First Chapter, First Paragraph: Cauldstane

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is Cauldstane by Linda Gillard. It begins:

Sometimes I think I can still hear – very faintly – the strains of a harpsichord. Impossible, of course. There’s been no harpsichord at Cauldstane for over a year now. Meredith’s has never been replaced. Never will be replaced.

As the cover shows Cauldstane is set in a castle – a Scottish castle, a remote and decaying 16th century castle, the family home of the MacNabs. Ghostwriter Jenny Ryan is commissioned to write the memoirs of the current Laird, Sholto MacNab. There are secrets, sins to be revealed – and an ancient curse.

If you want to know more about Linda Gillard’s books here is the link to her website.

What's In A Name 7: Completed

Whats in a name 7Hosted by  by Charlie at The Worm Hole this challenge runs from January to December 2014. During this time you choose a book to read from six categories.

I’ve now completed the challenge and these are the books I read:

  • A reference to time €“ The Time Machine by H G Wells, first published in 1895, is a work of imagination and an early example of science fiction, but it is also a commentary on late 19th century society and a vehicle for H G Well’s views on socialism and industrialisation.

  • A position of royalty €“ The King’s Evil by Edward Marston. This is historical crime fiction set in London in September 1666, just as the Great Fire of London has begun, eventually devastating a large part of the old medieval City of London

  • number written in letters – Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, a Poirot mystery
    first published in 1943. Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.
  • forename or names  Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  a beautifully told tale €“ a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a €˜smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Ethan Frome
  • type or element of weather – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

  • A book with a school subject in the title €“ The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier  fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. 

My favourite of these books is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

Thanks to Charlie for an interesting challenge that helped me reduce my to-be-read piles.

The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis

When I saw The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis in the mobile library I thought I’d seen reviews of her books on other blogs, so I borrowed it. It is the eighteenth Wesley Peterson Mystery, but I think it reads well without knowing the background to the main characters. Although I suppose if I went back in the series I’d find that I know things that maybe I shouldn’t.

Summary:

It’s the Palkin Festival in Tradmouth, a town in Devon, when the body of a strangled women is discovered floating out to sea in a dinghy. A year earlier Jenny Bercival had disappeared from the festival and her mother returns to look for her bringing with her anonymous letters claiming she is still alive. DI Wesley Peterson and his boss DCI Gerry Heffernan are investigating the two cases. Are they connected and is there a link to a fantasy website called ‘Shipworld’ which features the 14th century mayor and privateer of Tradmouth, Palkin as a supernatural hero with a sinister, faceless nemesis called the ‘Shroud Maker’?

 When Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson finds a skeleton on the site of Palkin’s warehouse, the question is whether an ancient crime has been uncovered, or is it Jenny’s body?

My view:

I liked the way the historical mystery intertwines with the modern one, through the archaelogical evidence, and the extracts from a 19th century biography of John Palkin written by his descendant, Josiah Palkin-Wright and letters from Josiah’s wife to her sister, worried about her marriage and that her sister does not reply. Kate Ellis’s style of writing is deceptively simple, so much so that the locations and characters came to life in my mind, whether it was Tradmouth in the past or the present.

There is plenty of mystery in this novel. I really had to concentrate to keep all the characters, red-herrings, twists and turns, and sub-plots in my mind. I thought I’d followed it as I read it, but now I’m not sure that I can give a clear account of what happened and why. However, as I do like complex mysteries I think I’ll have to look out for the first books in the Wesley Peterson series.

A note on the title:

From the title I thought that the ‘Shroud Maker’ would be a person who makes shrouds ie cloths used to wrap a body for burial, but that is not so in this book. Instead the name of ‘Shroud Maker’ is taken from a rope maker, shrouds being the ropes that support a ship’s masts. He or she is a mysterious figure, who in the Shipworld website appears as a faceless monster, wearing what looks like a white ski mask, a malevolent dark force.

The Author’s Note:

It didn’t take me long reading this book to realise that ‘Tradmouth’ is an inversion of the name of Dartmouth in Devon and Kate Ellis’s note at the end of the book clarifies that. She refers to Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales which features a character called the Shipman, a seaman from ‘Dertemouth’, who like her own invented character, was little better than a pirate. She writes that during the 19th century people were fascinated with the medieval period, perhaps as a reaction against industrialisation and her fictional writings of Josiah Palkin-Wright reflected that interest. And coming up to the present day she reflects that fantasy fiction is as popular today as it ever was, with the influence of J R R Tolkien’s works and fantasy fiction websites.

Reading Challenges: R.I.P. Challenge, the My Kind of Mystery Challenge, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt is the second book of his that I’ve read. The first one Death of a Chief I read 5 years ago! Both books are set in late 17th century Scotland (1686 and 1687) and feature a Gaelic speaking, Edinburgh lawyer John MacKenzie and his clerk Davie Scougall. I like the way Douglas Watt incorporates the historical background into the narrative without detracting from the story.

In Testament of a Witch MacKenzie investigates the death of Grissell Hay, Lady Lammersheugh accused of witchcraft in a village overwhelmed by superstition, resentment and puritanical religion. Then the same accusations are made against the Euphame, Grissell’s daughter.  I wasn’t too keen on the horrifying and explicit descriptions of how the witch hunter identified and dealt with women accused of being witches, which involved torture and sleep deprivation, but apart from that I enjoyed this book.

