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.

First Chapter First Paragraph: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Every Tuesday First Chapter, First Paragraph/Intros is hosted by Vicky of I’d Rather Be at the Beach sharing the first paragraph or two of a book she’s reading or plans to read soon.

This week I’m featuring Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. This is one of those books that I’ve heard about but never got round to looking for it to read. A couple of weeks ago Fictionophile included it in her Wednesday Word post about books with the word ‘bitter‘ in the title.  It caught my eye, and I decided to look for the book in my local library.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

The Panama Hotel

(1986)

Old Henry Lee stood transfixed by all the commotion at the Panama Hotel. What had started as a crowd of curious onlookers eyeballing a television news crew had now swollen to a polite mob of shoppers, tourists, and a few punk-looking kids, all wondering what the big deal was. In the middle of the crowd stood Henry, shopping bags hanging at his side. He felt as if he were waking from a dream. A dream he’d once had as a little boy.

Blurb (Amazon)

1986, The Panama Hotel The old Seattle landmark has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made a startling discovery in the basement: personal belongings stored away by Japanese families sent to interment camps during the Second World War. Among the fascinated crowd gathering outside the hotel, stands Henry Lee, and, as the owner unfurls a distinctive parasol, he is flooded by memories of his childhood. He wonders if by some miracle, in amongst the boxes of dusty treasures, lies a link to the Okabe family, and the girl he lost his young heart to, so many years ago.

~~~

Having wondered about reading this book for a while now, I’m hoping I’ll like it.

If you’ve read it I’d love to know what you thought of it. If you haven’t, does it tempt you too?

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

Printer's Devil Court

A short while ago I quoted the opening paragraph and an extract from page 56 of this novella in one of My Friday posts. I was hoping Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill would live up to the promise of its blurb of a chilling ghost story.

Blurb (Amazon)

A chilling ghost story by the author of The Woman in Black.

One murky November evening after a satisfying meal in their Fleet Street lodgings, a conversation between four medical students takes a curious turn and Hugh is initiated into a dark secret. In the cellar of their narrow lodgings in Printer’s Devil Court and a little used mortuary in a subterranean annex of the hospital, they have begun to interfere with death itself, in shadowy experiments beyond the realms of medical ethics. They call on Hugh to witness an event both extraordinary and terrifying.

Years later, Hugh has occasion to return to his student digs and the familiar surroundings resurrect peculiar and unpleasant memories of these unnatural events, the true horror of which only slowly becomes apparent.

Sadly, I don’t think it does live up to the blurb. I think it’s well written, but I didn’t find it chilling, although it does have a great sense of melancholy. Susan Hill is very good at setting the scene, although at times I was under the impression that this was set in Victorian times, especially as the illustrations give it a Dickensian feel. But in this scene when Hugh returns to London forty years later this is what he records :

… this corner of London had changed a good deal. Fleet Street no longer housed the hot-metal presses and many of the old alleys and courts had long gone, most of them bombed to smithereens by the Blitz. (page 68)

So, it’s not set in Victorian times, but in the 20th century.

Hugh is a junior doctor and shares his lodgings with three other medical students, Walter, Rafe and James and the story begins one evening as Walter asks what they all think about the story of raising Lazarus from the dead. It turns out that he and Rafe have been experimenting with the possibility of capturing the last breath and want Hugh to be a witness to what they find. From that point on  I could see almost exactly where the story was heading – it is too predictable.

It’s really a very short story padded out with several pages of illustrations, divided into three parts with an introductory letter, Postscript and Hugh’s Final Pages with blank pages between each sectionMaybe, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed with this book if I hadn’t just read Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and three of his short stories at the end of that book, which I think are excellent.

  • Hardcover, 105 pages
