Looking back at February


February was another good month for me in terms of reading – I read eleven books and enjoyed most of them.

Peril at End House I started the month with a great book – Death in Kashmir by M. M. Kaye, an exciting and atmospheric mystery novel set in Kashmir in 1947. Although I haven’t had an opportunity to read any more yet, there are five other books in the series to look forward to. After reading this book, I was in the mood for another mystery and the one I chose was Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House. I almost guessed the solution to this one, but allowed myself to be misled by the red herrings!

I only managed to read one book from my Classics Club list this month and that was Jerome K. Jerome’s The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow – a fun read (and a quick one), though not as memorable as Three Men in a Boat. I’ve also been reading another classic throughout February, which I hope to finish soon. This is Romola by George Eliot – quite a challenging book to read but I’m loving it.

Two other books I loved this month were Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Last Light of the Sun, historical fantasy based on the Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Welsh cultures, and Small Island by Andrea Levy, a novel about the experiences of Jamaican immigrants in Britain. I also continued with the third book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, HMS Surprise, which I think is probably my favourite of the series so far. I don’t want to say too much about any of these books here as I haven’t had time to write my reviews yet.

The Vanishing WitchI also enjoyed The Royalist by S.J. Deas, the first in a series of historical mysteries set during the English Civil War – and going further back in time, I read Karen Maitland’s The Vanishing Witch, set in the 14th century at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt.

Only two of the books I read during February disappointed me slightly – they were The Widow’s Confession by Sophia Tobin, yet another mystery (I told you I’d been in a mystery-reading mood this month!) and Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, a book about the Romany Holocaust. Again, I haven’t had time to write about these two books yet, but will do so as soon as I can. Finally, I have just finished reading The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox, a novel set in the Victorian period and revolving around the fate of the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

Have you read any of these books? What did you read in February?

The Royalist by S.J. Deas

The Royalist As someone who loves both historical fiction and mysteries, it’s not surprising that I also enjoy historical mysteries! If the book has an interesting and unusual setting, as this one has, even better.

The Royalist is the first in a planned series featuring the character of William Falkland. Falkland, as the title suggests, is a Royalist and has been fighting for King Charles in the English Civil War. As the novel begins in 1645, he has been captured by Parliamentarians and is in Newgate Prison awaiting his fate. When after several months of imprisonment a guard comes to take him from his cell, he is convinced that the day of his execution has arrived at last. To his surprise, though, he is taken instead to a meeting with Oliver Cromwell, the man with whom Parliament’s hopes of victory lie.

It seems that Cromwell has learned of a previous occasion on which Falkland stood up to his King to see that a criminal was brought to justice – and he is now hoping that Falkland will be able to solve a second crime, this time within Cromwell’s own New Model Army. Large, well-trained and highly disciplined, the New Model Army has been created with the aim of bringing a rapid end to the war. However, with men being pressed into the army regardless of their religious or political beliefs, discontent, disloyalty, fear and resentment are widespread. At the army’s winter camp in the town of Crediton in Devon, three young soldiers appear to have committed suicide – but why? This is what Falkland must agree to find out, in return for his own life.

I enjoyed The Royalist; it’s a very atmospheric book, taking us from a dark, cramped prison cell right into the heart of an army camp in the middle of a cold, harsh winter. This is the unusual setting I mentioned earlier; I’ve read other novels set during the Civil War, but none that focus specifically on the New Model Army. I knew almost nothing about the army before starting this book, and I found it fascinating, particularly the fact that even former Royalists were recruited, often against their will. It was also interesting to read about the ways in which the people of Crediton were affected by the army moving into their town and forcing them out of their homes.

This is not a book about an army on the move so there are (fortunately, in my opinion) no long battle scenes or discussions of military tactics; this is a book about an army that is stationary, based in one place, biding its time. That doesn’t mean there’s no action, of course! As Falkland continues to investigate and begins to uncover the truth about the young men who have died, he finds that he himself is in danger. There’s a lot of suspense as he explores the camp and its buildings in the dead of night, examines the tree where the three soldiers allegedly took their own lives, and tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted.

As the novel’s narrator, Falkland is the character we get to know best, but I still felt that there was plenty of information about his past that he was withholding from us and could reveal in a future novel. There are other interesting characters too: Thomas Fairfax, for example, the commander of the New Model Army and known as ‘Black Tom’ – one of the few real historical figures to appear in the book. There’s also Kate Cain, a woman who has refused to leave Crediton, and with whom Falkland lodges during his time in the town. And I was particularly intrigued by the character of Henry Warbeck, the man given the job of escorting Falkland to the army camp, as I discovered that there was more to him than met the eye at first.

I’m now looking forward to reading the second William Falkland novel, The Protector, which will be out later this year.

The 2015 Walter Scott Prize longlist

I was interested to see that the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced today. I’ve been following this prize for the last few years and this is the first time the longlist has been made public. The judges have selected fifteen books, with the shortlist to be announced in March and the winner in June.

You can learn more about the prize on the Walter Scott Prize website.

