Tag Archives: historical fiction

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar


What a tale! Most definitely a grown up story and all the better for it.

While reading it, I was reminded of Georgette Heyer’s Regency London, but one which shows more of the shaved, itching head under the powdered wig.

Set in London and its environs from 1785, it’s a tale of mermaids and courtesans, fortune and poverty, love and lust.

Jonah Hancock is a shipping merchant; staid, widowed, slightly shabby but just about managing; a middling, average, unremarkable man.  He’s plodding his way through life following the death of his wife and infant son, living in the same house he was born in with his young niece, Sukie.  Everything is transformed when his ship’s captain brings back a mermaid. Wizened and hideous, it’s not the beauty everyone expects,  but it’s still a mysterious bewitching creature. Oh, and it’s dead.

As well as a mermaid, Jonah meets Angelica Neal – one of the most notorious courtesans of the Ton. She posed for Reynolds, entertained the most eligible men, and knew exactly how to please her admirers. But she has been abandoned by her latest lover, left only with her companion, Eliza Frost.

Their paths cross and become entwined to the surprise of Angelica’s erstwhile madam, the ironically named Mrs Chappell. (As an aside, I noticed that all the women in Mrs Chappell’s ‘nunnery’ are referred to as ‘Mrs’; perhaps an honorary title, similar to that of a housekeeper in later decades, but with added services – less housework more ‘whore-work’?! Just a thought…)

Another mermaid is found, and the story becomes a little fantastical. I didn’t mind this element of mystical whimsy as I’d become as invested in the story of Jonah and Angelica as they had with each other; as entangled as a woman’s ribbons might become in her stays if removed too hastily in the heat of passion.

This is an immersive read. At times, it reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in the amount of detail provided for the minutiae of daily life in a long-ago age. The reader can see, taste, hear, smell and feel all the fabrics, interiors, cobbled streets, docklands, whore houses, coffee houses of the London of 1780s. The authors experience working in museums evidently put to good use as she vividly evokes daily life via the things needed to live in a Regency city.

It should be pointed out that there is an eye-raising scene in ‘the nunnery’ as a lavish, sensual show is performed by ‘sailors and mermaids’ for the obvious delight and titillation of society’s gentlemen. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it’s pivotal to the plot and perfectly encapsulates the excess and licentiousness of the age in that part of society.

It struck me while I was reading, that all the characters are questing to improve their lot in life, perhaps by fortune, discovery, a suitable match, or gainful employment.  Everyone wants to be elsewhere.  The presence of the second mermaid – a much more ethereal creature – unsettles the balance. Rather than looking upwards and outwards, those who encounter her start to look inwards and downwards, sinking into miasma. Perhaps the mermaid’s former freedom in the ocean and fluidity of her movements reminds us of our restrictive, gravitised lives in human society.

It also explores women in captivity, in its loosest sense. This novel is full of women but they’re all constrained: in their position in society, in their clothes, in what they can say. The uncaught mermaid is free; perhaps that’s an element of her attraction.

I loved the frequent and delightful use of contemporary expressions and terminology. I neglected to make a note as I went along, but those that stick in my memory are the insistence by one of the madams on the use of ‘cundums’ and a most memorable scene involving the use and emptying of a ‘bordalone’ (to all intents and purposes a Regency ‘she-wee’!).

This is truly sumptuous writing; a sensual delight created by mere words on a page. It’s a truly immersive read and comes highly recommended. Dive in!


ISBN 9781911215721 (hardback, February 2018)

Leave a comment

Posted by on 01/03/2018 in review


Tags: , , ,

Review: Kin by Snorri Kristjansson

I don’t think I know enough about the Vikings.


Daughter’s Viking helmet from last term’s topic; she knows more than me about Viking life!

I do know they didn’t wear horned helmets. Or rape and pillage everyone mercilessly. I HAVE watched and read my Horrible Histories’ Vicious Vikings, I promise. But I don’t know much about how they ‘lived, moved and had their being’.

Now I do.

