The Westminster Poisoner by Susanna Gregory

10577975This is the fourth Thomas Chaloner book I’ve read featuring the much put upon and impoverished former roundhead spy who now works for the ungrateful (and disloyal – to him) Earl of Clarendon. This time, a poisoner is at work killing the King’s clerks in brazen circumstances. When the Earl asks both Chaloner and a new man he’s appointed to investigate these crimes and the case of the king’s missing Bernini sculpture, setting them against each other, and the Earl’s own secretaries Bulteel and Haddon take bets on whether Chaloner or the new man will solve the cases, Thomas understands his job is at stake. But, it’s not only his employ that’s under threat. As usual, on the mean streets of Restoration London, it’s his life as well. With his only friend, his former boss, Thurloe, about to leave the city and his old friend, the former Puritan and now brothel madame, Temperance, fast losing patience with him and a new relationship with one of the queen’s ladies to foster, Thomas has his work cut out and many dangers to avoid – never mind worrying about where his next penny will come from.

But as the body count mounts and he’s no closer to solving the case, Thomas understands that his priorities and friendships may have to change…

Gregory has such a rich and detailed understanding of the period, of the complexities of the political, social and sexual machinations of the court, it’s sometimes hard to keep up as a cast of hundreds appear and disappear and the plot thickens until it almost congeals. Only, it doesn’t. Immersing the reader in the murky settings and even murkier plans of those who seek power at all costs, Gregory’s novels are a great way to rediscover history and cleave to a marvellous but also very human and flawed character, Thomas Chaloner.

Once again, I found part of the novel a bit slow and occasionally had to stop and remind myself who is who, but never did I lose my respect and appreciation for Gregory’s lovely writing and ability to recreate history and weave historical fact (detailed facts too and people) with fiction. It’s not surprising, considering Susanna Gregory is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Cruwys a Cambridge academic. She was also once a coroner’s officer, so her eye for detail and for being able to relate it in an authentic way is outstanding.

I do think this series is getting better and better and cannot wait to read the next instalment.

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The Gilded Lily by Deborah Swift

30338626This is the companion book to Deborah Swift’s, The Lady’s Slipper and can be read after it or as a stand-alone. Set in a wonderfully realised Restoration London in 1661, it tells the story of two sisters, Ella and Sadie Appleby, who flee their small village after the suspicious death of Ella’s employer and go to London to seek work, a new life and as a way of ridding themselves of the property they’ve stolen from Ella’s dead employee. After all, what good would it serve him?

But life in London is cruel and unforgiving. While the girls find employment, their mistress is a tyrant, and Sadie’s facial deformity makes her both stand out a target for pitiless jests and attention. Unhappy with their lot, when Ella is invited by the wealthy business dealer, Jay Whitgift to front a new venture he’s devised, it seems her luck has changed… But Whitgift is not the gentleman Ella thinks he is. Worse, her dead employee’s twin is determined to bring his brother’s killer or killers to justice, even if it means following the two young sisters to London and tracking them down himself. Such a thing shouldn’t be too hard, not when one has a red birthmark across her face…

Bringing history and cluttered, dirty London to life, Swift has written a wonderful story of loyalty, love, sisterhood, family, treachery and hope. The historical details are seamlessly woven into the sisters’ story and the setting is realistically and marvellously drawn. Carefully plotted, filled with rich characters that have their flaws and strengths, this book is hard to put down. It’s a treat for those who love historical fiction or simply a damn fine story.

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The Spice Merchant’s Wife by Charlotte Betts

Don’t be fooled by the title. While The Spice Merchant’s Wife by Charlotte Betts is indeed about a wife, and she happens to be married to a merchant, spices play a minor role in the novel. Instead, the story of Katherine Finche, a woman who marries a wealthy merchant for both convenience and to escape the cruelty of her Aunt Mercy, is a tale of regret, loss, determination, deception, exploitation, lust and love.

Set during Restoration London, spices may be absent in the sense I know I was anticipating, but that doesn’t mean the novel lacks spice – on the contrary, in the figure of Kate, it abounds.

18655964Opening on the eve of the Great Fire of London in 1666, anyone who knows their history understands the excitement felt by the Finche family as a long-awaited cargo and investment comes into port and is unloaded into the warehouses, will be short-lived. As their lives and livelihood go up in smoke, we follow the misfortune that besets Kate and her rather dullard, moody and frankly unpleasant husband, Robert and his parents.

