Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken – #1976Club

Since reading some of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, I’ve been interested in trying something by her sister and fellow author, Joan Aiken. Maybe it would have been more sensible to start with the classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for which she’s most famous, but her adult novels appealed to me more and when I saw that Castle Barebane was published in 1976, I decided to read it for this week’s 1976 Club hosted by Karen and Simon. I loved it, so it turned out to be a perfect choice!

The novel is set towards the end of the 19th century and opens with Val Montgomery, a New York journalist, at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benet Allerton. The party is not an enjoyable experience for Val – she feels awkward and out of place around Benet’s wealthy, fashionable relatives and can sense their disapproval of her clothes, her family and the fact that she works for a living. When she discovers that she will be expected to give up her career once she becomes Benet’s wife, she begins to have second thoughts about the marriage.

As luck would have it, Val returns home from the party later that night to find that her half-brother Nils has just arrived from England and when she tells him that she is having doubts about Benet, he persuades her to come and stay with him in London for a while to give herself time to think. However, the next day Nils disappears, leaving a note saying he has been called back to England urgently. Val follows on another ship a few days later, but by the time she reaches London, she discovers that her brother’s house has been abandoned, there’s no sign of Nils or his Scottish wife Kirstie, and their two young children are staying with a cruel and negligent servant. Desperate to know what has happened – and wanting to find someone more suitable to care for little Pieter and Jannie before she goes home to America – Val takes the children and boards a train for Scotland and Kirstie’s old family estate.

The rest of the novel is set at Ardnacarrig, nicknamed Castle Barebane because of its derelict, neglected state. This is where the gothic elements of the story emerge, with descriptions of underground passages, dangerous rocks and treacherous quicksand and tales of at least two resident ghosts who haunt the upper floors of the house at night. Val, who is too practical to believe in ghosts, suspects that if the house is haunted at all, it is haunted by the misery and unhappiness of the people who have lived there. As we – and Val – wait for the truth behind Nils’ and Kirstie’s disappearances to be revealed, the poignant stories of other characters unfold: the elderly housekeeper Elspie and her lost lover Mungo; local doctor David Ramsay and his dying mother; and six-year-old Pieter and his little sister Jannie, who is not like other children.

It took me a while to get into this book; it was very slow at the beginning and I felt that more time was spent on Benet and his family than was necessary, considering that they don’t really feature in the story after the first few chapters. Once Val arrived in London to find her brother missing, though, it became much more compelling. Val is a great character; although I didn’t find her particularly likeable at first – and I don’t think she was intended to be – I admired her dedication to her work and desire for independence when it would have been easier to just marry Benet and conform to society’s expectations. After she breaks free from Benet it’s fascinating to watch her grow and flourish as a character while doing all she can to help the people around her, even when it seems that they don’t really want to be helped. There’s also a new romance for Val, which I liked, but we didn’t see enough of her love interest for me to feel fully invested in their relationship.

Most of the action in the book is packed into the final few chapters; there’s definitely a problem with the pacing and also a bit of needless violence which I wasn’t expecting and felt that the story would have worked just as well without. But despite the novel’s many flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – both the domestic parts and the gothic adventure parts. The atmosphere is wonderful, there’s a suitably sinister villain and I loved the remote setting (and was impressed by the Scottish dialect which seemed quite accurate, although I’m not an expert). I’m certainly planning to read more of Joan Aiken’s books and am hoping they’re all as good as this one!

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I’m also counting this book towards the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the R.I.P. XVI event!

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1976 books previously read and reviewed on my blog:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks
Some Touch of Pity by Rhoda Edwards
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

This is the third book in Ambrose Parry’s historical mystery series featuring Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher. The first two are The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying, but if you haven’t read either of those it shouldn’t be a problem – although I would still recommend reading them in order if possible so that you can understand the background of the relationship between Will and Sarah.

Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman; Brookmyre is an experienced crime novelist while Haetzman is an anaesthetist and medical historian, which explains why the 19th century world of murder and medicine portrayed in the books feels so real and convincing.

