Mrs England by Stacey Hall

After reading so many positive reviews of Mrs England, a new historical fiction by Stacey Hall, I simply had to read it. The title is bold and strangely evocative and the cover is gorgeous too, but it’s what lies between that is utterly compelling.

A slow burn of a book, it draws you in with beautiful prose and marvellously but economically crafted characters (this is high praise – Hall allows you to see and even understand a person with a deft few words). The titular character from which the book earns its title doesn’t appear for quite a while and, indeed, the story is told from the first-person point of view of Norland nurse, Ruby May. Quiet, efficient, in some ways Mary Poppins-like, Ruby is a woman who takes her work and the charges in her care very seriously. She knows her place and responsibilities. The Norland Institute motto – Fortitude in Adversity – is etched on her conscience. 

When circumstances send Ruby to Yorkshire to care for the four children of the wealthy England family, who are part of a greater dynasty who have made their riches from wool and milling, she meets the challenges of a new family, new charges and new area with aplomb. The master of the house, Mr England, is nothing like she expected, nor is his quiet, disinterested wife, the lovely but very fragile Mrs England.

As the weeks go by and Ruby settles in, the children responding to her genuine care and ability to nurture and bring out the best, she begins to sense that all is not as it seems in this strange but beguiling family. As letters go missing, information is misunderstood or misconstrued and mysterious goings-on begin to occur, Ruby starts to wonder if she has misjudged not only the family, but her own abilities. After all, Ruby has her own secrets, ones that if they should be revealed will not only threaten her livelihood, but that of those she loves.

This is one of those books that lingers in a strange and quite wondrous way. The telling is superb and even though in some ways not much seems to happen, it is like an ice-berg with nine-tenths occurring below the surface. You cannot stop turning the pages, wanting to know, to find out more. The story-telling is first-rate, each scene building on the last, persuading you to keep going so you can see the complete picture… and yet, it remains somehow elusive. And then, just when you think you have it all sorted and neatly wrapped up, Hall delivers one of the best OMG moments on the final page. It overturns everything and, if you hadn’t already gleaned why the book carries the title it does, this will cement it for you.

A really clever, completely fabulous read. 

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The Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier

Like so many others, I was thrilled when the new Juliet Marillier book, The Harp of Kings, landed on my Kindle. Instead of diving straight into it, which I was so tempted to do, I held out and made reading it my reward for completing work that had to be done. Finally, a few days ago, the task I’d set myself was finished and I was at last able to return to the world Juliet so lovingly and beautifully created in the Blackthorn and Grimm series. Even so, this book also works as a standalone as it shifts into the next generation of players in this fabulously crafted realm of fey folk, druids, kings, warriors, bards, healers, wise women and so much more.

Told from three different points of view, Liobhan and Brocc’s, the children of Blackthorn and Grimm who are both superb singers and composers of music and training to be Swan Island warriors, and Dau, a chieftain’s son also training to be a warrior and with a dark and troubled past that he keeps firmly locked away, the reader is given insights into each character’s fears and strengths. We’re also given a greater depth of understanding about what makes these interesting young people tick and the choices they’ve made and are yet to have thrust upon them.

When the three of them are chosen for a specific task – to find and restore the precious Harp of Kings so that a new ruler might ascend to the leadership of a distant kingdom – and given fresh identities to both aid them in its completion and protect them, they are forced to work together and subsume parts of their characters in ways they’d never foreseen. While Liobhan and Brocc have a strong and deep sibling bond, Dau was raised in a different environment before being thrust into the competitive and dangerous world of the Swan Island warriors. Isolated by choice but also by his new identity, he is forced to see himself and the others in ways he never conceived.

When they finally reach the kingdom of Briefne and meet the man who would be king, and understand there are otherworldy forces at work as well as plots and plans a plenty, and not only from the court, but the mysterious druid figures who are responsible for the harp and the ancient ceremony to crown the king, the Swan Island warriors realise much more is at stake than first thought. But when one of them is asked to make a great sacrifice, the entire task, the future of a kingdom and the lives of those asked to guarantee it, are also put at risk…

The chapters alternate between the three main viewpoints and, as the story unspools, the reader invests heavily in each character and their particular grasp of what’s happening. Brave, bold, flawed, strong and kind, the three main characters are wonderfully and richly drawn as are the worlds they inhabit – both past and present. The way Juliet weaves the folklore of the region, introduces concepts surrounding nature, inclusivity, as well as politics and even love is masterful and transports the reader to another time and place – one this reader was so reluctant to leave.

This is another sublime story from Juliet Marillier. My only disappointment is that I had to finish the book and thus tear myself away from this wonderful world. Actually, there’s another regret – now I also have to wait what will seem a very long time for the next instalment in what is already a marvellous new series. Oh well, back to work so I can earn another sojourn of the imagination in a marvellous Marillier tale.

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The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths

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The Stone Circle is the 11th book in Elly Griffiths fabulous series featuring archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway and terse DI Nelson. Like its predecessors, it’s packed with mystery, complex interpersonal relationships and murder.