The fifteen books on the longlist are:

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
The Lie by Helen Dunmore
Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds
Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut
Wake by Anna Hope
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie
The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak
The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I have read four of these books – The Temporary Gentleman, The Miniaturist, The Lie and Mr Mac and Me – and have linked to my reviews above so that you can see what I thought of them.

Anna Hope’s Wake is a book I would like to read at some point. I remember hearing a lot about it when it was published last year, but I didn’t read it as I wasn’t in the mood for a First World War novel at that time. I’m sure I’ll read The Paying Guests eventually too as I’ve enjoyed all of Sarah Waters’ previous novels, but I haven’t been in any hurry after seeing some very mixed reviews. The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth first came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize last year – having looked at the first few pages I decided the unusual writing style didn’t appeal to me. Maybe I should give it a chance after all?

All of the other titles on the list are new to me, so I’ve had to do some investigating! Viper Wine sounds very intriguing and so does The Architect’s Apprentice.

Have you read any of these books? Are there any that you think I need to try?

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I still pick it up from my shelf at times to re-read certain passages when I want to cheer myself up. The sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, wasn’t quite as funny but I did enjoy reading that book too and was looking forward to trying this one, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (published in 1886, a few years before Three Men in a Boat).

Unlike the other two books I’ve read by Jerome, this is not a novel but a collection of short essays covering topics as diverse as Cats and Dogs, Eating and Drinking, Being in Love and Being Shy. The tone of his writing varies from essay to essay – sometimes he is melancholy and poignant, sometimes satirical and hilarious (I should warn you that if you read any of Jerome’s books in public, you won’t be able to stop yourself from smiling and should be prepared for people asking you what’s so funny).

A few examples:

On the vanity of cats…

I do like cats. They are so unconsciously amusing. There is such a comic dignity about them, such a “How dare you!” “Go away, don’t touch me” sort of air. Now, there is nothing haughty about a dog. They are “Hail, fellow, well met” with every Tom, Dick, or Harry that they come across. When I meet a dog of my acquaintance I slap his head, call him opprobrious epithets, and roll him over on his back; and there he lies, gaping at me, and doesn’t mind it a bit. Fancy carrying on like that with a cat! Why, she would never speak to you again as long as you lived.

On babies…

There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame. By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies’ reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighbourhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby “it.”

On buying an umbrella…

I bought one and found that he was quite correct. It did open and shut itself. I had no control over it whatever. When it began to rain, which it did that season every alternate five minutes, I used to try and get the machine to open, but it would not budge; and then I used to stand and struggle with the wretched thing, and shake it, and swear at it, while the rain poured down in torrents. Then the moment the rain ceased the absurd thing would go up suddenly with a jerk and would not come down again; and I had to walk about under a bright blue sky, with an umbrella over my head, wishing that it would come on to rain again, so that it might not seem that I was insane.

I did enjoy this book, but I didn’t like it as much as the two Three Men…novels. I found it very uneven – there are some great lines and anecdotes, but it’s also quite boring in places, especially when he becomes very sentimental. It’s worth reading (and the lack of a plot makes it a perfect book to dip in and out of when you have a few spare minutes) but I wouldn’t describe it as an essential, must-read classic. On the other hand, this is what Jerome himself says about the book in his Preface:

What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct, and elevate. This book wouldn’t elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading “the best hundred books,” you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

It was certainly a change!

Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge

I have been trying not to sign up for many reading challenges this year, but I really like the idea of this one – and it overlaps with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge that I’m already taking part in.

Forgotten Histories Challenge

The Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge is hosted by Jess at Curiouser and Curiouser in partnership with Amy at Passages to the Past (the host of the Historical Fiction Challenge) and any books read can count towards both challenges.

The rules:

The challenge will run from the 2nd-29th of March and each week will feature a different theme:

Week 1 – Read an alternate history book (e.g. Dominion by C. J. Sansom)

Week 2 – Read a book with a non-white protagonist (e.g. The Queen’s Secret by Victoria Lamb)

Week 3 – Read a book with an LGBT protagonist (e.g. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters)

Week 4 – Read a book that is NOT set in Europe (including Britain) or North America (e.g. Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin)

As you can see, the aim of Forgotten Histories is to encourage people to read more diversely within the historical fiction genre, which I think is a great idea. I don’t know if I’ll be able to read books from all four of these categories in March, but I’ll read as many as I can. I’m already looking at my shelves to see if I have something to fit each category – any recommendations are welcome!

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

The Vanishing Witch Karen Maitland is an author I’ve been meaning to try for a while. With two of her novels on my tbr pile to choose from, I decided to start with this one, The Vanishing Witch, as it had been waiting the longest.

The story is set in Lincoln and covers the period between September 1380 and September 1381. As you may know, 1381 was the year of the Peasants’ Revolt when large sections of the English population rebelled in protest against excessive taxes. I actually read a non-fiction book about the Revolt just before Christmas – England, Arise by Juliet Barker – and this provided me with a lot of background knowledge. However, even if you know nothing about this period of history, you should still find The Vanishing Witch easy enough to follow. The Revolt does play an important part in the plot, but this is first and foremost the story of fictional Lincoln wool merchant, Robert of Bassingham, and his family.