At the beginning of A Corruption of Blood, Sarah travels to Paris and Gräfenberg hoping for a meeting with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree in America and become a doctor. Sarah has an interest in medicine herself and is sure that she could achieve the same as Dr Blackwell if given the chance, but things don’t go as planned and Sarah goes back to Edinburgh feeling disillusioned and frustrated. On returning home, she receives more bad news when she learns that Dr Will Raven has just become engaged to another woman, Eugenie Todd. Sarah has always resented Will for being able to take advantage of the opportunities that have been denied to her because of her gender, but recently they have been on friendlier terms and she is disappointed to hear of his engagement.

Meanwhile, Will is having problems of his own. Through his work with the famous Scottish obstetrician Dr James Simpson, he has become used to witnessing the trauma of childbirth and, sadly, the deaths of children – however, even he is not prepared for the sight of a dead baby wrapped in a parcel being fished out of the river. Soon after this, Will’s new fiancée asks for his help; her friend Gideon has been accused of murdering his father, Sir Ainsley Douglas, and she wants to prove that he is innocent. Will knows and dislikes Gideon from his student days, but agrees to investigate. Could both deaths somehow be connected?

This is such an interesting series, not so much because of the murder mystery aspect (which I don’t think is particularly strong) but because of the Victorian Edinburgh setting and all of the information we are given on the medical science of the period, as well as the challenges faced by women like Sarah and Dr Blackwell who wanted to make a career for themselves in a field dominated by men. This particular novel also includes a storyline involving the unpleasant, distressing but sadly quite common practice of baby farming, where unwanted or illegitimate children were sold to a ‘baby farmer’, who in theory would look after the child in return for a payment, although it was often more profitable for the baby farmer if the child conveniently died while in her care.

It took me a while to get into this book; the pace is very slow at the beginning and it takes a while for the plot to take shape and the different threads of the story to start coming together. Things improve in the second half, though, and there are a few surprises and plot twists that I hadn’t really expected. The relationship between Sarah and Will continues to develop, with the way each of them feels about Eugenie adding some extra interest, and I will look forward to seeing how this progresses in the next book. I hope there is going to be a next book and I hope we don’t have to wait too long for it!

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

Book 11/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Book 39/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

I loved Andrew Greig’s last book, Fair Helen, a beautifully written historical novel based on a Scottish Border Ballad, so when I saw that his new one, Rose Nicolson, was going to be set in the same time and place I couldn’t wait to read it. Now that I’ve had the opportunity, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it just as much as Fair Helen and can highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Scotland in the 16th century.

Rose Nicolson is a fictional account of the life of a real historical figure, William Fowler, a Scottish makar, or poet, and is presented as his memoir written as an older man looking back on his youth. His story begins in Embra (Edinburgh) in 1574: Mary, Queen of Scots has fled to England leaving her young son, James VI, on the throne, but the real power is held by the Earl of Morton, the latest of four regents to govern Scotland during the young king’s minority. The Protestant religion now dominates but there are still those who have not given up hope of restoring Mary to the throne and returning Scotland to the Catholic church. It is during this time of political and religious uncertainty that William Fowler, the only son of an Edinburgh merchant family, sets out for St Andrews where he will become a student at the university.

William’s time in St Andrews is vividly described: the education he receives; the enlightening conversations and debates on topics such as philosophy, religion, politics and literature; his first tentative attempts at writing poetry; and the friendships he forms with the other students as they bond over drinks at the howff (pub) or during a game of gowf (golf). As you can see, Andrew Greig sprinkles Scots dialect throughout his prose, as well as using language appropriate to the time period – apart from one or two words and phrases here and there that I thought seemed out of place – and the overall effect is a narrative style that feels authentic and convincing. There’s a glossary at the end of the book for anyone who needs it, but I found it easy enough to read without it.

You may be wondering where Rose Nicolson comes into the story. Well, she’s the sister of a friend William makes at university, Tom Nicolson. Rose and Tom are from a Fife fishing family, but while Tom has been given the opportunity to study and to pursue an academic life, that is not possible for Rose. William is captivated by her intelligence, courage and quick mind, but a marriage is already planned for Rose with a local fisherman, so despite William’s love for her it seems that she will never be his wife.