In this novel, a body is found buried in a recently unearthed stone circle. While the circle is of ancient origins the body definitely isn’t. Enter both Ruth and Nelson whose expertise is required to firstly age the body and then discover who the culprit is. When a cold case is reopened, it’s not long before suspects come to the fore. But when the most prominent of these is murdered, Nelson and his team have to work harder than ever before someone else is hurt – or worse. 

As usual, Griffiths excels in developing her characters – the regulars and even those introduced because of the central plot. Ruth, Kate, Nelson and his family’s dynamic becomes even more tangled and emotionally fraught as revelations and decisions regarding the future are made and then disregarded. I think Griffiths does real justice to the notion that it’s possible to love two people at once – two good people who don’t deserve to be hurt. While Nelson is torn between the two women in his life and his very different families, there’s no doubting his love for them or the fact he’s a good person who can make bad decisions (like other characters in the books). I also like that the women are represented as strong and proud, not passive vessels to Nelson’s wishes or desires. 

The ending to this novel feels a little rushed – not in terms of the plot, which is nicely played out, but in relation to the main recurring characters. I wish the editors had allowed Griffiths the chance to flesh it out just a little more. Nonetheless, I really look forward to seeing where Ruth, Nelson and the rest of the characters based around King’s Lynn (which really does see more than its fair share of buried bodies, surely?) takes us! 

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Past Caring by Robert Goddard

Past Caring

When disgraced former history teacher, Martin Radford, is invited to holiday with an old friend in Madeira who now runs an English language newspaper, it is an offer too good to refuse. So is another offer given by a wealthy recluse on the island, Leo Sellick, who also happens to fund the newspaper Martin’s friend edits. Leo wants to utilize Martin’s skills as an historian to solve a puzzle that has bothered him ever since he found a memoir in the house he bought and which belonged to a former English diplomat. The diplomat, Edwin Stafford was, once upon a time, a rising star in the British parliament, but suddenly, at the height of his career, not only resigns but the woman he loves and his engaged to marry spurns him without explanation.


Alone, unhappy, Edwin takes the post of governor of Madeira and, later, writes his memoir which explores his life up until his change of circumstance in an effort to understand it. Only, he is no wiser for having written and dies not knowing why his love turned against him as did his former employers. When Leo finds the memoir years later, he’s intrigued and hires Martin to discover exactly what happened. Traveling back to England, what Martin doesn’t expect when he begins his search for the truth is the trail of destruction, deceit and betrayal he finds nor the lengths to which people will go, even now, decades after events, to cover them up. Soon Martin finds his race to find the truth is a race to stay alive…

This is the second Robert Goddard book I have read (the first is Into the Blue which I will try and review as well) and it is riveting. Goddard has such skill – not only in the plotting of these dense and fascinating novels, but in the way he develops character. His use of language so evocative. He has the ability to put you in the moment, a place, invoke a mood, and inspire a visceral reaction. You are able to see and hear the characters as they converse or move across the landscape of his story. I am so happy to have discovered this writer and that there are many more of his books for me to enjoy.

If you like a well-written, totally plausible, slow burn but never, ever dull mystery, then these are the books for you. This was the first one he wrote, it’s the second I read and it won’t be the last. 

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The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves, Vera Stanhope # 5

The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves sees the intrepid Inspector Vera Stanhope thrust into the world of crime writers, aspiring writers, academics and publishers, when a writing retreat produces not just some fine prose, but a dead body as well. It’s also the first in the series I’ve read that I haven’t (yet) seen as an episode in the TV series. As a consequence, I wasn’t struggling to remember what happened (even while trying to stop my mind working that way and simply enjoy the read!) and could just sit back and relish the ride. And what a great ride it is.

Unpopular, but with sway in the book industry, when one of the principal draw cards for the writing retreat is found stabbed in what appears to be staged killing and Vera’s neighbour, Joanna, looks like the culprit, Vera has no choice but to come to her aid. When another body turns up, again in a fashion reminiscent of a fictive crime-scene, Vera and her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, fear the killer is not only unhinged, but hasn’t finished his or her murderous spree.

Every one of the attendees at the writing retreat is a suspect, whether staff, attendee or guest. Each person is hiding a secret shame or just a secret that renders them potentially liable for the crimes. Only Vera isn’t satisfied with what she eventually uncovers through interviews. It’s only when she begins to delve deeper that she discovers not only a series of dark histories, but people will long, unforgiving memories as well.

Slightly different to the other Vera books, The Glass Room harkens back to more traditional crime narratives in the Agatha Christie vein, where a house party of eccentrics in an old, forbidding mansion, with the wild coast as a backdrop, are at once both suspects and victims. More than any other book to date, this one allows the reader access to Joe and Vera’s thought processes and with Joe particularly, we begin to see sides to his character (and his relationship with his boss) that haven’t yet been explored. It also relies on detecting of the gum-shoe variety, where the police have to actually move away from their computers and venture to new places and homes to gather information and find clues.

Another great read from Cleeves and am already looking forward to my next adventure with Vera and co.

 

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