The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson begins in 1627 in Iceland where Moslem pirates have invaded the island, murdering many of the inhabitants and dragging 400 of them away to be sold as slaves when they reach Algiers. Asta is heavily pregnant and she has been captured along with her children and her husband who is a Christian pastor.
Life in Iceland had been incredibly hard, the people lived mainly on fish and puffins – and if they wanted eggs they had to risk life and limb climbing down steep cliffs to steal them from the birds. The summer is very short and not that warm so any crops grown would have been very sparse – if they existed at all. Everybody is poor.
So you can imagine the culture shock it must have been for them to disembark into the heat, scents and colour of Algiers. Asta was lucky to be sold into the household of a wealthy man whose number one wife had asked him to find a woman who could sew well and she was able to keep some of her young children with her to begin with. Olafur her husband is eventually allowed to leave for Denmark as he’s given the job of asking the King of Denmark for ransom money.
Nine years go past and in that time Asta can’t help seeing the advantages of Algiers where the food and way of life in general are much more comfortable than in Iceland, she can wear silk trousers as opposed to the rough homespun of Iceland and fresh water is plentiful, so the people are clean!
She isn’t free though and has no say in her life or her children’s lives, but she does have a friendship/relationship with her owner which begins when she tells him tales that she had learned in Iceland.
I loved this book, Sally Magnusson’s writing is at times beautiful and descriptive, the reader gets a great sense of the atmosphere in both Iceland and Algiers. I hope that she writes some more books.
The author must have been influenced by her father Magnus Magnusson who I remember said that he was steeped in the Icelandic sagas.
Penguin, 2011, 671p.
A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1961 and it’s quite different from her other books as there’s really not much in the way of humour in it, no witty repartee between couples. There’s a lot of history in it, but it’s never dry. Apparently Georgette Heyer hated this book and she had a very tough time writing it. The problem was that her mother was seriously ill and in fact dying while she was writing it, so it would have been strange if she had been able to write in her normal fashion. I’d like to be able to tell her how much I enjoyed it though, in fact I think it’s my favourite so far, despite the fact that I so enjoy her more usual witty dialogue.
A Civil Contract features Adam, Lord Lynton, a young man who has only just come into his title after the death of his father. His father had been a spendthrift, womaniser and a gambler and has left nothing but debts. The only way out of the mess his father has left him with is to sell the family estate. Adam’s mother is dead against that and he isn’t keen on it himself.
Adam’s lawyer knows a way out of the problem – he suggests to Adam that he can arrange a marriage between him and the daughter of a very wealthy businessman whose ambition is for his only child to marry into the aristocracy.
So – very different from Heyer’s more usual romantic relationships and the upshot is a more realistic progress of the development of a marriage.
Sometimes music accompanies me in my mind as I read a book and with this one it was Mama Cass’s It’s Getting Better. Completely inappropriate for a Gerorgian setting I know but the sentiment is the same. It occurs to me that you have to be of a certain age to remember Mama Cass though!
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor was published in 2016 and it begins during the Great Fire of London. Between 300 and 400,000 people lived in London at the time and as so much of the city burned down people don’t have homes or even any possessions, the refugees are the lucky ones really as they’ve survived, but none of them is unscathed.
There are bodies all over the place, some of them hundreds of years old as the crypts of the many burnt out churches are visible, in fact people are turning up to gawp at bodies of once famous people, well what’s left of them anyway. However when fresh bodies begin to turn up and they’ve had their thumbs tied together behind their backs it’s obvious that there’s a murderer about.
It’s only six years after the restoration of King Charles II to the throne and he’s determined to track down the people who were instrumental in having his father executed, so this book turns into a bit of a political thriller as well as being a murder mystery.
Andrew Taylor is really good at developing what feels like an authentic atmosphere of London, and its characters of those times.
As ever my thoughts on this book are on the scanty side for fear of spoilers but if you want to read a much more detailed review have a look at Margaret’s @ BooksPlease.
The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle was published in 2018. I decided to read this one after reading Helen’s much fuller review at She Reads Novels, you can read it here.