As well as the romantic thread of the novel and the academic one, we also learn a lot about the period of history during which the story is set. The reign of Mary, Queen of Scots is well covered in historical fiction, but the early years of James VI’s reign are written about less often, which is a shame as it’s a complex, interesting and very eventful period. Many of the characters William meets in the novel are people who really existed; these include George Buchanan, the Scottish historian and humanist scholar, who recruits William as a spy; Esmé Stewart, the first of the young king’s many favourites; and most notably, Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the clever and charismatic border reiver who becomes a good friend of William’s and really deserves a whole book to himself! As for our hero William Fowler, I knew nothing at all about him until I read this book; I resisted the temptation to look him up online until I had finished, but it seems that he led a fascinating life. Rose Nicolson only covers the early part of his career, but it looks as though there’s enough material for several more books!

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

Book 37/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea

I enjoyed Caroline Lea’s previous book, The Glass Woman, but even if I hadn’t already known that I liked her writing I would have been drawn to The Metal Heart anyway by that beautiful cover! Books don’t always live up to their covers, of course, but I think this one almost does.

Set during World War II, the novel takes as its inspiration the building of a chapel in the Orkney Islands by Italian prisoners of war. Around this, Caroline Lea has created a fictional story involving two identical twin sisters, Dorothy and Constance – known as Dot and Con. The sisters have very different personalities but are devoted to each other, so when Con suffers a traumatic experience which leaves her afraid to be around other people, the two of them leave their home in Kirkwall on mainland Orkney and take refuge on the small, uninhabited island of Selkie Holm. Needless to say, Con is not at all happy when hundreds of Italian prisoners arrive on the island, along with their guards, and when a romance begins to blossom between Dot and Cesare, one of the Italians, the sisters’ bond becomes strained.

The novel is written from several different perspectives, giving Con, Dot and Cesare each a chance to tell their own side of the story. Despite their identical appearance, the twins have opposite outlooks on life – Dot is warm, friendly and trusting, while Con, understandably, is withdrawn, cautious and slow to trust. There is a romantic element to the novel, of course, but although the love story between Dot and Cesare is important, its real significance is in the impact it has on the relationship between the sisters. When we first meet Dot, she has sacrificed her own freedom and happiness for Con’s sake, but over the course of the novel, through her romance with Cesare – and also her work in the prisoners’ hospital on the island – she must find a way to lead her own life while helping Con to lead hers.

Although the author has changed some of the historical and geographical details, such as names and dates, we know that there really was a prisoner of war camp in Orkney and that the Italian prisoners really did create a chapel from metal and concrete, which can still be seen on the island of Lamb Holm today. Through the story of Cesare and the other prisoners, we see what conditions were like in the camp and the treatment they received from the guards, as well as their reaction to being ordered to build barriers to prevent further attacks on the harbour at Scapa Flow (these would become known as the Churchill Barriers). At the end of the book, Caroline Lea explains which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are fictional, but while I could understand why she adjusted the timeline to give the story more urgency, I couldn’t see why it was necessary to create a fictional island, Selkie Holm, when we know that the name of the island where the camp was located was Lamb Holm.

Anyway, this is a beautifully written novel (apart from the fact that it is written in the present tense, which is never going to be my favourite style). The descriptions of the Orkney Islands – the landscape, the sea, the people and the Orcadian folklore – are atmospheric and vivid; I have never been, but I’m sure it must be a fascinating place to visit. Of the two Caroline Lea books I’ve read, I preferred this one, although I did love the Icelandic setting of The Glass Woman too and will look forward to seeing where her next book will be set!

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley. The book will be published on 29th April 2021.

Book 21/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

I enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s first book, The Sealwoman’s Gift (with one or two reservations), so I had been looking forward to reading her next one, The Ninth Child, which sounded very different but equally interesting. However, although some aspects of it certainly are fascinating, there are other parts that I struggled with and on the whole I think I preferred The Sealwoman’s Gift.

The Ninth Child is set in Scotland in the 19th century and tells the story of the construction of the Loch Katrine Waterworks, an engineering scheme designed to provide clean water to the people of Glasgow. The story is told from the perspectives of several characters associated with the scheme, the main one being doctor’s wife Isabel Aird. Having suffered several miscarriages during her six years of marriage, Isabel is depressed and unhappy, a state of mind which is not improved when her husband, Alexander, informs her that they will be moving to the Trossachs where he will be involved in the building of the new waterworks.