Kin is the first in a projected series about a young Viking girl, Helga Finnsdottir. Set in the summer of 970, Helga’s adoptive parents, Unnthor and Hildigunnur, host a family reunion for their four adult children. And like any family get-together, there are tensions, quarrels and resentment. Oh, and murder. With plenty of honey mead to ease the pain.

Helga is a good pair of eyes to see this family through; she knows the parents very well but does not yet have the measure of their children.  She becomes, in effect, the sleuth, solving the question of ‘whodunnit’.

There was an impressive detail of daily settled Viking life; I found it fascinating.  This is billed as ‘Viking Noir’; perhaps anything in an unforgiving setting is ‘noir’, despite this being in a Nordic summer. There is blood but it is not too gruesome. The murder mystery element was satisfyingly solved and resolved, although I worked out the twist long before the end.

I read this as a proof but I am assured by the lovely folks at Quercus that a family tree will be included on publication. That should help you to avoid the confusion I felt over the combination of husbands and wives, siblings and relatives.

This could be the start of an interesting crime series. Mere, dak!


Published March 2018   ISBN 9781786489012

Leave a comment

Posted by on 25/01/2018 in review


Tags: , , , , ,

On Victoriana


Inspired by my son’s school topic this half term, I am choosing to read a selection of Victorian inspired modern fiction. I’ve read a good selection of the ‘real’ thing although there are always gaps to fill. However, I have chosen to read modern writers’ interpretations of Victorian literature. Even within this selection I am aware there is a potential range of style: some may almost be pastiches, others add alternative voices to the established canon, some look at a familiar subject from an unfamiliar angle. Most of them would probably be viewed as scandalous if published during the reign of ‘ Victoriana’!

I’m forward to fog and furs,  crinoline, corsets and the Crimea; a selection of mystery, romance, murder, history and great costume descriptions.

Of course, the stack of books shown is another gratuitous shot of books from my shelves; there’s enough material there to last about six months. I hope I can make some progress.

Enough of this: time to read!

(not shown: collected works of Sarah Waters and Scarlett Thomas, and whatever I can find loaded on my Kindle)


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hardy: a Heart-Tearing Man


‘Emotional convulsions seemed to have become the commonplaces of her history…’ far From the Madding Crowd

May has ended, spring might have finally sprung.
I tried to get myself into the seasonal mood, by focussing on the fecund and pastoral work of Thomas Hardy, but – as ever – I was distracted by ‘real’ life such as family birthdays, half-term holidays and (minimal) gardening.

I wasn’t starting from scratch; I had an idea of what to expect. I knew I had to be emotionally strong to put myself through the affecting wringer that is a Hardy novel. I had already read Tess of the d’Urbervilles (and studied it for A level), Jude the Obscure, Two on a Tower, The Well-Beloved, The Trumpet Major, Under the Greenwood Tree and The Mayor of Casterbridge; emotional roller-coasters all.  I remember reading Tess when I was about fourteen (far too young to appreciate much more than the bare bones of the story) and having no idea what happened between Tess and Alec until I studied it again at eighteen. The pool of blood seeping through the guest house ceiling made a chilling impact on its first reading though. And I never ate strawberries in the same way again.

This month I started with a selection of Hardy’s short stories, a mixture of Wessex Tales and The Distracted Preacher. Fellow Townsmen was as hard-hitting as expected: conflict, tragedy, reflection on the pace of change, architectural details – all the usual tropes and themes were present and correct but slightly more palatable when in a bite-sized dose.

9780140431261The main focus of my reading has been Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy’s first major successful novel, published in 1875. I was drawn into the story immediately; I found it not so much a ‘love triangle’, more a ‘love pyramid’ with the scathingly beautiful Bathsheba Everdeane as the central focus. My sympathies ranged between characters, mainly towards the sympathetic, straightforward, hardworking shepherd Gabriel Oak, but also towards William Boldwood, Sergeant Frank Troy (but only slightly), Fanny Robin, and even Bathsheba herself.
(I confess, as I write this on 1st June, my Penguin Classics’ copy is beside me with a large leather bookmark in page 370, begging to be finished. I am desperate to find out what happens in the end; hosting in-laws, entertaining children for half-term and writing this blog have prevented me from keeping to my deadline precisely)

[the next day: finished, with a sigh of relief as it’s a happy ending. Highly recommended, now, where’s the DVD adaptation to relive it…?]

