The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

The Taxidermist's Daughter

Publication date: September 2015, Orion Books

Source: my own copy

Rating: 3*

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a difficult book to review without giving away too much detail particularly about the element that almost made me stop reading and because of that I was in two minds what rating to give it. The main thing that I didn’t like is all the detail about taxidermy – and there is a lot of detail. I found its gruesome application in this book absolutely sickening. But I still read on, such is the strength of Kate Mosse’s ghoulish storytelling.

Blurb (from the back cover):

1912. A Sussex churchyard. Villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will not survive the coming year are thought to walk. And in the shadows, a woman lies dead.

As the flood waters rise, Connie Gifford is marooned in a decaying house with her increasingly tormented father. He drinks to escape the past, but an accident has robbed her of her most significant childhood memories. Until the disturbance at the church awakens fragments of those vanished years . . .

Connie Gifford is the taxidermist’s daughter and she has grown up learning the art of taxidermy, taking over from her father who is a hopeless drunk. Her mother had died giving birth to her and there had been an accident when she was twelve (ten years earlier), which had almost completely wiped the first twelve years of her life from her mind.

The book began well, full of atmosphere, set in the Fishbourne Marshes and the tidal estuary in West Sussex (where Kate Mosse grew up), with Gothic overtones and hints of dark and terrible secrets and revenge. There is the mystery of the dead woman who has been garroted – who was she? What, or who haunts Connie’s father? What had happened to Connie when she was twelve, and who was the girl Connie vaguely remembers – older than her, with a love of life and a yellow ribbon in her hair? She experiences strange episodes where she feels herself falling out of time, spinning and flying through the air – episodes full of menace and threat.

But it dragged in the middle, with too many indistinct male characters and even though there is a map showing the layout of Fishbourne in 1912 I had difficulty in following the location of the action, nor could I work out how quickly they seemed to be able to travel between the various houses and Chichester.

It ends dramatically in death and destruction, with all the strands of the story coming together, one dark and stormy night. The waters rise, as the banks of the rivers, streams, the mill pond and the sluice gates break, flooding the whole area. Connie’s memories too come flooding back as the wind and rain join the thundering torrent of the flood water.

After a while though too much was foreshadowed and the story became rather predictable, which lessened the tension. Its gruesomeness however will stay with me for quite a while.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2017 and R.I.P. 2017

Six Degrees of Separation: Wild Swans to A Dark-Adapted Eye

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

a family memoir – the story of three generations of woman in Jung Chang’s family – her grandmother, mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Falling Leaves Return To Their RootsThe first book in my chain is also about a Chinese daughter. It’s Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter  by Adeline Yen Mah. She grew up during the Communist Revolution, was blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A moving story set during extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong.

The Buttonmaker's Daughter by [Allingham, Merryn]

My next book is about a fictional daughter: The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham, historical fiction set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 just before the start of the First World War. It covers just a few months, but those few months contain so much tension and heartbreak as the feud in the Summers family comes to a climax over the question of who Elizabeth Summer should marry and war on the continent becomes inevitable.

The Tiger in the Smoke (Albert Campion Mystery #14)

This leads on to a book by another author named Allingham. It’s The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham in which Jack Havoc is on the loose in post-war London, resulting in murder, mystery and mayhem. Meg’s marriage to self-made millionaire Geoffrey Levett should have been happy, until she began receiving photos of her late husband Martin, presumed dead in WWII. She calls on old friend Albert Campion to get to the bottom of things. For Campion, the case was cut and dry – until a brutal triple murder. I was immediately struck by the imagery – the fog pervades everything.

Our Mutual Friend

And the next book is also set in foggy London – Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens,

… the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking,  wheezing, and choking: inanimate London was a sooty spectre … (page 242)

This book has multiple plots, centred on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. It begins as a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, find a corpse in the Thames.

A Dark and Twisted Tide (Lacey Flint #4)

A body found in the Thames provides the next link in my chain to a modern crime fiction novel, A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton.  This is such a terrifying novel, particularly if like me, you have a fear of drowning. Police Constable Lacey Flint thinks she’s safe. Living on the river, she’s never been happier. Until she finds a body floating on the surface, as she wild-swims in the Thames.

This leads to the last book in my chain, another book with the word ‘dark‘ in the title:

A Dark-Adapted Eye

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine. This is psychological crime fiction, you know right from the beginning who the murderer is, but not why or how the murder was committed.

The narrator Faith has spent her life avoiding thinking, talking or reading about the events that led up to her aunt’s hanging for murder. She only develops a “dark-adapted eye” very slowly when asked by a crime writer for her memories.

