Gildenford by Valerie Anand

Gildenford In 1036 the exiled Alfred Atheling, son of the late King Ethelred and his wife, Emma of Normandy, is invited to return to England to visit his mother. While lodging with Godwin, Earl of Wessex, in the town of Gildenford (now known as Guildford), Alfred and his men are betrayed and captured on the orders of King Harold Harefoot. The Atheling dies after being brutally tortured and blinded.

Several years later, Alfred’s brother, Edward the Confessor, succeeds to the throne of England but the truth of what happened in Gildenford remains shrouded in mystery. Was Harefoot acting alone or with Godwin’s help? Worse still, was it a plot of Emma’s to have her own son murdered? Edward can’t be sure, but one man thinks he knows. His name is Brand Woodcutter, a servant of Godwin’s who has been part of the Earl’s household for many years and is considered to be a friend of the family. Brand’s battle with his conscience as he tries to decide what to do with his knowledge of Gildenford is at the heart of this novel as we move through some of the key events leading up to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction set in this period recently and more than one person has recommended Valerie Anand’s Norman trilogy to me. I’m glad they did because I really enjoyed it – this is definitely my type of book! It does exactly what a good historical novel should do…brings a bygone age back to life, entertains as well as educating, and reminds us that the people who lived in those distant times were human beings like ourselves, not just names we might have seen in a school textbook.

Most of the characters in Gildenford are real historical figures and they are all so well-drawn and convincing that at first I wasn’t sure it was really necessary to incorporate fictional characters such as Brand into the story as well. I did soon warm to Brand, however, and enjoyed the scenes written from his perspective as he observes the actions of others, struggles with conflicting loyalties and agonises over some very difficult decisions. I was impressed by the way Anand manages to weave his personal storyline together with the historical facts, particularly the abduction of the Abbess of Leominster and the uprising in Dover during the visit of Count Eustace of Bologne.

Gildenford was published in 1977 and like most of Valerie Anand’s books is currently out of print. I managed to obtain an ebook version from Open Library but unfortunately they don’t have the second one, The Norman Pretender. Judging from the prices being asked for used copies they must be quite rare, but I’ll watch out for a reasonably priced one and hopefully it won’t be too long before I can continue with the series.

The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven’s Head is a dark tale of magic and alchemy, murder and blackmail, set in the early thirteenth century. Earlier this year I read my first Karen Maitland novel, The Vanishing Witch, and loved the combination of history, mystery and the supernatural. This book includes the same elements but the supernatural one is particularly strong, making this a darker and more atmospheric read.

The Ravens Head The story revolves around three young people who are drawn into an alchemist’s search for power. Beginning in France in 1224, we meet seventeen-year-old Vincent, apprentice to a scribe in the service of Philippe, the Comte de Lingones. Bored with life in Philippe’s chateau, Vincent tries to blackmail the Comte, but when his attempt fails he finds himself on the run in possession of a silver raven’s head which seems to have a mind of its own.

In England, meanwhile, a young woman called Gisa is working as an assistant to her uncle, an apothecary, when she comes to the attention of the sinister Lord Sylvain who enlists her help with his secret experiments. Nearby, a group of white-robed priests known as the White Canons are running a small and exclusive school for young boys. One of these boys is five-year-old Wilky, taken from his parents as payment of a debt, and renamed Regulus. When Wilky’s friends start disappearing from their beds in the middle of the night never to return, the boys begin to wonder what is really going on.

I loved the first half of this book and was intrigued by the circumstances of each of our three main characters. I found Vincent’s story particularly gripping, possibly because his chapters were narrated in the first person and this made it easier for me to connect with him. The other two storylines were written in third person present tense and although I’m not really sure why this was necessary, it did help to distinguish Gisa’s and Wilky’s sections from Vincent’s. I was curious to see how the story would develop for each character and how their separate threads of the novel would eventually be woven together.

