The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

In ‘The Tenth Gift’ Jane Johnson spins a story around an extraordinary piece of history:

In 1625 corsairs from North Africa sailed into Mount’s Bay, they entered a church and they took sixty men, women and children, to be sold as slaves.

That church might have been St Mary’s in Penzance, standing at the centre of Mounts Bay, just behind the harbour, clearly visible from the sea. My church, my mother’s church, my grandmother’s church ….

That drew me to the book, but it made me wary too. Because I knew that I’d know if she got it wrong. But I’m pleased to say that she didn’t get the things I knew wrong at all, she taught me some local history that I didn’t know, and that gave me so much confidence when she wrote about things that I didn’t, couldn’t know.

cornwall10Catherine Anne Tregenna, nicknamed Cat, was in service at Kenegie Manor, she was betrothed to her cousin Rob, but she wanted more than that. She was young, she was bright, she was spirited, and she hoped that her talent for embroidery would give her a chance to see more of life, more of the world. She had been given the chance to make an altar cloth for the Countess of Salisbury, and she hoped that might help her to win more commissions, and maybe even gain entry to Broderers Guild.

But her life changed when she and her mother went to church ….

Cat’s story was uncovered by Julia, in a second storyline set in the present day. When her lover left her he gave her antique leather-bound book.  ‘ Needle-Woman’s Glorie’  had been Cat’s book, and when she was torn from her home she began to keep a record of what she experienced, writing in between the embroidery patterns.

Julia followed Cat to Morocco – telling herself that she was researching the story she had uncovered, but also running away from the mess she had made of her life.

The two storylines worked well together, and the links and the mirroring of Cat’s and Julia’s lives didn’t feel contrived at all. But I liked Cat  far more than I liked Julia – it’s hard to care about a heroine who has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband – and her story was not nearly as strong as Cat’s. I would have liked the book more, I think, if the present day story had been pulled back to become a framing story, or even if it had not been there at all.

There was for than enough in Cat’s story – her life in Cornwall, her experiences when she was kidnapped, what happened in Cornwall after the raid – to make a fabulous book all by itself. There was a little dramatic licence taken, a little stretching of credibility, but not too much. Certainly no more than I could forgive when I found so much that was good.

The writing was wonderfully readable, the plotting was very well done, and I loved the links to real history and to the authors own story. I appreciated that she was even-handed, that she understood that the corsairs had reasons for doing what they were doing, that there was right and wrong on both sides, that there could be much common ground between people from different backgrounds and different cultures.

The evocation of time and place – of Cornwall and of Morocco – was so very vivid that it pulled me right into the story. And I couldn’t doubt for one moment that the author was writing of what she knew and what she loved.

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray

Oh, this is lovely. A ghost story told so beautifully, so evocatively, and with just a perfect touch that it is something very special indeed.

“This morning I found a strange boy in the sheds. He frightened me , Cyn, but I want to see him again. You’d tell me not to, you’d tell me he wasn’t right, I know you would, but there’s no one else to play with. He didn’t speak to me, but I know he’s be my friend. Sas and Ma don’t believe in him, but you would. I am making it my mission to find out about him ….”

Dieter was just a boy, but he was that master of Sugar Hall, a grand country house in the Welsh borders that had been home to his ancestors for many, many generations.

His family had never visited that house while his grandfather was alive, but when he died his German-born widowed mother, Lilia, and his elder half-sister, Lilia, to make their home there.

20660874The house was big and grand, but it was terribly dilapidated, dirty and neglected. Lilia tries to put things to rights, with the support of her general factotum, John, and her neighbour, Juniper, but it is not easy to fit a modern family into the long-established pattern of an old house. And she had her own history, her own ghosts that she had to come to terms with.

And so Dieter was left to wander through rooms, to gaze at family portraits, to examine the collections displayed in glass cases, and to be drawn into the thrall of the silent boy who wore a silver collar.

He didn’t know, his mother didn’t know, that they had been caught, pulled into a story that had been playing out at Sugar Hall for years and years.

The arc of the story is simple, but the execution makes it special.

‘Sugar Hall’ illuminates the time when the war was over but the consequences were still being felt, and the post-war world hadn’t quite begun. It explores the consequences of old sins and the reverberations they send into the future. It considers the importance of the home, the consequences of leaving, the importance of having a place in the world.

And it does that with the lightest of touches, so that the stories of lives and the story of the ghost can live and breathe.

There’s room for lovely imagery, there’s room for lovely details, there’s room for letters, pictures, documents, lists …. and still there is space to think, to wonder, to catch your breath.

Tiffany Murray’s prose is gorgeous; evocative, spooky, light as air; and her storytelling is spellbinding.

I suspect that there is much more here than I could take in, but I was captivated by the people, the time, the place and the story.

