Historical Fiction: Rags of Time, by Michael Ward

                                      
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Tallant is a promising young spice merchant who has a lot going for him. After all, he is personable, intelligent, and handsome, his father owns a thriving spice business, and he enjoys working in the family trade. Returning to London from a buying trip to India, however,  he is shocked to find the city in a chaotic state. The religious and political struggles that will eventually explode into civil war are growing increasingly violent, and King Charles is too busy fighting with Parliament to intervene.  Expecting to return to business as usual, Tom soon finds himself named the prime suspect in the bizarre deaths of two business rivals. As the evidence mounts against him, he becomes desperate to clear his name, aided only by his best friend and a beguiling young woman whom he has only just met. 



Tom’s search for justice gives us a broad view of London society in the 1630’s – how to engage a Thames wherry man, attending opulent parties alongside powerful courtiers, political intrigue, crowded prison cells swamped in muck, tricks of the trade in falconry, the terrible inequalities of class.Ward clearly  knows how to research for historical detail. Particularly memorable sequences include “shooting” London Bridge; the descriptions of “taking the clergy” while pleading in a court of law, and of training falcons to hunt in pairs, were also diverting. The murder case itself is satisfyingly intricate. The thinness of the evidence against Tom makes one wonder how the accusation could be taken seriously, but because thr charges were made  by persons of influence, it was. (Some things never change.)

If you’re wondering what “rags of time” means, check out the poetry of John Donne. If you’re interested in murder mysteries set in historical times, check out Rags of Time.



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Nonfiction Worth Reading: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack the Ripper, that most infamous of serial killers, was never caught or even identified. If he had been, it’s doubtful that his legend would still enthrall people more than a century after he disappeared. Few of us, other than those who call themselves “Ripperologists”, know the names of any of his victims, not even the canonical five. Though it never occurred to me before reading this book, that fact is appalling. But it did occur to author Hallie Rubenhold, who was prompted to remedy that by researching and writing biographies of  the lives of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Written with compassion and scrupulous attention to historical detail,  The Five is as much sociological study as biography. What becomes clear is that these women fell victim to a merciless killer not because of who they were, but because of the horrific conditions the entirety of  working poor had no choice but to endure. All of the women had been born into respectable working class families. With no access to reliable birth control, their economic circumstances worsened appreciably, often disastrously,  as each new child was born into the family.  Their standard of living was appalling. This was the widespread, repetitive  cycle experienced by each of the The Five. They did not know each other but faced the same struggles. Homelessness is a huge problem today in the U.S. just as it was in Victorian England, for many of the same reasons. Add rampant misogyny to the mix, and destitute women were left with few choices. Hallie Rubenhold has done a masterful job of debunking the myths that have masked the humanity of each of them. Among her new findings was the documented fact that only two of them were prostitutes by trade,  but all were reduced, despite their best efforts at subsistence, to regularly sleeping on the streets.  She posits the plausible theory, based upon the absence of defensive wounds and official inquest reports,  that each woman was set upon as she slept. On other nights, any of the multitude of other women who struggled to survive in Whitechapel would have been the victim.

Among the hundreds of books that deal with the Ripper murders, The Five is the first and only to study the victims. In doing so, Rubenhold has removed the onus of immorality from them, showing them for the first time as real women who did not “deserve ” their fate. It is a well researched, evocative study that restores to them their identities and a kind of justice.

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Books About Books: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s TaleThe Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books about books always grab my interest, and the addition of an English setting and a Shakespeare controversy made The Bookman’s Tale a must read. The story plays out along three different timelines, one contemporary, one Victorian, and one Elizabethan. All three involve the 1558 play Pandolfo, by Richard Green, which is widely accepted to be the source for A Winter’s Tale.