Desperate Remedies was my Kindle reading; I’ve not progressed very far, although I know already that the path will not be smooth for Cytherea and Edward.

9780141017419I only dipped into Claire Tomalin’s biography Thomas Hardy: A Time Torn Man; what I read of his early life was beautifully presented and I will certainly return to his story, even if I don’t continue reading it into June. The artistic tension between his training and work as an architect and his vocation as a poet and later novelist (mainly for the money; he never felt as proud of his novels as his poems) must have strained him at his metaphorical seams. He was also torn between his first wife and his second, reinventing his love for his first wife after her death; almost loving her more in death than in life, recreating her in his poems, more lovely and beautiful than in reality.
His life (1840-1928)  immense and intense chronological tension and changes during a particularly significant period in England’s history, from the beginning of the Victorian era with all the technological development and change, the extension of the British Empire, the explosion of innovation in art and design (architecture included), societal developments in addition to The Great War of 1914-18.

I will continue to dip into Hardy’s poems, novels and short stories for many, many years to come. I hadn’t intended to read much more than one major novel and a selection of poems this month and so I’ve achieved my goal; I knew the pile of books in the cherry blossom tree at the start of the month Thomas_hardywas overly ambitious.
Hardy’s an indisputably great writer (albeit a little verbose at times) and takes the reader on an intense journey of feeling and character development whichever novel you read. His romantic realism is breathtakingly beautiful at times. Some of his characters will always remain with me (Tess, Bathsheba and ‘Little Father Time’s’ heartbreaking note: ‘Done because we are too menny’). I cannot decide whether he loves or hates his heroines in particular; he treats them so badly. Perhaps there’s an element of masochism in his writing which he was never able to put into practice in real life.

As a postscript, I am (indirectly) named after one of Hardy’s poems. Although both my parents are fans of Hardy’s novels and poems (my mum’s a former English teacher and my dad’s an architect), I only discovered his poem ‘Amabel’ about ten years ago while wasting time on a search engine. As expected, it’s a poem of thwarted love and longing; Amabel’s a ruthless woman.
Look her up.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Beyond Pemberley: Powder, Patches and Proposals – A Month-long Regency Romance

I don’t think I’ve fallen in love this month, but I hope I’ve made a good friend to while away a few hours over a pot of tea. (My husband of 13 years can breathe a sigh of relief)
I used to be a little (OK, very) snobbish about light, frothy, genre novels, wondering ‘why would any intelligent reader choose to waste their time reading a novel where you already knew the ending?’ But having spent February reading (mostly) romances set in Regency England, I can now understand why.

They are not especially demanding (some days you’re too tired to concentrate on complicated plots or characterisation), they can be light-hearted (because sometimes life is serious enough), they’re set in a historical era with different manners, customs and a strict social structure (a bit of escapism can be fun; it’s not too difficult to generally visualise the costumes and context if you’ve watched even just one Regency costume drama), the romances have a happy ending (because life is usually more complicated and unresolved, doesn’t always end happily and you don’t always end up with the right partner).

One of my friends who almost solely reads Mills & Boon Regency romances described them to me as ‘easy-to-read Jane Austen’. Once I would have dismissed her condescendingly; surely I would read the ‘real’ Austen and not be distracted by such frippery? But this month’s discipline has opened my eyes. Reading a number of Regency novels in quick succession has shown me a range of writing styles, and various levels of steaminess on the conjugal front. The hero (or anti-hero; the reformation of ‘a rake’ is more fun!) and heroine marry, they behave themselves (mostly) within strict moral and societal codes and there’s lots of description of costumes, material, balls, and everyone spends at least some time in Bath.
Other random things I’ve learnt, in no particular order:

  • What it means to be bon ton;
  • The importance of the look of a man’s legs in tight breeches, once memorably described as ‘shaped like a balustrade'(!);
  • What a beaver hat looks like;
  • That pregnancy or legs are inappropriate subjects for polite conversation (but of course!);
  • Lead: not just for building but used as make up;
  • That not to ride sidesaddle was considered most inappropirate for a gentlewoman;
  • That the true love of a faithful woman can transform even the worst ‘rakehell’;
  • The difference between ‘traditional regency romance’, ‘recency historical’ and ‘sensual regency historical romance’ (thanks Wikipedia).

So, what did I read? Here’s the list:

  • M.C.Beaton/Marion Chesney’s The School For Manners series (6 titles but as each one is only about 170 pages long, they were a fun evening’s read each; I loved the willful-daughter-taming chaperones for hire, the Tribble Twins; although not a pastiche, the author has a defiinite twinkle in her eye, if not her tongue in her cheek; all her novels are good, clean fun);
  • Mary Balough – A Summer to Remember (the second Bedwin prequel; very entertaining but with a few more saucy scenes than I originally expected; up a tree?!);
  • Georgette Heyer – The Black Moth (her first novel, created as an entertaining story for her younger, convalescent brother, published when she was just 19, it centres around a gentleman highwayman settling the affairs of his gambling brother – ‘terribly” exciting, I kept finding myself imagining Adam Ant in his Prince Charming mode…);
  • Baroness Orczy – The Scarlet Pimpernel (a ‘hangover’ from last month’s French Revolution theme, but also a romance in the same era mostly set on the other side of the Channel);
  • Victoria Connelly – The Perfect Hero (contemporary reworking of various Austen plots set in Lyme Regis as a production of Persuasion is filmed).

But there are so many more books I could have read: still to finish Persuasion (to my shame), I didn’t try out Galen Foley, Julia Quinn or Eloisa James (but now own at least one copy of each of their novels to enjoy another time). And I have 46 more Georgette Heyers to read…

Did I miss anyone else out?

It’s been a fun, February fling, but now onto more serious fare: ‘Nordic Noir’ for the month of March. Dark tales of murder and detection in northern wastelands. Any suggestions to add to my pile?

P.S. I couldn’t resist reading a few novels outside the monthly theme: The Dinner by Herman Koch for our reading group (odd, oppressive view of Danish middle-class life), Mutton by India Knight (an amusing story of a forty-something mother reflecting on ageing, and English middle-class life), My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher (for a Read Regional event, enjoyed in one evening, met author the next day; see post ‘The Joy of a Quick Read’.)

 Oh, to be a Recency woman...
Oh, to be a Recency woman…

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2012: My Year In Books

No comment or reflection, just a list of the 70 books I’ve found time to read this year. Marks are given out of 5. RG = Reading Group book; K = read on Kindle. As you’ll see, I wasn’t very strict with my themed reading; will try harder next year.


  1. Requiem for a Mezzo    – Carola Dunn (4)
  2. Secrets – Jaqueline Wilson (5)
  3. The Boy In the Dress – David Walliams (5)
  4. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict  – Laurie Rigler (3)
  5. Don’t You Want Me? – India Knight (3)
  6. More Than Love Letters  – Rosie Thornton (3)
  7. Snowdrops – A D MIller  (3) (K, RG)
  8. Mistress of Mellyn – Victoria Holt (4)
  9. There But For The – Ali Smith (5)
  10. Emily Goes to Exeter – M C Beaton (4) (K)
  11. This Charming Man – Marian Keyes (3)


  1. The Winter King – Bernard Cornwall (3)
  2. Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson (5)
  3. The Wives of Henry Oades – Johanna Moran (4) (RG)
  4. Before I Go To  Sleep – S J Watson (5) (K)
  5. The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett (4)
  6. The Library Book – Various (5)


  1. Dark Matter: A Ghost Story – Michelle Paver (3) (RG)
  2. Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! – Various (5)


