Long Summer Day by RF Delderfield

Long Summer Day was a long summer read, but I enjoyed every minute of it! First published in 1966, this is the first part of RF Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy (originally just two books rather than three, as this one and Post of Honour were intended to form one huge volume; the final book, The Green Gauntlet, came a few years later).

Long Summer Day begins in 1902, early in the reign of King Edward VII, and ends in 1911, shortly after the coronation of his successor, George V. The novel takes its title from the fact that this period of history, coming just before the horrors of the First World War, came to be looked back on with nostalgia and described as the ‘Long Edwardian Summer’. Set in rural Devon, it follows the story of Paul Craddock, a young man who is injured during the Boer War and, with his military career at an end, decides to use his inheritance from his father to buy an estate in the countryside.

At first the inhabitants of the Sorrel Valley are suspicious of their new Squire, but through his efforts to befriend and understand them, Paul quickly earns their respect and acceptance. As he gets to know each of the families who live in and around the valley, we, the reader, have a chance to get to know them all too. It’s a very large cast and at first it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, but eventually each character, however minor, becomes a fully formed human being and is given a storyline of his or her own.

I can’t mention all of the characters here, but some that I found particularly memorable include Ikey Palfrey, the stableboy Paul informally adopts and sends to school; Will Codsall and Elinor Willoughby, a young couple whose marriage forms one of the novel’s first small dramas; the agent John Rudd who manages the estate and provides Paul with both advice and friendship; and Hazel Potter, the wild youngest daughter of one of the valley’s most notorious families. In such a tight-knit community, the stories of each of these characters and many more are closely intertwined so that the actions of one may have repercussions on the lives of the others.

As an eligible young bachelor, Paul attracts the attention of several of his female neighbours almost from the moment he arrives in Devon, but only two come to play an important role in his life. One of them is Claire Derwent, daughter of one of his tenant farmers, and the other is Grace Lovell, a cousin of the family who previously owned Shallowford, Paul’s estate. Grace is a fiercely independent person, a feminist who believes passionately in women’s suffrage. I felt that I should like her, but although I did admire her strength and courage, her prickly nature made it difficult for me to warm to her. Claire, though, I loved from the start – and my opinion of her never changed. Although she has little interest in politics and keeps herself busy with more domestic tasks, it’s clear that she is happy with this and that it’s her choice. I found her sensible, down-to-earth, kind-hearted and a strong person too, although not in the same way as Grace. To discover which of these women Paul chooses, you’ll have to read the book for yourself!

The personal stories of the characters are played out against a backdrop of events from Edwardian history: Edward VII’s illness and delayed coronation, the political conflict between the Conservative and Liberal parties (it’s plain to see where the author’s own political sympathies lie) and the beginnings of the suffragette movement. We also find out how the characters react when change and progress finally makes its way to the Devon countryside and they see their first ‘horseless carriage’.

Long Summer Day is one of my books of the year so far, without a doubt. It’s written in the sort of warm, comforting, old-fashioned style that I love, and despite its length I felt that the pages were going by very quickly because I was so absorbed in the lives of Paul and his friends – it’s one of those books where you truly feel as though you’ve escaped into another world for a little while!

A Horseman Riding By was adapted by the BBC in the 1970s, with Nigel Havers as Paul Craddock. Has anyone seen it?

This is book 6/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

For the Winner by Emily Hauser

I mentioned recently that I wanted to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece and, having already read Emily Hauser’s first novel, For the Most Beautiful, I was sure that her second, For the Winner, would be a good choice! Hauser’s two books retell stories from Greek mythology from a female perspective – in For the Most Beautiful we see the events of the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of Krisayis and Briseis; For the Winner reimagines the story of Jason and the Argonauts with a focus on Atalanta, another lesser-known woman of the time. The books are part of a planned trilogy – the Golden Apple trilogy – but can be read in any order.

Abandoned on a mountain as a baby, Atalanta is rescued by a peasant and his wife who raise her as their own child. Growing up unaware of her true parentage, there are hints that Atalanta is destined for something special: by the time she is a teenager she has taught herself to hunt, to run with extraordinary speed and to use a bow and arrow with breathtaking skill. And then, one day, she learns the truth: the father who had left her to die on Mount Pelion was King Iasus of Pagasae.

