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.

Dust Off The Bones – Paul Howarth (One 2021)

Have you ever been away on holiday, had bad weather and had to put up with everyone saying how glorious it was the week before?  Well, that’s a little bit how I felt reading this book.  And that is my fault.

This is the sequel to the very well received “Only Killers And Thieves”, a historical tale of early Queensland, Australia by British-Australian author and former lawyer Paul Howarth.  I haven’t read that book and when Paul’s publishers got in touch to see if I would be prepared to read and review his latest I was intrigued enough to say yes – to a sequel.  I was hopeful it would work as a stand-alone and I’m sure for many it would.  Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of reader I’ve realised.  I’m happiest when working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre and for me to read a sequel to a book I didn’t know is pretty much unheard of.

On its own “Dust Off The Bones” is a very good novel but I suspect that “Only Killers And Thieves” is even better and read as a pair might just be something pretty extraordinary.  The action which the sequel hinges on has taken place in the first book and this is largely the repercussions of those actions which affect a family throughout their lifetime.  There are enough references back to the first book to let the reader know what was going on (and thus it can work as a stand-alone) but some of the references seemed so good that I felt like I was missing out.

None of this is Paul Howarth’s fault.  He has focused on a fictional account of one of the many real-life atrocities carried out by the Native Police in Victorian Queensland where treatment of the native population was both obscene and went unpunished.  The McBride brothers have been split up by the traumatic events from the first book and are stalked by the truly evil Noone, who heads a division of the Native Police.  When a lawyer tries to get justice for terrible crimes the poison these characters carry with them takes hold again.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Western would love this with the Australian setting giving it a different feel.  It is violent and the existence can be harsh but family bonds, however strained, cannot be broken by such harshness.

Those that have read “Only Killers And Thieves” will no doubt be chomping at the bit to read this book.  For maximum reading pleasure I would suggest reading that first to allow this recommended read to create an even greater impression.

Dust Off The Bones was published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press which promises “compelling writing, unique voices, great stories” on August 26th 2021. Many thanks to the publishers, particularly Tara from the Press Office for the review copy.

Double Falsehood – Vaughn Entwistle (2020)

Vaughn Entwistle has featured here before.  I have read and enjoyed two of his books and in 2016 he agreed to an interview in my Author Strikes Back thread.  My favourite of his books to date has been his 2015 publication “The Angel Of Highgate” which I described as a “splendid romp, fast-paced and very readable with extremely memorable characters”.  The same description applies here in a very different feeling historical novel.

One of the most impressive aspects of this author’s work is that he writes with such great relish.  I wasn’t sure whether an Elizabethan-set “Shakespearean Thriller” as this novel is described would perhaps be a little dry.  I’d obviously forgotten his writing style because this certainly is a vibrant tale bringing history to life.

William Shakespeare is travelling with the rest of his acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to Marlborough because the London theatres have been closed down amidst cries of sedition.  En-route they discover a corpse and an apparition in the woods and flee to a nearby inn.

Fast-forward to the present day and a first-person narrative from Harvey Braithwaite, recent owner at the now fairly down-at-heel ancient pub “The White Hart” who makes a discovery which could change his fortunes but threaten his life.

The Elizabethan characters have the bulk of the action and it is an explosive mix of murder, treason, religious persecution and a lust for life with underground passages, deception, disguise and sex having their part to play.  Both sections are full of a bawdy energy.  Braithwaite has a lot in common with these lusty Elizabethans- at time it can border on a “Carry On Film” script but here that works very well and Entwistle does not let the humour get in the way of him telling a good yarn and having it present in both parts of the narrative gives the whole thing balance and symmetry which I very much approve of.

The history is incorporated well, the author does not feel the need to bombard us with his research and in many ways it does not matter if he has veered away from historical fact as the energy wins the reader over.  The title itself refers to a play controversially attributed to Shakespeare which also feels appropriate to the action here.  I got a lot about the dangers of not towing the line, on an everyday basis, religion-wise through the characters of the Pursuivants hunting out Jesuits and the fear instilled by the Queen’s odious torturer Topcliffe, probably picking up more history on the way than in many more serious (dare I say drier) works.

Once again Vaughn Entwistle has given me a lot of enjoyment, there’s a good balance of darkness and light in a well-structured pacy tale which all in all leaves me to conclude he may have written his finest novel yet.

Double Falsehood was published by Masque Publishing in August 2020.  For more about the author and his books visit https.//vaughnentwistle.com/

The Glass Of Time – Michael Cox (2008)

This is the lesser known sequel to “The Meaning Of Night”, a former Book Of The Year which last year on re-read I placed at number 5 in my end of year Top 10.  It is a book born from tragic circumstances – Victorian academic Michael Cox spent decades toiling over its predecessor, his debut novel, until, reputedly, steroids for an ultimately fatal condition gave him a significant burst of energy which led to the completion of two novels.  This was published two years after the debut with the author passing away in 2009.

