Review of ‘What Happened at the Abbey’ by Isobel Blackthorn

Isobel Blackthorn’s new Gothic thriller is an intriguing page-turner. Written from the point of view of two victims, an abused young wife, and a botany student with mental health issues, the reader is taken into a dour Scots home in the Western Highlands at the end of the 19th century.

 

Blackthorn’s description of the house and setting give the reader a very clear idea of the dilapidated state of the property and the dangerous beauty of its location near a bog, where from the start one suspects something very nasty will happen, if it hasn’t already.

Thanks to the intervention of a Church of England vicar, Ingrid Barker, has escaped her alcoholic husband in southern England and taken the post as housekeeper for the secretive, squabbling McLeod family in the area where she grew up. The role of housekeeper is far beneath Ingrid, but she has no alternatives and a small daughter to care for.

Most of what subsequently occurs is told from Ingrid’s point of view. She is timid and embarrassed by her reduced social standing and, I felt, a natural victim; bullied by her employers and household servants alike. This timidity did become a little wearing at times, I really wanted Ingrid to stand up for herself, but understood why she had lost her self-confidence. Seeing other characters, the aging Mr McCleod, owner of a small distillery, and his three adult children from this restricted point of view meant they remained somewhat flat. We do not learn the siblings’ reasons for being in the house and why they are so antagonistic until towards the final chapter, when the clues and hints and half-told tales Ingrid has been gathering finally explain the tortuous atmosphere in the house.

Blackthorn drops these hints sparingly but it kept me reading into the night. I wanted to know what had happened in the past, and if this put Ingrid in danger. Knowing there were some very unpleasant people under the same roof meant I also feared for the child, Susan’s safety. No spoilers, but the setting and the apparent nature of both family and their servants meant I was waiting for something terrible to happen throughout the book. In this respect it is a compelling read.

Unfortunately, my sense of ‘being there’ was occasionally jolted by modern colloquialisms and a few idiomatic expressions which do not fit with the epoch. As to the plot, there are a few dubious coincidences, but nothing to spoil the story in itself. There was one glaring absence that bothered me, however; Ingrid acquires the post through her church connections, but there is no mention of religious observance in the McLeod household, which in those days, even in remote locations, did not ring true. The bossy cook reads the Bible with Susan, but we do not know if she is Church of Scotland or a Presbyterian, which mattered a great deal then. There are also a few incorrect terms for Protestant clerics that an editor should have picked up.

Having said this, Blackthorn’s writing kept me reading late into the night. If you are looking for quality women’s fiction or an escapist mystery for a winter fireside read, What Happened at the Abbey fits the bill.

JGH

Review of ‘No Man’s Land’, Book 1 in The Reschen Valley Series by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

She wants her home. He wants control. The Fascist regime wants both.

Life in the mountains of the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s is hard and uncertain. The climate and poor soil conspire against the farmers on the mountains, while politicians in their city offices conspire to take their very land from them. This is a novel about national and personal identity, about the importance of family, love and loyalty, and about how the livelihoods of individuals are at the mercy of those who do not even know their names. Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger has created a thoroughly good read that shows how the re-drawing of Austria’s border after the Great War affected humble folk, robbing them of their province’s autonomy, forcing them to adopt Italian as their working language and even Latinise their names.
Central to the story are Tyrolean Katharina Thaler, whose ambition is to own her grandfather’s farm, and Angelo Grimani, who is doing his best to avoid the tentacles of Mussolini’s fascists. Angelo owes Katharina his life, but his father, ‘the Colonel’ is determined to steal her valley for a vast hydro-electric damn.
Lucyk-Berger gives us Katharina’s daily life in well-chosen detail. Sparingly, we see her milking cows, separating the curds and whey, then we see how she faces real dangers such as a marauding wolf after a new-born calf, and how she is unafraid to go out trapping animals for the pot knowing there is a desperate criminal on the loose. Katharina is strong-willed and brave, yet naïve and unsure of herself in matters of the heart. So, when she saves Angelo’s life and immediately falls under his spell, setting in motion a chain of events that link her remote farm to Rome, we know we are in for a deeply satisfying saga.
No Man’s Land is the first book in the Reschen Valley series. As soon as I had finished it, I started Book 2. All the characters, and there are many, are well-drawn. The main characters are complex and convincing; they each have flaws so one understands their doubts and joys better. The residents of the valley are each given a back-story, so one can understand their reaction to what Katharina does, and how and why they resent the incoming Italians. Lucyk-Berger’s writing is economical and so right that the story seems real – which to a degree I know it is because I have visited that part of the Tyrol. At some points I felt I ought to check to see if the characters were genuine as well. This book would make an excellent television series. It is also an appropriate topic for these days. History repeats itself as we currently face another rise in heartless, nationalist populism.
If you are looking for a thumping good historical saga, this is a great summer read; well-researched with a star-crossed love story; absolute political villains versus a village of sympathetic characters you’ll want to succeed. Definitely a Discovered Diamond.

