“Little” by Edward Carey – review

Today we know her as Madame Tussaud, but for much of her life she was plain Marie Grosholtz – “Little”. This wonderfully imaginative novel gives a backstory to the diminutive girl who grew up to become the hugely successful businesswoman whose name is now familiar the world over. Her start in life was far from auspicious: orphaned at a tragically young age, she found herself in the care of the eccentric – and although not unkind, far from warm – medical model-maker Dr. Curtius. It marked the start of an extremely bizarre childhood, learning how to make lifelike wax models of internal organs and other parts of the human body in all their biologically accurate detail. Then one day Dr. Curtius gets a strange request: to cast the head of a medical colleague in wax. From that moment on, Marie’s life will never be the same again. The great and the good all want their likeness cast in wax, a new kind of status symbol, and Dr. Curtius has found his niche in business. The peculiar but touching partnership of Marie and the doctor, however, is not to last; circumstances drive the pair to Paris, where they lodge in the home of widowed Mme Picot and her son Edmond. The widow seems to have one aim from the offset, namely to exploit Dr. Curtius’s commercial success for her own gain and to drive a wedge between him and the little girl who’s worked so faithfully alongside him. Marie endures years of cruelty, neglect, exploitation and violence at the hands of this most horrendous of characters, until fate intervenes once again and she experiences a reversal of fortune that no-one from a poverty-stricken background such as hers could ever have imagined was possible.

In the decades that follow, Marie bears witness to some of the most famous events in French history, from royal machinations at the Palace of Versailles to the grim horrors of the French Revolution and its aftermath. During this volatile and dangerous era, it is wax that saves her again and again, her talent being both a release from fear and loneliness, and a literal life-saver in the darkest throes of The Terror. You can well imagine, then, how this pairing of the brutal time period and the naturally unsettling nature of wax heads that look like they’re about to spring to life, combines to create a novel that doesn’t just flirt with the macabre so much as jump into bed with it. The casting of wax heads is an uncomfortable business at the best of times, but one that turns into a truly gruesome practice when used on the freshly severed heads brought to the doctor and his apprentice by revolutionaries in the heat of their bloodlust. Yet even years before the anarchy in the French capital explodes in its bloody climax, the entire world is troubled by a sense of unease, whether it’s the wax replicas of notorious murderers in the exhibition hallway, the ghosts that Marie is sure she can hear stalking the Paris house or the chilling feeling that society itself is about to fall over a precipice from which there can be no return.

Little is also a deeply sad novel. Over the course of her life Marie experiences loss after devastating loss, the ones she suffers in later years proving to be the most soul-destroying of them all. She is not alone; many, if not most, of the people with whom she crosses paths are carrying the weight of their own grief, suffering and what we would today call post-traumatic stress with them as well. This is a world where people disappear, taken either by fate or by others intent on causing pain and hurt. Yet Marie somehow carries on, bearing her burdens with a resolute steadfastness and strength of character that never feels contrived or unrealistic, but rather keeps you rooting for her right to the end. The story is told in her voice, and I loved the way the tone gradually shifted from a childlike view of the world around her to the more mature outlook of a grown woman. Even as an adult, however, Marie never loses the sense of imagination and wonder that has been with her since the beginning; there is a hint of something magical, undefinable and unknowable in the air even in those times when the grim earthliness of events cannot be ignored.

I enjoyed Little from beginning to end, and Marie Grosholtz is one of the most beautifully drawn lead characters I can remember reading about for some time. Her life is strange, unconventional and pervaded by the sinister, and all the more memorable for it. If like me you love novels reimagining the lives of real figures from history then you’ll be a fan of this for sure; if you’ve read it already, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you for reading x

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor – review

The Ashes of London kicked off my love affair with this series, and it’s been going strong ever since. I thought book three, The King’s Evil, was the pinnacle – until I read this one, after which I could only doff my hat to Andrew Taylor for topping his previous installment once again. For those of you who haven’t come across them before, the books are set in Restoration London and feature the exploits of civil servant James Marwood, who finds himself drawn reluctantly into the machinations of Whitehall and the King’s court. Over the course of the series he develops an enigmatic relationship with Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, whose family history forms an ever-present cloud over her prospects and security. On the surface they are acquaintances who every now and then are useful to one another, yet we can see quite clearly there’s something more to their relationship than that: something unspoken and not entirely understood by either of them. They are not lovers, not even friends necessarily, but there’s no denying they each instinctively need what the other provides.

