The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

The Goddess and the Thief “A diamond. A curse. An obsession.” These are the words on the front cover of Essie Fox’s third novel and they give us a good idea of the type of story we can expect to find inside. The Goddess and the Thief is a Victorian Gothic novel (like the previous two books by this author – The Somnambulist, which I’ve read, and Elijah’s Mermaid, which I haven’t) and combines a complex plot with an atmospheric setting and a sense of mystery.

The novel begins in colonial India, where a little girl called Alice Willoughby is growing up in the care of her beloved ayah, Mini, having lost her mother in childbirth. Alice loves India – she loves the warmth, the vivid colours, the stories Mini tells of Parvati and Shiva – and is heartbroken when her father decides to take her back to England to live with her Aunt Mercy. Alice is lonely and miserable in her new home and finds Mercy cold and uncaring. Things become even worse when she discovers that her aunt is a medium and that she will be forced to take part in Mercy’s fraudulent séances and other spiritualist activities.

Alice’s life reaches another turning point when she and Mercy meet the mysterious Lucian Tilsbury, a man who has recently returned from India and is planning to involve the two women in an elaborate scheme…a scheme revolving around the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the famous jewel claimed by the British at the end of the Anglo-Sikh war. Some say the diamond is cursed and others that it is blessed, but one thing that is certain is that it exerts a strange power over everyone who comes into contact with it.

You may be thinking that this sounds like The Moonstone, but while there are some similarities with the Wilkie Collins mystery, this is a very different book and the story surrounding the diamond took some surprising twists and turns which I definitely wasn’t expecting! I was particularly intrigued by the occasional appearances of Queen Victoria and the Maharajah Duleep Singh, two people for whom the Koh-i-Noor has a very important significance.

The scenes set in India at the beginning of the book were among my favourites and I was sorry when we left India behind for the gloom of Aunt Mercy’s house in Windsor. The mood of the novel then becomes increasingly dark and oppressive and I was pleased that tales of the Hindu gods and of Alice’s life in Lahore continued to be woven into the plot. I liked Alice as a central character and enjoyed following her adventures, while also feeling afraid and worried for her as she found herself betrayed, badly treated and unsure of whom to trust.

My only problem with The Goddess and the Thief was that there were certain passages which I found confusing and difficult to follow, partly because the use of opium played a role in the story, which meant that the boundaries between reality and unreality often became blurred. I appreciate that this was done intentionally, to make Alice’s situation even more frightening, but it was the one aspect of the novel that didn’t work very well for me. Of course, it could have been my own fault for not concentrating hard enough!

Having enjoyed both this book and The Somnambulist (this one slightly more than the first, I think), I will have to read Elijah’s Mermaid soon!

The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom

The Gothic The Gothic is one of a series of books offering very short introductions to a wide variety of different topics. I have read one of the other books in this series – The Tudors – and found it a good way to gain a brief overview of a subject without going into an overwhelming amount of detail. I was attracted to this particular title because I enjoy reading Gothic novels, but the book does cover other aspects of Gothic culture as well as literature.

Nick Groom begins by explaining the history of the Goths (who originated from Germanic barbarian tribes) and how their influence spread throughout Europe. He then looks at Gothic architecture, before moving on to the more recent past and discussing the development of Gothic fiction, music, art and film. For such a short book (150 pages) it’s surprisingly comprehensive, but it really is intended to be just an introduction. If you want to explore any of the topics covered in the book in more detail, Groom gives some suggestions for further reading at the end.

This is a fascinating little book, but I don’t think it succeeds in showing how the different meanings of the term Gothic are related to each other. In the preface the author states that each of these meanings and associations are “part of a common history and occasionally share common features”, but I feel that I still don’t really understand how the Gothic culture with which we’re familiar today is connected with the original Goths of the fourth and fifth centuries. I did still enjoy reading the book, though. The chapters on literature were of particular interest to me, and as I hadn’t heard of some of the Gothic novels Groom talks about, I now have a whole list of titles to investigate!

I found the book itself very well presented (as was the other book I read, on the Tudors); the text is divided into short, manageable sections, there are some useful maps, photographs and illustrations and references are provided at the back. I think The Gothic and the other titles in the Very Short Introduction series will appeal to many different types of reader, from the student who wants to gain a general understanding before delving more deeply into one area to the non-academic reader who just wants to learn something new and interesting.

You can find a full list of all the Very Short Introductions on the Oxford University Press website.

Historical Musings #1: Do you read historical fiction?