  • Published September 25th 2014 by Profile Books Ltd (first published October 14th 2013)
  • Source: Library Book

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Blurb:

Immortalised by Audrey Hepburn’s sparkling performance in the 1961 film of the same name, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Truman Capote’s timeless portrait of tragicomic cultural icon Holly Golightly, published in Penguin Modern Classics.

It’s New York in the 1940s, where the martinis flow from cocktail hour till breakfast at Tiffany’s. And nice girls don’t, except, of course, for Holly Golightly: glittering socialite traveller, generally upwards, sometimes sideways and once in a while – down. Pursued by to Salvatore ‘Sally’ Tomato, the Mafia sugar-daddy doing life in Sing Sing and ‘Rusty’ Trawler, the blue-chinned, cuff-shooting millionaire man about women about town, Holly is a fragile eyeful of tawny hair and turned-up nose, a heart-breaker, a perplexer, a traveller, a tease. She is irrepressibly ‘top banana in the shock department’, and one of the shining flowers of American fiction.

My thoughts:

I’ve never seen the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, a high-priced escort looking for a rich man to marry, but I understand that it’s only loosely based on the novella and is set in the 1960s rather than the 1940s.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a quick read and very entertaining. The narrator is not named, although Holly Golightly calls him ‘Fred’ after her brother. He’s a writer and at the beginning of the book he is reminiscing about Holly with Joe Bell, who ran a bar around the corner on Lexington Avenue. They hadn’t seen or heard from Holly  for over two years. She used to live in the apartment below Fred’s in a brownstone in the East Seventies in New York. Her past is almost as unknown as her present whereabouts.

She’s a free spirit, charming and carefree, but craves attention. She has a cat, plays the guitar and likes to live as though she’s about to leave – all her belongings still in suitcases and crates – and has a great many friends who she entertains with numerous parties. She gets the ‘mean reds’, days when she’s afraid, expecting something bad is going to happen, but she doesn’t know what. On days like that she gets in a taxi and goes to Tiffany’s which calms her down and where nothing bad could happen to her, but not for the diamonds. She doesn’t ‘give a hoot’ about diamonds and thinks it’s ‘tacky to wear them before you’re forty’.

Her life is a mass of contradictions, one character describes her as a ‘phony,’ but a ‘real phony’ with crazy ideas and always on the move. She’s involved with a Mafia gangster, Sally Tomato, who she visits in jail every Thursday. But her life is really a mystery and not all is as it appears on the surface, longing for something wonderful to happen.

There’s a lot packed into this novella of 100 pages. There are also three short stories at the end of the book in the remaining pages – and these are a delight. I think these are among the best short stories that I’ve read!

There’s House of Flowers about a young woman called Ottilie, who makes the best of her life, first as a prostitute and then as the wife of Royal, a young man who takes her to live in a house in the mountains, a house of flowers with wisteria on the roof, vines over the windows and lilies blooming at the door. But all is not as idyllic as it seems in this beautiful and exotic setting.

A Diamond Guitar is set in a prison farm, a story of unrequited love when a new prisoner arrives bringing with him a guitar studded with glass diamonds. The third story is maybe my favourite, A Christmas Memory, about a young boy, Buddy and his cousin who is sixty or so years older than him. It’s a heart-warming story with a poignant ending.

I loved Capote’s writing – it’s lively, richly descriptive with sparkling dialogue, and his ability to conjure up characters with depth in a few paragraphs is impressive, to say the least.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (27 April 2000) – originally published in 1958
  • Source: Library Book
  • My Rating: 5*

Challenges: The Virtual Mount TBR Challenge

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

I Found You

Arrow Books|2016|438 pages|Library book |4*

After I’d enjoyed reading Watching You by Lisa Jewell so much I looked for more of her books to read and borrowed I Found You  from my local library.

Blurb:

Surrey: Lily Monrose has only been married for three weeks. When her new husband fails to come home from work one night she is left stranded in a new country where she knows no one.

East Yorkshire: Alice Lake finds a man on the beach outside her house. He has no name, no jacket, no idea what he is doing there. Against her better judgement she invites him in to her home.

