Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Evocative (tick), haunting (tick), with mystery dripping from every word and page (tick), a mute, outsider heroine who is also an orphan, a ruinous but beautiful house populated by ghouls only the orphan can see… this has to be a V.E. Schwab book, doesn’t it?

After reading and adoring The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, I was keen to see how Schwab would apply her formidable writing talents and wild inventiveness to a YA book. I wasn’t disappointed.

 When Olivia Prior is summoned by a strange letter to leave the orphanage in which she’s been abandoned for years, and join the family she never knew she had, she packs up her few belongings, including her dead mother’s precious but mostly incomprehensible journal, and sets out. When she first lays eyes on the mansion her family has dwelt in for years, Gallant, despite the hostile greeting of her cousin and awkwardness of the two staff that share the rambling place with him, she tries to settle in. But she is haunted quite literally, by the half-formed ghouls that inhabit the corners, shuffle in the shadows, and the evident mystery that enshrines not just the house and grounds, but the strange wall at the end of the garden and what lies behind it.

When Olivia crosses the threshold the wall represents, she finds herself in a darker, dangerous version of Gallant. She also learns the truth of her mother and father and her family’s legacy, one that beckon her towards the gloomiest of possibilities. Desperate to belong, to understand why she’s drawn to this other place, this other, grimmer version of the future she’s been offered, Olivia has to make a choice, one that is both deadly and final.

As always, Schwab’s writing is delicious. The prose, the way each and every scene is imagined, the characters created, is so sinisterly beautiful it makes you shiver. Even the journal, which is like another character in the tale, comes alive in unexpected ways.

Yet, the story has a sense of fraying around the edges, as if it’s just a part of a whole, suggesting more than what we’ve been given. I’m not sure if this means a sequel might be in the offing, where characters and motives can be (pardon the pun) fleshed out (it becomes clear if you read the book), but even if it’s not, I enjoyed the sense of incompleteness. It requires a leap of faith, of imagination, something I think readers and lovers of YA fantasy and Schwab’s work will happily take.

With Gallant, Schwab has woven an uncanny bit of magic.

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Book Review: The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. Gortner

The third book in the thrilling Spymaster Chronicles series, The Tudor Vendetta, has, so far, been the one I’ve most enjoyed and that’s saying something because the other two were terrific as well.

The Tudor Vendetta (The Spymaster Chronicles, #3)Opening when Elizabeth takes the throne in 1558, after her Catholic half-sister, “Bloody Mary” has died, it sees Brendan Prescott, our bastard Tudor and spy, summoned home to England.

No longer an ingénue in this game of thrones, Brendan has been trained by none other than Francis Walsingham, the man who would later rise to become Elizabeth’s secretary (but, at this stage of the novel functions more like a shady Q or rival agent from the Bond movies/novels – and that’s a good thing!).

Arriving back in England, Brendan not only has to try and find the perpetrator behind another ghastly plot against the queen, but also face his own demons and the mess he left his personal life in when he was forced to flee England at the end of the last novel.

Clearing up others’ strife is Brendan’s strong suite, not his own and, since he is no longer master of his own destiny, it’s difficult for him to reconcile with his beloved, Kate, so misunderstanding and mis-steps abound. When Elizabeth’s favourite lady-in-waiting, Lady Parry goes missing, Brendan is asked – no, ordered (like he has a choice!) – to find her.

Sent to a desolate, fog-bound mansion in the north of the country, armed with his own wits as well as a series of half-truths from his employer, and the deadly enmity of Sir Robert Dudley, Brendan tries hard to learn Lady Parry’s fate. Once again, however, as the plot thickens and intrigues deepen, Brendan finds not only his own life in jeopardy, but also that of the woman he has vowed he would die to protect.

Only this time, it looks as if Brendan’s vow is about to be seriously tested for it’s clear there’s a vendetta not only against him, but against Her Majesty as well.

Steeped in history, bringing the characters and era to wonderful life, Gortner has written a page-turner that’s part Gothic-mystery, part spy novel and romance as well as a race against time narrative that positively flies. I love the way Gortner weaves his fiction through known fact and takes advantage of gaps and omissions in historical sources and well-known figures’ lives to be inventive and create a superb read. An example is the way he manipulates Francis’ Walsingham’s story. Though Walsingham did return from self-imposed exile to England when Elizabeth was back on the throne, biographers don’t believe he was part of any “spy network” until much later. Certainly, he didn’t emerge has “head” of one until at least the very late 1570s, probably 1580 on. But I loved that Gortner positioned him as a (sinister) secondary player and as someone already well known to Cecil (which he was, but likely not in that sense) and versed in the arts of intelligencing.

Though this would make an excellent finale to a great trilogy, I am really hoping there are more Brendan Prescott books to follow, after all, its early days in Elizabeth’s reign, and so much more to happen – isn’t there, please C.W. Gortner?

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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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