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

six

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.

Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain by Margaret Irwin

 Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain cover

Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain by Margaret Irwin was first published in 1953 and it’s the third in the trilogy which begins with Young Bess with the second one being Elizabeth, Captive Princess.

Although I really enjoyed this one I didn’t love it as much as Young Bess, I’m sure that that is because the subject of that one is more interesting and speculative as well as suspenseful. Mind you there is always suspense, or certainly there would have been for Elizabeth herself as her life was held in the hands of Queen Mary, her rather flaky half-sister. Not that Mary Tudor really acknowledged her as she preferred to believe – or pretended to believe – that Elizabeth was not Henry VIII’s daughter but was the daughter of Smeaton, the music teacher who had been accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn.

Anyway, this one begins in 1554, Philip has been told that he must marry Queen Mary Tudor, he’s not keen to do it, she’s years older than him, sickly and he’s happy with his own choice of woman with whom he has had several children. The prospect of living in the notoriously damp and cold England doesn’t attract him either but it’s a political marriage, forming an alliance between England and Spain against France. It would also strengthen the English Catholic ties to Rome which had been broken by Henry VIII.

Philip’s father had been keen on Princess Elizabeth being executed before Philip sailed for England, he saw her existence as a threat. When Queen Mary died he wanted Philip to become King of England which wouldn’t be so easy with a daughter of Henry VIII in the foreground.

We’ll never know what the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth was but as Elizabeth survived I think it’s fair to say that she must have exerted her charms and her political instincts to do so, at the same time as managing to keep on the right side of Mary who was an awkward character at the best of times but as she was always ill and was jealous of her beautiful half-sister then Elizabeth must truly have felt that the sword of Damocles was constantly hanging over her.

Despite obviously knowing the outcome of this story the author managed to create an atmosphere of fear and suspense.

It was a surprise to me that Philip II was described as being silver fair, not at all as I had imagined him, or he had been portrayed in any TV adaptations.

Phillip II of Spain

Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin

Elizabeth, Captive Princess cover

Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin was first published in 1948 and it’s the second book in the author’s Queen Elizabeth I trilogy. I really enjoyed the first book Young Bess and although I didn’t like this one quite as much, I’ll definitely be reading the third book Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain.

The book begins at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire where the Lady Elizabeth is living. A messenger had arrived from Duke Dudley an hour or so ago and everyone had guessed why he was there. The young and ailing King Edward must have died so Elizabeth must ride to London, but the messenger has apparently come with a plea from Edward for his sister Elizabeth to visit him. At first Elizabeth is keen to go, but then she thinks better of it. Both Elizabeth and her elder half-sister have been proclaimed to be illegitimate by their father Henry VIII which leads to the possibility of Lady Jane Grey being next in line to the throne.

As Duke Dudley has recently married his son Guildford off to Lady Jane Grey Elizabeth smells a rat. If she goes to London will she end up being taken to the Tower, never to be seen again like the two young princes in the past? Unknown to Elizabeth her half-sister Mary is having much the same suspicion, but as the elder of the two women she begins to travel around to rally support for her claim to the throne.

This is possibly one of the saddest eras in English history with the young Lady Jane being used and abused by her own parents, something she had grown used to over the years, but she could never have expected them to go to the lengths that they did to gain power through her.

I felt that Mary was given quite an easy time of it in this book as she really became a monster when she did attain the throne and you don’t get much idea of her cruelty and nastiness – all in the name of the Roman Catholic faith. Maybe that will be spelled out in the next volume.

The nursery rhyme
Mary, Mary quite contrary
How does your garden grow
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row

is thought by some to be written about Bloody Mary as she came to be known, due to her enthusiasm for executing non Catholics, usually having them burnt at the stake. The silver bells being part of the mass and cockle shells standing for martyrdom – I think. But others say that they were instruments of torture, something else that Mary was keen on.

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Joseph Knight cover

Joseph Knight by James Robertson was published in 2003 and it won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award 2003.

This book flips backwards and forwards from 1746 to 1802 and dates in between. The locations range from Drumossie Moor – the Battle of Culloden – Dundee, Edinburgh, Perthshire, Fife, London and Jamaica.

