Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington

Lucy Adlington is a writer and costume historian. I was aware of her non fiction books about fashion history such as the excellent Stitches in Time but I had not realised that she was also a YA author. Lucy has previously published a number of Young Adult books as L.J Adlington. This is Lucy's first foray into historical fiction and it is a fantastic story, deeply moving and full of intricate detail. The book is the story of Ella who must pretend to be old enough to work if she is to survive and as a talented dressmaker she is determined to work at the sewing workshop at Birchwood. We know it as Auschwitz. It is also the story of the people she meets; Marta, Carla and Rose. If, like me you believe in the importance of historical authenticity in children's fiction then you will really appreciate this book. It is painfully truthful about the horrific conditions that Ella and her friends endure. This is a story about friendship, survival and hope, about what it means to collaborate and to resist and about doing the right thing when everything around you is wrong. The writing is powerful and thought provoking. I found myself re-reading passages constantly and the characters stayed with me long after I finished. This is a book that I urge you to read; eye opening, shocking and inspiring. An incredibly difficult and yet hugely important read. Thanks to the publisher Hot Key Books and Midas PR for a review copy which I will treasure. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Four Horsemen by Gregory Dowling

The second book from Gregory Dowling to feature secret agent Alvise Marangon in Eighteenth century Venice is as fast paced and unpredictable as the first. The book opens with intense action as Alvise is chased by some casino bruisers after apparently insulting their boss and is promptly arrested as the brawl spills into St Mark’s Square. Brought before the Missier Grande he is asked to investigate the mysterious death of another agent. A seemingly quiet, bookish man Sior Padoan fell from the roof of his home in what was apparently a tragic accident. Alvise however is certain that the man’s missing diary will provide some clues. There is a connection to a secret society known as The Four Horsemen and Alvise once again must seek help from the bookseller Fabrizio and his beautiful daughter Lucia and his gondolier friend Bepi. Though his investigations are blocked at almost every turn by the city’s Inquisitors and he is caught up in the dark and shadowy world of a scandalous noblewoman, Alvise soon begins to unravel the curious threads that led to poor Sior Padoan’s death. This is fast paced historical crime with great writing, smart plotting and a host of interesting characters bringing Venice to vivid life. Really enjoyable and perfect for fans of Diana Bretherick and Andrew Taylor. 

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd illuminates the life of a fascinating 17th-century woman

Janet Todd’s masterly biography of the first professional lady of letters has been reissued by Fentum Press 21 years after it originally appeared. In the intervening years Behn has become a regular feature of many English degrees. I asked the author how she feels Aphra Behn’s critical reputation has changed and one of the things Janet Todd is wary of is that on many English courses Behn is often examined without sufficient reference to her cultural and historical context. “She is securely taught in many universities now, in women’s and post-colonial studies and where Restoration literature is a course within an English degree. Only in the last is she put firmly within her historical and literary context. Critical work has tended to concentrate on The Rover and Oroonoko, discussing issues of interest to us now and often finding modern ideas of gender, race and class in her work rather than teasing out her meanings within her historical frame.”
Literary biographies are a fascinating read because they give us a new insight into the author’s works; in this case however Todd uses Behn’s works to open a window onto her life. Documentary evidence for Behn is scant but Todd’s research is painstaking.
Born Aphra Johnson in Kent in 1640, very little is known of her early years but Todd teases out family connections to Thomas Colepeper and through him to Lord Strangford and Lady Sunderland, which may account for Behn’s literary education. Certainly she was fluent in French and well versed in the classics.
She served as a spy for the court of Charles II in the 1660s through her connection to Thomas Killigrew: spy master, theatre manager and dramatist, but Todd is meticulous in putting together the puzzle of Behn’s activities throughout these years. She gives us a clearer picture of an adventurous young woman with an eye for detail and a fascination for learning and culture who had enough daring, wit and courage to take the risks necessary for the life of a spy and of course in pursuit of payment as well as excitement. Behn’s most famous novel and certainly the one that is most popular on undergraduate courses, Oroonko contains such a wealth of detail of the colony of Surinam and its inhabitants that she must have visited. Todd puts together the connections that took her there and the timeline of her travels. Using the settings of her fictional works, Todd is able to piece together an astounding tale of a woman who acted as an English agent in a variety of European cities. However spying was not a lucrative profession and Behn soon fell into debt. She returned to London to petition the King for payment to clear the debts she had incurred in his service but with payment not forthcoming she was arrested and spent time in debtor’s prison.