When an attractive widow called Catlin asks Robert for advice regarding an investment, the merchant is only too pleased to help. Despite his reassurances to his wife, Edith, that his relationship with Catlin is purely business-related, he soon finds himself falling in love and it’s not long before the widow, her young daughter Leonia and adult son Edward have become part of Robert’s household. With Edith seriously ill, Robert’s two sons, Jan and Adam, become suspicious of Catlin’s motives – a suspicion shared by the family servants.

A few miles away, in the village of Greetwell, another man is also facing difficult times. His name is Gunter and he is a boatman, responsible for collecting and delivering cargoes of cloth. Work has been sparse lately and when the King’s commissioners arrive in the village, Gunter knows he will struggle to pay his taxes…

I found The Vanishing Witch a very entertaining and enjoyable novel and am quite happy with my first introduction to Karen Maitland’s work. There were plenty of things to like – the time period (not a very popular choice for historical fiction, which made it all the more interesting), the dark atmosphere, the touches of the supernatural, and the plot, which twists and turns as secrets are uncovered and revelations are made. I particularly loved the way Maitland altered my perceptions of the characters as the focus moved from one to another; she made me wary of some of them from the beginning, but I was never quite sure whether or not that wariness was justified!

By telling the stories of both Robert of Bassingham – a wealthy merchant – and Gunter, one of his workers, Maitland is able to explore what life was like in the 14th century for people at different levels of society. However, while the mystery revolving around Robert and Catlin was compelling, the storyline surrounding Gunter’s family and the Peasants’ Revolt felt less developed. This subplot had the potential to be as interesting as the other one and I was disappointed that it wasn’t explored in as much depth.

I’ve mentioned that the author has added some supernatural touches to the novel: each chapter begins with a superstition, a piece of folklore or a description of a spell. These don’t have a lot of direct significance to the story but they are fun to read and are part of the overall atmosphere of the book. There are also some sections of the novel narrated by a ghost, whose identity and role in the story we don’t learn until the end of the book. I didn’t guess who the ghost was and I was surprised when I discovered the truth!

So will I be reading more Karen Maitland? Yes, of course! I’ll start with her new one, The Raven’s Head, then go back to explore her earlier novels.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus I love books set in Renaissance Italy but although Sarah Dunant has written three or four of them, this is the first one I’ve read. I had started to read her novel on the Borgias, Blood and Beauty, a year or two ago and struggled to get into it, so that put me off trying any of her other books for a while. Something keeps drawing me to Dunant’s books on the library shelf, though, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to give her another try.

The Birth of Venus is not, as I’d originally expected, a novel based on the story behind the Botticelli painting of the same name. What the title does actually refer to could be debated, but it seems to me that it alludes to the ‘birth’ or awakening of the novel’s narrator as she falls in love for the first time. The name of the narrator is Alessandra Cecchi and she is the daughter of a prosperous Florentine cloth merchant.

At the beginning of the novel, Alessandra is not quite fifteen years old. Despite her quick brain and artistic talent, she has had to resign herself to the fact that, due to the conventions of 15th century society, she will have no option but to marry the man her parents have chosen for her. When her father returns from a business trip, bringing with him a young artist whom he has commissioned to paint the walls of the family chapel, Alessandra is fascinated. She is curious to see the painter’s work and to learn more about his methods, but she is even more intrigued by the painter himself. Who is this young man, this ‘orphan brought up in a monastery on the edge of the northern sea’?

As the story of Alessandra and the painter unfolds, so does the story of Florence. Beginning with the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the novel takes us through the subsequent disastrous reign of Piero de’ Medici, the rise to power of the Dominican friar Savonarola, and the growing threat of a French invasion. This is always a fascinating time and place to read about and I think Dunant does a particularly good job of bringing the setting to life, not just in describing the sights and sounds, but also in showing us how the mood of Florence changes as the city is gripped by Savonarola’s religious extremism.

For a thick book, this was quite a quick read, the sort where you become so swept along with the story you don’t realise how fast the pages are turning. My only problem was that I found Dunant’s decision to refer to the painter as ‘the painter’ throughout the entire book slightly annoying. I’m not quite sure why there really needed to be a mystery surrounding his identity. I felt that the lack of a name created a distance between the character and the reader – I expect this was probably intentional (maybe it wasn’t supposed to matter who he was; all that mattered was what he represented to Alessandra), but if so, it didn’t work for me.

While I can’t really say that I loved this book, I did enjoy it and am now happy to try Sarah Dunant’s other Renaissance Italy novels, In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts (maybe I should even give Blood and Beauty another chance). When I finished The Birth of Venus I didn’t want to leave Medici Florence behind, so the next book I picked up was Romola by George Eliot, which is set in the same period and which I’m thoroughly enjoying.