But who is he, and how can she trust a man who has lost his memory?

My thoughts:

I Found You plunged me straight away into the mystery of the identity of the man Alice Lake found sitting on the beach at Ridinghouse Bay (a fictional seaside resort) in the pouring rain. He can’t remember who he is, or how or why he is sitting there. And, of course, I thought he must be Lily Monrose’s husband, Carl who has gone missing. These two strands of the story are written in the present tense. They alternate with another strand written in the past tense about events that took place 22 years earlier when a family of four, teenagers Kirsty and Gray, with their parents, are spending their summer holiday in Rabbit Cottage, a former coastguard’s cottage. That holiday changed all their lives.

One of the things I liked about this novel is its strong sense of place. Ridinghouse Bay is a small seaside town with the usual attractions for holidaymakers –  a pub, a seafood restaurant, cafe, a beach bar and a fairground . And there is a map showing all the locations around the Bay.

Alice’s cottage is tiny, an old coastguard’s cottage built over three hundred years ago.

Beyond her window, between Victorian street lights, a string of sun-faded bunting swings back and forth in the boisterous April wind. To the left there is a slipway where small fishing boats form a colourful spine down to a concrete jetty and where the great dreadful froth of the North Sea hits the rocky shoreline. And beyond that the sea. Black and infinite. (page 2)

Alice is a bit eccentric, a generous and kind-hearted woman, living on her own with her four children and three dogs. The cottage is too small for her family, cramped, with low ceilings that slope and bulge, but she invites the man in to stay in the studio/shed in her back yard which is where she makes art from old maps to sell on the internet. The children decide to call him ‘Frank’ and she tries to help him remember what had happened to him. Then Frank begins to have flashbacks and thinks he may have killed someone.

Lily, meanwhile is trying to find Carl. They had met and married in the Ukraine and although she has spoken to his mother on the phone she has never met her. The police tell her his passport is a fake and his mother isn’t answering her phone, but she finds her address and goes to see her. But the house is empty.

I read this quickly, it’s very readable. The characters are realistically drawn with depth – and the puzzle about Frank’s identity kept me guessing. It’s not as clear-cut as it first appeared and I kept changing my mind as I read on. It certainly isn’t the ‘cosy’ mystery, that the opening pages seem to indicate, but it is a story that me gripped as the tension rose to a dramatic and violent climax.

I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Lisa Jewell’s books to read.

There will be a new Lisa Jewell novel – The Family Upstairs which is out on 25 July. Her earlier books are:

Ralph’s Party (1999)
Thirtynothing (2000)
One-hit Wonder (2001)
A Friend of the Family (2003)
Vince and Joy (2005)
31 Dream Street (2007)
The Truth About Melody Browne (2009)
After the Party (2010)
The Making of Us (2011)
Before I Met You (2012)
The House We Grew Up In (2012)
The Third Wife (2012)
The Girls (2015)
aka The Girls in the Garden
I Found You (2016)
Then She Was Gone (2017)
Watching You (2018)

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

A story of guilt, betrayal and secrets, set in colonial era Ceylon.

The Tea Planter's Wife

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies begins in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in 1913, with a scene showing a woman leaving a house, cradling a baby with one arm. She had left a letter behind and I wondered what was in that letter and about the significance of her choosing to wear her favourite dress – a vivid sea green dress she wore the night she was certain the baby was conceived. It didn’t become clear until nearly the end of the book.

Move on twelve years to 1923, when 19 year old Gwendolyn Hooper arrives at the same house, the home of a tea planter, Laurence, an older man, a widower she had met and married in England after a whirlwind romance. The house is set in beautiful flower-filled gardens, sloping down to a shining silver lake and rising up behind the lake a tapestry of green velvet made up of rows of tea bushes where women in brightly coloured saris were plucking the tea leaves. Gwen is enchanted by the scene and is eagerly anticipating her new life with Laurence.