I liked the interaction between Mackenzie, a Highlander and Scougall, a Lowland Scot. Scougall is convinced of the reality of witchcraft, whereas Mackenzie has ‘grave doubts about the crime of witchcraft‘, believing ‘it is nothing more than superstition‘. The religious fervour and political unrest are clearly demonstrated in this book, setting the frenzied persecution of those suspected of witchcraft in context. Watts’ Historical Note on The Scottish Witch-hunt at the end of the book gives the background, when Scottish society was in a state of flux.

Change caused anxiety and fear, unleashing frenzies of witch-hunting . … It has been estimated that the Scottish witch-hunt was ten times more deadly than the English one in terms of executions per head of population. Probably more than a thousand men and women were executed for witchcraft in Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The witch-hunt could not have occurred without a widespread belief in magic, charming and divination, and the acceptance of Satan as a real presence in the life of the people.

Witch-hunting declined when the revolutionary zeal of the Scottish Reformation ran out of steam in the late seventeenth century. Scotland began to turn its back on persecution and look towards the more tolerant and commercial age of the Enlightenment.

Testament of a Witch is well-researched and although it gets off to a slow start and I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Death of a Chief, I was immersed into the fascinating and terifying world of the witch-hunt in 17th century Scotland as I was reading. It’s a book that qualifies both for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge and this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, as well as the Historical Fiction Challenge and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Douglas Watt is a Scottish historian, poet and novelist, who lives in Linlithgow. He has a PhD in Scottish History from Edinburgh University and is the author of The Price of Scotland, a history of Scotland’s Darien Disaster, which won the Hume Brown Senior Prize in Scottish History in 2008. 

The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman

The combination of the legendary ancient mystery about the disappearance of a whole army in Egypt’s western desert in 523 BC, and a modern murder mystery caught my imagination. So I was attracted to reading The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman.

The Lost Army of Cambyses is his first book, featuring Inspector Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police. It is an action packed adventure story, an easy escapist read, although the ancient mystery element definitely plays second fiddle to the modern murder mystery, with a terrorist plot thrown in the mix.

I enjoyed it. It began well, in Cairo, September 2000, where a mutilated corpse is washed up on the banks of the Nile at Luxor, an antiques dealer is savagely murdered in Cairo, and an eminent British archaeologist is found dead at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara. But as I read on I was less convinced.

Where the book came alive for me was through the character of Yusuf Khalifa, and especially the historical/archaeological aspects of the book highlighted in his meetings with his old teacher and mentor, Professor al-Habibi at Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Khalifa had wanted to be an archaeologist, but circumstances had meant he’d been unable to complete his studies and he had joined the police force. However he had remained fascinated by the history of his country:

He remembered as a child standing on the roof of their house watching the sunrise over the pyramids. Other children had taken the monuments for granted, but not Khalifa. For him there had always been something magical about them, great triangles looming through the morning mist, doorways to a different time and world. Growing up beside them had given him an insatiable desire to learn more about the past.

… There was something mystical about it, something glittering, a chain of gold stretching all the way back to the dawn of time. (pages 100 – 102)

The other characters were less convincing, becoming stereotypical particularly the ‘bad’ characters, and the violence was a little too violent for my liking. But it still managed to keep me hooked and wanting to know how it would end.

I’d like to read more of Paul Sussman’s books – I much preferred his second book, The Last Secret of the Temple. I’ve yet to read the third book featuring Inspector Khalifa, The Labyrinth of Osiris. More details of his books are on Paul Sussman’s website, which is now being updated by his wife after Paul died very suddenly from a ruptured aneurysm in May 2012.

Book Beginning: The Lost Army of Cambyses

After a month of reading library books and new books I’ve got this year I thought it was time to get back into my stock of to-be-read books and picked one at random. It’s The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman. Before I began this blog I read Sussman’s The Last Secret of the Temple, which I thought was excellent, so I was looking out for more of his books. Three years later I found this book and it has been sitting unread for the last four years! Time to read it …

The Lost Army of Cambyses is his first book, featuring Inspector Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police (as in The Last Secret of the Temple). It begins in 523BC as the Persian army of Cambyses is crossing Egypt’s western desert on their way to destroy the oracle at Siwa:

The Prologue: The Western Desert, 523 BC

The fly had been pestering the Greek all morning. As if the furnace-like heat of the desert wasn’t enough, and the forced marches, and the stale rations, now he had this added torment. He cursed the gods and landed a heavy blow on his cheek, dislodging a shower of sweat droplets, but missing the insect by some way.

‘Damned flies!’ he spat!

As the  account by Herodotus quoted at the front of the book reveals, the story goes that this army never reached its destination and never returned – it was engulfed by a violent sandstorm and disappeared forever.

Chapter 1 picks up the story in Cairo, September 2000, where a mutilated corpse is washed up on the banks of the Nile at Luxor, an antiques dealer is savagely murdered in Cairo, and an eminent British archaeologist is found dead at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara.

The whole thing intrigues me and I’m eagerly reading on …

Every 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.