Find this review and many more historical fiction reviews on the Discovering Diamonds Blogspot: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=No+Man%27s+Land+

© J.G. Harlond

 

Review: The Girl Puzzle by Kate Braithwaite

The cover and title of this novel are worth thinking about before one opens the book itself. The author is telling us that at one level it is historical fiction, a tale told about a past epoch and how people lived then; at another, it is a story of someone’s life but not a biography. It is a story: the author’s interpretation of what happened to Nellie Bly. Who in turn was not only Nellie Bly but Elizabeth Cochrane, a young woman shaped by the lamentable circumstances of her parents’ life – which she is determined to overcome. The puzzle starts here, but is quickly forgotten because the author’s lucid prose and excellent characterisation means that one falls into the events of Nellie Bly’s life as if they were happening for the first time now.

Braithwaite has chosen to write about a woman whose published autobiographical work is relatively well known in the USA. This story is told, however, on a dual timeline. Readers new to Nellie Bly’s life know from the start that yes, she overcame the shame and poverty of her childhood, and yes, she became the most celebrated woman in journalism of early twentieth century – and yet they can read each page anxious to know what happened next. This is sophisticated story telling.

Nellie Bly, now a wealthy woman journalist in late middle age, is living in a New York hotel suite. While she continues with her popular newspaper social commentaries, she is also writing her memoirs. Hand written chapters are given to Beatrice, one of her secretaries, to type up. In this way we see Nellie’s first-person account of her life, and also learn what a younger woman thinks about her employer.

Elizabeth/Nellie’s story begins when she is a twenty-year-old anxious to find a job on a New York newspaper and make a name for herself. Down to her last borrowed dime, she accepts a frightening challenge as the condition for obtaining a job: to become an inmate of a mental institution and report on conditions from first-hand experience. Elizabeth Cochrane/Nellie Bly then becomes Nellie Brown, a poor befuddled young woman who has lost her luggage, her family, her home, and her memory. The act is convincing enough to get her into Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. Nellie becomes trapped in the vicious treatment regime of a late nineteenth century mental institution. She is demeaned, ill-treated and controlled day and night by some appallingly cruel nurses. Readers also meet some of the other inmates: gentle but dangerous Tilly Maynard, sad and apparently quite sane Anne, and a number of other rowdier, nastier women who are also subject to the asylum’s institutionalised torture. It makes chilling reading, and I was most disappointed that the one ‘good doctor’ who could have made their lives so much more tolerable turned out to be weak-willed, and ultimately no match for our brave heroine. (More on that would be a spoiler.)

Running alongside this narrative is Beatrice’s observations on Nellie Bly’s informal adoption agency and how the woman becomes besotted with a small girl who has also been the victim of tragic family circumstances. Beatrice is fascinated by her employer, but wise enough to see her flaws – which is how the reader is left to form his/her own judgment.

As I say, this is sophisticated and accomplished story-telling. It is also a timely novel, for while it shows how one determined woman achieved success in what was then in every way a man’s world, that woman was not without her own weaknesses and blinkered vision. This novel is indeed a Discovered Diamond.

© J.G. Harlond

This review was originally written for https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com (21st May, 2019)

Book Review: ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Robert Dodds

Historical fiction / Historical biography

In the year 1490, Brother Jacomo of Seville is sent to Brabant as a Papal Inquisitor. He loses no time in condemning a man to be burned alive in the main square of Den Bosch. It is a public warning: be sure your sins will find you out.

But who is without sin in Den Bosch? Not the local abbess, nor the local artist, Jerome (known to us as Hieronymus Bosch), nor his wife and best friend, who share a mortal sin, nor his serving maid. Nor, as it turns out, the Inquisitor himself, who takes far too much pleasure in devising hideous torture devices, which he insists the local blacksmith makes against his will.