What unfolds as Kate and Robert struggle to reclaim some of what they lost – most of all, their dignity, as their former social standing has also turned to ash, is a wonderful and at times, tragic account of not only what happened to the hundred thousand or so people and businesses displaced by the devastation, but the rebuilding of London after the fire and the opportunities for fortunes to be made and lost and usually at others’ expense.

Just as Kate and Robert look set to endure a lifetime of repaying debt and thus misery, a prosperous man enters their life, promising them riches, position and his patronage. Falling under his spell, Robert grasps the opportunity, but Kate is not so enchanted and regards their new benefactor with grave suspicion. When some of the projects he’s responsible for begin to deteriorate and collapse, and those who would accuse him of shoddy practices conveniently turn up dead or disappear, Kate can no longer look away.

Along with the wicked people come the good. This is also the story about a blind and brilliant perfumier, Gabriel Harte, and the kindness and generosity of his family as well as an exploration of his talents. Kate, and thus the reader, comes to “see” London and people through Gabriel’s other senses – above all, his sense of smell.

When fate brings Kate into the Harte’s sphere, she finds herself seeing things in a new and unexpected way. But when the man who once promised to help her husband now sets his sights upon destroying her, Kate has no choice but to either prove her suspicions and seek justive for those this man has ruined and killed or run for her life…

At first, I wasn’t certain I was going to enjoy this book. Yes, the title was misleading and, while I loathed Robert to the point I could barely read a scene he was in, there were times I didn’t like Kate much. Her responses to situations had too modern a tone or didn’t fit the character being created for the reader. I also found the villain almost vaudevillian. Then, I read in the Author’s Note that he was actually based on a real person! Albeit, I am sure, coloured more brightly for narrative purposes. But, as the story continued, I grew to understand Kate and like her and the moral ambiguity some of her choices create. I also began to realise that this was a novel about wives – the choices they make, what they endured and enjoyed; how contingent they were on men for everything, including their happiness.

Like the book, Kate is not perfect, but she still makes a great foil for exploring post-fire London and two very different occupations: building and perfume. The descriptions of the scents are really lovely.

Betts recreates the period effortlessly and certainly, her descriptions of the fire and the losses of the people are well-portrayed, especially through the lens of the once-arrogant Finches.

Overall, I really enjoyed this and recommend it for lovers of history, romance, and suspense.

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The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman

imgres-2When I first started reading this long book, The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman, I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it. By the time I reached the 20% mark on my Kindle, I didn’t want it to end – so captivating was the story. The reason for my initial reaction was a combination of the style of writing (which is rich if not dense in detail) and the heroine, a Puritan named Penitence Hurd who, frankly, I couldn’t warm to at all. Not at first. Then she gripped my heart and didn’t let go…

Forced to leave her home in a fledgling colony in America and travel to London to find her Aunt, a woman whose existence her devout family denies, Penitence arrives on English soil the same day as the plague. Discovering her Aunt lives in St-Giles-in-the-Fields, a den of inequity and poverty outside the city walls, Penitence manages to find her house only to learn not only is her Aunt likely dead, but her abode is actually a whore house. The woman in charge, a formidable and harsh woman known has “her Ladyship” takes in the shocked and confused Penitence, protecting her from the usual work of the women under her roof. Much to the other women’s chagrin, Pen is given other duties, and proceeds to cast dire judgements and disapproval on all who come her way as she desperately tries to reconcile her Puritan beliefs with this shocking, disgusting and inappropriate place she has come to.

When the plague attacks in force, Pen finds not only her beliefs challenged, but also her faith in humanity restored and broken over and over. Humbled by what she witnesses, devastated by the losses the disease wreaks, Pen finds allies and enemies in unlikely places. But this is just the beginning of the incredible transformation this young woman must undergo if she is to survive, not just illness, disease, the unwanted attention of lecherous men, and the injustices heaped upon women, but Restoration London.

King-charles-ii-king-charles-ii-25010100-333-400The days of the Republic are over; Cromwell is dead and Charles II is back on the throne and determined not to waste a day or a woman if he can help it. Theatre is alive and well, women are on stage, and the arts generally are flourishing. The seeking of pleasure is the goal of the classes that can and the envy of those who cannot. Religious dissent bubbles away and gossip and politics are never far from anyone’s minds or lips. If it’s not true, then it will be made up and, as she rises up the ranks of London Society, Pen finds how hurtful and damaging this type of talk and the scandal in its wake can be.

I don’t want to say too much more about this book for fear of spoiling it or not doing it justice. It is stunning. An epic in every sense, it slowly and carefully introduces the reader to this uptight and devout young woman and with flashbacks to her past in the Americas, allows us to come to get to know, accept and finally love Pen and who she becomes. Valiant, loyal, smart and with a difficulty she overcomes with help, Pen is a heroine for any age.

