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Helen S

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Blow on a Dead Man's Embers
Blow on a Dead Man's Embers
by Mari Strachan
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving and compelling story, 23 Nov 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Blow on a Dead Man's Embers is set in a small community in Wales in the 1920s, just a few years after the end of World War I. The war has left many women grieving for a husband, a son or a brother and Non (Rhiannon) Davies is one of the lucky ones whose husband Davey has come home. But although Davey is physically unharmed he is still haunted by his experiences in the trenches. When Non finds him hiding under the kitchen table one morning she grows concerned for his mental health, but she knows that before she can help him she needs to find out exactly what happened to him during the war. Could a letter from a woman called Angela in London hold the answers?

As well as being a story about the aftermath of the Great War, this is also the story of Non and her relationships with the various members of her family. She has two teenage stepchildren to take care of, in addition to seven-year-old Osian who appears to be autistic (although this condition would not have been understood in the 1920s). Then there's Non's nephew, Gwydion, whose parents disapprove of his politics and his Irish girlfriend, and her mother-in-law, Catherine Davies, who makes no secret of her dislike for Non. Even the book's minor characters are well-drawn and believable, from the Davies' interfering neighbour, Maggie Ellis, to their tame crow, Herman.

One of the things I loved about this book was the way it looks at so many different aspects of World War I and what it was like in the years immediately afterwards. As well as Davey's shell shock (what we would now call post traumatic stress disorder) we also meet other former soldiers with various physical or mental problems caused by the war. There are also a lot of men who are struggling to find work now that the war is over and are wandering the Welsh countryside in search of food and shelter. And we also see how the women are trying to cope with the loss of their loved ones and how some of them are in denial, unable to accept what has happened.

I don't think I've ever read a novel set in Wales during this period and Mari Strachan's descriptions of life in 1920s Wales are just how I would have imagined it. The book does use some Welsh terms which, unless you're Welsh, may seem unfamiliar at first (the children call their grandparents Nain and Taid and their father Tada, for example) but I soon got used to them.

For a book where nothing very dramatic happens this was still a very absorbing story and after a slow start I found that I really cared about the Davies family and I wanted to read on and find out what would happen to them. At first I thought this was going to be a bleak, depressing book but it actually wasn't because it's told with a lot of warmth and even some humour. I can highly recommend this one.

The Queen's Governess
The Queen's Governess
by Karen Harper
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.23

5.0 out of 5 stars A new perspective on Tudor history, 20 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Queen's Governess (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Queen's Governess is yet another historical fiction novel set during the Tudor period, but although the story is a familiar one it is told from a different perspective: that of Kat Ashley, the governess of Elizabeth I.

Born Katherine Champernowne, the daughter of a beekeeper from Devon, Kat comes to the attention of Thomas Cromwell who brings her to court to spy for him in the household of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife. When Anne finds herself on trial for treason, adultery and incest, Kat vows to take care of her daughter, the young Princess Elizabeth. Much more than just a governess, Kat becomes Elizabeth's friend, advisor and mother figure. The fates of Kat and her beloved husband, John Ashley, become tied with the princess's and they are forced to endure exile and imprisonment before Elizabeth is finally crowned.

So much has been written about the Tudor period that I'm sure it must be getting very difficult for historical fiction authors to find an original way to approach the subject. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of the Tudors will probably recognise many of the characters and events in this book. Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and all six of his wives are here, along with Thomas Cromwell, the Seymours, the Dudleys and Mary I. It's the choice of Kat Ashley as narrator that helps to keep things new and interesting. I'm not sure if there have been any other novels about Kat, but this is certainly the first one I've ever been aware of and it made a refreshing change to read about a lesser-known historical figure from the period.

Telling the story from Kat's perspective does have its disadvantages though. It seems that not much is actually known about her, and although she was obviously an important part of Elizabeth's life she appears to have had very little direct influence on the course of history. The result of this is that for much of the book Kat is an observer, describing births, deaths, executions and other significant events of the Tudor court, rather than playing a major role in any of these historical moments.

However, I do think Karen Harper has done a good job in taking the known facts of Kat's life and fleshing out her character, using her imagination and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps. The book includes an author's note explaining how much is fact and how much is fiction, and it does seem that the novel has been well researched and that she has done her best to make it as accurate as possible, even down to the choice of spellings of people's names.

While I was reading this book I kept thinking that it felt very similar to Philippa Gregory's Tudor court novels and I'd have no hesitation in recommending The Queen's Governess to Gregory fans, as well as to anyone interested in Tudor history in general. I'll probably read more of Karen Harper's work in the future.

