The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Lady of the ravens

Harper Collins|9 January 2020|400 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|5*

Publishers’ Description:

Elizabeth of York, her life already tainted by dishonour and tragedy, now queen to the first Tudor king, Henry the VII.

Joan Vaux, servant of the court, straining against marriage and motherhood and privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen. Like the ravens, Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.

Through Joan’s eyes, The Lady of the Ravens inhabits the squalid streets of Tudor London, the imposing walls of its most fearsome fortress and the glamorous court of a kingdom in crisis.

My thoughts:

The Lady of the Ravens opens in 1485 just weeks after Henry Tudor had taken the throne to become King Henry VII of England and Lord of Ireland. This is historical fiction about the early years of Henry’s reign as seen through the eyes of Joan Vaux, a lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York, whose marriage in 1486 to Henry united the Houses of Lancaster and York after the end of the Wars of the Roses.

Henry comes across as a competent king, which is really all I knew of his reign before reading this book. I’ve read Joanna Hickson’s earlier book about him, The Tudor Crown, which is about his early life and how he gained the English throne. Joan Vaux also features in a small way in this book. In The Lady of the Ravens he is shown to be determined to hold on to his throne, dealing with several Yorkists’ claims to the throne, in particular those of Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, Elizabeth’s cousin, and Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, who was the second son of Edward IV, Elizabeth’s brother, one of the so-called Princes in the Tower. It is also about his family life – his marriage to Elizabeth,,the births of their children (three of them died in childhood), and his concern for his subjects – for example both he and Elizabeth were present at Joan’s wedding and we also see him enjoying dancing at court.

Joan Vaux is also a real historical character – her mother, Katherine was French and had been a lady-in-waiting to the former queen Margaret of Anjou (the wife of Henry VI).. Joan had served Elizabeth as a woman of her bedchamber before Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry and, after her own marriage to Sir Richard Guildford, as a lady-in-waiting. And before that she had been brought up in the household of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother. Joan became a good friend and confidante of Elizabeth, even after her marriage and the birth of her son Henry, known as Hal, who also became a good friend to the young Prince Henry.

The fictional element is in the story of Joan’s fascination for and care of the ravens of the Tower of London firmly believing in the legend that should the ravens leave the Tower for good then the crown will fall and ruin will return to the nation. I came to really like Joan, a warm and caring woman. Joanna Hickson goes into detail describing the traumatic birth of her son and the lives of ordinary people outside the royal court. It is a rich and vibrant novel, full of action and political unrest.

I particularly like the glimpses we see of the ill-fated Prince Arthur and his bride, Katherine of Aragon. And I was especially delighted by the portrait of Prince Henry (who later became Henry VIII) as a young charismatic child of nearly three. His father was  furious about the imposters’ claims to the throne and had decided the best response was to invest his younger son as the trueborn and genuine Duke of York. Little Henry, with his bright red Tudor hair, was mounted on a gleaming black warhorse strapped into a specially made high-backed jousting saddle and escorted by his great-uncles, the Yeoman of the Guard and the King’s Archers as they processed around the streets of London to Westminster.  He was in his element, waving to the crowd who cheered and threw flowers as he went by.

This novel is beautifully written, grounded in its historical context, full of colour and life. I loved all the descriptions of the various settings, especially the Tower of London, and the ravens. My grasp of English history in this period was very hazy and I learned a lot reading this book, especially as the characters came to life on the pages, but most of all I loved the portrayal of Joan Vaux, Lady Guildford. And I see from the Author’s Note at the end of the book that there is more to come about her, including a mystery, her second marriage and her close relationship with Katherine of Aragon and the early years of Henry VIII’s reign. I’m looking forward to reading that!

The Author:

Joanna Hickson became fascinated with history when she studied Shakespeare’s history plays at school. However, having taken a degree in Politics and English she took up a career in broadcast journalism with the BBC, presenting and producing news, current affairs and arts programmes on both television and radio. Now she writes full time. The Lady of the Ravens is her sixth novel. 

