Book Reviews

The Sea Captain’s Wife – by Beth Powning

‘When ships were made of wood and men were made of steel…’

A friend recommended this book, after hearing that I’m working on a memoir about my own times at sea with my husband & two children. Beth Powning’s novel tells of a woman’s life at sea in a very different time – the 1860s – when, as my husband has often remarked, ‘Ships were made of wood and men were made of steel.’

Azuba lives in a small port on the east coast of Canada, and longs to be the kind of sea-captain’s wife who travels with her husband, rather than a woman who sits at home in a dull, safe world, awaiting her man’s return. A long wait, since these voyages were often two years or more in length. Although Azuba marries her sea-captain, Nathaniel has no intention of exposing his wife – and their young daughter – to the dangers and privations of such a voyage. He leaves her at home until a minor scandal – caused by his wife’s friendship with the local minister – changes his mind.

What follows is a realistic and well-researched account of Azuba’s experiences at sea with four-year-old Carrie. The horrors of Cape Horn and a period of starvation in the Doldrums are vividly described, as is the equally heart-wrenching situation between Azuba and Nathaniel. As she discovers, he is a different man at sea – detached from her, his focus totally on the ship and his responsibility for every life aboard.  Their relationship is complicated by his belief that she betrayed him with the minister. How this plays out is utterly convincing.

The periods at sea are relieved by lengthy stays in port. In contrast to the privations aboard, the couple with their daughter live in luxury hotels while cargo is being unloaded and fresh cargoes arranged. All very different from modern times, and yet I could relate to Azuba as a woman, and understand the complications of her relationship with Nathaniel. How this plays out – both emotionally and professionally – is so true to life, that I found myself nodding and sighing in sympathy.

Some reviewers have expressed surprise that women travelled with their husbands in 19th century sailing ships, although it was quite common, certainly in the UK.  This beautifully written novel is stirring, authentic, and a great testimony to their courage and fortitude.

The Other Side of the Bridge – Mary Lawson

This beautifully written novel came to me via my local library and reading group, but the bland cover gave no hint of the compelling story within. The first few pages had me hooked at once – two young brothers playing dangerous games – which I knew would lead to trouble.
The novel is a study of character, of past and present, and the vast landscape of northern Ontario. I loved the way the author drew us in to the slow pace of life, dependent on the seasons and the agricultural year – the way she introduced the different characters, revealing their troubles, hopes and ambitions in such a believable way. All these people were real to me – I felt I knew them, knew the place – and felt the tensions as the story approached its ending. One of my reading group felt the ending was a little rushed, but for me it was enough, and just right. Now Looking forward to reading her other books!

The Lady of the Tower – Elizabeth St John

Elizabeth St John was new to me, but I took a chance on this first novel in the Lydiard Chronicles and thoroughly enjoyed it. Based on the author’s family’s history, this fictional account is so well written that the research blends seamlessly into the story. Lucy St John, with her independent mind, stands out, and has the reader longing for her to find love with the right man. All the characters are individuals, people with faults as well as virtues, and their struggle with the monarchy of the time and its corrupt power-base, is totally believable. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys this turbulent period in English history – it shows how perilous life could be for those who sought favour with the Stuarts.

By Love Divided – Elizabeth St John

Love, Loyalty, and the English Civil War – I found this second novel in the Lydiard Chronicles even more enjoyable than the first. In writing about her forebears, Elizabeth St John has had some excellent source material to weave into fiction.

Lucy St John’s daughter, Luce Apsley, is the focus here, and in the years immediately preceding the war, her position is made clear. But with her husband on the side of reform, and her brother’s belief in the King’s divine right to rule, Luce’s loyalties are strained. The development of each character as tensions build – and the shock that open warfare brings to each of them – is well-described, as is the horrific reality for rich and poor alike. In this second novel, English history comes alive yet again – and I enjoyed it more because of the extraordinary position of this family. Well-connected, but – except for one member, Barbara Villiers – not usually featured in the history books. Their experience puts a different light on the Stuart period, and I thoroughly recommend both books as an enjoyable way to learn more.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky – Mark Sullivan

This novel, set in Italy during WW2, is the first I’ve read by Mark Sullivan, and I’m impressed. Historical fiction presented as a wartime thriller – so compelling I couldn’t put it down.