Robert Dodds has taken the creation of a triptych depicting Man’s Fall from Grace for his canvas and created in turn a compelling read. Each character is real, each has his or her good points and weaknesses. Even the foul-minded Inquisitor has a backstory to suggest how and why he has become the man to disrupt and ruin forever the convivial peace of a provincial town.

The setting is Hieronymus Bosch’s home town, but it could be any small town in Northern Europe for this is the late 15th century when ordinary folk believe utterly in heaven and hell, and that they must do all they can to lighten their burden for the Day of Judgment. The story opens and unfolds in a quiet fashion befitting the location, yet it is a page-turner, and by no means predictable. The artist’s wife and friend and servant share a not uncommon secret, but even that does not play out as one might expect. Dodds’ writing is exceptional: he draws in his reader gently, almost subtly, and I found myself reading on long after I should have put down the book down each evening. The Garden of Earthly Delights is skilfully crafted, well-written, informative and enjoyable.

This review was originally written for Discovering Diamonds Reviews: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com

To learn more about how and why Robert Dodds wrote this book go to: https://www.robertdodds.com/the-garden-of-earthly-delights.html

© J.G. Harlond

 

Review of Charlatan by Kate Braithwaite

In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV. Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges. At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin. (Amazon)

This clever novel has been skillfully crafted from seventeenth century French prison archive material and official transcripts resulting from hours and hours, years and years of interrogations into what one might loosely term ‘witchcraft’.

The story opens with a flashback to a black mass, where a priest is conducting a ceremony over the body of a naked female. The reader witnesses the scene from different points of view and from that moment we are aware that a practised charlatan is at work. We are also invited to guess the identities of an aristocratic observer and her servant, although this is called into question later. Much is called into question later as little by little we come to know the people involved in this scene; their fears and motivations, their personalities and ambitions.

The story follows three principal players in the investigation into La Voisin’s trade, for she is who is far more than a mere fortune-teller: Bezons, a young, somewhat naïve police agent; the daughter of the fortune-teller, Marie Montvoisin; and Madame de Montespan, one-time mistress of the King of France and mother to seven of his children. As the story unfolds, we learn about these three very real people and start to understand what drives them, and this is where Kate Braithwaite’s skill lies. Madame de Montespan wants – needs – far more than a simple return to the King’s favours; she has her extended family’s future to consider – as her demanding sister constantly reminds her. She also wants the King to legitimize their children. It calls into question just how far she is prepared to go to achieve all this. Marie’s situation is less complex but far sadder, something the initially innocent young policemen picks up on, to his detriment. He feels sorry for the girl, allows himself to be seduced by her then begins to doubt how far she is prepared to go to achieve her freedom. Behind the scenes and acting almost as a running commentary on the events is the self-confessed charlatan, Lesage, whose cynical world view informs on what is happening in the prison.

Chateau de Versailles

Apart from the sinister background to the trials, there is no overly-dramatic action in this novel and at times it feels rather static. Madame de Montespan moves between royal apartments and a convent; Marie and Bezons’ interaction takes place in a prison room. Initially, I wondered when the story was going to get started, but then realised that the narrative is a form of trial or examination in itself. The dialogue is handled with such finesse that as I learned certain details I simply had to read on to confirm my suspicions. The characters are complex, and there are definite turning points, but on the whole this is a quiet, contemplative novel. Kate Braithwaite has crafted a compelling and convincing piece of writing out of a real-life scandal. I look forward to reading more of her work.

(This review was originally published for Discovering Diamonds on 5th June, 2017: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/p/our-reviewers.html)

The Last Royal Rebel

by Anna Keay (Bloomsbury, 2016)

During the horrific, botched execution of James, Duke of Monmouth, in 1685, the crowd remained silent and ‘many cried’, until, incensed by the ‘barbarous usage’ of the duke, they surged forward and would have torn the executioner to pieces had soldiers not prevented it. Yet the label on Monmouth’s portrait in the National Gallery reads: ‘charming, ambitious, unprincipled’. In The Last Royal Rebel, the Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth, Anna Keay shows us a complex, often contradictory man: a frivolous, pampered royal bastard with an astute political mind; a gambling spendthrift who becomes a war hero; a much-maligned man brought low by his sense of what was right and fair, and his need to be loved by his father. Continue reading “The Last Royal Rebel”

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