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.

A Beautiful Corpse by Christi Daugherty

a beautiful corpse

Harper Collins|March 2019|384 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|5*

I saw A Beautiful Corpse by Christi Daugherty on NetGalley and thought I would like it from the description, but not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. I didn’t realise that it’s the 2nd in the Harper McClain series but I think it works very well as a standalone.

I liked a lot about it – it is well written, has a fast-paced plot, but not at the expense of the characters, and it’s set in Savannah, with its historic buildings, parks and ancient oak trees covered in Spanish moss.

Harper McLain is a crime reporter with the Savannah Daily News. The book begins late one evening as she is playing pool in the Library Bar with her friend and bartender, Bonnie. The crime photographer rings her, telling her about a murder on downtown River Street, a narrow cobblestoned lane between the old wharves and warehouses and the Savannah River. And she is shocked to discover that the young woman sprawled on the uneven cobbles is Naomi, a law student, who had worked with Bonnie at the Library Bar. She had been shot dead.

There are three men who are all suspects, but her current boyfriend Wilson Shepherd is the prime suspect. The Library Bar owner, Fitz, is also a suspect especially as no one has seen him after the shooting. And then there is her ex-boyfriend Peyton Anderson, the powerful DA’s son. The police are convinced that Wilson is the killer, but after Harper talked to him, she just can’t believe that it was him. There were no witnesses to the shooting and when Harper talks to Jerrod, Naomi’s father, she realises that Peyton’s alibi may not be as solid as the police maintain it to be. 

This a story of obsession and jealousy and the tension rises as the killer’s focus shifts on to Harper herself. She is a strong determined character, determined to find out the truth. But as well as the murder investigation Harper has her own personal problems to contend with. Her job as a reporter is under threat, someone is breaking into her apartment and her personal relationship with Detective Luke Walker seems about to be revived, but she is wary where it will end. On top of all that she is desperate to find out who had killed her mother twelve years earlier. 

I loved it and it has made me eager to read the first book, The Echo Killing, to find out more about Harper and her background and also to read the next book in the series – Revolver Road due to be published in March next year – to find out what happens next.

Furious Hours by Casey Cep

The stunning story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird

Furious hours

Cornerstone|May 2019|311 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|4*

In the first half of the book Casey Cep tells the story of the Reverend Willie Maxwell, who murdered members of his own family in the 1970s and held his rural community in Alabama, in fear and dread as they believed he was practising voodoo. He was shot dead at the funeral of his step-daughter by a relative, Robert Burns. Maxwell’s lawyer, Tom Radney, who had successfully defended Maxwell for years, then defended Burns, who confessed to the shooting, on the grounds of temporary insanity.

The second half is about the author, Harper Lee, who decided to write a book about all three men. In doing so Cep has written a remarkable biography of Harper Lee, her friendship with Truman Capote, her part in writing his book, In Cold Blood and her attempts to follow up the success of her book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

My favourite part of the book is without doubt the part about Harper Lee. All I knew about her before is that she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, thought to be her only book until Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015. Cep explains that Watchman was an early version of Mockingbird, that Lee hadn’t edited or revised, and although it appears to be a sequel it isn’t  – it is the story she wrote first.

The section on Lee’s work in helping Capote  research his ‘nonfiction novel’ set in Kansas, In Cold Blood is equally as fascinating. They had lived next door to each other in Monroeville and as Cep phrased it ‘before Nelle was out of toddlerhood, she and Truman had become partners in crime and just about everything else.‘ (‘Nelle’ is her first name, the name she was known by for the first thirty-four years of her life, pronounced Nell, not Nellie.) Once they ran out of stories to read they started writing them. Cep goes into detail about the development of crime writing, and how Capote applied the techniques of fiction to nonfiction. Not everyone was happy with this novelisation of crime, not did they believe that Capote’s book was strictly factual, accusing him of  producing a sensational novel. Harper Lee minded very much about his fabrications, although she never objected publicly and this caused a rift between them.

So, this presented her with a challenge when it came to writing her book about Maxwell and his crimes, determined it would be based strictly on facts and she spent many years researching and writing her book, provisionally called The Reverend, but never finished it.

The sheer detail of Furious Hours made it quite a difficult book to read in some parts, digressing from the bare bones of the story into details such as the history of insurance, for example. But I was impressed by that detail and by Cep’s meticulous research. The book has an extensive Acknowledgements section, Notes and Bibliography, citing numerous books, journal articles and documentary films. And it has made me keen to read Go Set a Watchman, which although I bought a copy I have not read yet fearing it would spoil my love of To Kill a Mockingbird. I also must get round to reading Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I bought earlier this year, without knowing of Harper Lee’s involvement in the book.

My thanks to Cornerstone for an e-book review copy via NetGalley