Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann

After two very different novels set in 16th century England, Maria McCann has something different again with her third; a gripping story of secrets and lies, set some years later, in the 17th century.

It tells of two very different women.

17907300Sophia Buller was the only child of a country gentleman. Her parents were eager to see her married, but they knew that their daughter was plain, they knew that she had an unfortunate ‘little weakness, and so they knew it wouldn’t be easy. But the handsome, charming Edward Zeeland began to pay court to Sophia; and when he proposed she was utterly thrilled. Married life was not what Sophie had hoped it would be. She found herself in a shabby house in an unfashionable district; her husband was away for most of time, leaving her stranded at home with uncommunicative servants; and when he was home Edward wasn’t the husband she had hoped her would be, expected he would be, at all.

Betsy-Ann Blore had a very different life. She had been a prostitute, but she had managed to establish herself as a buyer and seller of …. well lets say second-hand good. Sam, her husband, was a cardsharp, but he had run into trouble, and so he joined up with Betsy-Ann’s brother, Harry, and his crew of resurrectionists. He hated it; he drank and he sank into depression. She hated it too and, though she could see no way out of their situation, she held on to hope; she practiced the skills of a cardsharp, and she dreamed of Ned Hartry, the handsome, charming scourge of the card-tables, and the greatest love of her life.

The two stories are very different, and the differing styles, the differing use of language – as different as the two women – is very, very effective. Two lives, lived very differently, in the same time, in the same time came to life, and the world about them, rich with detail, was so wonderfully. Everything lived and breathed, it really did.

At first I found it easier to empathise with Sophia, who was so naïve in so many ways, and who was so very unprepared for what was to happen, but the more I read the more I warmed to Betsy-Ann, who had such spirit, who did everything she could to improve her situation. Sophia did learn along the way, and that was lovely to watch. It wasn’t easy, and the difficulties, the restrictions, faced by women in the 17th century were clearly illuminated.

There was a moment when Sophia compared her situation to that of Clarissa Harlowe – and she was right, though I should say that this is a very different story,

The plot was very cleverly constructed, and it moved apace – everything I learned about Sophia and about Betsy-Anne I learned on the fly – and that kept the focus on the story and not the period details, wonderful though they were.

The two stories are linked – of course they are – and they come together beautifully in the latter part of the book. And there’s another strand too, the story of Fortunate, a young slave in the Zedland household. There he’s renamed Lucius, and later in the story he is known as Lucky. His different names – and his descriptive names for others around him – highlight the themes of identity, disguise and self-determination that underpin the story. And, though his story is a little underdeveloped her has a significant part to play.

Though the story had weaknesses – the pace dipped in one or two places, Sophia’s ‘little weakness’ was a needless distraction, and the ending was a little too neat – it was compelling, it was vivid, and I was swept along.

And I’d say that ‘Ace, King, Knave’ worked as a historical entertainment, and it worked as a thought-provoking, serious study of the period too.

I wonder what Maria McCann will write next …

A Walk Around The Fiction Shelves

Last time I was in the library I realised that I hadn’t posted about library books for quite some time. And I had an idea. Instead of writing about the books I brought home I would write about the books that caught my eye, for many different reasons, but got left behind…

I was disappointed to see Isabel Ashdown’s first two novels – Glasshopper and Hurry Up and Wait – on the shelves. Two wonderful books that really should be out on loan.

I do wish that my library had a system in place for displaying reader recommendations. At the moment I just rearrange books so that ones I think need a little push are more prominent, but I’ve signed up for a new friends of the library group, so hopefully I’ll get the chance to do a little more.

I noticed a lovely hardback copy of The Children’s Book by A S Byatt. I have a copy of my own and it looked rather intimidating but recently I picked up Ragnarok, Byatt’s contribution to the Canongate Myths series, and it reminded me just how good her writing is.

I counted three titles by Willa Cather in Virago Modern Classics editions – Lucy Gayheart in a traditional green cover and O Pioneers and My Antonia in more recent editions. I love Willa Cather’s writing but its a long time since I read any of her books.