For once I have read all the books in my chain and they are all books I thoroughly enjoyed, a variety of genres – autobiography, historical fiction, classics and crime fiction. It begins in China and travels to Sussex to London through time from the nineteenth century to the present day.

When I begin a chain I never know where it will end. What about you, where does yours go and where does it end?

Next month (October 7, 2017), the chain begins with a book that I haven’t read (or heard about) – Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

The Secret of Summerhayes by Merryn Allingham

In January I enjoyed reading The Buttonmaker’s  Daughter by Merryn Allingham and hoped there would be a sequel, so I was pleased when Midas Public relations on behalf of the publishers offered me a review copy of The Secret of Summerhayes.

The Secret of Summerhayes

Synopsis (publisher)

A war-torn summer

A house fallen into ruin

A family broken apart by scandal’¦

Summer 1944: Bombed out by the blitz, Bethany Merston takes up a post as companion to elderly Alice Summer, last remaining inhabitant of the dilapidated and crumbling Summerhayes estate. Now a shadow of its former glory; most of the rooms have been shut up, the garden is overgrown and the whole place feels as unwelcoming as the family themselves.

Struggling with the realities of war, Alice is plagued by anonymous letters and haunting visions of her old household. At first, Beth tries to convince her it’s all in her mind but soon starts to unravel the mysteries surrounding the aristocratic family’s past.

An evocative and captivating tale, The Secret of Summerhayes tells of dark secrets, almost-forgotten scandals and a household teetering on the edge of ruin.

My thoughts

I was hoping this would follow on from The Buttonmaker’s Daughter, which ended in 1914 at the beginning of World War One as I wanted to know what happened to the characters during the war, but The Secret of Summerhayes is set in Sussex in 1944 just before and during the D-Day landings in Normandy. So, forty years have gone by and only Alice Summers remains as one of the main characters. Alice’s daughter, Elizabeth had disappeared at the end of the first book and Alice is still hoping, forty years later, that she will return, especially as she has recently received anonymous letters that she thinks are from Elizabeth.

The two books are only loosely connected and I think that they can both be read independently. It’s hard to assess but maybe I would have enjoyed this second book more if I hadn’t read The Buttonmaker’s Daughter, as I kept hoping to find out more about what had happened to Elizabeth in the intervening years.

Summerhayes has changed, what is left of the gardens is overgrown and the house, except for an apartment for Alice, has been requisitioned by the Canadian army and an entire battalion had taken possession of the estate. Beth has been employed to look after Alice, now an old lady in her eighties, still sharp in her mind, although she is very disturbed by the anonymous letters and other unexplained accidents. The only other members of Alice’s family are Gilbert Fitzroy, her nephew and his young son, Ralph, who live at the neighbouring estate of Amberley, where Alice had lived until her marriage.

This is a slow-paced novel as Beth gradually learns a bit about the history of Summerhayes and in particular some of Elizabeth’s story and about the difficult relations between the Summer and Fitzroy families. I think  knowing what had happened in 1914 meant that some of mystery and tension just wasn’t there for me.  Beth becomes friendly with two of the Canadians, Eddie Rich and especially Jos Kerrigan, although she doesn’t want to get too close to Jos as the planned invasion of France draws nearer. Her relationship with Gilbert also complicates matters.

As in The Buttonmaker’s Daughter, the Italian garden plays a major role, but I think what eventually happened was rather predictable (I wonder though if I would think that if I hadn’t read the first book?) The characterisation is good and I liked the main characters very much. Although my knowledge of the events of D-Day is limited it seemed to me that the author has done her research and incorporated the facts seamlessly into the narrative. A list of sources and an author’s note would have been helpful.

  • Paperback: 350 pages
  • Publisher: HQ; First edition edition (27 July 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0008193851
  • ISBN-13: 978-0008193850
  • Source: review copy
  • My rating: 3.5*

My Friday Post: The Taxidermist’s Daughter

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City
Reader
 where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse ‘“ set in 1912 in a Sussex village where a grisly murder has taken place, this is part ghost story and part psychological thriller.

The Taxidermist's Daughter

Prologue

April 1912

Midnight

In the graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Mary, men gather in silence on the edge of the drowned marshes. Watching, waiting.

A good start I think, definitely full of foreboding.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

From Page 56:

He thought back to the painting on his easel in his studio, to the woman frozen lifeless in time, and realised it was the colour of her skin he’d got wrong. Too pink, no hollows and no shadows. No life in it.

Blurb:

The clock strikes twelve. Beneath the wind and the remorseless tolling of the bell, no one can hear the scream…

1912. A Sussex churchyard. Villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will not survive the coming year are thought to walk. And in the shadows, a woman lies dead.

