The Queen’s Mary by Sarah Gristwood

Sarah Gristwood is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. I have read one of her non-fiction books – Blood Sisters, a biography of several of the women involved in the Wars of the Roses – but this is the first of her novels that I’ve read. It’s set in the 16th century and the queen of the title is Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary is known to have had four ladies-in-waiting, young women her own age who were also all called Mary. They were the daughters of Scottish nobility – Mary Fleming, Mary Livingston, Mary Beaton and Mary Seton. Gristwood’s novel is written from the perspective of Mary Seton.

We first meet the four Marys as children of five or six years old. It’s 1548 and they are embarking on a voyage to France where the young queen will grow up and eventually marry the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. This forms the novel’s brief prologue and we hear very little about what actually happened in France, except when Seton looks back on the period later in her life:

Seton could tell tales of Diane’s banquets where the white wine was made cool with snow, of music in the pavilions by the river; a tennis court where the king played dressed in white silk. Of a park where special deer wore silver collars and ornamental canals were filled with fish; and of how, when the royal children came to stay, muzzled mastiffs and even a bear were brought into the nursery.

We join the Marys again in 1561 as they return to Scotland following the death of the queen’s husband. They have now grown into young women, all with very different personalities: Fleming pretty and regal, Livingston down to earth and flirtatious, Beaton quietly passionate, and Seton herself sensible and thoughtful. However, it would have been nice if, rather than the author just telling us what the Marys were like (by comparing them to the four elements, earth, fire, water and air, for example) she had done more to convey their personalities through their speech and actions instead.

The rest of the novel takes us through the years of Mary’s reign, a troubled time of religious conflict, disastrous marriages and controversial love affairs. It can’t have been easy for a young woman returning after a long absence in France to rule over a country she barely remembered:

It was as if the queen were groping to understand what to her – Seton thought with a chill – seemed almost to be an alien country.

The queen is lucky to have such loyal companions as the Marys to help her through these difficult years, but even they are unable to prevent her from making mistakes. She rarely confides in them or asks their advice, remaining a very lonely and isolated figure. Seen only through the eyes of Mary Seton, she never fully comes to life on the page and we never really know what she is thinking or feeling, but maybe that was intentional, to show the distance between the queen and her ladies, even after so many years together.

The story of Mary, Queen of Scots is fascinating but has been written about many times before; the stories of Mary Seton, Beaton, Livingston and Fleming are much less well known and the hope of finding out more about them was what drew me to this novel. I can appreciate that there will not be a lot of information available on the lives of these four women, but I think Sarah Gristwood did a good job of working with what we do know to flesh out each character a little bit. I do wonder, though, whether the story might have been more compelling if it had been written in the first person rather than the third, or if each Mary had been given a chance to take a turn at narrating rather than just Seton.

I did have a lot of sympathy for Mary Seton; she is the one who remains in the queen’s service as the other three gradually marry and find freedom (or if not freedom exactly, at least a form of escape) away from court. Seton’s whole life has been devoted to the queen and she gradually becomes torn between loyalty to her mistress, frustration at her lack of influence and a longing to break the bond and live her own life at last.

Although there was too much distance in this novel for me to say that I really enjoyed it (distance between one character and another, as well as distance between the characters and the reader) it was still good to have an opportunity to meet the Four Marys and to add to my knowledge of this period of history.

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

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

After reading Hamlet, Revenge! recently, I have been wanting to read more by Michael Innes, so I was pleased to find his next Inspector Appleby mystery, Lament for a Maker, available through NetGalley. Having read the previous book in the series I thought I knew what to expect from this one, but I was wrong – this book has a very different feel and structure and despite being published in 1938, it’s not a typical Golden Age mystery novel at all.

The title is taken from a 16th century Scottish poem by William Dunbar (the word maker, also spelled makar, means a poet or court poet). The Latin refrain Timor mortis conturbat me – fear of death disturbs me – is repeated throughout the poem and sets the tone for Innes’ novel.