James Wedderburn is a young man, a Culloden survivor and at the beginning of the book he’s hiding from the English authorities, if they catch him he’s a dead man. His father, who also took part in the battle has already been captured. Eventually he and his brother make their way to Jamaica and in time become very well off landowners, making their money from the sugar cane fields that are worked by their slaves.

James had always planned to return to Scotland when he had made enough money and he does exactly that. He isn’t willing to part with his slave Joseph Knight whom he has trained up to be his personal house servant. Joseph will be seen as a prized possession and proof of his owner’s success in life. Joseph has become a Christian and is obviously an intelligent man, he wants to be free to make his own decisions in life.

The upshot of that is that he marries and goes away to live with his wife in Dundee, of course he’s a ‘kenspeckled’ figure and eventually he is arrested as a runaway. However, slavery had been outlawed in Scotland long before then so surely as soon as Joseph got to Scotland he should be a free man. A court case ensues.

The author couldn’t resist the idea of having Boswell and Johnson as minor characters, both apparently being against slavery. I suspect this was to pep up the storyline as inevitably boozing and bawdiness was the result, I’m not sure that was necessary but others might dispute that. There are scenes of brutality in Jamaica, slave owners who regarded themselves as being fair-minded were far very from that.

This is a really good read, it’s based on a true story, if you’re interested you can read more here.

The blurb on the back says: ‘A gift for witty re-imagining and a canny understanding of the novelistic and its conduits to the worlds we live in now mark Robertson as a marvellous novelist and Joseph Knight as a work of cunning and great assurance,’ Ali Smith, Guardian.

You can read Jack’s much more detailed review of this book here.

Young Bess by Margaret Irwin

Young Bess cover

Young Bess by Margaret Irwin is the first book in a trilogy about Queen Elizabeth I of England. It was first published in 1944. I’ve been reading quite a lot of historical fiction recently, I think it’s because they take you well away from the worries of today and Covid-19 although having said that they do often mention plagues and fevers. I thought that maybe this book would be disappointing after reading The Mirror and the Light – but it wasn’t, I really enjoyed it and have ordered the next one in the series.

I’ve read a fair amount about the Tudor period but hadn’t read anything about the early life of Elizabeth, who was known as Bess and I was really pleased to read that Margaret Irwin was well known for the accuracy of her historical research.

The book begins when Bess is 12 years old and her father King Henry VIII is coming to the end of his life. Henry seems to have accepted that he will only have one son – the nine year old Edward to keep the Tudor line going and is rather dismissive of his two older daughters, both of whom have been deemed to be illegitimate.

Bess is very aware of what happened to her mother, Anne Boleyn. She’s keen to hear what her mother was really like from people who knew Anne. She realises that only her sickly half brother Edward and her sister Mary stand between her and the throne. But when Tom Seymour, brother of the late Jane Seymour begins to flirt with Bess and her step-mother Katherine Parr his actions incense those in the highest circles. They can see that he’s determined to grab power one way or another. It looks like madness but as his brother Edward Seymour had made himself ‘Protector’ of the young King Edward after the death of Henry, presumably Tom thought he had some protection himself. He couldn’t have been more wrong. This was a great read.

Again I had to resort to reading my copy of the Chamber’s Biographical Dictionary to remind myself what actually happened in the end to some of the characters in the book, I just couldn’t wait to see what happened next. I’m so looking forward to getting the second book in this series – Elizabeth, Captive Princess.

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

 Niccolo Rising cover

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett is the first in a series and was first published in 1986. I really loved her Lymond series and was a bit loath to begin this new series as I didn’t think this one could match up to it, but I really enjoyed Niccolo Rising. As with the Lymond books it seemed to be non-stop action. The setting is Bruges in 1460 where Claes is an apprentice dyer who is always getting into scrapes, he’s a bit of a town fool but is very popular, especially with the young ladies.

But Claes is hiding his talents, it turns out that he has a great head for business, is able to decipher secret codes, gets on the right side of the Vatican – all of which ends up being very lucrative for his employer – the widow. But he has also made enemies as you would expect and there are attempts on his life.

Towards the end of the book his name lengthens to the original Nicholas to the disgust of some who wish to keep him in his place, and even some of his friends have doubts about his motives for some of his actions.

As you would expect from the author this is beautifully written although as ever you really have to concentrate on every word, but there’s quite a lot of humour and I was glad that I know Bruges, which can’t have changed much since the 15th century so I could picture it all.