At first, I thought the hero was almost too good to be true – except Pino Lella was and is a real person. The teenage son of a wealthy family – young, courageous, talented and good-looking – his activities inspired this novel. He helped smuggle Jews across the Alps, and later acted as driver for an eminent Nazi general as the Allied forces advanced. A collaborator? No – a spy who met Mussolini and his mistress, and witnessed their gory end.

There’s a love story too, beautifully conveyed, and heart-breaking events as anarchy follows the defeat of Fascism. Pino’s shock and trauma almost leap off the page, leaving the reader understanding entirely why he didn’t talk about it afterwards – and why Italy as a whole preferred to forget this period in its history.

Mark Sullivan’s passion for this story shines through. He has my admiration, not least for his relating of the aftermath, in which we learn of the characters’ later lives. From priests and cardinals to world-class racing drivers – and General Leyers himself – it illustrates that fact really is stranger than fiction.

The Bookseller’s Tale – Ann Swinfen 

If you like a well-written detective story with a different setting, this series of medieval mysteries by Ann Swinfen is for you. The opening of this first book in the series, gives a gentle, domestic view of bookseller Nicholas Elyot’s family life in Oxford. Nicholas has lost his wife, and his sister her husband, but they are bringing up Nicholas’s two young children between them. A new puppy gives a charming thread which links the story throughout.

A dedicated young student known to Nicholas is murdered, and having found the body, he sets about discovering why the deed was done – which ultimately leads him to the guilty party. Along the way, Ann Swinfen gives the reader a fascinating glimpse of the world of books – how they were made (before the printing press revolutionised the world) how illustrated, and indeed, how valuable they were.

Nicholas Elyot is a most likeable character, fully rounded, with friends and relatives so clear one can almost see them. Similarly, the people he distrusts. I was so involved with them, that towards the end I was dreading, with Nicholas, what price he would have to pay for the solution of the mystery.

All in all, I can honestly say that I haven’t enjoyed a medieval murder mystery so much since I first discovered Brother Cadfael, many years ago!

Suffer the Little Children – Ann Swinfen

This novel is the fifth in a series of Tudor mysteries – The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez. From the very first, each one is a fascinating read, and just as enjoyable as Ann Swinfen’s medieval mysteries. With Kit Alvarez – a young Portuguese doctor who is also engaged as a spy by Sir Francis Walsingham – the reader is transported back to Tudor London. To be in the company of such a charming & sympathetic character is a pleasure indeed. Against a background of ancient institutions such as St Bartholomew’s and Christ’s hospitals, every character is realistically drawn, from the kidnapped little heiress to the beggar children on the streets. And meanwhile young Kit struggles through the snow, juggling work as doctor against the demands of friends and spy masters alike… like all Ann Swinfen’s books this is a page-turning read.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I knew – Susan Fletcher

I bought this book having thoroughly enjoyed Susan Fletcher’s ‘Witch Light’ some time ago. This book is different, shorter, but with no less impact. In this novel, the author uses the kind of spare prose the real Jeanne Trabuc might have used, slightly halting, sometimes feeling for a description – but the art of the writer is in making this work. And work it does.

We see Vincent through Jeanne’s Provençale gaze, and odd he is with his red beard and blue eyes, his uninhibited use of paint which colours the grass around him as well as the canvas. As Jeanne describes him, and relates their brief conversations, we sense his impact upon this woman in her fifties – reviving memories of her youth, the early days of her marriage to Charles, her three absent sons – and driving her to look at the life she has now…

Through his agreement to paint her – and later her husband Charles – Vincent challenges their thinking, much as his paintings still challenge the viewer to see the world differently.

On a personal level, this novel roused memories for me too. The fact that I didn’t ‘get’ Van Gogh (in reproduction) until I saw one of his lesser-known originals in a gallery. Suddenly, in that moment, I knew what all the fuss was about. Susan Fletcher’s novel has brought the man into focus for me in a similar way.

Through Jeanne’s words in this story – and the author’s expertise – Vincent Van Gogh has become as real to me as though I too had met him and known him. Thank you, Susan Fletcher, for your research and your wonderful way with words.

Through Martha’s Eyes – Corinne Brixton

Well-written and clearly well-researched, this novel by Corinne Brixton takes the reader to the Holy Land of the Gospels – and, as the title says, we’re seeing everyday life through the eyes of Martha, one of the followers of Jesus.

