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!

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.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

a-chelsea-concerto I had a nice surprise a few months ago when I unexpectedly received two ebooks from Dean Street Press who were launching their new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow (in conjunction with Scott from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog). The first one I chose to read was A Chelsea Concerto, a Second World War memoir originally published in 1959.

Frances Faviell lived at 33 Cheyne Place in Chelsea – one of the most heavily bombed areas of London during the war due to its location, close to the Royal Hospital and to several bridges over the River Thames. Her memoir opens in the early days of the war, a period known as the Phoney War because it seemed as though very little was actually happening. During this time, as well as continuing her work as an artist, Frances becomes a Red Cross volunteer, taking part in air-raid drills and trying to ensure that the people of Chelsea are as fully prepared as they can possibly be for whatever may follow.

What follows, of course, is the Blitz, which Faviell describes in vivid detail. Night after night, people living in Chelsea are subjected to one bombing raid after another, emerging from the shelters each morning in fear of what they might find: their home destroyed; a friend or neighbour dead; the roads blocked; an unexploded bomb in the street. With her work as a volunteer, Frances is often at the centre of the action, experiencing and witnessing the most horrifying things, while throughout it all, the Green Cat – her most treasured possession – sits in her window as a symbol of safety and prosperity.

Serene and aloof he sat in the window in the sunlight, surveying with contempt the activities in the street. Everyone begged me to put him down in the cellar with some of the paintings which I had stored there now. But I would not move him. Was he not the Guardian of the Home? He must be treated with respect.

Before the war, Frances had travelled widely and learned to speak several languages, something which enables her to offer help and support to the refugees who have fled to Britain as the Nazis sweep across Europe. There are some real characters amongst the refugees – in particular ‘The Giant’, a large and outspoken Belgian fisherman – and some funny moments, such as the story of Monsieur D, who is suspected of being a spy when mysterious lights show from his window during a blackout. Many of these people, though, are frightened and traumatised and look to Frances for advice and protection. She becomes particularly close to Ruth, a Jewish refugee from Germany, who attempts to kill herself, leaving her young daughter in need of Frances’ care. Nineteen-year-old Catherine, who arrives in London pregnant and unmarried, is another troubled young woman whom Frances finds herself taking under her wing.

Despite the terrible things going on around her – and the terrible things she experiences herself – Frances keeps her sense of humour and often manages to see the funny side (when she remembers a government information leaflet on what to do if German parachutists land, for example, or when she talks about her dachshund, Vicki, known as Miss Hitler).

The wording of the pamphlet which we knew was designed to try and avoid the same panic flight as in Belgium and France caused such hilarity everywhere that every current show included some skit on the arrival of parachutists. In the FAP we went about chivvying one another with the words of the clauses about seeing anything suspicious and “Be calm, be quick, be exact” became a joke in every place of work or exercise which we had to carry out with the Civil Defence.

Most of her memories are quite harrowing, though, such as when she describes the horrors of trying to reassemble pieces of bodies blown apart by bombs and the time she was lowered headfirst into a hole in a collapsed building to assist an injured man. But the most vivid and dramatic episode of all comes near the end when Faviell’s own home is bombed – and although we know that Frances must have survived to be able to write this book, the tension and the sense of danger come across so strongly in her writing that we worry for her anyway.

I haven’t read many wartime memoirs and I couldn’t help comparing this one to the few that I have read. It didn’t have quite the emotional impact that Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth had on me, for example, but I still found it a fascinating and moving read. Frances Faviell wrote several other books which are also available from Dean Street Press; has anyone read any of them, and if so, which would you recommend?

Fire by C. C. Humphreys

Fire 1666 is famous for being the year of the Great Fire of London. For the religious sect known as the Fifth Monarchists it was also the year in which they believed the monarchy would be overthrown, clearing the way for the kingdom of Jesus. These two events form the basis of C.C. Humphreys’ new novel, Fire, a sequel to Plague, which I read in 2014. Don’t worry if you haven’t had the opportunity to read Plague yet – you will still be able to understand and enjoy Fire, which works as an exciting historical thriller in its own right as well as being a sequel.

As the novel opens we are reacquainted with our old friends, Captain Coke, a reformed highwayman, and Pitman, a ‘thief-taker’. These two men fought on opposite sides in the recent Civil War, but have now formed an unlikely partnership to fight crime in the London area. With Charles II the target of a plot by the Fifth Monarchists, Coke and Pitman have been given the task of foiling the attempt on the king’s life. Assisted by Dickon, a young homeless boy rescued by Coke from a life on the streets, the pair begin to investigate, determined to save the king even if it means putting their own lives in danger.

