The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho – Paterson Joseph (Dialogue 2022)

Paterson Joseph is a noted British actor of stage and screen.  I saw him most recently in the Suranne Jones starring BBC TV Drama “Vigil” playing the Commanding Officer of the beleaguered submarine.  He has now joined the sphere of actors turning to fiction writing with very worthy intentions to fill some of the gaps of pre-Windrush Black British history by giving us a fictional account of the life of this notable 18th Century character, who became the first African man to vote in a British election.  The author has been researching this life for twenty years, and has written and performed a one-man play. He has now rightly decided (if not only because of the gaps in what is actually known) to recreate the man known as Sancho as Historical Fiction.

What is done really well here is in the feel of the piece. Paterson Joseph has obviously submerged himself in the fiction of the time and without doubt in “Tristram Shandy”, the author of which, Laurence Sterne makes a brief appearance here. With a combination of a memoir intended for the main character’s son, diary entries and letters to and from his betrothed we get a real sense of Sancho and the world he inhabits.

Initially, as a child, a dress up doll/valet for three spinsters Sancho finds an entrée into society under the eye of the Duke of Montagu.  It is a precarious arrangement and there are many turns of fortune for this black man in 18th Century London.  Deemed at various times a novelty, a creative talent, a threat and a runaway slave Sancho has to wrestle with his own inconsistencies and this makes for fascinating reading.  In the eyes of some he is seen as deserving of a place in high society for others he is the lowest of the low.  How does a man come to terms with his own self-worth in such circumstances?

The early sections of this book are just splendid, as Sancho ages it grows more reflective, the tale shifts significantly to his wife-to-be Anne’s experiences in an epistolary section of the book which serves to contrast experiences outside of Britain but doesn’t work as well as the London-based writings.  Throughout there is a feel of authenticity, even when the structure (as in all actual eighteenth-century novels I have read) feels jerky.  There were areas of the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho which I felt could have been fleshed out more but I welcome the opportunity of getting to know this man through this novel.  I am thinking this could be the best actor-turned-writer novel I’ve read since 1960’s icon and model Marsha Hunt’s “Joy” from 1990.

The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho is published by Dialogue Books on 6th October 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Young Pretender- Michael Arditti (2022)

I read about the subject of this historical novel in an article in the May 2022 edition of “The Oldie” magazine.  It was written by the author and entitled “The First Child Star”.  I knew of Michael Arditti but have never read him (I do have a copy of his “The Celibate” on my shelves) and was totally fascinated by his account of his latest hero.

William Betty (1791-1874) became a hugely celebrated actor in his early teens, playing to huge acclaim and intimidating other very popular performers into semi-retirement and playing roles he was far too young to act.  This fame ended suddenly as it would do for myriads of child stars to the present day.  This novel begins when at the age of 20 he attempts to make a comeback.

In Arditti’s novel we see William going it alone.  The tutor who had so inspired and believed in him was dismissed by his manager father who has subsequently died. His first-person narrative feels authentic.  He does seem to have only sketchy memories of the time of his fame, even though it was just a few years before and is trying to piece together what caused him to fall out of favour.  This lack of memory is an effective device within the narrative but is quite a big ask for the reader to take on board and I admit to getting confused at times between the switches from Master Betty to the now Mr Betty’s attempts to emulate his success.

It is a slim novel and didn’t really get going in the way I was expecting it to.  Technically, it is impressive but perhaps the author had over-whetted my appetite in “The Oldie” article and I would have liked this fascinating, now pretty much forgotten subject to have been opened up more.  I do have a fascination for the fleeting nature of celebrity and this very early historical example is certainly worth a read.  It was always enjoyable even if it did not quite make the impression on me that I was anticipating.

The Young Pretender was published by Arcadia Books in 2022.

The Night Ship- Jess Kidd (Canongate 2022)

I’m up to date with Jess Kidd’s four adult titles.  Two strong four star works, “Himself” (2016) and “The Hoarder” (2018) paved the way for her triumphant five star Victorian London-set work “Things In Jars” (2019) which ended up in my Top 10 Books Of The Year for 2019.  I also had the pleasure of interviewing her for Issue 90 of NB magazine when her debut was published so I was very pleased to receive this pre-publication copy of her latest.