This is such a complex, convoluted mystery it’s difficult to know where to begin, but the best place to start is probably with the crime itself – assuming that a crime has actually been committed, of course! Ranald Guthrie, the miserly laird of Erchany Castle has been killed falling from the ramparts of his own tower on a cold winter night, but was he pushed, was it an accident or could it have been a suicide attempt? If it was murder, then the culprit seems obvious: Neil Lindsay, the young man who wants to marry Ranald’s niece and whose family have been feuding with the Guthries for generations. There is much more to the situation than meets the eye, however, and as the story unfolds more suspects and possible scenarios begin to emerge.

The novel is written from the perspectives of five different characters who each take it in turns to narrate their part of the story. My favourite was the first, Ewan Bell, a shoemaker who lives in Kinkeig in Scotland. It is Ewan who sets the scene, introduces us to the other main characters in the novel and describes the events leading up to Guthrie’s death – all in his own distinctive voice, complete with plenty of Scots dialect!

“If an unco silence had fallen upon nature with the snow those weeks there were plenty of human tongues in Kinkeig to make good the deficiency. The less work always the more gossip, and there must have been even more claiking than usual about the meikle house.”

The second narrator is Noel Gylby, a young Englishman who appeared in Hamlet, Revenge! He is visiting Erchany Castle with his American girlfriend and immediately his narration (which takes the form of letters) has a very different feel from Ewan Bell’s:

“Diana darling: Leaves – as Queen Victoria said – from the Journal of my Life in the Highlands. Or possibly of my Death in the Lowlands. For I don’t at all know if I’m going to survive and I don’t know – I’m kind of guessing, as my girl-friend here says – where I am.”

And there are several more! Lots of authors have written books with multiple narrators but I haven’t come across many (apart from Wilkie Collins) who actually succeed in giving each narrator a unique voice of their own. This is one of the best attempts I’ve read for a while. It’s not just the style and structure which make this such an enjoyable novel, though; the mystery itself is also a good one, with twist following upon twist as the end of the book approaches.

As for Inspector Appleby himself, he doesn’t appear until two thirds of the way through the book when the mystery is already half solved and theories have been suggested. Although the novel is clearly set in the 1930s, there are times when both the story and the book itself feel as though they belong to a much earlier period (it reminded me very strongly of The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson and it seems I’m not the only one to make that connection). This makes me wonder whether Innes may really have wanted to write a historical mystery but couldn’t as he needed to make it part of the Appleby series. That would explain why Appleby makes such a late appearance, almost as an afterthought.

Anyway, I loved this one. Thanks to Ipso Books for the review copy.

Rum Affair by Dorothy Dunnett – #1968Club

I am, after all, the only really photogenic coloratura soprano alive. My only problem, just about then, was in staying alive.

It’s been a while since I read my first of Dorothy Dunnett’s Johnson Johnson mysteries and this week’s 1968 Club (hosted by Simon and Karen) seemed the perfect opportunity to read another one. Rum Affair – originally titled Dolly and the Singing Bird and then The Photogenic Soprano – was the first in the series to be published (in 1968 obviously), although Tropical Issue, the other one I’ve read, was the first chronologically.

Dunnett is better known for her historical novels, some of which have recently been reissued, but the seven books in her mystery series have contemporary settings. They are each narrated by a different young woman and all feature the portrait painter Johnson Johnson and his yacht Dolly.

Rum Affair opens with Tina Rossi, a Polish-Italian opera singer, arriving in Scotland where she is due to give two performances at the Edinburgh Festival. During a break in her schedule, she has arranged to meet her lover, Kenneth Holmes, at his friend’s Rose Street flat. However, there’s no sign of Kenneth – just a card with the three handwritten words, “Darling, I’m sorry”. Searching for clues to explain his absence, Tina opens a wardrobe door to reveal the body of a man, a stranger, who has been shot in the chest. When the police unexpectedly arrive, making enquiries about a robbery in the neighbourhood, she quickly makes the decision to conceal what has happened – to try to save her own reputation, she tells us, and Kenneth’s.

