Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction, but I do love Sharon Bolton’s books! Her latest, Dead Woman Walking, is another great one featuring the usual combination of mystery, suspense, atmospheric settings, stunning plot twists and even humour that I have come to expect from her work.

It begins with a group of people enjoying an early morning flight over the Northumberland National Park in a hot air balloon. Among them are Jessica Lane and her sister Isabel. Now a nun known as Sister Maria Magdalena, Isabel is celebrating her fortieth birthday and Jessica has booked the trip as a special treat. As they drift across the peaceful countryside, Jessica spots a man on the ground below attacking a young woman. He looks up to see her watching him just as she picks up her phone to take a photograph. With all of the other passengers now aware of what is happening, the man is left with no choice other than to bring down the balloon and ensure that everyone in it dies.

When the emergency services arrive on the scene, they begin the unpleasant task of locating and identifying the bodies. It’s not long before the pilot and eleven of his twelve passengers are accounted for, but one woman is missing. Has she managed to escape alive? If so, where is she? And who will find her first – the police or the killer?

This is a wonderful book – one of Sharon Bolton’s best, I think – but now that I’ve started to write about it, I’ve found that there is actually very little I can say that won’t be a spoiler! Part of the fun of reading this book (or anything else by this author) is in being surprised by the many clever plot twists which come one after another throughout the second half of the novel and I would hate to take away any of that enjoyment, even inadvertently, for anyone else. You could guess the twists anyway, of course – I think Sharon Bolton is very fair with her readers and the clues are there from the start, if you’re able to put them together – but I did not and as each one was revealed, I found myself turning back to reread earlier passages in the hope of spotting things that I’d missed the first time.

I mentioned the humour, and I’m aware that from what I’ve said so far this probably doesn’t sound like a very amusing story at all – but although some of the themes at the heart of the novel are undoubtedly very dark, there is also a lot of lightness mixed in with the darkness. Believe it or not, most of the touches of comedy are provided by the nuns of Wynding Priory who are following the balloon story with interest, keen to use some of the mystery-solving skills they’ve picked up from watching repeats of old crime dramas on the convent television.

I loved this book and am already looking forward to her next one, The Craftsman, which it seems we can expect in 2018. In the meantime, I still need to read Blood Harvest, the only one of Sharon Bolton’s novels I haven’t read yet.

This is book 10/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Seaton Delaval Hall (and more new books)

Another nice, sunny weekend (sadly now just a distant memory as the rain appears to be back again today) meant another visit to a National Trust property, this time Seaton Delaval Hall, a country house near the Northumberland coast. Only a small part of the Hall is open to the public as the central section is currently being restored – you can see the scaffolding in my first picture – but the gardens are beautiful.

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I was excited to discover that there’s also a second-hand book shop at Seaton Delaval Hall. Just a tiny one with only a few shelves, but I managed to find two books I wanted to read:

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I haven’t read anything by Helen Hollick but have often thought that she sounded like an author I might enjoy and after recently reading my first Jane Aiken Hodge book, Watch the Wall, My Darling, I’ve been looking out for more of her work too.

How was your weekend?

Cragside

Have you remembered it’s Mary Stewart Reading Week this week? I hope to have a review of Stormy Petrel for you later in the week, but today I wanted to share some pictures I took on Saturday.

We drove up to Cragside near Rothbury in Northumberland as they were offering free admission as part of this year’s Heritage Open Days. We had been before but not for a long time and as there’s so much to see there we thought it would be worth going again. Cragside was built in 1863 and was the home of the Victorian engineer Lord William George Armstrong. It was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, generated by water from the lakes on the estate.

This is the view of the house from the Iron Bridge at the bottom of the rock garden:

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Another view of the house surrounded by trees:

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A carving inspired by the mythical Green Man:

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The kitchen:

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Lord Armstrong’s Billiard Room:

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The study (the globe on the left is an art installation forming part of an exhibition):

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Sorry about the quality of the interior pictures; the rooms aren’t very brightly lit and I haven’t mastered the settings on my new camera yet.

Did you do anything interesting at the weekend?

The Queen’s Promise by Lyn Andrews

The Queens Promise Everyone knows that Anne Boleyn was one of the six wives of Henry VIII, but did you know that before her marriage to the King, Anne was secretly betrothed to another Henry – Henry Percy, son and heir of the 5th Earl of Northumberland? The Queen’s Promise is the story of Anne and Henry’s relationship.

