The Red Monarch by Bella Ellis

Hodder and Stoughton| 18 November 2021| 326 pages| e-book| Review copy| 3*

Blurb

The Brontë sisters’ first poetry collection has just been published, potentially marking an end to their careers as amateur detectors, when Anne receives a letter from her former pupil Lydia Robinson.

Lydia has eloped with a young actor, Harry Roxby, and following her disinheritance, the couple been living in poverty in London. Harry has become embroiled with a criminal gang and is in terrible danger after allegedly losing something very valuable that he was meant to deliver to their leader. The desperate and heavily pregnant Lydia has a week to return what her husband supposedly stole, or he will be killed. She knows there are few people who she can turn to in this time of need, but the sisters agree to help Lydia, beginning a race against time to save Harry’s life.

In doing so, our intrepid sisters come face to face with a terrifying adversary whom even the toughest of the slum-dwellers are afraid of . . . The Red Monarch.


The Red Monarch is the third Brontë Mystery book in which the main characters are the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother Branwell. I’ve read the first two and enjoyed them. But when I came across the first book I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read it, as I’m never very keen on books that use real people as fictional characters. So, I was delighted to find that I thoroughly enjoyed the books even though, of course, the stories about the Brontës being ‘detectors’, or amateur sleuths, are pure imagination. The setting in the Yorkshire Moors is superb, the characters came across as ‘real’ and the books are well plotted.

And so, I was looking forward to reading The Red Monarch and it began well in Haworth in August 1852 as Charlotte is trying to write Villette. She is in despair after the deaths of her siblings – Emily and Branwell in 1848, and Anne in 1849. Instead of writing she reads a little notebook containing Emily’s poems and one particular poem brought back to her the dreadful events that had taken place and the terrors and cruelties they had seen, on their excursion to London. It had all taken place just after the Brontë sisters’ first poetry collection had been published – in 1846.

It was at this point, right at the beginning of the story about their time in London, that I thought I was reading a completely different type of mystery from the earlier books – not only is in not set in Yorkshire this book is a gothic melodrama. In a terrifying attack on Lydia and her husband Harry, a gang of thieves and murderers, led by Noose, had burst into Harry and Lydia’s bedroom. They had seized Harry and threatened to kill him unless Lydia brought them the jewel that Harry had been ordered to collect. Lydia, who was pregnant, had seven days to save their lives. But it is the Red Monarch, who was in control of the gang, and who held them all under his control – a most villainous and fearsome gangster. In desperation Lydia wrote to Anne for help.

The story is melodramatic, sensational and fast-paced. It is told through each of the sisters’ eyes, each one clearly distinctive, whilst Emily (once more) is the standout character. They are all independent women, strong-willed and determined and as Victorian women, vastly underestimated by the men. But, I had a hard time accepting the Brontë sisters in this story. Whereas in the two previous books I could believe that the Brontë family were just as Bella Ellis has described them, in this book I couldn’t.

The descriptions of mid 19th century London are vivid, clearly depicting the filthy living conditions of the poor, the sights and foul smells. The details of the Brontës’ search for Harry and the missing jewel test their strength, courage and skill in detection.

There are a few other real people who play a minor role, notably Charles Dickens, who is dismissive when Charlotte, somewhat in awe of him, asks for his advice as a writer, telling her to abandon any ideas of being a novelist and to marry, or teach. His companion, Mrs Catherine Crowe, another real author who wrote supernatural tales, was much more approachable and friendly, contacting her spirit friends to help with Charlotte’s search as well as giving her useful advice as a writer. Another character, with a larger role, is Louis Parensell, who develops a passion for Emily. He was not a real person, but Virginia Moore, a Brontë biographer, misread the handwritten title of Emily’s poem ‘Love’s Farewell’ as ‘Louis Parensell’, and developed the theory that Louis was Emily’s secret lover.

As the novel reached its dramatic climax, Emily in particular is in danger of losing her life as she dared to challenge the Red Monarch. I was most interested in the identity of The Red Monarch – was he in fact a real person, or totally fictitious? There various references to him throughout the novel, what was the origin of his name, and what was the meaning of his insignia? It seemed to be two capital Rs back to back topped with a crown and contained within a five-pointed star of pentagram. Anne had first discovered them and she felt sure they carried a secret meaning to those in know. When the identity of the Red Monarch is finally revealed I was surprised – but it is appropriate in that the real person has been described as a maniacal, controlling man.