The Last Protector of the title is the name given to Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, who has been in exile on the continent since the monarchy returned to power and has made no attempt to cause trouble for Charles II’s regime – until now. Intimately connected with the conspiracy theories, rumour and unrest filtering through London is the flamboyant but dangerous Duke of Buckingham, whose dandyish attire and theatrical manner belies his power and ruthlessness. With the King, Buckingham and the mysterious figure of the Protector forming three sides of a devious and manipulative triangle, James Marwood faces double dealing and betrayal on all sides as he tries to unmask the instigators of the political violence spreading through the capital.

This is a period of history I love and find absolutely fascinating, so there’s an immediate appeal to be found in the setting alone. However, sound historical research doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with enjoyable historical fiction – and this is where Andrew Taylor gets it so right. The recreation of mid seventeenth-century London feels authentic without being a vehicle for gratuitous fact-dropping, and the author manages to give his readers an understanding of the political climate of the time without using dialogue as clumsy exposition. Most important of all, the characters feel as relatable as if they were alive today, and having followed Marwood through four books now, I feel as attached to him as I did to Shardlake in C J Sansom’s magnificent series. The political setting means there are inevitably swathes of male characters, but the author seems to go out of his way to redress the balance by involving some terrific women in the story, taking care to draw them in as much detail as his male lead. There’s a surprising amount of historical fiction out there that’s pretty lazy with its female cast (the bawdy innkeeper’s wife! the homely peasant! the generic Tudor princess!), often relegating them to the role of sexual victim or plot accessory, but what this series gets right is the way in which it treats women as individuals whilst acknowledging the reality of their lives in a society that was more overtly patriarchal than the one we live in today.

The Last Protector is a compulsive page-turner, an intriguing thriller, an escape into the past and also a touching story of the cruel chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots. I have my fingers crossed for many more books to come – it’s clear that James Marwood’s story is very far from over.

Related posts

Living through literature

Back in February 2016 (I know – it seems like a bygone age) I wrote a blog post about my top 5 novels featuring real-life historical figures. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m having a conversation with my sister during which she asked me to recommend her some historical fiction, with the proviso that it mustn’t feature any characters who really existed. Even a cursory glance along my shelves made it pretty clear that was going to be a difficult task; I hadn’t really thought about it before, but a huge proportion of the historical fiction I read is based around real events or people. In the 4 years since I first counted down my favourites, I’ve read loads more fiction in the same vein, so I thought it was time for part two! So here are 5 more fantastic novels that reimagine 5 fascinating lives.

Kepler by John Banville

It took me a little while to get into this novel. At first I was a bit confounded by the writing style, but once I’d settled into it I became completely hooked. Kepler isn’t always the most unequivocally loveable of characters, but you nevertheless get completely caught up in his all-consuming quest to chart the movements of the planets and reconcile them within a universal geometry. The recreation of the Renaissance world, with its religious divides and capricious power figures who can make or break you according to the direction of the wind, is second to none.

Longing by J D Landis

Many people will be familiar with the name Robert Schumann but fewer will have heard of his wife. Clara Wieck was a superb pianist who was perhaps better known in her own lifetime than she is now; this book charts the life of the great composer and the woman who helped bring his work to the world. It’s a delicately balanced combination of the exquisitely beautiful and the achingly sad as the love story progresses hand in hand with Schumann’s increasingly severe mental illness. It’s dense, emotionally rich and will completely take you over.

Z by Therese Anne Fowler

I picked this up not because I was a particular fan of either of the Fitzgerald’s work but simply because I fancied the glamorous Jazz Age setting. As it turns out, there’s very little that was truly glamorous about the Fitzgeralds’ story: the wild parties, fashionable hotels and encounters with high society are exotic and intoxicating, but ultimately a veil that barely conceals the bleak reality of two people who are being ravaged by the combined effects of alcohol, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. I knew next to nothing about their lives before reading this novel, but it spurred me on to seek out some factual writing on the subject; it seems their story was truly as sad as is painted here.

