THE MAGPIE - J.G. Harlond
The Magpie is the story of Leo Kazan and Davina Dymond, lovers separated by continents, time and social convention. Set in the tumultuous years between the two World Wars when revolution ripped Russia apart and nationalism and the Home Rule movement began to dismantle 400 years of the British Raj in India, it is a love story played out on an international stage.
Leo is half Russian and half Indian, an orphan (or so he thinks) and a talented linguist. He is also a thief, attracted like a magpie to everything which glitters. He becomes the protégé of Sir Lionel Pinchcoffin, the District Political Officer in Bombay. Pinchcoffin recognises Leo’s talents and turns him into a spy. From an early age, Leo is immersed in the seedy world of international espionage and diamond smuggling. He travels from India to Europe and Russia but the most meaningful time in his life are those few stolen days he spends with Davina in London.
The Magpie is a fascinating novel here and Leo is a very likeable/loveable rogue. The book is richly immersed in historical context and I can see, feel, hear and smell India and Spain. It’s a fabulous piece of escapism for the reader, and a brilliant evocation of Colonial India, written with vigour and pace.
TO THE GRAVE - STEVE ROBINSON
I have just finished reading ‘To the Grave’ and I loved it. I think it is a better book than Robinson’s first novel ‘In the Blood ’– and THAT was pretty damned good. I don’t know whether it was because this second mystery was more recent (1940’s rather than early nineteenth century) or because it was a more personal story for the author, but I was completely hooked from start to finish and read it in two days. These novels have tremendous potential for a TV series.
Steve writes about Mena so tenderly and I was completely immersed in her story – to the point that I was horrified and saddened by what happened to her.
The mystery unfolded well with a good selection of red herrings which completely fooled me, and aspects of the book had a literary quality which reminded me of Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement.’
I'm now looking forward to reading 'The Last Queen of England,' his third book in the series.
THE SACRED STONE by The Mediaeval Murderers
I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘The Sacred Stone’ by the Mediaeval Murderers and found it a fascinating concept. Five different historical novelists take the single idea of a strange stone, reputed to possess curative powers and – in the wrong hands – the power to summon demons, and they write about its progress through the Middle Ages. Each author specialises in a different period of history and created a unique story around the mystique of the stone.
A shard from an ancient Arctic meteorite, the sacred stone becomes legendary and the centre of controversy and crime. Theft, mayhem and murder follow it wherever it goes - and it goes a long way. From Greenland to Ireland, England and France the stone is handed from one distinctive character to another. The five stories are rich in historical detail and take the reader on an enjoyable romp through six centuries. Every aspect of Mediaeval life is portrayed from the court of Edward III to the plight of the persecuted Jews in Norwich and the subjugation of the serfs in rural Devon. I was a little surprised that the final story took us out of the Mediaeval era and into the world of Shakespeare’s London, but as it contained the best description of a hangover I have ever read, I am not unduly bothered by this anomaly.
My only complaint is that the eBook contained no details about which author wrote which section, and it required detective work on my part to find out more about the writers of my favourite characters and stories.
'The Chosen Man' by J. G Harlond
'The Chosen Man' is an ambitious book which takes 17th century characters - from four different European countries - and successfully weaves their lives into a tapestry of political and religious intrigue and drama. 'The Chosen Man' has everything: shipwrecks; kidnap; piracy and romance - all set against the well-researched background of the first Stock Market crash in history. Once the characters had stopped travelling and settled down into their allotted roles, I loved it. Harlond brilliantly evokes both the buzzing commercial excitement and culture of the Dutch capital - and the gentle beauty and slow rhythm of a remote Cornish baronial estate. Yet menace lurks beneath the surface even in this rural idyll. I cared deeply about all the characters and the sinister undertones of both locations were well-sustained, ensuring I came back to the book quickly to check they all survived.
Harlond is also ambitious in the theme of romance. Never mind a love-triangle, this was a love quartet. Alina's dilemma kept us on our toes right until the last page. Which one of those three distinctive male characters will the independent Alina choose? Her gentle, aristocratic, yet sickly husband? Alonso, the attractive, self-made fellow Spaniard who has always loved her? Or Ludo? Ludo the Italian pirate; Ludo the con man. The bad-boy who lives by his wits, manipulates the Dutch and turns the European balance of power on its head, while side-stepping assassination attempts like we would dodge traffic.
A satisfying ending which demands a sequel.'The Chosen Man' on amazon
WILDEWOOD REVENGE - B. A. MORTON
My very good friend and fellow author, Babs Morton (author of the crime thriller Mrs. Jones) has just published her second novel as an eBook on kindle. It is set in thirteenth century Northumberland and is a fabulous story, I thoroughly recommend it. The paperback should follow shortly.