In a Prologue dated AD30, we meet her sister Mary and brother Lazarus in a gripping beginning to the story – but how I wish the next few chapters could have had more pace. Sadly, I found myself speed-reading several pages as the story slowed. On the plus side, these early chapters show in some detail a young girl’s life in what we would term a middle-class family of the time – and also why Martha was the homemaker of the family.

I particularly liked the way the author wove into the story the many rules of traditional Jewish life, giving a clear picture of Bethany and its proximity to Jerusalem, and also the structure of the Temple, and its significance. In this way, Corinne Brixton shows how and why Jesus of Nazareth was such a revolutionary.

In the Gospels, the time-frame of Jesus’s ministry, covering three years, is often difficult to follow, but through Martha’s eyes that aspect becomes clearer. Her description of Jesus, and the effect he had on her family, is well-done. I just found myself wishing for a little more emotion on Martha’s part, particularly towards the end.

Having said that, this is a story in which Martha, her family and friends are rounded human beings – the kind of people we might know in our lives today. It’s a book well worth reading.

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

This book was chosen by a member of my book group – I’m pleased she did, because the ‘chick-lit’ cover would have made me pass it by. By contrast, the author tackled a serious subject – that of a severely disabled man wanting only to die – combining it with an achingly tender love story. Quite why the young female narrator has been chosen to be his carer is not revealed until the end – when I suddenly understood why the young man’s mother seemed so cold and unsympathetic. This love story was different – powerful, believable, funny at times and also intensely moving – it kept me reading even when my eyes were trying to close. The characters stayed with me well after the final conclusion. They were real. So very real.

The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore

From the moment I saw his face at the window, I – like Helen Dunmore’s Isabel – was under his spell. Here, in this short novel, you have romance – blighted, impossible, and utterly seductive. I couldn’t put it down – I read far into the night because the tale was so compelling. As a fellow-writer and Yorkshirewoman, even more did I appreciate the evocation of time and place – and most particularly Helen Dunmore’s Afterword, which said so much to me. Yes, I thought – I know why you wrote it – your motives have been mine! A beautiful book in every sense, capturing the sense of ‘being caught’ by ghosts. Highly recommended.

A Swarming of Bees – Teresa Tomlinson

Knowing Whitby well, and a little about the Abbess Hild and the Synod of Whitby, I looked forward to learning more. I was not disappointed, for Teresa Tomlinson writes well, painting a convincing Anglo-Saxon world for the reader to inhabit. To do that with ease and confidence requires much research in a wide field, and yet she has presented it lightly and beguilingly, drawing the reader along as we meet Fridgyth the herb-wife, the Abbess Hild, and the important figures who were present at the Synod.

I was charmed by both Hild and Fridgyth – one Christian, one Pagan, both strong women in what was surely a man’s world. And it was a delight for me to meet Cedd and Cuthbert, ‘obscure’ English saints known to me by name only before this book.

‘A Swarming of Bees’ is not a sentimental novel – it presents the realities of life in Anglo-Saxon times, complete with politics, plague and poisoning, as it must surely have been. The plot had enough twists and turns to please any detective-story addict – and the who, what and why of it led me on with page-turning eagerness. I was reminded of Brother Cadfael and found myself hoping that there will be other books about Fridgyth and Hild. And perhaps the little boy Billfrith, whose innocence and integrity brought a tear to my eye. If the mark of a good book is that the characters live on beyond the last page, then this is a good book.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Whitstable – by Stephen Volk

Atmospheric, evocative of time and place, Stephen Volk’s novella is compelling reading. Peter Cushing, star of so many horror films, finds himself experiencing real horror – the recent loss of his beloved wife has left him alone in a world with no meaning. Barely able to function, he walks along the beach at Whitstable, finding a measure of comfort in the bleak seascape. And then he is addressed by a young boy, who clearly believes that Cushing isVan Helsing, the vampire killer…

Cushing the actor tries to put the boy straight, but the boy is appealing for help – he has demons to vanquish, and believes Van Helsing will do it. The more he hears, the more Cushing is convinced the boy is in real-life danger – from his mother’s boyfriend, the ‘vampire’ who visits him at night. The boyfriend who, it seems, is abusing the child.

What to do? Cushing’s dilemma illustrates so much – the tendency of ordinary people to believe that film and TV stars are the characters they portray, and the trust of children. For how Cushing deals with it, and how this poignant tale pans out, you must read for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.