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

Another musical tale now: that of Shostakovich’s famous Seventh Symphony. The author herself admits in the brief introduction that although the protagonists were real people she has used a lot of creative license, especially around Shostakovich’s motivation for writing the symphony; however, for me that didn’t detract in any way from the novel. It captures all too acutely the agony and desperation of the citizens living in the besieged city of Leningrad during the Second World War, and the sense of powerlessness in the face of destitution, starvation and death. I haven’t met anyone else who’s read it sadly, but I really think this book deserves to be better known than it currently is.

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

I’ve saved the best for last in this top 5; honestly, I was so blown away by this book I’ve struggled to find enough superlatives to do it justice. It tells the story of Diego Velazquez’s life as court painter to Philip IV of Spain in the seventeenth century, yet it goes far beyond a mere fictionalised biography. It’s about the ability of art to capture the truth behind the façade, and the relationship between rulers and the painters who present their faces to the world. It’s about the invisible being made visible, about life being captured for eternity by brush strokes on canvas and what that means for the painter, the painted and those who come after them. If you only read one historical novel this year, I implore you to make it this one.

Thanks for reading. This is a genre I really love, so if you have any of your own real-life historical fiction must-reads that you think I should try, do leave a comment!

Related posts:

Past Masters: Sarah Dunant

Passion by Jude Morgan – review

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak – review

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield review


Although my return to blogging was meant to be a guided tour of the books I was reading during these weeks of lockdown, I have to confess that for my first review I’ve cheated a bit and gone back to a book I read a few months ago.  Since I waved goodbye to Girl, Reading and launched This Girl’s Book Room, I’ve come across some amazing books that have made their way onto my list of favourites, so it seemed to make sense to share them here by way of recommendation for anyone finding themselves at a loss as to what to read next!

“Once Upon a River” is the first of these.  I loved “The Thirteenth Tale” by the same author, and one look at the cover made me pretty confident I was going to fall in love with this one too.  If you enjoyed “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry or “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue, then this is in a similar vein in the sense that the main plot device is a mysterious event that may or may not be supernatural, and that it features a cast of characters whose opinion is divided as to whether the weird goings on can be explained by science, faith or superstition.  The story starts with the shocking appearance in a rural inn of a stranger carrying what appears to be the corpse of a girl found drowned in the nearby river.  None of the onlookers can be left in any doubt that the child is dead; however, after some hours have passed, the body miraculously stirs…

From that point onwards, the mystery piles on thick and fast.  The girl becomes the focus of a missing child case that sees different parties vying for her custody and claiming her as their own, and in the midst of it all, local nurse Rita is trying to uncover the truth of the strange evening that apparently saw a body rise from the dead.  Many of the locals are convinced that it’s all the doing of Quietly, the otherworldly ferryman, who appears to those in trouble on the river and chooses either to return them to the safety of dry land or carry them off to the next world.  Not everyone is convinced, Rita, included, but a more logical explanation seems just as elusive.

In this nineteenth century setting, society is at a something of a crossroads, with ancient superstitions still keeping a firm foothold in people’s minds even as the new sciences of biology and psychology are becoming ever more prevalent.  The result is a melting pot of ideas and beliefs old and new that rub up against each other and battle it out for supremacy, and it’s this mix of the magical and the rational that Diane Setterfield evokes so beautifully.  As readers we’re also asked to contemplate what it is that makes something true or untrue, and to reflect on the nature of storytelling itself.  As the events of the mysterious resurrection spread through the community and get repeated over time they take on a life of their own, and each newly moulded tale becomes the established truth every time it’s told.  Is any listener, then, ever in a position to judge with any certainty where reality lies?  For all the characters in this novel, their version of the truth is also dependent on their own pre-established beliefs:  Rita in science, Joe the innkeeper in the powerful myths of the river and its ghostly guardian.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; Rita is a likeable and engaging heroine, and the balance of a realistic setting with hints of the supernatural was perfect for me.  If you’ve visited my blog before, you’ll know I love historical fiction anyway, but the folklore element was what really made this novel stand out for me.  If you’ve read it let me know what you thought!

“A Conspiracy of Violence” by Susanna Gregory – review

When you read a book you love AND it’s the first of a long series, it’s a double-whammy of reading joy.  I’m very late to the party with the Thomas Chaloner series (of which this novel marks the beginning) but better late than never.  Of course, being a latecomer to a literary saga brings with it the benefit of having a number of books already written, so you can instantly feed your new obsession by reading several instalments in a row – which I might just be doing in this case.  I can’t take any credit for this discovery myself, however, as it was recommended to me by author and fellow blogger Bernadette Keeling, who’s read some of my reviews and therefore knows my taste pretty well!

