I probably haven’t been away long enough for anyone to have noticed my absence, but I’ve just returned from four days in Dubrovnik. It was the first time I’ve been to Croatia and I thought it was a beautiful country with some spectacular scenery. We were lucky enough to have good weather while we were there too.

I’ll have some books to tell you about soon, but while I finish writing my reviews I thought I’d leave you with some of my pictures…

Rooftops of the Old Town

Dubrovnik Rooftops

Old Town Harbour

City Harbour

Stradun (the main street), viewed from the city walls


St John Fortress

St John Fortress

St Lawrence Fortress

St Lawrence Fortress

Lopud Island (one of the Elafiti Islands to the north-west of Dubrovnik)

Lopud Island

The beautiful Adriatic Sea

Adriatic Sea

I’ll be back to talk about books in a day or two – including one set in Croatia which I started reading on the plane!

An Accidental Tragedy: The Life Of Mary, Queen Of Scots by Roderick Graham

An Accidental Tragedy The death of Mary, Queen of Scots, executed in 1587, could certainly be considered a tragedy. Was it also an accidental one? Could Mary’s fate have been avoided if she had only been a different type of person and if she had made different choices in life? This is the starting point for Roderick Graham’s 2009 biography of one of Scotland’s most fascinating monarchs, which claims ‘neither to blacken her character by portraying her as a murderess of husbands, nor to sanctify her as the lonely champion of her faith, but to recount the circumstances which formed her character and to explain the events which determined her fate’.

The book begins with Mary’s birth at Linlithgow Palace in 1542 and her rapid accession to the throne when her father, James V of Scotland, died just six days later. Mary was not Scotland’s first child monarch – James V himself and all of the four kings before him also came to the throne at an early age – and the Scottish people had become used to long periods of regency. As Graham explains, this led to an increase in the power and independence of the nobility and caused division and a lack of unity.

After a marriage treaty between Mary and Henry VIII’s son, Prince Edward, was rejected by the Scots, the five-year-old queen was sent to France where she would eventually marry the French king’s heir, the Dauphin Francis. Mary grew up in France rather than Scotland and she and Francis were strongly influenced by her mother’s relatives, the Guises. This meant that when Mary returned to Scotland to rule in 1561 following her husband’s death, she had very little knowledge of the country of her birth. At a time of increasing religious and political conflict among the Scottish noblemen a strong leader was needed.

Roderick Graham does a good job of showing how poorly equipped Mary was for her role as Queen of Scots and how she was unable to provide the sort of leadership the country required. Despite the presence of three influential women in her life – her mother, Mary of Guise; the Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici; and the King of France’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers – Mary appeared to learn very little from any of them regarding the management of court intrigue and politics. The years that followed her return to Scotland were dominated by murders, plots, rebellions and two disastrous marriages, the first to Lord Darnley and the second to the Earl of Bothwell, finally ending in her abdication and imprisonment in England.

I found it interesting that Graham had chosen to write a book about someone for whom he seemed to have so little admiration, sympathy or liking. He never misses an opportunity to compare Mary with that other queen south of the border – Elizabeth I – and to point out how much stronger, cleverer and wittier the Queen of England was. In contrast, he paints a picture of Mary as immature, incapable of making good decisions and driven by passion and emotion. I’m not sure how fair or unfair his treatment of Mary is, but despite his preference for Elizabeth, he still made me feel sad for Mary as her life drew closer to its tragic end.

An Accidental Tragedy is the first book I’ve read that is specifically about Mary, Queen of Scots. Of course, I’ve come across her in other non-fiction books about the Tudor/Elizabethan period and she has been a secondary character in some of the historical fiction novels I’ve read, but this is the first time I’ve read a comprehensive biography of her entire life. I was particularly interested in reading about this period in Scotland’s history because my favourite historical fiction series, the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, is set during the first part of Mary’s reign, but this just added another layer of interest to what was already a fascinating and very readable biography.

If anyone has any other biographies of Mary to recommend, please let me know. I would love to read another one.

