjoyed some much more than others, but I think her new one, The Last Daughter, is her best so far. It probably helped that the historical storyline is set during one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses, but the modern day narrative interested me too, which isn’t always the case!

Beginning in the present day, we meet Serena Warren, a young woman who is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her twin sister, Caitlin, eleven years earlier – an event so traumatic, she has blocked out all memory of it. Serena is staying with an aunt in California when she receives the news she has been dreading: Caitlin’s body has been found during an archaeological dig close to their grandparents’ old home in Oxfordshire, which stands near the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Determined to uncover the truth, Serena returns to England and finds that once she is back in the place where Caitlin vanished all those years ago, she begins to regain her memories.

In the fifteenth century, our narrator is Anne FitzHugh, a niece of the powerful Earl of Warwick. Anne is only five years old when a marriage is arranged for her with eight-year-old Francis Lovell, a ward of Edward IV. Her new husband grows up to become a close friend and supporter of Edward’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), and he and Anne are drawn into all the conflict and intrigue surrounding Richard’s rise to the throne – including the mystery surrounding the fate of Richard’s two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

These two narratives are linked in a very intriguing way; I can’t say too much as it would risk spoiling the story, but it involves both a ghost story based on the famous legend of the Mistletoe Bride and the theft of a mysterious relic known as the Lovell Lodestar. Although, as with all time slip novels, there are some elements of the supernatural here, I thought everything felt reasonably convincing in the context of the story and all the different threads of the plot tie together perfectly in the end.

I liked both protagonists, Serena and Anne (and I would love to have Serena’s job, researching and arranging ‘bespoke historical tours’). Serena’s story is probably the more complex; not only is she investigating her sister’s disappearance, she is also trying to uncover the secrets of her family history with the help of her grandfather, who is suffering from dementia. I was surprised to see Lizzie Kingdom, a character from Nicola Cornick’s previous book, make an appearance as an old friend of Serena’s, and I was wary of this at first as the book featuring Lizzie, The Forgotten Sister, is my least favourite novel by Cornick. However, Lizzie fits into this particular story very well and as both books are set in Oxfordshire, it’s believable enough that she and Serena could have known each other.

I also enjoyed reading about Anne and Francis Lovell, who are usually just minor characters in the background of Richard III’s story. Their marriage is portrayed as a loving one, despite it being arranged for them as children, but not without its challenges and its ups and downs. The solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is fascinating and certainly not one I’ve come across before, although I can’t say any more about it than that!

I’m looking forward to Nicola Cornick’s next book and hoping it will be as interesting and entertaining as this one!

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

Book 31/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick

The Forgotten Sister is the fourth book I’ve read by Nicola Cornick and, like the others (The Phantom Tree, House of Shadows and The Woman in the Lake), it is a dual time period novel with hints of the supernatural.

In the modern day, we meet Lizzie Kingdom, a television presenter and former child star. Having grown up in the public eye, Lizzie has always known how to manage her image and avoid bad publicity, but all of that is about to change with the death of Amelia Robsart. Amelia is the wife of Lizzie’s best friend, Dudley Lester, an ex-boyband member, and when she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs, Lizzie is drawn into the scandal that follows.

If you know your Elizabethan history, you may have already seen parallels here, so it’s no surprise that the historical thread of the novel is set in the 16th century and tells the story of Amy Robsart, trapped in an unhappy and loveless marriage to the courtier Robert Dudley. Everyone knows that the woman Robert really loves is Elizabeth I and he spends more and more of his time at court while Amy stays hidden away in the countryside. History tells us that in September 1560, Amy will be found dead, believed to have broken her neck falling down the stairs. Rumours immediately begin to circulate because, of course, Amy’s death leaves Robert free to marry the queen.

The fate of Amy Robsart remains an unsolved mystery to this day. Was her husband responsible for her death? Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Whatever the answer, we know that Robert Dudley never did marry Elizabeth I. As soon as those rumours began to spread, it became important for her to distance herself from them – which is exactly what Lizzie Kingdom does in the present day timeline of the novel when people begin to wonder whether she and Dudley Lester had something to do with Amelia’s death.

Whenever I read a book set in two time periods, I usually find that one of them appeals to me more than the other. With this book, it was the storyline set in the past. I enjoyed reading about Amy Robsart; I had a lot of sympathy for her as she gradually loses her youthful enthusiasm for life and her hopes for a loving, affectionate marriage and becomes aware that her husband wants very little to do with her. The mystery of Amy’s death is handled in an interesting way and if Nicola Cornick had just concentrated on telling this story and not the one set in the modern day, I would probably have been able to give this book a much more positive review.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the present day story at all. The characters didn’t quite feel real to me and I think a large part of that was due to their names and relationships seeming so contrived and unnatural. Not only do we have Lizzie Kingdom (corresponding to Elizabeth I), Amelia Robsart (Amy Robsart) and Dudley Lester (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), almost all of the other characters have similar names to their historical counterparts too. When even the Elizabethan noblewoman Lettice Knollys appeared in modern form as Letty Knollys, the wife of one of Dudley Lester’s bandmates, I started to find it all very distracting and I think the whole thing would have worked better for me if the parallels between past and present had been more subtle.