It’s set in one of my favourite periods of history, the seventeenth century, not long after the monarchy has been restored to power with the accession of Charles II.  Forget the Tudors – this has got to be one of the most fascinating tines in our nation’s past.  Many who had supported Cromwell and his puritan leanings were dismayed to see a return to licentious behaviour as demonstrated by the new king and his flamboyant court; others were delighted to see the back of the Parliamentarian zealots who had manufactured Charles I’s death.  And some, like a number of characters in this story, were people who were just trying to survive, and who were prepared to bury old allegiances for the sake of staying on the right side of the victors.  The novel’s hero, Thomas Chaloner, is used to leading a double, or at times even a triple, life; when the story begins he has just returned from the Netherlands where he’s been working as a spy.  Political changes mean his role is no longer needed, but coming from a family that included a regicide (in the shape of his uncle) is rather a large stumbling block to employment in Restoration England.  Luckily for him there’s more than one ex-spymaster kicking his heels in 1660s London, and before too long Thomas’ caseload is mounting up, including an intriguing mission on behalf of the Earl of Clarendon to find a cache of gold supposedly hidden inside the Tower of London but never yet found.

When I start reading any new historical crime series my first instinct is to compare it to C J Sansom’s magnificent Shardlake books.  If you’re going to write a series of stories featuring a recurring central character then they need to be something special, and the characterisation in those novels is extraordinary.  If similar books in that genre fall down, it’s often I think because the protagonist, although perfectly likeable, just isn’t captivating enough.  At first I feared that might be the case with Thomas Chaloner, as it took me quite a while to really feel I knew him.  My relationship with him undoubtedly deepened as the book went on however, and by the end I was interested in his personal story as well as the outcomes of the various mysteries, and that’s a definite big tick in the book’s favour.  In fact, considering just how many key characters there are in this story I was really impressed by how well Susanna Gregory managed to flesh them out and create genuine interest in their often complex backstories.  I particularly loved Metje, Thomas’ fiery yet vulnerable Dutch mistress, who finds life increasingly difficult in a city where paranoid xenophobia is on the rise every day.  John Thurloe too is intriguing from first introduction, being Cromwell’s former Spymaster General who is now working for… underground Parliamentarians? The resurgent Royalists?  Or maybe both?  In this novel as in life, very few people wear their heart unequivocally on their sleeve, and most keep us in the dark about their true loyalties and motivations until the final pages.

The main difficulty for me came in the first two or three chapters; the political situation is so complex, the characters so numerous and their allegiances so complicated that to start with there’s quite a lot of exposition that results in some clunky and contrived dialogue.  I also struggled to remember who was working for whom in this world of subterfuge and had to do a fair bit of flicking back to read certain paragraphs again as a reminder.  After this slightly ropey early section though the plot started to take care of itself without constant explanation and the book really took off.  More than anything else, what stayed with me was what an incredibly lonely place England could be at that time.  Families and individuals whose political beliefs meant they were in the ascendancy only a few years earlier suddenly found themselves at best shunned and at worst in danger following the abrupt switch in regime.  As I said earlier in the review, I find this one of the most absorbing periods in history, and it’s to her great credit that the author really digs deep into not only political but social history, enabling us to appreciate the infinite nuances of this time of great upheaval as it would have played out in the lives of ordinary people.

I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series (at the time of writing I believe there are eight instalments, hooray!) and adding another historical fiction writer to my bookshelves.  And now that I’ve clambered back onto the reading treadmill after a bit of a hiatus, I hope to have more reviews for you very soon.