When you try a new author for the first time you can never be quite sure what to expect. Until I read The Queen’s Promise I was unfamiliar with Lyn Andrews’ work, but after doing some research I discovered that she has written many bestselling family sagas which, although they have obviously been very successful, don’t look like books that would appeal to me. The Queen’s Promise seems to be a new genre for Andrews; I think this is her first historical fiction novel and based on this one, I hope she writes more. I’ll admit that when I first started to read it I thought it would be just another Tudor court romance – an impression not helped by the title and cover of the novel which do absolutely nothing to set the book apart from others of this type – but I was pleased to find that although there was certainly a romantic aspect to the story, it also had a detailed and well-researched historical background with almost as much attention given to the history and politics of the period as to the romance between Anne and Henry Percy.

Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII and the events leading to her death have been well documented in both fiction and non-fiction. However, in this novel there is actually more focus on Henry Percy than there is on Anne, which was the right choice in my opinion. Anne is such a popular subject for historical fiction and there’s not much that can be said about her that hasn’t been said before, but Henry Percy, on the other hand, is a historical figure who is less well known and Andrews does go into quite a lot of depth on not just his relationship with Anne, but also his life before and after Anne.

As so much of Henry’s life was spent in Northumberland, we are given a lot of information about the Border Reivers, who raided both sides of the English/Scottish border, and Henry’s role as Lord Warden of the Marches. Life in the borders was wild and dangerous in those days and it was not easy to maintain law and order there. We see how difficult it was to keep the peace between Northumberland’s feuding families and protect the people from outlaws while always being aware that there could be an attack from the Scottish side of the border at any time. I’m always looking out for books set in Northumberland as I’m from the North East myself and it was interesting to read about so many places I know – Alnwick, Hexham, Prudhoe, Warkworth – and to have the chance to add to my knowledge of the region’s history.

I really liked the way Henry Percy is portrayed as being refreshingly different to most of the other young men at the Tudor court – loyal, sincere and honest, but also quiet, cultured and sensitive, qualities which sadly make him a disappointment to his father, the Earl. It’s not a happy story for Henry – he also has to fight a recurring illness and to come to terms with being forced into a loveless marriage to Mary Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter – and of course it isn’t a happy story for Anne either. I did like the young Anne we meet in the earlier chapters of the book, though after she begins her rise to becoming Queen she becomes much harder and a less sympathetic character.

Much of Henry’s and Anne’s story is seen through the eyes of Henry’s friend and squire, Will Chatton, who joins Henry’s household as a boy of eleven and later becomes a successful merchant. Will and his family are purely fictitious characters but they add another interesting angle to the story. As well as allowing us to observe Henry and Anne from a third perspective, the inclusion of the Chatton family gives us the chance to explore another side of Tudor society, away from life at court.

I enjoyed this book, after my initial concerns had proved to be unfounded. It was interesting, very readable and the focus on Henry Percy makes it slightly different from other Anne Boleyn-based historical fiction. It also raises the intriguing question of whether, if Anne and Henry had been allowed to be together as they wished, what impact would this have had on the future of the royal family and the whole course of history?

Lion of Alnwick by Carol Wensby-Scott

Set in the 14th century during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II, Lion of Alnwick tells the story of Henry (Hal) Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland. The novel begins in the year 1357 and ends in 1409, covering all the major events of Hal’s adult life including his marriage to Margaret Neville, sister of his bitter enemy and rival Northern lord, his conflict with John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and his relationship with his son Harry “Hotspur” Percy.

Before I say any more about this great historical fiction novel, I should point out that this book has now sadly gone out of print, but for anyone who loves fiction set in medieval England it is definitely worth reading if you can manage to find a copy. Please don’t let the cover (pictured above) put you off – it has to be one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen and is really not representative of the quality of the story!

I can’t remember how this book first came to my attention, but the reason it appealed to me is because I only live an hour away from Alnwick and have been there several times (usually to visit the castle, the gardens or Barter Books) so I was attracted by the mention of Alnwick in the title. There are so few books that focus on the north east of England that whenever I do come across one I always feel I should read it (though of course, with this novel being so epic in scale, the action is not just confined to Northumberland but also sweeps down to York and Westminster and across to Wales).

