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.

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

 The Last Protector cover

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor is set in London 1668 where Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard has arrived clandestinely from France where he has been living. With the restoration of the King after the end of Cromwell’s Commonwealth following the civil war, Richard had been laden down with his father’s debts and he was in France to avoid his debtors. He’s really homesick for the countryside and his family apparently.

Cat Lovett had been friendly with the Cromwells as a child, a supposedly chance encounter with Richard’s daughter Elizabeth leads to a rekindling of the friendship. But Cat is suspicious, especially when her husband is befriended by Elizabeth and her friend Mr Cranmore.

There’s unrest in London as the Stuart court is completely immoral and there are many papists within it. This is upsetting a lot of people, particularly the Duke of Buckingham and his supporters and it seems that there might be a plot to overthrow the king. This is worrying for Cat, the daughter of a regicide, but her husband has always supported the Cromwells and he can’t be persuaded that he’s putting them in danger. Can Marwood protect Cat?

This is the fourth book in Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series and I’m really looking forward to reading the next one The Royal Secret which is due to be published later this week.

The books are atmospheric and informative. The Guardian said of it: ‘This is historical crime at its dazzling best.’

Kingmaker Divided Souls by Toby Clements

 Kingmaker Divided Souls cover

Kingmaker Divided Souls by Toby Clements was first published in 2016 and it’s the second book in the author’s Kingmaker series which begins with Winter Pilgrims, the second one is Broken Faith. I hadn’t read either of those ones as I was given this book by a friend who had bought two copies by mistake (we’ve all done it) and as I had recently read Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series I thought I would manage this one history wise anyway – which I did.

Toby Clements’s series seems to concentrate on telling the story from an ordinary person’s point of view rather than through an exalted character, so it’s all quite domestic and doesn’t have an awful lot of battles in it although there is some fighting.

The story begins just after Easter in 1469, Thomas and Katherine Everingham have built a little home for themselves on their employer’s land, but everything changes for them when their boss dies suddenly and his widow’s sons arrive to take over the running of the estate and they reluctantly have to leave their home and workplace and take to the road again with some friends, one of whom is heavily pregnant.

It looks very much like war is about to break out again with the Earl of Warwick conspiring against King Edward, mainly because of the behaviour of the king’s in-laws. The earl is scouring the countryside to gather up a large army to attack the king, but Thomas and his friends have had enough of fighting in their lifetime – not that they have much choice.

This was a really good read with adventure, intrigue and some great characters.

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor

 An Edinburgh Reel cover

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor was first published in 1968. I’ve been reading a fair few books set in historic Edinburgh recently and this is another one. The setting is mainly around the Royal Mile, six years after the battle of Culloden, so 1752.

Christine has left her family home of Strathdallin in the Highlands to go and meet her father in Edinburgh, it’s her first visit to the capital and she’s not impressed as the place stinks. So although her family home at Strathdallin had been trashed by the Redcoats after the battle and there are only a few rooms left standing and the roof is leaking, she’s still homesick for the place. Living in a couple of freezing rooms at the top of a tenement building doesn’t suit her at all, despite having friendly but much better off relatives living in the same building.

John Murray, her father has spent most of the past six years in France after he managed to escape from a prison hulk after his capture, he knows that he had been betrayed by another Scotsman after Culloden but doesn’t know his name. He’s still a loyal Jacobite and is determined to get back at whoever betrayed him.

When Christime first sees her father she’s shocked that the he doesn’t look at all like the handsome tall man that she remembers. She must only have been nine years old in 1745 and she has grown while her father seems so old and shrunken, he has permanent health problems because of his treatment by the English and his estate has been seized by the government, so they are penniless.

Christine is worried for her father as he’s in danger of getting dragged into another Jacobite plot and ending his days kicking on the end of a rope.

This was a great read, very atmospheric with a wee bit of a romance too. I’m sure that Iona McGregor got it exactly right when she has the wealthy Edinburgh inhabitants getting all teary eyed and sentimental over the songs sung about ‘The Chevalier’ – despite the fact that most of them hadn’t been supporters of the Jacobites during the Rising.