My April reading pile

I got a bit optimistic the other day and decided that since the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky then it must be warm enough to sit and read outside.  Not quite unfortunately; more a case of April doing that sneaky thing it does where it lures you into believing it’s summer a few weeks prematurely.  Whether I end up indoors or out though, there are some interesting books on the reading pile this month.  I realised (again) how much I love my job a week or so ago when I got given a proof copy of “Into the Water”, which I’m sure I don’t need to tell you is the next novel by “The Girl on the Train” author Paula Hawkins.  By rights it shouldn’t be featuring in a blog post about April TBRs as I’ve actually finished it already – but I couldn’t not mention it as it will surely be one of the biggest novels of this year.  I’ll save my thoughts for the review, which I’ll probably post nearer to publication time, but if you manage to get anywhere near a copy then grab it and don’t let go.  I’m super-excited about “In the Name of the Family” by Sarah Dunant, the next in her series of novels about the Borgias (I say series but I have no idea whether there will at some point be a third!) as I thought the first, Blood and Beauty, was pretty much everything you could want from a work of historical fiction.  I’ve also just started “4 3 2 1”, the Paul Auster doorstop, and I have to confess, although I very much enjoyed the opening chapters I haven’t as yet got much further.  This isn’t a reflection on the book I don’t think, more the fact that it’s quite a hefty thing that I suspect is going to require a reasonable amount of concentration and I haven’t really been in the headspace for something like that for a while.  Last up, because I always like to have some non-fiction on the go as well, is an intriguing book I came across completely by chance in a local bookshop.  “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed: Sixteen writers on the decision not to have kids” is a collection of essays on, well, exactly what the title says.  I’ve always found it interesting that conversations around childlessness are still something of a taboo, even in our increasingly open society.  Well, that’s not quite true: potentially hurtful comments directed towards a woman without children about her lack of mother-status don’t seem to be taboo at all, but for a woman to respond and discuss the reasons for it is still, in my experience, looked upon with surprise, lack of comprehension and often, sadly, unfair judgement.  I was interested to see that this book existed at all, and am very much looking forward to reading a variety of opinions on the issue.

As ever there will be more reviews up on Girl, Reading soon, but in the meantime enjoy the sunshine and enjoy whatever you’re reading!


“Passion” by Jude Morgan – review

There will be very few of us who haven’t been there at some point in our lives: utterly engulfed in a passion that ruthlessly eradicates reason, rationality and sometimes even morality.  To conjure up the memory of that feeling is easy; to put it adequately into words infinitely less so.  On the cover of this book there’s a quote by Tracy Chevalier calling it her “book of the year”, excessive praise you might think for a novel that looks at first glance from the jacket and title as if it’s going to be a romping and perhaps sensationalistic period romance.  I can tell you though, she’s not wrong.  The main reason why?  Because the incredibly talented Jude Morgan knows – and most importantly can convincingly describe – down to the last heartbeat what it’s like to be consumed and even obsessed by passion for another person.

“Passion” is based on real events, specifically the lives of four women who were at one time the partners or lovers of Byron, Shelley and Keats.  Caroline Lamb was a very high status aristocrat who fell under Byron’s spell, and became emotionally and socially ruined as a result.  The chalk to her cheese, Augusta Leigh, was unassuming and gentle-spirited, going through life almost unnoticed until her relationship with Byron turned her world upside down, the looming spectre of incest haunting her for evermore.  Mary Shelley possessed a fiercely astute mind that captivated Shelley the poet, but even she ultimately failed to intellectualise the turbulent and unconventional relationship that she and the bohemian Shelley shared.  Finally there was Fanny Brawne, whose love for John Keats was probably the least tainted of the four, but whose happiness (as I’m sure you know but spoiler alert anyway!) was cut short by the poet’s early death from consumption.

One of the reasons I adored this book so much was the fact that although, with the possible exception of Mary Shelley, the women in question were all far less well-known than the men they loved, this whole story is truly about them.  We follow all four from their early childhood and watch as nature and nurture shape them into the adults they become; Byron, Shelley and Keats move in and out of their lives but it’s the lives of the female characters that frame the novel.  The text jumps between first and third person narration (the first person used particularly effectively later in the book as Caroline’s mental state starts to unravel) but it’s always the women’s voices we hear.

And as I mentioned before, they are such authentic voices.  Time and again throughout the novel there are perfect gems of sentences so pin-point accurate in their depiction of love, grief or heartbreak that you stop and think, this author has been here; he knows first-hand how this feels.   I know as well there’s absolutely no reason a male writer shouldn’t be able to inhabit a female character’s head convincingly if he’s talented enough, but the skill with which he does so still took me by surprise as I can’t think of a male author I’ve read for a very long time who writes in this way.

