The next book in my reading queue is Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and I'm looking forward to starting it over the weekend, but Dame Hermione is in the bookish news today with word that her next biographical subject is to be Sir Tom Stoppard. There's no publication date in prospect yet, but I'm sure that that book, when eventually it comes, will make fascinating reading.
Blackwell's the booksellers have set up Giving Trees in their shops and online so that underprivileged children can receive a book this Christmas.
For a small sum, you can either choose a book in the store for a child whose request is on the special tags hanging on the Giving Trees, or place your 'order' through the website so that a suitable book is gift-wrapped and delivered to a child in time for Christmas.
I've bought a book by this means, and I hope that for the young person who receives it it will go some way to opening the door into the magical world of reading; there could hardly be a better gift.
In the post this morning - all beautifully wrapped and girded with an actual crimson ribbon - was The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements who has been described as "the vibrant new voice of historical fiction". It won't be out until March, but it sounds like another to look forward to, "an extraordinary and mesmerising story of two women's obsession, superstition and hope".
It begins on May Day 1646: "The Civil War is raging and what should be a rare moment of blessing for the town of Ely takes a brutal turn. Ruth Flowers is left with little choice but to flee the household of Oliver Cromwell, the only home she has ever known. On the road to London, Ruth sparks an uneasy alliance with a soldier, the battle-scarred and troubled Joseph. But when she reaches the city, it's in the Poole household that she finds refuge.
Lizzie Poole, beautiful and charismatic, enthrals the vulnerable Ruth who binds herself inextricably to Lizzie's world. But in these troubled times, Ruth is haunted by fears of her past catching up with her. And as Lizzie's radical ideas escalate, Ruth finds herself carried to the heart of the country's conflict, to the trial of a king."
Elizabeth Poole was a real person who appeared before the Army Council in the days before the trial and execution of Charles I and spoke of visions she had received from God. Her testimony didn't influence the outcome of the trial but her words were heeded, and why this was so is at the basis of the novel as Katherine Clements has sought to explain it using research, conjecture and imagination. Katherine came across the character in Antonia Fraser's biography of Oliver Cromwell and was intrigued by this woman who was given an audience with some of the most important men of the day. Research revealed "a dark, seductive world of illegal printing presses, extreme spiritual obsession and a mysterious scandal," and so for Katherine, Elizabeth's story "proved impossible to resist".
I'm not going to say very much about the plot of Elizabeth Gilbert's wonderfully engaging historical novel The Signature of All Things because to do so would be to spoil its leisured unfolding, but I will say that in Alma Whittaker it has one of the most unlikely and unusual heroines of this or any other genre!
Alma is born in Philadelphia in 1800, the daughter of a renowned botanical explorer who has become a very wealthy man. Growing up on the family's White Acre estate, her privileged existence is also one of scholarship, for Alma is a cerebral girl for whom the life of the mind - in part compensating for a lack of emotional sustenance - is everything. She becomes a scientist, a natural philosopher, happy peering into a microscope or devouring the new thought contained in the books of her father's unique library, and when her interest in botany develops into a study of the little known field of mosses, a whole new world opens up to her.
I'll say no more than that about Alma's life story except that it takes the reader far and wide, through almost a century and across the globe, into the questions of evolutionary theory and life itself, and down deep into what lies beneath our feet; and its portrayal of an intellect and an obsession, of human strengths and frailties, is infused with such joie de vivre that you will turn the final page with a satisfied smile. Full of warmth and wit, researched with such breadth and depth of understanding and attention to detail, this is quite a book!
Since we were talking yesterday about bargains for the Kindle, and comments seemed to indicate an appetite for more, here are a couple of books which I haven't yet read but about which I've heard great things, and both are currently available at very low prices.
Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens was reviewed recently in The Good Book Guide (which I heartily recommend, by the way) and although it was firmly on my radar before that, phrases such as "breathtaking in its imaginative virtuosity" and "utterly original, a book of mesmerising power", had me pressing the 'buy' button.