We have a dual time setting, firstly the 1628 voyage of a Dutch boat, The Batavia, setting sail towards the place it was named after (now Jakarta) with young Mayken on board accompanied by her nursemaid Imke.  The ultimate destination is a father Mayken does not know, following the death of her mother.  Running alongside this is a strand from 1989 where Gil arrives at Beacon Island on the Australian West Coast to live with a grandfather he barely knows following the death of his mother.  These characters are mirrored beautifully in the early stages and it is not long before we discover Beacon Island is where the survivors of the Batavia shipwreck ended up.  Ghosts always have a part to play in Jess Kidd’s novels, here their influence is quite subtle with the echoes of the events of the past constantly just nudging the twentieth century Australians.  Both Mayken and Gil are great characters and both become touched by supernatural elements and the folklore of sea monsters.

Jess Kidd is using the real events and people of the ill-fated Batavia voyage.  What I really love about this author’s work is how the history sparks her into imaginative realms.  This was especially so in “Things In Jars” where the developments in medicine were seamlessly incorporated into a gripping mystery novel.   I think here her desire to follow the events of what actually happened as a tribute to those who perished in the seventeenth century have stopped this from taking flight in quite the same way.  The child’s imaginations of a sea monster being present for Mayken feels a little stodgy for Gil who comes across the story of the Bunyip in a discarded book.

These are minor gripes about what is, if not an Essential five star read like “Things In Jars”, a strong novel which shows how well Jess Kidd  is  developing  as a storyteller and historian.  This is my second favourite of her four novels and should continue to enhance her reputation as one of our most effervescent writers.

The Night Ship will be published by Canongate on 11th August 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Before The Darkness – Michael Dean (2015)

The other day I was wondering what had become of the author Michael Dean.  I was reminded of his excellent novel “I, Hogarth” (2012) which was one of the first books I reviewed for NB magazine.  It was runner up in my Books Of The Year (to Michelle Lovric’s dastardly “The Book Of Human Skin” (2010)) and I revisited it here on the Blog site in 2015 in my 100 Essential Books Strand.  His depiction of the life of artist William Hogarth, I stated, “ feels like it dates from the eighteenth century and this can only be achieved through immaculate research which plunges us seamlessly into Hogarth’s London.” I haven’t read any more Dean since although I was aware of a book called “The Crooked Cross.”

These reminiscences led to a bit of research and I discovered post-Hogarth Michael Dean has been involved with a five book series sometimes known as “Darkness Into Light” and also as “The Rise And Fall Of The Nazis” of which the aforementioned “The Crooked Cross” is Book 2.

I found it as a cheap 5 volume e-book edition from Sharpe Books and remembering the excellence of “I, Hogarth” gave the first book a go.  This is an account of the events leading up to the assassination in 1922 of Weimar Republic Foreign Minister, Walter Rathenau, who was Jewish.  It is debatable whether Hitler’s rise to power would have happened without this event as Rathenau was on the verge of bringing about the renegotiation of the Treaty Of Versailles, which was one of the main causes, as we no doubt remember from school history lessons of Hitler’s ascendancy and World War II.

Story-wise this is gripping stuff. I knew nothing about Rathenau and the build-up to his demise is genuinely grim.  However, and this entailed quite a bit of double-checking to see whether this was in fact the same Michael Dean whose handling of historical fiction I had so loved before, the style is bizarre, making it one of the oddest books I have read in a while.

Dean is here very factual, outlining the events as in a non-fiction work.  There’s a messy prologue which I had to read a couple of times to make sense of and even in the main text his style seems like notes or an outline for what could have been a tremendous novel.  Occasionally, scenes are developed, particularly here in terms of Rathenau’s homosexuality which left him vulnerable to blackmail and this together with increasing hatred of his religion amongst parts of German society gives the man a very strong personal dimension to write about.  But Dean could have done so much more with this material.  The research is impeccable, but unlike in “I, Hogarth” he does not consistently do the next step of merging that research into the fiction.  This seems to be an odd stylistic choice here as this is an author who can really bring history to life.  Here his telling rather than showing his audience is off balance which feels ultimately unsatisfactory.  When the facts are developed it’s good but it is not done to an extent that I would have hoped for in this short novel.  I’m wondering if this was a kind of tacked-on prequel as it was the second in the series “The Crooked Cross” that I knew about prior to this.  All is certainly not lost and I remain interested in the series but I think that the potential to develop the life of this significant man into a superb slab of fiction has been slightly missed.