The story concentrates on Hal, his son Harry, and their respective wives, Margaret Neville and Elizabeth Mortimer, but we also meet lots of other fascinating characters, most of them real historical figures of the period. One of the most intriguing characters, I thought, was Hal’s enemy from over the border in Scotland, Archibald Douglas, known as The Black Douglas. His rivalry with Hal is a recurring theme throughout the novel and I looked forward to all of their encounters. I also thought the characterisation of Richard II as a young and incompetent king unable to command the respect of his men while bestowing gifts and titles on his favourites, was very well done.

The author does seem to assume that the reader already has a good knowledge of the period; the history becomes very complex and detailed, so this is the type of historical fiction novel I would recommend only to readers who really do love history! It’s such a shame this book is out of print; it was very well-written and well-researched, maybe not as much fun to read as a Sharon Penman or Elizabeth Chadwick novel, but almost as good. If you’re interested in reading this book I would suggest trying to get a copy of this one and the other two in the trilogy (Lion Dormant and Lion Invincible) as soon as you can, before they become impossible to find!

The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart was a new discovery for me last year and since then I’ve been enjoying slowly working my way through her novels. I was looking forward to reading this one, The Ivy Tree, as I’ve seen it described as one of her best.

The Ivy Tree begins on a warm, sunny day when Mary Grey, who has recently moved from Canada to the north east of England, is walking in the countryside near Hadrian’s Wall. Suddenly she is approached by an Irishman who has mistaken her for his cousin Annabel who had disappeared eight years earlier. The man’s name is Connor Winslow (known as Con), the great-nephew of Matthew Winslow, owner of the estate of Whitescar. With Annabel believed to be dead, Matthew Winslow is intending to leave his fortune to his other granddaughter Julie – but Con thinks that he should be the rightful heir and he wants Mary Grey to help him claim the inheritance.

Although Mary explains to Con that he has made a mistake and she is not his cousin, he persuades her to impersonate Annabel as part of a scheme to enable him to inherit his great-uncle’s estate. And so Mary comes to Whitescar and, with the help of Con and his half-sister Lisa, easily manages to convince everyone that she is Annabel. But who exactly is Mary Grey and does she have reasons of her own for agreeing to go along with Con’s plans?

The Ivy Tree was published in 1961 and was written as a contemporary novel, although it now has a lovely, old-fashioned feel. I loved Mary Stewart’s descriptions of the setting, especially as I only live a few miles away from Hadrian’s Wall (the wall built by the Romans almost two thousand years ago) and I know exactly what the scenery she’s describing looks like. Her descriptive passages aren’t too long or too detailed, but include just enough information about the landscape, flowers, animals and birds to build up a vivid and realistic picture of the part of the country she’s writing about.

Mary Stewart’s novels (apart from her historical Arthurian novels) are usually described as romantic suspense. The romantic thread in this book was very weak in my opinion, but there was certainly lots of suspense. There are also one or two interesting subplots including one revolving around Julie’s boyfriend Donald, an archaeologist who is spending the summer working at a Roman fort in the area. And I should also mention the animals: there are some horses that have an important role to play in the story, especially Rowan the colt, as well as some funny scenes involving Tommy, a black and white cat.

Mary Stewart’s heroines are usually such nice, pleasant, likeable people, but the narrator of this book, Mary Grey, is an exception because she’s not so instantly likeable and her willingness to take part in Con’s schemes made me doubt and distrust her from the beginning. I didn’t really like any of the other characters either but I enjoyed being kept wondering who was ‘good’ and who was ‘bad’. As for the mystery aspect of the novel, I guessed the truth long before it was revealed but it was still interesting looking out for clues that might confirm whether I was right or not. This is one of those cleverly plotted books that would benefit from being read twice, so you can appreciate all the subtle little hints that the author has dropped into the story. I didn’t love the book enough to want to read it all again immediately but I did take the time to re-read the first chapter and noticed a few clues that had meant nothing to me the first time.

Of the four Mary Stewart novels I’ve now read, I liked this one a lot more than Rose Cottage but not as much as Touch Not the Cat or my favourite, Nine Coaches Waiting. For a better novel about mistaken identities and impersonations I would recommend Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. You could also try Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, which I haven’t read yet, but which is referred to more than once by characters in The Ivy Tree when they’re discussing other famous cases of impersonations – yet another book to add to my list!

If you like Mary Stewart too, can you help me decide which of her books I should read next?