The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

This is Natasha Pulley’s second novel. I remember seeing lots of very positive reviews of her first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a year or two ago and thinking it sounded interesting. I never got round to reading that book, but when I heard about her new one, The Bedlam Stacks – which sounded just as intriguing – I decided to give it a try.

Set mainly in Peru in 1860, The Bedlam Stacks is narrated by Merrick Tremayne, a former opium smuggler and an expert in botany. Confined to his family estate in Cornwall due to a leg injury, Merrick is trying to come to terms with the fact that he will now have to put his adventuring days behind him and find something else to do with his life. Just as he is beginning to lose hope, his old friend Clem Markham arrives with a request from Merrick’s former employers, the East India Company. To tackle the problem of treating malaria in India, a supply of quinine is urgently needed – and Merrick’s expertise with plants makes him the ideal person to travel with Clem to Peru to take cuttings of the quinine-rich cinchona tree.

At first Merrick is reluctant to agree, knowing that his disability will make it difficult for him to travel through dangerous terrain – not to mention the fact that the Peruvians have a monopoly on the trees and are not about to let anyone else steal them. The alternative, though, is to stay at home and follow his brother’s suggestion of becoming a parson, so it doesn’t take him long to reach a decision! Venturing into the uncharted depths of Peru, Merrick and Clem finally arrive in the holy town of Bedlam, a place where the boundaries between magic and reality begin to merge.

The magical realism elements in The Bedlam Stacks are much more dominant than I had expected. There are moving statues, exploding trees and several other surprises which I will leave you to discover for yourself! This wasn’t really to my taste – I think I would have found it just as enjoyable to read a novel about an expedition to Peru that was based entirely on fact, without the touches of fantasy – but it was certainly imaginative and original. I did love the concept of the Markayuq statues, which apparently really exist and are still found in the countryside in Peru, originally thought to be guarding the villages. Natasha Pulley finds a clever and fascinating way to incorporate these into the story, but again I don’t want to say too much.

The sense of place is very strong – there are some wonderful descriptions of the Peruvian landscape as well as vivid accounts of more practical considerations such as the altitude sickness experienced during the journey – but I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a stronger sense of the time period. Neither Merrick’s narrative voice nor the dialogue between the characters felt convincingly Victorian to me; the choice of words and phrases, the grammar and the structure of sentences just weren’t right for the 19th century. I’m aware, though, that I can be a bit pedantic about anachronistic language used in historical novels and I know it’s not something that bothers everyone!

I did find a lot to enjoy in The Bedlam Stacks, although I’m sorry that I couldn’t quite manage to love it. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for Natasha Pulley’s books, but I’m still glad I’ve tried this one – even if not everything worked for me, I can understand the appeal!

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff is probably best known as a children’s author, but she also wrote several novels for adults and Blood and Sand, published in 1987, is one of them.

Blood and Sand is based on the true story of Thomas Keith, a Scottish soldier serving in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Taking part in the Alexandria expedition of 1807 – an operation designed to capture the city of Alexandria in Egypt – Thomas is taken prisoner by Ottoman forces at El Hamed. Most of his fellow captives are sent back to Cairo as prisoners of war, but the Ottoman general in command of El Hamed has other plans for Thomas, who is ‘an extremely personable young soldier who speaks French, knows how to bear pain like a gentleman, and is the best swordsman and shot in his regiment’. Sent to train in the desert with the Bedouin cavalry, Thomas gradually rises through the ranks to enter the service of Tussun Bey, the Viceroy of Egypt’s youngest son, and to become Governor of Medina.

You may be wondering how it was possible for a Christian to reach such heights within the Ottoman Empire, so I should explain that Thomas makes the decision to convert to Islam. He does this partly because he is advised that it is the only way to progress in his military career but also because during his time as a prisoner he reads about and studies the Islamic religion and decides that conversion is something he feels comfortable with. However, it seemed to me that he made this choice a bit too easily and quickly; I would have found it more convincing if he had struggled with it more and if he had thought more often of the life he had left behind in Edinburgh and to which he would now never be able to return.

As far as I can tell – I had never heard of Thomas Keith until reading this book – most of the characters in the novel really did exist and most of the events described really did happen. This certainly seems to be true of the battles and military campaigns, but also two of the novel’s most exciting and memorable scenes: a dramatic duel and a desperate battle for survival on a dark turnpike stair. Of course, it’s Sutcliff’s skill as a writer which brings these scenes to life and fills them with suspense and tension, but it sounds as though the real Thomas Keith must have had a fascinating career and some hair-raising adventures. It’s surprising that he has not been a more popular subject for historical fiction.

In her author’s note Sutcliff says that the only area where she relies completely on her imagination is with the romance she creates for Thomas. This possibly explains why our hero’s love interest doesn’t appear until halfway through the book and only plays a relatively small role in the story. A much more interesting and moving relationship is the one between Thomas and Tussun, the Viceroy’s son – a relationship which develops over the years as Tussun grows from an impulsive, hot-headed teenager into a mature, well-respected leader and although it stops short of actual romantic love, is deeper than a normal friendship.

I enjoyed the first half of the novel very much, but later in the book Thomas and Tussun become embroiled in fighting against the Wahabis of Arabia and the heavy focus on military action was much less interesting to me than the more human story I had been finding so engrossing. That’s just my personal taste, though, and the battle scenes will probably appeal to other readers more than they did to me. I didn’t love this book quite as much as I’d thought I was going to at first, then, but I will certainly be reading more by Rosemary Sutcliff, having enjoyed both this one and The Rider of the White Horse.

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

This is book number six in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I enjoyed the previous one so much I thought it would be a difficult act to follow, but I actually found this one just as good – and maybe even better. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, I would recommend beginning with the first of the series, Master and Commander, and saving this review until you’ve caught up; otherwise, although I have tried to avoid too many spoilers in this post, you may come across something you would prefer not to know just yet.

The Fortune of War picks up the story shortly after Desolation Island ended. With his ship HMS Leopard declared unfit, Jack receives orders to return to England to take command of a forty-gun frigate, the Acasta. He and Stephen Maturin, accompanied by several other members of the crew, begin the long journey home as passengers on the courier ship La Flèche. Early in the voyage, however, they learn that war has broken out between Britain and America – the War of 1812 – and following a series of disasters, they are taken prisoner and find themselves brought to Boston, which is now enemy territory. At first, despite being wounded in the arm, Jack is not too worried; he’s sure there will be an exchange of prisoners soon and then they can be on their way again. The Americans, though, are convinced that there had been a spy on board the Leopard and are not about to let their suspects escape so easily!

I really enjoyed this book, after an initial panic where I found I couldn’t remember what happened at the end of Desolation Island. I think I need to stop leaving such long gaps between books! Luckily, though, Jack gives a recap to the Admiral in the first chapter and this serves as a reminder for the reader too. Once I settled back into the flow of the story, I loved it, particularly the parts of the novel set in Boston where Stephen’s spying activities come to the forefront. This leads to exciting scenes which are different from anything we’ve read in the series so far.

Stephen also has his long-awaited reunion with Diana Villiers, the woman he loves and who broke his heart at the end of HMS Surprise – but Diana has changed and it seems that his own feelings for her have changed too. Despite his disillusionment I found Diana much easier to like in this book than I did in the earlier ones, although with so much still unresolved by the end, I was left wondering whether they will find any happiness in the next book or whether their relationship will continue down its tempestuous path.

I have stopped worrying about the nautical terminology in these novels. I appreciate the authenticity O’Brian brings to the naval scenes, the level of his research and of course, his writing ability, but I know I’m never going to be able to follow everything that is happening; as long as I can understand the outcome of each battle or manoeuvre I’m happy! I think this must be the first book in the series where Jack has not actually had a ship of his own to command, but he and Stephen still manage to get caught up in two naval actions, both of which are closely based on real events from the War of 1812.

The next book in the series is The Surgeon’s Mate and based on the quality of the last two books I’m really looking forward to it.

Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato

It’s January 1853 and seventeen-year-old Annie Stride is standing on Waterloo Bridge looking down at the River Thames, contemplating suicide. Having grown up in the East End of London as part of a large and impoverished family, Annie has drifted into a life of prostitution. Her only friend, Mary Jane, drowned in the Thames the previous year and now, pregnant and homeless, Annie has decided she has no choice but to do the same. Just as she gets ready to jump from the bridge, she is rescued at the last minute by a handsome young man who introduces himself as Francis Maybrick Gill.

Francis is a talented Pre-Raphaelite artist who is planning a new series of paintings on the subject of the ‘Fallen Woman’ – and he wants Annie to be his model. And so Annie, who had been only moments away from death, finds herself living with Francis in his large and luxurious Gower Street home, posing for portraits of Eve, Rahab and Jezebel. As well as using Annie as his muse, Francis also takes steps to improve her mind, to correct her East End speech and to help her with her reading and writing. She has no idea why he is taking so much interest in her, but she is so grateful she doesn’t care – until late one night two visitors come to call and Annie begins to wonder whether Francis Maybrick Gill is really the man she thought he was.

Crimson and Bone, Marina Fiorato’s latest novel, is divided into three parts and everything I have described above happens in the first part alone. The action also moves away from London for a while to Florence and Venice; Fiorato, who is half-Venetian herself, always writes beautifully about Italy and we are given some lovely, vivid descriptions of the country. The author’s love of art also shines through, with lots of information on the Pre-Raphaelite approach to art, exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the symbolism in the paintings for which Annie models, and, through the character of a mysterious ‘rainbow man’, the origins of the paints and pigments Francis uses.

From the beginning, the reader is kept in the dark as to Francis’s motives. What are his true plans for Annie? Does he really just want to paint her or does he have some other reason for his sudden interest in her? And what is the significance of his obsession with white camellias? A series of diary entries written by Annie’s friend Mary Jane appear at the start of each chapter which eventually shed some light on things, while also raising more questions along the way. It’s obvious that something is not quite right with the whole situation, but we don’t know what or why and the tension builds slowly throughout the novel.

However, there are a few inaccuracies and anachronisms which do spoil the book somewhat – for example, Annie tries to improve her speech by listening to gramophone records (several decades before they would have been available) and is taken to the theatre to see performances of Pygmalion (not staged until 1913) and Adelaide Neilson in Measure for Measure (more than twenty years too early). Admittedly, not knowing anything about Adelaide Neilson, I wasn’t aware of the third one until someone else pointed it out in their review, but it makes me wonder what else I might have been too caught up in the story to notice.

And the fact that I became so caught up in the story and the atmosphere – and that I cared about what happened to Annie – meant that I did enjoy this novel overall, despite its flaws.

This is book 15/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

By Gaslight by Steven Price

Well, this was a long book! Not only does it have over 700 pages, it’s also the sort of book that requires a lot of concentration, which makes it a very slow read. I’ve been reading it for the whole of August, which is one of the reasons why I’m not going to complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge by the deadline now. Was it worth so much time and effort? I’m actually not sure; it wasn’t a complete success with me – there were times when I found myself really enjoying it and others when I couldn’t wait to be finished – but on the whole I think I’m glad I read it.

This is the second novel by Canadian author and poet Steven Price. Set in the 19th century, it follows the stories of two men – William Pinkerton and Adam Foole – who are bound together by tales of a shadowy figure known, appropriately, as Edward Shade. Pinkerton is a famous American detective who is in London assisting Scotland Yard with an investigation into the death of a woman, possibly Charlotte Reckitt, whose severed head has been found in the Thames. He believes Charlotte has links with Edward Shade, an elusive criminal whom his father had devoted twenty years of his life to hunting down, without success. But who is Shade? A real person…a ghost…or just an obsession?

Adam Foole, a thief and swindler, has also recently returned to England with his two accomplices – the giant Japheth Fludd, and Molly, a young pickpocket. Foole has received a letter from a woman he once knew asking for help, but on his arrival in London he is unable to find her. Soon his path will cross with William Pinkerton’s; it seems that both of their fates are linked with Charlotte Reckitt and the mysterious Edward Shade.

By Gaslight takes us on a tour of the darker side of London as Foole and Pinkerton (separately or together) visit Millbank Prison, an opium den, a séance and the underground sewer system. However, there are long interludes set in South Africa and in America during the Civil War and these are essential to understanding the backgrounds to our characters and therefore to understanding the mysteries at the heart of the novel. These sections have quite a different tone from the London parts and, to me, they didn’t really feel as though they belonged in the same book; had the whole novel been devoted to the Civil War or had it been purely a Victorian murder mystery I think I would probably have been happier. This is just my opinion, though, and I’m sure other readers will love the variety of settings and changes in atmosphere.

By Gaslight is the perfect title for this book – not only are gaslights mentioned frequently, the whole novel (or the London chapters, at least) feels misty and murky and everything seems to happen either at night or in the fog and rain. Although most of the action takes place in 1885 and any long flashbacks are usually given their own chapters, eventually the borders between past, present and future start to blur, all adding to the sense of mystery and of facts being hidden or obscured.

The author has also made the decision not to use correct punctuation – commas are used sporadically and quotation marks not at all. Again, whether or not you will feel comfortable with this is a matter of personal taste; you could see it as a clever way of trying to immerse the reader more fully in the fogs and mists of the story or, like me, you could just find it annoying and distracting. I should add, though, that at no point did I actually struggle with it; I could always tell how a sentence was intended to be read and who was speaking to whom.

On the whole, though, this is an atmospheric and unusual novel and, despite the length and my reservations about the writing style, I never thought about abandoning it. It’s unlike any other Victorian novel I’ve read and if anyone else has read it, I would be interested to hear what you thought of it.

Thanks to the publisher, Oneworld Publications, for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 14/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

I really have no idea why I haven’t read this book before now. The Far Pavilions has been one of my favourite books since I was a teenager, but for some reason it just never occurred to me to look into what else M.M. Kaye wrote until recently, when I read two of her Death In… mystery novels. When I saw that Cirtnecce was hosting a readalong of Shadow of the Moon this summer, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try another of Kaye’s historical novels in the hope that I would love it as much as The Far Pavilions!

Shadow of the Moon was originally published in 1957 and revised in 1979. Like The Far Pavilions, it is set in India, but at a slightly earlier time – before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Our heroine, Winter de Ballesteros, is born in Lucknow to an English mother and Spanish father. Orphaned by the age of six, Winter is sent to England to be raised by her great-grandfather, the Earl of Ware, but the country of her birth still holds a special place in her heart and she dreams of returning one day to the Gulab Mahal, the place she considers home.

Winter is eleven when she meets Conway Barton, who is visiting from India, and she is captivated by his good looks and his connection with the country she misses so much. Conway, with his eye on Winter’s fortune, suggests a betrothal, but it is not until six years later that Winter is old enough to go and join him in India for the wedding. Now Commissioner of Lunjore, Conway says that he is far too busy to escort his fiancée across the sea himself, so he sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, in his place. Unknown to Winter, however, her betrothed is no longer the man she thinks he is and has another reason for wanting to delay their meeting. Will the marriage take place or will Alex be able to change her mind during the long voyage to Lunjore?

There’s a romantic aspect to Shadow of the Moon, then, but the historical element is just as important. Cirtnecce has put together two excellent posts (here and here) describing the political landscape in India in 1857, how the country came to be ruled by the British East India Company and the factors leading to the rebellion. All of this is explored in a lot of depth throughout the novel, showing the same impressive level of research and the same understanding and sympathy for India and its people that I remember from The Far Pavilions.

The descriptions of India itself are wonderful and vivid. Whether she’s writing about the streets and bazaars of Lunjore or the relentless heat of summer and the relief of the monsoon, Kaye always chooses just the right words to bring the scene to life. The horrors and atrocities of the Mutiny are also described in vivid detail, although a relatively short portion of the novel is devoted to the actual rebellion and much more to the gradual building of tension, ending in the controversy over the new Enfield rifles which sparked the revolt (the British required the sepoys to use cartridges which were smeared with pork and beef fat, offensive to both Muslims and Hindus).

Lunjore, where much of the action is set, is a fictional district on the borders of Oudh (although it is portrayed so convincingly I had to check to see whether it was a real place or not) but the situation which unfolds there is similar to that being played out elsewhere in India. The British commanding officers are seemingly blind to what is going on around them, refusing to listen to stories of unrest amongst the Indian people and unwilling to doubt the loyalty of their armies. Alex Randall is one of the few exceptions – a man who thinks for himself and who tries to see things from the point of view of others. It’s so frustrating to watch his advice and warnings repeatedly falling on deaf ears as his superiors tell themselves he is worrying about nothing and stubbornly refuse to heed his words.