The book failed to hold my interest right to the end, unfortunately. Somewhere in the second half, I thought the plot started to lose its way and descend into a string of action sequences, alchemical experiments and gruesome secret rituals. I’m sure other readers will enjoy all of this more than I did; I do like historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural, but I prefer it to be more subtle than it is here. After so much build-up and so much care taken in setting the scene and introducing the characters, I was left slightly disappointed at the end.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric and eerie novel, though. The parts of the story told from Wilky’s perspective are particularly effective in that respect – seen through the eyes of a little boy who has no idea what is happening, the world of the White Canons is both bewildering and terrifying. The Gisa and Vincent storylines also have undercurrents of darkness and danger – and Lord Sylvain is a great villain!

Having now read Karen Maitland’s two most recent novels I’m looking forward to going back and reading her earlier ones.

I received a copy of this book for review from NetGalley.

Classics Spin Result!

On Saturday I decided to take part in the tenth Classics Club Spin. The rules were simple – list twenty books from your Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book you have to read before 23rd October 2015.

The number that has been selected this time is 5, which means the book I’ll be reading is:

The Glass-Blowers

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

I couldn’t be happier with this result as Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors. I have been working my way through all of her novels over the last few years and this is one of only four that I still have left to read.

Here is the synopsis (taken from Goodreads):

The world of the glass-blowers has its own traditions, it’s own language – and its own rules. ‘If you marry into glass’ Pierre Labbe warns his daughter, ‘you will say goodbye to everything familiar, and enter a closed world’. But crashing into this world comes the violence and terror of the French Revolution, against which the family struggles to survive.

Years later, Sophie Duval reveals to her long-lost nephew the tragic story of a family of master craftsmen in eighteenth-century France. Drawing on her own family’s tale of tradition and sorrow, Daphne du Maurier weaves an unforgettable saga of beauty, war, and family.

Have you read this book? Did you enjoy it?

If you’re taking part in the spin too, I hope you’ve got a book you’re happy with!

The Classics Spin #10: My list

The Classics Club

Things have been very quiet over at the Classics Club lately, so I was pleased to see that a new Classics Spin was announced yesterday!

Here is a reminder of the rules:

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* On Monday the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by 23rd October.

And here is my list:

1. Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
2. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
3. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
4. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
5. The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier
6. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
7. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
8. The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe
9. Louise de la Valliere by Alexandre Dumas
10. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
11. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
12. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
13. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
14. The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
15. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
16. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
17. Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
18. The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
19. Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier
20. Howards End by E.M. Forster

I think I’ll be happy with most of these (though I’m not sure about Steinbeck and if I get Kristin Lavransdatter I might need to forget about the deadline date). I’m particularly hoping for one of the du Maurier or Hardy novels, Prince of Foxes, The Sea-Hawk or The Leopard.

Have you read any of these books? And are you taking part in the spin?

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor

She-Wolves As the title suggests, this is a book about four medieval women who ruled – or attempted to rule – England in the centuries before Elizabeth I.

* Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I, was known as ‘Lady of the English’. She was never actually crowned Queen of England but fought her cousin, Stephen of Blois, for the throne in a period of civil war described as The Anarchy.

* Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to two kings – first Louis VII of France and then Matilda’s son, Henry II of England. Two of her sons – Richard I (the Lionheart) and John – also became King, and Eleanor effectively ruled England as regent while Richard was away fighting in the crusades.

* Isabella, the daughter of King Philip IV of France, came to England as Edward II’s young queen but found that her husband was so obsessed with his favourites (Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser) that he was prepared to put them before not only his wife but also his kingdom. Isabella eventually staged a rebellion with her lover Roger Mortimer and deposed Edward in order to put her young son, the future Edward III, on the throne.

* Margaret of Anjou was Henry VI’s queen consort and played a major part in the Wars of the Roses. With Henry unable to provide the strong leadership the country needed and possibly suffering from an unspecified mental illness, it fell to Margaret to rule in his place and to lead the Lancastrian faction against their Yorkist rivals.