This book was apparently aimed at children aged 11 and over, but like all well written books it’s appreciated by people of all ages.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond  cover

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare was first published in 1958 and it’s a Newbery Medal winner. I must admit that I had never even heard of this author until I was very kindly sent a copy of the book by Jennifer of Holds on Happiness.

It’s 1687 and Katherine (Kit) Tyler is on board the Dolphin, sailing from the Caribbean island of Antigua to New England. Kit had had a very luxurious life, her parents were both dead and it was her grandfather who had brought her up, he was a titled plantation owner, but when he died there were lots of debts and Kit had to sail to her only known relative, her mother’s sister – Aunt Rachel. Aunt Rachel lived in Wethersfield, a small town in the Connecticut Colony. The town is a horrible culture shock to Kit who is used to the lush countryside of Antigua, the ‘roads’ in Wethersfield are just dirt tracks and the houses are all wooden shacks.

Her Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew Wood get a bigger shock though when Kit arrives at their cabin, she hadn’t told them she would be arriving and it’s obvious that she’s not really welcome. Life for them is already difficult with just two daughters, one of them crippled, and no boys to help Matthew with the farm work. Kit had never had to do any house or field work before, she had had a slave to help her in Antigua, but had had to sell her slave to pay for her passage on the Dolphin.

Life in the Wood household is hard and joyless, as it is in the whole town, it’s a Puritan colony and they are suspicious of people who aren’t like them, and Kit with her beautiful silk dresses is suspect, she can read and she can even swim, some think she might be a witch. The locals dislike anyone different from them and particularly hate the elderly Quaker woman who lives in a shack near the river.

This was a really entertaining read. It was good to be in the company of Kit who is a strong character, determined to do the right thing despite the evil tongues of some of the locals. After some angst there is a very happy ending for all, just what I was needing at the moment.

I imagine that as this book was at one point required reading in US schools some of you will be familiar with this one. Thanks again Jenny for sending me this one.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

 The Christmas Card Crime cover

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt was published in 2009 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year.

The book begins in London 1895 in the South Kensington museum where Prosper Cain, an ex-army officer is Special Keeper of Precious Metals. His son Julian is home from school due to illness and he notices a young boy who is intently drawing one of the exhibits. Julian follows the boy when he disappears into the bowels of the museum and catches up with him. Philip has run away from his poverty stricken home in the Potteries and he’s hoping that one day he will be able to make wonderful pottery himself.

Olive Wellwood, a famous children’s author is also in the museum, visiting Prosper Cain and she takes Philip home to her large house near Rye and so begins a tale which spans 25 years of British social and political history with many of the influential people of the times having bit parts. William Morris, H.G. Wells, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, the Pankhursts, the Arts and Crafts Movement, The Fabians. It’s all there, as are the wars.

Through it all runs the story of Olive Wellwood’s extended family and friends. Olive writes very successful fairy tales, supporting her family and husband with her earnings, but when each of her children are born she writes them their own story which she adds to over the years. It’s a charming idea for small children but has a detrimental effect on some. On the surface the Edwardian lives are idyllic but all is not well, the adults have been living double lives and the children/young adults have been used and abused in all sorts of ways, nothing is as it seems.

I loved this book which I’ll probably give five stars on Goodreads even although there are a few times when Byatt goes off on a tangent for just a few pages which probably should have been edited out. Otherwise I loved the writing, which was a good surprise for me as I’m sure that I abandoned one of her earlier books because I didn’t like her writing style, but I can’t say that for this one. I also learned quite a lot of historical facts about an era that I thought I was already well acquainted with.

Byatt really threw herself into this one and says that she had a lot of help from specialists on World War 1, women’s suffrage, Austrian theatre, the history of women’s colleges, public schools and she even had a go at sticking her hands in wavering clay, for the experience.