The Water Room: (Bryant & May Book 2)
The Water Room: (Bryant & May Book 2)
by Christopher Fowler
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another great Bryant and May mystery novel, 16 Oct 2011
The Water Room is the second in a series of novels about two elderly detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May, who work for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a branch of the London Metropolitan Police specialising in unusual cases. Bryant and May have been working together since the 1940s and have formed a strong and effective partnership, combining Bryant's eccentricity and lateral thinking with May's common sense and more logical approach.

When Mrs Singh is found drowned in the seemingly dry basement of her home in Balaklava Street with her mouth full of river water, her brother, who is an old friend of Arthur Bryant's, asks the Peculiar Crimes Unit for help. But no sooner have Bryant and May begun to investigate than another bizarre incident occurs in the same street. Meanwhile, the new owner of Mrs Singh's house is being plagued by the sound of rushing water in the basement and damp patches appearing and disappearing on the walls. What is going on?

I read the first book in this series, Full Dark House, a couple of months ago and loved it, but I thought this one was even better. This is a series that I would particularly recommend to people who love London. I'm not familiar enough with London to fully appreciate everything in these novels, but Christopher Fowler's love and knowledge of the city is obvious on every page. Full Dark House looked at the city's theatrical world; in this book the focus is on the underground rivers that run under the streets of London. During the course of Bryant and May's investigations we learn lots of little facts about these lost rivers and the mythology surrounding them. The historical information is woven into the plot throughout the book and I thought the balance between education and entertainment was just right.

This is not a very fast-paced book and does require some concentration, but the story moves along steadily and has a few surprising twists. The mystery plot was quite a good one, with plenty of clues and red herrings that seemed to implicate almost everybody in the street at one point or another. But the highlight of these books for me is the partnership of Bryant and May themselves and the dialogue between them.

As well as being part of a series, The Water Room is a complete mystery novel in itself and it's not necessary to have read Full Dark House first. However, if you're concerned about coming across spoilers it would be a good idea to start at the beginning of the series. After enjoying the first two books so much I'm sure I'll be reading the others and am looking forward to meeting Mr Bryant and Mr May again in Seventy-Seven Clocks.

Uncle Silas (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural) (Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural)
Uncle Silas (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural) (Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural)
by Sheridan Le Fanu
Edition: Paperback
Price: 2.69

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic Gothic fiction, 16 Oct 2011
Uncle Silas is an 1864 novel which seems to incorporate almost every aspect of the Victorian sensation/gothic novel you can think of: gloomy, eerie mansions, graveyards, laudanum addiction, an evil governess, locked rooms and locked cabinets, poison, family secrets. I had high hopes for the book as it sounded like exactly the type of classic I usually enjoy, and after a slow start it didn't disappoint.

Our heroine (and the narrator of the story) is Maud Ruthyn who lives with her father at Knowl, their family estate. Maud is fascinated by a portrait of her Uncle Silas which hangs on one of the walls inside the house - she has never met her uncle before and is intrigued by hints of scandal in his past. When Mr Ruthyn decides to find a governess for his daughter, the sinister Madame de la Rougierre comes to live at Knowl and a chain of events begins which will finally bring Maud into contact with her mysterious Uncle Silas.

And that's really all I can tell you about the plot without beginning to give too much away! I had managed to avoid reading any big spoilers so I never had any idea what was coming next, and I think that was the best way to approach this book.

It did take me a while to really get into the story. It was fun and entertaining from the beginning and I was never actually bored with it, but it seemed to take such a long time before anything really happened. It wasn't until about one hundred and fifty pages into the book that the pace began to pick up and then I could appreciate why Le Fanu had taken his time building the suspense and slowly creating a mood of menace and foreboding. It was a very atmospheric and creepy story (particularly any scene featuring Madame de la Rougierre, who must be one of the most horrible, grotesque villains in literature), though I didn't find it as scary as I had expected to.

Maud may not be the strongest of female characters but she felt real and believable to me. Although she could be brave when she needed to be, she was young and nave and I felt genuinely worried for her as she found herself becoming increasingly isolated, not sure who she could and couldn't trust. And for me, this was where the story could be described as frightening: the complete lack of control Maud had over her own destiny and the way she was forced to depend on people who may not have had her best interests at heart.

If you enjoyed The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins then I think there's a good chance you'll like this book too. It doesn't have as many surprising twists and turns as The Woman in White but it is a similar type of book, though with a much darker and more gothic feel. I think it's a shame Le Fanu isn't as widely read as other Victorian authors, as his work is definitely worth reading. I hope you'll decide to give this book a try if you haven't already.

