A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

a-gentleman-in-moscowIn 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is brought before a Bolshevik tribunal and found guilty of the crime of being an ‘unrepentant aristocrat’.  Once a recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club and Master of the Hunt, the Count is now considered a Former Person and is sentenced to live out the rest of his days under house arrest in his current place of residence, Moscow’s Metropol Hotel.  Forced to leave his luxury suite and move his possessions to a tiny room in the attic, the Count refuses to let his spirit be broken and decides to make the best of his situation, continuing with his daily routines as far as he is able without leaving the building.

With the help of Nina, a nine-year-old girl in a yellow dress, the Count explores the hidden corridors, rooms and staircases of this magnificent old building, and later he finds some fulfilment in working as a waiter at the hotel’s grandest restaurant, the Boyarsky.  Although it’s never nice to lose one’s freedom, there are certainly worse places to be held prisoner than the Metropol Hotel.  But what truly sustains the Count as the years and decades go by are the friendships he forms with the other hotel employees, guests and visitors.

The Count develops a close bond with Emile and Andrey, the two men who work alongside him in the restaurant, he embarks on a romance with a glamorous actress, comes to value the help and advice of the hotel seamstress, and debates politics, poetry and philosophy with friends old and new.  But the most moving of his relationships, in my opinion, is the one with Sofia, who comes to the Metropol as a child and grows to think of the Count as a father.  The Count is an educated, cultured, intelligent man, but he also has a good imagination and a playful sense of humour and I loved watching as he and Sofia devised their own games to entertain themselves and help pass the time.

Spending most of his adult life under house arrest, the Count is largely insulated from whatever is happening in the outside world, but through the people who pass in and out of his life he is able to keep up with current affairs.  This allows the author to provide the reader with some commentary on Soviet-era Russia and to put the Count’s story into historical context.  The balance between the political and the personal is about right and despite the length of the book, I was never bored.

I had been looking forward to reading A Gentleman in Moscow since seeing it appear on several people’s best-of-year lists at the end of 2016.  Now that I’ve had the chance to read it for myself, I can understand all the praise that has been bestowed on it and although I don’t think I would describe it as an absolute favourite, I did find it a lovely, enjoyable story.  I loved getting to know the Count and I’m sure that if you choose to read this book you’ll love him too.

The Walter Scott Prize longlist 2017

I’ve mentioned before that I am attempting to read all of the books shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. I am always looking for quality historical fiction and I have found the books nominated for this particular prize to be of a consistently high standard. You can see the progress I’ve made with this project here – Kay of What Me Read has also joined in and if anyone else wants to take part you’re very welcome!

The longlist for this year’s prize has just been announced and includes lots of intriguing titles. I’m not planning on trying to read the entire longlist – I’m waiting until the shortlist is announced – but I might still dip into this list from time to time.

Here are the thirteen books on the 2017 longlist.  As you can see, I’ve only read one so far.

days-without-endA Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Crane Pond by Richard Francis
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

It doesn’t surprise me that Days Without End is on the list and it wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up as the winner. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other Sebastian Barry books I’ve read, but it’s the sort of book that usually does very well as far as prizes are concerned. I’m delighted to see The Good People on the list as I read it recently and loved it (review coming soon) and also Golden Hill, which I just started reading yesterday.

Of the rest, I was already interested in reading The Gustav Sonata and The Essex Serpent, but I know little or nothing about most of the others.

Have you read any of the books on this year’s longlist? Which ones do you think deserve to be on the shortlist?

For the first time this year, the Walter Scott Prize Academy has also put together an additional list of twenty recommended novels. I won’t post the complete list here (you can see it on the Walter Scott Prize website) but I’m pleased to see mentions of Orphans of the Carnival and The Ashes of London, as well as several other novels I’ve read or am interested in. Lots of great ideas for future reading there!

