The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

Previously I’ve read some of Sara Sheridan’s mysteries and enjoyed them so when I saw that she had written a book called The Fair Botanists with an Edinburgh setting, I requested it from the library.

The year is 1822 and Edinburgh is agog, King George IV is supposed to be visiting the city, the first visit from a Hanoverian king. Sir Walter Scott has the job of organising the whole thing and he’s not helped by not knowing exactly when or even if the visit will take place – such are the whims of royalty.

Meanwhile others are busy transporting mature trees and plants from where they have been growing in Leith Walk to their new home in what will be the new botanic gardens at what was the Inverleith estate. Inverleith House still has some of the family living in it. The elderly Clementina has recently been joined by Elizabeth, her nephew’s widow who is feeling lucky to have been taken in by her husband’s family as her husband left her poverty stricken. She’s a talented botanical artist so she’s very interested in all the planting that’s going on, particularly the rare Agave Americana which is due to flower soon.

In fact lots of people are interested in that plant, for various reasons, all determined to get a bit of it, but Bella is the most determined. She has befriended Elizabeth who is just about the only person in Edinburgh who doesn’t know what Bella’s profession is.

I did really enjoy this one but it’s not perfect. It should have been edited to expunge mention of ‘the elephant in the room’ as that’s a modern phrase, and I was really annoyed by the constant use of ‘quite the’ instead of ‘quite a’ by what seemed like every single character in the book, it’s just something that I dislike but dozens and dozens of uses of it by different characters drove me mad. Otherwise it’s entertaining and informative with interesting characters and situations both fictional and actual.

The Escape of the King by Jane Lane

The Escape of the King cover

The Escape of the King by Jane Lane was first published in 1954. I read some of her historical fiction back in the 1970s, but hadn’t read any which were aimed at children as this wee one is. It’s a quick but fairly entertaining read at just 156 pages. Jane Lane started writing books for children when her young son asked her to tell him stories from history.

In The Escape of the King she fills in the gaps between the known history of King Charles II’s flight after his army was defeated at the Battle of Worcester when the much larger rebel army of Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads trounced the Royalist Cavalier army. Apparently all the events in this book are true and the characters are real. Jane Lane says that she just invented the conversations thoughts and feelings of the people involved.

All the Roundheads are looking for Charles, and when a £1,000 reward is put up for Charles alive or dead it seems like his escape from Worcester is an unlikely prospect, but well disguised as Will Jones – a peasant – and walking by night from safe house to safe house, when necessary hiding in holes that had previously been used by Catholic priests in houses owned by people who had been sticking to the ‘old religion’. He had some very close calls but of course did manage to reach the coast and hitch a ride on a ship to France and safety.

I must admit that I only recently realised that I had imagined his escape wrongly, as in that well-known part of the story when Charles II hid in a tree to avoid capture, I had assumed that it was a hollow tree he was in as it was supposed to be an oak tree, and they can be hollow. Now of course I realise that he was hiding up a tree, within the branches! It’s a mystery to me why teachers always said he was in a tree. In fact I’m sure I even asked a teacher about that at the time and she was the one who thought it might have been a hollow oak – oh well – you live and learn!

Mail Royal by Nigel Tranter

Mail Royal cover

Mail Royal by the very prolific Scottish author Nigel Tranter was first published in 1989

Lord Gray has been Sheriff of Angus for decades but King James VI has decided to take that sinecure away from him and give the very lucrative sheriffdom to Lord Home. But Scottish sheriffdoms aren’t in the gift of the King, not that that matters because whatever King James says goes.

Lord Gray is desperate to hang on to his only means of getting money and keeping power. He knows that his father had had a hold over King James, it was something to do with secret letters, and Gray is determined to find them so he can blackmail James too. The letters are thought to have been written by Mary, Queen of Scots and must be either embarassing or dangerous for the king.

It’s young David Gray that gets the task of finding the letters. As the illegitimate son of Lord Gray’s younger deceased brother, David gets all the dirty work to do. David’s journey takes him all the way down to London and the royal court that his uncle is so careful to avoid, just in case the King decides to execute him!