This isn’t a comfort read, in fact it’s quite uncomfortable at times but I found it to be a great read and surely it would have won the Man Booker Prize if Wolf Hall hadn’t been shortlisted in the same year. At one point I thought that the character of Olive Wellwood must have been modelled on the children’s author E. Nesbit, but then she was mentioned in the book. She was one of those poor women who were in The Fabian Society which at that time seems to have been mainly formed by men who wanted ‘free love’ at the expense of the women they took up with. On a personal note I was so glad that we had visited Rye in Sussex in 2019 as the town and the famous Mermaid Inn feature in this book, it’s good to be able to imagine it, although nowadays if you’re really keen you can go onto Google Street to see any locations in books.

The Turquoise by Anya Seton

 The Turquoise cover

I think it took me longer to read The Turquoise by Anya Seton than War and Peace or Wolf Hall, and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as either of those ones – and it only has 352 pages. For me the first half of this book really dragged, so I only read it at bedtime instead of during the day too as I do with books that I am really engrossed in. The book was first published in 1946.

Doctor Andrew Cameron is an estranged Scot living in New Mexico where he has travelled to after a row with his aristocratic father back in Scotland. He marries a young Spanish woman and has to stand by helpless as she bleeds to death after the birth of their daughter. The Calvinist doctor doesn’t want to call his daughter after a Catholic saint, he comes to a compromise to please his dying wife and calls her Santa Fe after the place they live. He will call her Fey. Seven years later Andrew dies while on a call to help another doctor. It’s a blow to his own patients, but they had grown to love him and one family happily took Fey into their own family, especially as it meant that they took all the doctor’s furniture and belongings too.

When Fey reaches a marriageable age she’s not interested in settling down to the life that the other young women are happy to live, she longs to be rich and have an easy life. But when Terry, a travelling medicine man comes to town she’s captivated by his charm. A quick and possibly illegal marriage follows, but of course Terry isn’t going to hang around long, the pair travel to New York City and in no time Terry has abandoned Fey.

That doesn’t hold Fey back though and she ends up marrying a very rich man, but when Terry appears on the scene again it can only lead to disaster for them all.

The second half of the book was a bit more interesting but it didn’t quite hit the spot for me anyway, despite plenty of references to Scotland and Fey’s inherited Highland ‘second sight’. Fey isn’t a very likeable character so that was a problem for me.

I still have Anya Seton’s Katherine to read, I hope it’s more enjoyable than this one. I must say though that the author was good at Scots dialect dialogue, I wonder if she got soneone else to write those parts for her. Seton is of course a Scottish surname so possibly there was Scots blood somewhere in her background.

Have you read any of her books?

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

 In a Dark Wood Wandering  cover

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse was first published in Dutch in the Netherlands in 1949 but wasn’t published in English until 1989. It was one of my 20 Books of Summer and although I finished it in August I didn’t manage to review it then. The setting is 15th century France during the Hundred Years War. The French King Charles VI is not a well man, described as being mad but he has periods of lucidity over many years. His wife Queen Isabeau is in charge of things for most of the time and she manages to keep her husband isolated, even from his brother Louis d’Orleans. Isabeau hates Louis wife Valentin and after Valentin gives birth to a son Isabeau turns everyone against her, accusing Valentin of being a witch and causing the king’s illness. For her own safety Valentin has to leave the court. Louis isn’t really interested in power but given that he’s the king’s brother he can’t help being involved in the power struggle between the dukes of Burgundy, Berry and Bourbon.

Again and again Louis d’Orleans’ actions show that he isn’t cut out for leadership anyway, poetry is his favourite pastime and he has plenty of time to compile it when he is taken for ransom by the English after the Battle of Agincourt and spends 25 years as a prisoner in England.

This book is 574 pages long and is a great read. Over decades the book was translated by Edith Kaplan, Kalman Kaplan and Anita Miller. The writing is really descriptive, such as the scene before the Battle of Agincourt:

The moon hid behind clouds; a fine, even cold rain fell. There was no wind, but the raw damp of the long night seemed far less bearable than a dry cold. On the muddy plain the French army stood with its vast camp of tents: hundreds of bonfires smouldered in the dank mist. Torches flashed like comets through the darkness. Flags and banners hung limply; from the pointed tops of the tents water trickled down the gold and silver escutcheons.