Historical Musings #2: Books about Ancient Rome

Historical Musings For my second monthly post on history and historical fiction (see last month’s here) I’m going to focus on a topic I know very little about: Ancient Rome. Despite living close to Hadrian’s Wall, I’ve never been particularly interested in Roman history and have only ever explored one or two of the many sites along the wall, but last weekend I decided to take advantage of my English Heritage membership and visit Corbridge Roman Town.

The granary at Corbridge Roman Town
The granary at Corbridge Roman Town

Hadrian’s Wall was built in AD122-30 during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian and stretches for 73 miles across the north of England. It does not separate England from Scotland, as many people believe! Corbridge, in Northumberland, was the site of a busy Roman town and supply base and the remains of the streets and buildings can still be seen today. As well as walking around the ruins, there’s also a museum where you can see a display of some of the items excavated from the site, including the Corbridge Hoard (a collection of Roman weapons and armour found buried in a chest) and the Corbridge Lion (a large stone statue which was originally an ornament from a tomb).

Steps leading to the 'Strongroom'
Steps leading to the ‘Strongroom’

This brief sojourn into Roman history made me wonder why it is that I so rarely choose to read books about the Romans. It’s just not a time period I’ve ever felt drawn to, though I’m not sure why that should be. A quick search for posts using the ‘Ancient Rome’ tag on my blog brings up only two novels set in Rome that I’ve read in the last few years – Colossus: The Four Emperors by David Blixt and Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran – and I’m having trouble thinking of any others that I may have read before I started blogging. I would love some recommendations!

Corbridge Roman Town
Corbridge Roman Town
I already have copies of The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Do you think I would like either of these or is there something else you would recommend? Fiction or non-fiction, books set in Rome itself or in other parts of the Roman Empire – all suggestions are welcome!

What are your favourites?

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

A Country Doctors Notebook A Country Doctor’s Notebook is the book that was selected for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I was happy when I discovered that I would be reading this one, not only because it’s much shorter than most of the others on my Classics Club list, but also because I loved Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which I read four years ago in 2011. I knew this book was going to be very different from The Master and Margarita, but I hoped I would still enjoy it…and I did.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories originally written in Russian in the 1920s (the edition I read uses Michael Glenny’s English translation from 1975). Like the protagonist of this book, Mikhail Bulgakov was a ‘country doctor’. After graduating from Kiev University he became a physician and from 1916-1918 he worked at a small hospital near a remote village in the province of Smolensk.

The fictional doctor in the book, Vladimir Bomgard, is clearly based on Bulgakov himself and in the first story we see him as a young, newly-qualified doctor of twenty-four arriving at Muryovo Hospital, a full day’s drive from the nearest town. He is pleased to find that the hospital is clean and well equipped, but with no practical experience and nobody to turn to for advice (apart from a feldsher, or partly-qualified assistant, and two midwives) the thought of bearing sole responsibility for the lives of his patients terrifies him.

During his first weeks and months at Muryovo, the country doctor faces all sorts of problems for which his university education had completely failed to prepare him. With no electricity, no telephones, poor roads, the risk of being cut off from the world during snowstorms, and the ignorance of peasants regarding simple medical matters, life at Muryovo is primitive and isolated. Most of all, the young doctor lives in fear of encountering a strangulated hernia, a case of peritonitis or a difficult birth and he comes to dread hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeated to myself stubbornly and unhappily. “I’ve got my degree and a first class one at that. Didn’t I warn them back in town that I wanted to start off as a junior partner in a practice? But no, they just smiled and said, ‘You’ll get your bearings.’ So now I’ve got to find my bearings. Suppose they bring me a hernia? Just tell me how I’ll find my bearings with that?”

As the book progresses the doctor slowly begins to gain confidence and discovers that true knowledge comes with experience.

It was fascinating to read about conditions in a remote Russian hospital at the start of the twentieth century and the medical procedures and treatments that were used. I had a lot of sympathy for the doctor, being thrown in at the deep end with so little experience and being expected to operate on patients with no supervision and no advice other than illustrations in his textbooks. If you’re squeamish I should probably warn you that some of the operations he performs are described in full, gory detail (the tracheotomy particularly sticks in my mind). But this is also a book with a lot of humour and there are some very funny moments as the doctor panics, guesses and muddles his way through each crisis.