Despite its focus on female characters though, the men who feature in the book are equally well-rounded and believable.  In fact, the cast is pretty numerous, but everyone is drawn with immense care, and there are actually some cracking smaller characters who may only appear every now and then but who fill the novel with glorious colour.  Jude Morgan, rather like Dickens, excels at creating characters which are both comical and loathsome at the same time.  Mrs. Clairmont, Mary’s screeching, hollering and frequently hysterical stepmother was one of my particular favourites, as was Annabella, Byron’s wife, whose obsessively saintly attempts to save incestuous Augusta’s soul perch somewhere on a fine line between laughable and sinister.

It’s a very sad novel in some ways – to say the course of true love doesn’t run smooth for these women would be an understatement – but its sadness lies not so much in the momentous tragic events that pepper the story but rather in the sense that, as an ageing Coleridge puts it in the final chapter, “There is a great secret, and it is this: that human life is intolerable.”

Without wishing to end on too bleak a note, this is the kind of love story I like: the one which acknowledges that the vast majority of relationships don’t end happily, that one partner is often going to value a relationship more than the other, and that sometimes the people we want to be with we can never have.  If you like your romance and your historical fiction treated with sharp intelligence then this is the book for you.


“Morality Play” by Barry Unsworth – review

This was one of those unobtrusive little novels that sat quietly on the bottom shelf of the bookcase for some years, its diminutive size and understated spine neither demanding nor receiving any attention.  There was only one reason I finally picked it up a few days ago: I wanted to put another review up on my blog and I needed something short that I could get through quickly.  Having now finished it, I’m struck by a slightly bizarre sense of guilt that I wasn’t drawn to it by any potential merit other than its length, as it turned out to be the very epitome of the hidden gem.  As recompense for passing over it for so long, my aim now is to give it a moment in the sun.

I know there are millions of people out there who love historical fiction.  I’ll put money on the fact though that there aren’t quite as many medieval drama nerds; but if you are one (as I’m afraid I am!) then this is one of a tiny number of novels that scratch that particularly niche itch.  The story follows a fourteenth century cleric, Nicholas Barber, who tires of a life transcribing interminably dull texts and runs away from his order.  We join him as he comes across a troupe of travelling players gathered around one of their number who has just that moment died; a stroke of luck for Nicholas as a dead actor means a vacancy in the company that needs to be filled.  Despite some initial suspicions the players take him in and continue their journey until they reach a small town, where they decide to stop and earn some money with a few performances.  As per tradition, the play they first present to their audience is a morality play, a type of drama familiar to all watching, with its instantly recognisable characters and orthodox religious message.  However, word soon reaches the new arrivals of a brutal murder recently committed in the town and that gives Martin, the troupe’s unofficial but tacitly accepted leader, a dangerous idea: to write and perform a play telling the story of the crime.  At first the events leading up to the murder seem straightforward enough; a local woman was arrested within hours of the body being discovered and the motive of robbery an obvious explanation for the attack.  As far as the majority of the townspeople are concerned, a guilty sentence for the accused is a foregone conclusion.  Anxious to make the play as authentic and accurate as possible, Martin sends the players out into the community to listen to the gossip and do a bit of surreptitious investigating – but what comes back starts to cast some serious doubt on the official story.  All of a sudden, the play is no longer looking like a representation of events as already believed by the local people, but a shocking exposé of a potential miscarriage of justice.

The mystery of the murder, and the danger in which the players find themselves, drive the plot, but in many ways the book isn’t really about those things.  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” a certain playwright once wrote, and that I think is the crux of this novel.  Time and again assumptions are made about people’s character – and their guilt or innocence – based on the clothes they wear, the office they hold, their position in the social hierarchy.  But in reality the robe of the cleric or the livery of a knight is merely a costume that helps him play out the role his audience expects, and it tells us absolutely nothing about the substance of the man underneath.  When the travelling players perform their morality dramas they use stock characters and universally recognised masks and mimed gestures; the figures presented are ones with which everyone in the audience will be familiar since they always behave in the same way.  That is why, when Martin suggests that for the first time in their lives the actors take on the roles of real people there is an outcry from his troupe.  The stage is for representing the two-dimensional figures of good and evil, wisdom and folly – people want to remain in the safety and comfort provided by the mask and costume, just as they want to admire the colourful shields and shining armour of the jousting knight without questioning the chivalry of the man beneath.  It’s not insignificant that towards the end of the book it begins to look as if acting in their well-worn roles might turn out to be the very thing that saves the players.  Perhaps if we didn’t stick to our pre-determined roles then society would crumble and anarchy would ensue.