Determined to earn her living by her pen, she worked as a scribe for both The King’s Company and The Duke’s Company, she translated works from French and began to write her own poetry, plays and prose. She had a number of her plays performed throughout the 1670s and 1680s including The Forc’d Marriage and The Rover and they helped to cement her reputation as a wit. Behn used her plays as a channel to attack those whose politics she disagreed with, often lampooning public figures, but they also display her interest in women’s lives and the obstacles they face, in love, marriage and the games that men and women play. In the 1680s Behn began to publish prose pieces and Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister is one of the earliest novels in English. Behn wrote a great deal of erotic fiction and her open and unembarrassed attitude to sex and the female body made her unpopular in the prudish Victorian era. Her reputation was rebuilt by a number of scholars in the 20th century and certainly Janet Todd’s is the most detailed and informative biography we have. I asked Todd if she would change anything were she writing the book today.
“I would apologise less for being speculative than I did then. I made it clear where I was speculating and I grounded my theories on what was already known but I would now make more positive claims for what I was doing. Biography-writing has developed in recent years … When revising the book, I wondered about cutting some historical context, but decided against it. Behn’s life is so rich, so multifaceted and embedded in other lives, that I think she needs to live in quite a fat book.”
Aphra Behn is acknowledged as an important part of the Restoration literary scene but Todd believes that her contribution to the creation of the novel is yet to be widely accepted. “I believe she should be held in as much critical esteem as an innovator and pioneerbut there is a long way to go …” but Todd is confident that scholarly study of Behn is improving. “A recent large British grant supporting study by a group of academics on Aphra Behn is likely to produce detailed scholarly work, especially about sources and historical links. This in turn will undoubtedly lead to further and more illuminating critical assessments. But not yet. For the present I must admit that Aphra Behn hasn’t become quite as famous as I expected. Maybe in another 25 years.”
Aphra Behn lived a life as full, as exciting, and in many ways as scandalous as any heroine, and whether you are in search of a biography of a fascinating woman or one of a hugely influential writer or seek a window onto the political, literary and cultural landscape of Restoration England you will find all three in this page-turning book.

This article was first published by the Historical Novel Society

About the contributor: Lisa Redmond is a reviewer for the HNS. She loves to read and write historical fiction and is currently working on her first novel about 17th-century Scottish witches.

Jane Austen; The Legacy of a Lady

The Legacy of A Lady

'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife' Probably the most famous opening line in literature. The author was of course Jane Austen who died on July 18th 1817, so this year marks the two hundredth anniversary of her death. There are countless events being organised across the world to celebrate and remember a writer who is undoubtedly one of the most popular novelists of all time, when it comes to the classics Jane Austen is one of the few who is still regularly read for enjoyment and her stories have helped to create a whole industry; Austen-mania is big business.

I am the first to admit that I am a devoted Janeite and just recently attended a fantastic afternoon organised by Jane Austen Ireland in the splendid Georgian room at the Teacher's Club in Dublin. The event featured the performance of Regency music and singing including some of Jane Austen's own favourite pieces as well as readings from her work, an introduction to regency fashions and regency dancing. It was great fun and a fantastic tribute to the great lady.

