Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace This is only the second book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. The first was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in December 2012 and loved; thinking about which one to read next, Alias Grace sounded the most appealing to me but it wasn’t until it was selected for my Ten From the TBR project last month that I actually got round to reading it.

Alias Grace is a work of fiction based on a true story: the story of Grace Marks, a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1840s Canada. Grace (who was only sixteen at the time) and her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, were accused of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace has been in the Kingston Penitentiary for fifteen years when Simon Jordan, a doctor with an interest in criminal behaviour, decides to visit her as part of his research.

Although Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, she does have plenty of other memories which she gradually shares with Dr Jordan: her childhood in Ireland, her journey across the Atlantic and arrival in Canada, her first job as a maid and her friendship with a girl called Mary Whitney – and finally, the time she spent in Kinnear’s household prior to the murders.

As Dr Jordan listens to her story unfold, he tries to make up his mind about Grace. Is she being completely honest with him? Is she really guilty of the crimes of which she has been accused? Margaret Atwood doesn’t offer any answers here; it is left up to the reader to decide – but proving Grace’s guilt or innocence is not really the point of this book. Grace’s life story is interesting in itself, giving us some insights into what it was like to be an Irish immigrant in the 19th century, and the novel also explores attitudes towards women and towards mental illness at that time.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Grace Marks really existed but although Atwood states in her author’s note that she has not changed any of the known facts regarding the murder case, there were enough gaps in the records to allow her to invent parts of the story. Simon Jordan is a fictional character, but his inclusion in the novel adds another perspective – and also another layer, because we can never be sure whether Grace is telling him the truth or just saying what she thinks he would like to hear. Hannah Kent uses a similar device in Burial Rites and as I read, I did keep being reminded of Burial Rites (although Alias Grace was published first, of course).

I loved Alias Grace, but it’s a very different type of book from The Handmaid’s Tale, which has made me curious about the rest of Margaret Atwood’s novels. Which one do you think I should read next?

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest This is the second play I’ve read this month as part of my personal challenge to read the three on my Classics Club list during June. I’m really regretting my previous reluctance to read plays because it has meant that until now I’ve been missing out on some great ones like The Importance of Being Earnest. It was silly of me to keep avoiding this particular play, because I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Canterville Ghost, A House of Pomegranates and two more of his short stories); why did I assume I wouldn’t enjoy this one too?

At the beginning of the play, Algernon Moncrieff is being visited at his London home by his friend, Jack Worthing, whom he has always known as Ernest. Jack is from Hertfordshire, where he is guardian to eighteen-year-old Cecily Cardew, whose grandfather found and adopted Jack as a boy. When Algernon finds a cigarette case inscribed to ‘Uncle Jack’ from ‘Little Cecily’, Jack is forced to admit that his name isn’t really Ernest – Ernest is a fictional brother he has invented so that he can escape from Hertfordshire from time to time with the excuse that his brother is in trouble and needs his help.

Algernon then confesses that he has also created an imaginary friend – an invalid called Bunbury who conveniently summons Algernon to his deathbed whenever he needs to get away from his responsibilities in London for a while. Leading double lives (which Algernon refers to as ‘Bunburying’) has so far been very successful for both men, but this is about to change when Algernon falls in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, and Jack falls in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen – two women who are each determined to marry a man called Ernest.

Things quickly become very complicated from now on, with the action moving to Jack’s country estate where a series of misunderstandings, deceptions and mistaken identities follow. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot than I already have because I’m sure there are other people out there who still haven’t read or seen this play and I would hate to spoil the fun for you. And this is a fun play to read. I think Oscar Wilde’s famous humour and wit come across particularly well in the play format; even when reading it on the page it’s easy to imagine the lines being spoken aloud.

Some of the best lines go to Lady Bracknell, one of the ‘formidable aunt’ type characters you so often find in fiction. Although this is the first time I’ve read The Importance of Being Earnest in its entirety, I do remember reading the famous handbag scene at school. I was looking forward to reaching that part and fortunately it is in the first Act so I didn’t have too long to wait; it was lovely to finally be able to read it in its proper context!

There’s obviously a lot more I could have said about this wonderful play, about its themes, its characters and its use of language, but I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping this post short. I have another play to go and read!

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted Naomi Novik is best known for her Temeraire series set during an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons are used in aerial combat. After reading the first Temeraire book in March I was delighted when I unexpectedly received a review copy of Novik’s new novel. While Uprooted is not a Temeraire story, it does have a Dragon…but not of the winged, fire-breathing variety. The Dragon in Uprooted is a wizard – the most powerful wizard in the kingdom. Which kingdom? Well, we aren’t really told, but it does resemble Poland in the 16th century.

Our narrator, Agnieszka, lives in Dvernik, a village on the edge of a dark and sinister forest known only as the Wood. The villagers rely on the Dragon to defend them from the horrors that lurk in the Wood, but his protection comes at a price: every ten years the Dragon selects a seventeen-year-old girl from the village and takes her away to live with him in his tower. Nobody knows what happens to the girls during their time with the Dragon, but when they return ten years later they have changed and are unwilling to go back to their old lives in the village.

