Book Review: The Book of Days by Francesca Kay

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The year is 1546 and in an English village a dying man has commissioned the building of a chantry chapel where prayers will be said for his eternal soul. The building of the chapel – and the inevitable disruption to the existing church – dominates the lives of the village and of his household. As does the long period of his dying, leaving his wife – the narrator of this novel – in a type of limbo.

Grieving for the loss of her child, and overshadowed by the spectre of her husband’s first wife, she is forced to ponder what fate will hold for her when she becomes a widow.

All of this takes place at a time when the old certainties are fading. The Reformation is in full force: the old religion has been banned but its rites and rituals have not disappeared. There is a climate of fear but also of change and emboldenment. Will the narrator – symbolically unnamed for much of the novel, and painfully aware of her own lack of agency – finally be able to step out from the shadows?

This is a beautifully written and multi-faceted novel. The structure of the story is built around the traditional book of days, combining the church calendar with a personal journal. But it is also shaped around the physical presence of the church: the building, its symbols, and the graves of generations of people who have been buried there. This is a world in which religion is part of the fabric of everyday life.

Cold, hard stone permeates the story. This is the substance of the church and of the tombs of the dead. It carries traces of the past, with “ghost of an arch and a window blocked up long ago”. But for Simm, the master mason, “stone is a living thing”, to be coaxed into the shapes and forms of nature.

In one sense the people of this world are – like the stone – both living and dead. Life and death are intertwined. The dead continue to affect the living, and the living are invited to anticipate their own deaths, even to the extent of having their likenesses taken for their eventual tombs.

It is left to individuals to find joy in the moment, in the consolations of nature and of everyday life. As the narrator writes her book of days she records the changing of the seasons and the minutiae of the everyday world. Every saint’s day has its rituals, bound up with ancient custom, and she notes that “we must all of us find our truth in plain, familiar things”.

But change is inevitable, the permanence of stone an illusion. Life is a matter of adapting and accepting. As we are told, after an unusually tumultuous episode, “the times are on the march and it behoves us to listen to the drumbeat”. A short but enjoyable and thought-provoking novel.

The Book of Days, Francesca Kay, Swift, February 2024, 9781800753495

Book Review: Run To The Western Shore By Tim Pears

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It is the year 72 CE, and Olwen, the headstrong daughter of a local chieftain, has been promised to the Roman governor of Britannia as part of a peace treaty. Together with Quintus, an enslaved Roman, she flees the army camp and sets off towards the coast.

Olwen is fierce and warrior-like, and has a strong affinity with the land and its creatures, while the multilingual Quintus is intelligent but lacks the killer instinct. Despite their differences Olwen and Quintus soon form a strong bond and together they battle the countryside, its hazards, and the pursuing Roman soldiers.

But will their relationship survive, and can Olwen ever return to her people? Or must they aim for the western shore, and hope that they can escape to freedom across the sea?

Tim Pears is known for his lyrical descriptions of the countryside and this is clearly what he does best. In this novel he has lots of rich description of plants, animals and local lore, mostly seen through the eyes of Olwen. He also builds up a picture of early Roman Britain: the scattered settlements, the foraging for whatever food comes to hand, the mistrust of strangers, and the fear engendered by the invaders.

There are also druids, shamans and secret rituals. And Olwen connects with the past through the stories of her ancestors. This is very much a place where the natural and the supernatural are intertwined.

I have to admit that I didn’t always find the main characters or their relationship entirely convincing. It wasn’t clear why Olwen chose Quintus to escape with her, and I felt that they fell in love much too quickly (especially as you get the sense of Olwen leading the way, and of Quintus not having much choice in what happens). I also thought that Quintus could have been developed more fully as a character. Given that he is portrayed as intelligent and thoughtful, I would have liked to have seen him making plans rather than blindly following.

However, anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the atmosphere and countryside of ancient Britain will enjoy this short novel.

