The Seeker by S G MacLean

The Seeker (Damian Seeker, #1)

Quercus/ 9 May 2016/Paperback/ 432 pages/ Library Book/ 4*

The Seeker by S G MacLean is the first book in her Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. This one is set in 1654. I’ve read the second and third books in the series and whilst I  was happy to read them as standalones now I’ve read the first one I think it would have better if I had read them in order.

Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime, running a virtual secret service. He is an enigmatic character, and very little is revealed about his background until very near the end of the book. In the later books, particularly in the third, Destroying Angel, I learnt a lot more about him.

Like the later books The Seeker transported me to another time and place. It was as though I was back in England in the 17th century, a place of unrest, teeming with spies, exiles and assassins. Agents, sometimes clergymen or merchants, working for Cromwell, infiltrated the Royalists abroad supporting the future Charles II; the universities too were useful with dons expert at deciphering coded messages, and there was a highly effective postal service intercepting mail to suspect individuals before being resealed and delivered. And in London, bookshops, taverns and coffee houses were places where conversations were overheard and reported to the authorities.

England in 1654 is a Republic in name only, Parliament had been dissolved in 1653 and Cromwell was appointed as Lord Protector – King in all but name, he lived in the former Palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court and his generals imposed even greater restrictions on the freedoms of the public.

It’s a complex novel, as Seeker investigates the murder of Lieutenant John Winter, one of Cromwell’s favoured officers in his New Model Army. He had found Elias Ellingworth, a radical lawyer and journalist, and an outspoken critic of Cromwell’s regime, standing over the bleeding body clutching a knife. But Seeker is not convinced of his guilt and thus the search for the real culprit begins. It takes in royalist plots, the slave trade, dodgy merchants’ deals and an attempt on Cromwell’s life. There are many characters and I had little idea who had killed Winter until right at the end, so I read eagerly trying to work it all out.

Having read three of  the series I particularly like Damian Seeker. He is definitely a man to have on your side, a man both respected and feared, and a man to trust. The books are based on solid historical research (S G Maclean has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen) bringing the atmosphere and tenor of the 1650s to life before my eyes. I particularly liked all the detail about Kent’s Coffee House. I thoroughly enjoyed it and wanting to know more about the period and Cromwell I’ve bought Antonia Fraser’s book, Cromwell: Our Chief of Men.

The Bear Pit, the fourth book in the Seeker series, is due out on 11 July this year.

The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker by Jenni Keer

Meet Lucy, aged 25, and Brenda, aged 79. Neighbours, and unlikely friends.

The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker

Avon Books UK|10 January 2019|Print length 309 pages|e-book Review copy|4*

The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker is a romantic novel with a touch of magic about it. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would as it’s a bit lighter than the type of book I usually prefer. But it has a feel-good factor and also gives a sympathetic and understanding picture of the problems of living with dementia. And as you can tell from the heading of my post this is a novel about friendship. It’s also about family relationships, love, caring for others and the importance of finding your own inner strength.

I like Lucy – she’s a cat lover and an excellent knitter and also a kind, warm-hearted and generous character. At the beginning she lacks self-confidence and finds it difficult to assert herself both with her overbearing mother and in her job at Tompkins Toy Workshop. Her friendship with Brenda helps her develop a sense of her own self worth. I also like Brenda, with her purple-streaked silvery hair, and a love of rainbow clothes; in a previous age she would probably have been called a ‘wise woman’ or even a ‘white witch’ with her herbal remedies, potions and lotions. But when she is diagnosed with dementia she realises that her life will inevitably change.

And more change is on the way when a new neighbour, George, moves into the house next door to Brenda and a scruffy black cat finds it way into the neighbourhood. It was not a huge surprise to me how things would turn out when Brenda gave Lucy a silver locket that when opened revealed words engraved in an ornate script. Brenda explains it’s a special locket that will boost Lucy’s confidence at work and with her mother and also help her find her true love.

Lucy’s confidence improves and her creative side begins to blossom. I loved all the details of Lucy’s job at Tompkins, where she works in the sales office and her friend, Jess who works in accounts. There’s plenty of office banter and gossip as well as disputes and misunderstandings. But things are about to change there too as a new general manager, Sam is appointed.

The characters are sympathetically drawn, the dialogue is realistic and there are plenty of amusing and moving scenes. I was thoroughly entertained and absorbed in the story, from the beginning, with the knitted figures of Poldark, Ed Sheeran, Harry Potter and Wolverine sitting on Lucy’s sofa, to the final scenes when Lucy realises that ‘true love is the real magic.’

This is Jenni Keer’s debut novel and I hope to read more of her books in the future.

About Jenni Keer (from her website):

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‘After gaining a history degree, Jenni Keer embarked on an interesting career in contract flooring before settling in the middle of the Suffolk countryside with her antique-restorer husband and their four teenage boys. She has valiantly attempted to master the ancient art of housework, but it remains a mystery, so is more usually found at her keyboard writing fun romantic comedies with #blindcat Seymour by her side. When not up to her elbows in family life, she can be found busy with her Edwardian marquetry business, planning her next fancy dress party or practising her formation dance moves.’

My thanks to the publishers, Avon Books UK for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Evidence Against You by Gillian McAllister

A brilliant psychological thriller

The Evidence Against You

Penguin Michael Joseph|18 April 2019|432 pages|Review copy|5*

I was delighted to receive a review copy of  The Evidence Against You by Gillian McAllister from the publishers.  And as soon as I began reading it I knew I was going to love it and I just didn’t want to stop reading until I’d finished it. It’s the third book I’ve read by her (her earlier books I’ve read are Everything But the Truth and No Further Questions). 

Gabe (Gabriel) English has been released from prison on parole, having served seventeen years for the murder of his wife, Alexandra. Izzy, his daughter, now 36, is dreading his release. Following the death of her mother she had lived with her maternal grandparents until she married Nick, a police analyst and had carried on running her mother’s restaurant on the Isle of Wight.

Her childhood had been a happy one until the murder. The judge said it was an open and shut case and he had sentenced Gabe to life imprisonment. But nobody really knew exactly what had happened the night Alexandra was killed – she simply went missing and then her body was found – she’d been strangled. Izzy had thought that her father could never have harmed anybody, let alone her mother. Now, he swears that he is innocent and wants to tell his side of it. He asks her to consider the evidence for herself. But is he really guilty – can she trust her father?

This is a brilliant book that had me guessing all the way through. I was hoping for Izzy’s sake that Gabe was telling the truth even though the facts didn’t seem to back him up. Prison had changed him – he is angry, bitter and resentful – and Izzy is full of doubts about him and about her parents’ relationship. She questions her memories – what had seemed straight forward and certain to her before, now appears in a different light. But Paul, her father’s friend believes him, telling Izzy that some of the evidence was circumstantial, so she gives him the chance to explain, especially when Paul tells her that there was a witness who could have given Gabe an alibi if the police had found him.

It’s a character-driven story of conflict, of broken lives, of the destruction of families, and of devastating trauma as secrets from the past come to the surface; a story full of twists and turns that left me hoping so much that Gabe was innocent and wondering if he hadn’t killed Alexandra who had and why.

As well as the mystery it’s also about the catastrophic effects of being accused of a crime and being imprisoned long enough to become institutionalised, particularly on release from prison. Gabe finds simple things like shopping difficult and as well as being angry and bitter he is anxious and fearful, struggling with making decisions without the rules and discipline of being in prison.

It’s a tense, tightly plotted book and completely compelling reading.  The ending did take me by surprise, although looking back I can see that it was lightly foreshadowed and I just hadn’t noticed. It is without doubt one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. 

My thanks to the publishers, Penguin UK Michael Joseph for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Lost Letter from Morocco by Adrienne Chinn

The Lost Letter From Morocco

Avon Books UK|7 March 2019|Print length 416 pages|e-book Review copy|2*

Blurb:

Morocco, 1984. High in the Atlas Mountains, Hanane’s love for Irishman Gus is forbidden. Forced to flee her home with the man she loves, Hanane is certain she’s running towards her destiny. But she has made a decision that will haunt her family for years to come.

London, 2009. When Addy discovers a mysterious letter in her late father’s belongings, she journeys to Morocco in search of answers. But instead, she finds secrets – and is quickly pulled into a world that she doesn’t understand.

And when history starts to repeat itself, it seems her journey might just change the person she is forever…

My thoughts:

Reading the blurb I thought The Lost Letter from Morocco by Adrienne Chinn sounded an interesting book set in a country I know very little about. The setting in Morocco is well described, although in places it comes across as more of a travel and cultural guide than a novel and I liked that much more than the rest of the book. So, I’m sad to say that this book did not live up to my expectations and it was a disappointment.

