The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

 The House on the Strand cover

I had a feeling that I might have read The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier way back in the early 1970s. It was first published in 1969, but I definitely hadn’t read it before. The reason I wanted to read it is that a couple of weeks ago I caught the back end of a programme which mentioned that many readers said that Rebecca was their favourite du Maurier book, but older readers tended to plump for The House ion the Strand. I enjoyed this one but although it’s years since I read Rebecca I think I still prefer that one.

This is a time shift tale with the action split between the late 1960s and 1332, the setting is of course Cornwall.

Dick is married to an American widow who has two young sons, but at the beginning of the book he is on his own, waiting for his family to arrive at the house which has been loaned to them by his friend Magnus. Magnus is a professor, a scientist who has a laboratory in the basement of the house. Dick’s relationship with his wife Vita is a difficult one, not helped by Magunus’s attitude to his marriage.

Magnus asks Dick to be a guinea pig, helping in research he has been carrying out. It means that Dick has to take some liquid and report to Magnus what effects it has on him. For Dick the effects are amazing, he’s whisked back to 1332, where he can see what is going on in the area around the house he is living in. Although there seems to be no evidence of buildings which existed it seems that there was a lot going on. There was a priory and large farmhouses and Dick is a witness to murders and intrigue, without being able to do anything about them. When the effects of the liquid wear off he’s violently ill, but is unable to stop himself from repeating the experiment, wanting to find out what happens to the people who he is convinced used to live in the neighbourhood.

When Vita and the boys arrive it isn’t so easy for him to find time to take the liquid, and his behaviour causes problems with Vita

Actually it was the contemporary part of the book which didn’t ring quite true for me, mainly because I couldn’t believe in the relationship between Dick and Vita. He supposedly loved her but it seemed to be a sort of love/dislike thing and I must admit that there didn’t seem to be much to like about her.

I intend to read all of her books and only have a few still to read I think. So far I have enjoyed The King’s General most – apart from Rebecca. This book did make me think that I would like to read more about the history of the 14th century – and wouldn’t you know it – this did feature the Black Death!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I finished The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel this afternoon, so that took me eight days to read the 882 pages, I could have been faster, but I savoured every word. This last book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy was well worth waiting for, but I can hardly believe that it has been eight years since Bring Up the Bodies was published. I don’t go in for much in the way of re-reading but I intend to read the whole trilogy again at some point in the future.

If you’re at all interested in the history of the Tudors then you obviously know how this story ends, but despite that 874 pages before Cromwell’s execution are still a riveting read and from about half-way through I slowed down my reading, not wanting the book to finish and at the end I felt quite bereft, knowing that I was going to miss being in Cromwell’s company.

Well, none of us is perfect and he had a lot of flaws, but given the circumstances he could have been an awful lot worse than he was and in the end it was his lack of brutality and cruelty to others at Henry’s court that brought his downfall.

Cromwell had always been able to see that given Henry’s nature the possibility of swiftly falling out of the king’s favour was almost inevitable, he could have sailed to Italy or some other European country with some of his wealth, but he left it too late as he loved being at the centre of power.

Throughout the book Cromwell thinks back to scenes in his life from his childhood on, replaying the abuses that he had to put up with from his blacksmith father Walter, and his life in Italy as a young man, the loss of his wife and daughters and before that the loss of his ‘Anselma’, for me this had the effect of a man drowning and seeing his past life playing out in front of him. He could clearly see where he had gone wrong, what he should have done differently in his incredible career but at the time he didn’t think he could do anything different. In reality though he knew that if Henry wanted rid of someone it was going to happen, there was no getting away from it.

I was really glad that Hilary Mantel wrote three and a half pages of author’s notes explaining what had happened to many of the other characters in the book, as it saved me from having to look them all up. She explained that she had been given encouragement from many historians, academics, curators and actors over the years which had included many distinguished names but had decided not to compile a list of acknowledgments. She thought that it would be like a vulgar exercise in name-dropping. I think that’s a bit of a shame as I imagine that if I had been one of those people I would have been expecting such an acknowledgement, and as a reader I would have been interested to know who had contributed help over the years.

Anyway, I suspect that this one will also win the Booker, it’s a great read.

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Black Sheep cover

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1966 and my copy seems to be a first edition. If you’re wondering which book to read next from your to be read stacks and you just can’t make up your mind – as I often can’t, then a Georgette Heyer book will always hit the spot – I find.

The setting is Bath where unmarried sisters Abigail and Selina Wendover share the custody of their seventeen year old niece Fanny. Fanny’s parents are dead but have left her very well off when she comes of age, meaning that she’s a prey to all fortune-hunters – a type of beast which haunts the streets of Bath.

Stacy Calverleigh also inherited a large fortune but he has run through it all with his serious gambling habit and in no time at all he’s targetting Fanny for her money, and she very quickly believes she’s in love with him. But her Aunt Abigail knows of Stacy Calverleigh’s reputation and is determined to protect Fanny from him.