Historical Musings Something a bit different today – and hopefully on the second Sunday of every month to come. I am conscious that my blog is, and always has been, very review-dominated and that despite experimenting with different types of weekly or monthly features in the past I have never managed to keep posting them regularly. I’m hoping that I’ll be more successful if I stick to a book-related topic that I’m particularly interested in and passionate about – and one of those topics, as will be obvious to any visitor to my blog, is historical fiction!

I have a whole list of potential ideas for future posts (and I know not everyone shares my interest in historical fiction, so some posts will be less specific to the genre than others) which include discussions, lists and recommendations. For my first post in the series, though, I just want to ask a very simple question:

Do you read historical fiction?

If you answered yes, what is it that attracts you to this genre? And if you answered no, can you tell me why not?

I enjoy reading historical fiction for many reasons. If I’m honest, one of them is purely escapism. I spend every day living in the 21st century and as I unfortunately don’t possess a time machine, I rely on books to take me somewhere different. The term ‘historical fiction’ encompasses a huge variety of books covering almost any time period, person or event you can think of, so I can usually find a book that will take me wherever and whenever I want to go!

Another reason is that reading historical fiction gives me an opportunity to learn about other times and places while also enjoying an entertaining story. I often struggle with non-fiction and find that I’m more likely to retain historical facts if they are presented to me in the form of a novel. Also, many of the themes and ideas in historical fiction are universal and timeless; understanding the past can sometimes help us to understand the present.

There are many, many other things I love about historical fiction but I’ll talk about some of those in future posts.

Now, what about you?

The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne

The Edge of Dark I enjoy reading time-slip novels; I love the sense of the supernatural, the atmosphere of mystery and suspense, and the intertwining of two lives – one past and one present. Pamela Hartshorne has written three novels of this type (the other two are Time’s Echo and The Memory of Midnight) but this one is the first I’ve had the opportunity to read. I found it an entertaining, compelling and genuinely eerie read and I’m now looking forward to going back and reading her earlier novels.

The Edge of Dark is the story of Roz Acclam who, at the beginning of the novel, is preparing to start a new job as Events Director at Holmwood House, a recently restored Elizabethan building in York. This is not the first time Roz has been to York; she lived there as a small child until most of her family died in a fire and she was adopted by an aunt in London. She remembers nothing of the fire or her tragic childhood, but almost as soon as she arrives in York, memories begin to come flooding back – the only problem is, they are not her own memories but those of another woman who lived more than four hundred years earlier.

The Edge of Dark is also the story of Jane, the eldest daughter of a butcher who lived in York in the 1500s. Jane’s father is planning ambitious marriages for both of his girls and Jane soon finds herself married off to the handsome, wealthy Robert Holmwood. Joining her new husband at Holmwood House, she discovers that married life is not quite what she’d expected and she begins to long for a child of her own. But Jane’s desire to be a mother eventually grows so strong that she makes a promise she could live to regret.

As Roz tries to settle into her new job the flashbacks into Jane’s life become more frequent and she begins to question why she is having these experiences. Is Holmwood House haunted? Are Jane’s ordeals in the past somehow connected with Roz’s own problems in the present? And what really happened the night the Acclams’ house was set on fire?

Usually when I read a novel set in two time periods I find that I prefer one over the other – as I love historical fiction it tends to be the one set in the past. With this book, Roz’s story and Jane’s are so closely linked that it’s difficult to separate them; the transitions between past and present felt smooth and natural and I could easily become immersed in the lives of both women. Roz and Jane are both strong characters, but there are other interesting characters in each time period too. While some feel less developed than others, the two I found most memorable are (in the present) Helen, a jealous colleague who tries to cause trouble for Roz at work, and (in the past) Margaret Holmwood, Jane’s scheming mother-in-law.

I also liked the fact that the novel is set in York, a city I have visited many times and am quite familiar with. It was obvious that the book was written by an author who knows York, its streets and its buildings very well! Something else I found interesting was seeing what goes into opening a new tourist attraction to the public. I would have liked to have read more about Roz’s work – it sounded fascinating.

I realise I’ve come to the end of this review and haven’t mentioned the significance of the beautiful Tudor necklace on the front cover of the book, but I need to leave something for future readers to discover for themselves!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.

Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon

Jakobs Colours There are many, many novels which deal with the subject of the Jewish Holocaust, but in Jakob’s Colours Lindsay Hawdon explores another very important but largely forgotten piece of wartime history – the Gypsy Holocaust.