I enjoyed this book, but I think the two previous books are much better and seem more authentic, aided by being set in the Brontës’ Yorkshire. They were out of place in London. It all seems to me to be over dramatic and unbelievable. The fictional element far outweighs the historical.

~~~

‘Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë-inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life. As well as writing the Brontë Mysteries she is the .author of sixteen novels including the Richard and Judy pick The Memory Book and the Zoe Ball bookclub choice, The Summer of Impossible Things.

My thanks to Hodder Stoughton for a review copy via NetGalley

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

4*

All I knew about David Copperfield: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) by Charles Dickens is that it is said to be his most autobiographical novel. I think I must have watched a TV serialisation years ago but I remember very little about it. It was first published as a serial in 1849 and 1850, and then as a book in 1850.

It’s a long novel with a multitude of characters, including David’s cruel stepfather, Mr Murdstone, the family housekeeper Peggotty, his school friends Steerforth, who he mistakenly idolises and, my favourite character, Tommy Traddles, who has a heart of gold, and a remarkable upstanding head of hair. Then there’s another favourite character, David’s great aunt Betsey Trotwood, who wages war against marriage and donkeys and her companion, the simple-minded Mr Dick; Mr Micawber, always in debt and in and out of the debtor’s prison, and the odious and nauseating Uriah Heep are both memorable characters.

I was totally immersed in their world, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian England, the living conditions of the poor contrasting with the decadent wealth of the rich, and the dramatic intensity of episodes such as the terrible storm at sea off Yarmouth. There’s drama, comedy and tragedy, melodrama and pathos as the story follows David’s life from his birth to his adulthood, covering his childhood, early schooldays, his time as a young boy working in a factory, then as a student in Canterbury where he lodged with the lawyer Mr Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes.

Betsey later established him in London where he worked in the Doctor’s Commons, under the tutelage of Mr Spenlow, whose daughter, the beautiful, frivolous and to my eyes, the utterly pathetic Dora totally captivated him. The sections of the book involving Dora are rather too sentimental for my liking. Then there’s Pegotty’s family – her brother Daniel, a fisherman, their nephew Ham and niece, Little Em’ly who is David’s childhood friend and sweetheart. They live in a converted boat on the beach at Yarmouth. And not forgetting Barkis, who marries Pegotty, after telling David to tell her, ‘Barkis is willing‘. Their sections of the book are the ones I enjoyed the most. I could go on and on, not forgetting David himself as describes the misfortunes and obstacles he met and the friends he makes.

I enjoyed reading David Copperfield, which was Dickens’ own personal favourite of all his novels, but it is not mine – it’s a bit too long for me. I think my favourite is Bleak House, which I read after seeing the TV adaptation in 2005 with Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, and Charles Dance. Maybe I’ll read it again to see what I think of it now. These days I prefer shorter books and Bleak House, like David Copperfield is long with many characters and sub-plots.

What’s in a Name 2022

This challenge, hosted by Andrea at Carolina Book Nook runs from January 1, 2022 to December 31, 2022.

Read a book in any format (hard copy, ebook, audio) with a title that fits into each category. Creativity for matching the categories is not only allowed, it’s encouraged!

Click on the links below for more examples and info about the categories.

It’s a challenge that looks deceptively simple because ‘all’ you have to do is read six books from six categories – but each year there is at least one that that takes me nearly all the year to find. This year it looks like there are two – the first two! I have plenty of titles to choose from for the other categories, but not for the first two.

What’s in a Name Challenge Wrap Up Post

This challenge was hosted again for 2021 by Andrea at Carolina Book Nook. It ends tomorrow, 31st December 2021.

The idea of the challenge was to read a book in any format (hard copy, ebook, audio) with a title that fits into each category. I’ve managed to complete the challenge by finishing reading Fifty Fifty only the day before yesterday and have not had time yet to write my review.

These are the books I read, with links to my reviews

  1. One’ or ‘1‘: The One I Was by Eliza Graham
  2. Repeated word: Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh – review to follow
  3. Reference to outer spaceThe Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley
  4. Possessive nounThe Queen’s Spy by Clare Marchant
  5. Botanical wordA Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
  6. Article of clothingThe Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

My thanks go to Andrea for hosting this challenge – it was not as easy as I thought it would be, but it was most enjoyable finding books to fit the category, especially for the ‘repeated word’.

Andrea is hosting this challenge again for 2022 – and I’ll be signing up for it in a later post.

The One I Was by Eliza Graham

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I downloaded The One I Was by Eliza Graham soon after it was published in May 2015 and I’ve just got round to reading it. It was worth waiting for as I really enjoyed it and think it is one of the best books I’ve read recently. It’s historical fiction split between the present and the past following the lives of Benny Gault and Rosamund Hunter.