It's a new interpretation of the tale of Rapunzel, but it features a real-life character, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a writer of historical fiction who was exiled to a convent by Louis XIV and while there wrote the version of Rapunzel that we all know. Kate writes about the story behind the book here, and talks more about it in this video.
The Somnambulist by Essie Fox was one of Channel 4's TV Book Club Best Reads of 2012, and you can see Essie talking on the programme about her Victorian Gothic mystery in this short clip.
"Very evocative, brilliantly researched, and plot-wise it's very, very clever," said Meera Syal in her summing up, and here's the gist:
"When seventeen-year-old Phoebe Turner visits Wilton's Music Hall to watch her Aunt Cissy performing on stage, she risks the wrath of her mother Maud who marches with the Hallelujah Army, campaigning for all London theatres to close. While there, Phoebe is drawn to a stranger, the enigmatic Nathaniel Samuels, who heralds dramatic changes in the lives of all three women.
When offered the position of companion to Nathaniel's reclusive wife, Phoebe leaves her life in London's East End for Dinwood Court in Herefordshire - a house that may well be haunted and which holds the darkest of truths..."
Out today is the paperback edition of Motherland by William Nicholson, and as it's one of my top novels of the year so far, I wanted to shout about it a bit more, so here's what I had to say back in March:
2012. Alice Dickinson - whom readers first encountered in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life
- goes to France to meet the grandmother who has only just learned of
Alice's existence. "You come from a long line of mistakes," Pamela
Avenell tells her, "and one true love story".
It's that love story which is at the heart of William Nicholson's superb new novel, a book whose characters link it to the loose Sussex trilogy - The Secret Intensity ..., All the Hopeful Lovers and The Golden Hour
- but which also stands alone. It's a masterly piece of work from a
writer whose gifts include an unsurpassed ear for dialogue, a fluency in
the telling of a story which keeps the reader turning the page while
yet wanting to linger in and savour the moment, and an empathic insight
into the hearts and minds of each of his characters. You can tell that I
loved every word of it.
In 1942, Kitty, an army driver stationed in Sussex, meets Ed, a
Royal Marine Commando, and his best friend Larry, a liaison officer
Canadian Army Combined Operations. Kitty falls in love with Ed, but both
Ed and Larry fall in love with her - sanguine, accepting Larry wishes
his rival well, and then the two men take part in Operation Jubilee, the
catastrophic Dieppe Raid - in which the casualty rate was almost 70% - and Fate plays her hand.
Setting the book in England during the Second World War and in India
shortly after it, William Nicholson uses real events to test his
characters and real people to play opposite them. It's a winning
combination, never stilted or contrived, but plausible and convincing,
and in his Author's Note he quotes his sources and acknowledges his debt
to the work of his wife, the social historian Virginia Nicholson, and in particular to her book Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in the Second World War.
If you're not already acquainted with William Nicholson's work,
don't lose a moment, and read him at the earliest opportunity - he is
One of today's Kindle Daily Deals is James Runcie's Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death, the first in his Grantchester Mysteries series. "I am completely smitten," I said when I read the book last year - you can find the full post here, something of the background to the novel here, and a post on the second in the series here.
Lastly today, another Quercus bargain, Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg. This elegant novel is based on real events and real people, and is set on the remote Scottish island of St. Kilda in the 1830s - there's a post on it here.
My last event of this year's EIBF was Simon Sebag Montefiore talking about his new novel One Night in Winter, and had I been experiencing 'festival fatigue' today after the end of a fantastic fortnight, his talk would certainly have perked me up - what he had to say was gripping, horrifying and fascinating in equal measure.
Based on actual events which happened in Stalinist Russia in 1945 and which Simon uncovered during his research for his non-fiction book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, the novel is centred on an exclusive school and the bizarre and dangerous game played by its senior pupils who are all the children of government leaders. When one of these 17-year-olds is shot by a classmate who then turns the gun on himself, Stalin takes an interest in what has been going on and orders an investigation resulting in the arrest and imprisonment - for as long as 6 months - of some 26 young people. During their incarceration, the children were interrogated about their families, their private business and their views of Stalin and his leadership, and their 'confessions' could and did destroy their parents. What they revealed and how they survived the interrogation is covered in this novel which is at heart about family and love.