Here is my review:
B. A. Morton’s historical fantasy, ‘Wildewood Revenge’ is a beautifully written, humorous and very, very clever novel. When I first read that how Grace, her thoroughly modern heroine, was accidently transported through a time portal to the thirteenth century and into clutches of a devilishly attractive (but impoverished) medieval knight with one eye on her ransom, I was hooked.
How the heck is the author going to pull this off? I wondered.
But pull it off she does. On the way to a believable and satisfying ending, we are treated to a brilliant evocation of medieval England which heaves with corruption and intrigue. The remote and beautiful wilderness of ancient Northumberland rings out with the sound of clashing swords, the hiss of arrows, thundering hooves and the chink of coin bags changing hands in shady deals. It is all there: a spirited and sensual romance, an action-packed adventure story, hidden treasure, revengeful and devious barons and corpulent and corrupt clergy.
Beset on all sides by danger and deception, with only a small band of loyal followers and their wits to help them, Grace and Miles of Wildewood are powerful team and a realistic pair of lovers.
I can't wait for the sequel.
'WILDEWOOD' on amazon.co.uk
IN THE BLOOD - Steve Robinson
‘A genealogical crime mystery’
That’s three of my favourite words in the same phrase; two of my preferred genres of literature with a genealogical angle thrown in for good measure. No wonder I was curious about this debut novel by Steve Robinson - and it didn’t disappoint.
‘In the Blood’ is a strong thriller with an unlikely hero (American genealogist Jefferson Tayte.) Revelation after revelation is dripped onto the pages before the novel reaches a dramatic climax I did not anticipate.
It is also a fascinating historical mystery which starts with a missing family. We all know the maxim that killers need to keep on killing to hide their crime; well, two hundred years later the descendants of the killers are still killing. It’s in the blood. I applaud Robinson’s ability to hold onto the many plot threads of this complicated novel which spans two centuries. He grasps them with the same tenacity his Cornish character Laity clings onto a life-saving fishing line.
Tayte himself is a likeable hero. Ostensibly, a chubby desk-bound workaholic, he manages to switch into action hero guise when the going gets tough. He dodges more assassination attempts than the Pope as he gradually uncovers the truth about the tragic Fairbornes. Tayte’s like a chef peeling back the layers of an onion beneath a volley of kitchen knives. 'Family History was never supposed to be like this' says Tayte. And it usually isn’t. Robinson has admirably succeeded in sexing-up a sedentary occupation enjoyed by millions and in the process has created a whole new genre: genealogical crime mysteries.
Good luck to him with the rest of the series.'In the Blood' on amazon
'THE ASSASSIN'S WIFE' - Moonyeen Blakey
'The Assassin’s Wife' is an ambitious book and an epic tale about the War of the Roses. It is told entirely through the eyes of Nan, a girl from a Norfolk village, who becomes a servant and the confidante of Ann Neville (wife of the notorious King Richard III.)
A fast pace and plenty of fabulous description keep the reader hooked to the very end. Ms. Blakey brilliantly recreates the bustling streets of Mediaeval London. We merge into its crowds, hear the gossip and experience the sights, sounds and rancid smells of the capital at the height of civil war. Her depiction of the English countryside is also evocative; she paints an image of a world where honey bees drone and ‘the last pennants of sunlight streamed across a smoke-grey sky, and a warm smell of pottage flavoured the breeze.’
But fifteenth century England is no rural idyll. The novel seethes with intrigue, betrayal and superstition at every social level: bakers’ lads become spies; serving maids ruin reputations with dangerous rumours of witchcraft. Fratricide and regicide are common and priests and Queens fear the machinations of the ambitious and the hands of torturers.
Poor Nan, who is blessed – or cursed – with second-sight, treads a dangerous path through this snake pit as she battles to find happiness with her flawed husband, please her demanding mistress and save the lives of ‘the princes in the tower,' whose deaths she has foreseen in her dreams.
The main characters are brilliantly drawn – especially those at the heart of English politics during this turbulent time. Occasionally, the servants became a confusing blur but this does not distract from an excellent – and cleverly researched – novel which brings alive a fascinating era.
'The Assassin's Wife' on amazon.co.uk
SELKIE DREAMS - Kristin Gleeson
There is nothing more wonderful on a sunny British afternoon, than relaxing in the back garden with an excellent book. And ‘Selkie Dreams’ is just that: an excellent book.