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Searching for Sylvie Lee

John Murray|17 October 2019|341 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|4*

Description extracted from the publishers’ blurb:

It begins with a mystery. Sylvie, the beautiful, brilliant, successful older daughter of the Lee family, flies to the Netherlands for one final visit with her dying grandmother – and then vanishes.

Amy, the sheltered baby of the Lee family, is too young to remember a time when her parents were newly immigrated and too poor to keep Sylvie. Seven years older, Sylvie was raised by a distant relative in a faraway, foreign place, and didn’t rejoin her family in America until age nine. Timid and shy, Amy has always looked up to her sister, the fierce and fearless protector who showered her with unconditional love.

But what happened to Sylvie? Amy and her parents are distraught and desperate for answers. Sylvie has always looked out for them. Now, it’s Amy’s turn to help. 

My thoughts:

I loved Searching For Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok.  I enjoyed reading its beautiful descriptive language and the mystery of what had happened to Sylvie. I think the characterisation is very good, the three main characters, Sylvie, her younger sister Amy and their mother Ma are each clearly recognisable by the way they speak. The story alternates between the two sisters and their mother’s perspectives, as the details of what happened to Sylvie are revealed.

Sylvie had left her home in the USA to visit her dying grandmother in the Netherlands where she had lived until she was nine. After the funeral she was supposed to return home, but she never arrived. Amy and her parents are distraught and she flies to the Netherlands to find out what had happened to her.

This is a mystery full of suspense and it is also a story about family relationships, about secrets and the barriers that language can raise – Amy’s dominant language is English, whereas her mother and father, Chinese immigrants living in America, have just a basic grasp of English and still speak Chinese. Sylvie also speaks Dutch as until the age of nine she had lived with the Tan family, Chinese immigrants living in the Netherlands. It’s not just the language but also the different cultures and the racism they experienced that separated the characters.

I had realised quite early on what the family secret was and what had happened to Sylvie, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book. My only criticism is that in the latter part of the book, particularly as Sylvie describes her visit to Venice I thought that the book veered offline. Although the episode is essential to the plot the detailed description took away the momentum of the mystery and my attention wandered a bit. But the ending made up for that!

The Author:

I would like to read more of Jean Kwok’s books. She is trilingual, fluent in Dutch, Chinese, and English, and studied Latin for seven years. Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and completed an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She currently lives in the Netherlands. Her work has been published in twenty countries and taught in universities, colleges, and high schools across the world.  

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Woman Who Wanted More by Vicky Zimmerman

Woman who wanted more

Zaffre|30 May 2019|448 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|3*

Publishers’ blurb:

Two lonely women.

An unlikely friendship.

And one big life lesson: never be ashamed to ask for more . . .

After a major life upheaval on the eve of her 40th birthday, a reluctant Kate Parker finds herself volunteering at Lauderdale House for Exceptional Ladies. There she meets 97-year-old Cecily Finn. Cecily’s tongue is as sharp as her mind but she has lost her spark, simply resigning herself to the Imminent End.

Having no patience with Kate’s plight, Cecily prescribes her a self-help book with a difference – it’s a 1957 cookery manual, featuring menus for anything life can throw at ‘the easily dismayed’. Will Kate find a menu to help her recover from her broken heart? If Kate moves forward, might Cecily too?

The cookbook holds the secrets of Cecily’s own remarkable past, and the story of the love of her life. It will certainly teach Kate a thing or two.

So begins an unlikely friendship between two lonely and stubborn souls – one at the end of her life, one stuck in the middle – who come to show each other that food is for feasting, life is for living and the way to a man’s heart is . . . irrelevant!