This is a book that will stay with me for a long, long time. And I suspect that it will pull me back to read again one day.

An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey

An  intriguing title, a lovely cover, a promise of history and mystery gave me high hopes for ‘An Appetite for Violets’, and I am pleased to say that they were met. More than met.

The opening sets up the story beautifully.

A man arrives at a villa in Tuscany, looking for his sister, the lady of the house. But she is gone; her whole household is gone; only her little dog, the dog he knows she never would have abandoned, remains. Downstairs he finds a dining table is laid for a feast.  He climbs the stairs, fearful of what he might find.  But all he finds is a mannequin, clad in a lovely pink dress, and an envelope. He opens the envelope and a fabulous ruby falls out.

I had to find out what had happened, what led up to that extraordinary scene.

19825708A few months earlier Biddy Leigh had been an under-cook at Mawton Hall. I liked her from the moment we met: she was bright, she was curious, she was capable, she loved what she did, and her future was full of promise. She was going to marry her young man, and they were going to run a tavern together.

Biddy didn’t know it, but her life was going to change.

The widowed master of the house brought home a new, young bride. Lady Carinna was spoiled, temperamental and horribly demanding. She had her eye on Biddy for some reason, and she often called her to her side. When Lady Carinna decided to travel to her uncle’s estate in Italy she decided than Biddy would be in her retinue. It wasn’t what Biddy wanted, but her young man told her that they needed the five guineas that she would earn for their future, and it was only for a year. She knew that she had to go.

Biddy was thrilled when Mrs Garland, the cook who had guided and taught her, entrusted her with ‘The Cook’s Jewel.’ It was a journal that had been written in by generations of cooks; an extraordinary anthology of recipes and knowledge. The contents of that book were scattered through the story; recipes from the past and recipes that Biddy learned on her journey across Europe. It was a lovely, lovely touch, and oh how I wish I could have a copy of ‘The Cook’s Jewel’ to keep with my copy of ‘An Appetite for Violets.’

It was clear from the start that Lady Carinna was a schemer, but it took time for her plans for Biddy to become clear. At first I thought I was a step ahead, that I could see what she couldn’t. But she caught on, and she held her end up brilliantly. But she didn’t see all of the consequences, and neither did I.

I loved Biddy’s voice, and there were other voices too, and they opened out the story. There was Mr Pars, the butler, who had nobody who could talk to, but who could share his feelings in his letters to his bother. And there was Loveday, a black slave who had been torn away from his wife and children on a remote island. He and Biddy became friends; she was the only one who was interested in his story, who treated him with respect, who called him Mr Loveday.

Some very clever plotting explained just how that opening scene came to be, with lovely twists and turns, marvellous drama, and lots of lovely details. After that, the story moved forward to a very fine ending. It was unexpected and it was exactly right.

I loved the storytelling: the voices were distinctive, the period touches were lovely, and the story was captivating. There’s a lot more than history and mystery, but this is too good a book for me to spoil for anyone else. It’s a lovely, it’s distinctive, it’s full of interest, and it’s told with just the right amount of verve. The author’s love of her story and everything in it shone from the pages.

I can understand that: she’s written a fabulous first novel!

Turning the Stones by Debra Daley

This is an intriguing human drama, set in the middle of the eighteenth century.

In London, a young woman wakes in an unfamiliar bedchamber. She is dishevelled, she is covered in blood, and a man lies dead beside her. She has no memory of how she got there, of what happened, but she knows that she must flee.

In Connemara, an older woman stands on a beach, calling on ancient magic, turning the stones, as she strives to put right a terrible wrong.

It’s a confident beginning, and I was quickly captivated

I had no idea what the significance of what was happening in Connemara, but I was swept away by the story of the young woman who was searching for means of escape.

Mary Smith – known as Em – was a lady’s maid, and I liked her from the start. She was clearly bright and practical, and she was also very scared. With good reason.

Of course, I had to wonder if she was unreliable, is she was a murderer, but I was inclined to think not – especially when I observed her reaction as she realised who the dead man was. And it was clear that there were other, deeper, mysteries to consider.

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Em had been brought to the Cheshire country home of the ambitious Waterland family, as a very young child. She grew up as a companion to their daughter, Eliza, and her status was unclear. She was above the servants but below the family. They told her that she was a foundling, but she might have been a by-blow, or a poor relation.

The day came when Em’s position was made clear to her. Eliza was to be a lady and Em was to be her maid. The relationship between the two girls changed then, of course it did. And it became clear that Eliza was horribly spoiled and selfish. That her brother, James, was a dissolute schemer. That the family fortune was crumbling.

Em was horrified when she was molested by the wealthy man who the family hoped Eliza would marry. She knew that she had nowhere else to go, that she had no one to turn to, that she would be at the mercy of Eliza and the man she married.