As the flood waters rise, Connie Gifford is marooned in a decaying house with her increasingly tormented father. He drinks to escape the past, but an accident has robbed her of her most significant childhood memories. Until the disturbance at the church awakens fragments of those vanished years …

What do you think? Would you continue reading?

Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

Publication Date: June 29th from Sphere

Source: Review Copy

When twenty-two-year-old Olivia is coerced into marriage by the cruel Alistair Sheldon she leaves England for Egypt, his home and the land of her own childhood. Reluctant as she is to go with Alistair, it’s in her new home that she finds happiness in surprising places: she is reunited with her long-estranged sister, Clara, and falls ‘“ impossibly and illicitly ‘“ in love with her husband’s boarder, Captain Edward Bertram.

Then Clara is abducted from one of the busiest streets in the city. Olivia is told it’s thieves after ransom money, but she’s convinced there’s more to it. As she sets out to discover what’s happened to the sister she’s only just begun to know, she falls deeper into the shadowy underworld of Alexandria, putting her own life, and her chance at a future with Edward, the only man she’s ever loved, at risk. Because, determined as Olivia is to find Clara, there are others who will stop at nothing to conceal what’s become of her . . .

Beneath a Burning Sky is a novel of secrets, betrayal and, above all else, love. Set against the heat and intrigue of colonial Alexandria, this beautiful and heart-wrenching story will take your breath away.

My Thoughts:

I have mixed feelings about Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft. I liked the historical setting – Alexandria at the end of the 19th century when Egypt was under British rule. It is a complex book but it is not so much historical fiction but more of a romantic story. Overall I enjoyed it but thought the book was melodramatic and I was hoping for more historical content.

There is a large cast of characters and although the main character, Olivia is convincingly described, many of the other characters are rather flat stereotypes – Alistair the sadistic older husband, Millicent, the wicked grandmother, and Edward, the ‘good’ character, the handsome, romantic lover.

From the start of the novel there is a lot that is not explained and the action moves swiftly from location to location, switching between different sets of characters. Olivia, trapped in an appalling marriage, is reunited with her older sister Clara from whom she was separated at a very young age after the death of their parents. She has no memories of her parents or her early life in Egypt, but throughout the book has tantalising flashbacks. I would have liked to have discovered what had happened to her parents, but this was only hinted at. I also wondered why Millicent, the wicked grandmother, had hated Olivia’s mother so much. And I was not convinced about the plausibility of Olivia’s forced marriage to Alistair.

But this is not the main mystery – that concerns Clara, because shortly after Olivia arrives, Clara disappears. The police investigation is completely useless, mainly because the chief of police is corrupt. What follows is Olivia’s frantic search for Clara with multiple twists as various secrets and passions begin to surface.

An added complication is the story of Nailah, an Egyptian woman, and her family. This shows the contrast between the ruling British class and the local people and the conditions they experienced and I think Jenny Ashcroft’s portrayal is the best part of her book. But I floundered to understand Nailah’s role in the novel and it was only towards the end that that became clear.

It is easy reading, and I was keen to know what had happened to Clara and why she disappeared. But for me it was too long with too many episodes that I sometimes found confusing. However, other people enjoyed it more than I did -there are plenty of 5 and 4 star reviews both on Amazon and Goodreads.

With thanks to NetGalley and Sphere, the publisher for a review copy.

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Sphere (29 Jun. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0751565032
  • ISBN-13: 978-0751565034
  • My Rating: 3˜…

This is the second book for my 10 Books of Summer Challenge.

Past Encounters by Davina Blake

Past EncountersBlurb (Goodreads)

From the moment Rhoda Middleton opens one of her husband’s letters and finds it is from another woman, she is convinced he is having an affair. But when Rhoda tracks her down, she discovers the mysterious woman is not his lover after all, but the wife of his best friend, Archie Foster.

There is only one problem – Rhoda has never even heard of Archie Foster.

Devastated by this betrayal of trust, Rhoda tries to find out how and why her husband, Peter, has kept this friendship hidden for so long. Her search leads her back to 1945, but as she gradually uncovers Peter’s wartime secrets she must wrestle with painful memories of her own. For if they are ever to understand each other, Rhoda too must escape the ghosts of the past. Taking us on a journey from the atmospheric filming of Brief Encounter, to the extraordinary Great March of prisoners of war through snow-bound Germany, this is a novel of friendship, hope, and how in the end, it is the small things that enable love to survive.

I finished reading Past Encounters by Davina Blake a week ago, but the story is still fresh in my mind. In essence it is a story of a marriage that has drifted, so that Rhoda and Peter no longer talk to each other about the things that matter in their lives. And they both have secrets from each other – big secrets! Their inability to talk about their wartime experiences has isolated them both emotionally and psychologically.