Instinct is a marvellous thing, I dare say; but I prefer to use my good sense. You, perhaps, with a strange man lying dead at your feet would have welcomed the police with an exhibition of nervous relief. I, on the other hand, kept my head.

On the same night, Tina’s path crosses for the first time with that of Johnson, who is staying nearby. Tina is immediately intrigued by Johnson, a mysterious man who wears bifocals and introduces himself as “thirty-eight. Painter. London. On holiday.” When Johnson invites her to join him on a yacht race to the Isle of Rum, she is quick to accept. Rum is where Kenneth is currently based, working on a highly sensitive project for his employers, although she doesn’t admit this to Johnson. However, it seems that Johnson has a reason of his own for wanting Tina to sail with him on board Dolly – and it’s not just so that he can paint her portrait!

I won’t go into any more detail regarding the plot because I wouldn’t like to inadvertently give too much away and spoil the mystery – and I don’t want to say much more about Tina Rossi either as I’m finding that part of the fun of reading the Johnson novels is in getting to know the woman who is narrating the story. What I will say is that Tina is very different from Rita Geddes of Tropical Issue and that their narrative voices reflect their different personalities and backgrounds (while I liked Rita immediately, I never connected with Tina at all, but I suppose you can’t like every character in every book). As for Johnson himself, even though I have now read two books in this series, he is still very much an enigma to me. Of course, we only see him through the eyes of the narrators so we only know what they choose to tell us and are reliant on their observations and interpretations of his character, which may not always be correct or true.

I also found the setting interesting; the race in which Johnson and Tina are participating takes them around the west coast of Scotland, visiting several islands of the Inner Hebrides, of which Rum is one.

In the summer night, the Inner Hebrides lay all about us, black on the indigo sea. Above us, the uninterrupted sky stretched, a light, dense ultramarine, its ghostly clouds and small, sharp white stars suspended over the bright winking lights, near and far, of a constellation of lighthouses, and the grey, dimly voyaging waves here below.

I particularly enjoyed the scenes set at Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa!

Although I don’t think these books come close to the brilliance of Dunnett’s Lymond or Niccolò series, or King Hereafter, they are still quite enjoyable in a different way. I am looking forward to reading the rest and meeting the other five narrators.

The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

One of the many things I love about reading historical fiction is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about lesser-known historical figures – the ones who were never mentioned in my school history lessons and of whom I could otherwise have gone through the rest of my life in complete ignorance. One of these is Somerled, whose story is told in Antonia Senior’s beautifully written The Winter Isles. Set in 12th century Scotland, we follow Somerled as he sets out to prove himself as a warrior and claim the right to call himself Lord of the Isles.

We first meet Somerled as a boy in 1122. The son of a minor chieftain from the Western Isles, he is already becoming aware of his father’s weaknesses as a leader – and in this unpredictable, dangerous world, strong leadership is vital. After his father’s hall is burned during a raid, Somerled gets his chance to step forward and take control and, despite his youth, he finds that is able to command the loyalty and respect of his men. But Somerled is an ambitious young man and if he is to achieve his dreams he must build alliances with lords and rulers of neighbouring islands while conquering others – as well as keeping an eye on the movements of Scotland’s king, David, in nearby Alba.

As you can probably tell from what I’ve said so far, The Winter Isles does include quite a lot of battle scenes and descriptions of raids by land and by sea, but there are other layers to the novel too. It isn’t a book packed with non-stop action; there are quiet, reflective sections in which Antonia Senior’s choice of words paint beautiful pictures of the sea and the Scottish islands, their landscapes and their wildlife. She also explores what Somerled is like as a person and how he grows and changes as his power increases.