After finishing the book I looked to see what other people thought of it and it seems that most people have loved it, so I think this was probably just a case of book and reader not being right for each other! I enjoyed all of the other Nicola Cornick novels I’ve read, particularly The Phantom Tree, so I will continue to look out for more of her books in the future.

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

The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick

One day in 2004, thirteen-year-old Fenella Brightwell is on a school trip to Lydiard House in Swindon when she becomes separated from the rest of the class. Following a disturbing encounter with a drunken old man who appears to be dressed in period costume, Fen manages to find her way out of the stately home to rejoin her friends – but not before picking up a beautiful golden dress left carelessly on a chair and pushing it into her bag. Fen doesn’t know why she keeps feeling such a compulsion to take things that aren’t hers, but perhaps it is a way of coping with her difficult home life. She hasn’t seen her father for years, and with her mother away on a series of archaeological digs, Fen has been left to care not only for herself but for her alcoholic grandmother, Sarah, as well.

In the present day, Fen is now a woman of twenty-seven trying to build a new life for herself as an antique dealer after leaving her abusive husband. Sarah has recently died and has left Fen a package containing the gold dress, which Fen has never even thought about for years, along with a cryptic message warning her to be careful. Fen has no idea what her grandmother means – how can a dress be dangerous? – but now that she has it in her possession she becomes aware of the strange, almost supernatural powers it wields.

To understand the history of the dress and the secrets it holds in its fabric, we need to follow another storyline, this one set in the eighteenth century. In 1765, Lady Isabella Gerard is surprised when she receives a lovely golden gown as a gift from her husband. Eustace, Lord Gerard, is a cruel and manipulative man and doesn’t usually show her any generosity. She doesn’t really want to accept his gifts, but tells her maid, Constance, to take the dress away and keep it until the day comes when she feels like wearing it. Constance, however, is later approached by Lord Gerard, who seems to have changed his mind about the dress and tells her to destroy it. Who should she obey? What is so important about the golden gown? And what effects might it have on Constance herself?

This is the third Nicola Cornick novel I’ve read (The Phantom Tree and House of Shadows are the previous two) and it has many of the things I’ve come to expect from her books: multiple narratives set in different time periods, a big country house, objects from the past finding their way into the present, and a touch of the supernatural. The house in this book is based on a real place, Lydiard House, set in beautiful parkland in Swindon, Wiltshire, and can still be visited today. In reality, it was home to the St John family, rather than the Gerards in the novel, although one of its residents – Lady Diana – was apparently the inspiration for Isabella Gerard. A mixture of fact and fiction, then, but with the emphasis more towards the fiction.

I preferred the historical storyline to the modern day one, although I can’t say that I liked either of our historical narrators, Isabella and Constance. They had both been treated badly in various ways, so I felt that I should have had more sympathy for them, but I just didn’t – I found Isabella self-absorbed and Constance bitter and spiteful. Having said that, the story probably wouldn’t have worked if they had been different sorts of people. I did appreciate the fact that neither of them revealed everything about themselves too early in the book, which meant that there were secrets to be discovered later on.

As for Fen, I never quite warmed to her either, but I did enjoy seeing her storyline tie together with Isabella’s and Constance’s as the book headed towards its conclusion. There are lots of little snippets of information on Swindon’s history which helps to form links between the two periods and I particularly loved a subplot involving a gang of ‘Moonrakers’ (smugglers). I couldn’t help feeling that there were too many things left unexplained, though. The time travel that seemed to occur in Lydiard House at the beginning of the book never happened again, which was disappointing, and I didn’t fully understand why the dress exerted so much power over the present day characters either – except to add a spooky, Gothic element to the story.

I found more to like than to dislike about The Woman in the Lake, but if you’re new to Nicola Cornick I would recommend starting with The Phantom Tree.

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

This is book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

After reading Nicola Cornick’s time-slip novel The Phantom Tree earlier this year, I was hoping for an opportunity to read her previous book, House of Shadows – and my chance came when I spotted it on the shelf on a recent visit to the library. Although House of Shadows doesn’t include physical time travel in the same way that The Phantom Tree does, it still features storylines set in different time periods with several close links between them. It’s not my favourite of the two books, but I did enjoy it.

It’s difficult to know where to begin writing a summary of a book like this, so I’ll start in the modern day where we meet artist and glass-engraver Holly Ansell who has just received a desperate call from her niece, telling her that her father (Holly’s brother Ben) has disappeared. Heading straight for the old Mill House in Ashdown, Oxfordshire, where Ben was last seen alive, all Holly is able to learn is that prior to his disappearance he had been researching his family tree and had discovered the diary of Lavinia Flyte, a 19th century courtesan.