I actually didn’t know about this sequel until my re-read last year and my wanting to know what had become of an author whose debut showed so much talent and then discovering both the existence of this book and the author’s tragic demise the year after publication.  Although the debut was more satisfying the two books together prove an extraordinary tribute.

“The Meaning Of Night” probably has the edge because of its stronger sense of the Gothic which I loved with an evocative conjuring up of the streets of Victorian London.  The sequel is set twenty years later largely on the Evenwood estate which is also a significant location in the first book.  Esperanza Gorst, brought up by a guardian in France, engineers a place as lady’s maid for Baroness Tansor, known in the first book as Miss Emily Carteret.  Esperanza, renamed Alice by her new boss does not know the reason why she has been sent here, other than it is part of a “Great Task” set up by her guardian and her tutor and that she should record her observations of Evenwood. The details are gradually drip-fed to Esperanza in the form of letters and diaries which form part of her account.

As in the previous novel this is a first-person narrative which actually would work well as a stand-alone but enriches the first as themes and plot strands are developed.  It is a long book, rich in authentic historical detail (although you do not get as much of a feel of the wider Victorian society as in the debut) and once again comparisons to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens are appropriate.

I found it a very rich read and it might have just solved the problem which I have mentioned before of the details of “The Meaning Of Night” slipping away from me once I read it.  Here the twists to the plot seem more vivid as the past and present reveal their secrets.  As the main character observes towards the end of the novel; “I stare constantly into the Glass of Time, that magic mirror in which the shifting shadows of lost days pass back and forth in dumb show before the eye of memory.” Michael Cox is brilliant at creating these shifting shadows coming and  going in the Glass Of Time.  Both of his novels come highly recommended.

The Glass Of Time was published in 2008 by John Murray.

Crowner’s Quest- Bernard Knight (1999) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s a quick return for me to Bernard Knight’s medieval Crowner John series having only read one a couple of months ago.  This is book number three and now I seem to have formed a regular pattern with my response to this writer.  I’m involved until after the first crime is revealed (here it’s a hanging Canon) but then I experience a slump where I’m struggling until around the mid-way point when once again something happens which brings me back (here the lead character is set up leading to the accusation of a crime) and then my interest level stays fairly constant until the end by which point I’m looking forward to the next in the series.  That’s from a book I could have abandoned around 100 pages in (if I would ever do such a thing, which I can’t).

Knight’s writing style is rather dense and very detailed but sometimes the history sits heavy on the plot.  We get characters telling each other things they would already know purely for our benefit because of our lack of knowledge in medieval history.  Sometimes this feels heavy-handed but I totally understand that the world of Crowner John is so different to ours that it needs this to keep readers in the loop.

I did not feel this book flowed as well as its predecessor but it does have a bigger scope and moves further and more often beyond the Exeter city walls.  It takes place a few weeks after “The Poisoned Chalice” to which there is the odd reference but nothing that would make this book not work if encountered as a stand-alone.  (I just have a thing about reading series titles in order).

We begin at Christmas Eve 1194 where the coroner’s wife is attempting to boost her standing socially with a celebratory feast with local dignitaries.  The relationship between John and Matilda is strained at the best of times and suffers further when he is called out to investigate a death in the Cathedral’s precincts. Initially considered a suicide it develops into a cover-up murder where discontent with the largely absent King Richard is implicated.  Buried treasure is also involved.  When the plot is wound up satisfactorily there’s a surprising turn in a Trial By Combat.  This feels like a set piece added on to the novel to explore a legal quirk of the period (we had this with Trial By Ordeal in the first novel) yet this section and its aftermath was what ended up with me more eager to seek out the next in the series than I was expecting when reading the first half.

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Crowner’s Quest  was first published in 1999. I read a Pocket Books paperback edition

The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (1969)

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If you had asked me 30 years ago to list my favourite books this would have featured prominently.  I’ve always felt an attachment to it because it was one of the first novels I read when I went away to college and an essay on works by John Fowles (of which this was my favourite) scored me a rare A-Grade.  I’ve read it a couple of times since but not for many years.  Last summer I went for a day trip to Lyme Regis and walked along The Cobb which has a prominent part to play in the novel as well as in the 1981 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and whilst doing this felt once again that I wanted to be immersed in Fowles’ 19th Century world.  My copy was ancient and yellowed so I treated myself to a new one at Serendip, one of Lyme’s healthy smattering of book shops and have spent the last week or so discovering whether time has been good to this novel.