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

frenchmans-creek Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has been one of my favourite books since I first read it as a teenager, but it’s only relatively recently that I started to explore the rest of her work. Since 2010, I have now read several of her short story collections and one of her non-fiction books, as well as working through almost all of her novels, saving Frenchman’s Creek until near the end (as it sounded like one that I would particularly enjoy and I wanted to have something to look forward to).

Set in the 17th century, Frenchman’s Creek is the story of Dona St Columb who, at the beginning of the novel, is growing disillusioned with her marriage and bored with life in London. To alleviate her boredom, she has been joining her husband Harry and his friends in some increasingly wild escapades, but as the mother of two young children she has started to feel ashamed of her behaviour. Unable to bear it any longer, she decides that what she needs is to spend some time away from her husband and London society – and so she takes the children and heads for Navron, Harry’s estate in Cornwall.

On arriving at the house, Dona is surprised to find that only one servant is present; his name is William, a quiet but perceptive man with whom Dona forms an immediate bond. Despite signs that suggest someone has been sleeping in her bedroom while the house stood empty, she soon begins to feel relaxed and refreshed in the peaceful surroundings of Navron. Her new neighbours, however, seem to be less at ease and it’s not long before Dona hears tales of a French pirate who is said to be terrorising the coast of Cornwall. On a walk through the woods one day, she discovers a ship resting in a creek and suddenly everything makes sense.

The Frenchman (who, you will have guessed, is the owner of the ship), dispels all of Dona’s – and probably the reader’s – preconceived ideas of what a pirate should be. Polite, cultured and intelligent, he couldn’t be more different from Harry and his friends, and it’s no surprise that Dona falls in love with him. I couldn’t quite believe that a man like the Frenchman would have chosen to be a pirate (the reasons he gives for his way of life didn’t seem very convincing) but I thought he was an intriguing character and I enjoyed watching Dona’s relationship with him develop. And yet I didn’t become fully engaged with the story until halfway through, when Dona and the Frenchman embark on an adventure together and the consequences of this threaten to bring their happiness to an end. From this point on, I found the book unputdownable, right through to its poignant ending.

Du Maurier’s writing is beautifully atmospheric and evocative, more so than almost any other author I can think of. The description of Dona’s first walk along the banks of the creek, where it widens into a pool and she comes upon the pirate ship for the first time, is so vivid I could nearly see the scene laid out in front of me. The whole book has a dreamy, almost hypnotic feel. Although we are told once or twice that our hero’s name is Jean-Benoit Aubéry, he is referred to throughout the novel as simply the Frenchman – it’s little things like these which really add to the air of mystery and haziness.

Although I did enjoy this book very much, particularly the second half, it couldn’t quite equal my top four du Mauriers, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand. I’m planning a re-read of Rebecca soon and then I would like to read Castle Dor, the only du Maurier novel I still haven’t read.

Jane Shore: The Merry Mistress

jane-shore Elizabeth Shore, known as Jane, was a mistress of King Edward IV of England and said to be “merry in company, ready and quick of answer”. She often appears in fiction set during the Wars of the Roses as a minor character – depending on the book, either as a bad influence or a comfort to Edward in his declining health, and a possible conspirator against his brother, Richard III – but several novels have also been written specifically about Jane. I have read two recently and am combining my reviews into one post.

The first of the two books is an old one, written in the 19th century by Mary Bennett, a truly ‘forgotten’ author if ever there was one. She’s so forgotten that I’ve struggled to find any biographical information at all about her (the Database of Victorian Fiction has a paragraph) and can’t even find a definite publication date for Jane Shore – I think it could have been 1869. It seems that Bennett had quite a few novels published, though, so she must have had some level of success at the time.

As Jane was a relatively unimportant historical figure, there is still a lot that we don’t know about her today; obviously even less would have been known in Bennett’s day and fewer sources would have been available to her in researching her book.  Bennett refers to Jane as the daughter of Mr Winstead and the wife of Matthew Shore, ‘the goldsmith’,  while most modern novels give Jane’s father’s name as John Lambert and her husband’s as William Shore, not a goldsmith but a mercer.  It’s difficult for me to comment on the historical accuracy of Jane Shore, then, as it depends on which sources the author had to work from – and it could be that what was considered accurate then is not considered accurate now.

