The Moon in the Water by Pamela Belle

The Moon in the Water Pamela Belle’s name first came to my attention two or three years ago when I was looking for lists of novels about Richard III and saw a mention of one of her books, The Lodestar. After discovering that it was out of print, I never actually got round to looking for a copy and forgot about it…until a few weeks ago when I came across one of her other novels, The Moon in the Water. Not the one I had originally wanted to read – and set in an entirely different period – but it sounded good so I decided to try it anyway. And I can’t say that I regret reading this one instead of The Lodestar, as I loved it from the first page to the last!

First published in 1983, The Moon in the Water is the kind of historical family saga I used to love reading – books like Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, Susan Howatch’s Penmarric or John Jakes’ North and South trilogy come to mind – but haven’t read very often in recent years. It was a joy to discover this one and to know that I have many more Pamela Belle books still to look forward to. The Moon in the Water is the first of her Heron series, following the story of Thomazine Heron and her family, and is set during the English Civil War.

When Thomazine, our narrator, is orphaned at the age of ten, her father’s cousin, Sir Simon Heron, becomes her guardian. Arriving at Sir Simon’s estate of Goldhayes in Suffolk, Thomazine settles into her new life and gets to know the other Heron children – Simon, the eldest and the heir; Edward, who wants to become a soldier; the rebellious, quick-witted Francis; Lucy, an avid reader of stage plays; and six year-old Jamie, the baby of the family. Thomazine soon forms friendships with each of her five cousins, but it’s Francis with whom she feels the closest connection. When a marriage is arranged between Thomazine and another cousin, Dominic Drakelon, Thomazine is horrified but consoles herself with the knowledge that the wedding won’t take place until she is sixteen and a lot can happen in six years.

As time passes and the Heron children grow up, Thomazine discovers that she has fallen in love – not with Dominic, but with her cousin Francis. With Sir Simon now dead, his eldest son, Simon, has become head of the family, but unfortunately he distrusts and disapproves of his younger brother; if Thomazine is to have any chance of escaping from her betrothal to Dominic, she must first find a way to repair the relationship between Simon and Francis. Meanwhile, tensions between King Charles I and his Parliament intensify and the Herons, who choose to support the King, find themselves facing a host of new challenges as civil war breaks out in England.

The Moon in the Water is a romance, but not a silly, bodice-ripping one. There is so much more to this book than just the central love story. Music and poetry are shared interests of several of the characters and we are given fragments of song and verse. The historical background is well researched and there are descriptions of battles, sieges and the ways in which civil war affects not just the people at the heart of the action but also those who have stayed at home. And while it’s sometimes too easy to predict what is going to happen, the story is gripping enough to make this a difficult book to put down.

But going back to that central love story, it’s a great one. Rather than coming out of nowhere, the relationship between Thomazine and Francis develops slowly from friendship to romantic love and it feels believable – although it’s obvious to the reader long before the characters themselves start to become aware of how they feel! It also helps that they are both such great characters. I had a look at some of the other reviews on Goodreads after finishing the book and was intrigued by the fact that several reviewers mentioned that Francis Heron is very like Francis Crawford of Lymond from Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which is exactly what I kept thinking too, to the point where I started to find it distracting and wished the author had chosen a different name! The intelligent, imaginative young Francis Heron is very much as I would imagine Francis Crawford as a child and as an adult his relationship with his brother Simon is similar in some ways to Lymond’s relationship with his brother Richard.

I also loved Thomazine, which is fortunate as this is really her story, narrated in the first person, which means her personality comes through on every page. Another favourite character was Grainne, the Irish girl who marries a friend of the Herons and becomes almost one of the family. The villains were maybe a bit disappointing – and it was easy to guess who they were going to be, even before they committed any villainous acts – but that’s just a small criticism of such an enjoyable book.

It’s frustrating that these books and so many others that I want to read are out of print, but at least in this age of the internet it’s a lot easier to find copies of them than it used to be! I’m very excited about reading Pamela Belle’s other novels, beginning with the next in the Heron series, The Chains of Fate. With this one ending on a big cliffhanger, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the Heron family – although I’m sure things aren’t going to go smoothly for them!

