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Nicola Cornick – The Last Daughter + Podcasts (Zen Cho, Rosanna Ley, Gill Paul)

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Solving the mystery.

Publisher: Harlequin (HarperCollins)
Pages: 355
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27852-6
First Published: 8th July 2021
Date Reviewed: 19th July 2021
Rating: 5/5

Serena’s twin, Caitlin, disappeared in her late teens and Serena could not remember the last time she saw her. Now, years later, a body has been found in a centuries-old tomb that nevertheless matches Caitlin’s DNA. Serena needs to try again to remember what happened that last day she saw her sister and find out the solution to the mystery that doesn’t make any sense. As the story unfolds, we also hear the story of the Wars of the Roses from the experience of Anne, the wife of Francis Lovell, loyal ally of Richard III.

The Last Daughter is a dual-narrative timeslip that looks at a purely fictional mystery as well as an in-context reason for the mystery of the princes of the tower (the book is called The Last Daughter Of York in the US).

Cornick’s blending of history and the present day, with its splash of fantasy, is as strong as ever. The research and fictionalisation of the early life of a lesser-known person, Anne FitzHugh, is wonderful. (And for this, Anne’s narrative could certainly be said to be better than Serena’s.) The way the fantasy is brought in aligns with the sort of superstitions of the time.

The use of location is also strong. Bringing to life a house in ruins (Minster Lovell Hall) as well as a castle (Ravensworth), you get a greater sense of the day to day life of those living in the wars of the 1400s.

In this book it is the way in which the timeslip happens rather than the timeslip itself that is the most fascinating thing. Cornick uses a lodestone that has been revered for decades as the item that creates havoc, and with the science behind the well known object, it’s a convincing idea. Similarly to her other books, the author uses a few time periods to explore and examine her concept, which makes the story all the more fun, even if in this case it includes tragic circumstances.

The most compelling aspect of the book in terms of the present day is the way in which Cornick deals with the mystery of the Princes. Whilst it may not solve it quite as you might expect – this is a fantasy after all and we don’t know what happened – the author does do something that few people have; Cornick removes the ‘either, or’ factor from the equation. Certainly so doing means that the reader’s focus is on the story she has constructed, but it is and was always going to be inevitable that the reader is at least distracted by the idea Cornick sets forth. The question of ‘what if?…’ here allows the medieval-minded reader to look at the whole thing in an entirely different way and prod at possibilities that tend to get overlooked or just left out completely.

The Last Daughter offers a compelling story of historical mystery told with Cornick’s trademark uniqueness of narrative strength. The timeslip element is different, fresh, and the book a great addition to the author’s list.


Charlie and Zen Cho (Black Water Sister) discuss traditional Chinese beliefs, smashing up shrines, and Jane Austen.

Charlie and Rosanna Ley (The Orange Grove) discuss whether one of her main characters, Ella, made the right decision with the situational contexts at hand, the viability of a shop focused on orange-related products and set up in Dorset, the Seville producers of those products, and the secrets of the flour-free cake that starts the whole thing off.

Charlie and Gill Paul (The Second Marriage) discuss the lives and loves of Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas from their early married years until later life, the womanising ways of the men in their lives, and the opera and celebrity that in Gill’s book links them all.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode pages can be found here.

 
Joanna Hickson – First Of The Tudors + Podcast

This week’s podcast episode is with Joanna Hickson. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Joanna Hickson (First Of The Tudors; The Tudor Crown; The Lady Of The Ravens also The Agincourt Bride; The Tudor Bride; Red Rose, White Rose) discuss the royal and noble individuals of the War of the Roses, the women who made an impact, the ever-present question of who killed the princes in the tower, and, on another topic entirely, using weasels to prevent conception.

Please note that the question about the fear of pregnancy and childbirth includes a couple of mentions of a weasel’s particulars.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.


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The one with the most importance in this context, and he won’t be the last…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 494
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-13970-4
First Published: 1st December 2016
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2020
Rating: 5/5

Jasper Tudor and his brother Edmund, half-brothers to Henry VI, inevitably fall on the Lancasterian side of the argument. As young men, Edmund marries the even younger Margaret Beaufort, and Jasper begins a relationship with distant relative, Jane Hywel. With Henry’s position at threat from the supporters of the York (and the later Edward IV), Jasper’s life is full of battles. And then there’s the other, perhaps more pressing, factor – Edmund and Margaret’s child, Henry, has more than one claim to the throne in his blood and he is going to require protection.