Bennett’s Jane is portrayed, in typical Victorian style, as an innocent, virtuous young woman at the mercy of the king, his friend Will Hastings, and several other men who want to steal her away from her father and husband. She is the sort of person who has things happen to her rather than making them happen herself, which means she is not the most interesting of characters to read about. In fact, I didn’t feel that any of the characters in this novel ever came to life on the page or seemed like real people at all.

The book is entertaining in parts – mainly when the action switches to Wales and the story of two fictional characters, Nesta Llewellyn and the musician Leolin – but very tedious in others and certainly wouldn’t be the best introduction to Jane Shore’s life.  Having read it, I understand now why Bennett is a forgotten author!

the-merry-mistressAfter reading the Mary Bennett book, I remembered that I had also received The Merry Mistress by Philip Lindsay from NetGalley a while ago, along with another book of his, The Devil and King John. I had mixed feelings about the King John book so was a bit apprehensive about reading this one. I’m determined to get my NetGalley shelf up to date, though, so I decided to give The Merry Mistress a try anyway.

The first thing to say is that this book couldn’t be more different from the Bennett one! Lindsay’s Jane is a much more forceful personality who decides what she wants out of life and then goes and gets it. I expect the fact that this novel was published more recently – in the 1950s – will have something to do with that. But despite Jane making a point of telling us that she expects no rewards or favours from the king in return for becoming his mistress and that she always does her best to help the poor and needy, I didn’t think she was a particularly likeable or sympathetic character. She uses her beauty to get her own way or to manipulate the men around her and I found her quite a shallow, controlling person.

The story is narrated by Jane herself, beginning as she is forced to walk through the streets of London dressed in her kirtle as public penance for her part in the conspiracy between Will Hastings and the Woodvilles. Jane then looks back on her life, starting with her unhappy marriage to the mercer William Shore and then taking us through her romances with Edward IV, Hastings and Thomas Grey, the Marquess of Dorset. Lindsay ignores other possible facets of Jane’s character to focus almost exclusively on her relationships with the men in her life. I appreciate that Jane was a royal mistress, after all, and not famous for much else, but I still felt that this book needed something more.

Things do become more interesting and more compelling in the final third of the novel, when Edward’s death throws the court and the country into disarray once more after several years of relative stability. However, this is very much Jane’s story, so politics are pushed into the background apart from when they touch directly on Jane’s life. Still, I thought The Merry Mistress was a much better novel than Mary Bennett’s Jane Shore. My personal recommendation, though, would be to skip both of these and read Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith instead!

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

the-unseeingIt’s Christmas 1836 and Hannah Brown is looking forward to her wedding to James Greenacre. However, the marriage will never take place; instead, Hannah is brutally murdered and in the weeks that follow, the parts of her dismembered body are discovered in various locations around London. Her fiancé, Greenacre, is arrested and found guilty – but although he admits to disposing of the body, he claims that Hannah was already dead when he found her. This makes no difference to the judge and jury and Greenacre is sentenced to hang, along with his mistress, Sarah Gale, who is accused of concealing the murder.

Sarah had been living with Greenacre as his housekeeper before being asked to leave so he could marry Hannah. She insists that she knew nothing about the murder and Greenacre also denies that she had any involvement, but this is not enough to save her. As she sits in a cell in Newgate Prison, Sarah’s only hope is the petition she has submitted asking for clemency. The lawyer appointed by the Home Secretary to look again at Sarah’s case is Edmund Fleetwood, young, idealistic and principled. After speaking to Sarah and hearing her talk about her life, Edmund is convinced that she should be freed, but how can he prove it? And is it possible that he is becoming too emotionally involved in the case to be able to see the facts clearly?

Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on a true crime; the Edgware Road Murder, as it became known, really did take place and James Greenacre really was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Sarah Gale was also arrested, but I won’t tell you what her eventual fate would be. I didn’t know and that meant I was kept in suspense wondering what would happen to her. It’s important to remember, though, that this is fiction and not everything in the book is taken from historical fact – which could explain why some of the developments towards the end of the novel didn’t completely convince me.

Edmund Fleetwood, who plays such a major role in the novel, is a fictional character and the author has created a fictional story for him running alongside Sarah’s. I thought the two stories worked well together – I did like Edmund and I shared his frustration as Sarah repeatedly refused to provide any information which could have helped her defence – but there were times when I felt I was being distracted from the central plot and I just wanted to get back to Sarah in the Newgate. The portrayal of prison life is one of the novel’s strong points and reminded me of other prison-based historical novels such as Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.

The most interesting aspect of the book, though, is the exploration of what it meant to be a woman accused of a crime in the 19th century: the unfairness of the law, the way in which evidence against a woman was considered, the possible bias that could arise from a verdict being reached by an all-male jury, and whether the punishments handed out were in proportion to the crime. The fact that many of these women had children – like Sarah’s little boy, George – added another complication. Sarah is lucky enough to have a sister, Rosina, who takes care of George while she is in prison, but what will happen to him if the worst happens and she can never come home?

The Unseeing is an interesting blend of fact and fiction; I did enjoy it, but I felt that there wasn’t enough to make this book stand out from others of its type. I couldn’t quite love it, but I liked it and will be looking out for more from Anna Mazzola.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Echo of Twilight by Judith Kinghorn

the-echo-of-twilight It’s 1914 and Pearl Gibson, a young woman in her twenties, is about to take up a new position as lady’s maid. Her new employer, Ottoline Campbell, has estates in Northumberland and Scotland, which means Pearl will have to leave London and move north. She’s prepared to do this, however, because it’s not as if she has much to leave behind – her relationship with her boyfriend, Stanley, already seems to be fizzling out, and she has no other friends or family. Her mother killed herself just after Pearl’s birth and Pearl was raised by a great-aunt who is also now dead.

Spending the summer at Delnasay, the Campbells’ house in the Scottish Highlands, Pearl gradually settles into her new job and her new life. Although the other servants view her as proud and superior at first, she slowly wins them over, and at the same time she starts to form a close friendship with Ottoline. It seems that both Pearl and Ottoline are hiding secrets and as the bond between them strengthens, they begin to confide in each other more and more.

Meanwhile, the trouble which has been brewing in Europe throughout the year has escalated into war and the family return to England, hoping they will be safe at Birling Hall, their other estate in Warkworth, Northumberland. Ottoline’s two sons, Billy and Hugo, both enlist and are soon on their way to France, while Pearl also has someone to pray for: Ralph Stedman, an artist with whom she embarked on a new romance during her time in Scotland and who has also gone to war. All of this takes place just in the first half of the novel; there are plenty of other surprises and revelations to follow as Pearl and Ottoline learn more about each other – and as the war progresses, changing the lives of all of our characters forever.

Pearl, the novel’s narrator, is an interesting and complex character. I was intrigued by her habit of pretending to be other people, introducing herself to strangers as Tess Durbeyfield, Mrs Gaskell and even Ottoline Campbell herself…anybody but Pearl Gibson. I was happy, though, that by the end of the novel we’d had a chance to get to know the real Pearl. Ottoline was also a fascinating character, but I felt that she remained more of an enigma.

The Echo of Twilight is Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel. I loved her first, The Last Summer, was slightly less impressed by the second, The Memory of Lost Senses, and haven’t yet read her third, The Snow Globe. This one sounded appealing to me as it is set during the same time period as The Last Summer – and although the stories are quite different, the two books do share some similar themes. The impact of war, not just on those who are fighting in it, but also on the people left behind, is an important part of both novels. We see how, with so many young men lost from the British workforce, women had to take on what would previously have been considered ‘jobs for men’, and how, once the war was over, the social structure had changed so much that the running of large estates like Delnasay and Birling tended not to be sustainable.