This brings Abigail into the society of Stacy’s Uncle Miles. He is the Black Sheep of his family and was sent out of the way to India to find his fortune (or fail) twenty years ago. Miles Calverleigh has just returned from India for good but he isn’t interested in his nephew, he’s enamoured of Abigail. But she believes Miles is a bad lot, she knows that he was expelled from Eton before being packed off to India, so she’s not interested in him.

If you’ve already read Georgette Heyer’s books you’ll know that there’s a lot of witty dialogue involved. The blurb on the inside dustcover says:

Black Sheep is one of Miss Heyer’s lighter-hearted romances, with a charming heroine and a most intriguing hero – mysterious, good humoured, cynical, outrageous and in the end irresistible.

A good read.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

 The King's Evil cover

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor was published in 2019 and it’s the third book in his Marwood and Lovett series, the first one being The Fire Court and the second book The Ashes of London. It’s 1667 now, so just after the Great Fire of London and the city is obviously still in turmoil with homeless refugees forming lawless camps outside the city.

A body has been discovered down a well and Marwood is asked to investigate it. It turns out that it’s the body of Edward Alderley who is Cat Lovett’s cousin and a person that Cat despises for all sorts of reasons, not least because his branch of their family has robbed Cat of her inheritance. Marwood fears that Cat is the culprit since she had previously attacked Alderley, as she has disappeared things look very black for her, but Marwood is determined to save her from the noose. Obviously Marwood has to discover who the real murderer is.

As ever I’m not saying too much about the plot, suffice to say that for me there were plenty of surprises and interesting characters as well as historical details.

These books are so atmospheric of just how I imagine London to have been in the reign of Charles II. A dangerous place to be with huge differences in the wealth and poverty of the population – actually nothing much has changed in that regard in London!

The King's Evil End Papers

I really love the endpapers of this book however the publishers state that they are a map of the area of London affected by the Great Fire in 1666. This is obviously wrong and I suppose this is meant to show the type of grand house – Clarendon House, which appears in the book.

Ravenspur by Conn Iggulden

 Ravenspur cover

Ravenspur (Rise of the Tudors) by Conn Iggulden was published in 2016 and is the last in the author’s Wars of the Roses series which I’ve really enjoyed, although as you would expect some are better than others. This one wasn’t my favourite but it’s still a really good read and crucially the whole thing made that era of English history a lot clearer to me.

King Edward IV (York) who snatched the throne from the ill King Henry VI (Lancaster) is forced to flee the country when the Lancaster contingent gained ascendancy again. Edward had let himself go and spent his time drinking, eating and womanising. His wife, Elizabeth Woodville has had to grab her children and run to nearby sanctuary in Westminster Abbey where she hopes they’ll be safe, but she has spent years making enemies as she took nepotism to new highs, convincing the king to give all of her family money and status, to the detriment of others at court.

It isn’t long before Edward is back in England again raising an army to depose Henry and put him back in the tower. The shock kills Henry and King Edward returns to his high living which eventually ends in his early death at the age of 40. His brother Richard sets to work to get rid of Edward’s sons who should be the next in line to the throne, albeit through a regent as the eldest is only 12 or so. Richard has Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage declared as invalid and therefore all their children illegitimate making Richard next in line. I doubt if he really relished the thought of wearing the crown however with things as they were it was probably the best way of surviving – at least for a while. Three years pass and Richard is killed in battle when the Tudors decide it’s their time to be in power.

I think this is the weakest book in the series but if you’ve read the first three then you’ll want to read this one too. Warning – there are an awful lot of Henrys and Edwards!

The Summer Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine by Elizabeth Chadwick

 The Summer Queen cover

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick is subtitled Eleanour of Aquitane, History’s most powerful woman and it’s a hefty read at 478 pages. This is the first book by Chadwick that I’ve read and to begin with I was quite surprised as at times it’s a bit of a bodice ripper. I think on balance I prefer my historical fiction reading to lean more towards the battles fought rather than what goes on in the bedroom or in a secluded corner for that matter. I nearly gave up on it but I will definitely read the next one in this trilogy as I ended up enjoying it.

Eleanor’s mother was already dead when her father went off on a pilgrimage to Compostela and died on the journey. Her father had asked for his daughter to be protected by the King of France and taken into his household. Inevitably as Eleanor is heir to Aquitaine and very rich the king arranges a marriage between her and his son and heir Louis. Eleanor is only about 13 years old, but such was life in those days. Soon Louis and Eleanor are king and queen of France, but what had been an unexpectedly happy marriage turns sour when Louis becomes increasingly more pious and influenced by dubious advisers and hangers on.

As I knew absolutely nothing about Eleanor of Aquitaine I naturally wondered how much of this story was known history and how much research the author had done. Reading the Author’s Notes at the back of the book I was somewhat relieved to see that there is a Select Bibliography of history books mentioned however, when she mentioned using Akashic Records and a psychic perspective to fill in the blanks and explore what happened in the past I was really put off – what nonsense – what’s wrong with using your imagination?!

The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter

 Bruce Trilogy cover

The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter is the second book in his Robert the Bruce trilogy. The first one The Steps to the Empty Throne ended with the disastrous battle of Methven in Perthshire, when Bruce and his army were attacked during the night as they slept. That made Bruce realise that he would have to ditch his chivalric behaviour and adopt dirty tactics as the English King Edward I did. Previously The Bruce and King Edward I had been fairly friendly and the two countries had been on good terms.