The stories and indeed the characters that Jane Austen created are now famous beyond the books; in fact there are many who have never read a Jane Austen novel or sat down to watch an adaptation who nonetheless have an awareness of Mr Darcy of Pemberley or the Bennet sisters of Longbourn. Colin Firth will forever be Mr Darcy for a whole generation of Janeites who were treated to a wealth of adaptations during the mid nineties. 1995 was a bumper year with BBC adaptations of both Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion and the Hollywood treatment for Sense & Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet.

The nineteen nineties may have seen Austen mania take over our televisions but interest in her stories had been building long before; Pride & Prejudice must be one of the most adapted novels of all time. There was a fantastic black and white film version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier which appeared in 1940 and there were two TV mini-series in the nineteen fifties as well as countless stage versions. The BBC adapted all the novels into mini-series during the seventies and early eighties. However Jane Austen's stories were notably absent from our screens during the late eighties and early nineties so that a younger generation discovered her anew when the stories were re-imagined from the mid nineties. It was at this point that the popularity of Jane Austen and her stories really took off. These later adaptations played on the broad appeal of Austen's humour and there was an emphasis on detail so that costumes, hair and background were less gawdy and more authentic than the previous adaptations with their polyester gowns and wobbly sets.

I first discovered Jane Austen at school in the early nineties and went on to study her again during my English degree and I loved her narrative style, her wit and the glorious silliness of many of her characters. So having read all of the novels, I was an avid viewer of everything Austen. The late nineties and early noughties saw a huge growth in works; films, books and other formats that were inspired by Austen books rather than direct adaptations, these include the 1995 movie Clueless which is an updated version of Emma set in a Los Angeles high school. Two years later the first of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones books appeared featuring Mark Darcy. These books have gone on to become a huge film franchise in which Colin Firth once again features as Darcy. The following decade saw a number of popular Bollywood versions of the stories; I Have Found It (2000), Bride & Prejudice (2004) and Aisha (2010). Jane Austen is hugely popular in Asia as the recurring themes of arranged marriages, dowries, and inheritance laws which favour sons over daughters are part of everyday life for many in India and Pakistan making the stories both relevant and easy to adapt.

This decade also saw the beginning of the boom in Jane Austen fan fiction both online and in published form. Sequels to Austen's novels and works inspired by her plots or her characters are nothing new Emma Tennant and Joan Aiken both wrote “Austen” novels in the nineteen eighties and nineties and she was a formative influence on popular historical fiction authors throughout the Twentieth century in particular Georgette Heyer and those who imitated her. But after 2000 there was a flood of books based in Austen's world and featuring her characters that range from tales of class and social commentary such as Jo Baker's Longbourn (2013) which retells Pride & Prejudice through the servants eyes to murder mystery in P.D. James Death Comes to Pemberley (2011) to comedy horror with Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) there are even spin offs which are inspired by the Jane Austen fandom itself Austenland which features an American fan visiting an Austen theme park hit the bestseller lists in 2007 and cinema screens in 2013 and the gloriously funny Lost in Autsen made by ITV in 2008 has a modern London girl do a life swap with Elizabeth Bennet. There are also a growing number of websites and blogs were people can share their own fictional accounts of their favourite Jane Austen characters.

Jane Austen's critical reputation has grown and grown and there have been a number of biographies and re-examinations of her work which have not only established her firmly within the cannon of English Literature but dismissed any earlier notions of cosiness or a conservative or limited world view. These include Jane Austen The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) The Making of Jane by Devoney Looser (2017) and Paula Byrne's The Genius of Jane Austen (2017). Our obsession with Jane's own story has also been growing with popular films such as Becoming Jane (2007) based on an earlier book which posited the idea of a doomed love affair between Jane and her neighbour's nephew Tom Lefroy both the film and the book seemed to suggest that Lefroy was the inspiration behind Darcy and while that idea was popular with Janeites it was less so with the critics.