Soviet Russia at this time "was like Edith Wharton with the death penalty", any faux pas resulting not in a snub or social banishment but in execution, and in a society which was hierarchical, the book looks also at what Simon called "the hierarchy of love", the range of relationships carried on in a place where jeopardy is supreme, and where "everything was secret but nothing private".
Simon talked very entertainingly about his research, not just for this novel but for his work generally. While we may think of archives as staffed by obliging people who will help find material and do what they can to aid scholarship, some of the archivists Simon encountered in his Russian researches are of an altogether different stripe. When working on Young Stalin he had privileged access to documents and people because his book Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair had put him in favour with the powers that be, but as those powers had 'taken agin' him' for Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, subsequent access had been denied. Still persona non grata, one particularly difficult archival guardian dropped a kitten on Simon's head from the upper level of an old palace - a cruelly original way of showing him the door!
A historian's lot is often not a happy one, it seems, as Simon told us that when working on his book Jerusalem: The Biography, he was stoned by both Israeli and Palestinian factions, thereby establishing his own "state of perfect neutrality". Against these real difficulties and dangers, the challenge of writing historical fiction, of interweaving hard fact and accurate detail - for readers are sophisticated and spot inaccuracies - with invented characters with whom one can do as one likes sounds like rather a freeing experience; the results, if today's talk was anything to go by, quite compelling.
by Eleanor Catton, longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize and tipped to win (I've read it, and it's mightily impressive). Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent, a debut novel, the subject of an international bidding war, out this week and high on my TBR pile. The authors of these books came all the way from New Zealand and Australia respectively to talk to an eager audience at EIBF.
Eleanor's book is set on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island during a gold rush in the 1860s, and it was the drama of that landscape, which Eleanor visited often as a youngster, which captured her imagination and inspired her story. Hannah's takes as its subject Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and an exchange visit she made to Iceland as a teenager planted the seed that would grow into a work praised by Madeline Miller as "gripping ... beautifully written ... outstanding."
The Luminaries is a murder mystery, a ghost story, a psychological drama, a book of extraordinary complexity and richness written in perfect 19th. century style. In discussing her influences, Eleanor talked persuasively about her desire to "defend the adverb", how psychology changed the landscape of the novel forever, and how Agatha Christie's books taught her how to keep the reader reading. In Burial Rites, which tells Agnes's story from when she is found guilty of murder, sentenced to death and waits out the months until her execution at a farm in the north of the country, Hannah has used several narrative voices and fragments of letters, aiming by these means to explore the ambiguity, depth and humanity of her subject, contrasting that with received opinion which paints Agnes as simply and starkly "monstrous and evil".
Both books are very well plotted, and on the subject of plotting generally, Eleanor talked about what is seen as a distinction between literary and genre fiction, i.e. that in the case of the former, plot is secondary. This fascinates and enrages her, she says, as she feels plot is every bit as important as structure, and that novelists could learn a lot from watching high quality television drama such as Breaking Bad which provide lessons in suspense and in keeping character and plot alive and developing. Eleanor wanted her book to be entertaining: "entertainment isn't necessarily low brow," she said. In Hannah's case, her plot was formed by actual events, although her research into them was gradual and laborious. She was researching and writing concurrently, "finding the dots and then joining them," so the suspense "just happened" as she waited to discover what came next, but the effort she put into understanding and shaping her characters shaped the plot, too.
Hannah told us that her book is "a dark love letter to the natural landscape of Iceland", reflecting in some ways her own experience of living there, of the slow descent into winter, of the place and its culture. Eleanor, when asked whether her book could have been shorter (it is 832 pages), talked of wanting to do justice to the 19th. century style she'd adopted and to her large cast of characters by giving them space to evolve. She employs a structural conceit, too, making each part half the length of the one before, thus "a golden spiral", a shaping force, and she admitted that she didn't know whether the ambitious task she had set herself was even possible until she had completed it. I can tell you that she's done it in fine form.
My Edbookfest event on Saturday was all about cover design - how best to tell the potential reader what's inside the book. We learned that boys won't pick up a book with a girl on the front (until they get to a certain age and it's a certain type of girl), that humans require Vitamin 'S' - 'S' for 'Story', and that the design process, over several editions, is a constant process of refinement and audience-targeting.
If you're a lover of food in novels, Sunday's post gave a link to a special edition of The Food Programme on 'cooking and crime', or eating with the detectives. Much there to whet the appetite for certain books or just plain make you hungry.
On Monday I posted details of the Cornflower Book Group's next book. Our September read is Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam (whose Edbookfest event - a delight - I attended last week), and I hope lots of people are getting their hands on a copy ready to join in with our discussion.
've posted only one review this week but it's of a cracker of a book, Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season. However, I have just finished another treat of a novel, and I'll write about it in due course, but for now, look out for the fun, sweet, warm-hearted, mad-in-a-good-way Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore.
It was back to the Book Festival yesterday to hear about two very different books (and a controversial opinion on historical fiction!), and as I have more events in prospect, I'm off now to sharpen my pencils and get ready to report.
My EIBF event yesterday featured two writers, each one taking real people or events as the raw material for their fiction. Courtney Collins was there to talk about her debut The Burial, described as "a dark, swooning upgrade of the Australian gothic genre", while from closer to home, Rosemary Goring's book After Flodden
features a young woman's search for her brother in the aftermath of that infamous battle.
Courtney's book is on my TBR pile and so I was very keen to hear her talk about it and read from it - she chose an early passage that was intense, beautiful, atmospheric and dark; Rosemary's novel is new to me but very much 'of the moment' in that the 500th anniversary of the battle is just days away. Although clearly very different in period, subject matter and style, both books aim "to put flesh on a woman", in Courtney's case the circus rider, bushranger and horse and cattle rustler Jessie Hickman, in Rosemary's a fictional character, Louise Brenier, a pivotal figure one of whose functions is to correct an imbalance, for as Rosemary said, "women play a great part in war but you never see them; in the aftermath, they pick up the reins."
Critic Allan Massie describes After Flodden as "a tremendous Romance, the work of a wild and turbulent imagination, a
tale of blood, slaughter, treachery, devotion, and adventure", while Elizabeth Gilbert says of The Burial, "this extraordinary novel - propelled by the dark, rich talents of a truly brilliant writer - dazzles, staggers and amazes".
Courtney grew up in Australia's Hunter Valley, where Jessie herself lived, and her familiarity with the place, its landscape, its folklore even, led her to choose that real woman - about whom not much hard fact is known - as her central character. Her difficulty was in how best to tell her story, from which point of view? In what Jackie McGlone, the event's chair, described as "a daring magical realist twist", Courtney eventually settled on the voice of Jessie's dead baby, and this unorthodox solution helped ease what Courtney described as "the creative tension between the facts of Jessie's life and the writing of fiction per se".
Rosemary then set her book in its historical context, describing the background to Flodden and its effect on the fortunes of Scotland. Disastrous for the Scots, it saw the death of King James IV and the loss of 10,000 men in two hours, and through her research Rosemary wanted to better understand why this happened. Though working with real events, it's fiction, not history, she's writing, and so she says, "I use facts like a trampoline - to bounce away from". Interestingly, both writers were keen to reject the label "historical fiction" for their work. Rosemary explained that she was not a fan of the genre, while Courtney thinks place, rather than period, is key to her book; neither wanted to be pigeon-holed, but while Courtney described her novel as "a project of empathy with Australia's [dark] past", Rosemary admitted her dislike of the 'hist.fic' tag was based on snobbery: "it's a lazy label and too easily thrown around," she said.
Whether or not these books are assigned to a category, what was evident from what their authors had to say was, as Courtney put it, "[one's] faith in fiction acts like a force - to find the way to the truth."
Tracy Chevalier's work is "renowned for its rich evocation of times past", said journalist Jackie McGlone as she introduced Tracy to the packed main theatre at EIBF today, and in talking about her books in general but with particular emphasis on her latest novel The Last Runaway, that historical novelist's flair for capturing a period and for telling a compelling a story was very much in evidence.
We spent a most entertaining hour hearing Tracy read - with accents! - from the book and then discuss her research and writing and even reveal a little of what her next novel is to be about (more on that later), and she was such a relaxed interviewee and a funny, engaging person that the hour sped by far too quickly.
If you haven't already read The Last Runawaythis post gives the gist, and you'll see that both Quaker culture and quilting are major elements of the story. Back in March, Tracy kindly wrote a guest post for me on how she learned to quilt as part of her research for the book, and she talked at some length about this today. She likes to give her characters something to do with their hands, "a daily activity which anchors them", and when she took up quilting herself (stitching entirely by hand, never with a machine) she found the work and its rhythm put her in "a non-verbal place, contemplative and quiet." In this respect it reminded her of the fossil-hunting she'd done as background to Remarkable Creatures when 'switching off ' and letting the mind wander while walking on the rocks helped the eye to focus and spot the fossils; and so in writing she feels the writer must not be self-conscious, but get out of their own way, taking a straightforward, uncomplicated approach without over-thinking the work.
Related to this, Tracy spoke of the need for quiet in our increasingly noisy world where stillness is rare. Attending Quaker summer camps as a child, she learnt to sit in silence, and as she still attends Quaker Meeting, the quiet there allows "the words to drain away from [her] mind". She spoke of Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence, of her own efforts to say less in everyday life, and of the companionable silence in which close friends can sit happily together. She is a good advocate for a quieter life, and her work - as I alluded to here - is the best advertisement for an economical style.
As an American in Britain (albeit one who las lived here all her adult life), Tracy's view of the cultural differences is a wry one. She talked amusingly of the British sense of humour and liking for irony, even our love of tea: "a cup of tea punctuates a moment; that's what it's there for."
Asked whether, given her love of research, she had ever considered being a historian and writing non-fiction, she told how difficult she found it to write even a short factual piece; in contrast, writing fiction is like "doing a Jackson Pollock - there's room to play!" As to her next novel, it's about emigration and a family moving from the UK to the US and back over many, many years. Its focus is "what we take with us", in this case trees, specifically fruit trees, in order to "retain the taste of our homeland". "We think trees stay in one place, but they follow us around," Tracy says. I can't wait to read it and I hope that when it's out, Tracy will return to Edinburgh to talk about it - I know she'll be very welcome if she does.
There was a packed house in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square Gardens last night for Sarah Dunant's Book Festival appearance. We'd come to hear her talk about the Borgias and her latest novel Blood & Beauty, and what a vibrant, animated discussion it was!
To the book itself first:
"It is 1492 and Rodrigo Borgia has clawed his way to the papacy - the most powerful seat on earth - to become Pope Alexander VI. But in a city run by Italians, Rodrigo is hated for his Spanish blood. His passion for power is matched only by his passion for his children and for his young mistress. Each Borgia child, however, will be tasked with advancing the family's ambitions and securing their dynasty's future...
Larger than life characters are set against one of history's most important eras, that of the Renaissance. Could the Borgias - perhaps the most powerful patrons of the period's artists, thinkers and creators - have played a vital, and violent, part in the cultural movement that changed the world forever?"
In conversation with Jamie Jauncey, Sarah described how her extensive research led her to form an opinion of her subjects at odds with the received view. She came to appreciate Rodrigo Borgia's huge energy and his "genuine charisma and charm", his appetite for politics, even his vulnerability in terms of his love for his children. He was a man who liked women, as well as loving them, someone who towered over his family, and by force of will constructed a dynastic powerhouse.