The year Agnieszka turns seventeen is a Dragon-year and she waits anxiously with the other girls her age while he makes his choice. Everyone thinks it will be the beautiful Kasia, Agnieszka’s best friend, but the Dragon has other ideas and it is Agnieszka herself who ends up in his tower. At first she has no idea what the Dragon wants from her and spends most of her time trying to avoid him, but it’s not long before she discovers why she was chosen. As Agnieszka learns more about the wizard and his magic, the evil forces within the Wood continue to grow stronger and soon she and the Dragon must work together to save the kingdom.

Uprooted is a wonderfully imaginative fantasy novel. When I first began to read, I thought it felt like a fairy tale retelling – there were definitely some elements of Beauty and the Beast as well as some references to Eastern European folklore – but very soon it started to develop into something original and different. There was a lot to love about the book and although it wasn’t as flawlessly brilliant as it seemed to be at first, I would highly recommend it both to fantasy fans and to those like me who only dip into fantasy occasionally.

I found the ways in which magic is used in the novel particularly interesting, as there are so many different types performed by the Dragon and various other characters. These range from the Dragon’s meticulous, almost scientific methods to the more natural, instinctive magic found in the old spellbooks of the great witch, Jaga. Agnieszka learns a lot about magic while living in the Dragon’s tower; it was fascinating and I was slightly disappointed when the scope of the story broadened and the action moved first to court and then to other parts of the kingdom.

The relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon is well written, particularly in the first half of the book, but a lot of time is also spent on exploring the strong female friendship between Agnieska and her best friend, Kasia. There’s also a romantic thread to the story but this does not form a big part of the plot, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about romance. Personally I would have liked this aspect of the novel to have been developed in a little bit more depth as it seemed to be neglected halfway through as a very long and drawn out magical battle took centre stage instead.

The most memorable thing about Uprooted, though, was the role played by the Wood. When people talk about books, they often say that the setting felt almost like a character. With this book, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the setting really is a character. The Wood is portrayed as not just a collection of trees, but as a strong evil presence – an intelligent living entity with thoughts, feelings and desires. I found it genuinely creepy and menacing and the fact that it isn’t human makes it an unforgettable fantasy villain.

I’m not sure whether Naomi Novik is going to write more books set in this world. There is the potential for more, but the way Uprooted ended suggests that it will remain a standalone. Either way I’m happy – and I still have the rest of the Temeraire series to read!

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

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.

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.

The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island Last year I read The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s novel about life on a sugar plantation in 19th century Jamaica. Small Island is a very different book and didn’t initially sound as appealing to me, but now that I’ve read both, this is definitely my favourite of the two.

Set in London in 1948 but with flashbacks to other times and places, Small Island follows the story of two couples, one British (Queenie and Bernard) and one Jamaican (Hortense and Gilbert). After a brief prologue, the first character we get to know is Hortense. Having been raised by her father’s rich relatives, Hortense is a well-mannered and well-educated young Jamaican woman. With Jamaica still a British colony (it wouldn’t gain independence until 1962), Hortense is desperate to see the ‘mother country’ she has heard so much about and when she marries Gilbert Joseph she has a chance to do just that.

Gilbert, who had volunteered with the RAF during World War II, has found it difficult to settle back into life in Jamaica and is planning to return to Britain where he believes there will be more opportunities. Arriving in London, he rents a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh, a white Englishwoman he previously met during the war, and Hortense joins him there a few months later. Queenie’s husband, Bernard, also in the RAF, has still not returned from the war, and Queenie has been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills. But when Bernard finally does come home, he is not at all pleased to find black people living in his house.

Through the eyes of these four very different men and women we watch the stories of life on two ‘small islands’ unfold – Britain and Jamaica. From the perspectives of Hortense and Gilbert we share the disappointment and bewilderment of two immigrants discovering that their new country is not quite what they had expected and facing a level of prejudice and discrimination they were unprepared for. In Bernard and Queenie we see how the attitudes of the white British people towards black immigrants range from overt racism and intolerance in Bernard’s case to a more open-minded attitude in Queenie’s (sadly most of the people Hortense and Gilbert meet tend to share Bernard’s views rather than Queenie’s). While things have changed a lot since the 1940s, these are obviously issues that are still important and relevant today, and it was interesting to read four such different points of view.

I was impressed by the way Levy manages to give each character a distinctive voice of his or her own (though I shouldn’t have been surprised after reading The Long Song, which also has a protagonist with a very strong narrative voice). The book is structured so that each of the four has a chance to narrate their part of the story, going back into the past to talk about their childhood and their experiences before and during the war. My favourite character was Gilbert, though I did enjoy the sections narrated by Queenie and Hortense too. I found Bernard’s section the least interesting, not just because I didn’t like him, but also because the story of his wartime experiences in India didn’t feel very relevant to the rest of the novel.

Apart from being bored with Bernard’s story, my only other problem was the ending, which I thought relied too heavily on coincidences to bring the novel to its conclusion. Other than that, I loved this book! I know Andrea Levy has written three other novels as well as Small Island and The Long Song, and although I haven’t heard much about any of them I do want to investigate at some point.

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