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys Although the title of this novel is The Burgess Boys, there are actually three Burgess siblings – Jim, Bob and their sister Susan. Jim and Bob live in New York, while Susan is the only one to have remained in Shirley Falls, Maine – the town where they grew up. Jim is an ambitious and successful lawyer, whose defence of the singer Wally Packer has made him a household name. His younger brother, Bob, also has a career in the law but has never matched Jim’s achievements; he has spent his whole life blaming himself for an accident which killed his father, and as a result he doesn’t have a lot of confidence. Susan, Bob’s twin, is a single mother living in Shirley Falls with her troubled teenage son, Zach.

Shirley Falls, predominantly a white community, has recently become home to large numbers of Somali immigrants. Racial tensions in the town are already high and when Zach throws a frozen pig’s head through the door of a mosque during Ramadan, it causes a national scandal. Jim and Bob return to the town of their childhood to support their sister and find out why their nephew has done something so terrible, but in the process they make some surprising discoveries about themselves and about each other.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher last year but didn’t read it as it didn’t sound very appealing to me and as I hadn’t requested it I didn’t feel under any obligation to read it if I didn’t want to. I do remember reading some positive reviews of it, though, and when I noticed it was named on the shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction I decided to give it a try. Now that I’ve read it I think my initial reaction was correct because it really wasn’t my type of book at all; I was interested enough to keep reading right to the end and I appreciated the quality of Elizabeth Strout’s writing, but this was a book that I could admire without particularly enjoying.

I found this quite a subdued and depressing novel. All of the characters, even the secondary ones, seem to be such unhappy people, dissatisfied with their lives, their marriages and their jobs. With the possible exception of the good-natured Bob Burgess and one of the Somali characters, Abdikarim Ahmed, I didn’t like any of them. I thought Susan was cold and bitter, Jim was over-confident and insensitive, and Helen (Jim’s wife) was shallow and self-absorbed. There’s certainly a lot of character development and by the end of the book it’s obvious that there is more to each person than originally meets the eye – but they are simply not people that I had much interest in getting to know.

I do think it was a good idea to write part of the novel from the perspective of the Somali immigrants. I was struck by the way so many of the non-Muslim people in Shirley Falls, while not necessarily racist, seem to have almost no knowledge of Islamic culture or the customs of the Somali people who are living among them (they incorrectly refer to them as Somalians, for example, and in some cases have never heard of Ramadan and don’t know why a pig’s head might be offensive to a Muslim). However, I never felt I completely understood Zach and why he did what he did, although the author does her best to make us feel sympathetic towards him by portraying him as a shy, awkward teenager who (slightly unbelievably) was unaware of the implications of his actions.

The Burgess Boys is a thought-provoking read and a good portrayal of a dysfunctional family, but I found the story disappointingly flat and boring, lacking any sort of drama or interesting plot developments. However, despite not enjoying this book very much I haven’t ruled out trying one of Elizabeth Strout’s other books at some point, particularly Olive Kitteridge which sounds much better than this one.

The Collector of Dying Breaths by M.J. Rose

The Collector of Dying Breaths This is the sixth book in M.J. Rose’s Reincarnationist series and although I haven’t read any of the others I think this is the third to feature the character of Jac L’Etoile (the previous two are The Book of Lost Fragrances and Seduction).

The Collector of Dying Breaths is set in two different time periods, one contemporary and one historical. The historical storyline is set in the 1500s and begins with Rene le Florentin, a young apprentice in an Italian monastery, being wrongly accused of murdering his master, the monk and apothecary Dom Serapino. Rescued from prison by Catherine de Medici, who is about to marry into the French royal family, Rene starts a new life in Paris as perfumer to the French court. But while his knowledge of fragrances, potions and poisons makes him indispensable to Catherine, Rene continues to work on a secret project he and Serapino had begun in Italy based on the theory that a person’s dying breath can be captured in a bottle. Rene believes that if he can discover the correct combination of ingredients to mix with the dying breath, he will be able to use the resulting mixture to reanimate the soul.