First Of The Tudors is Hickson’s fourth novel, an absolute triumph of a tome that manages to look in detail at the War of the Roses both accurately and with good pace and continued excitement, and with an undeniably wonderful immersive quality that makes an already well-known subject and people fascinating all over again.

Let’s tackle that accuracy first. Hickson uses a fair mixture of facts and fiction. She includes details that are often thought dry – dates, locations, details of troop movements, in a way that is balanced by her fiction. Specifically, her use of dialogue and narrative – particularly narrative – means that you get a good grounding in those ‘dry’ facts without needing to take a break, the fiction and the quality and thoughtfulness of her writing making the pages turn one after the other. Suffice to say that the page count, whilst it might look daunting at the outset, becomes a fact for indifference pretty quickly. (On a further note, picking up the similarly-numbered The Tudor Crown, directly afterwards, was one of the very few times I’ve looked at a book and found a large page count trivial.)

On the assertion of immersion, this is inevitably also the result of the dialogue and writing but in addition the use of location and the world building in general. There’s something special about Hickson’s narration in this regard that’s difficult to pinpoint exactly – it’s a quality that’s undeniably all her own and just really good to read. It works best in the more modest locations, likely because its in those places where the situation in the country (and, as the book goes on countries) is more relaxed and presumably quieter, but the castles and battlements and so on are pretty awesome, too.

Whilst Jasper narrates approximately half the tale, Jane Hywel narrates the other half. Jane, a semi-fictional character (her family is real, and Jasper did have a relationship and illegitimate children, we just don’t know who with) provides us with a necessarily different perspective on the War in her more ordinary situation; she also heads up a good focus on women at the time. On this, Hickson spends a very good amount of time on the role of Margaret Beaufort – she is pushed to the fore, as it were, given the backup and evidence, albeit sometimes fictional, for the points about her strength that we are told about in non-fiction.

On that ‘sometimes fictional’, we’re looking at the letters she sends to Jasper, which inevitably history, such as we know, has not kept primary evidence of but likely existed. In these we see a leader, a person as important as any of the leading men of the time, someone who worked in the background and got things done.

We also see a good amount about and of Elizabeth Woodville’s role, though it is invariably not as distinct.

And laced through it all, a gentle romance, a story that surely bares a fair semblance to the reality. It’s well written and well done in general, filling in gaps and padding out the life of a man we don’t know so much about but should, Jasper’s role in Henry VII’s ascension to the throne paramount.

First Of The Tudors presents a lesser-known man and an even lesser-known woman, bringing them to the front of the stage. It brings in the younger years of Margaret Beaufort, the life of Edmund Tudor, and well explains the backdrop, both immediate and further afield, to which Henry VII came to fight for the crown. It’s engaging, it’s fun (yes, indeed!). It’s splendid.

 
Fran Cooper – These Dividing Walls + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Weike Wang! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Weike Wang (Chemistry) discuss having both a scientific – in epidemiology no less! – and a writer background, making use of extracts and white space and preferring them beyond more long-form prose, the difficulties of studies and incorporating friends’ experiences in your stories, and fictional dogs who are inherently important to the text.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Between us.

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 256
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64156-3
First Published:
Date Reviewed: 9th April 2020
Rating: 5/5

Edward moves to Paris to get away from his life in Britain. In the apartment building he finds himself are many residents. Some know each other well enough, others are a mystery. And hopefully, to some people, no one new who is different will move in in future. Meanwhile, tensions in wider society echo this worry of difference.

These Dividing Walls is a terrific novel that offers a glimpse at the lives of a small fictional community in Paris, a group of people previously less close. Whilst it is a glimpse in the main sense of the word – the period of time is short – it inevitably shows a great deal more, with Parisian society in general included.

Where to start? The writing is of course the first element to be apparent. Cooper has a precise skill at language; hers is a poetical style; the words flow and the text is both beautifully and deceptively simple, sentences that continue to roll along no matter the subject at hand at any one moment. The text itself is an entire reason for reading the book.

Set in the present day – only a few years ago at the time of this review – the story starts with Edward; as he gets used to the building so too do the other residents’ lives become apparent. The narrative is both character and situation driven, with chapters given over to the different individual residents in the third person. Stripping back the brickwork, Cooper’s cast run the gambit from worried, isolated people, to those in grief, and to those who seek to maintain the status quo by nasty or extreme means.