Rhoda and Peter were engaged to be married as war broke out and the story follows their lives, alternating between the novel’s present day of 1955 and the war years of the 1940s. I loved the historical detail, in particular the details of Peter’s experiences as a prisoner of war. Davina Blake explains in the Acknowledgements that his experiences are fictional but based on real-life ordeals of prisoners of war taken from their memoirs. She has included a bibliography of further reading including these memoirs. The account of the prisoners’ march through Germany towards the end of the war is especially moving. I don’t think I have read any war-time stories quite like this one.

Equally as fascinating are Rhoda’s war-time experiences at home and her involvement with the filming of David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter at the refreshment room in the Carnforth Railway station where she was working. Davina Blake used to be a set and costume designer for theatre and BBC TV and was inspired to write Past Encounters as she lives near Carnforth station where she has often kept out of the cold in the refreshment room whilst waiting for a train.

Past Encounters is a thought provoking book about love, loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness, full of tension with well-drawn characters and a great sense of time and place, whether in Germany or Britain.

Davina Blake also writes historical fiction set in the 17th century under the pen name Deborah Swift.

  • Paperback, 442 pages
  • Published June 30th 2014 by CreateSpace
  • ISBN 1499568258 (ISBN13: 9781499568257)
  • My Rating: 4.5*

Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

AD 98: The bustling army base at Vindolanda lies on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world. In twenty years’ time, the Emperor Hadrian will build his famous wall, but for now defences are weak, as tribes rebel against Roman rule, and local druids preach the fiery destruction of the invaders.

Flavius Ferox is a Briton and a Roman centurion, given the task of keeping the peace on this wild frontier. But it will take more than just courage to survive life in Roman Britain…

I was quickly drawn into Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy, a novel set in northern frontier of Britain in 98 AD. It’s full of historical detail. Whilst some characters are based on real people about whom little is known apart from their names, most of the characters are fictional, including the main character, centurion Flavius Ferox.  He is based at a small fort called Syracuse (a fictional fort) near the garrison of Vindolanda (modern Chesterholm). Vindolanda is south of Hadrian’s Wall and predates its construction.

The story begins with the arrival of Vindex, the head of the native scouts and a minor son of a chieftain of the Brigantes tribe, who announces that there is a force of at least sixty barbarians in the area planning an attack on the road to Coria (modern day Corbridge). He needs Ferox’s help in hunting these marauders. This is just the start of a series of skirmishes, ambushes and full scale battles. There is at least one traitor in the Roman army informing the tribes of the army’s movements and Ferox is charged with finding out who it is.

I enjoyed reading Vindolanda and the insight it gives into the early period of British history. Adrian Goldsworthy’s Historical Note at the end of the book is excellent, explaining just what is fictional and what is fact in his novel. After Boudicca’s defeat in AD 60 there was little resistance to the Romans in southern Britain, but it was different in northern Britain where there were frequent outbursts of violence, raids and warfare.

There are sections in the Historical Note about the Roman army describing its structure and tactics, on the period before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, on tribes and druids. The most interesting section for me is the one on Vindolanda and the Writing Tablets found there. These are wooden tablets written in ink on thin sheets of wood. Hundreds of them have survived, most are mundane containing details of daily life, letters, accounts and give an idea about the food they ate and of the social life of the commanders and their families. Among them are details about the commanding officer around AD 98, the Prefect Flavius Cerialis and his wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, both of whom are major characters in the novel.

Vindolanda is a most enjoyable and informative book. I have just one criticism of it, which is purely personal because my eyes always glaze over during battle scenes (both in books and on screen) and in this book there is just too much detail about the battles for me interrupting the storyline, even though the scenes are graphic and fast-paced.

My thanks for the advance review copy I received courtesy of NetGalley and the publishers, Head of Zeus.

  • Hardcover
  • Expected publication: June 1st 2017 by Head of Zeus
  • ISBN13 9781784974688
  • Source: Review copy
  • My rating: 4*

The Author 

Adrian Goldsworthy has a doctorate from Oxford University. His first book, THE ROMAN ARMY AT WAR was recognised by John Keegan as an exceptionally impressive work, original in treatment and impressive in style. He has gone on to write several other books, including THE FALL OF THE WEST, CAESAR, IN THE NAME OF ROME, CANNAE and ROMAN WARFARE, which have sold more than a quarter of a million copies and been translated into more than a dozen languages. A full-time author, he regularly contributes to TV documentaries on Roman themes.

For more information see his website.