It’s not only themselves they need to worry about, of course. Pitman is a married man with children, while Coke’s lover, the actress Sarah Chalker, is pregnant. Acting is not considered a suitable career for a respectable woman, but Sarah enjoys it and relies on it as a source of income. Unable to work because of her pregnancy, Sarah is left alone and penniless when Coke finds himself the victim of a cruel betrayal. And then, in the early hours of a September morning, a fire breaks out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane…

Fire is an enjoyable read and a fascinating journey through 17th century London life. I’ll have to be honest and say that it’s maybe not the deepest or most literary of historical novels but, like Plague, it’s entertaining and fun to read. Before I started reading I had been afraid that it might be too similar to another book I read earlier this year – The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor – which is also set during the Great Fire of London and features a plot by the Fifth Monarchists, but the two books are actually completely different.

This is an action-packed novel, taking us to a variety of different settings. We visit the theatre for a production of Hamlet, we find out what conditions were like for those unlucky men pressed into the navy against their will, and we see inside a debtors’ prison, where women and children live in squalor praying that their fortunes will change soon. A map is provided at the front of the book to help us locate each of the London sites mentioned in the story and to show how the fire spreads and progresses day by day.

Something that surprised me about this novel is that the Great Fire itself doesn’t start until we are more than halfway through the book. Instead, Humphreys spends most of the novel setting the scene, moving the characters into place, so that by the time the fire breaks out we are already emotionally invested in the story and are desperate to find out whether our heroes and heroines can find their way out of the dangerous situations they are in.

If C.C. Humphreys brings some of these characters back for a third adventure, I would love to read it; otherwise I’ll investigate his earlier books – I’ve already read Vlad: The Last Confession, but some of his others look interesting too.

Thanks to Century for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

The Ashes of London I always look forward to new books by Andrew Taylor, having enjoyed several of his others in the past. His last two novels, The Scent of Death and The Silent Boy, both featured the same characters (Edward Savill, an 18th century London clerk, and his family) and I had expected there to be more books in that series. However, The Ashes of London is something different: it’s set more than a century earlier – during the Great Fire of London of 1666 – and introduces us to a completely new set of characters.

Our narrator, James Marwood, is the son of a Fifth Monarchist who has recently been released from the Tower of London. All Marwood wants is a quiet life and the opportunity to escape the taint of his father’s disgrace – but as the flames begin to rage across London, it seems that fate has something else in store for him. While he watches St Paul’s Cathedral burn, a young woman runs past towards the fire, taking Marwood’s cloak with her. Later, a dead body is found in the ashes: a man with his thumbs tied behind his back. Marwood, who works for the government, is given the job of investigating the death.

Running parallel with his story is that of Catherine (Cat) Lovett, daughter of a regicide who was involved in the execution of King Charles I and who has been on the run since the restoration of the monarchy. As more dead bodies are discovered in the aftermath of the fire, it seems that Cat must be connected to the deaths in some way…and it’s up to Marwood to find out how.

I don’t think The Ashes of London is one of Andrew Taylor’s best books (my favourite is still The American Boy), but I did enjoy reading it. While I didn’t find it quite as atmospheric as some of his other novels, the setting was certainly a fascinating one. Not only do we witness the destruction of a city by fire and share the sense of loss felt by those who lived there, we are also given the chance to learn something about the political situation in London at that time. I previously knew almost nothing about the Fifth Monarchists, a religious sect who even during the Restoration were plotting to overthrow the monarchy and prepare for the coming of King Jesus, so I found that aspect of the story very interesting.

I enjoyed getting to know both of our main characters, James Marwood and Cat Lovett. Marwood is not a particularly memorable character in himself, but he interested me due to his background and ties with the Fifth Monarchists and regicides. Cat is a strong, independent person who knows how to look after herself, and while I couldn’t quite believe in her as a realistic 17th century woman, her actions do help to drive the plot forward. Apparently this book is the first in a new series, so I expect – and hope – that we will meet both James and Cat again.

Overall, I found The Ashes of London a good Andrew Taylor novel, if not a great one. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series, but while I’m waiting for it I would like to go back and read Bleeding Heart Square, the only one of his historical novels I still haven’t read yet.

Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler

What a wonderful imagination Christopher Fowler has! This fourth novel in the Bryant and May mystery series involves the bizarre deaths of several minor celebrities, a mysterious highwayman complete with horse, cape and tricorn hat, gangs of feuding schoolchildren and a possible link to the Knights Templar. It’s just the sort of case the Peculiar Crimes Unit was created to deal with, and this is one of the most peculiar yet.