To prove herself to her father, Atalanta decides to join the group of Greek heroes who are preparing for a voyage to the faraway land of Colchis in search of the legendary Golden Fleece. The quest will be led by the King’s nephew, Jason, whose reward for returning with the Fleece will be the kingdom of Pagasae itself – the kingdom Atalanta believes is rightfully hers. Can she win a place on board the Argo and find the Golden Fleece before Jason does?

I loved For the Winner. For the Most Beautiful was an enjoyable read too, but I thought this one was better – there were none of the little problems I remember experiencing with the other book. The biggest improvement was with the scenes depicting the Greek gods and goddesses looking down on the world from Mount Olympus, interfering and intervening in human affairs and arguing amongst themselves. With Zeus taking Atalanta’s side and Hera doing whatever she can to help Jason, I was particularly interested in the role of Iris, whose feelings and motives are less clear. The gods really added something special to the story this time and I looked forward to their appearances rather than finding them irritating as I did in the previous novel.

Although, as I’ve admitted before, my knowledge of Greek myth is quite limited, I was already familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts (and also have vague memories of watching the 1963 film version, years ago). However, the story told in this novel is very different, bringing in other characters and elements and mixing them together to create something new and original. Choosing to write from Atalanta’s perspective was a great decision because she is such a wonderful character. I loved following her adventures, but I don’t want to say too much more about her or give away too many details of her story! There were other characters I came to care about too, particularly Atalanta’s friend Myrtessa – and one of the men from the Argo who becomes the novel’s love interest. Jason, on the other hand, is portrayed as cruel, arrogant and completely unlikeable, but his rivalry with our heroine is what drives the plot forward.

I think what I appreciated most about For the Winner, though, was the way it explores the question of choice and free will – and how each of us has the power to defy fate and control our own destiny. Now I’m looking forward to the third book in the trilogy and am curious to see which Greek myth Emily Hauser tackles next.

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

This is Book 5/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m actually doing better with this challenge than it appears – I have another two books waiting to be reviewed and am in the middle of reading two more!)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

What is the Essex Serpent? A magical beast? A wonder of science? A judgement from God? William Ransome, vicar of the parish of Aldwinter, where the legendary serpent is said to have been sighted, is reluctant to give any credence at all to the rumours, viewing them as a distraction from the religious faith he is trying to instil in his parishioners. Cora Seaborne, however, is fascinated by tales of the fearsome sea monster lurking in the marshes of Essex, stealing away livestock and claiming human lives. Unusually for a woman in 1893, Cora is an amateur naturalist, with a particular interest in the work of the fossil collector Mary Anning. When she hears of the Essex Serpent, she wonders whether it could be an undiscovered species – or some sort of dinosaur?

Cora will have plenty of opportunities to test her theories and investigate further; having been recently widowed, she and her son Francis have moved from London to Colchester in Essex. It is on a visit to nearby Aldwinter that she meets William Ransome. Although their views are very different – not just on the serpent, but also on science, religion, and just about everything else – the two find themselves drawn together and a friendship begins to develop; a friendship which could become something more, if it wasn’t for the fact that Will is already married and that his wife, Stella, is dying of tuberculosis.

Although it is the relationship between Cora and William which drives the novel forward, there are many other subplots involving a large number of other characters. There’s Cora’s companion Martha, for example, a socialist who is campaigning to improve the living conditions of London’s poorest people, and Luke Garrett, a surgeon who closely follows all the latest advances in medicine and is itching for an opportunity to try them out for himself. A lot of time is also devoted to Francis, a serious, solitary boy who would probably be diagnosed today with a form of autism, and to Stella who, as her health declines, develops an obsession with collecting anything blue. I couldn’t help feeling, at times, that Sarah Perry was trying to do too much – trying to include every possible social issue of the 19th century – but on the whole I thought this was a fascinating, intelligent novel, with ideas spilling out of every page.