To that last clause the reference is racial diversity. In a show of what is to come in general, the residents of the apartment building are split between those happy to accept new people of whatever racial background and religion they are, and those who want only people with an ancestrally French background. The Brit was accepted.

And what is to come? These Dividing Walls is heavily invested in the sociopolitical. using factual events, protests, terrorism, as its basis, the fiction constructed looks at social unrest; religious and racial intolerance leading to mass gatherings, targeted attacks, and retaliation. Here the characters’ viewpoints and general personalities provided detailed reasonings for the wider society. It is damning and Cooper doesn’t hold back, showing thoughts and what they can lead to.

Away from this is the subject of motherhood, of the invisibility of mothers when there are cute children to catch people’s attention, and of post-partum depression. Cooper’s look includes a wonderfully described example of how a lack of understanding of the condition can have negative consequences, the opportunity to display both the feelings of the mother and the incomprehension of the father to excellent studious effect.

The subject of grief also marks a couple of characters’ lives, and, needless to say, it’s looked at with the utmost care.

The way These Dividing Walls has been structured means that the content is both a literary escape and an intricut look at contemporary life. If the surface concept, the idea of people in one building is simple, Cooper reminds us that every life is full and complex, and that we are all effected by the wider situation.

It starts in a visual vacuum, diversions afforded by brickwork. It ends with the walls torn down in various ways, with a metaphorical dynamite that is metaphorically as powerful as the real life cirumstances behind the fiction.

 
E C Fremantle – The Poison Bed + Podcast

On today’s podcast I’m joined by E C Fremantle (Elizabeth Fremantle) author of The Poison Bed; also Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason, Watch the Lady, and The Girl in the Glass Tower. We discuss changing pen names, a horrific murder case in the Stuart nobility, coping as a new mother in a one-of-a-kind situation, and the historical line between witchcraft and ‘simple’ superstition.

Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

The main episode page, which includes the full episode details, the transcript, and a question index, is here. The podcast is also available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and via RSS.


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In all senses of the phrase, do not take it lying down.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 403
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-92007-0
First Published: 14th June 2018
Date Reviewed: 26th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Frances Howard is in the Tower of London, accused on murder. She has confessed. Now, as she awaits trial, she tells her story to Nelly, the girl assigned to look after the baby. Also in the Tower is Frances’ husband, Robert Carr, charged for the same reason. He too tells his story, of a man who was once the King’s favourite. Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? Or are they both doing the same thing?

The Poison Bed is a fictionalisation of a true event in history; Frances – a member of the family in a rivalry to be top dog at court – and her husband were brought to trial for the murder of a lower member of the nobility. Using facts wherever possible, bringing in likelihoods and possibilities where information is debated, and creating elements where there is less or no information, the novel pulls the history towards us in a way that makes the thoughts and reasonings of the time very understandable. The book has been described as a historical Gone Girl and it’s a very apt description – the atmosphere of thriller and the manipulative quality is similar, as is the structure.

The book begins with a sense of vagueness – if you don’t know what it’s about (and the blurb on the back is suitably vague) it can take a couple of chapters to get to grips with what’s going on. Some readers may find this difficult – certainly you might feel like a fish out of water – but it’s something to stick with; the confusion is very fitting and in keeping with the genre, and it primes you for the work you will want to do to get to the bottom of what’s happened and is happening – whilst Fremantle gives you all the information by the end, not leaving you wondering at all, you’ll want to do your own detective work on the fly.

The narrative voices may also take some getting used to. The book is formed of two narratives – Frances tells her story for a chapter, then we turn to Robert, and back again. Frances’ narrative is mostly in the third person but sometimes switches to first – the change is intentional, the extra thinking you do keeps the novel in that psychological zone – and Robert’s is in the first person. The characters also deal with their stories differently; both look to the past but Frances’ is more your usual flashback retelling whereas Robert’s sounds more present. Interestingly, for all that Robert appears to speak directly to the reader, he is more distanced than Frances. However, Fremantle’s use of the third person for Frances permits a highly informative look at her thoughts.