In present day France, we meet mythologist Jac L’Etoile. Jac comes from a family of perfumers but tries to avoid becoming too closely involved in the perfume industry because certain scents seem to cause her to experience vivid memories of the past – not just her own past, but other people’s too. However, when the rich, eccentric Melinoe Cypros asks her to come to her chateau and continue the work of Rene le Florentin, Jac reluctantly agrees. But as Jac begins to search for the formula needed to reanimate a dying breath, she finds herself haunted by visions of the 16th century perfumer and the woman he loves.

While this is a complete novel in itself and it’s not completely necessary to have read the previous ones, there are frequent references to events from Jac’s past which I’m assuming must have been covered in earlier books and I did feel that I was missing something by coming to the series so late. The author does attempt to give new readers all the backstory we need, but there was too much of this and I found it a bit overwhelming. I did think the historical sections of the novel were well done and I found them more compelling than the contemporary sections. The way Catherine de Medici was portrayed was interesting, if more negative than I’d expected, and I enjoyed the dynamics between Catherine, Rene and Catherine’s astrologer, Ruggieri.

Although it took me a while to get into the present day storyline, once Jac and the others began to work on deciphering lists of ingredients and trying to prepare potions, I became much more interested. I was fascinated by the idea that simply using the same ingredients that Rene used in the 16th century may not work because their properties have altered so much over the centuries. For example, we are told that ambergris (a secretion produced by whales that was commonly used in fragrances) could be slightly different in its modern form because the diet of the whales and the quality of the water in which they live is not the same as five hundred years ago.

This is a very imaginative book, perfect for those readers who like a touch of the paranormal in their historical fiction. I think it was just my unfamiliarity with the series and the characters that prevented me from enjoying it as much as I would have liked to.

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I read The Collector of Dying Breaths as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule.

Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak

Empress of the Night This is a follow up novel to The Winter Palace, a novel about Russia’s Catherine the Great which I read in 2012. I remember having a few problems with The Winter Palace so I wasn’t sure whether to read this book or not, but I do love Russian historical fiction and in the end I couldn’t resist. Looking back at my review of The Winter Palace, which was narrated by a fictional character, Varvara, I had said that I would have preferred a book written from Catherine’s perspective. That is exactly what Eva Stachniak has done in Empress of the Night, so I was interested to see whether that would help me to enjoy this book more than the first.

The novel has an unusual structure, beginning on the final day of Catherine’s life in 1796. She has just suffered from a stroke and in the hours that follow she looks back on her life in the form of flashbacks and memories. Occasionally we return to the present to see how Catherine and the people around her are trying to deal with what has happened. By the time she takes her last breath we have watched the whole of Catherine’s story unfold, from her early days in Russia at the court of the Empress Elizabeth to the final years of her own reign.

Although this is the second of Eva Stachniak’s Catherine the Great books, the two could be read in either order (for this reason the publishers are describing it as a ‘follow up’ rather than a ‘sequel’). For anyone who hasn’t yet read The Winter Palace, this book (or the first part of it, anyway) covers some of the same events, including the young Catherine’s arrival in Russia as the Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, intended bride of the Empress Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter, and her relationship with her friend and spy, Varvara. If you have already read The Winter Palace, however, you are seeing everything from a different perspective this time.

Catherine the Great was a fascinating woman but she is not someone I’ve read about in any depth before and this meant that I really learned a lot from this book. But while major events such as Russia’s war with the Ottoman Empire, the Pugachev Revolt and the creation of the Legislative Commission are discussed, Catherine devotes much more time to remembering her relationships with her various lovers. And there are a lot of them! Her marriage to Peter III was not a happy one and ended with his assassination in 1762 after which Catherine succeeded him to the throne. She was romantically involved with many other men, including Serge Saltykov, Stanislaw Poniatowski (the future king of Poland), Grigory Orlov, and her favourite lover, Grigory Potemkin.