Not all of the story is told from Somerled’s perspective. There are also chapters narrated by two women, his childhood friend Eimhear (known as ‘the otter’) and the beautiful Ragnhild, both of whom play important but very different roles in Somerled’s life. Eimhear and Ragnhild have strong and distinctive voices and I thought the decision to let them tell their own stories in their own words was a good one, showing what life was like for women during that period and also offering different views of Somerled’s character.

The Winter Isles is a lovely, poignant, intelligent novel which made me think, at times, of King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. However, the comparison is mainly in the setting; the writing style in The Winter Isles is lighter and dreamier and there’s something about it that prevented me from becoming as absorbed in Somerled’s story as I would have liked. This is an impressive book but not one that I particularly loved. Still, I’m now curious about Antonia Senior’s other novels, Treason’s Daughter and The Tyrant’s Shadow, set during the English Civil War and rule of Oliver Cromwell respectively.

As for Somerled, it seems that his portrayal in The Winter Isles is based on a mixture of history, myth and legend; many of the facts regarding the real man have been lost in the mists of time, but the story Antonia Senior has created for Somerled and his children to fill in the gaps feels convincing and realistic. Now that I’ve been introduced to him, I would like to read more. Has anyone read Nigel Tranter’s Lord of the Isles? Are there any other books you can recommend?

More mini-reviews: The Sea Road West; Circle of Pearls; The Silver Swan

Time for another trio of mini-reviews! I’ll start with The Sea Road West, a 1975 novel by Scottish author Sally Rena. Set in a small community in the Scottish Highlands, the novel begins with the death of the parish priest, Father Macabe. It’s not long before a replacement arrives, but Father James, being young, idealistic and English, is not quite what the people of Kintillo were expecting. Struggling to settle into his new home and job, Father James is sure that he is destined to remain an outsider; the only person with whom he feels any connection is Meriel, the granddaughter of the elderly Laird. As his relationship with Meriel develops, there is a sense that it can only end in tragedy for everyone concerned.

I found this a strange and atmospheric story. Although it’s short enough to be read in just a few sittings, the pace is slow, with not much actually happening until the final pages. Instead, the focus is on the characters; there are not many of them, but as well as Father James and Meriel and her family, we get to know Miss Morag, the eccentric housekeeper obsessed with memories of Father Macabe, and Magnus Laver, a retired doctor with an unhappy past who lives alone in a tiny cottage and seeks solace in alcohol. They are not a particularly likeable assortment of characters and the overall tone of the novel is quite a sad, melancholy one. There are some nice descriptions of the Scottish countryside and coastline, though, and an exploration of one of my favourite themes – the coming of change and progress to a community which still clings to the old ways and old traditions.

The Sea Road West was an interesting read, but the next book I’m going to write about here, Circle of Pearls by Rosalind Laker, was more to my taste. Set in 17th century England and spanning the eventful period of history from the end of the Civil War through to the Restoration, the plague and the Great Fire of London, this is the story of the Pallisters, a Royalist family who live at Sotherleigh Manor in Sussex. Being on the losing side in the war, the family go through a great deal of turmoil during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule before King Charles II is restored to the throne and their fortunes change again.

There are several romantic threads to the story; our heroine, Julia Pallister, is in love with her brother’s friend, who happens to be Christopher Wren, the architect and scientist who would become famous for redesigning St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, but she is also romantically involved with the son of a neighbouring Roundhead colonel. Meanwhile, Julia’s brother Michael rescues a young woman from being hanged and brings her home to go into hiding at Sotherleigh – but before their relationship has a chance to go anywhere, he is forced to flee the country for exile in France. There’s more to the story than the romance, though. I loved the drama of the plague and Fire sections, the triumphant return of Charles II to London, and the descriptions of the ribbon-making business Julia establishes.