The Ghost Writer
The Ghost Writer
by John Harwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.56

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved the ghost stories, 16 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Ghost Writer (Paperback)
Gerard Freeman has grown up in Mawson, Australia, listening to his mother's tales of her own childhood at Staplefield, a country estate in England. However, when she finds him going through her private papers one day she is furious and from that moment she refuses to say any more about her past.

Gerard continues to investigate his mother's background and is intrigued when he discovers some ghost stories written by his great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley. Unable to talk to his mother about his discoveries, the only person Gerard can confide in is his English penpal, Alice Jessel. It's only as Gerard grows older and uncovers more of his family history that he begins to understand the full significance of Viola's stories and how they relate to his own life.

I was very impressed by this book. The closest comparison I can make is to Possession by A.S. Byatt. Both books are very well written and have similar structures, with different sections written in different styles and with letters and stories woven into the plot. I did find this an easier and more entertaining read than Possession, though, and at times it also reminded me of The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.

Viola Hatherley's ghost stories were my favourite parts of the novel. They were very creepy and I could really believe they'd been written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the way the ghost stories were connected to Gerard's own story and yet they would have been good enough to stand alone as a separate short story collection too. Often when I read a book containing stories-within-stories I find myself becoming impatient and wanting to get back to the main plot, but not this time! There were four of Viola's stories included in the book (one, The Revenant, is much longer than the other three and almost a novella). The highlight for me was The Gift of Flight, with its descriptions of a sinister doll-like child and a mysterious fog that fills the reading room at the British Museum.

Looking through some other reviews of this book, I've noticed that a lot of readers felt let down by the ending. I don't usually mind being left to make up my own mind at the end of a book, but I can definitely understand why people would be disappointed by the way this one ended. It was very ambiguous and left so much open to interpretation. Despite the ending though, there were so many other things to love about this book: the elegant writing, the intricate plot, the clever structure, the gothic atmosphere, the eerie, unsettling mood and most of all, those excellent Victorian-style ghost stories!

The Last Dickens
The Last Dickens
by Matthew Pearl
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.44

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly disappointing, 16 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Last Dickens (Paperback)
The Last Dickens is a literary mystery involving a search for the missing manuscript of the final, unfinished Charles Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This book didn't appeal to me when it was published a couple of years ago because at that time I had only read one Charles Dickens book and didn't have much interest in reading a historical fiction novel about him. Since then, though, I've read a few more of Dickens' books (including Edwin Drood) and so I thought I would give The Last Dickens a try now.

In 1870, the new Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is being serialised by his American publisher Field, Osgood & Company, who are based in Boston. When Field and Osgood send their young office clerk, Daniel Sand, to the docks to collect the latest instalment which has been sent from England, Daniel is later found dead under suspicious circumstances. With the shocking news that Dickens has also died and left his novel incomplete, James R Osgood travels to England in search of clues as to how the story may have been going to end. Osgood is accompanied by Daniel Sand's sister, Rebecca, another employee of the publishing house. Can they uncover the truth about Daniel's death and at the same time find the remaining chapters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

Just when Osgood and Rebecca's adventures start to get exciting, the story is interrupted with a very long flashback to Dickens's American tour several years earlier. Some of this was interesting (it's such a shame there was no recording equipment in those days as it would have been fascinating to have been able to hear Dickens reading his books on stage to an audience!), but there was a lot of detail that I didn't think was absolutely necessary and by the time we returned to Rebecca and Osgood the flow of the story had been completely lost. There were also some shorter sections set in India, where Dickens's son Frank, serving with the Bengal Mounted Police, is on the trail of opium thieves, but I didn't think this sub-plot really added anything to the book and I admit I didn't quite understand what was going on.

One aspect of the book I did enjoy was the insight into the American publishing industry in the 19th century, a time when copyright laws appeared to be virtually non-existent. There are some entertaining descriptions of the lengths publishers would go to in order to obtain manuscripts and be the first to publish them.

Another similar book which was released around the same time as this one was Drood by Dan Simmons. I read Drood last year and although I had a couple of problems with that book too, I think I probably enjoyed it more than The Last Dickens. It's interesting to see how two different authors can use the same historical material to create such very different books.