Against a backdrop of Charles II’s reign and beyond; the plague, Great Fire, death of a king, terrible war, religious discord and the rise of another king, his fall and the final reclamation of the throne by William and Mary, we follow Pen’s life and that of those who enter her orbit throughout one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods of English history.

Norman, once a journalist and renown for her historical accuracy has done an amazing job of weaving fiction and fact. Attributing actions and words to her (based on real-life) characters that were actually said by them, recreating known events but also humanising them, this book is so hard to put down. Not only that, but the character of Pen is based on a real life figure as well (I won’t reveal), whose early years are unknown, allowing Norman to colour them in fantastical and vivid detail. Pen is brought to life in spectacular and heart-breaking ways, as is the city she finds herself in and the other places she dwells in as well.

As always with this type of female-centred historical fiction, it’s hard for modern readers to stomach what happened to women in these eras. The notion of women being objects and chattels are lived and shocking experiences for which the women had no recourse. Norman does a terrific job of relaying not only how the women coped with this, but exploring those who were complicit in their subordination and those who learned ways to rise above it. She also portrays how men were also confined but empowered by the rigid gender roles and how both sexes suffered (and some thrived) as a consequence. Norman also offers an unforgiving portrait of class differences as well as prejudices.

tumblr_lv08b8NVwL1qbohcko1_500But it’s not all suffering and there are some fabulous moments in this book that allow your heart to soar, while others make your pulse quicken with anxiety. Likewise, the language I at first found a bit intense (mainly because Pen has a habit of quoting the Bible so much) became one of the joys of the book. Norman’s turn of phrase, her ability to capture a sensation, a thought, a feeling as well as physical descriptions are just magical and poetical.

There are parts that are slow, but these are the times when Norman allows us breathing space and the opportunity to get to know not just the fascinating and flawed people populating her novel and the period – from kings to playwrights to printers and farmers and soldiers, but the places as well; her descriptions are magnificent and place you firmly in the moment.

So, far from casting the book aside, I immersed myself in it. Read concurrently with Antonia Fraser’s biography of King Charles II, I can attest to the level of research (as well as other books I am reading on the period) and am in awe of Norman’s ability to weave fact and fiction so seamlessly and entertainingly.

I confess, like so many others, I fell in love with the unlikely heroine with the debilitating stutter. She captured my heart, as has Norman’s writing. I cannot wait to explore her other books, including those she wrote under a different pen name. That she died in 2011 was a great loss to literature and lovers of history and historical fiction. I hope someone penned her a deserving epitaph and I am so grateful we continue to gain pleasure from her wonderful imagination and research.

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Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s by Liza Picard

565274Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Liza Picard’s Elizabethan London, I knew I was in for a real treat when I discovered her book, Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s. I wasn’t disappointed. Using sources from the era (in particular, extracts from Samuel Pepys diary) as well as almanacs, government papers, letters, tourists of the times’ impressions, Picard paints a wonderful picture of one of the most eminent cities in the world from 1660-1670, London.

Emerging out of the chaos of the last decade and a half, which saw one king (Charles I) beheaded and an Interregnum government headed by The Protector, Oliver Cromwell established, before the heir to the throne, the apparently, pleasure-loving but also diplomatic and lusty Charles II was restored, Picard immerses the reader in life during this last stage – a stage that involved the casting off of parliamentary rule and Puritan shackles and return to monarchy and all that entailed.

We enter stately homes, shops, ships as well as wander the streets and learn everything from what the rich, “middling” and poor ate (or didn’t), their superstitions, sexual habits, toileting, washing, and even how they cleaned their teeth. We discover the sicknesses they succumbed to (not forgetting the Plague that struck in 1665), the dreadful remedies offered; what they bought, wore, how they addressed each other and even their secret desires. Religion played a huge role in this period of conflict and xenophobia, and Picard doesn’t hold back on addressing this either and how and where people prayed and the kinds of communities they established.

The insights she gives are so beautifully written and, at times, imagined, and she has this wonderful quirky way of sometimes commenting on habits and idiosyncrasies of individuals or, indeed, the general populace, that had me bursting out laughing.

I will read this again in hardback (when the copy I ordered arrives) as I read this on Kindle and marked up so many passages, I need to be able to enjoy them again, but this time in print where I can access her extensive footnotes as well.

Highly recommended for lovers of history or even those who enjoy entertaining and really informative reads that keep an eye on the reader and the time they are writing from as well.

Can’t wait to read more by this wonderful lawyer-cum-historian.

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