As I mentioned above, I read the Michael Glenny translation which I was quite happy with and found perfectly readable. I enjoyed all of the stories in A Country Doctor’s Notebook and I’m so pleased the Classics Spin motivated me to pick up this book at last.

Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom

Dark Fire This is the second in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series set in Tudor England and following the investigations of hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. The action in Dark Fire takes place a year or two after the events of the first book, Dissolution, which I loved, but although I would recommend reading the books in order it’s not essential and this is a complete story in itself.

Dark Fire is set during the summer heatwave of 1540 as Henry VIII prepares to cast aside his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and marry Catherine Howard. Thomas Cromwell, the man who was instrumental in arranging the marriage to Anne, has fallen out of favour with the King and needs to regain Henry’s trust as quickly as possible. When he witnesses a demonstration of Greek Fire (sometimes called Dark Fire), a legendary Byzantine weapon capable of destroying a ship in minutes, Cromwell thinks he has found the perfect way to impress Henry. The problem is, only a tiny amount of Greek Fire remains and the secret formula to produce more has gone missing.

Meanwhile, Shardlake has been approached by a client, Joseph Wentworth, whose niece, Elizabeth has been arrested for murder. Shardlake is convinced she is innocent, but as the girl refuses to say a word in her own defence it seems that even our hero’s skills as a lawyer will not be enough to save her. At the last minute Cromwell intervenes; Shardlake can have more time to investigate and to attempt to clear Elizabeth’s name – but in return he must help to discover the ancient secrets of Greek Fire, which Cromwell has promised to present to the King in twelve days’ time.

I enjoyed Dark Fire; everything I remembered from the previous book was here again – the thorough research, the atmospheric descriptions and the insights into 16th century society. Where this book is even better than Dissolution, in my opinion, is in the characterisation of Jack Barak, the rough, outspoken young man whom Cromwell chooses to assist Shardlake in his task. Barak and Shardlake are such different personalities, with such different strengths and weaknesses, that they form the perfect partnership. Watching their relationship develop was one of my favourite things about this novel.

The first Shardlake novel, Dissolution, was a murder mystery set almost entirely within the confines of a monastery. Dark Fire has a wider scope, with Shardlake and his new assistant, Barak, embarking on a race around London as they try to locate the ancient formula and prove Elizabeth’s innocence before their time runs out. Their journey takes them from prison cells and taverns to law courts and churches, and along the way they experience the best and the worst Tudor London has to offer: one day Shardlake is attending a ‘sugar banquet’ at the elegant home of the aristocratic Lady Honor, the next Barak is climbing down a well in the middle of the night to look for evidence.

Both of the novel’s central mysteries were intriguing, particularly the Greek Fire one – and both present their own set of difficulties and dangers to Shardlake and Barak. It appears that the Wentworth family (with the exception of Joseph) are more than happy for Elizabeth to take the blame and don’t want outsiders trying to interfere, while the Greek Fire mystery seems to result in death for anyone who gets too close to the truth. The appeal of this book for me, though, was not so much the plot as the wonderful portrayal of Tudor life. I’m pleased that I still have another four Shardlake novels to read, beginning with the third in the series, Sovereign.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

the dead duke How could I resist reading a book with a title like that? Luckily, the story between the covers proved to be as intriguing as the title; I was completely engrossed in The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse from beginning to end. I don’t often choose to read non-fiction but I’m very glad I decided to read this one!

In The Dead Duke, Piu Marie Eatwell gives a thoroughly researched account of one of the most bizarre legal cases of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In 1897, Anna Maria Druce approached the courts to request the exhumation of her father-in-law’s grave. She sensationally claimed that her father-in-law, T.C. Druce, was actually the 5th Duke of Portland and had been leading a double life until deciding to kill off his alter ego. Druce had faked his own death, she said, and if his coffin was opened it would be found to be empty. This would leave Anna Maria’s son as the true heir to the Portland fortune.

