Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Westminster Poisoner by Susanna Gregory

Christmas 1663. The winds are howling and the weather is bleak. There is an old wives tale that when the wind is blowing a gale it is a sign that an important person will die. So far two important clerks have been found dead, fanning the flames of this tale. Chaloner is put on the case by the Lord Chancellor, alongside Colonel Turner, a dandy with an eye for the ladies. The clerks have been poisoned and the Chancellor already has a suspect, another clerk called Greene. Chaloner is reluctant to agree and sets out to prove Greene's innocence. In addition to this, Chaloner and Turner are given the task of finding out who stole the famous Bernini sculpture of the King. As if that wasn't enough the Chancellor decides he will only retain the services of one of the men, therefore turning both cases into a competition between Turner and Chaloner. Determined to retain his post, under threat from the King's chief of spies and trying to protect his master from this season's Lord of Misrule, Chaloner has his hands full.

This fourth installment of the Chaloner series was another good addition to her historical mystery books. Set in the years shortly following the Restoration, it captures very well the excesses and fears of the time. As those who have read Susanna Gregory books know the main facts in the book tend to be historically accurate, with the details of these and her research provided at the end of the book.

Whilst possible not as fast paced as previous escapades it certainly has it's moments. Chaloner's famous hat comes in very handy! The character of Chaloner is further developed in this book, along with his relationships with others. He is finally beginning to try and fit in in this Restoration world. There is even a mention that he has taken to using his real name rather than covering it up as his uncle was one of those who signed Charles I death warrant. He has even started a promising relationship with one of the Queen's serving women. There are reminders throughout the book though about trusting everyone which includes a bit of a twist at the end of the book that I really didn't see coming. There are many new characters to replace those that have left such as Leybourn, who played a significant role in 'The Butcher of Smithfield' and those who appear less, such as Thurloe.

I did enjoy this book very much and whilst there probably were not quite as many twists and turns and revelations as the previous installment in this series it was certainly a good read.

*4 stars*

Other books by Susanna Gregory include:
*A Conspiracy of Violence: First book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*Blood on the Strand: Second book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Butcher of Smithfield: Third book in the Thomas Chaloner series

I Coriander by Sally Gardner

Coriander was born in 1643 to a loving mother and father, a wealthy merchant in London. One day her mother dies and it is not long before her father remarries, an unkind, unloving Puritan. Bullied and beaten by the step-mother and her preacher Coriander one day finds escape in another world. It is not long before she in embroiled in fighting evil in both worlds. Not only must Coriander survive the plots against her, she must also survive in the tumultuous world of the Commonwealth, where Royalist sympathizes are quickly quashed. Can she rescue herself and all those dear to her?

I have to say when I found out which period this book covered I was quite excited. I an an English Civil War re-enactor so 17th century is a period I love. Also having read 'The Red Necklace', also by Sally Gardner, I had high hopes for this book. I was not disappointed on either account. It was a very beautifully written book, which really evoked 17th century life and yet managed to weave in a lovely fairy story without it seeming too contrived.

The historical accuracy of the book is not bad. I suspect true experts of this period would be able to poke a lot of holes in it but I could see no particularly glaring errors. The ideas about witchcraft, the Puritanical extremes and the fear felt by ordinary people in the days of the Commonwealth were all well executed. I even liked the depiction of the Doctor and his remedies, something which may seem incredulous from a modern standpoint but there were some really daft remedies going around at the time.

The clever interweaving of the real events of 17th century London, such as the execution of Charles I, and the fairytale were brilliant. It was almost believable that there could be a fairy world just beyond our own. It felt like a good old fashioned fairy tale, carefully grounded in reality but with wonderful fantasy. I really did enjoy this combination.

The book is intended for children and young adults so don't expect it to be long, intricate and deep. It is an enjoyable little read, perfect holiday reading or on a wet afternoon with a hot drink. It really evokes for me warm childhood memories of lying on my bed and escaping to new worlds. If you're looking for a light read but with a historical bent and you don't mind fairy tales this is the book for you.