If you want to read a much more detailed review of this book have a look at Helen at She Reads Novels thoughts here.

Six in Six – 2020 edition – My Choices

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For the first time I’m participating in Six in Six which is hosted by Jo at The Book Jotter. The idea is that you choose six books that you’ve read in the last six months, from six different categories, click the links if you want to read my thoughts on the books.

Six books by Scottish authors:

1. Agatha Raisin and the Dead Ringer by M.C. Beaton
2. The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson
3. A Rope in Case by Lilian Beckwith
4. Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson
5. My Friends the Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan
6. The Double Image by Helen MacInnes

Six historical fiction books:

1. Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer
2. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
3. Joseph Knight by James Robertson
4. Young Bess by Margaret Irwin
5. Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin
6. Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

Six books in translation:

1. East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen
2. The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal
3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhael Bulgakov
4. Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada
5. Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz
6. Snow by Orhan Pamuk (still to be reviewed)


Six children’s books:

1. Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean
2. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
3. Eight Cousins by L.M. Montgomery
3. The Mousewife by Rumer Godden
4. Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome
5. From the Mixed- Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
6. The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting


Six vintage crime books:

1. The Blind Side by Patricia Wentworth
2. Hide My Eyes by Margery Allingham
3. The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham
4. The Case of the Famished Parson by George Bellairs
5. Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg
6. Out of the Past by Patricia Wentworth

Six by new to me authors:

1. Young Bess by Margaret Irwin
2. The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson
3. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
4. The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr
5. Merlin Dreams by Peter Dickinson
6. Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz

I’ve really enjoyed compiling this post and I’ve also learned a lot from it. I hadn’t realised that so far this year I’ve not read much in the way of vintage crime when compared with past years, and my reading of classics has just about fallen off a cliff this year – so far. I’m putting that down to the appearance of Coronavirus/Covid 19 in the world as I’ve been concentrating on reading lighter fiction, especially at the beginning.

Thanks for organising this Jo.

The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd – 20 Books of Summer

The House of Doctor Dee cover

The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd was first published in 1993 and it has probably been in our house since around that date – on Jack’s shelves – but the title just jumped out at me a couple of weeks ago, probably because I had seen the name in the Maragret Irwin book I had been reading then. I decided to add it to my 20 Books of Summer list. I think this is number 6 for me that I’ve read from my list so far and it’s the first book that I’ve read by this author, but won’t be the last.

Matthew Palmer has inherited a house from his father, it’s in London’s Clerkenwell and nobody had known that it had been owned by the father. Matthew is intrigued as you would expect and even more so when he visits the house and realises that it’s actually very old. As Matthew is a historical researcher it’s right up his street. But the house has a strange atmosphere, especially in the cellar which must at one time have been the ground floor but has sunk over the last five or so centuries. Strangely Matthew’s friend Daniel seems to be familiar with the house already.

Looking through some of his father’s papers Matthew realises that his father was engaged in his own historical research, based on the writings of Doctor Dee who was a 16th century alchemist, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, and some say was a sorcerer. He certainly managed to escape death when he was arrested by Mary Tudor’s henchmen and taken to the tower, accused of trying to murder the queen using sorcery.

The narrative flits between Matthew’s thoughts and problems and Doctor Dee’s thoughts, research and home life and there’s a sense of spooky creepiness permeating the contemporary Clerkenwell house. It’s a good and interesting read.

The blurb on the back from the Sunday Telegraph says:

‘He is such a master of mood, tension, angst, foreboding, frisson, but also of tenderness and exaltation, that one is drawn into his tale as by a magus.’

The cover is of a portrait of Doctor Dee which is apparently in the Ashmolean Museum, but the artist is unknown. Dee certainly looks the part though.