In a book that is richly descriptive and highly detailed, she puts (much) flesh on the bones of the man, revealing many more aspects to him and to her other characters than the stereotypical 'heroes and villains' view admits. That energy and vitality which marks Rodrigo floods the novel as a whole, but Sarah stressed the importance of her preparatory reading: "If I've done the work then I have the confidence to make the jump into the past", she said, and she commented that recent research gives her much more information to draw upon than a novelist writing 20 years ago would have had.
Within her vivid and concise description of fifteenth century Italy, Sarah touched on its significance to the country today - the roots of the modern state are unearthed in her book. She mentioned the historic relationship between brutality and corruption and creativity, the Renaissance growing from what was most certainly that fertile loam, and talked passionately about the period and its people, her enormous enthusiasm clearly informing every page of her book.
If you'd like know more about the Borgias and Blood & Beauty, there's a video introduction on Sarah's website.
"The Crown Hotel was lately built, and still retained the dusty, honeyed trace of fresh-planed timber; the walls still beading gems of sap along each groove, the hearths still clean of ash and staining. Moody's room was furnished very approximately, as in a pantomime where a large and lavish household is conjured by a single chair. The bolster was thin upon the mattress, and padded with what felt like twists of muslin; the blankets were slightly too large, so that their edges pooled on the floor; giving the bed a rather shrunken aspect, huddled as it was beneath the rough slope of the eave. The bareness lent the place a spectral, unfinished quality that might have been disquieting, had the prospect through the buckled glass been of a different street and a different age, but to Moody the emptiness was like a balm. He stowed his sodden case on the whatnot beside his bed, wrung and dried his clothes as best he could, drank off a pot of tea, ate four slices of dark-grained bread with ham, and, after peering through the window to the impenetrable wash of the street, resolved to defer his business in town until the morning."
From The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; everything about that passage is 'right'.
When I heard about D.J. Taylor's forthcoming novel The Windsor Faction a few months ago, I earmarked it straightaway as one to read, and I'm delighted that a copy has arrived today. Here's the gist:
"Autumn 1939. In a parallel world where Edward VIII never abdicated and the Second World War might have taken a very different course ...
Storm clouds gather over Europe, German troops amass and a 'King's Party' of fascist peace campaigners is stealthily undermining the war-effort. Country house parties teem with conspiring Tory MPs, an American Embassy clerk pilfers presidential telegrams and paranoia grips MI5.
In the offices of Duration magazine Cynthia Kirkpatrick finds herself at the centre of a web of intrigue. Journalist Beverley Nichols is engaged on the most important commision of his life - a speech for King Edward VIII that will shock the nation. As history threatens to derail, both learn that taking sides can be a very dangerous business."
If you're not already familiar with David's novels, there's a post on Ask Alicehere, one on Kept: A Victorian Mysteryhere, and for background my interview with him is here.
Yesterday's Booker Dozen includes a novel which arrived here a few days ago and caught my eye: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is billed as "a breathtaking feat of storytelling where everything is connected, but nothing is as it seems ..."
Here's the blurb -
"It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune in the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, with a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th. century world of shipping, banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery."
By a lucky chance, I happened to hear yesterday about Caroline Sandon's novel Burnt Norton, and despite the fact that my TBR shelves are groaning, I promptly bought the book. Caroline and her family live at Burnt Norton in Gloucestershire - the Burnt Norton which inspired the first part of Eliot's Four Quartets - and it's the history of the house and its then owners, the Keyts, which she has used as the basis of her novel:
"1731: When his youngest son is killed in a tragic
accident, Sir William Keyt, master of Norton House, buries himself in
his fortune. He builds a second vast mansion on his grounds, squandering
money he does not have on luxury his family does not want. Keyt
has long been blind to the desires of others. His eldest son has fallen
in love with their young maidservant, Molly Johnson, a ray of light in a
household dimmed by tragedy. Keyt wants Molly for himself and, driven
mad with lust and jealousy, he will do anything to have her..."
Click here to listen to a short radio interview with Caroline in which she describes how she came to write the book and how she boldly contacted Julian Fellowes to ask a favour!