I think that the author leaves it very much up to us to decide whether or not this would be a bad thing.  Although he revels in the medieval setting – the language and style of the narrator leave us in no doubt that this is the voice of a fourteenth-century man – it could just as easily be a novel for our time, or indeed any time.  I enjoyed the setting as a passionate medievalist; I enjoyed its concepts and philosophies as a twenty-first century human.  My summary?  A lot more than meets the eye and a hidden gem indeed.


“The Virgin Blue” by Tracy Chevalier – review

I read “Remarkable Creatures” by the same author a few years ago and absolutely loved it, yet somehow had never got round to reading any of her other books until now.  “The Virgin Blue” is one of those novels that have a historical and a modern day storyline running side by side, but it was – as it usually is for me – the historical element that drew me to it.  This strand of the novel tells the story of Isabelle du Moulin, a young woman living in rural France in the last decades of the sixteenth century.  Times are changing: Calvinist beliefs are starting to spread through France and other parts of Europe, overturning the Catholicism that has until now been the foundation of mainstream society.  When the new religion, “The Truth”, arrives in her village, Isabelle finds herself regarded with suspicion – nicknamed La Rousse as a child because of her likeness to the painting of the Virgin Mary above the door of the parish church, her association with the Madonna suddenly becomes a potentially dangerous one.  Calvinist doctrine sees the Catholic devotion to Mary as an impediment to the worship of God, and Isabelle is now a tainted woman in the midst of the reformist frenzy surrounding her.  The Catholic forces, however, are not far away, and Isabelle eventually flees with her husband’s family, followers of the new religion themselves, to a place they hope will bring them shelter from persecution at the hands of those who would enforce the old religious ways.  Unfortunately for Isabelle, her troubles are only just beginning.

In the present day, American Ella has just moved to France with her husband Rick, a move that was meant to see them attaining the idyllic French country lifestyle that so many crave.  However, Ella soon starts to be plagued by a mysterious recurring nightmare that haunts her waking hours as well as her sleep.  She is at a loss to interpret its meaning, and is only able to articulate the overwhelming sense of oppression and anxiety with which it leaves her.  Most inexplicable of all is the vivid colour she sees again and again: a rich, multi-layered shade of blue.  Life in the small French town is not quite what she hoped for either, with a community suspicious of outsiders and days that seem increasingly lonely as her husband immerses himself in a new job.  To distract herself from her unhappiness, Ella starts to research her family history, spurred on by the knowledge that she has cousins in nearby Switzerland, and before long she finds herself engrossed not only in her family’s turbulent past but also Jean-Paul, the town librarian.

Out of the two stories, I have to admit I preferred the historical one, but that’s personal taste rather than any shortcoming of storytelling.  I’ve always found Europe’s religious reformation to be a fascinating time in history, and I felt the author really captured a sense of what an immense upheaval the emergence of Calvinism would have been to a society and individuals.  On the one hand, the saying that there’s no-one as zealot as a convert holds true; and yet there are elements of the old religion that are still so ingrained in people’s hearts and minds that it’s almost impossible for them to be erased completely.  Isabelle may be living as the dutiful wife with her fiercely pro-reform in-laws, but secretly she finds comfort in the old, familiar rituals and in particular the reassuring image of the Virgin that she finds in her place of exile in the local church, but dares not be caught looking at.  Hers is an incredibly sad story, persecuted as she is from all sides – though it must be said the distant threat of Catholic forces bearing down on her pales in comparison to the abuse of her thuggish husband – and at times I found her tale quite difficult to read.  In the twenty-first century Ella has her own troubles to be sure, but sad though some of them are I never feared for her happy ending the way I feared for Isabelle’s.  What I did really enjoy was the subtle sense of mysticism linking the past and present.  It was never overblown, but there’s something enticing and magical about the idea that we are all somehow connected across the centuries to those who have gone before us.  It’s not giving too much away to say that many of Ella’s unexplained feelings and visions are a reflection of those of the woman who walked in her footsteps four hundred years before; I found a warming sense of reassurance that whatever befell Isabelle, her life, her loves and her tragedies would not become insignificant casualties of the passage of time, but would live on in the hopes and dreams of another woman many centuries later.

