Book Review – “The King’s Evil” by Andrew Taylor

As I sat down at my computer to write this review, I was struck suddenly by the irony of being in lockdown as a result of a global pandemic, to write about a book whose title is the common term for an ancient disease. Scrofula (or mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis to give it its medical name!) causes unsightly swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck which may burst to create open sores. It is an infectious disease, often associated with tuberculosis, which declined rapidly by the 20th century as more successful treatments for tuberculosis came on stream. It is still around today, mainly affecting immunocompromised patients, and there was a resurgence during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Who knew?!

Scrofula became known as ‘the king’s evil’ because it was once believed that the touch of a monarch was enough to cure a patient of the disease. If only such treatment were enough for Covid-19. Although this book is not about scrofula directly, it opens in the Palace of Westminster where King Charles II is bestowing his ‘cure’ on a group of his disease affected subjects in a public ceremony.

The Kings Evil imgThis is the third book in Andrew Taylor’s series of Marwood & Lovett novels. I have thoroughly enjoyed the first two books, The Ashes of London and The Fire Court and have listened to all three on audiobook. I love the narration of Leighton Pugh who is able to conjure the most amazing range of voices to suit the various characters. The fourth novel in the series, The Last Protector, was published earlier this month and I can’t wait to get on to that one now.

The book is set in Restoration London, in 1667, the year following the Great Fire (the first book in the series takes place during and in the immediate aftermath of that terrible event). In a further ironic twist for the times we are living in, let us not forget that the Great Fire immediately followed the plague epidemic of 1665-66 which is thought to have killed 100,000 people, or a quarter of London’s population at the time.

James Marwood is a Whitehall clerk, the son of a former Fifth Columnist, or traitor against the monarchy, who was imprisoned for his crimes. Marwood senior, a frail and senile character, was present in the first book, but died in the second, but the son is never quite free of his father’s reputation. Cat Lovett is the daughter of a regicide, a spirited and ambitious young woman with a passion for architecture, who, in the first novel was raped by her cousin, and, in fighting back, almost killed him when she poked his eye out. As a result she lives in hiding under an assumed name. It helps if you have read the first two books as it provides context and gives you an idea of the characters and their motivations, but it is not essential as the author brings in elements of the back-story.

Death and murder seem to follow James Marwood like a wasp to honey; when you are watching television shows like Midsummer Murders or Morse, you have to suspend your disbelief that so many suspicious deaths could occur in one small place, and it is rather like that with these novels! What I really like, however, is how the character of Marwood is developing, how his activity is drawing him ever closer into the inner workings of the royal court and therefore ever more entwined in the inevitable intrigue.

In this book, Marwood, who is in the employ of a senior Whitehall official and has gradually secured that man’s trust, is called upon to investigate a mysterious death at the home of Lord Clarendon, a relative by marriage of the king, but a man whose past has earned him many enemies at Court. By coincidence, Clarendon House is also undergoing building renovations which are being supervised by the architect James Haxeby, the ageing fiancé of Cat Lovett (masquerading as Jane Haxeby, the architect’s cousin). The dead man turns out to be Edward Alderley, Cat’s cousin and the man who raped her a year earlier, and Cat is about to be fitted up for the crime. When she then disappears, certain courtiers believe her guilt is obvious. Marwood believes Cat did not do it (though it must be said he is not 100% sure), and when sent in to investigate the circumstances of the murder he finds he is drawn into a much more sinister web of intrigue, of political turmoil among factions at Court and find himself in direct contact with the King himself, whom he has to inform about certain facts of the case which do not suit the accepted (and acceptable) version of events. For the first time in this series there is also a bit of love interest for Marwood, though I don’t want to reveal any spoilers!

Marwood’s fortunes and prospects are improving with each novel, but so is the degree of difficulty he finds himself in. This is a really fascinating series and I cannot wait to find out what happens to him in The Last Protector.  The sense of time and place is powerfully evoked and it is clear that an impressive amount of research has gone into this and the other books in the series. These books are great to get thoroughly lost in, reading about a disease in the distant past may help you forget the disease we are facing in the present.