Set in two time frames the narrative moves between Addy’s and Haldane’s stories. In 2009 Addy is recovering from cancer and conscious of how short life can be she has decided to sell her flat, leave Nigel, her cheating boyfriend, and her job in a photography shop to work on a travel book. Her father had recently died and in his belongings she finds an unfinished letter addressed to her from him, together with several photos of Morocco, including a photo of him with an arm around a young woman. On the back of the photo her father had written ‘Zitoune waterfalls, Morocco, August 1984 – with Hanane.‘ Haldane is clearly pregnant. Seeing her father’s photos of Morocco she decides that is the place to go to try to find out what had happened to Haldane and at the same time to work on her travel book.

I was keen to find out what Addy would discover. However, what followed is a rambling and repetitive story about Addy and Omar, a tour guide, and their relationship. It was slowed down with too much detail and I began to lose interest and at several points I almost abandoned the book. Omar is a an annoying character, bossy and possessive with Addy, who for a 40 year old woman is incredibly naive, even given that she is recovering from cancer and from her broken relationship with Nigel. I was much more interested in Gus and Haldane’s story and was frustrated by having to wade through the details of Addy’s and Omar’s relationship as she discovered what had happened in 1984. The twist at the end made me even more disappointed that the story had not focused on Haldane’s story.

My thanks to the publishers, Avon Books UK for my review copy via NetGalley.

My First Review: My Goodness by Joe Queenan

I was wondering about doing a Top Ten Tuesday post tomorrow but the topic coming up on 23 April : The First Ten Books I Reviewed, interested me more then tomorrow’s topicI remembered that the very first one was I wrote was several years before I began this blog – it was on Amazon UK in August 2001. When I checked Amazon this morning I couldn’t find my review, but I had saved it in my Word documents and I thought I’d post it today. It is a review of Joe Queenan’s My Goodness.

Entertaining and thought provoking

my goodness queenan

‘This book is sub-titled ‘A cynic’s short-lived search for sainthood‘. I hadn’t heard of Joe Queenan before, but he describes himself as ‘an acerbic, mean-spirited observer of the human condition’ and gives many examples from his earlier books and newspaper articles to illustrate this. In his search for sainthood he set out to recognise what a horrible man he had been all his life and decided to transform himself into the very best human being he could be. He defines goodness as the conscious act of using all or most of one’s intellectual and emotional resources to better both the human and the planetary condition and differentiates ‘goodness’ from ‘niceness’.

As he is American some of the references were unknown to me and in particular his lists of apologies for his irresponsible journalism were repetitive and tedious. However, I did like his accounts of practising random kindness and senseless acts of beauty and found them amusing and ironic.

The main thrust of the book illustrates his distinction between actions that he describes as being motivated by a genuine love of humanity and good deeds carried out to salve one’s conscience or for public relations purposes. He does this relentlessly by poking fun at so-called do-gooders, environmentalists, and how to shop to help promote good causes. One of the funniest things is his account of his efforts to save water by taking his own sheets and towels with him to use in hotels, leaving a note for the maid that the bed linen would not need to be changed because he’d slept on the floor and the towels wouldn’t need washing because he’d brought his own. He then realised that the maid might not understand English and would end up stripping the bed and tossing the towels in the laundry anyway.

His account of how to talk to your Guardian Angel is perhaps the funniest part of the book. Read it to find out what God’s answer is on how to make investments more socially responsible.’

The Family Secret by Tracy Buchanan

The Family Secret

Avon Books UK|10 January 2019|Print length 400 pages|e-book Review copy|3*

The Family Secret by Tracy Buchanan is the first of her books that I’ve read. Although I liked it, I didn’t love it, but maybe that’s because it is romantic fiction, a genre that I don’t read very often.

It’s an emotional family drama set in two timelines. The narrative switches between the two periods – one in 2009 written in the third person present tense and the other in 1989 – 1996 in the first person past tense, so the timelines are easily distinguishable. The two storylines eventually merge. However, it begins with a prologue in which an unnamed woman drowns in a frozen lake, watched by an unnamed man. As I read on I was wondering who they were and what had led up to that scene and how it fitted into the main part of the book.

There are plenty of secrets and several twists in the story. In 2009, Amber Caulfield comes across a young girl, stumbling along the beach at Winterton Chine on the south coast of England, not wearing a coat or shoes and unable to remember who she is, or how she got there. Amber who has her own problems decides to help her remember who she is and to reunite her with her family.

The second storyline, beginning in 1989 is full of secrets too. Gwyneth is a wildlife documentary filmmaker who gets lost as she’s driving in the Scottish Highlands. She comes across a lodge overlooking a loch. It’s Christmas Eve, freezing cold and snowing, so she decides to ask for help, but seeing a ptarmigan gets out her camera to film the bird and steps onto the frozen loch, the ice cracks and she falls into the water. Fortunately she is rescued by Dylan McClusky and taken in by his family. She is made welcome but it soon becomes apparent that this is a dysfunctional family with a number of problems and secrets. Gwyneth too has a troubled background and a big secret that she keeps well hidden.