But this is not the idyllic life she expected – there are secrets, locked doors and a caste system and culture that is alien to her. Laurence, no longer as passionate about her as he had been in England, leaves her alone more than she would like. But with the help of one of the servants, Naveen and Savi Ravasinghe, a Sinhalese artist, she begins to settle into life on the plantation, even though it’s obvious that Laurence disapproves of Savi. In turn, Gwen is not happy about the way a glamorous American woman, Christina flirts with Laurence.

There is a mystery, too, surrounding the death of Caroline, Laurence’s first wife and when she finds a tiny overgrown grave no one wants to talk about it. The arrival of Laurence’s younger sister, Verity, only adds to Gwen’s problems – she’s bitter and twisted and it looks as though she has moved in permanently. So, when Gwen becomes pregnant she hopes that will improve her relationship with Laurence, especially as he is delighted that she is expecting twins. This is in many ways such a sad and tragic story – none more so than what happened when the babies were born and Gwen is faced with a terrible dilemma, one that she feels she must keep hidden from Laurence.

This is historical fiction set in a time and place that I know very little about, but I thought  the setting in Ceylon, was beautifully described, exotic and mysterious. It was a time of unrest too, with political and racial tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil workers and the British plantation owners. Gwen was horrified by the living conditions of the plantation workers but her attempts to improve them and provide basic medical treatment weren’t very successful. I thought the portrayal of Gwen’s character was well done, a young woman with a charming husband, older than her and initially their relationship reminded me of Max and his second wife in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but the similarity ended there as the story developed.

In her Author’s Note at the end of the book (don’t read it before you read the book as it gives away the main secret) Dinah Jefferies explains that the idea for this novel came from her mother-in-law who told her stories passed down by her family, which included tea planters in Ceylon and also in India in the 1920s and early 1930s. They led her to think about the attitudes to race and the typical prejudices of that time – in particular about how such attitudes and assumptions could spell tragedy for a tea planter’s wife who lived an extraordinarily privileged life. She also includes a list of books that she had found useful whilst researching her book.

I’m not sure that I want to read any more of Dinah Jefferies’s books as although I did enjoy The Tea Planter’s Wife and it held my interest to the end, I also thought much of it was predictable and in places a bit too sentimentally melodramatic for me.

  • Paperback: 418 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (3 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780241969557
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241969557
  • Source: a library book
  • My Rating: 3.5*

Challenges:

First Chapter First Paragraph: I Found You by Lisa Jewell

Every Tuesday First Chapter, First Paragraph/Intros is hosted by Vicky of I’d Rather Be at the Beach sharing the first paragraph or two of a book she’s reading or plans to read soon.

This week I’m featuring I Found You by Lisa Jewell, one of the books I’m currently reading.

I Found You

 

Alice Lake lives in a house by the sea. It is a tiny house, a coastguard’s cottage, built over three hundred years ago for people much smaller than her. The ceilings slope and bulge and her fourteen-year old son needs to bow his head to get through the front door. They were all so little when she moved them here from London six years ago. Jasmine was ten. Kai was eight. And Romaine the baby was just four months old. She hadn’t imagined that one day she’d have a gangling child of almost six feet. She hadn’t imagined they’d ever outgrow this place

Blurb (Amazon)

Everyone has secrets. What if you can’t remember yours?

‘How long have you been sitting out here?’
‘I got here yesterday.’
‘Where did you come from?’
‘I have no idea.’

Lily has only been married for three weeks. When her new husband fails to come home from work one night, she is left stranded in a new country where she knows no one.

Alice finds a man on the beach outside her house. He has no name, no jacket, no idea what he is doing there. Against her better judgement, she invites him into her home.

But who is he, and how can she trust a man who has lost his memory?

~~~

 I enjoyed Lisa Jewell’s Watching You so much that I decided to look out for more of her books, so when I saw this in the library I borrowed it. I’m enjoying it so far.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?