Highly recommended.

What kind of books provide escapism for you?

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Book review – “Birdcage Walk” by Helen Dunmore

It has come to my notice in the last couple of years that I really enjoy historical fiction, yet if you’d asked me that ten years ago I might have been quite sniffy about it, thinking of it as a more poular rather than literary genre. Perhaps it’s because the book I have been birthing over the last year or so (almost ready to send out, yay!) is largely historical, so I’ve grown acutely aware of the additional challenges of research, of picturing a scene in my mind’s eye that doesn’t include all the day to day contemporary things we take for granted, as well as trying to create an authentic narrative voice, even getting the language right. It’s also something more basic than that though – many historical novels have really touched something quite deep in me. I’m thinking Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, even Agatha Christie. And many of the books that I think of as my all-time favourites are also historical  – Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and Andrea Levy’s Small Island all look back as a way of making sense of the now. History can teach us a great deal.

Birdcage Walk imgA dear friend gave me Helen Dunmore’s final novel, published posthumously, Birdcage Walk, for my birthday last year and I have only just got around to reading it. I had read some quite mixed reactions, some feeling it wasn’t her best or that it had not been as well edited as it might have been, which is understandable. I am not familiar with Dunmore’s other novels so don’t have a view on how it compares. It meant I approached it with some trepidation, however.

The novel is set in 1792 in Bristol, with the aftermath of the French Revolution playing out across the Channel, and its effects beginning to be felt in England. The central character Lizzie is married to a builder John Diner Tredevant, known as Diner, who has invested heavily (financially and emotionally) in the construction of a grand terrace in the city. The couple’s future depends on the success of the project, but political unrest has created economic uncertainty and the half-built, never-to-be-completed terrace is a motif for the couple’s relationship. As financial pressure builds, stress begins to expose the fragile foundation of Diner’s personality, cracks are revealed in their marriage and questions begin to arise about the mysterious circumstances of Diner’s first wife who died suddenly in France.

Lizzie comes from a more middle-class intellectual background; her mother is a Radical writer and supporter of the insurgency against the monarchy in France, as is Lizzie’s stepfather Augustus. They were not fully in support of Lizzie’s marriage, and it is hinted that they feared Diner was her intellectual inferior, and that she would not thrive with him, as well as being of a different mind to them politically. It seems that Lizzie married him because he represented a solidity and security that she never had growing up; she clearly holds Augustus in some contempt at times, his intellectual pursuit seems ineffectual to her. When Lizzie’s mother dies in childbirth, becoming pregnant at a dangerously late stage in her life, everything in Lizzie’s world begins to break down.

I can see why some regard the novel as somehow ‘incomplete’ – some of the characters are not fully drawn, Diner, for example. For me, his behaviour was not entirely coherent and I did not fully ‘get’ what drew him and Lizzie together, they seem so un-alike, and this is slightly problematic as the entire plot turns on the dynamics of their relationship. A quote from the Daily Mail on the jacket describes it as a “psychological thriller”, but that’s not quite how it felt to me. If anything, it’s more a book about character than plot.

Like the book I am working on, it is also about a journey of discovery, of uncovering the past and of the fleeting part we all play in history and how individual stories are so easily lost.

Whether or not Birdcage Walk is Dunmore’s best (if I could write this well, I’d be happy!) it has made me want to explore her other work as I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Recommended reading.

How do you feel Birdcage Walk compares with Dunmore’s other novels?

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Book review: “The Last Runaway” by Tracy Chevalier

This was one of my holidays reads and one of two books my book club chose for our summer break. It’s only my third Tracy Chevalier novel, but each time I read her I just want more! I read Girl with a Pearl Earring years ago when it was first published and then The Lady and the Unicorn a year or so ago, which I thought was wonderful. I have since picked up Virgin Blue from my local secondhand bookshop so that will be next on my list.