In this book Scotland’s main castles are inhabited by the English as are many smaller castles and strongholds. King Robert is having a hard time with people who don’t recognise him as king and as usual the many clans in Scotland who have been at each other’s throats for generations are still causing problems. When he learns that his wife, daughter and sister have been taken prisoner by King Edward, and that they and his brothers had been handed to the English by a fellow Scot – the Earl of Ross – the gloves are off so to speak, especially when he’s told that the women have been hung in cages which dangle from various city and castle walls.

The Bruce begins the task of slowly grabbing back the smaller castles from the English invaders, using the guerilla tactics he learned from William Wallace. Slashing and burning the lowland parts of Scotland which the invading English army had to pass through, making sure that there was nothing left for the army to eat or even any shelter for them. That must have been heartbreaking for Bruce as the Border country had been his. There’s a lot of fighting in this book, interspersed with some bedroom action which I suppose is Tranter’s attempt to sex it up and bring in some variety.

This was a good read which ends on a high with the Battle of Bannockburn where Bruce used his knowledge of the surrounding land close to Stirling to win against a massive English army led by Edward II. I hadn’t realised quite how huge the English army had been, when the first of them marched into the Stirling area the end of the army was still marching through Edinburgh over twenty miles away! It must have been a terrifying sight.

Unfortunately I’ll have to wait a while before reading the last of this trilogy as I had to take the omnibus edition back to the library instead of updating it as someone else had requested it. I have plenty of other books to choose from though and will take a rest from historical fiction for a wee while.

Bloodline – Wars of the Roses by Conn Iggulden

Bloodline cover

Bloodline – Wars of the Roses by Conn Iggulden is the third book in this series, it begins in Winter 1461 and two men have been given the scary and disgusting task of impaling the heads of Richard Neville – Earl of Salisbury, Richard – Duke of York, and his young son Edmund on spikes mounted above the Micklegate which is one of the gateways into the walled city of York. They had been ordered to do it by Queen Margaret after her troops won the Battle of Wakefield. Margaret is calling the shots as her husband King Henry VI is yet again too ill to carry out his duties as king. She’s determined to put an end to the ambitions of the rival families for the throne, but as was predicted by one of her victims – she just succeeds in making the surviving family members determined to make Margaret, Henry and their supporters pay for their actions.

If you don’t like reading about battles then this one won’t be for you as the whole book lurches from one battle to another although the descriptions aren’t usually too gory, and for me I found the intricacies of the armour, weaponry and battle tactics interesting.

This series has made the Wars of the Roses era so much clearer to me and I haven’t had to refer to the family trees at the front of the book too often. There are so many Edwards, Henrys and Richards though and of course their titles to contend with too. But I’ve already requested Ravenspur which is the fourth book in this series from the library so it won’t be too long before I’ll be reading that one.

Six in Six 2019 edition

six

I’m a bit late with this but I’ve decided to join in with Jo at The Book Jotters Six in Six, you can read about it here.

You look over the first six months of the year and choose six books in six different categories. So here goes!

Six Historical Fiction books

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Dunstan by Conn Iggulden
The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter
Stormbird by Conn Iggulden
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Six books for children (of all ages)

Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers
The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden
Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson
Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery


Six non-fiction books

The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel
To the River by Olivia Laing
Jane Austen’s England by Maggie Lane
Independence by Alasdair Gray
Off in a Boat by Neil Gunn
A Capital View by Alyssa Popiel

Six books by Scottish authors

The Chronicles of Carlingford by Mrs Oliphant
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
Homespun by Annie S. Swan
Gone are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

Six crime fiction books

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull
Murder with Malice by Nicholas Blake
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards
The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor
The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons


Six classics

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope
Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Transformation by Mary Shelley
The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

This has been a good exercise for me. I knew that I had been reading more historical fiction than usual over the last six months, but hadn’t really thought that my crime fiction reading had tailed off quite so much. I intend to put that right over what is left of 2019.

Are any of these books favourites of yours?

Trinity by Conn Iggulden

 Trinity cover

Trinity by Conn Iggulden is the second book in his Wars of the Roses trilogy and it was published in 2014.

The date is 1454 and King Henry VI is still haunted by a mystery illness which has him in a vacant and sleepy state for months on end, unable to take any part in ruling of his kingdom. Inevitably this has led to those who are close to the throne casting their eyes in that direction. The actual heir to the throne is Henry’s small son and his mother Queen Margaret fears for the future, but she’s no shrinking violet and is determined to keep control of the realm while King Henry is out of commission. Men and families are taking sides, either supporting the King or Richard, Duke of York, who is supposedly the Protector of the Realm. Lancaster or York, which side are you on?

I really loved this one although there is a lot of fighting in it. I was particularly interested in the Battle of St Albans with soldiers crashing through houses and gardens to get to the enemy. It’s a place I haven’t been though and I wonder if they have interesting historical notes carved into the paving stones – as they do in Worcester where fighting went on within that town in a later time of English conflict.

I’m really looking forward to reading the last in this series.