I really enjoyed this one, but I’m not sure if it was because I knew every step of the way that David Gray travelled, although he was on horseback. From Broughty Ferry just north of Dundee, to Fife, Haddington, Edinburgh, Dunbar, the fishing village of Cove that we visit, the village that’s lived in by one of my sons, the border towns we know so well. I could picture it all so clearly.

The story includes a romance of course, I think all of Tranter’s books do, and it mentions a few castles that we haven’t got around to visiting – yet!

Lily by Rose Tremain

Lily cover

Lily by Rose Tremain is subtitled A Tale of Revenge. It begins in 1850 when on a freezing cold night a young policeman Sam Trench discovers a tiny baby which has been abandoned by her mother in a park near Bethnal Green, London. He takes the baby to the nearby London Foundling Hospital, better known as Coram, a home for orphans. The babies that end up there are farmed out to people in the country until they are six years old. The couples are given ten shillings a month to bring up the children so it’s just a way of making ends meet for them. But Lily’s foster family, farmers in rural Suffolk, Nellie and Perkin Buck grow to love her. At the end of the six years the unsuspecting Lily is dragged away from Nellie, the woman she loved like a mother and who loved her too, as did Perkin and their sons, they want to keep her but aren’t allowed to.

Then begins a nightmarish existence for Lily at the hands of the cruel sisters (presumably nuns) of the Coram. No toys or fun for the children who have to work, picking okum, scrubbing, washing clothes, sewing. Lily has been taught sewing skills by Nellie, but her skills don’t help her avoid the abuse and terror of the place.

It’s a twisted form of Christianity that’s taught there, but when Lily gets work as a wigmaker when she’s old enough to leave the hospital, the fate of the girls still left behind at the orphanage haunts her.

This is a really good read, despite the fact that it is a wee bit disjointed at the beginning, and it doesn’t have chapters, something that I dislike as I like to read to the end of a chapter before putting a book down and no chapters makes it difficult to break off. Having said that, I’m hoping that there will be a sequel to this book.

This is only the second book by Tremain that I’ve read, I read Merival previously and really liked that one too.

I was sent a digital copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley. Thank you. The book is due to be published on the 11th of November 2021.

The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees

The Rose Garden cover

The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees is the first book that I’ve read by the author and although I enjoyed it in parts it did have problems for me as there were at least a couple of glaring historical mistakes in it and the relationships between the women seemed unlikely to me.

The setting is 1895 London where Mabs is working as a docker, dressed as a boy to get the work as obviously females can’t work there. Her mother is dead, her grieving father has taken to drink, and she and her younger siblings are facing starvation. Against all the odds Mabs gets a job as a companion to Abigail a woman who has just moved to London from Durham with her husband and children. Abigail seems selfish and spoiled to Mabs and not ill at all, but the husband has asked Mabs to spy on his wife and Mabs realises that things are not at all as she was led to believe. Olive Westwater is a spinster, only child of very wealthy parents and at 28 she doubts that she will ever marry, but she has a yen to have a child and so adopts a three year old girl against her parents’ wishes. Through Olive the lives of them all become woven together and when Abigail’s situation becomes dire it’s to Olive that Mabs turns to for help.

I was unable to suspend my disbelief in this premise, it just seemed far too unlikely for me, but if you aren’t as pernickety about details as I am then it won’t bother you.

The glaring historical mistakes are a mention of the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ which is a very modern phrase, apparently first used in the US in 1935 but it didn’t reach the UK until years after that, probably around 1990 by my reckoning. The author had difficulty writing the voices of the various characters. There’s just no way that a wealthy and genteel Victorian lady would have used the word ‘guff’. The other mistake was that one of the young girls in the absolutely poverty stricken family which could barely afford food was still at school aged 15. Poor children back then left school at 12 and particularly in England free secondary schooling wasn’t available until 1944 and even then most people left school at the age of 14. The Scottish education system has always been different and we had free education decades before England had.

Also there is just no way that a seventeen year old girl could have got work at the docks even dressed as a boy. In those days, and up until comparatively recently (1960s) dockers were hired by the day and had to stand every morning looking fit and strong, hoping to be chosen to work a shift that day. A skinny girl would never have passed muster under those circumstances. These are all problems that should have been picked up by an editor but maybe nobody cares that there are big holes in the plot. Maybe I’m weird to be bothered by things like that – but that’s just me!

My thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending me a digital copy of this book via NetGalley.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is the first book in her re-telling of Homer’s Iliad. The story is narrated mainly by Briseis who has been given to Achilles as his prize although from time to time we get things from the perspective of Achilles. It’s a big change in the fortunes of Briseis as she’s gone from being a queen to being a slave and concubine and she knows that at any time if Achilles feels like it he could hand her over to the ordinary soldiers to do what they want with her. Some of the women have chosen to commit suicide rather than be used by their conquerors, but Briseis can’t bring herself to do that.

There’s a clash of personalities between King Agamemnon and Achilles. Agamemnon is keeping safe in his ship, just observing fighting and this is infuriating Achilles who decides that if Agamemmnon isn’t going to risk his life in battle – neither will he. Agamemnon insists on stripping Achilles of his war prizes, meaning that Achilles must give Briseis to him. Achilles had begun to think of Briseis as his wife, he has mental health problems stemming from his mother (of course) who as a goddess had returned to the sea, wading out of it to visit him frequently. Briseis had realised that her own sea bathing had been what had caused Achilles to become interested in her. When he had to give her up to Agamemnon he was bereft. With his army begging him to fight Patroclus decides to pretend he’s Achilles. It’s all going to end in tears!

I enjoyed this although I did think that it is mis-titled as the ‘girls’ don’t feature hugely in the book – on second thoughts maybe that’s the whole idea. Apart from Briseis the most prominent characters are Achilles and Patroclus.

If you’re interested in reading a far more detailed review you can have a look at Jack’s here.

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison – Classics Club Spin #27

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by the Scottish author Naomi Mitchison was first published in 1931 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1989, I think I might have owned it since then, the chunkiness of it put me off reading it. I think this book would have been improved if it had been edited down to about 500 pages instead of the 719 that it is. It dragged terribly at times. I must admit that my heart sank when I realised I had got such a chunkster in the Classics Club Spin # 27.

The setting is Marob, a small state on the Black Sea, and Greece, the story switches between both places – between the years 228 BC and 187 BC. Some of the incidents are fictional while others are historical. In Marob the society revolves around the Corn King and Spring Queen as they and their ceremonies are most important in making sure that there will be a good harvest. Tarrik, the Corn King chooses Erif Der to be his wife and Spring Queen. Her father doesn’t want Tarrik to be Corn King as it’s a position he wants for himself. Erif in common with many of the women can perform magic and her father expects her to use it against Tarrik.

When Tarrik rescues Sphaeros a Greek philosopher from a shipwreck he is wooed by all the new ideas that Sphearos has and decides to sail with him to Greece. In Greece they meet King Kleomones of Sparta, he has decided that he wants a more equal society and so the rich are persuaded to give up their jewellery, money and possessions and to free their slaves. They will be given some land of their own. But everyone becomes poor and eats black soup as the peasants had to before. The previously rich people aren’t happy. King Kleomones seems to have kept all the wealth that had been given up so that he could pay for wars against his neighbours, using the money to pay the wages of mercenaries.

This is very much just the bare bones of the book which goes into detail about the ceremonies, particularly the fertility ones which end up with the Corn King ‘ploughing’ the Corn Queen and everyone else joining in in what was basically an orgy, to ensure a good harvest of course! It struck me that this was very racy for the original publication date of 1931. No doubt the mythological aspect of the book helped in that regard.

The book is split up into nine sections and at the end of every section there’s a shortish summary of what happened in that section. Just in case you didn’t understand it I suppose. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult about the writing style, it’s just rather wordy, but it is mainly an interesting read.

Mitchison came from a fairly aristocratic family, she was born in 1897 and had a long writing career, as you will see here. She died in 1998. I read a Virago edition of the book which was first published in 1983 and has an afterword from Mitchison.

Jack read this a few years ago. His thoughts are here.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

 Hamnet cover

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell hops around a bit time wise but not in a confusing way, I really enjoyed it.

The tale begins in 1596 with young Hamnet searching the house, looking for an adult to help him, but the usually bustling household is empty, just when he needs them most. His twin Judith feels so ill that she’s gone to her bed and he’s desperate for their mother’s help as she is a herbalist, and a bit of a white witch as far as some people are concerned.