This beautifully written novel is the love story of Máire, an Irish girl who travels to Alaska to escape an unwanted marriage and the claustrophobic atmosphere of Protestant Belfast. Here she meets Natsilane, an enigmatic native man who has spurned his American education and the attempts of the missionaries to ‘civilise’ him, and returned to the traditions of his people. From the moment Máire is carried ashore to her new home by Natsilane, the narrative – and the passion – soars to lyrical heights: ‘Just before the boat could go no further, a man from the group moved towards them, parting the fish that thronged the water.’
The quiet, but determined, young girl from Belfast becomes engrossed in the rhythm, sights, music and stories of the Tlingit tribes and the beautiful landscape and wildlife that surround her. The reader is carried along with her in her journey of discovery, desperately hoping that somehow, despite their cultural and religious differences, Máire and her sensual lover will find happiness.
‘The seals appeared again at the inlet, attracted by the fish that gathered in the weir. Máire was glad they’d returned and went to feed them to lure them from the weir. They came to her begging for the fish she dangled in her hand…She talked then sang and then patted their heads. She gave each one a secret name…..
Natsilane caught her at it once, but only shook his head and walked away. She was certain she saw a shadow of a smile. In the days that followed Máire found a small pile of fish by her basket, ready for the seals.’
Kristin Gleeson leaves us with a memorable and poignant love story and a vision of a wonderful culture, unique in my experience of literature.Selkie Dreams on amazon.co.uk
SARAH THORNHILL - Kate Grenville
I have been a huge fan of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River for years, and I was really looking forward to reading more about the Thornhill family. However, I have to confess that that I was very disappointed with Sarah Thornhill.
In my opinion, the better story would have been that of the adopted Maori granddaughter who was brought to the Thornhill household. Yet, Rachel is never anything more than a token character in the book and I got the sense that Grenville took the easy way out by focussing on the life of Sarah, instead.
The book starts well enough and Grenville’s skill as a writer shines through. I quickly became enthralled by the continuing struggle of the early settlers to carve out their lives in the harsh but stunningly beautiful, Australian outback.
Sarah starts as a strong and fascinating character (albeit illiterate) with a distinctive voice of her own:
‘They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.’
In her mid-teens, Sarah falls passionately in love with a Jack Langland, the mixed race son of a neighbour. She enjoys a wonderful sexual relationship with him under the nose of her family, who seem to have an ambivalent (and not wholly convincing) attitude to the blacks. They welcome Jack into their house and adopt the mixed race daughter of their dead son, but refuse to sanction the inter-racial marriage of the young lovers, who are torn apart.
Sadly, this is where the book began to go downhill for me. Sarah and Jack are not Cathy and Heathcliff, or Romeo and Juliet; I felt they gave up the fight for each other very quickly.
It then became apparent that this novel sacrifices realistic character development in order to concentrate on the wider issue of the brutality and cruelty of the white settlers towards the indigenous black populations of New Zealand and Australia. Yes, this is a story which needs telling. Grenville cleverly accomplished this in her previous book, The Secret River, which shows the cruelty but wonderful fallible humanity of a memorable cast of characters at the same time - but she doesn't manage this in Sarah Thornhill.
Unfortunately, this novel degenerates into a book dominated by Sarah’s need to atone for the sins of her father. This is not a theme I am ever comfortable with. Realistic character development and plot were sacrificed for this wider political message to the Australian public. The ending was particularly disappointing and very frustrating.
SONG AT DAWN - Jean Gill
Song at Dawn by Jean Gill is a fabulous historical novel.
It is the story of Estela, a gifted young musician, who is swept up into the retinue of one my favourite historical characters of all time: Aliénor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine. Then the Queen of France, the cultured Aliénor takes Estela on a visit to the court of Ermengarde, Viscomtesse of Narbonne, where the natural talent of the beautiful girl is tutored by the dashing Knight and troubadour, Dragonetz.
Rich in historical detail, this novel brings alive the political intrigue, culture and harsh reality of court life in the twelfth century. Despite their scheming and their obvious rivalry, I loved the characters of Ermengarde and Aliénor. Two of the most powerful women in European history, they shared a common passion and jointly promoted the ideal of ‘Courtly Love’, while surrounded on all sides by would-be assassins, misogynistic churchmen, jealous noblemen and the problems caused by unwanted, inept husbands.
Weaving through this ambitious novel is the wonderful and tender love story of the mysterious Estela and the ambitious Dragonetz. Determined to thwart the bigoted clergy in both their business monopoly over paper, and in their in their plots to cleanse France of Jews and Muslims, Dragonetz is a complex and wily adversary as well as a brave, loyal and attractive lover; a hero for our own time.
I found the politics and the large cast of unfamiliar, foreign names a little confusing at first, but my perseverance was well-rewarded and I thoroughly enjoyed Song at Dawn. This is an intelligent and entertaining historical novel which vividly brings alive the mediaeval era and major characters of the time.