The Essex Serpent is one of those novels which is not only set in the Victorian era, but also attempts to capture the tone and style of a Victorian novel – while at the same time, being written in the modern day, bringing a new perspective to topics and themes which Victorian authors had less freedom to explore. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is a good comparison – although I have to say I enjoyed this book a lot more than Fowles’. I thought Sarah Perry’s writing was excellent, especially her descriptions of the landscape and the natural world, but occasionally her choice of language (particularly the use of contractions such as I’d’ve and shouldn’t’ve) pulled me out of the 19th century world she had otherwise so carefully created.

The criticisms I have of this book, though, are just minor ones; overall I was very impressed and can certainly understand why it has been so popular and so successful. It’s also nice to find a book that lives up to the promise of its beautiful cover!

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!

Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?

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?

Hemmed In edited by M.R. Nelson

This is another collection of classic short stories edited by M.R. Nelson. I have previously read two of her others – Love and Other Happy Endings and Small and Spooky – and enjoyed them both, so I was looking forward to finding out what was in store this time! Nelson calls her collections ‘taster flights’ because they give us a taste of each author’s writing; this particular book contains only one author (Willa Cather) whose work I have previously read – the other five were new to me. Although the stories are very different, they are all linked by a common theme. The title, Hemmed In, should be a clue as to what that theme is!

The opening story is A Jury of Her Peers (1917) by Susan Glaspell, in which a sheriff and a witness are accompanied by their wives on a visit to a house where, it appears, a woman has murdered her husband. This is a cleverly written story, showing how men and women can perceive the same situation differently. The two wives in the story pick up on things that their husbands would never have noticed and are able to use their own knowledge and experience to understand the misery and oppression that may have led the accused woman to commit murder. I have never read anything by Susan Glaspell before but I’m aware that two of her novels have been published by Persephone and now I’ll have to consider reading them.

Kate Chopin’s A Pair of Silk Stockings (1897) appears next and follows the story of Mrs Sommers, who unexpectedly finds herself in possession of fifteen dollars and the luxury of deciding what to spend the money on. She knows she should be sensible and buy things for her children, but when a pair of beautiful silk stockings catches her eye, she finds it hard to resist. Despite being so short, this is a powerful story about how a woman reacts when given the chance to escape her responsibilities and have just one day to herself.

The next story – probably the most famous of the six – is one that I’ve wanted to read for a while and I’m pleased that I’ve finally had the opportunity. It’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which a woman is prescribed a rest cure for a ‘nervous complaint’. Spending hour after hour alone in a room at the top of the house, the narrator becomes obsessed with the patterns on the yellow wallpaper because she has nothing else to stimulate her mind. This is a disturbing and unsettling story, but also a fascinating one and I can see why it is considered a feminist classic.

In Little Selves (1916) by Mary Lerner we meet Margaret O’Brien, an elderly woman who is dying and looking back on her earlier life. Not having had any children, she thinks instead about the little girls who were her own younger selves and laments the fact that ‘there’s all those poor dear lasses there’s nobody but me left to remember, and soon there’ll not even be that’. This is an interesting and unusual story by an author I’ve never come across before.

Edna Ferber is yet another author I’ve never read until now and although her story The Leading Lady (1912) is probably my least favourite in this collection, I did still enjoy it. The main character is an actress on tour with a small company and suffering from loneliness and boredom. Like the woman in Kate Chopin’s story, she jumps at the chance to break out and do something different for the day.

Finally, we have a story by Willa Cather, The Bohemian Girl (1912). This one feels slightly different from the previous five as it features a male protagonist, Nils Ericson, who is returning to his hometown after an absence of many years. However, once his sister-in-law Clara Vavrika arrives on the scene and we learn a little bit about her life, I could see why this story had been included along with the others. It’s the longest and most developed story in the book – more of a novella, I would say – and I found it very reminiscent of My Ántonia.

I loved reading Hemmed In. It contains a great selection of stories, all six of which could be considered important works of feminist literature. Of course, I could have read them at any time as they have all been published in other books or are in the public domain and available online, but I wouldn’t have read them all together and that’s what makes M.R. Nelson’s anthologies so good. It’s always interesting to read her thoughts at the back of the book on why she chose each particular story and how it fits with the overall theme. Best of all, I have now been introduced to five new authors, all of whom I would like to explore further!