Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift

30832002The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift is one of two books (the other is The Gilded Lily, but read this one first) that basically deal with a similar set of characters during the same period in British history, 1660 and the Restoration. Instead of being set in London or focussing on the royal family, aristocrats, and their various scandals (as so many wonderful novels set in this period are wont to do), this novel tells the story of Alice Ibbetson, a talented painter and the grieving wife of Thomas Ibbetson. Mourning the death of her younger sister a year earlier, Alice is finding it difficult to embrace life and even tolerate the demands of her rather dullard husband. Finding solace in her painting, she has become obsessed with not simply flowers, but capturing the beauty of various plants for posterity. When a neighbour, the rather strange but also fascinating Quaker, Richard Wheeler, shows Alice the location of a rare and very beautiful orchid called The Lady’s Slipper, which also happened to be her sister’s favourite flower, Alice knows she can’t merely paint it, but must preserve it for the future.

When the flower disappears and a pair of lady’s slippers go missing as well and then a local healer, Margaret Poulter is found murdered, suspicion is rife and there are those with their own motives keen to lay blame for both the flower’s disappearance and the death at Alice’s door. When Alice’s maid, the selfish and rather lazy, Ella, who’s been having an affair with Thomas, presents evidence linking Alice to the crimes, not even the truth and justice of Quakers can save her.

Using the beauty of nature as a theme to explore the ugliness of which human nature is capable, the title is a clever nod to two very different variations of “lady’s slippers” both of which set off a chian of catastrophic events. As the plot twists and turns and characters are tested and mostly found wanting, this book explores loyalty, faith, greed and loss as well as what lengths people will go to protect their power – even before each other.

Dark at times, what I particularly liked about it is that no character is clearly “evil” or “good”. It’s a strength of Swift’s writing that all the characters, even the heroine, Alice, are not above questionable behaviour that has the reader recoiling at times, even if we understand their motives.

Swift also recreates the period beautifully – from clothes, to social ranks, food, faith and politics.

A terrific read for lovers of historical fiction and a fine book.

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Hotel Du Barry by Lesley Truffle

27429443Urged to read Hotel Du Barry by Lesley Truffle by a dear friend, she began telling me a little about the book in order to persuade me. She had me sold when she described the opening scene (this isn’t a spoiler, either, because it’s part of the blurb) where a baby is found hanging on the clothesline of a chic hotel in London during the 1930s. What’s not to love about such a gloriously unusual beginning?

Just who the chortling baby’s mother might be is uncertain – never mind her father. Enchanted by the splendid little girl, the hotel staff determine to keep her. When the owner of the place, Daniel Du Barry, who is grieving the loss of his lover, discovers the child, he too falls under her spell.

Naming her Cat, after his favourite bottle of champagne, Daniel is captivated. Unfortunately his new wife, Eddie, sister of his lover is not, but she’s forced to tolerate this child everyone else adores – the clever little girl with violet eyes and the propensity to fall asleep at the most inopportune moments – or is it only in Eddie’s presence? Over the years, Cat grows into a charming and talented young woman, as comfortable with the luxury of the penthouse as she is with the maids and various staff below stairs. Raised on a diet of classic and modern art, music, great (and sometimes inappropriate for her age) literature, as well as gossip, the sexual high-jinks, drug-taking and alcoholism of her step-mother and dirty habits of too many hotel guests, Cat isn’t at all damaged by what she bears witness to – she has her insatiable curiosity piqued again and again and her zest for life and people grows.

When, however, tragedy strikes her rather charmed existence, Cat decides to get to the bottom of not only the mystery surrounding the death of loved ones, but to also find her mother. Drawing on the help of her all too eager hotel family, together they plumb the depths and scale the heights of the hotel and its associates searching for answers… answers that not only take her beyond English shores, but prove dangerous to find…

This is a delicious romp filled with such memorable characters, witty, snippy asides that had me laughing out loud, heartfelt scenes that make your soul ache, and characters you want to sit back and swill gin with. The tone is marvellous – light and yet not at the expense of beautiful writing or deeper meaning. It’s so very different to the kind of books I’ve been reading lately and utterly refreshing. What I also found really stimulating was the fact that not all threads are neatly tied together at the end of the story. Truffle (what a great name) allows the reader to make their own minds up about some of the characters’ pasts and, indeed, their futures beyond the pages of the book and I simply loved that.

This is a sizzler of a read that I cannot recommend highly enough for those who love to be emerged in a past they can smell, see, feel and taste, like a good mystery packed to the brim with three-dimensional characters with personalities you love and loathe, or for those who simply enjoy great writing.

Unexpected and simply delightful.

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Book Review: Dancing on Knives by Kate Forsyth

Whatever I was expecting when I picked up this novel, Dancing on Knives, it was not what Kate Forsyth delivered. Having said that, the story of Sara Sanchez, a young womaDancing on Knivesn tormented by loss, longing, and a hugely dysfunctional family dominated by her egotistical, passionate and bullying artist father, Augusto Sanchez, is a study in how the mind and body can become a far worse prison than four walls ever can. This is a novel about betrayal, choices, trust, anger, grief and healing, one that lingers long after completion.