Nerdy American protagonist and ultimate bibliophile Peter Byerly, still reeling from the death of his wife, relocates to England, hoping to resume his career as an antique book dealer. When he happens upon a volume of Pandolfo, which contains marginalia that appear to have be written by Shakespeare himself, Peter can’t believe his luck and sets out to confirm its authenticity. This could have been a compelling adventure, full of danger and intrigue. And there is some of that. The problem is that the two back stories, relating the history of the owners of the Pandolfo volume and the history of Peter’s love affair with his wife, continually impede the momentum of the central premise. The historical details are about Pandolfo are interesting enough, but the love story is so schmaltzy that it swamps the mystery.

The Bookman’s Tale contains a lot of material that appealed to the bibliophile in me, but the book is more romance than  mystery .

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It’s a Mystery: The Body in the Dales, by J.R. Ellis

The Body in the Dales (Yorkshire Murder Mysteries, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Body in the Dales is the first entry in a mystery series by an author new to the scene, J.R. Ellis. Very much a police procedural, its setting, the cave riddled limestone hills and fields of the Yorkshire Dales makes for an intriguing crime scene. The experienced and cerebral CDI, Jim Oldroyd, a man both experienced and cerebral, is strong, well developed protagonist who relies upon hard facts and intuition to solve his cases, and expects his juniors to do the same. In this case, they don’t make the grade, and as characters, fall pretty flat. Most of the dialogue is stilted and sometimes incredibly simplistic. The novel’s other standout feature is the presentation of the cave system almost as a character itself. The author must have made a thorough study of this deep, dark, and dangerous underground world, and its hazards played a huge role in both the commission of the murder and in Oldroyd’s quest to find the killer. This aspect was unusual, hugely informative, and enjoyable, snagging and captivating my interest to the very end. It also prompted me do do some googling about the Dales and its limestone secrets, which resulted in pictures and information that enriched the story even further.

Off to check out the setting in the second book in this series.

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Books Within Books: The Library of Lost and Found, by Phaedra Patrick

The Library of Lost and Found 
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I dearly love reading books in which other books, some real and some not, play an active role. The Library of Lost and Found has the added advantage of being set within a library and narrated by a middle aged woman, Martha Storm, who volunteers there. As a child, Martha used to write stories, allegories, really, based upon her own experiences of growing up within a family tightly regulated by her domineering father. When her parents became elderly and required live-in assistance, Martha reluctantly gave up her own marriage plans and devoted fifteen long, stultifying years to their care. Now that they are gone, Martha is painfully introverted. She can barely remember a time when she had hopes, dreams, and a life of her own, and devotes her free time to doing chores for others. Then someone anonymously leaves a slim volume of fairy stories on her doorstep, and everything Martha thought she knew is about to change…

Make no mistake, this novel is not reliant upon “magical realism”. Rather it is a charmingly told, often painful, journey of self discovery. Martha’s backstory comes out in a series of flash backs, which ordinarily annoy me, but these serve a important purpose both for the reader and for Martha herself, when she is forced to recall in detail some of the forces that shaped her. In her quest to discover who wrote the book, and why it has been inscribed to her by her beloved but long deceased grandmother, she is supported by a cast of vibrant, small town characters who help her along the way.

The Library of Lost and Found is an intelligent, heartwarming tale about finding the courage to step outside one’s comfort zone and face some facts and truths that for many reasons may long have been buried.

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Historical Fiction: Before I Met You, by Lisa Jewell

Before I Met You
My rating 4 of 5 stars

Splitting a story between two parallel time frames has become a popular convention in historical fiction, and Lisa Jewell does that seamlessly in Before I Met You. The novel opens on the island of Guernsey when young Betty meets her aging but still glamorous grandmother, Arlette, at her crumbling clifftop mansion. Betty will stay on as caregiver as Arlette slips into dementia and dies several years later. Arlette’s will leaves a small inheritance to her granddaughter, and intriguingly, a much larger one to an unknown individual named Clara Pickle, who lives in England. Betty decides to move back there to try to locate Clara.
From this point forward, Betty’s story, set in 1995, will mirror Arlette’s, which took place in the 1920’s. Both are romantic tales involving two young women setting out for adventure, struggling to start building lives of their own in Bohemian Soho. Both find low-paying jobs and cramped flats, and both will become enamored of two famous musicians. In chapters alternating between the jazz age and the age of heavy metal, Betty and Arlette each have experiences they never imagined. Both will have to make difficult choices. One of them will face heartbreak, the other, a happier resolution. Arlette’s story is the more compelling, mainly because of the verve and color that infuse her era and the genuine charm of her love interest. Betty’s, which bogs down from time to time, is enlivened by her search for the elusive Ms. Pickle, who turns out to be a lovely example of characterization. The book’s conclusion is truly edifying. Quite often, novels that feature very young protagonists fail to capture my interest, but, particularly in its second half, Before I Met You managed very well to do so.