Eva Rice's new novel The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp comes out in paperback next month, and reviews describe it as "eminently readable ... dense with detail and richly filmic," and "brilliantly written, hugely engaging."
"It's 1962, the dawn of the swinging sixties. Seventeen-year-old vicar's daughter Tara sings at a wedding, and discovered, is taken up to London to make a record. In Chelsea, she falls under the spell of two men, inadvertently invents the mini-skirt and has a surreal encounter in an endangered Victorian house with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner.
In a coming-of-age love story, set in the depths of the West Country and in the capital city, can Tara hold on to who she really is while those around her do their best to change her, and can she piece together fragments of her broken childhood to make sense of the person she is becoming?"
Another August release is Katherine Webb's The Misbegotten, "a spellbinding and unsettling novel, and a thrilling and passionate tale of insidious lies ..." is set in Bath in 1821.
"Rachel Crofton escapes the binds of her unhappy employment as a governess by marrying a charming self-made businessman. She sees a chance to create the family and home she has so long been without, but her new life soon takes an unexpected turn.
Through her new husband's connections, Rachel is invited to become the companion of the reclusive Jonathan Alleyn, a man tortured by memories of the Peninsular War, and tormented by the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Alice.
Starling, foundling servant to the Alleyn family, is convinced that Alice, the woman she loved as a sister, was stolen from her. Did Alice run away? Or did something altogether more sinister occur?
Rachel's arrival has an unsettling effect on the whole Alleyn household, and suddenly it seems that the dark deeds of the past will no longer stay contained. Shattering truths lurk behind Bath's immaculate façades, but the courage Rachel and Starling need to bring these truths to light will come at a very high price."
For an antiquarian book dealer, the ultimate discovery - the holy grail - would be a book which would change literary history. Has that very thing come into the hands of Peter Byerly? Even he, expert that he is, is not sure but he's determined to find out.
Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale is a mystery with a literary theme. It's a pacy 'thriller', a love story, and a book packed not only with fascinating detail but also full of passion for its subject. It's just the thing for a booklover or anyone interested in the highways and byeways of the history of books and literature, particularly in the Shakespearean age, but it doesn't take itself too seriously and it's a lot of fun.
The story begins in Hay-on-Wye in 1995. Peter is a young widower, an American who has returned to his Oxfordshire cottage to try to pick up the strands of his life after the sudden death of his wife Amanda. He's browsing through an 18th. century analysis of literary forgeries when out falls a picture, a Victorian watercolour, a portrait - apparently - of Amanda. Naturally Peter cannot rest until he discovers the identity of artist and subject and why the latter so closely resembles his wife, and in doing so he follows a trail which both puts him in great danger and leads to more than he'd ever expected.
The narrative is an intricate one, moving from 1995 to Peter's earlier life with Amanda, back to Southwark in 1592, and on to the Victorian era. The story is thus pieced together from many carefully placed clues and disparate sources, and Peter's own detective work - for it's not just a portrait whose provenance he's ultimately concerned with - is aided by his bibliophily and knowledge of book restoration, and the experts with whom he has links. In a novel such as this there are bound to be moments when the pieces of the puzzle fall all too neatly into place, and the drama occasionally gets a little out of hand, but it's none the worse for that, and as an escapist treat on a literary theme it's a jolly good read.
One facet which interested me particularly was its many references to people such as Robert Cotton, the great collector who owned and preserved treasures including Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels (read about his library here), and in much more recent times, W.H. Smith, a man who did more than 'just' sell books and who had strong views on the subject of Shakespeare authorship. But if you fancy a bit of a romp about the English countryside in a story which incorporates family feuds, murder and mayhem, and a lot - a lovely lot - about books, this is for you!
India is the setting for Alison McQueen's novels, The Secret Children
and Under the Jewelled Sky, and it's a country which is literally in her blood, as her mother is Indian. Perhaps as a result of this close connection, she has a feel for its depiction in fiction but uses that sensitivity so that her satisfying stories are seasoned with just the right amount of detail based on place and period, and her research - though clearly comprehensive - is incorporated with a light hand.