The Lady of the Rivers
The Lady of the Rivers
by Philippa Gregory
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.91

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and absorbing historical fiction, 9 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Lady of the Rivers (Hardcover)
This is the third book in Philippa Gregory's "Cousins' War" series. This series is set during the Wars of the Roses, with a focus on some of the women who played an important role in this period of English history. The two previous novels, "The White Queen" and "The Red Queen", told the stories of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, and Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. In "The Lady of the Rivers" it's the turn of Jacquetta Woodville, Elizabeth's mother.

Before beginning this book I knew almost nothing about Jacquetta (apart from what I learned about her in "The White Queen") and it was good to have the chance to read a historical fiction novel about a woman who has so often been overlooked and forgotten. This novel follows Jacquetta throughout her life, beginning with her teenage years and moving on to her first marriage to the Duke of Bedford, an uncle of England's King Henry VI. Left a widow at nineteen, Jacquetta marries again, for love this time, to one of the Duke's squires, Richard Woodville. Over the following years, she becomes a close friend and advisor to Margaret of Anjou, the young wife of Henry VI, and is at the queen's side during some of the most important moments of Henry's reign.

Jacquetta's family claim to have descended from the water goddess, Melusina, and supposedly have magical powers, including the ability to predict the future. For example, Jacquetta hears singing when someone in her family is about to die. As in "The White Queen", magic is a major theme of this book. There are lots of references to alchemy, herbalism, tarot cards, and also to the `wheel of fortune', which Jacquetta sees as a reminder that while it's possible for a woman to rise to the very top, there's an equal chance that she can fall to the very bottom.

I like the fact that the novels in this series are written from a woman's perspective, with a focus on how women were treated in 15th century society and how difficult it could be for them to find a place for themselves in a world dominated by men. I also like the way the books take a very personal approach to history, showing how the historical events directly affect the characters and their lives. The present tense gives the feeling that you're there with the narrator as events unfold, and the first person narration creates an intimate feel. Of the three books in the series so far, this one had the most likeable narrator and I've been left with a sense of unfairness at how Jacquetta has been ignored by history.

Finally, in case anyone is wondering where to begin with this series, I don't think it's necessary to read them in any particular order as they do all stand alone.

by Sharon Bolton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.61

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Watch out for the snakes!, 9 Oct 2011
This review is from: Awakening (Hardcover)
If you're scared of snakes you might want to avoid this book! There are lots and lots of snakes in Awakening, from the harmless grass snake to the British adder and the venomous taipan. And in an isolated English village someone is breaking into people's houses and leaving some of these snakes behind for the unsuspecting residents to find.

Luckily one of the villagers happens to be an expert on reptiles: her name is Clara Benning and she's our narrator. Due to something that happened in her childhood, Clara has decided she's more comfortable with animals than people and is working as a vet at a wildlife hospital. And so when the village becomes overrun with snakes, her neighbours come to her for advice. Clara begins to investigate, although she finds communicating with people difficult and would prefer to be left alone. With the help of two very different men - one a local policeman and the other a celebrity snake-handler - Clara is gradually drawn into a fifty year-old mystery which may explain where the snakes are coming from and at the same time she is forced to confront her own fears and insecurities.

Awakening is the second book I've read by S.J. Bolton. The first was Sacrifice, which I read earlier in the year and loved. This book had all the things I liked about Sacrifice - the fast pace, the gripping mystery plot, the interesting and independent female protagonist - but I enjoyed this one even more because I was able to connect with Clara more than I did with Tora Hamilton in the previous book. She seemed a more believable and well-developed character. Her personal background intrigued me immediately and the balance between this part of the story and the snake storyline was perfect.

Something else that I loved about this book was the setting. A lot of the action seems to take place at night and the small rural village feels very eerie and sinister in the dark. There are some gothic elements too, including graveyards, abandoned houses, old churches, underground tunnels and possible sightings of ghosts. As for the snakes, if you actually have a phobia about them you probably wouldn't want to read this book, but otherwise you should be okay. I don't particularly like them and certainly wouldn't want to find one in my bedroom, but reading about snakes isn't a problem for me and I enjoyed all the little facts about them that were dropped into the story without slowing the plot down at all. A great book and I look forward to reading more of S.J. Bolton's work soon!

Devil Water
Devil Water
by Anya Seton
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.97

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent historical fiction set during the Jacobite Rebellions, 9 Oct 2011
This review is from: Devil Water (Paperback)
Devil's Water is the name of the river that flows past Dilston, a village in Northumberland in the north east of England. In the early 18th century, when Anya Seton's novel begins, Dilston is home to the Radcliffe family. James Radcliffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, and his younger brother, Charles, are descendants of King Charles II and were both real historical figures.