Beginning in Austria in 1944, she introduces us to an eight-year-old boy called Jakob. Part Roma and part Yenish, Jakob’s world has been torn apart by the horrors of war. He is running for his life across the Austrian countryside, and as he runs, he clings to his father’s words: “Don’t be afraid, Jakob. See the colours”.

But Jakob’s is not the only story to be told here. We also go back in time to the 1920s where we get to know Jakob’s mother, Lor, and learn of her troubled childhood in England. Later, in a Swiss hospital, Lor meets Yavy, the gypsy who becomes Jakob’s father, and we follow their relationship from its beginnings up to the point where Jakob finds himself alone and on the run.

Jakob’s Colours is very different from any other World War II novel I’ve read – a real accomplishment when you consider the sheer number of books set in this period. I previously knew nothing at all about the fate of the gypsies during the war (like most people, when I think of the Holocaust I tend to think of the Jews) so it’s great to have been given this opportunity to learn something new. However, I struggled with the structure of the novel. The story constantly moves back and forth in time, with each chapter titled either This Day, Before or Long Before, which I found quite confusing and difficult to follow. It felt disjointed and it meant that I never became as fully immersed in the lives of the characters as I would have liked.

I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to love Jakob’s Colours, especially as the historical background is so fascinating and the subject matter so poignant. It was definitely my problem with the jumping around in time that prevented me from loving it; I’m sure I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if only the story had been told in chronological order. I did still find a lot of things to admire, though – the writing is very poetic and quite beautiful in places, and I liked the colour imagery that runs throughout the novel.

Most of all, I liked the concept that however bad things become we need to continue to hope and to look for the good things in life…to see the colours.

Classics Club Spin #9: The Result

The Classics Club

Last week I decided to take part in the 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 15th May 2015.

The number that has been selected this time is 2, which means the book I’ll be reading is:

A Country Doctors Notebook

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

I added this book to my Classics Club list because I loved The Master and Margarita and wanted to read more of Bulgakov’s work. All I know about it is that it’s a collection of short stories based on Bulgakov’s experiences as a young doctor in Russia, but I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m happy with my result as I’ve managed to avoid the longer books on my list!

Did you take part in the spin? What will you be reading?

Rebellion by Peter Ackroyd

Rebellion Rebellion, subtitled The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution, is the third volume in Peter Ackroyd’s History of England series. I haven’t read the first one, but I did read the second – which covered the Tudor period – and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to seeing how Ackroyd would tackle the Stuarts in this latest volume. Before I go any further I should point out that Rebellion is the US title, which I’m using here as this is the edition I received for review via NetGalley; the UK title is Civil War.

The book opens with the reign of the first Stuart king of England, James I, who acceded to the throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. He was, of course, also James VI of Scotland and united the two countries under one crown. James was followed by his son, Charles I, and most of the book is devoted to discussing the Civil War which ended in Charles’ execution. After several years of rule by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, the Stuart monarchy was restored under Charles II and the Restoration period is also covered in this volume. Finally, Ackroyd looks at the reign of James II and finishes with the Glorious Revolution which marked the arrival of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.

I have condensed eighty-five years of history into one paragraph here, but the book itself goes into a huge amount of detail, describing the life of each Stuart monarch and the key events of their reign. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you have a particular interest in this period of English history, and like the previous volume, Tudors, it’s written in a style that is factual without being too academic for the general reader. While the lives of kings and queens are interesting to read about, I also like to know how ordinary people lived, so I was pleased to find that Ackroyd gives some attention to the social history of the period and includes some chapters on literature, science, music and drama.

The only problem I had with this book was that I felt too much time was spent on the Civil War while the reigns of Charles II and James II had been squeezed in at the end. The chapters describing the events leading to the Civil War and the religious and political reasons for it seemed to go on forever, and although I can certainly understand why Ackroyd chose to make this the focus of the book I did start to get bored and found myself looking forward to moving on to the Restoration period.

While I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Tudors, I do feel that I’ve learned a lot from it. I am definitely not an expert on seventeenth century history but having finished this book, I now know much more than I did before I started. I haven’t heard anything about the fourth book in this series yet, but I expect it will continue to move forward chronologically into the eighteenth century. While I’m waiting maybe I should find a copy of the first volume, Foundation, which I still haven’t read…or I could try one of Peter Ackroyd’s other books. He has written more than thirty non-fiction books and a large number of novels too, so there would be plenty to choose from!