I already have another Tracy Chevalier book on my shelf waiting to go; if the two I’ve now read are anything to go by it will be a very enjoyable read.  If you’re a fan of dual timeline novels – or any novel with an historical element come to that – do try “The Virgin Blue”.  I can’t promise there won’t be some heartbreak but I will guarantee a good read.


“Anatomy of Murder” by Imogen Robertson – review

It’s always exciting when you discover a new author that you love, possibly even more so when they’ve already written several books as it means you can follow up your new-found passion immediately.  I’ve literally only just finished reading “Anatomy of Murder” within the last ten minutes, and have started beavering away at a review already as I’m so keen to share the love for what looks like being one of my new favourite historical crime series.  I’ve mentioned S J Parris and C J Sansom on the blog many times, and if you enjoy books of that ilk then you’ll adore this I guarantee.  One of the best historical novels I read lately was “The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor (if you read my review you’ll know how highly I rated it) and this is most certainly on a par in terms of writing quality and a vivid sense of time and place.  I should point out though that “Anatomy of Murder” is in fact the second book in the series, something I didn’t realise when I bought it; it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in any way but there were very definite references to events of the previous book that obviously had a bearing on the current situation of the main characters, so if you want to give this author a try I would recommend reading book one, “Instruments of Darkness”, first.

The opening scenes take place aboard a Royal Navy ship as she engages with a French enemy vessel off the coast of Newfoundland.  The year is 1781, and there are frequent Anglo-French clashes out in the Atlantic following the French government’s recent treaty with the Americans.  In this instance, HMS Splendour is successful and her foe captured; events begin to unfold, however, which suggest this apparently ordinary French ship may be harbouring something particularly valuable.  Flash forward six months to London, and we meet Harriet Westerman and her friend Gabriel Crowther, who have been summoned by a local Justice to help investigate the murder of a man found tied up and dumped in the River Thames.  Harriet, it turns out, is the wife of the man who was Captain on HMS Splendour when it secured its much talked about victory all those months ago.  Sadly, however, his illustrious naval career has been cut short since then by an unfortunate accident on board that has left him with severe brain injuries.  Harriet, while not exactly a widow, has lost any meaningful relationship with her husband as he languishes in a residential home, subject to bouts of confusion and aggression.  It transpires, however, that the fight against the French has moved from the high seas to the drawing rooms of the capital, as the murdered man is suspected of being involved in international espionage; it is now Harriet’s turn to take up the patriotic cause where her husband left off.  Like many a good detective story, there’s also a second mystery running alongside the main plot strand.  This one features another tough and resourceful female investigator, Jocasta, who lives and works in the less desirable parts of the city, earning a very basic living by reading tarot cards.  Not someone to be easily spooked, she is unusually disturbed by the reading she gives to a frightened young woman who comes to her for guidance.  Plagued by the certainty that something terrible is going to befall the girl or her loved ones, she decides to take matters into her own hands and before long her worst fears are confirmed.

What I loved most about this novel, and what I think makes it so successful, is the totally authentic representation of life at both extremes of the social spectrum.  In quite a few of the historical novels I’ve read, the middle and upper class characters (often these are also the main characters) are nuanced and believable, but the lower classes – the servants, street urchins and the like – can come across as somewhat clichéd, as if the author hasn’t quite got a handle on their reality.  This author treats every single one of her creations with equal care: Jocasta and the occasionally questionable people who she gathers to help her have sentiments and motivations as complex as those caught up in the high-society espionage game.  As for that strand of the plot, the intrigue centres around one of London’s great opera houses, a fascinating setting that opens the door to a vibrant world of equally vibrant characters.  For a certain section of society, the European opera singers who came to England to perform were the celebrity stars of their day.  Much of the story hangs on the mass adoration and hysteria that these musical legends – and the composers who wrote for them – evoked throughout the city.  It was an area so well researched (and well-loved I suspect) by the author that you’re utterly transported, and that’s what you want almost more than anything else from a historical novel I think: to feel as if you’re actually there.

It’s engaging from the word go, but the books really picks up to an incredible pace by the final act, to the point where I happily abandoned everything else in order to gallop through the closing chapters and find out how the story would end.  Without giving too much away, the conclusion was such that it made me quite interested to see where she takes the lead characters in her next book.  Imogen Robertson is definitely now a valued addition to my bookshelves, and I’d highly recommend you give this series a whirl.