It begins in the present as Rosamund goes to Fairfleet, her childhood home, to nurse Benny Gault, who first came to Fairfleet in 1939, having fled Nazi Germany on a Kindertransport train. As an adult he bought the house and now he is dying of cancer. It’s a difficult time for Rosamund as she has painful memories of her life at Fairfleet and she is wary about returning – so much so that she doesn’t tell Benny of her connection to the house.

Throughout the book events from both their pasts are revealed, and gradually they discover the connections between them and they come to terms with the traumas that have haunted them. This is a novel about friendship, palliative care, redemption and forgiveness across generations. I was totally engrossed in both their life stories as the various strands of the story eventually combined. Although it was Benny’s story that appealed to me the most – particularly his early life in Germany and the story of how he came to live at Fairfleet – I was also fascinated by the story of Rosamund’s grandmother, one of the few women pilots who flew Spitfires for the Air Transport Auxiliary.

This is obviously a well researched book and Eliza Graham has listed the books she had found invaluable whilst writing The One I Was.

Amazon UK link

I’ve read just two of Eliza Graham’s books, Playing With the Moon and Another Day Gone (linked to my reviews). I hope to read more of her books this year:

Playing with the Moon (2007)
Restitution (2008)
Jubilee (2010)
The History Room (2012)
The One I Was (2014)
Another Day Gone (2016)
The Lines We Leave Behind (2018)
The Truth in Our Lies (2019)
You Let Me Go (2021) – publication date 25 March 2021

What’s In a Name? 2021

This year I am planning to take part in just a few Reading Challenges and this is one of them:

The What’s In A Name Challenge is being hosted again for 2021 by Andrea at Carolina Book Nook.  I didn’t take part last year, after doing it for several years, but I fancy taking part this year.

The challenge runs from 1st January 2021 to 31st December 2021. You can sign up any time, but can only count books you read between those dates. Read a book in any format (hard copy, ebook, audio) with a title that fits into each category. Don’t use the same book for more than one category. Creativity for matching the categories is not only allowed, it’s encouraged! You can choose your books as you go or make a list ahead of time.

I’ve picked out some possibilities for the categories, from my TBR books. There are others I could choose, so this is just a starting list – I may read other books instead.

‘One’ or ‘1’                                The One I Was by Eliza Graham

Repeated word                       Sing, Jess, Sing by Tricia Coxon

Reference to outer space    Blue Moon by Lee Child

Possessive noun                     Child’s Play by Reginald Hill

Botanical word                       Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi

Article of clothing                 The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

What’s In a Name? Challenge Completed

WhatsinaName14

I’ve completed this year’s What’s In a Name? Challenge hosted by Andrea at The Carolina Book Nook. The challenge was to read a book in any format (hard copy, ebook, audio) with a title that fits in each category.

Here are the categories and the books I’ve read:

  • A precious stone/metal: Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way – a tense and emotional mystery.
  • A temperature:  Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves – the 7th Shetland murder mystery – the body of a dark-haired woman wearing a red silk dress is found in the debris of a flood.
  • A month or day of the week: Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck – with eccentric and funny characters, wit, humour, irony and a touch of farce and surrealism.
  • A meal: The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies – historical fiction set in Ceylon in the 1920s.
  • Contains the word “girl” or “woman”:  The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea – historical fiction set in set in Iceland in 1686, a story of suspicion, love and violence.
  • Contains both the words “of” AND “and”: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford – historical fiction set in Seattle, a bitter sweet story of commitment and enduring hope.

I enjoyed reading all of them and it is so hard to choose a favourite! So, it has to be a tie between Sweet Thursday and  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

‘He’d do what he always did, find the sweet among the bitter.’

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Allison & Busby|2013 paperback edition| 396 pages| 5*

It’s not that often that a book brings tears to my eyes, but reading the ending of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet did just that. It is a beautiful book moving between two time periods, the early 1940s and 1986, mainly in Seattle.

Synopsis (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.

My thoughts:

I had little idea when I began reading this book how much I would enjoy it and how much I would learn from it. It moves at a much slower pace than I would like but this means that I could absorb the detail easily and follow the story without puzzling out the sequence of events. I had no problem at all in moving between the two time periods, as I have in some other books, the characters come across as real people with real lives and real problems. The settings are remarkable, even though I have never been to Seattle, and knew nothing about its history – its Chinatown and the Japan town, Nihonmachi – it came to life as I read on.

In 1942 in Seattle Henry Lee, a 12 year old Chinese American boy meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American girl and they become great friends, even though Henry’s father is against the Japanese because of the enmity between China and Japan. He makes Henry wear a badge “I am Chinese” so that people won’t think he is Japanese.