 It’s a novel about love, loss and guilt, but it’s a bit too predictable for my liking, with rather too many coincidences that weren’t very convincing. But it’s an easy and enjoyable book to read and it kept my interest to the endI liked the vivid descriptions of the landscape and wildlife both in the Scottish Highlands and in Iceland in the depths of winter, bringing the settings to life.

My thanks to the publishers, Avon Books UK for my review copy via NetGalley.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

London, 1667 – a royal scandal that could change the face of England forever…

The King's Evil

HarperCollins|4 April 2019|464 pages|Hardback |Review copy|5*

This is the third book in Andrew Taylor’s series following James Marwood and Cat (Catherine) Lovett. I loved the first two – The Ashes of London (set in 1666) and The Fire Court (set in 1667, eight months after the Great Fire of London), so I was delighted when Felicity Denham at HarperCollins asked me if I’d like a proof copy of The King’s Evil to review. It is not necessary to read the earlier books as I think they all work well as standalones, but I think it helps if you do.

The King’s Evil carries on from where The Fire Court ended. Seven years after the restoration of the monarchy it’s still a time of political and social change. Whilst Charles II still had immense power as the King a new middle class, both professional and administrative, was evolving. James Marwood is a government agent in Whitehall, working as a clerk for William Chiffinch, one of the commissioners of the Board of Red Cloth. Chiffinch was also Keeper of the King’s Private Closet and Page of the Backstairs, an important position as he controlled private access to the King. In addition Marwood also works under Joseph Williamson, the Undersecretary to the Secretary of State for the South, one of Charles’s most powerful ministers.

Charles had reinstated the ceremony of ‘touching for the King’s Evil’ as a demonstration of his divine right to rule – a ceremony in which the monarch touched those people suffering from scrofula, a disease, now known as  tuberculosis, that caused the swelling of the bones and lymphatic glands in the neck (the book cover illustrates the ceremony). It was believed that the King’s touch cured the disease.

The novel begins as Marwood is in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall watching the ceremony. Chiffinch had told him to attend on the orders of the King to meet Lady Quincy and do whatever she commanded. Lady Quincy, accompanied by a small African child, her footboy suffering from scrofula, tells Marwood to meet her outside the church near the Tower of London. She also warns him that Edward Alderley, her step-son, is out for revenge on Cat Lovett because of what she had done to him. (This refers to events in The Fire Court). 

In order to keep her identity secret Cat, whose father had been one of the Regicides, is going by the name of Jane Hakesby. She had been working for Simon Hakesby, a surveyor and architect, on a garden pavilion project in the grounds of Clarendon House. Then Alderley is found dead in the well in the garden pavilion.

Marwood is asked to look into the circumstances of Alderley’s death, under the King’s authority. He decides to keep his connection with Cat to himself, whilst he tries to find out where she has gone and who was responsible for Adderley’s death. Was it an accident, was it suicide, or was it murder? After Chiffinch received an anonymous letter naming Cat as the murdererhe sent officers to arrest her, but she had disappeared. So this was taken as a confession of her guilt. Marwood was afraid that this could implicate him too if it became known that he had told her that Alderley knew her whereabouts.

In addition, Lord Clarendon is convinced that Alderley was involved in a conspiracy against him and also suspects that someone in his household is involved in the plot. He is out of favour with Charles, and had recently been removed from the office of Lord Chancellor.  But he’s still potentially politically powerful as his daughter is married to Charles’s brother, James, the Duke of York. His grandchildren, the Princesses Mary and Anne, are the next heirs in the line of succession if Charles remained childless.

Marwood tries to find Cat, and also escorts Lady Quincy to Cambridge on a secret mission. Eventually his investigation into Alderley’s death leads him to discover who is behind the plot against Clarendon, and also to uncover a potential royal scandal in which Lady Quincy and the Duke of Buckingham, one of Charles’s favourites who had supplanted Clarendon, play important roles. 

I loved the characterisation and all the details of the setting, bringing to life scenes at the royal court as well as in the refugee camps that housed the homeless as the work of rebuilding London continued. Andrew Taylor is a supreme storyteller, combining fact and fiction – his novels are full of historical details that slot seamlessly into his stories. The King’s Evil is historical fiction at its best, full of suspense and tension, an intricate and tightly plotted murder mystery, enhanced by the intrigue of a royal scandal. 

I loved it.

Many thanks to the publishers, HarperCollins for my review copy.