Run to the Western Shore, Tim Pears, Swift, 2023, 9781800752979

Book Review: The Ghost Ship By Kate Mosse

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17th century Europe wasn’t the best place for an independent, unconventional woman. It was even more problematic if she had a love of the sea, and a burning desire to sail in her own ship. Louise Reydon-Joubert, the central character of The Ghost Ship, faces these problems, and more. She is haunted by her family’s past, and troubled by the issue of how to spend – and defend – a large inheritance. At the same time she is drawn into an illicit love affair…

Set in France, Amsterdam and the Canary Islands, the novel follows the fortunes of Louise and of Gilles Barenton, a young wine merchant. The times are turbulent, and so is Louise’s life, and she soon finds herself at the mercy of forces she cannot control.

The sea is an appropriate metaphor here. Much of the novel takes place on board ship, where murder, storms and pirates mirror Louise’s inner torments. So perhaps it is no surprise that she should hatch an audacious plan to counter the growing slave trade that is enriching ship-owners but terrorising their crews.

The Ghost Ship is the third is a series, but can be read as a standalone story. This was a period of history that I knew little about, but I was drawn in right from the first page. The book is full of lovely rich descriptions, so that it is easy to visualise yourself in 17th century Paris or Amsterdam, or being tossed about on the high seas.

Although it is partly based on stories of two female pirates of the time, the preface acknowledges that the main premise of the novel is unlikely. It certainly seems fanciful but, in the hands of this author, it is skilfully handled. You can find yourself believing that events might have unfolded in just such a way.

This is a book that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. If you enjoy a page-turning adventure full of historical detail you will enjoy The Ghost Ship.

The Ghost Ship, Kate Mosse, Mantle, July 2023, 9781509806911

Book Review: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

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It is the early 1800s, and Isobel Gamble is travelling with her husband Edward from Scotland to Salem, the New England Town notorious for its 17th century witch trials. Isobel is a talented seamstress who seeks to make a living with her needle once it becomes apparent her husband will not provide for her. She is also presented as the inspiration for the character of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850.

Hester follows the ups and downs of Isobel’s life, her struggle to be accepted in her new home, and her fears that she herself could be regarded as a witch. She experiences synaesthesia – seeing ideas and feelings as vivid colours – and she, along with those she meets and perhaps even the reader, is forced to wonder whether she does in fact have supernatural powers. Her story is interspersed with flashbacks to historic witch hunts, both in Salem and in Scotland.

This is a richly textured work with lots of sumptuous description of fabrics and embroidery. It provides a vivid portrait of Salem and the class and race hierarchies of the early 19th century.

Nathaniel Hawthorne plays a prominent role in the story, and we meet a wide cast of other characters. These include Edward, the feckless husband; the initially suspicious Mercy who eventually becomes a loyal friend; and William Darling, the quietly supportive sea captain.

The novel is ambitious, weaving together many disparate elements. Apart from Hawthorne and his writing, and Isobel’s needlework, we have the condition of synaesthesia, witchcraft trials in Scotland and the New World, and the “underground railroad” that helped escaped slaves to reach freedom.

Unfortunately – to take a metaphor from the story – I felt that the various parts of the design were not sufficiently tightly bound together, and that they did not create a seamless whole. I also wondered whether a reader who was not familiar with The Scarlet Letter would fully appreciate the relevance of Nathaniel Hawthorne to the story. And – perhaps a minor quibble – I was taken aback by one glaring error, when Isobel says “Scots are English” (a phrase that no Scot has ever uttered…)

However, the story carried me along, and I could empathise with Isobel and her friends. A mixed experience, but enjoyable.

Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese, Duckworth, 2022, 9780715654767

Book Review: The Maids Of Biddenden By G D Harper

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Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst were conjoined twins living in the Kent village of Biddenden at the beginning of the 12th century. Starting with their removal to a convent to await their (presumed) early death, The Maids of Biddenden follows the ups and downs of their lives, ambitions and struggle for acceptance. We watch Eliza trying to nurture her musical talent and Mary working to heal the sick and to establish her physic garden. All the while they are held back by medieval constraints on gender, the social hierarchy, and their physical dependence upon one another.