The Echo of Twilight is an easy read – the sort where the pages seem to fly by effortlessly – and a beautifully written one. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance at the heart of the novel and didn’t sense a lot of chemistry there, there were enough other aspects that I did like to make up for that. It’s not just a romance; it’s also a lovely, moving story about a young woman trying to find her place in the world.

Thanks to the publisher Canelo for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

first-of-the-tudors Yes, I’ve been reading yet another Wars of the Roses novel! One of the things I’m enjoying about reading so many books set in the same time period is seeing the variety of ways in which different authors choose to approach the same subject as they search for a new angle and some fresh insights. In First of the Tudors, Joanna Hickson takes us right back to the early days of the conflict and the beginnings, more or less, of the Tudor dynasty to tell the story of Jasper Tudor, uncle of the future Henry VII.

As the sons of Welshman Owen Tudor and Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois, Jasper and Edmund Tudor are half-brothers to Henry VI, who is King of England as the novel opens in 1451.  Being closely related to royalty but with no real claim to the throne for themselves, Edmund and Jasper are welcomed to court by Henry who rewards them with lands and titles, making Edmund Earl of Richmond and Jasper Earl of Pembroke. Edmund also wins the hand in marriage of Margaret Beaufort, which is seen as a great accomplishment as Margaret, despite being little more than a child, has royal blood and is one of England’s richest heiresses.

When Edmund dies at Carmarthen Castle in 1456, possibly of bubonic plague, he leaves Margaret pregnant with his child. The baby, when it is born, is named Henry and is taken into Jasper’s care (before later being placed in the custody of the Yorkist William Herbert). As the years go by and Henry grows into a man, Jasper is occupied with looking after his estates, trying to keep the peace in Wales and supporting his brother the king as unrest grows and the country heads towards civil war. Based closely on historical fact, we see all of this through Jasper’s eyes, as he narrates his own story in his own words.

But there’s also a fictional story, built around the idea that Jasper had a cousin, Sian (or Jane) Hywel, who became his mistress. There is no historical basis for this, but it is known that Jasper did have illegitimate children, so I have no problem with Joanna Hickson inventing the character of Jane, especially as she makes clear in her author’s note which parts of the novel were factual and which weren’t. However, I felt that too much time was devoted to Jane – she narrates around half of the book – and I would have preferred to concentrate more on Jasper and the other historical figures. This is just my personal opinion, though, and I’m sure other readers will like the domestic scenes and the love story more than I did.

I’ve always found Jasper Tudor intriguing, maybe partly because he tends to be overshadowed in historical fiction by other, more well-known characters. I had been looking forward to seeing him take centre stage for once, but I didn’t really find his portrayal in this novel entirely convincing. I can’t quite explain why, other than to say that his narrative voice was almost identical to Jane’s and that I could never fully believe in him as a 15th century man. I did like the portrayal of Margaret Beaufort, however, which made her seem slightly more endearing than in other fictional portrayals I’ve read! I also enjoyed the focus on Wales, the descriptions of the Welsh castles and the Welsh people who played a part in this fascinating period of history – one secondary character whom I found particularly interesting was the poet Lewys Glyn Cothi.

First of the Tudors ends abruptly, leaving the feeling that there is much more of this story still to come, and the author’s note confirmed what I had already expected: there will be a sequel and Henry Tudor will take more of a central role in that one. If you’ve never read Joanna Hickson before you may also be interested in The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride, which tell the story of Catherine of Valois, or Red Rose, White Rose, the Wars of the Roses from Cicely Neville’s perspective.

Thanks to the publisher HarperCollins for providing a review copy via NetGalley.