My thoughts:

The Woman Who Wanted More by Vicky Zimmerman begins very slowly and I soon felt this wasn’t a book for me. For a start it’s romantic fiction written in the present tense. Then there is Kate, who is nearly 40, single but preparing to move in with her boyfriend, Nick. But on holiday he tells her that he doesn’t want the commitment and she ends up back home living with her mother. Despite her friends’ warnings that he is not worth the bother, she still gives him chance after chance of starting again. And she goes on and on and on about him.

I breathed a sigh of relief when Cecily meets Kate! Cecily is 97 living in Lauderdale House for Exceptional Ladies, a grumpy old lady with intense brown eyes and a sharp tongue. When she hears Kate’s story about her relationship with Nick she tells her in no uncertain terms to give him short shrift and to find a man who isn’t too emotionally stunted to love her.

I was thinking of not finishing this book until Cecily came on the scene. After getting off to a bad start, with several cross words, Kate and Cecily get to know each other better and Cecily’s cookery book gives her some helpful advice mixed in with recipes. And when I got to the end of the book and read the Author’s Note I understood why Cecily’s part of the story appeals to me more – the character was inspired by a real person, Vicky Zimmerman’s grandmother. The book is a mix of fact and fiction – and for me Cecily’s story had the ring of truth. I’m glad I read on to the end.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

Fell Murder: a Lancashire Mystery by E C R Lorac (British Library Crime Classics)

‘…this crime is conditioned by the place. To understand the one you’ve got to study the other.’

Fell Murder

Poisoned Pen Press|6 January 2020|223 pages|e-book |Review copy|4.5*

Snow on the Cobbles by Maggie Sullivan

 

snow on the cobbles

Harper Collins|14 November 2019|344 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|3*

I’ve been watching Coronation Street for years so when I saw Snow on the Cobbles, a Coronation Street story on NetGalley described as ‘perfect for Coronation Street fans’ I requested it. It’s the third book in the Coronation Street series. It’s set in 1945 as the Second World War is coming to an end with some of the familiar Street characters – the main one being a young Hilda Ogden, with minor roles for others such as Elsie Tanner, Albert Tatlock, Ena Sharples and the young Ken Barlow. But there are also other characters who have never appeared in the TV soap.  

The story centres around Hilda Ogden and new characters, Lizzie Doyle, her mother and her brothers, who have recently moved into No. 9 (currently  home to Tyrone Dobbs, his daughter Ruby DobbsFiz Stape and her daughter Hope Stape).  Their new neighbour, Elsie Tanner, tells them that the house is said to have bad luck and they are worried about strange noises from the loft. Lizzie makes friends with Hilda when they both start working at the Pride of Weatherfield, a pub that had recently reopened in competition with the Rovers Return, where Annie Walker is in sole charge whilst her husband Jack is away at the war.

The story is of their daily lives, struggling to make ends meet and their joy and celebrations as the war comes to an end and the men return from the war. Lizzie, however, has a secret that threatens her relationship with Steve, the barman at the Rovers Return. And the new manager at the Pride of Weatherfield is involved in some very dodgy dealings.

I read it quickly and enjoyed it as I liked the setting and the historical details about the end of the war. I also liked the biography of Jean Alexander, who played the role of Hilda Ogden and I think Maggie Sullivan has captured the essence of Hilda in this book.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics)

Here is another collection of short stories from the Golden Age of Murder edited by Martin Edwards: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories.

Christmas Card Crime

Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library|1 October 2019|Print length 240 pages|e-book |Review copy|4*

There are eleven stories all set during the Christmas season in this collection and an introduction by Martin Edwards. In it he points out the differences between a short story and a novel. It’s not just the length, but it is also the fact that in a short story there is little space to develop the characters in depth or for lengthy descriptions, so ‘every word must be made to earn its keep‘. He has also prefaced each story with a biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me.