Book cover with text "The Maids of Biddenden G D Harper". Cover is brown with images of plants and a lyre

Little is known about the real Eliza and Mary. Even their existence has been disputed, although circumstantial evidence (including a bequest to the village in the 12th century) is persuasive. The author has put flesh on the bones of their legend, presenting us with a picture of two very different but determined and spirited women, and the struggles they would have encountered.

We witness their horror as they grasp the reality of their situation, their wretchedness that nothing can change, and their gradual acceptance of their fate. This journey is mirrored by those around them: to outsiders they eventually become a curiosity rather than a curse.

From a modern perspective the attitudes of some who rejected, mocked, or even sought secretly to dispose of, the twins may seem shocking. However, we have to see the story in the context of the Middle Ages. Life was precarious – even for the wealthy – and any sort of disability was a threat to survival. Furthermore, belief in the devil and his works was real, and  physical differences were to be viewed with suspicion. It is a tribute to human kindness that – for the most part – they were eventually accepted.

I found myself drawn in to Mary and Eliza’s story, and cheering them on as they battled against the odds. It has to be said that, as they would have been genetically identical I wonder whether their abilities and personalities would have been so very different from one another. I also question whether their lives could have been quite as successful as this novel suggests. However, this is fiction, and a certain amount of literary licence is allowable. An enjoyable read.

The Maids of Biddenden, G D Harper, Ginger Cat, 2022, 9780993547874

Book Review: Dark Earth By Rebecca Stott

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It is the year 500 CE, and in post-Roman Britain Isla, her sister Blue, and her father, a famed blacksmith, are exiled to an island in the River Thames. They all have dangerous secrets and when their father dies suddenly the sisters’ security – already fragile – is threatened. Should they look for mercy from their cruel and unyielding tribe, or take their chances in the lawless hinterland of the Thames?

Or perhaps there is a third way? On the north bank of the river is the “Ghost City”, the looming remains of Roman Londinium. Evil spirits are said to lurk in the forbidden ruins, but what Isla and Blue find is a hidden colony of fugitive women. This is a community of smallholders and craftswomen, augurers, and abandoned children. But can Isla and Blue find a long term future here?

Dark Earth is set in the “darkest corner of the dark ages”. This is a period of history about which little is known, a time when reason battles with superstition, when new-fangled Christianity is trying to supplant the native religions, and to overturn a culture of religious tolerance.

It is not always easy to understand such an unfamiliar culture (I occasionally had to resort to Google to find the meaning of an unknown word or concept). But Rebecca Stott weaves a credible story from what we do know. This is a world of casual violence, where everyone is in need of protection, where laws are made and enforced at the whim of the most powerful. Yet it is also a place where love and loyalty can thrive, where art and creativity can flourish. The detailed descriptions of metal working and the production of decorated swords act as a reminder that humans have always sought beauty, even in the darkest times.

But what sets this book apart is that women are at the forefront. If the men of this period are little-known, the women are invisible. As Blue says, the male leaders have a genealogy, but “where are the women? Who is going to remember them?” There is a passing reference to a boy king named Arthur: in their way Isla and Blue and their community of wise women are a female counterpoint to the court of King Arthur and Merlin, his magician.

In the end, however, “no city can stand for ever”. As the Ghost City represents a vanished civilisation, so too will the world of Isla and Blue disappear, to be mostly forgotten but leaving tantalising clues for future generations to interpret as they will.

Dark Earth, Rebecca Stott, 4th Estate, 2022, 9780008209223

Book Review: The Language Of Food By Annabel Abbs

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It is 1835, and aspiring writer Eliza Acton is mortified when her publisher tells her to abandon the idea of poetry and write a cookery book instead. But a change in the family’s fortunes leaves her determined to learn to cook and to accept the challenge. Together with Ann, her newly-hired kitchen maid, she slowly masters the art of cookery, creates a range of recipes, and publishes her book.

The Language of Food is based on a true-life story. Little is known about the real Eliza Acton, but her book – Modern Cookery, published in 1845, was a best-seller in its time, and many of her recipes found their way into the better known Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861.