This was only the beginning of a fascinating legal battle that would continue for years, attracting a huge amount of media attention and capturing the imaginations of the public. Of course, I’m not going to spoil any of the book’s surprises by telling you whether the grave was ever opened or whether Anna Maria’s claims were proved to be true, but along the way some shocking revelations were made and some dark secrets were uncovered!

With tales of secret wives and illegitimate children, fraud and forgery, stolen evidence and unreliable witnesses, lies and deception and double identities, this could have been the storyline of a Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon novel (and Eatwell does draw some parallels with the lives and works of these authors and others). As a fan of Victorian sensation novels, it’s not surprising that I enjoyed this book so much.

I particularly loved reading about the eccentric lifestyle of the 5th Duke of Portland. Becoming increasingly reclusive in his later years, he rarely went out in daylight and constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath his estate. He often wore six coats at the same time, had a large collection of wigs and only ate in the mornings and evenings. His alleged alter ego, T.C. Druce, who ran a London department store, was said to have some similar habits, which added some support to the theory that the two men were one and the same.

I was impressed with the huge amount of research the author must have carried out while she was writing this book, drawing on newspaper articles, letters, photographs, census records and other documents to build up a full and balanced picture of the case. Every time a new character is introduced we are given details of their family history, personal background, appearance and personality, all of which helps to bring them to life rather than being just names on the page. Further notes are provided at the back of the book, along with a list of primary and secondary sources.

In the final three chapters, set in 2013, Piu Marie Eatwell describe some of the new evidence she was able to discover during her investigations and her enthusiasm for the subject really shines through here. It must have been a fascinating book to research and it was certainly a fascinating book to read!

Thanks to Midas PR for providing a review copy of this book.

April reading summary

April-clip-Art I read six books in April which is fewer than I usually read, but as two of them were very long books and April was another busy and stressful month for me at work, I’m happy with that! I’m glad May is here because I have lots to look forward to this month: two Bank Holidays (the first one this Monday), my birthday and a trip to Dubrovnik!

Looking back at my April reads, I started the month with The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne, a time slip novel set in York and telling the stories of two women in two different centuries whose lives are linked by a recently restored Elizabethan building. I loved the combination of history, suspense and the supernatural. While I was reading this I was also dipping into a non-fiction book, The Gothic by Nick Groom, part of the Very Short Introduction series. I particularly enjoyed Groom’s discussion of Gothic literature, but the book also covers many other aspects of Gothic culture.

The Eustace Diamonds The two very long books I read in April were both for reading events. The first was The Eustace Diamonds, which I read for Karen’s Anthony Trollope Bicentennial Celebration. I’m slowly working through Trollope’s Palliser novels and this is the third in the series. I did like it but found it quite repetitive and at 800 pages I thought it would never end! The second very long book was my choice for Lory’s Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week: The Child from the Sea, a historical novel based on the life of Charles II’s mistress, Lucy Walter. My first experience of Goudge’s work was a good one and I’m looking forward to trying more of her books.

After spending some time in the 17th century with Lucy Walter, I then went back to a much earlier period – to the 7th century, in fact – and met Edwin: High King of Britain. This is the first in a trilogy by Edoardo Albert called Northumbrian Thrones and I found it both a fascinating and an educational read.

The Fatal Flame The final book I read in April – and the only one I haven’t had time to write about yet – was The Fatal Flame, Lyndsay Faye’s third Timothy Wilde mystery novel set in 19th century New York City. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed her previous two, The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret, so I was sad to discover that it’s the last in a trilogy (I had been hoping she would go on to write more books in the series).

As we move into May I have three books on the go (I wish I could go back to the days when I only read one book at a time, but that just doesn’t seem possible any more). I’m reading Piu Marie Eatwell’s intriguingly titled The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse, Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie book, When Will There Be Good News?, and The Invention of Fire, Bruce Holsinger’s second historical mystery novel. As soon as I finish one or two of those I will be starting my book for the Classics Club Spin and I also want to read at least one book for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

Did you have a good April? What are you hoping to read in May?