In She-Wolves (the title refers to a term which has been used to describe both Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou) Helen Castor looks at the lives of each of these queens in turn, before examining their role in history and how they possibly opened the way for Mary I and Elizabeth I to reign in their own right. Unlike Mary and Elizabeth, the four women covered in this book never ruled as sole monarchs but found themselves in a position of power as the daughters, wives or mothers of kings who, for one reason or another, were unable to rule themselves. Henry I died without a male heir and his nephew Stephen was never fully accepted by the English nobility; Richard I spent much of his reign abroad; Edward II lost the support of his barons due to his choice of favourites; and Henry VI was simply incapable of being an effective ruler. In each case, a woman stepped in to fill the gap.

She-Wolves takes us on a fascinating journey through medieval history, but I have to confess that I didn’t read this book in the way it was intended to be read. As I had just finished reading Isabella by Colin Falconer, the queen I was most interested in was Isabella of France, so I read her section of the book first before turning back to the beginning to read the rest. This wasn’t a problem for me as I’m familiar with all four periods of history, but I would still recommend reading the book in order (unless you’re desperate to read about one particular woman, as I was). The final section of the book, which describes the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, ties everything together and looks at how times had changed enough by the Tudor period for a woman to finally rule alone.

I thought She-Wolves was slightly dry in places but I did find the book well written, interesting and easy to read. Each section starts with a map showing the relevant areas of Britain and Europe and a family tree to help clarify the complex relationships between characters. As this is a work of non-fiction, however, I was surprised by the lack of notes and references – although there is a list of suggestions for further reading at the back of the book and some sources are named directly in the text. These sources include anonymous chronicles such as Vita Edwardi Secundi (Life of Edward II) and the Gesta Stephani (Deeds of King Stephen) and as Helen Castor points out, medieval chroniclers struggled with the idea of women wielding power and tended to focus on the men, which is why we have so little information on the women’s own experiences and actions.

Approaching the end of the book, I was ready to praise Helen Castor for avoiding bias and speculation…until I came across the statement that the Princes in the Tower were ‘murdered by Edward’s youngest brother and most trusted lieutenant, Richard of Gloucester’, stated as fact. It could be true, of course, but I would have preferred an acknowledgment that it might not be and this made me wonder whether the earlier sections of the book had been as unbiased as I’d thought or whether I just didn’t notice as I have less knowledge of those other periods of history.

I don’t think I’m ever going to decide that I prefer non-fiction to fiction, but I did enjoy reading this book and have learned a lot about Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella and Margaret. Can anyone recommend any other good biographies of any or all of these women?

The Thief of Time by John Boyne

The Thief of Time If you met Matthieu Zela for the first time you would probably think he was just a normal fifty-year-old man. You would be wrong. Matthieu Zela has been alive for more than two hundred and fifty years.

Born in Paris in 1743, he noticed at some point in the 1790s that he had simply stopped growing older and he has looked like a middle-aged man ever since. It’s now 1999 and his neverending existence still shows no sign of coming to an end. As he prepares to enter yet another new century, Matthieu looks back on his life so far (nineteen wives, a variety of different careers, and a series of nephews – nine generations of them – all called Thomas and all dying tragically young) and he discovers that maybe there is something he can do to break the cycle after all.

In The Thief of Time, two stories are told in parallel. One is set in the eighteenth century and follows the teenage Matthieu as he leaves home after losing both of his parents and sets off with his half-brother Tomas in search of a better life. As they board a ship to England, they meet Dominique Sauvet, the girl who will become Matthieu’s first love. The second main thread of the novel takes place in the present day (1999). Matthieu’s current nephew, Tommy – a descendant of Tomas – is an actor in a popular soap opera and is finding it difficult to cope with the pressures of fame. Worried about Tommy’s drug addiction, Matthieu (now a successful television executive) decides that even though he did nothing to help the previous generations of doomed Thomases, he won’t allow this one to die an early death.

Interspersed with these two storylines are a series of chapters looking at significant episodes in Matthieu’s life. During his two hundred and fifty-six years, he has witnessed some of the defining moments of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries including the French Revolution, the Wall Street Crash and the 1896 Olympics, and meets Charlie Chaplin, Pope Pius IX and President Herbert Hoover, to name just a few. I didn’t find it particularly believable that Matthieu could have been so closely involved with all of these famous people and events but as the whole book is based around the idea of a man who never ages I’m not going to worry too much about that!