As a doctor, Alexander believes that the recent outbreaks of cholera in Glasgow are caused by the contaminated water supply, so he is looking forward to doing something that can really make a difference to people’s lives. Isabel accompanies him, reluctantly at first, but as she settles into her new home she finds comfort in walking in the countryside by the loch, especially when she begins to believe she is receiving messages from her lost children. It is during one of these walks that she meets the Reverend Robert Kirke, a man said to have been taken by the fairies two hundred years earlier. Are the stories about Robert true – and if so, why has he returned to the land of the living and what is his interest in Isabel?

The novel is written from the perspectives of several different characters: Isabel herself; Robert Kirke; Kirsty, the wife of one of the men working at Loch Katrine; and, surprisingly, Prince Albert, who is staying at Balmoral with Queen Victoria and preparing to appear at the official opening of the new waterworks. Unfortunately, the transitions from one character’s narrative to another are not very smooth and sometimes I couldn’t immediately tell who was narrating (something which wasn’t helped by the poor formatting of the NetGalley copy I was reading and will presumably have been improved in the finished version). The Victoria and Albert storyline felt unnecessary and out of place to me, but the others all added something different and complemented each other well, with Robert and Kirsty’s stories steeped in Scottish folklore and “the hills and the hollows and the brown peat moors and the ancient mounds of the Sìthichean – that’s fairies to you.”

Robert Kirke was a real person – an Episcopalian minister who lived from 1644 to 1692 and was the author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which was later published by Sir Walter Scott. Legends arose after Kirke’s death saying that he had been spirited away to fairyland after revealing their secrets and this is the basis of the story Sally Magnusson creates for him in The Ninth Child. I loved this aspect of the novel, which reminded me in some ways of James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but I couldn’t help feeling that this magical, fantastical tale didn’t really belong in the same book as the much more realistic and factual story of the Loch Katrine Waterworks. Lots of fascinating ideas found their way into the pages of The Ninth Child, but in the end I felt that it didn’t quite work either as fantasy or historical fiction.

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

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is the second book in a new series of historical mysteries written by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. The books are set in 19th century Edinburgh, where great advances are taking place in the world of medicine, and with Brookmyre being an experienced crime writer and Haetzman a consultant anaesthetist, they each bring different strengths to their collaborations.

The Art of Dying opens with a brief and dramatic section set in Berlin in 1849, before the action switches back to Edinburgh, where Will Raven has just returned from studying medicine in Europe to take up a position as assistant to the renowned obstetrician Dr James Simpson. Will had previously served as Simpson’s apprentice (as described in the previous novel, The Way of All Flesh), but he is now a qualified doctor himself and is eager to start building his own career and reputation.

Working with Simpson again brings Will back into contact with Sarah Fisher, Simpson’s former housemaid who is now assisting him at his clinic, having displayed a passion and aptitude for medicine. Sarah is deeply frustrated by the lack of equality for women, as she is sure she has the ability to become a doctor herself if only she could be given the same opportunities as men. This had been a source of conflict between Will and Sarah when we met them in the first book, but he has still been looking forward to seeing her again and is disappointed to find that during his absence she has married another man. When one of Dr Simpson’s patients dies under suspicious circumstances, however, and his rivals start to point the finger of blame, Will and Sarah must work together to try to clear Simpson’s name.

The crime element of the novel comes in the form of a number of unusual, unexplained deaths taking place around the city. At first Will is excited, thinking he has discovered a new disease to which he’ll be able to give his name, but Sarah is convinced that something more sinister is happening. My main criticism of The Way of All Flesh was the weakness of the murder mystery, but I found this one much stronger. It was easy enough to guess who or what was causing the deaths, because we are given plenty of hints right from the start, but what I didn’t know was why or exactly how it was being done and I enjoyed watching Will and Sarah (mainly Sarah at first) putting the clues together to find the culprit.

As with the first book, though, it was the medical aspect of the story that I found most interesting. In The Way of All Flesh, we learned that James Simpson had been carrying out experiments into the use of chloroform to ease the pain of childbirth. This book continues to explore the development of anaesthetics, showing not only the potential benefits for surgery and obstetrics, but also the dangers of administering too much of a substance which was still not fully understood.