The first half of the book concentrates on the life of Charles Radcliffe and his secret marriage to a working-class Northumberland girl, Meg Snowdon, with whom he has a daughter, Jenny. Both Charles and his brother, the Earl, are Catholics and Jacobites (supporters of the Catholic James Stuart who is living in exile in France while his half-sister, the Protestant Queen Anne, reigns in his place). In 1715 the Radcliffes join the Jacobite Rising in an attempt to put James, who they consider their rightful king, on the throne. When the rebellion ends in defeat, Charles escapes to France and leaves Jenny to be raised in London by his friend, Lady Betty Lee. Throughout the second half of the book the focus is on Jenny's adventures which take her across the Atlantic to the plantations of colonial Virginia in search of Rob Wilson, the man she loves.

This book was particularly interesting to me as I'm from the north east of England myself. There are very few novels set in this part of the country so it was nice to read about places that I'm familiar with. I appreciated the effort Seton made to reproduce various local dialects, depending on whether a character comes from Northumberland, London, Scotland, Ireland, Virginia or elsewhere. Although the northern dialects didn't always seem quite right to me, it wasn't a bad attempt and it gave the book a more authentic feel. And the characters never sounded too modern or used language that felt out of place either.

Although I knew absolutely nothing about the Radcliffes before reading Devil Water, you can always trust that an Anya Seton novel would have been well researched and as historically accurate as she could make it, while bearing in mind that it's still fiction and not everything that happens in the book will be completely factual. This book includes two author's notes at the beginning and end in which she details the research she carried out and explains which parts of the story are likely to be true. There are also some useful maps and family trees which I found myself referring to occasionally. Don't worry though, because the book is easy enough to read and doesn't feel like a history lesson at all.

So, I loved the settings and the time period (I've read historical fiction about the Jacobites before and it always makes me feel sad, knowing what the outcome will be) but I did have one or two problems with the book. I thought it was much longer than it needed to be and seemed to take forever to read; the pacing didn't feel right either - some parts of the book dragged and there were some big jumps forward in time, often leaving gaps of ten years. But the main thing that prevented me from really loving this book was that some of the characters were very difficult to like. I never managed to feel any connection to Charles and was more interested in his brother, the Earl of Derwentwater. And another character, who I had just started to warm to, does something really unforgivable that completely changed my impression of them. I did like Jenny (and a few of the minor characters, such as Betty Lee) but because the people around her were so unlikeable, the story didn't have the emotional impact on me that it might otherwise have done.

The Swimmer
The Swimmer
by Roma Tearne
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.06

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, 9 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Swimmer (Paperback)
The Swimmer is a beautifully written novel by Roma Tearne set in the small English town of Orford in Suffolk. It's the story of Ria, a forty-three-year-old poet, and Ben, a young refugee from Sri Lanka.

Ria is a single woman who lives alone in Eel House, a cottage which once belonged to her uncle. She's quite happy to be there on her own; if she needs company there's Eric, an older man from the neighbouring farm, and her brother and his family visit occasionally too - although these visits aren't entirely welcome. Sometimes, though, life can be lonely for Ria. After a few failed relationships in the past she's almost given up hope of finding someone to love...until she discovers Ben swimming in the river behind her house.

Ben, a Tamil refugee, left Sri Lanka to escape from the violence there. His asylum application has not yet been processed and so he's living and working in Britain as an illegal immigrant. Although he's eighteen years younger than Ria and from an entirely different background, the two begin to fall in love.

I really liked the first section of this book and enjoyed watching Ria and Ben's relationship slowly develop. I thought the rest of the novel would continue in the same way, but then something happened which I wasn't prepared for. The plot started to go in another direction, there was a new narrator to get used to, and I felt as if I was reading a completely different book to the one I had been expecting. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though; the second part of the book was interesting, moving and relevant and the narrator was a more passionate person than Ria. The third, and shortest, section of the book also switches narrator and again took me by surprise. Although I found the third narrator difficult to like, I thought seeing things from this person's point of view helped to pull the story together and set up a perfect ending to the book.

I was impressed by Roma Tearne's wonderfully descriptive writing and the way she portrayed the hot summer days in Orford and the Suffolk landscape with its marshlands and rivers. I particularly liked the references to the eels in the rivers which migrate from the Sargasso Sea ('swimmers', like Ben). But at times there was too much description, too much detail, which made the story move at a very slow pace.

I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book because before I started it I wasn't sure if it would be for me. I can imagine that if you've read a lot of other novels about immigration and refugees you might find this book unoriginal and contrived, but I haven't read much fiction on this subject so The Swimmer did leave me with a few things to think about.

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