On the negative side, I thought the book felt longer than it needed to be and there were too many changes of perspective, sometimes several times within the same page, making it hard to become fully absorbed early on. Although I did enjoy Circle of Pearls, I think it suffered from being read too soon after Pamela Belle’s excellent Wintercombe, which is also set in an English country house during the Civil War and which, in my opinion, is a better book.

Back to a modern day setting with the final book I want to discuss in this post, Elena Delbanco’s The Silver Swan, one that I think will particularly appeal to classical music lovers, although with a plot involving secrets, lies and family drama, there’s enough to interest non-musical readers too.

When Mariana’s father, the world-famous cellist Alexander Feldmann, dies just days after his ninetieth birthday in 2010, Mariana expects to inherit his beloved cello, a Stradivarius known affectionately as the Silver Swan. However, when the will is read, she is shocked to learn that he has left the valuable instrument to Claude Roselle, one of his former students. The fate of the cello brings Mariana and Claude together and as they get to know each other and to understand the reasons for Alexander’s choice, Mariana must decide whether or not she is ready to give up her claim to the Swan.

The Silver Swan is not a bad novel – it’s quite a pageturner in fact – but I finished it with a mixture of positive and negative feelings. Half of the novel is written from Mariana’s perspective and half from Claude’s (in the form of alternating chapters) which I thought worked well as they are both equally important to the story. However, I struggled to engage with either of them; they didn’t seem like real people to me, although that could be partly because the world they live in is so different from my own that I just couldn’t identify with them. There are some plot twists, but I found them too easy to predict and wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. Anyway, this was a quick read and one that I enjoyed without feeling that it was anything special.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them tempt you?

The Echo of Twilight by Judith Kinghorn

the-echo-of-twilight It’s 1914 and Pearl Gibson, a young woman in her twenties, is about to take up a new position as lady’s maid. Her new employer, Ottoline Campbell, has estates in Northumberland and Scotland, which means Pearl will have to leave London and move north. She’s prepared to do this, however, because it’s not as if she has much to leave behind – her relationship with her boyfriend, Stanley, already seems to be fizzling out, and she has no other friends or family. Her mother killed herself just after Pearl’s birth and Pearl was raised by a great-aunt who is also now dead.

Spending the summer at Delnasay, the Campbells’ house in the Scottish Highlands, Pearl gradually settles into her new job and her new life. Although the other servants view her as proud and superior at first, she slowly wins them over, and at the same time she starts to form a close friendship with Ottoline. It seems that both Pearl and Ottoline are hiding secrets and as the bond between them strengthens, they begin to confide in each other more and more.

Meanwhile, the trouble which has been brewing in Europe throughout the year has escalated into war and the family return to England, hoping they will be safe at Birling Hall, their other estate in Warkworth, Northumberland. Ottoline’s two sons, Billy and Hugo, both enlist and are soon on their way to France, while Pearl also has someone to pray for: Ralph Stedman, an artist with whom she embarked on a new romance during her time in Scotland and who has also gone to war. All of this takes place just in the first half of the novel; there are plenty of other surprises and revelations to follow as Pearl and Ottoline learn more about each other – and as the war progresses, changing the lives of all of our characters forever.

Pearl, the novel’s narrator, is an interesting and complex character. I was intrigued by her habit of pretending to be other people, introducing herself to strangers as Tess Durbeyfield, Mrs Gaskell and even Ottoline Campbell herself…anybody but Pearl Gibson. I was happy, though, that by the end of the novel we’d had a chance to get to know the real Pearl. Ottoline was also a fascinating character, but I felt that she remained more of an enigma.

The Echo of Twilight is Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel. I loved her first, The Last Summer, was slightly less impressed by the second, The Memory of Lost Senses, and haven’t yet read her third, The Snow Globe. This one sounded appealing to me as it is set during the same time period as The Last Summer – and although the stories are quite different, the two books do share some similar themes. The impact of war, not just on those who are fighting in it, but also on the people left behind, is an important part of both novels. We see how, with so many young men lost from the British workforce, women had to take on what would previously have been considered ‘jobs for men’, and how, once the war was over, the social structure had changed so much that the running of large estates like Delnasay and Birling tended not to be sustainable.