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Folklore: Fall Equinox/Harvest Home

In 2019, the autumnal equinox occurs September 23, when the sun will cross the equator and head towards its lowest point of the year in December (Northern Hemisphere). On that date, the sun will rise exactly in the east, shine for 12 hours, and set exactly in the west. Everywhere on earth will experience close to 12 hours of light and 12 of darkness. Exact times vary from place to place  due to light refraction and other factors. This is the date on which the sun enters the sign of Libra, the balance, an appropriate symbol of this astronomical event. Because the earth wobbles  a bit on its axis, the date of the equinox varies slightly from year to year.

Fall is the time of harvest, and in Europe, the equinox was a period of celebration known as Harvest Home. Numerous megaliths and tombs, such as Stonehenge, built in prehistoric times, were organized around the solstices and equinoxes. However, much technological knowledge was lost over the eons, and in the middle ages, since most peasants weren’t able to do astronomical calculations, the date of the festival was set to September 25, which the Church named Michaelmas. Various traditions sprang up in different countries. Modern misconceptions aside, there is no evidence that human sacrifice was ever a part of Harvest Home traditions. But there were many mock sacrifices involving effigies of various sorts.

from Eastborne Lammas Festival

Probably the best known of the effigies was a large wicker figure of a man, in England called John Barleycorn. Based on mythologies in which the the god of night conquers the god of day, John Barleycorn represented the spirit of the fields/summer/light, which was believed to reside in the last sheaf cut. When the harvest was done, the wicker figure was burned in symbolic sacrifice amidst great rejoicing. Everyone knew that they had not seen the last of him, because, if all went according to natural plan, he would return in the spring. The traditions of making “corn dollies”, little figures made of wheat or barley, is closely related. The Harvest Queen, or Kern Baby, is made and bundled by the reapers who proclaim, ‘We have the Kern!’ The sheaf is dressed in a white and decorated with colorful ribbons depicting spring, and then hung upon a pole (a phallic fertility symbol). In Scotland, the last sheaf of harvest is called the Maiden, and must be cut by the youngest female in attendance.

Other historic symbols of the season include apples, gourds and melons, and cider, beer, and wine. Sometimes a loaf of bread, shaped as or marked with a wheat sheaf, is baked using the last of the harvested grain.

In the rhythm of the seasons, putting up the harvest led to a time of rest and plenty, before the onset of winter. It was a time for beginning new leases, resolving accounts and paying the annual dues.

Updated 9/26/19

It’s a Mystery: Bring Me Back, by B.A. Paris

 

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For twelve years, Finn has endured widespread suspicions that he murdered his girlfriend Layla, who disappeared without a trace while the were vacationing in France. In the dearth of evidence about how and why that happened, no charges were ever brought, and Finn eventually managed to adapt, sadly moving on with his life, his regrets over her loss never far from his mind. In a twist of fate, he is now engaged to Layla’s sister Ellen, whom he’d met a while back at a memorial service. Finn is contented with this relationship, until one day, Ellen finds a tiny Russian doll on the wall outside their house. What a coincidence, seeing that both Layla and her sister both played with such dolls in childhood. When more figurines keep showing up – through the mail, at the pub, on the sidewalk – Finn becomes hopeful that Layla may still be alive, and perhaps has come back. A series of mysterious emails convince him that she has, and now his happiness is shattered.