*5 stars*

If you enjoyed reading this book why not try The Red Necklace also by Sally Gardner?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Latest news from the Historical Fiction Book Club

The Historical Fiction Book Club is busy nominating books for the next round of reading. So far the following books are up for voting,

Ratcatcher by James McGee - crime thriller set in Regency London
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks - fictional account of Eyam, the Derbyshire village that quarantined itself in 17th century when plague reached it from London
The Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden - fictional account of Genghis Khan's early years

For more information about these books click here where I have prepared a synopsis and links for each.

Some very different choices so far! If you fancy joining the group visit us here. Nominations for books to read ends on Tuesday 24th March so you still have time to join and make your suggestions! Voting follows and we will start reading the book with the most votes on Saturday 28th March.

So if you enjoy reading reading historical fiction but don't know what to choose next or want to try historical fiction come along and join the group. It's all based online so location doesn't matter. You never know, you might find a new author that you like :)

Update (28/03/2009) - We have chosen to read Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks this time round.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Historical Fiction Book club

Is anyone out there wanting to join a book club for Historical Fiction? If so, I've started one at Booksprouts. It's open to anyone and I'm hoping it will be a great way for all of us who like our fiction set in the past to find new and interesting books and authors. So if you want to find out more or fancy joining visit Historical Fiction Book Club.

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner

One winter's night in 1789, three performers of a magic show from a local theatre in Paris are summoned to the chateau of the Marquis de Villeduval after another successful performance. Whilst preparing to make their way the youngest of the trio, an orphan boy called Yann, hears a strange voice warning him not to go. He tells his comrades, Topolain the magician and Tetu the dwarf, about the warning but they dismiss it as irrational fear. Little do they know what lies in store for them. At the chateau is the mysterious Count Kalliovski, who recognises Topolain and Tetu from his past. Eager to remove those that could show his hidden past the Count manages to kill one of the performers. The other two flee, with the help of the crippled and ill-treated Sido, daughter of the Marquis.

Thus begins a story set over a five years of the early stages of the French Revolution. Whilst Yann manages to make it to England and freedom, Sido is forced to find ways to survive the growing terror and Kalliovski's unwanted advances. Yann works to uncover the truth of his past and understand the meaning of the red necklace he stole from Kallioski as he flees. Will the pair survive?

This is an exciting and fascinating book that hooked me in right from the start. Gardner skillfully makes you interested in all the characters without giving too much away. We know very little about Yann for example, probably as much as he knows about himself, and learn more about him as he learns more about his heritage. The same too can be said for Sido. You care for the central characters and have a real desire to find out what will happen next.

What is also particularly skillful about this novel is that it shows how the French Revolution occurred, slowly, piece by piece. It is sometimes easy to forget that they didn't just drag Louis, the Royal Family and members of the aristocracy to the guillotine on a mere whim, nor did it happen overnight. The terror builds gradually and you begin to understand how many of the noble families got caught. Whilst it's easy with hindsight, we can imagine and understand better how the Revolution was seen through the eyes of those at the time. I don't pretend that this is the most historically accurate book ever. The book focuses more on the aristocracy's experiences and those of their servants than of the average inhabitant of Paris during this period.

The book is pretty chilling in places and it really reminds you how brutal human beings can be. There are some rather graphic sections and whilst this book is often found in the children/young adults section of the library I would not recommend it to pre-teens or even younger teens in some instances. There is once scene towards the end of the book that shows how one sentence can cause a crowd to turn into an angry, murderous mob. This book should be read to remind us of how quickly law and order can disintegrate and how atrocities can occur. It can be too easy to see what is happening in Africa, the Middle East and areas of Asia and forget that Europe was once like that, and could easily return to that.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to older teens and adults who have an interest in this period. I would also recommend it as a great book for getting older children to learn about human nature. The next book in the series, 'The Silver Blade', is due out at the end of April. I can't wait to read this or the other Sally Gardner book I have picked up 'I Coriander' which is set in 17th century England.

*4 stars*

Read for Historical Fiction Book Club. For more information about the club, click here

If you enjoyed this book why not try I Coriander, also by Sally Gardner