Annabel Abbs takes the few facts available to us and uses them to create two memorable characters – Eliza and Ann – whose voices alternate throughout the book.

Eliza may be initially driven by the need to make money but she soon finds additional motivation for her task. Looking at the few recipe books available at the time she is appalled  at how clumsily they are written – imprecise, unhelpful and not fit for purpose. As a poet she aims to make her own book more practical and also a pleasure to read: “like a poem, a recipe should be clear and precise and ordered”.

The Language of Food is a sumptuous read, full of food described in loving detail. There are frequent comparisons between cooking and poetry – “Fruits, herbs, spices, eggs, cream: these are my words and I must combine them in such a way they produce something to delight the palate. Exactly as a poem should fall upon the ears of its readers, charming or moving them”. An added bonus is the inclusion of some of the original recipes at the end.

However, this is more than just a celebration of food. Eliza starts to become aware that even the rich do not eat well. This was a time when women of the upper classes simply did not concern themselves with what went on “below stairs”, when it would have been shameful for the woman of the house to involve herself in the cooking. The result was bland, unappetising food.

She is also forced to confront the reality of poverty. When Eliza visits Ann’s parents’ home with its lack of food she thinks of “all the lavish food served and wasted in monied kitchens everywhere.” For Ann herself, the child of paupers, “a kitchen is like a puppet show, a fairy tale…”, far removed from her former life. The elaborate descriptions of food and cooking are made poignant when imagined through the eyes of a poverty stricken girl.

Eliza’s concern is both for the rich – who eat badly through ignorance – and for the poor, to whom nourishing food is simply not available. Her mission is now to make cookery both simple and pleasurable for all, whatever their station.

Finally, this is the story of two women trying to escape the restricted roles defined for them in the Victorian era. I have to confess that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the speed with which Eliza learns to cook well, or by the relative absence of culinary disasters but, that aside, this was an enjoyable and compelling read.

The Language of Food, Annabel Abbs, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 9781398502222

Book Review: Violeta by Isabel Allende

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Set in an unnamed South American country, Violeta is the rollercoaster story of a strong and determined woman, a woman who battles dramatic changes in destiny. Violeta endures the ruin of her family, some less-than-perfect relationships, and almost permanent worry about her children. All the time she is doing her best to ensure her own survival – physical, economic and emotional – and that of her extended family and those who have befriended her along the way.

What emerges is a portrait of an unconventional woman who meets life head-on and who will do whatever it takes to survive. Violeta’s life is mirrored by the tangled politics of Latin America in the 20th century. Isabel Allende – who has first hand knowledge of these events – draws a picture of the ruthlessness and corruption of the different regimes, of the frequent “disappearances”, and of the way that individual fortunes could rise and fall with the volatility of the times. She does not hesitate to point a finger at United States interference in the affairs of other countries, or at those who turned a profit from the conflict.

The story is bookended by two pandemics, beginning with the Spanish flu in 1920 and ending with the Covid outbreak of 2020. Some aspects are eerily similar – the face coverings, the restrictions on movement, and the paranoia – but there is an added level of brutality in 1920.

The writing is so vivid that Violeta sometimes reads like an autobiography. Allende has obviously drawn on her own life experience, and the reader is tempted to speculate how much of the author resides in her protagonist. Despite the suffering, there are moments of joy and deep humanity, and the writing is often lyrical.

The novel contains some unforgettable characters. There is the unprincipled Julián, who “ran liquor, drugs, and girls, and provided other highly compensated services”. Miss Taylor, the English governess who turns out to be a free-thinking Irishwoman. And the staunchly loyal Torito, who is anything but the simple giant that he appears to be.

An added bonus is the way that different cultures are woven through the story. Close to home we have Yaima, the local healer who “was the link between the earth and the spirit world, with great knowledge of plants and shamanic rituals”, priests, businessmen and a colony of German refugees. But we also encounter a Norwegian bird-watching diplomat, the US underworld, and the brittle high-life of Havana…

A new title from Isabel Allende is always a treat, and I enjoyed every page of this book. Thoroughly recommended.