The strictness, as it were, of the narratives – this back and forth between only two characters – is one of the biggest strengths of the book. Constrained (or should that be condemned?) to spend your time with only two of the fair-sized cast of characters hones your focus and increases the darkness. Of the darkness it is almost absolute, with the novel situated in the Tower; despite the numerous time spent in sunnier locations during flashbacks and Robert’s storytelling, the despair of the Tower is ever-present. For her second book, Sisters Of Treason, Fremantle spent most of the novel’s pages in the Tower with the sisters of Lady Jane Grey, weaving a tale that was very dark and foreboding; with The Poison Bed the author has managed to take that further with the addition of the psychological thriller aspect and in this regard the book is absolutely stunning. Owing to the nature of it, the story isn’t always pacey, if you want to take breaks (you may well – these are not particularly pleasant characters) you can; rested assured the narrative will hold your attention even when it’s not speeding along. There is manipulation in the book and the list of those at the receiving end has your name on it.

Moving on to the historical concepts, Frances’ value to women at court as a palm reader begins the look at the balance between witchcraft and what was not considered witchcraft. You will most likely learn something new from this book on the subject, and various ideas under the umbrella subject are done so with aplomb. In regards to Robert Carr being a favourite of James I, Fremantle has looked at the potential of the intimacies in terms of sexual connotations. The novel also looks at the position of women in society not ‘just’ in terms of Frances’ place in it but in terms of business, and reputation both general and more specific to the time.

In terms of the historical event, it is a relief, after you’ve turned the last page, to leave the world The Poison Bed steeps you in. In every way beyond that – as a work of fiction, in the planning and storytelling, the attention to historical detail, its literary merit and overall value – the novel is fantastic. And it is most definitely worth the read.

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Nancy Bilyeau – The Blue

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Colour shades and shady practices.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 434
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44562-3
First Published: 3rd December 2018
Date Reviewed: 3rd December 2019
Rating: 4/5

1700s London – Huguenot Genevieve Planché wants to train to be an artist, but that is not the done thing for women; she steals her grandfather’s invitation to an event hosted by William Hogarth, hoping to gain his support. Instead she meets Sir Gabriel Courtney, a man who seems open to her ideas; the next day he arrives at her home to talk to her and her grandfather and later presents her with a proposition – if she goes to work at Derby Porcelain (as her grandfather wishes) and spies for him to find out the formula of the latest shade of blue the factory are working on (which isn’t her grandfather’s plan) he will see that she gets to Venice where she’ll find people willing to train her in painting. It’s not the best thing Genevieve’s ever heard – she doesn’t want to work on porcelain full stop – but the promise for the future proves too irresistible.

The Blue is a thriller that looks at the extent people might go to in history in order to be ahead of the rest of the game. It also gives time to the Huguenot refugees (as Genevieve says, ‘refugee’ was a word coined in this period) and the political situation between England and France in the time of King George II/Louis XV.

Bilyeau’s attention to research, first highlighted in her Joanna Stafford trilogy, is alive and well in The Blue. The amount undertaken as well as the careful balancing of fact and fiction when fiction is needed for the story, is evident on the majority of pages. The use is careful too, with the detailing abundant yet never straying into info-dumping territory; when the characters discuss contemporary industry, it is always necessary to the story. You’ll learn a good amount about early western porcelain and the creative industry in general. (You just have to keep in mind the areas that are fiction – easily discovered thanks to the author note. Genevieve’s story itself is fictional but it’s woven around many different factual elements to the extent that the majority is true.)

Genevieve is a fair character for the fictional ride – she’s not always ‘strong’ per se, but it’s with good reason (she falls in love, whilst a spy). There are anachronisms involved, mostly in terms of Genevieve’s phrasing – she is the narrator – generally limited to times when the stakes are high.

For the most part the book is fast-paced; it slows down towards the middle when Genevieve starts to like her above-board work, gets used to Derby, and starts to question her role in Sir Gabriel’s plan, but the last third is as swift as an arrow and an absolute riot for it, the truths and lies flying quickly at you as the full extent of the espionage on all sides shows itself.

As well as the main story and the industrial history, Genevieve’s experience as a Huguenot and a close descendant of those who fled from France is given time. As well as the idea of the refugee and the basic history of the Huguenots, you also see the effective cycle of experience as Genevieve corrects those who would call her French, worries about what will happen if France wins the war, supports England wholeheartedly, and so forth. Her experience, her description and thoughts on it, echo in many ways present-day debates and stories of refugees and immigration which brings a nice comparison and particular historical look at the issue.

There are quite a number of proof-reading errors in the book which do detract, but given the research and storytelling, you may find that to be less of a problem than it might have been.

The Blue looks at how something so seemingly simple can create a commotion on an international scale, and it does this not only in the context of manufacture but of many other social and political concepts and issues of the time. It’s informative, and for all its many pages it flies by.

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