Hoping for clues that will lead her to Ben, Holly begins to read Lavinia’s journal and quickly finds herself caught up in the memoirs of a brave, resourceful young woman who once lived at nearby Ashdown House. But before we can understand the links between Lavinia and the Ansell family, we have to go further back in time, to the 17th century, to follow the story of Elizabeth Stuart, known as the Winter Queen. The daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Elizabeth was briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick V. However, it is her relationship with the soldier William Craven which provides the connection to the other two threads of the novel.

All three storylines are interesting and I’m sorry I can’t say too much about any of them without straying into spoiler territory. What I can say is that there are two objects which play an important role in each of the time periods – a mysterious crystal mirror and a priceless jewel known as the Sistrin Pearl, both believed to possess magical powers and said to have been used in the divination and prophecies of the Knights of the Rosy Cross. It seems that Frederick and Elizabeth really are thought to have possibly had some involvement with the Knights, so this aspect of the novel is not as far-fetched as it may sound – although I’m assuming the mirror and jewel themselves, or at least their powers, are fictional.

The Elizabeth sections of the novel were my favourites, partly because I know so little about her and partly because I enjoy reading about 17th century Europe. As far as I can tell, there is no real evidence to prove whether William Craven was romantically involved with Elizabeth, but they certainly knew each other and the story Nicola Cornick weaves around them is maybe not beyond the realms of possibility. Lavinia’s diary entries set in Regency England also held my attention – although they are quite brief, compared with the longer chapters devoted to Holly and Elizabeth, she is a vividly written character with a strong voice. I did also like Holly, but I found the contemporary storyline the least interesting – possibly because most of the action takes place in the historical sections, while Holly has more of a passive role, trying to piece together the stories of the other two women.

Ashdown House in Oxfordshire, the house at the heart of the novel and the one pictured on the front cover, really exists; it is now owned by the National Trust and Nicola Cornick volunteers there. It’s always nice to discover that the setting for a novel you’ve been reading is based on a real place – I’ve made a note to try to visit it if I’m in that part of the country.

Nicola Cornick has written several other books, but they seem to be more conventional historical romances, so I think I’ll wait and hope that she writes more that are similar to this one and The Phantom Tree!

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

the-phantom-treeI have always found the concept of time-travel fascinating – and equally fascinating are the number of ways in which various authors choose to approach the subject when writing time-travel fiction.  The Phantom Tree is one of many dual time period time-slip novels I have read over the last few years, but I found it refreshingly different in that it deals not with the usual idea of a modern day character going back in time but a woman from the past coming forward to the present time.

The name of our time traveller is Alison Bannister (or Banastre, as she was known in her previous life) and she has been trapped in the 21st century for ten years, unable to find a way to get back.  We first meet Alison walking through the streets of Marlborough one day just before Christmas.  Stopping to look through the window of an art gallery, she is surprised to see a painting of a woman she once knew.  Investigating further, she learns that this is apparently a newly discovered portrait of Anne Boleyn – but she’s sure it isn’t; it’s Mary Seymour, who lived with Alison at Wolf Hall in the 1500s.  To complicate things further, the historian hoping to build his career around the discovery of Anne Boleyn’s portrait is Adam Hewer, Alison’s ex-boyfriend.  Without telling him the truth about her journey through time, how can she convince him that he’s wrong?   

The historical sections of the novel are written mainly from Mary Seymour’s perspective.  Unlike Alison, who is fictional, Mary is a real historical figure – but one whose story has been lost in the mists of time.  Mary is the daughter of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, and Thomas Seymour, whom Katherine married following Henry’s death.  Katherine dies shortly after giving birth and Thomas is executed a year later, leaving Mary an orphan in the care of the Duchess of Suffolk.  Mary disappears from historical records in 1550, but Nicola Cornick suggests that she was sent to live with her Seymour cousins at Wolf Hall.  This allows plenty of scope to create a storyline for Mary which is both imaginary and historically plausible.         

Of the two time periods, I found the sections set in the past more interesting – in particular, I enjoyed the supernatural elements of Mary’s story.  Almost from the moment she arrives at Wolf Hall rumours begin to circulate that she is a witch, especially after she has a vision which seems to come true.  She also has a telepathic connection with a secret friend called Darrell and this reminded me instantly of Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, (which may have been intentional, as Darrell’s nickname for Mary is ‘Cat’). 

The present day story was enjoyable too, though.  I couldn’t help thinking that Alison had adapted remarkably quickly to modern life, which wasn’t at all convincing, but otherwise I was kept entertained by her attempts to find a gateway back to her own time and to decipher a set of clues sent by Mary through the centuries.   

The Phantom Tree does require disbelief to be suspended on many occasions, which I know is not something that appeals to all readers, but I think anyone who likes reading time-slip novels by authors like Susanna Kearsley or Barbara Erskine should find plenty to enjoy here.  I will now be looking out for Nicola Cornick’s previous book, House of Shadows!

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