Before The Darkness was published by Sharpe Books in 2015.  It is published as a stand-alone but it is better value at the moment to buy the five book “Darkness Into Light” collection.

The Village That Died For England -Patrick Wright (1995)

December 1943- The sleepy coastal Dorset village, Tyneham, is taken over by the British Military for use as a firing range, incorporating it into neighbouring areas such as Lulworth and Bovington, already being used for manoeuvres and tanks.  The village, which included a school, church and post office is emptied of its residents who are relocated to other parts of Dorset.  They are told they can come back when the war is over.  They never return.

These are the bare bones.  It’s certainly not as simple as this idyllic bit of lost England being subsumed by officialdom suggests and Patrick Wright is on hand to tell this story which feels as British as an Ealing film comedy.

Having recently moved to Dorset after only ever holidaying here decades ago I’m finding myself stirred by long distant memories and back in the early 1980s I could recall a visit to a lost, abandoned village.  I hadn’t thought about it for years but moving here I began to wonder about it, I couldn’t even recall its name.  I saw this in Dorchester’s Waterstones and realised this was just the book to fill in the memory gaps.

I read the 1995 hardback edition from the library but it was reissued in paperback in 2021 by Repeater Books with a new introduction which brings the story up to date.

This is an unusual non-fiction choice for me and I wasn’t totally at ease with the author’s style, initially.  I found it slightly wandering to begin with and he didn’t bring me in  as a newcomer to his subject- I felt he assumed I’d know things I didn’t and with the passage of time there will be fewer of us who remember the national controversy over Tyneham which simmered from the war years onwards so a new edition would seem a good idea.

It is far less about the good, dislocated people of Tyneham than the reasons for the decisions made for them and the development of this part of the Dorset coast in National Defence.  There’s some memorable characters who made their home in this area before the war, including Rolf Gardiner, who promoted youth work camps and of whom there’s quite a bit here; the literary set of the Powys family as well as the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and her same-sex partner Valentine Ackland; the fiery squire of the Lulworth Castle who may or may not have been tainted by the Curse of Tutankhamun and who sat and watched  his castle burn down in 1929 (I’ve just found out it was restored and is now an English Heritage site).  In his bringing these people back to life Wright’s account shines brightest.

There’s some mileage to be had in the rival associations aiming to repopulate Tyneham in the late 1960s-70s where hippy idealism both works with and clashes against the established order with young firebrand Rodney Legg taking central stage.

It is more than a story of lost England as within Tyneham’s takeover and the decades spent in trying to get it back for the residents there’s really a pocket guide to the shifts in values and priorities of the nation.  Class, unsubstantiated fears and prejudices and relationships with authority all play their fascinating part in this tale which is equally complex and straightforward.  A measure of the success of this type of book is whether it makes me want to read more about the subject and although I feel that most of the texts would be bucolic reminiscences from those who lived thereabouts at the time Wright has certainly piqued my interest.  I also think a visit to Tyneham might be on the cards.

I read the Jonathan Cape 1995 hardback edition but it would probably be easier to find the 2021 Repeater paperback reissue.

The Whalebone Theatre- Joanna Quinn (Penguin 2022)

Dorset author Joanna Quinn has produced a very strong debut here.  Her depiction of the Seagrave family between 1919 and 1945 is full of wonderful moments.  The manor house at Chilcombe, a village which actually exists 10 miles from Dorchester (last estimated population in 2013 was 10!) is lovingly created and provides the central focus although the action splinters to other locations during the war years this house is the lifeblood for this novel.

A great favourite of mine is Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle” (1949) and I am regularly tempted by works which aim to get the feel of that novel, with its memorable characters, excellent set-pieces and its superb balance of being heart-warming, funny and poignant within a family setting.  Get this balance slightly off and it shows and I tend to end up not really responding positively but Joanna Quinn, whether this is an explicit aim or not, gets the feel of this type of novel beautifully and the first half was a thing of sheer of joy which I loved reading.  At the mid-way point I thought I’d got a strong contender for my Book of The Year.  From the outbreak of war, when the characters inevitably leave to play their part, I felt it slipped into more standard fare, which I still very much enjoyed but for me the real magic of the first half was not sustained.