As the war progressed the persecution of Japanese Americans intensified and they were removed from their homes and interned. I knew this had happened after Pearl Harbour, but this book brings home the reality of the situation, of how their lives were uprooted and the prejudice and the terrible conditions that they experienced. Keiko and her family are moved to Camp Harmony, a temporary relocation centre at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, and not allowed to take their belongings with them. Many Japanese families, including Keiko’s, manage to store some in the basement of the Panama Hotel. Henry is devastated, certain he won’t see her again, especially when the families are moved to a permanent relocation centre, Minidoka in Idaho. But his search for Keiko didn’t end there and with the help of his friend Sheldon, a black jazz musician he continued to look for her.

The book is not just about Henry and Keiko it’s also about family relationships, about the importance of communication, of talking and sharing experiences and feelings and about friendships. And it’s a love story – of both a love lost and a love found as Henry and Keiko grow into adulthood. It is a bitter sweet story of commitment and enduring hope and one that I loved.

About the author:

Jamie Ford grew up in Seattle’s Chinatown and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was his debut novel. His second novel, Songs of Willow Frost was published in September 2013. Love and Other Consolation Prizes, was published in September 12, 2017 and is also set in Seattle, inspired by a true story, about a half-Chinese orphan boy whose life is transformed at Seattle’s 1909 World’s Fair. And so one book leads on to yet more books to read …

Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

Sweet thursdayI read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row five years ago. At the time I didn’t know he’d written a sequel – Sweet Thursday. So when I discovered it, as I’d loved Cannery Row I wanted to read it. Written in 1954, I think it’s just as good, set in Monterey on the California coast the 1950s after the Second World War when the cannery had closed down.

Sweet Thursday’ is what they call the day after Lousy Wednesday – one of those days that’s just bad from the start. But ‘Sweet Thursday’ is sunny and clear, a day when anything can happen.

I was delighted to find that there is just as much humour and generosity within its pages. Some of the same characters are still there, Mack, Hazel and friends who live in the Palace Flop-house (a dosshouse) and Doc too. There are some new characters, notably Suzy at the house called the Bear Flag, the local brothel. Dora who ran the Bear Flag had died and it has been taken over by her sister Fauna (previously known as Flora). Lee Chong had sold the grocery and it is now owned by a Mexican called Joseph and Mary Rivas.

I loved the opening of the Prologue:

One night Mack lay back on his bed in the Palace flop-house and he said, “I ain’t never been satisfied with that book Cannery Row, I would have went about it different.”

And after a while he rolled over and raised his head on his hand and he said, “I guess I’m just a critic. But if I ever come across the guy that wrote that book I could tell him a few things.”

Doc returned from the war to his laboratory, Western Biological Laboratories, now run down, covered in dust and mildew. He’d left Old Jingleballicks, in charge and he’d neglected it. But his heart is now longer in his work and the ‘worm of discontent‘ is gnawing at him – he feels a failure.

Whisky lost its sharp delight and the first long pull of beer from a frosty glass was not the joy it had been. He stopped listening in the middle of an extended story. He was not genuinely glad to see a friend …

What am I thinking? What do I want? Where do I want to go? There would be wonder in him, and a little impatience, as though he stood outside and looked in on himself through a glass shell …

Doc thought he was alone in his discontent, but he was not. Everyone on the Row observed him and worried about him. Mack and the boys worried about him. And Mack said to Fauna, “Doc acts like a guy that needs a dame.”

So they decide that Suzy is the answer. But Suzy, an independent spirit who isn’t much good as a hustler, doesn’t think she’s good enough for Doc. The schemes for getting the two of them together seem doomed from the start, ending in a disastrous party, when all Mack and Fauna’s good intentions seem to backfire. But this is not a tragedy, although at times it has touches of melancholy. Hazel, one of my favourite characters in the book, takes matters into his own hands. Although he appears to be slow and stupid, his problem is not that he lacks intelligence, but is that of inattention, as he just watches life go by. After the party he put his mind to thinking about what had gone wrong. And then he goes on a Quest …

Mack, in the Prologue, sums up for me what I like in a book. After saying that he likes to have a couple of words at the top of each chapter that tells what the chapter is about he says:

‘Well, I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don’t like nobody to tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. and another thing – I kind of like to figure out what the guy’s thinking by what he says. I like some description too,’ he went on. ‘I like to know what colour a thing is, how it smells and how it looks, and maybe how a guy feels about it – but not too much of that.’

This is what you get in Sweet Thursday, great dialogue, great sense of location, eccentric and funny characters, wit, humour, irony and a touch of farce and surrealism, along with plenty of philosophy. I loved it.

This was my Classics Club Spin book for May, but I was late finishing it! It’s also one of my TBRs and a book that qualifies for the What’s In a Name challenge.

 

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: