Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

As some of you may know, I am currently working my way through all of the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. Allan Massie’s End Games in Bordeaux appeared on the 2016 list, but on discovering that it was the final book in a series of four, I was faced with a dilemma: should I just read the book that I needed to read for the prize or should I do as I usually prefer to do and start from the beginning of the series? In the end I decided to at least try the first book, Death in Bordeaux, in the hope that I would enjoy it enough to want to read the other three anyway.

The novel opens in Bordeaux in March 1940, with Superintendent Jean Lannes investigating the death of an old friend, Gaston Chambolley, whose mutilated body has been found in a street near the railway station. Gaston was homosexual and Lannes’s superiors are happy to assume that this was some sort of sex crime, but Lannes himself is sure there must be another explanation. The dead man’s sister-in-law has gone missing after becoming caught up in the political intrigue surrounding the Spanish Civil War, but as soon as Lannes suggests that her disappearance could be linked in some way with Gaston’s murder, he is ordered to drop his investigations immediately. Lannes, however, knows that he won’t be able to rest until he finds out who killed his friend and why.

In a seemingly unrelated case, he is also called in to help the elderly Comte de Grimaud identify the sender of some threatening letters he has received. As he gets to know the various members of the Comte’s dysfunctional family, Lannes begins to uncover some links with the other case he is working on – and that is all I will say about the plot, as it quickly becomes quite complex and I couldn’t go any further without spoiling the story.

All of this unfolds during the early stages of World War II – a period in which, at first, very little seems to be happening despite France having declared war on Germany. Soon, though, France becomes occupied, refugees from Paris begin to arrive in Bordeaux, and Lannes and his wife become increasingly afraid for their eldest son, Dominique, who is at the Front. While the author does provide a lot of historical detail, describing the major events and political decisions, and setting the story in its context, the focus is always on how the war is affecting the lives of our main characters: Lannes’ wife, Marguerite, writes letters to Dominique which she knows she’ll never send; their younger children, Alain and Clothilde, try to decide how they feel about the occupation of their country; and Alain’s new Jewish friend, Léon, wonders for how much longer he will be safe in France.

By the end of the novel, the war is still in progress and the personal stories of the characters mentioned above (and many others) have not been resolved. I believe that in the next book in the series, Dark Summer in Bordeaux, we rejoin some of the characters introduced in this one, so for that reason I’m glad I decided to start at the beginning. I can’t say that I loved this book – I found it slow and a bit too drawn out in places and it didn’t really work for me as a murder mystery. As a portrayal of life in Occupied France, though, it is an interesting, quietly atmospheric read. I liked it enough to want to continue with the second novel – and hopefully then the third and the fourth.

This is Book #3 for the R.I.P. XII challenge.

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A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

It’s been a few years since I last read a Susanna Kearsley book and as I still have two or three left to read I decided to include her most recent, A Desperate Fortune, on my 20 Books of Summer list. There are some connections between this book and her previous one, The Firebird, but they both stand alone and it’s not necessary to read them in order.

Like many of Kearsley’s novels, A Desperate Fortune is set in two different time periods. First, in the modern day, we meet Sara Thomas, a young woman with a special talent for solving mathematical puzzles and breaking codes. Sara also has Asperger’s and relies on the friendship and support of her cousin Jacqui. Jacqui works in the publishing business and when one of her authors, the historian Alistair Scott, asks for help in deciphering a journal written in code, it is Sara who gets the job.

The other thread of the novel takes place in 1732 and follows the story of the diary-writer, twenty-one-year-old Mary Dundas, who is half French and half Scottish. Mary’s family are Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James Stuart, who they believe is the rightful King James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Setting off on a journey across France with her brother Nicolas one day, Mary has no idea what he has planned for her, and is shocked to find herself caught up in a plot to protect a fellow Jacobite who is on the run from the law. Her diary tells of the lengths she goes to, the disguises she adopts and the dangers she faces in trying to conceal her companion’s true identity.

These two storylines alternate throughout the book, so that we read several entries from Mary’s journal, followed by Sara’s experiences in decoding it. Both women are interesting characters – and there are a few parallels between the two – but I found Mary’s story much more gripping and couldn’t help thinking that it would have worked just as well on its own without Sara’s framing it. There’s a romance for each woman too, but again, it was Mary’s that I found most convincing; although I did like Sara’s love interest, it all seemed to happen too quickly and too conveniently.

It was interesting to revisit the subject of the Jacobites, who also feature in The Firebird – although the two books explore the topic from very different perspectives, with this one being set in France and the other in Russia. The author’s note at the end of the book is long and comprehensive, discussing some of the choices made in writing this novel and explaining which parts of the story are based on fact and which are fictional. I was surprised to see how many of the characters I’d assumed were purely imaginary were actually inspired by real people!

I did enjoy A Desperate Fortune, though not as much as most of the other Susanna Kearsley novels I’ve read. My favourites seem to be the ones with supernatural elements, such as The Firebird, The Rose Garden and Mariana. I always like Kearsley’s writing style, though – there’s something so comforting about it, so easy and effortless to read. It’s the same feeling that I get when I pick up a book by Mary Stewart. I’m looking forward now to reading my remaining two Kearsley novels, The Shadowy Horses and Sophia’s Secret (the UK title for The Winter Sea).

This is book 12/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m aiming for 15 now, I think – anything over that will be a bonus!)

A French Trio: Mediterranean Summer; Eugenie; A Week in Paris

Coincidentally, three of my recent reads have been set in France, so I thought I would combine my thoughts on them into one French-themed post. It’s a good way for me to get through my review backlog too!

Mediterranean Summer by Jane MacKenzie was a nice surprise; a book I knew nothing about, by an author I’d never come across before, but one that I ended up really enjoying. It tells the story of Laure, a young art student who finds herself caught up in the excitement of the 1968 student demonstrations at her university in Paris. When the rebellion is over, with her future as an artist in doubt due to her involvement in the protests, Laure returns home for the summer to her parents’ house in the Mediterranean village of Vermeilla. Here, in the small Catalan community of her childhood, she is reacquainted with old friends as well as making new ones – and with the help of Robert, a lawyer, she begins to search for a way to rescue her career.

This is a lovely summer read; the descriptions of the fictional Vermeilla and the surrounding area are so beautiful I wished I could go and spend the rest of the summer there myself! There’s an interesting selection of characters to get to know too, mostly very likeable, but with one or two who could be considered villains. As for the historical background, I knew almost nothing about the Paris student protests in the 1960s, so I learned something new there, and I was also interested to read about the Nobel dynamite factory in Paulilles and the shocking lack of regard for the health and safety of the employees. I loved Mediterranean Summer and would be happy to try Jane MacKenzie’s previous novels.

The next book I want to talk about takes us further back in time, to the French Revolution. Published in 1917 (originally titled The Third Estate), Eugenie by Marjorie Bowen introduces us to two sisters, Eugenie and Pélagie Haultpenne. Pélagie, the eldest, is heiress to a fortune and, at the beginning of the book, is engaged to a handsome young nobleman, the Marquis de Sarcey. As soon as the Marquis sees her beautiful sister Eugenie, however, Pélagie is forgotten. Can he find a way to be with Eugenie without giving up his claim to the Haultpenne fortune?

I have read a few of Marjorie Bowen’s other historical novels and have found them to vary widely in style and quality. This is not one of the better ones, but despite the off-putting cover, it’s still an entertaining read. The historical aspect of the story is interesting; it focuses less on the Revolution itself than on the factors leading to it, such as the Estates General and the role of the Comte de Mirabeau. This is a novel that you would read more for the plot than because you wanted to learn some history, though. It reminded me slightly of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase; it’s fun, as long as you don’t mind lots of melodrama, swooning heroines and an anti-hero who is “a creature expert in every vice, used to every dishonour, useless, arrogant, a parasite on the labour of others!”

Finally, I read A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore, a dual timeline novel. One thread of the story is set in 1961 and follows music student Fay Knox who is in Paris for a week with her orchestra. Fay has grown up knowing very little about her early childhood as her mother refuses to talk about it or to tell her what happened to her father, other than that he was killed during the war. However, when memories start coming back to her, she has reason to believe that the first years of her life may have been spent in France. Over the course of her week in Paris, Fay decides to find out the truth about her past – and is shocked by what she discovers. Meanwhile, she is reacquainted with an old friend, Adam, but could he also be hiding secrets?

The other storyline is written from the perspective of Fay’s mother, Kitty, who falls in love with Gene, an American doctor, during World War II. The two end up trapped in occupied Paris – and their actions during this period will have consequences that live on into the next generation.

I found this an enjoyable novel, after a slow start, though not as good as similar books by other authors such as Lucinda Riley or Susanna Kearsley. The 1940s storyline is much more engaging than the 1960s one, not just because of the drama of the war itself, but also because the romance between Kitty and Gene is more convincing than the one between Fay and Adam (and less reliant on coincidence and chance meetings). I really cared about what happened to the wartime characters and was gripped by the details of life in a city under Nazi occupation, but I wouldn’t have minded if the framing story involving Fay had been left out altogether.

Three very different books, but I found different things to like about all of them!

Thanks to Jane MacKenzie for the copy of Mediterranean Summer; the other two were both taken from the outstanding titles on my NetGalley shelf.

Mata Hari by Michelle Moran

So far my feelings about Michelle Moran’s novels have been very mixed. Cleopatra’s Daughter was interesting, but felt too light and insubstantial, The Second Empress was much better, but I had one or two problems again with Rebel Queen. I had hoped Mata Hari (also published as Mata Hari’s Last Dance) would be another good one, but unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of the four that I’ve read.

Before I read this book, all I knew about Mata Hari was that she was an exotic dancer who was accused of spying during the First World War. I felt sure that she must have been a fascinating woman and I was looking forward to learning more about her. And I did learn a lot from this novel. Mata Hari narrates her story (fictional, but based on fact) in her own words and tells us all about her dancing career, her experiences of life in European cities such as Paris and Berlin, and her many romantic relationships, including several with military personnel which led to her being accused of passing secrets to Germany.

However, I wanted to get to know the woman behind the newspaper headlines and the seductive costumes – Margaretha Zelle, or M’greet as she is called in the novel – and although she does confide in us now and then about her childhood in the Netherlands (she did not come from an Indian background, as she tried to claim), her time in Java during her unhappy marriage to Rudolf MacLeod and her heartbreak at the loss of her children, I never felt very close to Mata Hari and didn’t gain a very good understanding of the person she really was.

The one aspect of Mata Hari’s life that Moran does successfully capture is her loneliness; I didn’t like her and had very little sympathy for her as she seemed so immature and selfish, but I could see that she was not a happy person and that her character had been shaped by her earlier experiences. The descriptions of Mata Hari’s various dances are also well done, particularly one that she performs with a live snake while dressed as Cleopatra. The novel is strangely lacking in period detail, though, and apart from the obvious references to the war and to other famous people of the time – her rival dancer, Isadora Duncan, for example – I didn’t feel that there was much sense of time or place at all.

The book is also disappointingly short, with under 300 pages in the edition I read. If you just want a basic overview of Mata Hari’s life and career, it’s perfectly adequate, but for something deeper you will need to look elsewhere. The section of the novel covering her spying activities is very brief and feels almost like an afterthought, which is a shame as this is the part of the story which should have been the most interesting. Even on finishing the book, I’m not completely clear on what we are supposed to assume; was Mata Hari really a spy or was she just someone who had made some poor decisions and been carried along by events outside her control? To be honest, long before we reached this point I had lost interest anyway and had already decided that I would need to look for another book on Mata Hari one day. Has anyone read The Spy by Paulo Coelho?

The Empress of Hearts by E. Barrington

The Empress of Hearts was originally published in 1928 and was one of several historical novels written by E. Barrington (a pseudonym of Elizabeth Louisa Moresby, who also wrote under the name Lily Adams Beck).  It is described on the cover as “a romance of Marie Antoinette”, but I think that description is slightly misleading.  Marie Antoinette does appear in the novel as a major character, but the focus is really on the scandal known as The Affair of the Diamond Necklace which was thought to be a factor leading to the French Revolution.    
  
The story centres around a diamond necklace created by the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge, commissioned by Louis XV of France in 1772 as a gift for his mistress, Madame du Barry.  However, by the time the necklace is ready to be sold to the King, Louis has died and du Barry has been sent away from court.  Boehmer and Bassenge hope the new Queen, Marie Antoinette, will wear it instead, but when her husband, Louis XVI, offers to buy it for her, she refuses, unwilling to appear extravagant and frivolous when the money could be better spent on other things.  Enter Jeanne de la Motte, an ambitious young woman who sees an opportunity to make herself rich and acquire the necklace for herself in the Queen’s name.  The ensuing scandal will damage Marie Antoinette’s reputation and discredit the French monarchy in the eyes of the public:        

Marie Antoinette rose from her chair and moved toward the inner room, holding herself together with an effort so tense that for the moment grace was dead and she moved with stiff, short steps like an old woman. At the door she turned: “Did I not tell you that there would be no need for poison? They will kill me with calumny.”

As you would expect with a book from the 1920s, the writing style is rather different from most modern historical fiction novels; it is more formal and more detailed but, unfortunately, it is also quite dry.  Although I had heard of the Diamond Necklace Affair before, I hadn’t read about it in any depth, so I found The Empress of Hearts an interesting read from that perspective, but as a work of fiction it is less effective – like the other novel I’ve read by Barrington, Glorious Apollo, it would probably have worked better as non-fiction.  We are given large amounts of factual information and as a result the plot moves very slowly and lacks the drama, excitement and tension that should have been present given the subject of the story. 

The characters are not the most vibrant and life-like either, although they had the potential to be fascinating, particularly Jeanne, as the villain of the novel, and Cardinal de Rohan, another prominent figure implicated in the plot.  I was intrigued by the role the Italian occultist Alessandro Cagliostro plays in the story – in reality, it seems that although he was arrested and questioned, it’s uncertain how much involvement he actually had in the Affair – but again, I think there were missed opportunities here.

I’m aware that Alexandre Dumas also wrote a novel about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace – The Queen’s Necklace.  As a fan of Dumas, I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how he approaches the same subject.

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

The Valentine House surprised me. Having read Emma Henderson’s first novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud, in 2011, I had expected this new one, her second, to be something similar. Instead, what I found was something completely different. Grace Williams was a moving, thought-provoking story of a young girl in a 1950s mental institution; The Valentine House is probably best described as a family saga set in the French Alps.

The house referred to in the title is Arete, a large chalet in the mountains overlooking the village of Hext. It was built by a British mountaineer, Sir Anthony Valentine, in the 19th century and is used as a summer home by successive generations of his family. Our story begins in 1914 when Mathilde, a teenage girl from a farm in the valley, goes to work for the Valentines. Mathilde is an ‘Ugly’, the term given to the unattractive young women who make up Arete’s workforce, specially chosen by Sir Anthony’s wife, Lady C, as being less likely to catch her husband’s eye. Spending her summers at the house, Mathilde gets to know the Valentine family, particularly Daisy, a girl the same age as herself who becomes gradually wilder and more unstable as the years go by.

Decades later, in the summer of 1976, Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson George is visiting Arete with several of his cousins. Even though Sir Anthony is long gone, his legacy lives on in the Alpine Club which he created to entertain the younger members of the family, and George and his cousins continue to carry out Club activities such as the outdoor physical challenges known as ‘Paideia’. Mathilde is still there too, an elderly woman now, but as much a part of Arete life as she has ever been.

The Valentine House is a dual time period novel: a chapter set in 1976 and written from George’s perspective is followed by one narrated by Mathilde and set earlier in the century. Eventually the two begin to converge and secrets which have been kept hidden from the reader (and from some of the characters) start to be revealed. What is the truth behind the disappearance of Margaret, Sir Anthony’s daughter, whose visits to Arete came to an abrupt stop many years ago? Mathilde is sure that if she could only find out what happened to Margaret everything else that has puzzled her about the Valentines would begin to make sense. Although some of the plot twists and revelations could probably be predicted, I didn’t even try to guess – I just relaxed and let the story take me in whichever direction it wanted to go, which meant I was kept in suspense until the various Valentine mysteries started to unfold.

I did struggle at times to keep track of all the characters and how they were related to each other. This is probably not surprising, as there are five generations of the family featured in the novel; drawing a simple family tree helped to solve the problem, although I wish I’d had the sense to do it at the beginning of the book instead of when I was already halfway through!

I think what I loved most about The Valentine House was the setting; I haven’t been to the area of France described in the book – the Haute-Savoie – but I would like to as Emma Henderson makes it sound beautiful. And this is a good place for me to mention that Sir Anthony himself has a unique way of describing the Alpine mountains and valleys, which you’ll discover in the opening paragraph of the novel. If you find that the language he uses makes you blush, don’t worry – this does not reflect the style of writing throughout the rest of the book!

Although I found both threads of the story very enjoyable, it usually seems to be inevitable with dual timeline novels that readers will have a preference for one storyline over the other and in my case it was the one narrated by Mathilde. And it was Mathilde whose story lingered on in my mind for days after finishing the book.

Now I’m wondering what Emma Henderson’s third book will be about. I hope there’s going to be one!

A trio of books: London Roses; The Hurlyburly’s Husband; The King’s Favourite

I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with my reviews recently – I seem to go into each new month with at least four or five books still to write about from the month before – so I thought I would try putting together the occasional multi-book post with slightly shorter reviews than normal.

London Roses by Dora Greenwell McChesney, first published in 1903, follows the stories of a group of people who meet in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum. Rhoda Comstock is a young American woman who has come to London to stay with her English cousin, Una Thorpe, and the two strike up a friendship one day with journalist Stephen Fulford and his brother Thomas, getting together to discuss their research and to engage in lighthearted debate about the differences between life in Britain and America. When Stephen makes the sudden decision to go to South Africa to report on the Boer War, he leaves behind a scandal which puts Thomas in a difficult position and poses a threat not only to the bond between the two brothers but also to their newly formed relationships with Rhoda and Una.

London Roses is packed with interesting ideas and themes – loyalty and friendship; the importance of trust; adjusting to life in a different country – although none of these things are explored in as much depth as they could have been. The characters also had the potential to be a lot more complex and well-developed than they actually were. None of the main four ever came fully to life and I was much more intrigued by the character of Anthony Pettigrew, an old man Rhoda nicknames the Moth, who has spent thirty years coming to the British Museum to research books that he’s never written.

Far too much of the novel is spent discussing the English Civil War, which is apparently a passion of several of the characters (and also of the author – as I know, having read her historical novels Rupert, by the Grace of God and Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse), but which felt a bit strange as it had very little to do with the rest of the plot. On a more positive note, there are some nice descriptions of London and the Museum, but overall I was disappointed by this book and was thankful that it was such a short one!

The Hurlyburly’s Husband is an English translation by Alison Anderson of Jean Teulé’s 2008 French novel. Set in 17th century France, it tells the story of the often forgotten husband of Madame de Montespan (mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV). Louis-Henri, Marquis de Montespan, marries Athénaïs, as she becomes known, after her fiancé flees following a duel. He loves his new wife and believes that she loves him, but it’s not long before Athénaïs goes to court as a lady-in-waiting and takes the place of Louise de la Valliere in the king’s affections. Unlike many cuckolded husbands of the period, Montespan is not interested in using his wife’s position to gain money and titles at court; instead, when it becomes obvious that Athénaïs is lost to him, he chooses to defy the king and take revenge in any small way he can.

A lot has been written about Madame de Montespan, her relationship with the king and her involvement in the Affair of the Poisons, but her husband is usually ignored. It was good to have the chance to read his side of the story and to see how he may have felt about all of this. As Athénaïs is absent from her husband’s life for most of the novel, the focus is always on Montespan himself: his attempts at winning glory on the battlefield, his relationships with his children, and his acts of defiance against the king (adding horns to his coat of arms, for example).

This is an entertaining little novel, as lively, colourful and scandalous as the French court it describes. There are even some illustrations, which are always a nice addition to any book. And in case you’re wondering, the hurlyburly of the title refers to the hairstyle popular in the 17th century known as the hurluberlu.

The final book I want to talk about here is The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen (originally published in 1938 under the pseudonym George R Preedy). The King of the title is King James I of England and VI of Scotland – and the Favourite is Robin Carr, a young man who catches the King’s eye when he falls and breaks his leg in the tilt yard. Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, sees his chance to gain influence at court by pushing his pretty, seventeen-year-old great-niece Frances into an affair with Robin. But Howard is not the only one who is plotting and scheming; Robin’s friend, Tom Overbury, is also keen to encourage the romance between Robin and Frances in the hope of gaining more power for himself.

Nobody expected the two to actually fall in love, but that is what happens. With his plans thrown into disarray, Overbury finds himself caught in the middle of another plot – but this one is directed at himself. The King’s Favourite is based on real events from history, but I was unfamiliar with the details of this particular story. My lack of knowledge meant I had no idea what was going to happen and could enjoy this as a suspenseful true crime novel before looking up the facts after I’d finished and comparing them with Marjorie Bowen’s version.

While the plot (after a slow start) is an exciting, dramatic one, the characters are not particularly strong and not at all sympathetic either! I can’t say that I liked any of them – although I was interested to see that the astrologer and physician Simon Forman plays a prominent part in the story. I remember being intrigued by his appearances in Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia, so it was good to learn more about him here.

I see that there have been several other novels written over the years that also deal with the Overbury case, including one by Rafael Sabatini (The Minion) which I’m now very interested in reading. The TBR continues to grow!