  1. The Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (3)
  2. The Paris Wife – Paula McLaine (4) (RG)
  3. Minerva – M C Beaton (4)
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey – E L James (2)
  5. And Now The Shipping Forecast – Peter Jefferson (3)
  6. Half of the Human Race – Anthony Quinn (4)
  7. The Taming of Annabelle – M C Beaton (4)


  1. The White Queen – Philippa Gregory (4)
  2. The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey (4)
  3. Sweet Danger  – Margery Allingham (3)


  1. The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop – Gladys Mitchell (4)
  2. The Chinese Shawl – Patricia Wentworth (4)
  3. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – Agatha Christie (4)
  4. The Case of the Guilded Fly – Edmund Crispin (4)
  5. She – H. Rider Haggard (4) (K)
  6. The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes (2) (RG)
  7. A Gathering Storm – Rachel Hoare (3)
  8. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Stephen King (3)
  9. The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three – Stephen King (3)


  1. The Song of Achillies – Madeline Miller (5) (K)
  2. Into the Darkest Corner  – Elizabeth Haynes (5)
  3. Cameron on Cameron – Dylan Jones (3)
  4. The Revelations – Alex Preston (2) (K)
  5. Death At Pemberley – P D James (5) (K)


  1. A Perfectly Good Man – Patrick Gale (5)
  2. One of Our Thursdays Is Missing – Jasper Fforde (5)
  3. Daughters in Law – Joanna Trollope (4)
  4. Sleepyhead – Mark Billingham (4)
  5. Jubilee – Shelly Harris (3) (RG)
  6. The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency  – Alexander McCall Smith (4)
  7. Pure – Andrew Miller  (4) (RG)
  8. Winter In Madrid – C J Sansom (5) (K)


  1. The Weirdstone of Brisingamon – Alan Garder (5)
  2. The Night Circus – Erin Mortgenstern (4) (RG)
  3. Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie (5)
  4. Poetry: Fierie – Jackie Kay (5) / Family Album – Sheree Mack (5)/ Out of the Blue – Simon Armitage (5)


  1. The War of the Worlds – H G Wells (5) (K)
  2. Then – Julie Myerson (5)
  3. Zoo Time – Howard Jacobson (4)
  4. The Moon of Gomrath – Alan Garner (4)
  5. The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore (5)


  1. The Last Weekend – Blake Morrison (5)
  2. Shirley – Charlotte Bronte (4)
  3. Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon (5) (K)
  4. Emma Brown – Clare Boylan (3)
  5. The Betrayal of Trust – Susan Hill (5)


  1. One Night Of Love – Mary Balough (4)
  2. A Weekend With Mr Darcy – Victoria Connolley (4) (K)
  3. The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals – Wendy Jones (4)  (RG)
  4. The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year – Sue Townsend (4)
  5. Crocodile on the Sandbanks – Elizabeth Peters (4) (K)

So, that was my year. Not a particuarly large number, but respectable for a mum of 2. More comment to follow, along with plans for more themed reading in 2013…

Leave a comment

Posted by on 31/12/2012 in End of month review


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

End of April, end of history (month).

As previously mentioned, this year I’m attempting my first ever monthly themed read. I’m not used to disciplining myself, or keeping to a reading deadline, so although I’ve relished the process of selecting a large pile of books from my shelves and local library, I’ve been reaching the month’s end with a frustratingly small number actually read. I give in to distractions, reading group books, and am always greedy for more books than I can make time to read.

This month I’ve time-travelled between 1920s Paris to York in the 1560s; New York in 1938 to London’s East End in the 1880s; London during the Suffragist’s struggle to the ton in Regency London,  learning much about characters, feuds, passions and romance both real and entirely imaginary.

So, what I actually read this month was:

The Rules of Civility – Amor Towles Although centered around a trio of Katy (narrator), Eve and the alluring and enigmatic Tinker Grey, the relationships spiral outwards as character’s fates take them up or down. Evocative of time and place, his is an interesting debut novel. As slick, glamorous and ephemeral as the jazz age in New York this story is set, I was left wondering what was the novel’s central message.