The Last Runaway imgOne thing that is so impressive about Chevalier is how beautifully she creates the  historical setting: the two novels I have read so far have been set in 17th century Holland and 15th century Paris and Brussels and I can only begin to imagine the amount of research she has to undertake. The Last Runaway is set in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century when parts of the country were only just being settled. Honor Bright, our main character is a young Quaker woman from Dorset in England. She has led a modest and sheltered life, but her world was turned upside down when her fiancé left her and their close-knit Quaker community for another woman. This was not only a scandal but it left Honor distraught and in a very difficult position. When her sister, Grace, is persuaded by her fiancé that they should move to America, Honor decides she must go with her, not only to support her sister, but to escape the oppression of her situation and have some chance of making a life for herself.

Their journey from Bristol to New York is arduous and Honor suffers with debilitating seasickness. As they travel the long distance from New York to Ohio, Grace contracts Yellow Fever and dies. This places Honor in a further difficult position: not only must she tell Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, that she is dead, but she is also in fear about where that leaves her as he, of course, has no obligation to support her. Honor, however, cannot face going back to England either because of the journey or the shame.

On the final leg of her journey, Honor has a frightening encounter with a local slave-hunter, Donovan. Honor is appalled both by his profession and his dangerous air, and yet also finds herself strangely drawn to him when he seems to flirt with her. This also sends her into a tailspin as it conflicts with her Quaker outlook and moral code.

Honor arrives in the small town of Wellington, close to Faithwell, her intended destination. There, she finds quarters with Belle Mills, the local milliner, who, it transpires, is also the half-sister of the mysterious Donovan. Belle warns Honor about him and it is clear there is a tension between these siblings. During her stay with Belle, Honor adapts her talent for quilting (quilting, its traditions, the patterns and its place in Quaker culture, are a strong and fascinating motif running through the novel) and shows promise as a hat-maker, endearing her to Belle and her many customers. Belle’s designs are often flamboyant, which is an anathema to Honor, who, as a Quaker, must observe plainness and modesty in all forms of dress. The two women develop a firm friendship, however, and Honor begins to feel more confident.

Honor first realises there is something strange going on when she finds a black man under a woodpile in the yard of Belle’s home. Honor is aware of the existence of the slave trade, indeed, the Quakers were an important part of the movement calling for its abolition, but this is the first time she has come so close to an escapee. She is terrified, particularly when Donovan comes searching at his sister’s property, sensing the presence of the runaway. Honor later learns that Belle is part of a network of citizens who provided the means of escape, food and shelter for runaway slaves fleeing the South to states which had already outlawed slavery – the ‘underground railroad’. Belle was what was known as a ‘station-master’.

Honor is collected from Belle’s by Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, and taken back to Faithwell, to live with him and his sister-in-law (also widowed) and to work in their shop. The domestic situation is uncomfortable for Honor, however, and her prospects only  brighten when she is wooed and then married to fellow Quaker Jack Haymaker. At first it seems like a good marriage that will improve Honor’s situation, but her mother-in-law proves to be a formidable presence, who does not conceal her contempt for her daughter-in-law and how little she has to offer when Honor goes to live with them on their isolated farm. At first, Jack is attentive and loving, but quickly becomes complacent and Honor grows increasingly miserable, despite her efforts to feel and appropriate degree of godly gratitude. Tensions deepen when Honor decides she will provide support for runaway slaves passing through their property. This is against the expressed wishes of the Haymakers. A law has been passed which makes it illegal for anyone to help a runaway, and the penalties are severe. Whilst the Quakers are against slavery, they are also against law-breaking and Honor’s actions are seen as a threat to their livelihood. Honor finds herself increasingly in conflict with the family until the point where her position becomes untenable. All the while, Donovan hovers in the background, stalking Honor and sniffing out runaways.