The Thief of Time was John Boyne’s debut novel and, having read some of his later ones (This House is Haunted, Crippen and A History of Loneliness) this one really does feel like a first book. It’s such an interesting concept but there were too many flaws to make it a satisfying read. I think my biggest problem with the book was the structure; jumping from a chapter set in 1999 to one set in the 1700s and then another set during a random time period just didn’t work. The novel didn’t flow properly, there was no real character development and the historical chapters – which often felt irrelevant and did nothing to move the story forward – lacked a sense of time and place (there were also some historical inaccuracies, such as a mention of telegrams being sent during the French Revolution).

I was also disappointed that the reasons for Matthieu’s immortality are never explored – he never really questions how and why this is happening to him and the people around him don’t ever seem to notice anything unusual! I don’t think we are given a real explanation as to how he progressed from his first job as stable boy to a successful career in media either. There were some aspects of the book I liked, though: I enjoyed the Charlie Chaplin chapter and also the chapter set during the Great Exhibition of 1851, and while I didn’t particularly like Matthieu himself, I was interested in his television work and in his relationship with his latest nephew, Tommy.

If this had been my first John Boyne book I don’t think I would have wanted to read more, but as I loved the other three of his that I’ve read I will continue to work through the rest of his novels. I’m hoping for better luck with the next one I choose!

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins It’s 1728 and Thomas Hawkins is being escorted through the streets of London towards the gallows at Tyburn. Although he has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang, Tom has been promised a pardon and is sure he will be freed. But as he gets closer and closer to the gallows and the pardon doesn’t come, he begins to lose hope. Could this be the end for Thomas Hawkins?

Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea was one of my favourite books of last year. I loved the setting (an eighteenth century debtors’ prison), I loved the entertaining plot, and I loved learning about life in Georgian London, so I was pleased to find that there was going to be a sequel. If you haven’t read the first book, though, that shouldn’t be a problem because The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins can be read as a ‘standalone historical mystery’, as stated on the book cover. I would still recommend reading the two books in order as there are some minor spoilers in the second one, but it isn’t really necessary.

If you have read The Devil in the Marshalsea you will already have met Thomas Hawkins and will know what he experienced during his time in the notorious Marshalsea Prison. Sadly, as the sequel begins, it seems that Tom has forgotten the lessons he learned in the Marshalsea. He has started to build a new life for himself with Kitty Sparks, bookseller and print shop owner, but this is not enough for Tom and he has returned to his old habits of drinking, gambling and looking for adventure.

It’s not long before things start to spiral out of control again and this time Tom finds himself embroiled in the affairs of Queen Caroline and the king’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, as well as becoming a suspect in a murder investigation. Alternating between Tom’s journey to the gallows and the events leading up to his death sentence, Tom’s story – his ‘last confession’ – gradually unfolds.

This is another great book from Antonia Hodgson and I enjoyed it almost as much as the first. I say ‘almost’ because the fact that The Devil in the Marshalsea was set almost entirely within a debtors’ prison gave the first book a feeling of novelty and originality that this second one doesn’t have. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the setting of this book too, of course. Hodgson’s portrayal of 1720s London is wonderful: a cockfight in a crowded tavern; a gang leader’s lair in a crumbling slum building; the beautifully furnished rooms of St James’s Palace – all of these are described in vivid detail.

Tom Hawkins, as our narrator, is the perfect character to guide us through Georgian London. His lifestyle means he is familiar with the darker side of society, but his family background makes him a gentleman and it is this combination that brings him to the attention of those who hope to use him for their own ends…including the clever, scheming Queen Caroline (a historical figure I’ve never read about until now). Tom is frustrating, flawed and a bit of a rogue, but he’s also a person you can’t help but like. I’m obviously not going to tell you whether or not he does escape the hangman’s noose, but what I will say is that Antonia Hodgson keeps us in suspense until the end. The final chapter gave me hope that there could be a third book in this series – but if you want to know whether Thomas Hawkins will survive that long, you’ll have to read The Last Confession to find out!