I found Alex an interesting, complex character, torn between his feelings for Winter and what he sees as his duties and responsibilities towards both the Company and the people of Lunjore. I was particularly intrigued by his relationship with Kishan Prasad – two men who are on ‘opposite sides’ but who each understand what the other is trying to do and under different circumstances might have been friends. With the bridging role he plays between the British and Indian perspectives, Alex often reminded me of Ashton Pelham-Martyn from The Far Pavilions. It took me a bit longer to warm to Winter – I was irritated by her infatuation with Conway and had to keep reminding myself that she was only seventeen!

Whether or not the romance captures your imagination, though, I think there should be something in this novel to interest most readers…the fascinating historical background, the colourful portrait of another time and place or maybe the adventure (plenty of daring escapes, disguises, ambushes and secret meetings by moonlight). I loved it and now I can’t wait to read M.M. Kaye’s other historical novel, Trade Wind, and the rest of the Death In series.

This is book 11/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child was always going to be a hard act to follow and I think my fear that Eowyn Ivey’s second novel would be a disappointment could explain why I’ve been putting off reading it since it was published last year. Including it on my list for the 20 Books of Summer challenge gave me the push that I needed to pick it up and start reading – and I’m pleased to say that, although The Snow Child is still my favourite, there was very little disappointment here!

To the Bright Edge of the World, like Ivey’s first novel, is set in Alaska – but other than that, it’s a very different type of book. It tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester who, in 1885, is commissioned to lead an expedition with the aim of navigating Alaska’s Wolverine River and charting previously unmapped territory. Through a series of journal entries we are able to join Allen and his small group of companions on their journey and are with them every step of the way as they struggle over difficult terrain, face harsh weather and encounter native tribes. It all feels so authentic that you could easily believe Allen Forrester was a real person and these were his real diaries – actually, he is a fictional character but it seems that Eowyn Ivey based him on a real-life explorer, Lieutenant Henry T. Allen, who led an expedition in that same year up the Copper River (reimagined as the ‘Wolverine River’ in the novel).

Although this book does not have the fairy tale feel of The Snow Child and is much more grounded in reality, myth and folklore still play an important part in the story. As they make their way up the Wolverine River, Allen and his men are followed by an Old Man who is said to be able to fly and are joined by a woman called Nat’aaggi who believes that her husband was an otter.

– They believe it is a thin line separates animal and man, Samuelson said. – They hold that some can walk back & forth over that line, here a man, there a beast.

This is not just Allen’s story, however. It is also the story of Sophie, his wife, who had hoped to join her husband on his adventures but had to settle for being left behind at Vancouver Barracks. Desperately awaiting news, with no way of knowing if Allen is even alive or dead, it’s going to be difficult for Sophie to get through the months ahead. Looking for something to fill her days, she decides to take up photography and develops a passion for her new hobby, going to ever greater lengths to capture photographs of the wildlife and birds she sees around the barracks.

Sophie also keeps a journal, recording her thoughts and feelings so that she can share them with her husband when he returns, and these two journals – Sophie’s and Allen’s – form the bulk of the novel, one set of entries alternating with the other. I was interested in both and although Allen’s may sound much more exciting, I had no preference for one over the other. There were some passages from each journal that I found slightly tedious or where I felt that things were being dragged out for too long, but a few pages later I would be pulled back into the story again. I liked both characters, so that helped!

The 19th century stories of Allen and Sophie are interspersed with contemporary letters exchanged between Walter Forrester, their great-nephew, and Josh Sloan, the curator of a museum in Alaska. Walter has decided to make a gift of the Forrester journals and the other artefacts from the expedition to the museum – and we are given the opportunity to see some of these artefacts, which include photographs, illustrations, newspaper reports and fragments of documents. These are not always presented in chronological order, which is sometimes confusing, but it gives the overall effect of looking through a scrapbook or somebody’s private collection of memorabilia. It was also nice to watch a friendship developing between Walt and Josh, two men of different generations and backgrounds, living many miles apart.

Not knowing very much about Alaska and its history, I feel that I’ve learned a lot from this novel, as well as being entertained by a fascinating story.

This is book 9/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.