I will say no more as the events of the story then take quite dramatic turns. I loved the unexpected twists of the plot. I also love the way the author wove in details about the slave trade and the underground railroad (which I confess I knew very little about). Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad brought the existence of this movement to the attention of many readers for the first time, I think. I was not aware that Tracy Chevalier had also written this novel about it. I also loved the domesticity of this novel, its femaleness and the feminine craft of homemaking, particularly in relation to the skills required for good quilting. This seems to be a common theme in Chevalier’s work. I loved how strong the women were in this novel; the men do not come out looking so good!

I recommend this book highly. It’s a great story, a fascinating read and will give you an insight into worlds you may not know much about.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your views.

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Book review: “The Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant

I first knew Sarah Dunant as a broadcaster on late-night arts shows in the late 1990s. It’s funny how you remember some people – she always had very distinctive glasses. I was conscious that she seemed to disappear off the scene and for a while there I got her mixed up with Sarah Waters…until I saw Sarah W speak at the Manchester Literature Festival a few years ago and realised they were not the same! But Sarah D had in fact reinvented herself as an author, as I was to discover a year or so ago when I saw her speak at a writer’s conference. (I should add that 2000-2012 were lean reading years for me – I was knee-deep in children and totally out of the literary loop).

I’ve read a few historical novels, notably Deborah Moggach and Tracy Chevalier, and loved them, though it’s not a genre I often choose. I decided on this as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2018, and when I saw The Birth of Venus in my local Oxfam bookshop it seemed an obvious choice. It’s wonderful, I loved it, and it seems to have gone down pretty well with the other participants on the Reading Challenge.

The Birth of Venus imgThe novel is set in Renaissance Florence; the sense of time and place is profound. You can almost smell the streets wafting from the pages! Dunant is a meticulous researcher and the novel feels very authentic. The central character is Alessandra, the fifteen year-old daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. Much to the frustration of her family Alessandra is a precociously intelligent young woman, a talented artist, a strong personality and has a deep desire to be out in the world. These are all traits which are highly inconvenient for the family and not compatible with the kind of life she will be expected to lead.

As a mark of their wealth, Alessandro’s parents commission a Flemish artist to paint the chapel in their home, incorporating the family’s portraits. Though she has very limited opportunity to communicate with him, his presence produces a stirring effect in Alessandra. She is attracted both by his artistic ability and his mysterious nocturnal wanderings into the city.

Alessandra is destined to be married off as soon as she starts menstruating and the husband selected for her is an older man, a long-standing family acquaintance. At first it seems the marriage will set Alessandra on the same path that her mother and sister before her have followed – moving from one zone of subjugation to another and endless child-bearing. In fact, Alessandra’s husband, Cristoforo, is the lover of her brother Tomaso and the marriage is merely one of convenience to provide him with the cover of a wife and child. At first, Alessandra is distraught and feels betrayed, but it soon becomes apparent that this frees her more than she could ever have imagined, to pursue some of her own dreams, to be more sexually liberated, and to be mistress of her own time and activity. In the background to the domestic tumult is the political upheaval in the city; first, the invasion of the French, then the rule of Savonarola, a fierce reactionary monk who preaches a severe brand of Christianity. The old certainties of corruption, sleaze and vice in the Church and politics are being brutally flushed out in favour of a strict religious fervour, and a new atmosphere of fear, surveillance, severe torture and punishment for misdemeanours has replaced it.

I will say no more as it’s a cracking story and events unfold dramatically. The plot is so well thought-through and maintains momentum right to the end. The characters are well-rounded and believable, not just Alessandra, but her mother and husband, her brother and sister, the painter and her loyal maid, African slave Erila.

The book is ambitious in scope, in its portrayal of the period and the way it weaves the political upheavals and realities of the era into what is essentially one young woman’s story of coming of age, of emotional and sexual maturing and of finding fulfilment in the most constrained of circumstances.

Highly recommended, great for any holidays you might have coming up and I’ll certainly be looking out for more Sarah Dunant for future reads.

Do you enjoy historical fiction? What are your recommendations?

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