I enjoyed this book more than the first one and I think it does work as a standalone, but I would still recommend starting with The Way of All Flesh so you will understand the background to Will and Sarah’s relationship. Both characters have changed and grown since the beginning of the series and I’m sure there’s lots of scope for more development ahead; I’m hoping we won’t have to wait too long to find out!

The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

When the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin was The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, I was quite happy with that result. It was a book I’d wanted to read for a while, it had been recommended to me by more than one person and I thought I might find it more enjoyable than my last Spin book, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, which I still haven’t managed to finish.

Jane Porter (1776-1850) was born in England but grew up in Edinburgh, where Sir Walter Scott was apparently a regular visitor to the family. The Scottish Chiefs reminded me very much of Scott’s work, although it was published several years before Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I don’t know whether Scott read and was influenced by Porter’s novel or not, but it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have done.

The Scottish Chiefs was published in 1809 and tells the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, a story many people are familiar with through Braveheart. Like Braveheart, this is a highly romanticised account of Wallace’s life and can’t be assumed to be entirely accurate; however, there is a limit to what historians know about Wallace anyway and for centuries one of our major sources has been Blind Harry’s narrative poem from the 1400s, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.

The novel opens in the summer of 1296. Having recently acted as arbitrator in a dispute over the succession to the Scottish throne – resulting in John Balliol becoming king rather than his rival Robert Bruce of Annandale – Edward I of England has entered Scotland with his army and gained victory at the Battle of Dunbar. Balliol abdicates and is sent to the Tower of London, while the majority of Scotland’s other noblemen agree to acknowledge Edward as their overlord. William Wallace, who is ‘too noble to bend his spirit to the usurper, too honest to affect submission’, is one of the few who refuse to accept this and at the beginning of the novel we see him visiting a fellow rebel, Sir John Monteith of Douglas Castle. Monteith presents him with a small, heavy iron box, which he had been given by Lord Douglas with the following message:

“…commit the box in strict charge to the worthiest Scot you know; and tell him that it will be at the peril of his soul, who dares to open it, till Scotland be again free! When that hour comes, then let the man by whose valour God restores her rights, receive the box as his own; for by him only it is to be opened.”

As Wallace rides away, the iron box is seen by English soldiers who assume that it contains treasure and soon the English Governor of Lanark, Heselrigge, arrives at Wallace’s home hoping to gain possession of it. In the violence that follows, Wallace’s beloved wife Marion is murdered by Heselrigge and when Wallace takes revenge by killing the Governor, he swears that he won’t rest until he has freed Scotland from Edward’s control and the day comes when the mysterious box can finally be opened.

I enjoyed The Scottish Chiefs, although I did find it a bit uneven. There are some gripping set pieces – such as the storming of Dumbarton Castle and Wallace’s infiltration of Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel – but there are other parts that were much less interesting and where I struggled not to lose concentration. It has to be remembered, though, that the book was published in the early nineteenth century and written in the wordy style that you would expect from literature of that period. It’s also a very long book – I read an ebook version and hadn’t appreciated just how long it was until I started reading!

Not many of the characters have the depth and complexity I prefer; most of the women, such as Marion and Helen Mar, are portrayed as paragons of virtue, while Wallace himself is too perfect and heroic to be true. The more villainous characters were the most interesting, particularly Helen’s stepmother, Joanna, Countess of Mar (in her notes at the end of the book, Porter says that Joanna was a real historical figure, daughter of the Earl of Strathearn and a princess of Orkney, but I haven’t been able to find any information about her anywhere). Porter doesn’t use any Scots dialect so her Scottish characters sound the same as the English ones, but some authors can write very convincingly in dialect and others can’t, so I think it’s best not to use it at all than to use it badly!

I ended up reading the free Project Gutenberg version of the book, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print. The book covers in this post are for illustration purposes only. I hope someone like Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics will decide to publish an edition at some point – with notes giving us more idea of which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional – as that might encourage more people to read this book; at the moment The Scottish Chiefs seems to be a bit of a forgotten classic, which is a shame as despite the flaws I think it’s definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Scottish history or in early examples of historical fiction.

This is book 13/50 read from my Classics Club list.