She thought on all of this as she ran, telling her story to the mother she had never known. She planned to find a ship to take her to France, but after a series of accidents and misadventures she finds herself on board a smuggling ship. Captain McDonagh would listen to Em, he would protect her, but he would not compromise his vessel or his men. And he was sailing to a very different destination.

Maybe the stones were calling …. the narrative weaves together the stories of Em’s past and present and the visions and memories of Kitty Conneely, the woman turning stones on the beach, to very fine effect.

A fine array of characters and settings were conjured up very well, and there were some nice period details. But this isn’t really a ‘noticing the period details and assessing things’ book, it’s a ‘keep turning the pages to find out what happens next and how the story will play out’ book. And it does what it does very well, twisting, turning and holding on to the big reveal to the very end without ever feeling like a tease.

The grand finale is nicely dramatic, and it the end everything makes sense.

There are one or too loose ends, a few practical problems skated around, and places where a little more subtlety wouldn’t have gone amiss, but nothing that spoiled the story.

This a book to be entertained by, not a book to over-think.

Yes, I think that I’d call ‘Turning the Stones’ a fine, dark, historical entertainment.

Wilfred and Eileen by Jonathan Smith

I have read ‘Winifred and Eileen’ before, years and years ago. The details had gone from my mind when I learned that the book was to be added to the Persephone list, but I did remember that I had been very taken with it, and that I looked for a long time, without success, for other books by the same author.

Some time later, when I’d given up looking, I found a copy of ‘Summer in February’ in a charity shop. But that’s another story for another day ….

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The story opens in 1913, as Wilfred Willett is coming to the end of his studies at Trinity College Cambridge, and looking forward to taking the next steps towards becoming a surgeon. He meets Eileen Stenhouse at a May Ball, and they begin to talk while they both, superstitiously,  sitting out the thirteenth dance of the evening. It would be the beginning of a love affair.

Their relationship met with disapproval from each side of the family. Neither thought that the other was good enough for their child. And so Wilfred and Eileen married secretly, and they planned to keep their secret until Wilfred finished his training and they could be financially independent of both families.

Of course their secret came out, and then a ‘proper’ wedding was forced upon them.

They were happy. He was an idealist and a worker; she was quiet, patient and supportive; they understood each other.

And they were utterly real.

And that wasn’t just because this is a novel inspired by a real story, by a real Wilfred and Eileen. It is because Jonathan Smith; writing made them real. He observes them carefully and sensitively, picking up just the right details to explain their lives, their times, their relationships, without ever seeming intrusive.

These would have been ordinary lives, beautifully illuminated, had it not been for the times.

Wilfred went to war, and Eileen was lost without him.  And yet, when Wilfred was terribly injured, she found the strength to fight, to bring him home, and to make sure that everything possible is done for him, to give him a chance, to give him his life back.

The writing is simple and understated, but it has such depth and power that it could not fail to move any reader.

I caught my breath at several points, because I was so caught up in the world of this man and this woman, because I so felt for them and their situation.

Their story could not have been better told. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and utterly true to its period.

It speaks profoundly of love, courage and the consequences of war.

And I’m not going to write any more, because I lack the words to do justice to the story – and the real lives – of Wilfred and Eileen

Except to say that is a very fine, and very timely, addition to the Persephone list ….

Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly

Aemilia Bassano was born in 1569, the illegitimate child of a musician in the court of Queen Elizabeth. She was raised – and educated – in the household of the Countess of Kent. When she grew up she became part of the Queen’s household, and the mistress of Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain. Aemila kept those positions for many years, but she lost them when she fell pregnant; she was cast off and married off – to the lowliest of court musicians. He – Alfonso Lanyer- was quick to spend the dowry that his bride brought him, and within a year the couple were poor and struggling ….

…. and yet – somehow –  Aemilia Lanyer became the first woman have a volume of poetry published ….

But surely Adam can not be excused,
Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What Weakness offered, Strength might have refused,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpent’s craft had her abused,
God’s holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being framed by God’s eternal hand,
The perfectest man that ever breathed on earth;
And from God’s mouth received that straight command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having power to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple won to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

(From ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’ by Amelia Lanyer)

Such a woman, such a life …. and such a gift to a historical novelist.

Sally O’Reilly has spun a story around the known facts of Aemilia’s life wonderfully well. And she adds in a hypothesis of her own which, though unlikely, she makes so very believable. What if Aemelia was the ‘Dark Lady’ of William Shakespeare’s sonnets ….?

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The sixteenth century lives and breather from the first word, with a wealth of details and such colour in the rich, lush prose. The Elizabeth’s court is painted with such bright colours, and I was utterly captivated, but it was when the story moved to the dark and dirty streets, and the gaudy world of the theatre, that the story took flight.