What remains impressive is how Fowles has condensed the foibles of Victorian society  in a way which makes it seem authentic.  This has been done many times since, most splendidly in Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” and in other titles which tend to feature highly in my end of year lists.  What I hadn’t experienced before reading this the first time was Fowles the modern author stepping back from the Victorian novel to comment and digress using a modern perspective.  Once again this is a common trick now but when I first experienced it (and perhaps even more so when it was published a good decade before I got round to it) it seemed radical.    It’s enough of a feature of the novel for them to attempt to convey something of this in the film (not wholly successfully) by having a modern strand which stepped back showing the making of the film and depicting actors playing Fowles’ characters, so Meryl Streep was both playing Sarah Woodruff and the actress chosen to play her.

Charles Smithson, a keen fossil-hunter and fan of Darwin spends the summer of 1867 in Lyme Regis where his betrothed, the somewhat vapid Ernestina is holidaying with her aunt.  There, on The Cobb, which stretches out to the sea they encounter a swathed, mysterious figure known locally as Tragedy, reputedly waiting for her French lover to return.  Charles becomes obsessed with this woman which challenges Victorian beliefs in decency, class and duty with the double standards we now expect from this period.

I love the plot.  Fowles, however, does like to move away from it and remind us of the artifice of his fiction.  At one point he inserts himself into the action observing Charles in the midst of his dilemmas.  It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.  This accusation could be levied at other of Fowles’ work which may explain why his reputation has faded in the years since his death in 2005.  There were a couple of titles I can remember abandoning (and this from someone who has done this very rarely) due to this inaccessibility, although I do have a copy of “The Collector” (1963) which I also loved and should get round to re-reading to see how that holds up.

This is an impressive novel of great richness and worthy of a five star rating yet it still has flaws which seem a little more  obvious this time round.  I’ve never fully got my head around the multiple endings which makes the last third of the novel less satisfying.  I could tell from my trip to Lyme that the townsfolk are still proud of this novel (as they are of Jane Austen who features it in “Persuasion”) and actually it is only when it moves away from Lyme that it slightly falters.  I still feel very attached to it, however.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman was first published in 1969.  I read the Vintage paperback edition.

A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom- John Boyne (Doubleday 2020)

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Here is an author who, in my eyes, achieved virtual perfection with his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017), certainly one of my all-time favourite novels. I still have plenty of John Boyne to read, having only read three of his children’s/young adult titles and two of his adult works but I’ve experienced enough to know that his latest is a marked departure from what I’ve read before.

This Irish writer is no stranger to the historical novel but here, in a book which can truly be called epic, he has taken on the whole of world history starting from Palestine in AD1 to the present day and beyond to 2080. This has been done, and here is the conceit of this novel, with ostensibly the same main character, or different manifestations of this character throughout history. It can certainly be seen as a novel of reincarnation with the main character (never named) moving on with his life in different times and different locations. There’s an obvious spiritual element here with its implied growth towards wisdom which initially made me a little nervous as to make this too explicit often results in leaden writing I’ve found (Paolo Coehlo springing to mind). I hoped Boyne would handle this with a lightness of touch to make it work.

He has to a very large extent. The novel reads like a series of interlinked short stories. At one point we move from Sweden in 1133 to China in 1191 and to Greece in 1223 with the narrative thread remaining fairly constant and with easily identifiable characters having regional variations of their names so the reader can pick up from where the plot left off each time adapting to the new setting and the often subtle changes which keep the narrative appropriate. This sounds confusing but it works well and builds an involving plot. Admittedly, there were times when I was enjoying a tale so much that I felt disappointed when it shifted onwards. He really has written 52 mini-novels in one, the amount of historical research must have been phenomenal.

This shifting means Boyne can have us visiting significant places at significant times introducing us to characters such as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Attila The Hun and Donald Trump (he’s certainly not going to like this book!) This at times does run the risk of feeling laboured, a literary version of the TV series “Quantum Leap”. I actually prefer this novel when the historical figures are in the background and the location imbues the narrative with its sense of time. There are also occasional echoes of former lives through a sense of déjà vu with the Mayan figure Spearthrower Owl periodically creating a presence.

I’ve read books with a similar epic scope in terms of time (Edward Rutherford likes to do this) but nothing as ambitious as this which is extraordinary and I’ve begun to expect nothing less from this man but as a reading experience it is not quite up there with his very best. I think it just falls short of my rarely given five star rating. If you are interested in historical fiction and can’t quite decide what era to read about this is a perfect entry into discovering whole new literary worlds.

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A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom will be published in hardback by Doubleday on    23rd July 2020. Many thanks to the publishers for tracking me down and providing me with an advance review copy.