Each chapter of this book is titled alternately him and her. He is Robert Carr and she is his wife Frances and they’ve been imprisoned in the Tower of London. It’s a mighty fall from grace for them both as Robert had been a favourite of King James VI – or James I if you’re more used to the English title of that first Stuart king to succeed Elizabeth I of England.
Frances had been married previously, very unhappily, as a Howard she had been used by her family to promote their power but her husband wasn’t interested in her and Frances fell for the king’s favourite. Eventually she gets an annulment and marries Robert, a man whose relationship with the king should mean success for the couple but everything begins to unravel and when Robert’s previous ‘friend’ dies horribly fingers are pointed at the couple.
I really liked this one and it’s the first book I’ve read by the author but I’ll probably read more by E.C. Fremantle.
The Story of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions was first published in 1945 and it was a departure from the author’s usual fare, he was known for writing ghost stories before writing this one.
The setting is the late 17th century and a young boy called Robyn Skyrme is set upon by a mob of notorious ruffians who relieve him of the alcoholic ‘medicine’ that he had been sent to collect for his father. Robyn eventually gets back home but he has been quite badly hurt and his enraged father decides to get back at the attackers, and so begins a series of attacks on the Skyrme farm. Robyn decides that he has to leave home, hoping that that will stop the attacks.
In his wandering he falls in with a radical stonemason called Hendryk, he’s good at his job but is determined to keep his independence so won’t have anything to do with the stonemasons’ guild. This makes life difficult for him, jobs aren’t as easy to come by as they should be, given his talent. Robyn has always had a penchant for drawing and designing and Hendryk takes him on as a pupil and for a while the two of them live a peripatetic life wandering and searching for work, sometimes being lucky enough to get interesting restoration projects.
This book reminded me so much of Thomas Hardy’s writing, in the way that the author describes a craft, and the ending has a very Hardyesque quality about it. I’ve read happier endings, but don’t let that put you off, this is a good read.
John Betjeman said of this book: “Such a feeling of remoteness, boding inevitability, horror, such a sense of the past and such narrative power are rarely to be found in one book.”
King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1982 and as is usual with Dunnett’s books it’s a weighty tome with 721 pages. I loved this one, it’s one of those books that I just didn’t want to end and I felt quite bereft when it did – and of course it’s a stand alone book so I won’t be able to meet up with any of the characters in the future. I’m so glad that we travelled to Orkney last year because I had been to all of the locations mentioned there and everywhere else in Scotland, even the small historic town nearest to where I live got a mention.
In this book the author has decided that the Viking Thorfinn Sigurdsson and Macbeth are one and the same person, with Thorfinn taking the name Macbeth when he was baptised a Christian.
Times were very violent in 11th century Scotland and leaders/kings often didn’t last all that long back then with Viking raiders and more local rivals vying to be top dog. So as with Dorothy Dunnett’s other books – it’s all go – never a dull moment.
I found this one to be a lot more straightforward than some of her others. The endpapers feature a detailed family tree of the Kings of Scotland (Alba) and the Earls of Northumbria (England), but I didn’t need to refer to them. I can imagine that I’ll re-read this one though as I’m sure I’ll get even more enjoyment out of it the next time around.
As it happens I was walking in Birnam Wood a couple of days ago, but I did a post about it way back in 2010 (where does the time go?!) so if you want to have a look at some of the ancient trees have a look here. The photos don’t give an impression of how big they are.
The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1955 and my copy is a Book Club hardback from that date. This is more of a mystery/adventure book and is quite light on the romance – which is fine by me.
Captain John Staples has recently left the army after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he had a bit of a reputation for being crazy amongst his fellow officers and he’s finding civilian life a bit boring, especially when he has to go to a family wedding in Derbyshire. The women in his extended family seem keen to find a wife for him, but they’re disappointed when he leaves the wedding early.
Looking for an inn to spend the night in John – or Jack as he’s generally known to his friends – gets lost and eventually reaches a roadside toll-gate which is being ‘manned’ by Ben a young and scared boy all on his own. It transpires that Ben’s father has gone missing and Ben fears the worst. Jack decides that he must find out what is going on.
This is a good light read with likeable characters and a plethora of Regency slang.