All of her novels are on my shelves and I’m hoping to re-read at least one of two for the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge at Wildmoo Books

I spotted two books that I’d borrowed and then had to return unread, because other people had them on order and I didn’t want to read them in a rush. One day I’ll read them:

The Songwriter by Beatrice Colin and The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly

Please tell me I’m not the only person who has to do this?!

I caught sight of Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys, and wondered why I haven’t read it yet. I have a copy of my own, it’s very short, and it looks terribly readable. Silly really!

I paused to peruse an Everyman Classics edition of The Wings of The Dove by Henry James. It was mentioned as a possibility for Venice in February, and now that I’ve look at it again the idea of a re-read really appeals. But it may be a book too many. I’ll see how things are – and if it’s still on the shelf – when February comes.

I’m always drawn to The Wilding by Maria McCann. A lovely historical novel and the hardback edition has a beautiful cover.

My hand automatically went out to A Month in The Country by Jocelyn Playfair. Because it was a dove-grey Persephone edition and I always hope that one day the library will have one of the Persephones I don’t own.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I can dream.

I noticed two more Virago Modern Classics with striking new covers – A Glass of Blessings and Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.

I love and miss the traditional green Virago covers, but I have to admit that new editions of books by Barbara Pym, Molly Keane and Elizabeth Taylor do seem to be very popular in the library. And that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

I saw Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese. I have read so much praise for this book and I will read it one day.

I spotted of the three books in Anne Zouroudi’s Greek Detective series – The Messenger of Athens, The Doctor of Thessaly and The Lady of Sorrows. Books one, three and four. Trouble is I’m after book two – The Taint of Midas.

Why does that always happen when I want to read a series in order? I see the earlier books that I’ve read, I see the later books that I’m not ready for, but I never seem to see the book I want!

And, finally, I saw Thérèze Raquin by Émile Zola. I meant to re-read it for this year’s RIP Challenge, but I wanted to read more books than I had time for and this one fell by the wayside. maybe next year.

So many books to ponder, for so many reasons.

Does anybody else do this too?

The Wilding by Maria McCann

An odd one this.

The setting is wonderful. Rural England in 1672.

The period, just a few decades after the Civil War, with the effects still being felt and the country still unsettled, comes wonderfully to life.

As does the real countryside. Rustic, beautiful, but also tough and grubby. You really do feel that you can see, hear, feel, touch, taste …

And the plot held great promise.

Jonathan Dymond works as a cider-maker, travelling from orchard to orchard to make a living.

A rather gauche young man. He was steady narrator and I believed in what I saw through his eyes and felt though his heart.

Jonathan is a much loved only child. His family is secure, settled and respected in their community. And they are happy. 

Matthew and Barbara Dymond are good people. A little ordinary maybe, but that works to good effect as the story develops.

Their equilibrium is disturbed when Jonathan’s Uncle Robin is taken ill and dies. And then Jonathan finds the remains of a letter from Robin to his father. A letter suggesting that Robin wanted to try to put right wrongs of the past, and that he needed help to do it.

Jonathan is unsettled – and maybe just a little bit curious. And so, with the excuse of helping his widowed aunt with her apple harvest, he tries to find out more.

It does not take him long to uncover the truth that has been hidden away in the family, but as more and more secrets are uncovered, his family’s security and happiness is threatened. 

The hidden truth concerns Jonathan’s Aunt Harriet and her estranged sister Joan. And maybe Joan’s daughter Tamar. All intriguing characters, and I am sorry that Jonathan’s narration didn’t allow me to see more of their hearts and minds.

But it’s all beautifully written. The dialogue works particularly well.

In many ways The Wilding has everything you could want from a historical novel. A wonderful sense of time and place. A cleverly constructed plot, with  more than enough revelations and set pieces to keep the pages turning.

The novel’s themes are really interesting ones: the importance of truth of truth, and whether is it right to tell it; what happens to those who do not or cannot follow the conventions of their community; the influence wielded by the rich and powerful; the extent to which heredity, nurture and and luck make characters and influence lives.

It adds depth to what could, in the hands of a less gifted writer, have been melodrama.

But a few things just weren’t right. Just a few too many coincidences, a few too many occasions when things were said or done to help the plot along that didn’t quite ring true. 