The Echo of Twilight is an easy read – the sort where the pages seem to fly by effortlessly – and a beautifully written one. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance at the heart of the novel and didn’t sense a lot of chemistry there, there were enough other aspects that I did like to make up for that. It’s not just a romance; it’s also a lovely, moving story about a young woman trying to find her place in the world.

Thanks to the publisher Canelo for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloody-project This novel by Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet attracted a lot of attention after being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.  Of all the books on the list, I remember thinking that this sounded like the one I would be most likely to enjoy, so I had a lovely surprise when I received a nice hardback copy from my sister for Christmas.

His Bloody Project is fiction but presented so convincingly as non-fiction that there were times when I wondered if I’d misunderstood and I was actually reading a true story after all!  Subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, the case in question is that of a triple murder committed in August 1869 in Culduie, a remote village in the Scottish Highlands.  In his preface, the author explains that he came across the documents contained in this book while researching his own family history at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. 

Following a collection of statements given by the residents of Culduie, we proceed to the longest section of the book: Roderick Macrae’s memoir which he was instructed to write by his advocate, Andrew Sinclair, during his imprisonment at Inverness Castle awaiting his trial.  Roderick, only seventeen at the time of his arrest, never tries to deny that he killed his neighbour, Lachlan Mackenzie, and two other members of the Mackenzie family – we know this right from the beginning of the book – but what we don’t know is what caused him to do such a thing.  Roderick’s memoir provides some insights, giving some background information on what life was like in Culduie and describing the events leading up to the murders.

Next, we have the opportunity to read the medical reports on each of the three murder victims – and this is the first real indication we get that maybe Roderick has not been entirely honest with us.  A study by a doctor who visited Roderick in prison follows, raising and answering questions about the prisoner’s state of mind, and finally we arrive at the trial itself.  As judge, jury and spectators try to understand the motive behind the crime, witnesses are called who give statements both to confirm Roderick’s own account and to contradict it.  A verdict is finally reached, but whether it is the right one or not is up to each individual reader to decide. 

While I was reading Roderick’s own story, I had a lot of sympathy for him and I was so angry with Lachlan Mackenzie (or Lachlan Broad, as he is usually known) that I could understand why Roderick felt driven to take revenge.  However, when I read the rest of the documents, particularly the report of the court proceedings, I began to wonder how much Roderick had omitted from his memoir and whether Lachlan Broad’s actions were really as provocative as they had at first seemed.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the portrayal of life in a tiny Scottish community in the middle of the 19th century.  Roderick Macrae’s mother dies in childbirth just before the events described in the novel, leaving Roderick and his siblings alone with their father, a crofter trying to earn his living from the land.  Culduie (a settlement of only nine houses) and the surrounding villages are the property of the Laird, who rules through his factor and a network of local constables.  Lachlan Broad is elected the constable for Culduie and this is what brings him into conflict with the Macraes.

The writing style and the language used throughout the novel feels appropriate for the time period and increases the sense of authenticity; as I’ve said, at times I could almost have believed I was reading genuine historical documents.  Dialect is used sparingly and a glossary is provided if you need to look up any unfamiliar Scots words (there were a few that were new to me, but these were mainly the names of farming implements such as croman and cas chrom).  Maybe Roderick’s narrative voice isn’t entirely convincing given his age, but we are told that he is an exceptionally bright, intelligent boy – and the author does address this issue in the preface too.

I loved His Bloody Project; although it’s not a traditional crime novel and there’s never any mystery surrounding the identity of the murderer, it’s the sort of book that leaves you with more questions at the end than you had at the beginning.  I think a re-read might be necessary at some point!