Violeta, Isabel Allende, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 9780593496206

Book Review: The Other Daughter By Caroline Bishop

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The Other Daughter is Caroline Bishop’s first novel, a multi-period story set in England and Switzerland. In the present day Jess has travelled to Switzerland in search of answers to questions about her own life. Meanwhile, back in the 1970s, her mother, Sylvia, is trying to forge her career as a journalist. In the course of her work she meets some Swiss women who are fighting for the most basic rights.

The background to the novel is the struggle for women’s rights in the 1970s. It looks back to a time when Swiss women had only just got the vote and were still fighting for legal recognition. Women in Britain had more rights, but society and social expectations still needed to catch up. An additional element is the scandal of the “forced placement” scheme in Switzerland, in which children were removed from poor families and sent to work on farms, sometimes in brutal conditions.

This is also a story about family secrets and personal identity. Secrets are gradually revealed as the book progresses: Jess has had some shocking revelations, but there are more to come. She knows that she was born in Switzerland, and that there is a mystery around the circumstances of her birth, and she is determined to find out more. But at what cost?

The novel poses many questions. How important is it to know the truth? And what makes us what we are? What would have happened if an alternative path had been taken? As the publisher’s blurb describes it, “you only get one life – but what if it isn’t the one you were meant to live?”

I found this a satisfying and absorbing book. I particularly enjoyed the historical aspect – although I previously knew something of the struggles of Swiss feminists, I was completely unaware of the child placement scheme. And, at the same time, the personal stories of Jess and Sylvia created a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down – a recommended read!

The Other Daughter, Caroline Bishop, Simon & Schuster, 2021, 9781471190056

Book Review: Unto This Last By Rebecca Lipkin

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Unto This Last is the story of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his troubled relationship with his student Rose La Touche, an obsession that begins when Rose is ten years old. It is also the story of his uneasy relationships with others who are close to him, in particular his parents and Effie, to whom he was once married.

The background to the novel is Ruskin’s growing fame as an art critic. He also becomes known as a teacher, guest lecturer, and an Oxford professor. At the same time he sees himself as a social reformer, with his own particular brand of socialism. He is concerned to improve the lives of the poor, but even more intent on enriching all lives through art and education. “Man should not desire to be rich, but content,” he says, as he urges his students to engage with nature, to see clearly what is before them. For him, art is not an accomplishment, but a fundamental means of communication.

As the book progresses we follow Ruskin on his travels, to the Lake District and to France and Switzerland. And to Venice, which provided the inspiration for one of his most famous works, Stones of Venice. We also meet other members of the Victorian cultural elite. Primarily these are artists: Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgiana, and members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But there are others, including the free-thinking intellectuals Thomas and Jane Carlyle.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, including those of Rose and of Effie, the subject of Ruskin’s ill-conceived marriage. This enables the reader to feel the frustration of others when dealing with him. What emerges is a picture of a complex man, brilliant and charismatic but often flawed. The Ruskin of this book has an inclination towards melancholy and is prone to fits of madness.

We come to know a man who is more at ease in nature and among old buildings than with people, hence his yearning for the unattainable Rose. Clearly the present is influenced by the past: Ruskin’s character has been formed, not just by his genius, but also by his regimented childhood and his domineering mother. And, like everyone around him, he is constrained by the strictures of Victorian society.

However, it is sometimes hard to have much sympathy with Ruskin, with his irascibility, his mercurial temperament, and his particular way of viewing the world and other people. He is described as warm and generous, but it seems to be a warmth towards humanity as a whole, while his largesse is often funded by his father. Those who are closest to him don’t always fare so well.

Unto This Last is an extensively researched novel, full of detail. It provides a fascinating glimpse into one man and his social milieu. I knew little about John Ruskin before I began reading, but I am now tempted to read some of his works for myself.

Unto This Last: A Novel, Rebecca Lipkin, The Book Guild Ltd, 2020, 9781913208820