Then the story flits back fifteen years to the Spring when Shakespeare met his wife at Hewlands, the family farm. They were both leading unhappy lives, William’s father was a violent bully who took most of his rage out on William, and Agnes (known better to us all as Anne Hathaway) was living with her step-mother and a houseful of half siblings. It hadn’t been too awful when her father was alive but life had become miserable since his death. The two were drawn to one another when William’s father ordered him to tutor some of Agnes’s half brothers, to help pay back debts. Agnes and William would become each other’s escape route – or so they thought.

Considering that such a lot of Shakespeare’s life is a complete mystery I think the author made a good job of filling in the gaps in a feasible way, and she neatly tied up the speculation over his will and that second best bed left to his wife. I loved the ending which paints William as a loving father, something that even his wife had doubted.

I noticed that some readers have been upset by the fact that Anne’s name had been changed to Agnes, but it’s a name which is not popular, it was my own mother’s name, she was dutifully named after a grandmother but was always called Nancy by everyone, so it seems very likely to me that Ann was her pet name, perhaps O’Farrell should just have stuck with that rather than reverting to the official name which appears in her father’s will.

The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff

 The Shield Ring cover

The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff was first published in 1956 and I hadn’t even heard of it until I saw it fairly recently in a secondhand bookshop in St Andrews, but it turned out to be great read – as Sutcliff’s books generally are.

The setting is the English Lake District, a place that I’ve enjoyed visiting quite a few times, but the next time I visit I’ll be looking at the landscape in an entirely different way, imagining all the things that were going on there as those of Viking descent who had settled there fought the Normans over a thirty year period or more. The Normans who had fairly easily overcome the inhabitants of the southern half of England in the softer landscape found it to be a much more difficult task in the northern wilds of the Lake District which seemed to be sheltered by a ring of mountainous terrain.

I must admit that I had no idea the famous Domesday Book that we hear about so often stopped short of the Cumberland Fells so there is no mention of Lake Land at all. I can imagine that it must have been one of those areas that on old maps would have been marked – HERE BE DRAGONS.

The book begins with the not quite five year old Frytha witnessing the burning of her village by Norman William’s men. Frytha had been out and about in the woods with Grim her father’s shepherd/man of all work, when they realised that the woodland around them felt different. The birds and animals had fallen silent because the Normans had arrived and were busy slashing and burning. Grin knew there would be no survivors so he took Frytha further north into the Lake Land where she was quickly adopted by a local family. It’s the last stronghold of the Vikings who are constantly honing their battle skills to ward off the Normans who have built a stronghold at Carlisle.

Frytha quickly finds a friend in Bjorn who is just a few years older than she is, it turns into a great relationship with the two of them facing danger together in later years as they team up to do their bit to help out their community agains the Normans.

Rosemary Sutcliff was such a lovely writer of well researched books, and I certainly always learn new things of interest in them.

The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham – 20 Books of Summer 2021

 The Grove of Eagles cover

The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham was first published in 1963 and the setting is mainly Cornwall although at times the action moves to Spain and London.

The story is told by Maugan Killigrew who has grown up at Arwenack House in Cornwall. Maugan is his father’s eldest son but he is a base son – illegitimate – but as his mother is dead he has been brought up in his father’s household. It’s a busy one as his gentle step-mother seems to be forever pregnant. Maugan’s father is a philanderer and up to his ears in debt despite having an important situation as commander of a castle at the mouth of the River Fal.

Maugan’s ambition is to go to sea and make something of himself, as it’s the 1590s and Sir Walter Raleigh visits his father from time to time Maugan hopes that Raleigh will take him on in some capacity and he can make his fortune at sea. With the second Spanish Armada attacking the Cornish coast in 1597 things don’t quite go to plan for Maugan.

This was a good read, marred only slightly for me by what seemed like quite long sections of sea battles. As ever I’m more interested in the domestic side of history, and of course there’s a romance involved.

Some of the characters were based on actual people who lived in Cornwall at that time, and as you would expect from Winston Graham it’s all very authentic and atmospheric. It’s a fairly long read at 576 pages.

This book was one of my 20 Books of Summer.