More interesting than the love affairs, for me at least, were the descriptions of Catherine’s family life. It was so sad that her son, Paul, was taken from her by the Empress Elizabeth and allowed to spend very little time with his mother so that in later life he is somebody she barely knows and doesn’t like. But Catherine has warm, loving relationships with several of her grandchildren, particularly Alexander and Alexandrine.

Empress of the Night - UK cover The style of the writing in this book seemed to me to be very different from The Winter Palace – it’s very fragmented and probably what you could describe as ‘stream-of-consciousness’. The disjointed narrative meant that at first I struggled to really get into the story and connect with Catherine, but on reflection I can see that a woman who had just had a stroke and knew that she was dying probably would be confused and incoherent. It would have been nice to have been given some dates, though, because I found it difficult to measure the passing of time and would have liked to have had some idea of when various events were taking place and of how old Catherine was.

I didn’t find this a particularly ‘easy’ read because of the way the narrative jumped around and I think maybe The Winter Palace is my favourite of the two books after all, but I did enjoy learning more about this important and powerful woman.

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Empress of the Night is available now published by Bantam in the US or by Traverse Press as an ebook only in the UK. Both covers are pictured above. I received a copy for review from Bantam via NetGalley.

Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge

Watch the Wall My Darling - Jane Aiken Hodge I had never heard of Watch the Wall, My Darling until it started appearing in my recommendations on Goodreads, and with such an intriguing title I knew it was a book I would have to consider reading eventually! First published in 1966, it seems to be out of print now in paperback or hardback format, but used copies are available and an ebook version has also been released.

Watch the Wall, My Darling is a gothic romantic suspense novel set on the south-east coast of England during the Napoleonic Wars. As the story begins, Christina Tretton, a young American woman whose father has recently died, is returning to her family’s ancestral home, Tretteign Grange. After encountering a gang of smugglers on the journey, Christina arrives at the Grange – also known as the Dark House – and is met by her Aunt Verity, her invalid grandfather and her handsome cousin, Ross.

Settling into her new home, Christina quickly takes control of the management of the house and the servants. Impressed with his granddaughter, old Mr Tretteign decides to change his will and leave the Grange to Christina – on the condition that she must marry either Ross or her other cousin, Richard. Christina insists that she has no intention of marrying either of them, but her two cousins, who each have their own reasons for wanting the Grange, have other ideas. Despite herself, she finds herself drawn to Ross, but soon discovers that he is involved in something very dangerous – and with England expecting a French invasion at any moment, the lives of everyone at the Dark House could be at risk.

I enjoyed this book – it was a fun, undemanding read with plenty of adventure and intrigue and a touch of romance. I kept being reminded of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, though this is not as well written or memorable as any of those, in my opinion. The historical background didn’t feel particularly strong and Christina felt more like a woman of the 1960s than the 1800s, while I didn’t find Ross quite as fascinating and attractive as she did. The introduction of two new characters towards the end of the book didn’t really add anything to the story either. Still, with smugglers, soldiers and spies, a crumbling abbey believed to be haunted, family secrets and an inheritance to be decided, there was more than enough to keep me happy!

And if you’re wondering, the title comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called A Smuggler’s Song:

“Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark
Brandy for the parson,
‘Baccy for the clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!”

After the Sunday Papers #15

newspaper-clip-art-4 Well, this week was a lot more stressful than I’d expected, unfortunately! I was driving home from work on Wednesday when I was hit from behind while waiting at traffic lights. Nobody was injured but the back of my car was quite badly damaged – and to make things even worse, it’s a new car that I’ve only had for a week! I couldn’t believe it! The other driver was entirely at fault and her insurance company have arranged for the repairs (which could take up to two weeks) and provided me with a courtesy car, but as you can probably imagine I didn’t have much time or enthusiasm for reading and blogging for a couple of days.