Under the Jewelled Sky is a bittersweet romantic novel which begins in the late 1940s as the country looks towards independence and inevitable social and cultural change. Its main character is Sophie Schofield, the young daughter of a doctor who is physician to a maharaja. The family lives in the vast and opulent palace where Sophie is isolated and lonely until by chance she meets Jag, the son of the maharaja's bearer, and a close but forbidden friendship develops.
Ten years on, Sophie is married to Lucien, a diplomat, and the two take up a New Delhi posting, living in an ex-pat enclave with a full if shallow social life. But all is not well with the marriage, and it is a very different side of India which seems to have a hold over Sophie. Then events take a dramatic turn ...
The book gives us a glimpse of the old order, of autocracy, unimaginable riches, and a vanished way of life; it moves on to partition and to a time of mass movement of people, rioting, refugee camps, displacement and death; and then it shows us the glamour of a privileged group in the late '50s, and the gentle charm of life in the hill station Ootacamund. This background gives colour and pace to the central coming-of-age story which is one of love, loss, and loyalty, and which is a very engaging read.
"All the authors on this year's shortlist have written wonderful books, illuminating times and breathing life into personalities in a way that is enlightening and which brings lasting pleasure to the reader. However The Garden of Evening Mists is the book that left the deepest imprint on us.
The poignancy of both remembering and forgetting is what this book is all about. One of the strengths of the Walter Scott Prize is that we can be broad in our reach. Set in the jungle-clad highlands of Malaya, this year's winner leads us into the troubled aftermath of World War Two. It is pungent and atmospheric; a rich, enigmatic, layered novel in which landscapes part and merge, and part again."
For those of us who are interested in details, the judging criteria include "elegance and strength of writing, characterisation, authenticity of dialogue, the truthfulness of the novel to its period, and the importance of what it tells us about our world in the past and today," and the Walter Scott Prize's definition of 'historical' is "where the majority of events described take place at least 60 years before the publication of the novel. This definition comes from Walter Scott’s subtitle for Waverley: ‘Tis Sixty Years Since’ ".
Have you read the winning book? I haven't yet, though it's here on the pile, but in our recent post on 'bespoke books', Di nominated Tan Twan Eng, commenting on his books' limpid quality. I'm looking forward to discovering it.
I must be the only person in the world who hasn't read Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything
(or seen the film), but I have watched Elizabeth in action as a speaker - most notably in her famous TED talk, to which I've linked before - and I find her very engaging, and having heard tantalising snippets about her forthcoming novel I am very keen to read it. It won't be out until October, but The Signature of All Things looks set to be one of the 'big' books of the autumn, and I'm delighted to have an early proof and to be able to get to it soon I hope. It is a historical novel about a female botanist (click here for more on that) and incorporates - see this short video - "wonder, marvel, travel, curiosity, spirituality ..." themes close to Elizabeth's heart.
Mr Darwin's Gardener by Kristina Carlson (translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) will be out on the 1st. of June, and is the latest book from Peirene Press whose short, European fiction is quality stuff, as you'll see from this post and this one. The new book is "a postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs," and is set in the late 1870s in the Kentish village of Downe. "The villagers gather in church one rainy Sunday. Only Thomas Davies stays away. The eccentric loner, a grief-stricken widower, works as a gardener for the naturalist Charles Darwin. He shuns religion. But now Thomas needs answers. What should he believe in? And why should he continue to live?"
If you listened to BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour this morning you may have heard Jenni Murray talking to Kate Manning about her novel My Notorious Life by Madame X which will be published on the 6th. of June. The book is set in 19th. century New York and is based on a true story as it follows the life of an Irish orphan, Axie Muldoon, from child beggar to the most succesful and controversial midwife of her time. "From the gutter to the glitter of 5th. Avenue", Axie's is a story of "freedom, family and the many faces of love, and above all, of one indomitable woman making her way in a difficult world." Another book I'm greatly looking forward to reading.