Bring Me Back is one of the many psychological thrillers spawned by Gone Girl several years ago. The characters of Finn and Layla take turns narrating both the present and the backstory, and it gradually becomes apparent that each of them carry significant emotional baggage. Although the going is slow, the suspense builds inexorably, leaving Finn and the reader in a delicious quandary regarding the truth about Layla, and that’s why the ending comes as such a gigantic, wtf letdown. Both the resolution and its aftermath stretch credulity way past the breaking point, spoiling beyond repair what had been an intriguing plot. I suspect that a second reading could reveal a few hints regarding what was to come, but I’m not interested in finding out and will leave it at that.

 

Historical Fiction: Green Darkness, by Anya Seton

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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I first read and enjoyed Green Darkness years ago while working my way through the novels of Anya Seton. Like most writers, she penned a single masterpiece, The Winthrop Woman, a brilliant piece of historical fiction. Having discovered my copy of Green Darkness at the back of a bookcase, I decided to give it another go, as it’s set in one of my favorite places and eras, late Tudor England.

Seton is skilled at recreating historical times in her books, and GD is no exception. That was the most impressive feature of this novel. With respect to characterization, it can’t hold a candle to The Winthrop Woman’s remarkable Elizabeth.

The protagonist here is Celia Marsden, the theme is thwarted love, and with religious zealotry and doctrine of reincarnation driving the plot, the experiences of 16th century Celia are replayed in the life of 20th century Celia. 16th century Celia is by far the most colorful of the two, and as she is unrelentingly headstrong and self absorbed, she is the creator of her own fate, about which we have a strong inkling from the opening chapters.The 20th century reincarnation of Celia is more mature and reasonable, but also less compelling. As important to the story is the physician, a wise, learned, and compassionate man who plays a large role in the fates of both women, and it is fun to figure out which other historical characters have counterparts in the future.

Though occasionally melodramatic, Green Darkness held my interest throughout, and while I enjoyed this “reincarnation” of the novel a bit less than the first time around, I’m glad, nevertheless to have revisited it.

 

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Historical Fiction: The Gown, by Jennifer Robson

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel piqued my interest following the  two recent royal weddings in England, which must have required prodigious feats of planning and organizing. Queen Elizabeth II’s own wedding took place seven decades ago, when she was still a princess and her country was grappling with the myriad deprivations caused by WWII. Discovering that the story was told from the points of view of the embroiderers of the wedding dress clinched the deal, and I raced through this fascinating book, enthralled by the details of the experiences of the ordinary women who created this most important gown. The narrative unfolds in two far apart years and places, London during 1947 and Toronto in 2016.

Norman Hartnell functioned as couturier to the royal family during the 40’s and 50’s, and he and his army of seamstresses and embroiderers would create Elizabeth’s top secret wedding dress, with much stress and drama along the way. One of these skilled embroiderers was a real life French refugee named Miriam Dassin, who later in the century would become world renowned as a talented textile artist. Miriam, who features prominently in the book’s historical narrative, will also play a role in the 2016 segments. The second is the fictional Ann Hughes, who takes her in as flatmate. Through their eyes, the reader experiences the making of one of the world’s iconic textile creations, the struggles of commoners during this prolonged era of deprivation, and the contrast between their lives and those of the aristocrats that cross their paths.

The modern narrative focuses upon a bequest made to Heather Mackenzie by her grandmother, a parcel of exquisite embroidered and beaded flowers. Her Nan had emigrated to Toronto from London in 1947, but since she had never mentioned embroidery to Heather, what was the purpose of the bequest? Her attempts to solve this mystery lead her to England and France, where she will serendipitously encounter Miriam Dassin, who had worked alongside Heather’s grandmother at Hartnell for a brief time.

Friendship, family, romance,  struggle, betrayal, and glamour all coexist in the pages of The Gown, which is well worth reading by those with an interest in textiles, history, WWII, and the endless ways in which humans can make lemonade when life hands them a lemon.

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