You might think that a toll-gate dates a book immediately to a certain era but it’s only a couple of years since we had to stump up all of 40 pence in the dead of night on a rural road somewhere around the English midlands. In fact not that long ago I saw such a house and business for sale in the Guardian, you would have to be a keen home body though as you would never be able to leave the place!
Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett is the sixth and last book in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles although in truth this series could just as easily have been named Philippa’s Chronicles. It was first published in 1975.
I loved this series and although I rarely re-read books as I have too many books that I want to read for the first time around, I can see that I might read this series again after a few years. Towards the end of this one I feared that it was going to be an unhappy ending to rival Thomas Hardy’s books, but – it wasn’t. It was however a great read.
Lymond had been determined to go back to Russia where he was almost certainly going to be executed by the Tsar, his friends are determined to stop him and with Philippa’s help he is taken to France. He’s not happy about it, but they are still waiting for their divorce and have to stay there until after the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin. Strangely Lymond intends to re-marry as soon as he gets the divorce. Philippa is still being pursued by the ever constant Austin Grey. But Philippa is only interested in finding out the truth of Lymond’s parentage and destroying any evidence that might be harmful to him.
Lymond is leading the French army against England and Spain, but back in England Mary Tudor is in ill health and having trouble with her Spanish husband Philip. It’s a time of religious upheaval with the Protestant religion gaining converts, but they’re being persecuted for their beliefs.
These books are dense with detail and not easy reads but they’re well worth the concentration needed to get the most out of them.
Lymond has been suffering from migraines, almost certainly caused by stress. As a fellow sufferer I was glad to see how Dunnett described his illness. So many people claim to have a migraine when what they have is just a bad headache, nothing like a three day hell with constant vomiting at its height and often vision impairment followed by exhaustion. I feel sure that Dunnett must have suffered from migraines herself or lived with someone who did.
The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1971 and my copy seems to be a first edition. I love the dust jacket. It is of course the fifth book in the Lymond Chronicles.
Philippa has returned from Turkey. She has contracted a marriage of convenience with Lymond, the plan is they will have the marriage annulled within a few years, that should be easy as it hasn’t been consummated.
Meanwhile Lymond has travelled to Russia with his band of mercenaries and it isn’t long before he has gained yet another title – Voevoda Bolshoia, head of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s army. Any position that brings you close to Ivan is a precarious one as his moods and rages are a danger to all around him.
But Ivan is keen to modernise his country and to bring wealth to it through trading. Reluctantly the Tsar parts with Lymond to allow him to sail to England with ships full of goods and Osep Nepeja who is to be the first Russian ambassador to England.
In England Mary Tudor is Queen and married to Philip of Spain. She is praying to have a child and is busy having thousands of Protestants burnt at the stake as offerings to her God, presumably hoping that she’ll be sent a child from God for doing her best to support Catholicism. Life in England is almost as dangerous as life in Russia.
I loved this one and went straight on to Checkmate, the last in the Lymond series.
Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh was published in 2004 and at 149 pages it’s a very quick read, and unusually for the author it’s historical fiction.
The setting is London 1593, it has been a bad year with the plague ravaging the inhabitants and threats of war abroad. The playwright Christopher Marlowe has been taken to London from his patron’s country house, under arrest. He has no idea what has caused this change in his luck, but he has been hauled in front of the Privy Council before and survived, he hopes to wriggle out of danger again.
Marlowe had a great success in the past with his play Tamburlaine and it turns out that someone has been pasting blasphemous and atheistic posters all around the city signed Tambourlaine. Marlowe is being blamed for them and the penalty is death, but the Privy Council really want Marlowe to dig up evidence against Sir Walter Raleigh as they’re keen to get rid of him, and they give Marlowe three days of freedom to come up with the goods.
Marlowe knows that someone had given the Privy Council some of his private papers in an effort to incriminate him, and he spends his time trying to track down his betrayer.
I really enjoyed this one. I didn’t know anything at all about Christopher Marlowe beyond that he was a playwright, a contemporary of Shakespeare, a homosexual and of course he famously got murdered in an argument over a tavern bill. It seems to me though that Welsh has written an entertaining and plausible tale around him. Inevitably there’s some homosexual sex involved in this book, if you’re squeamish about that then this book might not be for you.