Madame Bovary Readalong Things have settled down now, so I’m starting to catch up and am looking forward to telling you about some of my recent reads, including Eva Stachniak’s Empress of the Night, a novel about Catherine the Great, and Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge, a great romantic suspense novel from the 1960s. I’m also taking part in a readalong of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert this month, hosted by ebookclassics and Cedar Station. I have never read it before and have had a copy on my shelf for a while so this seemed like a good time to read it. I started it last night and have enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

I noticed on Friday that the shortlist for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been announced. I always follow the progress of this prize with interest as historical fiction is my favourite genre. The books on the shortlist are:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Harvest by Jim Crace
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

The only one of these I have read is Life After Life, though Fair Helen sounds great and I’ll probably read The Luminaries eventually too. The winner will be announced in June.

How has your week been? I hope it’s been better than mine!

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music This is the second book I’ve read by Emma Donoghue – the first was Room, which I enjoyed, and since then I’ve been wanting to try one of her historical fiction novels. This new one, Frog Music, is set in San Francisco in 1876 and is based on a true crime story.

Twenty-four-year-old Blanche Beunon, once a star of the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, is now a dancer in a San Francisco burlesque club. She lives in the city’s Chinatown with her lover, Arthur Deneve, and his friend – and former partner on the flying trapeze – Ernest Girard. One week in August, two newcomers enter their little circle. One of these is P’tit, Blanche and Arthur’s baby boy, reunited with his parents after a year of separation. Blanche has rarely even thought about her baby during his absence, but now she discovers what being a mother really means.

The other new arrival is a woman called Jenny Bonnet, just released from jail after being arrested for the crime of dressing in men’s clothes. Jenny, who makes her living from catching frogs and selling them to French and Chinese restaurants, is like nobody else Blanche has ever met and makes her think differently about herself and her life. But when Jenny is shot dead, Blanche is convinced that she herself was the intended victim. Can she find the murderer before he kills again and before she loses P’tit again forever?

The real life murder case on which Frog Music is based remains an unsolved crime to this day, but the solution Donoghue provides is believable and consistent with what we have learned about the personalities and motives of the characters involved. The author also includes a detailed Afterword in which she explains which of the characters and events in the story are factual and which are purely fictional.

While there are some very unpleasant, unlikeable people in this novel, I thought the central character, Blanche, was wonderful. Her personality is a mass of contradictions: she’s tough yet vulnerable, intelligent yet naïve, self-absorbed yet sensitive. She’s such a well drawn character and felt completely real. I loved her and desperately wanted her to find some real happiness. Her story is so sad at times – I don’t want to say too much, but the circumstances surrounding the reappearance of P’tit are shocking and heartbreaking; I found that part of the book quite painful to read. As for Jenny, she remains a secretive and mysterious character throughout the novel. It is only towards the end of the book that we (and Blanche) begin to see beneath her protective outer shell and are finally given some glimpses of the real Jenny Bonnet.

The sense of time and place is very strong. I’m not sure I’ve read a book set in 1870s San Francisco before and I found it a vivid, atmospheric setting. The action takes place during both a heat wave and an epidemic of smallpox and both have an impact on Blanche’s story. Another interesting element of the novel is the role of music. Many songs and rhymes are quoted from in the book and information on each of them is given in an appendix. I thought this really added something to the story, helping to provide context and historical background. As Blanche and the other main characters are French and often use French slang, there is a glossary provided at the back of the book too, if you need help in translating any unfamiliar words.

My only criticism of this book is that the way the story is structured could cause confusion. It follows two time periods – one in Blanche’s present, describing Jenny’s murder and its consequences; the other flashing back to the beginning of their friendship a month earlier. Gradually the two storylines converge until they are only a day or two apart and at this point it becomes slightly difficult to follow the chronological sequence of events. Sometimes we are given the date, but not always, so it’s not immediately clear which thread of the story we are reading.

One other thing I should mention is that as Blanche is an exotic dancer there are some quite graphic descriptions of her work. It was maybe a bit excessive, but I could appreciate that it was all part of who Blanche is and it would have been hard to convey the realities of her life without being explicit at times.

Frog Music is not a book that will appeal to everyone (though you could say the same about any book, I suppose) but I thought it was great and having enjoyed this one and Room I’ll be looking for more of Emma Donoghue’s books soon.

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