And though that plot is well built, none of the revelations come as a genuine shock. Things are sometimes a little too black and white.

But still I loved The Wilding from start to finish. I can’t say it’s a great book, but I can say that it’s terribly readable.

Library Loot

I’m still being restrained – though I did break my ordering ban briefly to order two books from the shortlist for the Orange Award for New Writers – and my library pile is shrinking.

I have room on my ticket and I have time to read my own books!

But that doesn’t mean books didn’t come home. Of course they did!

So here’s this week’s loot:

The Wilding by Maria McCann

“17th Century England. Life is struggling to return to normal after the horrific tumult of the Civil War. In the village of Spadboro Jonathan Dymond, a 26-year old cider-maker who lives with his parents, has until now enjoyed a quiet, harmonious existence. As the novel opens, a letter arrives from his uncle with a desperate request to speak with his father. When his father returns from the visit the next day, all he can say is that Jonathan’s uncle has died. Then Jonathan finds a fragment of the letter in the family orchard, with talk of inheritance and vengeance. He resolves to unravel the mystery at the heart of his family – a mystery which will eventually threaten the lives and happiness of Jonathan and all those he holds dear.”

Maria McCann’s first book was extraordinary and so I ordered this, her second, as soon as I knew about it.

A Pound of Paper by John Baxter

“By the 1960s a copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock without its dust jacket was worth about #500. But with its dust jacket more like #2,000 – if you could find one. The last copy with a perfect jacket to come on the market changed hands at #50,000. Brighton Rock was a high-point, but first editions of other early Greene books weren’t much less valuable. And then there were signed copies, foreign printings, limited editions, numbered and signed…John Baxter caught the collecting bug in the winter of 1978 when he found a rare copy of Greene’s children’s book The Little Horse Bus while browsing in a second-hand market in Swiss Cottage. It was going for 5p. It would also, fortuitously, be the day that he first encountered one of the legends of the bookselling world: Martin Stone. At various times cokehead, pothead, alchoholic, international fugitive from justice and professional rock musician (said to knock Eric Clapton into a cocked hat), he would become John’s mentor and friend, and a central figure in this book. nIn this brilliantly readable, stylish and funny book John Baxter introduces us to his world, the world of the fanatical book collector: not only the kind who buys from catalogues or at auction and takes away the booty in bubble wrap to store in metal filing cabinets – but also the sleuth, the one who uses bluff and guile to hunt down his quarry. “

I’ve picked this one up and put it down a few times since I first spotted it. Points for: it’s a book about books, lovely lists at the back. Points against: book collecting isn’t the same as book reading, the author’s taste isn’t mine. In the end I read the first few pages and the love of books was so transparent that I just had to bring it home.

I Coriander by Sally Gardner

” Coriander is the daughter of a silk merchant in 1650s London. Her idyllic childhood ends when her mother dies and her father goes away, leaving Coriander with her stepmother, a widow who is in cahoots with a fundamentalist Puritan preacher. She is shut away in a chest and left to die, but emerges into the fairy world from which her mother came, and where time has no meaning. When she returns, charged with a task that will transform her life, she is seventeen.”

This looks wonderful and it’s been on the “one day I’ll bring it home” list for ages. This week that day came!

The Dressmaker by Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck

“Monsieur Claude Reynaud is known throughout France for his talent for making fabulous clothes. The most elegant women in Paris regularly make the pilgrimage to the cobbled village of Senlis to be charmed by the tailor in the cluttered studio by the century-old apple tree. Claude can take a measurement at a glance, stores everything in his head, and fashions each dress by hand. And, despite his ex-wife’s protests, he refuses to be lured by the promise of the Parisian fashion industry. He is too old change and certainly too old to fall in love: his only passion is his studio. Then one afternoon, in a cloud of spring blossom, Mademoiselle Valentine de Verlay arrives on Claude’s doorstep. She commissions him to create her wedding dress. But before the first stitch has even been made, Claude realises that for the first time in his life he has fallen passionately in love and, very quickly, the seams of both their lives begin to unravel…”

 I needed a gentle book and this one caught my eye. The back has a recommendation from Beth Gutcheon, very soon to be a Persephone author, and so it definitely had to come home.


Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.