Playing a part is an important theme of this novel.  Fish out of water Christabel is a toddler when her father arrives at Chilcombe with a new wife and the family dynamics further change in time leaving Christabel very much an outsider.  Her life changes when the corpse of an errant whale washes up on the beach.  With younger siblings and others originally encountered on the beach where the whale lies dead Christabel develops a theatre on Seagrave land using the whale bones in its construction.  The theatre where friends and family all have a part to play brings Christabel into the fold.  This “Swish Of The Curtain” aspect gives this novel  a vitality and the notion of the theatre simmers away in Christabel’s heart when war takes her far away from Chilcombe.

The war sees these memorable characters involved at home and overseas- some slip away at this point and have little part to play in future proceedings but others develop a stronger focus. Looking at my review of “I Capture The Castle” I also say that it is a book of two halves, with the first half more captivating for me than the second.  I’d actually forgotten about that when I read “The Whalebone Theatre” and even when I began writing this review but it’s interesting (for me anyway) that I felt the same way about a book I just can’t help comparing this to.

It is a splendid debut and this was enriched for me by the Dorset location, as a newcomer to the County myself I loved the references to places I have so recently visited and the mentions of my new home town in an earlier part of its history.  This book will charm and thrill many readers and could be a very pleasing commercial as well as critical success.

The Whalebone Theatre is published in the UK by Penguin on June 9th. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Theatre Of Marvels- Lianne Dillsworth (Hutchinson Heinemann 2022)

This is a debut I’ve been looking forward to and highlighted as one to watch out for in my start of the year post.  I’m feeling pleased with myself as this is the 9th of the 10 of these titles I’ve read and it’s only April!

Lianne Dillsworth has put her MA in Victorian Studies to very good use in this 1840’s London set tale which is the first person narrative of Zillah, a mixed race twenty year old.  Zillah has escaped the poor dwellings of St Giles to become the lover of a Viscount and the headline attraction of Crillick’s  Variety Theatre.  Cast as a “genuine” African native, The Great Amazonia, her tribal dances and staged sacrifices thrill and horrify the audience.  Yet Zillah is a “gaffed freak”, not at all what the theatre is making her out to be and when the secret is blown her time will be up.  An audience member, the distinguished looking Black grocer, Lucius Winter, is dismayed by this duping of the public and Zillah’s role in this and things take a sinister turn when Crillick aims to introduce more authentic exhibits as part of a new disturbing venture.

Zillah is a sparky character who begins to see the error of her ways and passing as someone you are not is a main theme here as well as the notions behind the government plans for resettlement of the London’s Black poor to Sierra Leone.  But this increasingly becomes a tale of rescue and this is done very effectively due to the author’s good story-telling skills.  I liked the Variety Theatre as a central location and the atmosphere of this is well conveyed.  This is an easy read which contains thought-provoking issues, making it a very good Book group choice.  I do feel that keeping Zillah as the narrator throughout makes it seem a little one-note, I think I might have appreciated the odd shift in narrative style as at times it feels a little “reported”.  There were incidents that I would have loved to have been fleshed out, particularly with regards to Zillah’s back story.  This is a strong debut which feels very commercial and should win the author many fans.

Theatre Of Marvels is published in hardback by Hutchinson Heinemann on April 28th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Devotion- Hannah Kent (Picador 2022)

That’s 3 out of 3 novels I’ve read now by Australian author Hannah Kent, a prospect I’d so anticipated that I highlighted this new title in my “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post.

Her 2013 debut “Burial Rites” recreated nineteenth century Iceland, incorporating Icelandic sagas into the narrative and a use of documents and reports which really impressed me but I gave the slight edge to 2017’s “The Good People” set in a nineteenth century Irish village entrenched with folklore and fairies in a dark, foreboding read.  It’s three good four star reads in a row as far as I am concerned but maybe if forced to rank them “Devotion” would be at number three.

We are still in the nineteenth century but we begin in Kay, a Prussian village and a small community of Old Lutherans facing persecution for their beliefs.  Amongst them is narrator Hanne, an adolescent who sees herself as “forever nature’s child” and as an outsider to the rest of the community content with adhering to the traditions of the forefathers.  Into this mix comes a new family, the Eichenwalds with mother Anna Maria, a midwife from outside the region, whose unconventional  treatments arouse suspicion and daughter Thea who recognises Hanne as a kindred spirit.