Suffering from panic attacks and an anxiety disorder (that’s never named but heart-wrenchingly described), Sara tries to keep herself and what remains of her family together – her difficult father, surly older brother, the twins, and her resentful step-sister. Unable to leave the property that defines her life past and present, when her father disappears one stormy night, Sara is forced to confront not only her crippling fears, but the family history and secrets that have formed her, the present that defines her and the future that awaits her if she chooses.

The tale of Sara and the Sanchez family slowly unfolds, often told through vignettes of Sara’s childhood and recollections of the Sanchez family before she was born and the Spanish traditions her grandmother and father tried to keep alive, before being interrupted by events in the present as the search for her father and the wreckage his presence has left are revealed. Food, stories and rituals play a big role in this narrative, becoming anchoring points and it’s through these that Sara often escapes her bleak reality – these and the Tarot cards she sometimes reads as way of containing and preparing for what might happen next.

The mystery of Augusto and his fate, while it sets the action, mostly plays second fiddle to the mystery of Sara’s state of mind and her gradual, painful healing.

This is not a happy tale, but it is haunting and like all Forsyth’s works, beautifully written. For those anticipating another Bitter Greens, this book isn’t it and the metaphor of the little mermaid is used powerfully but in ways that “speak” (excuse the pun) to the underlying meanings of silence – it’s constraints, power and its punishing consequences. After finishing this, I was sad for days, angry at the forces within and without that can shape who we become and how our choices can be framed and limited by those others make, and though it left me frustrated and strangely dissatisfied, the beauty and truth of this tale is undeniable.

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Book Review: Currawong Manor by Josephine Pennicott

In this atmospheric and historically detailed tale set in the Blue Mountains, Josephine Pennicott tells the story of Elizabeth Thorrington, a renown photographer, who’s inviCurrawong Manorted to the home her famous grandfather, the artist, Rupert Partridge, Currawong Manor, in order to photograph the house and some of the people that used to live there for a new book that’s been commissioned. This book is set to celebrate the life and talents of Rupert. But Currawong Manor is a place of secrets and regrets, of lies and deceptions, of long-held suspicions and is the place where a great tragedy happened many years earlier. A tragedy for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been provided… until perhaps now…

Knowing her family’s tortured history, Elizabeth is a rather sad and quite prickly young woman, who has her own skeletons in the closet. Introduced to the current residents as well as one of her grandfather’s muses, the still vibrant and sassy Ginger, Elizabeth is keen to commence the project for which she’s been commissioned and delighted to be working with one of her grandfather’s “Flowers” as the young women were known back then.

Back in the 1940s, Ginger was one of three young women who lived with her grandfather, his wife, Doris and their lovely young daughter Shalimar, and posed for his many paintings. Whispered about, the source of much gossip and speculation as well as desire, regarded as a “fallen woman”, Ginger has risen above her origins as a “Surrey Hill rat” to become celebrated in her own right. Aware of the debt she owes Rupert and his legacy, grateful for the chance he once gave her, Ginger has agreed to be interviewed and photographed, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it.

Elizabeth also meets the former musician and journalist, Nick, who has made a living writing “true crime” stories and who has been hired to write the prose that will accompany Elizabeth’s photographs for the new book.

Curious about what happened back in the 1940s when so many lives were cruelly cut short, and determined to uncover the truth, Elizabeth quickly realises that Ginger and another resident at the Manor, Dolly, know more than they are prepared to tell.

Determined to get the heart of the matter, to clear her grandfather’s reputation and find out what really happened all those years ago, Elizabeth not only has to confront her family’s past, but the toll that years of secrets and dissembling has taken upon her and those she loves most.

Dark, the story unfolds languidly, moving the reader backwards in time before returning to the present, weaving a tapestry of mood and affect. Different points of view dominate, but mainly Elizabeth and Ginger’s and it’s through these two women that the reader, like those who study the challenging works of art and photographs that pepper the narrative, telling their own story, comes to understand the truth. We have to look closely, delve deeper, read the imagery and the meanings that accrue around people, their actions and the objects they hold dear in order to uncover the secrets. Just as Rupert used symbols to expose the brutality and callousness of war and the human wreckage it leaves behind, so too, Pennicott uses the architecture of the house and the magnificent grounds with its abundant flora as well as the haunting and dangerous Owlbone Woods (which is a character in itself), to hint at what’s to come, at what lies below the surface.

The settings are richly and beautifully drawn. You can smell the flowers, feel the cold press of the snow or the dewy warmth of a humid summer. Likewise, as the mystery unravels, you can feel the whispers of the past and the weight of guilt that hangs upon those who carry their secrets, determined to protect themselves and others. Like the birds that occasionally darken the eaves of the house, doom walks through the pages and reading Currawong Manor becomes a visceral experience – at once exciting and dramatic.

A Gothic treat for lovers of mystery, family dramas, history and suspense.

 

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