The Paris Wife – Paula McLaine (April’s choice for my reading group)  I know very little about Hemingway, having only read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, thinking he’s a man’s writer. I was wrong. This fictionalisation of his first marriage to Hadley Richardson opens in Chicago 1920. The slightly naive and gauche Hadley meets the charismatic, handsome, young ‘Wem’ through mutual friends. Both young, Wem is only 20 although Hadley a little older, he’s the centre of his social circle; Hadley is on the edge. It is eventually Wem’s gregarious nature which undoes their marriage. Moving between Paris, Spain, Austria and Chicago, notorious characters from the literary Jazz Age make cameos such as Fitzgerald and Stein.  The couple’s joy together, particularly once their son ‘Bumby’ joins them, is poignant knowing their marriage will fall apart through Hemingway’s inability to remain faithful. Based on the couple’s intimate letters, this novel so effectively captures Hadley’s voice and their loving relationship.I quick online search added an extra dimension as I found photographs of the young Hemingway and Hadley: handsome devil! The Sun Also Rises is now added to my ever-increasing ‘to read’ list.

Minerva, and The Taming of Annabelle – MC Beaton – The first two stories about the 6 Armitage sisters. Recently repackaged to build upon Beaton’s success with Hamish McBeth, Agatha Rasin and The Travelling Matchmaker series. These are light, very enjoyable Regency romances; perfect escapism and easy to flick through a few pages surreptitiously. I’m going to enjoy reading the rest of the series (bought at a bargain price).

Fifty Shades of Grey – EL James  I’m going public: I confess! I read this year’s most talked about book based on an interview on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. I wouldn’t usually be attracted to a BDSM romance (in fact I’m still not entirely sure what it stands for; lots of rule-driven, complicated, sex of the bondage variety it seems), but enjoyed this as another escapist, easy to read, disposable novel. The sex became over the top; after a while I started to tune out, reading more for the relationship development than the ‘action’. That’s my main hesitation about the romance/erotic genre; I prefer sex in novels to be understated rather than overplayed. But now I have to read the rest of the trilogy to follow the story to its conclusion. I fear it will begin to be repetitive and tiresome  but I’m learning some things along the way(!)

Half of the Human Race – Anthony Quin Another novel with romance at its heart, this centred on the lives of Constance, a suffragist and frustrated surgeon, and William, a county cricketer trying to prove his mettle. An expansive novel, I grew very fond of Connie but frustrated with William. I stayed up until 1am finishing this story; sign of a good read! One of Specsaver’s Channel 4 Book Club choices.

As I’m not used to a reading deadline, as we start May, I’m still reading:

The White Queen – Phillipa Gregory This, the first part of The Cousins’ War trilogy, explores the lives of the women at the heart of the struggle for kingship between the houses of York and Lancaster. I thought I knew something about the Wars of the Roses through history studies at A level, but there’s so much I knew nothing about. At heart, it’s another love story (an inadvertent theme this month) with more slaughter and peril than usual. Very enjoyable. I have the other two lined up, alongside some supplementary reading for more historical context.

The Somnambulist – Essie Fox Only just started this story of gothic Victorian mystery. Seems promising, taking a picture by John Millais as inspiration, and it has a gorgeous cover! I love a bit of Victorian gothic.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer A remnant from March’s non-fiction attempt which reads so well, it’s a great accompaniment to anything set in the medieval period.

And I didn’t have enough time to give justice to the magisterial Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel   I’ve managed the first few chapters, settling me into the feel of it, having listened to the first couple of cds of the audiobook. It’s on my Kindle (perfect for reading such a large novel) but I’ve been dipping into it rather than giving it a concentrated effort. One for my (virtual) ‘keep reading’ pile.

And now onto May: classic British detective fiction. Hoping to find some -as yet- unknown gems. Christie, Sayers, Allingham are the obvious starting points.  Any suggestions?


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,