So far this feels like we are on typical Kent territory with her doing what she does so well evoking a small community battling with tradition and a fear of new ideas but this is very much a book of three parts, with a marked tonal shift in each.

The second part ramps up the adventure stakes with the community’s response to persecution and the third, with what happens afterwards becomes more lyrical, spiritual and poetic. Compared to her other novels this has the same focused intensity but here the plot events bring about a sense of space which gives contrast to the pressures of small space living

This is very much a love story between Hanne and Thea as suggested by the “Devotion” of the title and this is the unifying strength between the three parts.  This is touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout. 

There seems to be a 4-5 year gap between Hannah Kent’s novels, which always feel thoroughly researched and may explain this but her third novel should cement her reputation as a very good historical writer and will give new readers who come to her via this publication a chance to catch up with her work so far whilst waiting for her next book to appear.

Devotion is published in the UK on February 3rd by Picador.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Lily – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus 2021)

I haven’t read Rose Tremain for 8 years since I discovered her via her 1989 publication “Restoration”.  I absolutely loved it and it ended up in my Top 3 books for 2013. For some reason I’ve not got round to her novel from a decade later “Music & Silence” which I have had on my shelves for some years.  On reading the description of this, her latest and 16th novel, I felt it was time to revisit her as an author.

Nineteenth century settings are always going to win me over.  We start with an abandoned baby in an East London park at night and wolves who chew off her toe.  She is rescued by a Police Constable and taken to the London Foundling Hospital.  This is the story of the first 17 years of Lily’s life.

Subtitled “A Tale Of Revenge” we know from early on that guilt hangs over the young girl.  She sees herself as a murderer but we don’t know who or why.  The story is told in a third person narrative from her past and her present as a 17 year old employed as a wigmaker.  Some of these switches are a little abrupt I felt which tended to jar rather than build up the suspense as intended.

I was totally captivated by Lily’s story.  I really enjoyed the author’s writing style, use of language and ability to bring Lily’s world to life with some great characterisation.  It did, however, feel a slighter more understated work than I was expecting, plot-wise it hovers towards the sentimental and predictable and I felt disappointed that some plot-lines fizzled out.  Since finishing the book I read an interview with Rose Tremain in The Daily Telegraph Review section (30/10/21) where it is described as a recovery novel following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis which has led to her not being able to retain as much historical research as she has in the past which might explain the route she decided to take with this book.  She also says an initial inspiration came from hallucinations from drugs she was taking or anti-nausea which conjured up Victorian type children asking her for help.

I relished the writing and story-telling here.  It’s not going to end up in my end of year Top 10 like “Restoration” but I was certainly rooting for Lily throughout.

Lily is published by Chatto & Windus in the UK on 4th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Black Drop – Leonora Nattrass (Viper 2021)

It’s London in 1794 and those with power are nervous. A fragile treaty with America is being attempted, relations with France have become further rattled by events following the French Revolution, and their own subjects fill the pungent air with talk of sedition and treason. This provides the starting point for Leonora Nattrass’ historical  debut novel.

Nattrass has combined fictional characters with those really around at the time and provides us with a useful cast list at the beginning (I consulted this a number of times).  Largely the confession of Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, who is hiding his French ancestry and offering information to a shadowy female spy (an underdeveloped character I felt here and perhaps the only one the author does not bring fully to life).  Jago becomes implicated in leaking information which would hurt the British army in France but he is innocent and the house of cards he had built up around himself begins to fall.

This is Jago’s narrative throughout and he meets some lively characters, most notably Philpott, a loyalist journalist who the author states she based upon William Cobbett, who brings a lot of life to the scenes he is in, including one set in a menagerie.  There’s much political intrigue in this well-researched novel but I found it most gripping away from the main plot to uncover spies when it deals with the human cost and the changing loyalties of the volatile mobs.  A trial for treason follows closely along historical facts and involves the Prime Minister William Pitt and provides a high point of the novel.  The title refers to a laudanam type medicine Jago becomes addicted to but this is somewhat underplayed.  This is a strong debut from a promising author.  There were, admittedly, times when my attention wandered but I was pulled back in and found myself caring about the outcome for these characters.

Black Drop is published by Viper on October 14th 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.