It was easy to see that Aemilia’s beauty, charm, wit and intelligence made her a favourite at court – and a particular favourite of the Queen; and it was equally easy to see that in a male dominated society, with little limited means to determine her own fate, even those qualities would not make her life secure.

It was Aemelia herself who pulled me through the story. She was fascinating, she was infuriating, and she was a real, fallible woman who was prepared to fight for the things she wanted. And most of all she fought for the son she loved so dearly.

That took her to some very dark places – and at time it veered dangerously close to melodrama, but the stark reality of Aemilia’s situation and the choices she had to make, and the cleverness of the plotting, saved it.

And that brings me to William Shakespeare. Sally O’Reilly painted his character so well, giving him the intelligence and wit he needed to write as he did, the charm to court Aemilia, and also making him vulnerable and fallible. The doubts about whether he wrote all of the work attributed to him are used very cleverly in the plot, and there’s a very nice explanation of the matter of the ‘second best bed’.

The portrayal of the dying Elizabeth I is very done too, balancing queenly regality and human vulnerability; and though I doubted that she would have summoned Aemilia, who had been assent from court for some years to her side, I was captivated by their dialogue and by the vivid storytelling.

The twists and turns of the plot – many of then so very clever – held me from start to finish.

There are one or two liberties taken – and a few times when the story was a little darker, a little more explicit than it needed to be. But in the end that didn’t matter.

I was pulled right into Elizabethan England.

I met a fascinating woman.  I am so, so pleased that we met.

And I do believe that she might have inspired a poet ….

“Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madman’s are
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night”

(William Shakespeare – sonnet 147)

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

The opening of ‘The Crimson Ribbon’ is stunning.

In an English village, as the Civil War is drawing to a close, a child is born. The child is dead and deformed, and the mother tries to spare his mother the pain of seeing him, but her pain and her grief make her insistent. Her reaction turns the community against the midwife; they claim that the blame lies with her, that she must be a witch, and that must be the reason for the present tragedy and for other troubles.

The fear is palpable. The fear of the community, and the fear of the widwife and her young daughter.

When the night is over the midwife is dead, and her terrified, grief-stricken daughter is hiding, at the property where she and her mother were in service.

The home of Oliver Cromwell.

The portrayal of those event was compelling, visceral and horribly, horribly believable.

it whetted my appetite for the story to come.

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Ruth – the midwife’s daughter – knew that she couldn’t stay. The master of the house was away but the nistress was quite clear: she had to go, and she had to go immediately before the mob threatened her household. And so Ruth was sent on her way with a little money and an address in London where she would find work.

A young soldier named Joseph – on the way to London for very different reasons – helps Ruth when she runs into trouble on the road. She saw that he was concerned for her but she was still fearful; unwilling to let her guard down because she was fearful that the allegations of witchcraft would follow her.

The address that Ruth had been given took her to the home of a merchant. A haberdasher. She became a maid there, and she was soon in thrall to the daughter of the house, Elizabeth – Lizzie – Poole, a beautiful, charismatic, free- thinking young woman. Ruth used one of the charms from her mother’s precious book to bind Lizzie to her, and it seemed to work.

The story then follows Ruth, who struggles to escape her past; Lizzie, who is determined to have her voice heard; and Joseph, who has become a pamphleteer, trying to win the war of words.

It’s a story of danger, intrigue, passion, witchcraft, treason ….

There were some interesting and unexpected twists, and I was so caught up in the story and the atmosphere that it took we a long time to notice that the boo was written in the present tense.

The final days of the Civil War; the streets of London, the turbulent, unpredictable times; the state of the national that would allow an anointed King to be executed; that was all so wonderfully, vividly alive.

And so, at first, was the relationship between Ruth and Lizzie. But there was a point at which the story tumbled into unbelievability. The story lost its hold, and then I began to question other things: the likelihood of that relationship in the first place, one or two events that were less than credible.

‘The Crimson Ribbon’ was a wonderful entertainment from start to finish. And it was a wonderful finish, set against the background of the terrible execution. But I had hoped for a little more. Or maybe a should say something a little different. There was a little too much passion and romance, a little too much of the story of the characters, and not quite enough of the story of the times.

I would have loved to know a little more of the story of the pamapleteers. I loved the story of Ruth and Lizzie, but I would have loved it more if it had been a little more restrained. And I was concerned with the liberties that the author took with the story of Lizzie Poole, who was a real woman who had lived and breathed. The author acknowledged them, but they were too significant.

But I think that maybe confirmed the type of story that she wanted to write: a romance, a drama, an entertainment with solid historical underpinnings. As that ‘The Crimson Ribbon’ worked very, very well, it’s just that I can’t quite shake the feeling that it could have been, should have been, something more ….