Ten Second Staircase As the novel opens, we learn that yet again the PCU is facing the threat of closure, with Bryant and May’s outdated methods of detection coming under attack. Bryant and May – Arthur and John – are the two elderly detectives around whom the rest of the unit revolves. John May is logical, methodical and more open to modern technology, but his partner prefers to rely on his tried-and-tested network of historians, clairvoyants, witches and psychics. Their different personalities and different approaches to crime-solving are the reasons why the two of them have had so much success over the years, right from the very first case they worked on together during the Second World War (described in Full Dark House). Among the successes, however, there has been one failure: the identity of the serial killer known as the Leicester Square Vampire, which has remained unknown since the 1970s.

Bryant and May’s latest mystery begins when a controversial modern artist is drowned in the display case of one of her own art installations. The only witness is Luke Tripp, a twelve-year-boy from nearby St Crispin’s Boys’ School, who claims to have seen a figure resembling Dick Turpin ride into the gallery on horseback and throw the artist into the tank. No sooner have the detectives begun to investigate than the Highwayman strikes again, his second murder as strange and inexplicable as the first. As Bryant and May dig deeper, they uncover some similarities between the Highwayman and the Vampire; if only they can find a way to solve both mysteries at once, the future of the PCU could be secured.

I enjoyed Ten-Second Staircase as I’ve enjoyed all of the previous books in this series, but this is probably my least favourite of the four. The Peculiar Crimes Unit seems to have been facing closure in every book so far and that aspect of the story is starting to feel repetitive, especially as with another nine (at least) books to follow, it was obvious that it would be allowed to stay open. I also couldn’t help feeling that the author was using Bryant and May in this book to voice his own views and opinions on society; this meant that the dialogue sometimes felt more like a lecture rather than a natural conversation between friends.

The things that I did love in this book were the same things I loved in the first three: the unusual and imaginative mystery (which, as usual, I failed to solve), Arthur’s unorthodox detection methods, and the fascinating historical facts and pieces of trivia which are incorporated into the plot. The real attraction of this series, of course, is the partnership of Bryant and May themselves, but we do get to know other members of the PCU as well and some of these characters are developed further in this novel, particularly May’s agoraphobic granddaughter, April, who I’m sure we’ll see more of in future books.

I’ll be continuing soon with book number five, White Corridor!

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins It’s 1728 and Thomas Hawkins is being escorted through the streets of London towards the gallows at Tyburn. Although he has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang, Tom has been promised a pardon and is sure he will be freed. But as he gets closer and closer to the gallows and the pardon doesn’t come, he begins to lose hope. Could this be the end for Thomas Hawkins?

Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea was one of my favourite books of last year. I loved the setting (an eighteenth century debtors’ prison), I loved the entertaining plot, and I loved learning about life in Georgian London, so I was pleased to find that there was going to be a sequel. If you haven’t read the first book, though, that shouldn’t be a problem because The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins can be read as a ‘standalone historical mystery’, as stated on the book cover. I would still recommend reading the two books in order as there are some minor spoilers in the second one, but it isn’t really necessary.

If you have read The Devil in the Marshalsea you will already have met Thomas Hawkins and will know what he experienced during his time in the notorious Marshalsea Prison. Sadly, as the sequel begins, it seems that Tom has forgotten the lessons he learned in the Marshalsea. He has started to build a new life for himself with Kitty Sparks, bookseller and print shop owner, but this is not enough for Tom and he has returned to his old habits of drinking, gambling and looking for adventure.

It’s not long before things start to spiral out of control again and this time Tom finds himself embroiled in the affairs of Queen Caroline and the king’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, as well as becoming a suspect in a murder investigation. Alternating between Tom’s journey to the gallows and the events leading up to his death sentence, Tom’s story – his ‘last confession’ – gradually unfolds.

This is another great book from Antonia Hodgson and I enjoyed it almost as much as the first. I say ‘almost’ because the fact that The Devil in the Marshalsea was set almost entirely within a debtors’ prison gave the first book a feeling of novelty and originality that this second one doesn’t have. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the setting of this book too, of course. Hodgson’s portrayal of 1720s London is wonderful: a cockfight in a crowded tavern; a gang leader’s lair in a crumbling slum building; the beautifully furnished rooms of St James’s Palace – all of these are described in vivid detail.

Tom Hawkins, as our narrator, is the perfect character to guide us through Georgian London. His lifestyle means he is familiar with the darker side of society, but his family background makes him a gentleman and it is this combination that brings him to the attention of those who hope to use him for their own ends…including the clever, scheming Queen Caroline (a historical figure I’ve never read about until now). Tom is frustrating, flawed and a bit of a rogue, but he’s also a person you can’t help but like. I’m obviously not going to tell you whether or not he does escape the hangman’s noose, but what I will say is that Antonia Hodgson keeps us in suspense until the end. The final chapter gave me hope that there could be a third book in this series – but if you want to know whether Thomas Hawkins will survive that long, you’ll have to read The Last Confession to find out!