The mysteries range in date of publication from 1909 up to 1965. I’ve read stories by some of the authors before, such as Baroness Orczy, John Dixon Carr, Ronald Knox, E C R Lorac, John Bude and Julian Symons, but others were new to me. The ones I enjoyed the most are:

The Motive  Ronald Knox. This story first appeared in The London Illustrated News in November 1937 and is about an attempted murder in a smart hotel on the English Riviera, by a character named ‘Westmacott’ (a pen name used by Agatha Christie).. On Christmas Day after a party the guests decided to play a version of ‘blind man’s buff’ in the swimming pool, which didn’t go as planned.

Another version of ‘blind man’s buff‘, this time called ‘blind man’s bluff‘, is played in the next story also with disastrous consequences.

Blind Man’s Hood by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson. This first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Sketch in 1937 and is a story inspired by the unsolved Peasonhall murder case of 1902. It is a strange tale about a young couple arriving to spend Christmas with friends, only to find the house empty – except that is for a young woman carrying a white bag, who tells them about a game of ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ that went very wrong, years ago. It’s a variation on a locked room mystery, with a touch of the supernatural.

Crime at Lark Cottage by John Bingham – this first appeared in the 1954 Christmas Number of The London Illustrated News. Bingham was the 7th Earl of Clanmorris, a journalist who was recruited into MI5, where he worked with David Cornwell, who later wrote spy novels under the name of John Le Carré. This story and the next are my two favourites in the book. It is the story of an escaped convict and an isolated country cottage occupied by a young woman and her little daughter one snowy Christmas. Very atmospheric and tense with an unexpected ending. I’d like to read more of John Bingham’s work.

‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons – this first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in January 1965). Longer than the other stories in this collection it is the tale of Mr Rossiter Payne, a meticulous bookseller who plans a perfect robbery – to steal the jewels, that had once belonged to the Russian royal family, on display in a London department store at Christmas. But Mr Payne had made an uncharacteristic error …

Overall, I enjoyed reading this collection, with a mix of excellent short stories and some that I thought  were too short and had disappointing or predictable endings.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

Two Crime Fiction Titles

I’m behind with reviewing the books I’ve read, so here are short reviews of two crime fiction novels I’ve read recently:

Broken ground

Broken Ground by Val McDermid, the 5th Karen Pirie book. 4*

This begins in 1944 when two men bury a couple of wooden crates in a peat bog in Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands. Seventy four years later Alice and her husband Will are on a treasure hunt, following a map Alice’s grandfather had left her. But they are astonished when discover the body of a man in the peat bog together with one of the crates. Perfectly preserved it appeared at first that this was a case for Karen’s friend Dr River Wilde, the forensic anthropologist. But the fact that the man was wearing a pair of Nikes, dating the body back to the 1990s ruled out that idea, which made it a case for Karen Pirie and her Historic Cases Unit.

This is a very readable book, moving swiftly along, that I really enjoyed. Karen has to cope with the unwelcome addition to her team of DS Gerry Mcartney. The ACC, Ann Markle and Karen just don’t get on and Karen suspects Markle is using McCartney to keep tabs on her and find a way to close the Unit down. It is a complicated case as attention switches back to events in 1944, the 1990s and the present day, although the actual murder mystery isn’t that difficult to work out.

Not Dead EnoughNot Dead Enough by Peter James, the 3rd Detective Superintendent Roy Grace book. 4*

It’s set in Brighton and begins with the murder of Katie Bishop. The immediate suspect is her husband Brian, but it appears that he couldn’t be the murderer unless he could have been in two places at once. Then Sophie Harrington is killed. She had been having an affair with Brian thus intensifying the police investigation into his movements and background.

Grace’s wife, Sandy, had disappeared nine years earlier and he is still wondering what happened to her even though he is now involved with Cleo Morey, the Chief Mortician and he takes a quick trip over to Munich when his friends tell him they had seen her there.

This is a re-read. I first read it in January 2014 and it was only when I reached the part about Sandy that I realised I had read it before. I think that this is because the two murders are particularly gruesome and either I’d scan read them before or had blocked them out of my mind. Apart from the gruesome murders I enjoyed this book and intend to carry on reading the Roy Grace books.