Category Archives: reviews

Friday Five – unusual historicals

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There’s a tendency sometimes for historical novels to be set in very similar time periods – Henry VIII, the English Civil War, Victorian Britain.  So it’s a breath of fresh air to discover books set in some much more unusual times and places that you might not otherwise have come across.  Here’s a handful I’ve read over the years.

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Beautiful, lyrical and incredibly authentic story set in medieval Japan, with all the elements of Japanese literature including romance, destruction and tragedy. I believe it’s actually a YA title, but really doesn’t read like it and tackles some amazingly adult themes.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

This is actually set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, but stands out for two reasons.  One is the sheer sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds of the time, which gives it a strong sense of authenticity. The other is that the main character is a gay man.  The romance is affecting, the characters strongly drawn, and I found it hard to put down.

Death of a Monk by Alon Hilu

A simply extraordinary book written by an Israeli author and translated into English in a volume I found in a second hand book store in London. The story involves another gay man struggling to cope with marriage, relationships and life in 1840s Damascus, when the city was subdivided into a number of racially divided but surprisingly well integrated quarters. A unique and mesmerising book.

People’s Act of Love by James Meek

A searing romance-cum-historical-cum mystery set against the wilderness backdrop of early twentieth century Siberia during the early years of the Revolution. At times brutal, but also imbued with a mischievous sense of humour – and the final revelation is almost literally to die for!

The Sleeper in the Sands by Tom Holland

A sort of ‘thousand and one nights’ for ancient Egypt, with a storyline that moves from Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb to a series of ancient myths and legends that form a story within a story within a story. Slightly confusing at times and I’d have like more about Carter, but it was gripping and unusual.

 

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Friday Five – garden mysteries

P1020888I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery and I love gardens and gardening, so it stands to reason I would seek out books with a bit of both.  I’ve read a few over the years; here’s a selection of some of them:

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Still one of my favourite books and a big influence on my writing even now. I love the descriptions of the garden of the past, and the happiness Tom finds there, and the reveal still has the power to send shivers up my spine. I also love the way she manages to write a children’s novel without ever talking down – the language and themes are remarkably grown up.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

A fascinating exploration of a Renaissance garden in Tuscany, and the macabre hidden message it sends out via statues, grottoes and classical inscriptions.  I found it hard to put down.  It’s billed as a murder mystery, but really has more in common with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, except that it’s less hysterical and much, much better written.

The Serpent in the Garden by Janet Gleeson

Overall this was a little too cosy for my tastes, but I enjoyed the descriptions of the 18th century garden, the hot house and the mystic art of growing pineapples!  There’s also a nod to the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.  A shame that the plot, involving a stolen emerald necklace, didn’t entirely hold up to scrutiny.

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

Another favourite, with a wonderful sense of otherworldliness and a plot that involves telepathy, white witchcraft and herbalism.  In places it’s desperately sad, but the ‘fairy godmother’ saves the day.  A beautiful and absorbing read.

The Sea Garden by Sam Llewellyn

A recent find, set in a fascinating 18th century garden by the sea (on an island off the Cornish coast, no less), where the new owner finds a human skull in a flower bed and sets off to discover who it once belonged to.  Again, this is less murder mystery and more a sprawling family saga involving all sorts of skeletons in all sorts of closets, and I really enjoyed it.

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The Sea Garden

seagardenI’ve just finished reading Sam Llewellyn’s mystery-in-a-garden The Sea Garden, and loved it.

As I say in my Goodreads review, I’m a complete sucker for any kind of mystery involving gardens (Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Savage Garden, Thornyhold), and this was no exception.

The present-day heroine Victoria uncovers a skull in the ancient, rambling and mysterious garden she and her husband have just inherited on an island off the Cornish coast.  When the skull vanishes again before she’s had a chance to examine it properly, she sets off on an investigation of who it could have belonged to and why it was buried there.  And uncovers a whole furniture-store of closets full of family skeletons and secrets in the process.

The writing was every bit as good as Mary Stewart at her best and the unexpected humour reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett.  Since those are two of my favourite authors it’s hardly surprising I liked this.

The ending was perhaps a little too melodramatic for my liking, but it fitted well with the ‘gothic’ feel of the book, and with the historical elements, and it tied everything up very neatly.

I’m hoping Mr Llewellyn will write more books in a similar vein, that I can look out for and devour.

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The Conjuring 2

Conjuring_2Last night we spotted that Sky Movies were showing The Conjuring 2, based on the true events of the ‘Enfield Hauntings’ in north London in the 1970s.

In the case, an ordinary family appeared to be targeted by ghostly and/or poltergeist activity in their home, and called in help in the shape of ghost-hunter Maurice Grosse and some specialist paranormal investigators from America.  The whole thing was made into a TV series (starring Timothy Spall) a couple of years ago, so whether or not you believe the events were genuine or a massive hoax, it was interesting to compare and contrast the series with the film.  (There’s a fascinating article, by Will Storr who was researching a book on the case, on the possibilities of fakery, if you’re interested.)

For starters, where the TV series concentrated on Mr Grosse’s efforts to help the family, the movie focussed on the American couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who’d helped investigate the Amityville horror.  Presumably this was so that the film could be more easily marketed in the USA, with an obvious American link, and it was interesting to see the haunting through the eyes of other, different people.  However, there were times when it took the focus away from the actual events of Enfield, and may have contributed to a more formulaic, ‘horror movie’ approach.

Where the tv series took a more balanced, down-to-earth view (that the hauntings could, just possibly, have been faked), the film plunged in with a more stereotypical approach: that the paranormal elements were genuine, and that anyone who didn’t believe them was either foolish or controlled by demons.  As a horror movie, it worked well enough.  You rooted for the family who were being demonised (in more ways than one) and wanted everyone to believe their story.  However, as a portrayal of true events it was less successful, because it was so sensationalised that you assumed it was all just movie gloss and special effects.  The real-life story of real (and very frightened) people got lost in the noise, sometimes literally.

The ending of the TV series also worked better, with the revelation that Janet, the child most associated with the paranormal activity, had quite possibly been faking some of the effects.  Maurice Grosse was left with the unshakeable belief that there was something unexplainable going on, but he couldn’t prove it, and ended up having to walk away.  In other words, exactly as it would be in real life.

The movie, however, went off into full scale standard horror film hysteria about twenty minutes from the end, with characters rushing about and screaming, people insisting on going into dangerous situations without so much as a torch, and the demon attacking people willy-nilly, often in different places at the same time.  In other words, it was all very frantic and rather silly, and I found myself chuckling at the overdone, even hackneyed effects.

This is a shame, because the rest of the movie is unsettling, genuinely scary and a good re-telling of the Enfield case.  It’s perhaps just a shame that they bolted on too much of a cut-and-dried Amityville ending to what was otherwise an intriguing and insoluble mystery.

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Shadow of the Wind

1232I realised earlier today that I’d never got round to putting a review of this wonderful book on Goodreads.  So, to put the damage right I’ve now added a review and given it five very well-deserved stars.

As I mention in the review, it did take me a while to ‘get into’ the book and I had a couple of false starts where something jarred and I got stuck.  However, the third time the author’s style or voice spoke to me; I got over the sticking point, kept going, and never looked back.

The book is quite simply stunning.  I love the whole idea of a library for forgotten books so much I think I’d want to spend all my time in there!  And the mystery of the book that’s selected, and the danger it brings for the young hero, is really compelling.

As with many of the best reads, this one is by no means quick or easy.  The whole thing clocks in at a whopping 500+ pages and the narrative style is quite slow, even ponderous.  But that and the beauty of the prose just add to the overall atmosphere.  I ended up loving it, and want to doff my virtual hat to both the author and the translator who seems to have done an excellent job transferring ‘Shadow’ to English idiom while keeping the lyricism of the original Spanish.

Oh – and if you want to read my rather more concise review on Goodreads, it’s here!

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National Trust: challenging gender stereotypes

I associate the National Trust with many things – history, beautiful gardens, hill farming, scones and jam.  But not so much with views on unconventional sexuality.

Yet in their latest members’ magazine that’s exactly what they’re doing, with a fascinating piece called ‘Prejudice and Pride’ on the less conventional people to have lived in their properties over the centuries.

There’s an initial, more general article by author Sarah Waters which explains how a better understanding of the challenges facing some former residents helps us to understand the places themselves.  And that’s followed by a series of mini biographies of some of the more unconventional figures themselves, linking them to the various National Trust properties where they lived and loved.

As you might expect, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West loom large, not least because the National Trust now owns several of the properties (Sissinghurst, Knole, Monk’s House) they were associated with.  But there are also some less well-known figures, such as actress Ellen Terry’s daughter Edy (Smallhythe Place), 19th century MP William Bankes (Kingston Lacy), and theatrical designer Oliver Messel (Nymans).  More of a cop-out is Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who seems to have been labelled as gay (both at the time, and now) simply because his marriage failed and he enjoyed dressing up.

However, apart from that it’s an intriguing exploration of a subject that’s too often swept under the carpet.  I particularly liked Ms Waters’ comments about the many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of servants living and working in these properties over the years, who struggled to hide their own unconventional relationships.  Overall, hats off to the National Trust for a sensitive and unsensational article.

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Imaginate

Brand new magazine Imaginate has just released its first ever issue.  The magazine takes a specific theme each time and in this case it was ‘travel’, with poetry, articles, short stories and flash fiction exploring the many facets of travel – both abroad and, seemingly, through life itself.  Future issues will concentrate on music, weather, water, and earth, to name just a few of the themes listed on the submission guidelines page.

The magazine is nicely put together and available to read free on the net.  There were perhaps a few too many full-page adverts for books written by the editorial team but first issues are often hard to fill space in; hopefully as the magazine gets more widely known there’ll be more content and less promotion.

If you want to take a look for yourself, head over to the Imaginate website and click on the front cover.  And happy reading!

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