Nonethless the productions, books, films, podcasts and theories continue to appear. What is it that draws us to Jane Austen and her world? A nostalgia for a different era certainly, a life of balls and music, dresses and dancing, but I think what really makes us long to be part of that world is the characters. Jane Austen created people that are recognisable and real we can spot ourselves and others amongst her creations and we can laugh at their foibles as she did. Nowadays we can buy Jane Austen mugs and tea towels, take a Jane Austen tour or re-enact a regency dance but I believe Jane Austen's real and lasting legacy is in those carefully drawn characters and her cutting remarks. I would urge anyone who has only ever seen adaptations or updated versions to pick up her books, go back to the source and see what a talented and funny writer she was.

This article originally appeared on the Books Ireland Blog 

Lisa Redmond is a writer and reviewer. She blogs about books, writing and women in history at

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A Pearl for My Mistress by Anabel Fielding Blog Tour

An enchanting first novel from author Anabel Fielding, A Pearl for my Mistress is the story of Hester a bright, ambitious working class girl who longs to escape the dreary Northern town where she grew up. Her sister, a singer with a jazz band has already escaped to London and Hester too dreams of the bright lights and the chance to find love and to be herself. Hester believes that a job as a lady's  maid will offer that escape. She finds employment with the Fitzmartin family, accepting a tiny salary for the chance to find excitement as lady's maid to their wild and unpredictable daughter Lucy. This is 1934 and many aristocratic families are living in straightened circumstances and a life in service doesn't appeal to the majority of young women but Hester is soon caught up in the whirlwind of Lucy's exciting, aristocratic life and entranced by Lucy herself. but her loyalty to Lucy will be tested when she realises that her Mistress is involved in a dangerous game. Lucy has begun to write to supplement her meager allowance and to express her political opinions which are very different from her parents'. Lucy falls under the spell of Mosley and the Blackshirts and that begins to have very real consequences for Hester. Leaving the young maid with a dilemma can she put aside her own views for love?
A perfect novel for fans of Downtown Abbey, Love in a Cold Climate or I Capture the Castle this wonderfully researched story evokes a bygone era of debutantes and London seasons, of shooting parties and smoky Jazz clubs. The contrasting lives of upstairs and downstairs are brilliantly drawn and the language is spot on for the era. If like me you love reading about The Mitford Sisters then this little gem will be right up your street.
Published by HQ Digital. Thanks to NetGalley and the author for a chance to read this book. You can download this book now for only £1.01 or $1.36 in the USA, making it a perfect comfort read for a wet and dreary afternoon, follow the links below.
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

Hazel Gaynor's fourth novel is based around the amazing true story of Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths; young cousins in Cottingley Yorkshire who in 1917 claimed to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden. The girls take the photographs for their own amusement but nothing stays a secret in Cottingley for long and soon the whole village is talking. In the aftermath of war people need something to believe in and soon the girls and their photos and the Yorkshire fairies are the subject of newspaper and magazine articles and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sends them cameras to take more pictures, but what is the truth? Hazel Gaynor weaves this true story with the fictional tale of Olivia Kavanagh in 2017, who inherits her grandfather's bookshop in Howth. Olivia discovers a manuscript at the bookshop written by Frances which tells the truth of the Cottingley Secret. Olivia is captivated by the story and getting caught  up in the mystery means she can avoid having to make decisions about her future. She is due to be married in a few weeks time, her fiancee, her job and her life are all in London but the pull of the bookshop, her ailing grandmother, her childhood home in Howth and the mystery of her mother's death are all keeping her from moving forward. This is a beautifully written book, both strands of the story are utterly compelling. Hazel Gaynor is a fantastic storyteller. The Cottingley Secret will appeal to fans of Kate Quinn, Tracy Rees, Katherine Webb and Gill Paul.
This is one of my most anticipated books of the year and finally this Thursday September 7th it goes on sale in Ireland. Published by Harper Collins who kindly sent me a copy for review.

The Books that Made Me by Sinead O'Hart

Today I am delighted to have a guest post from Irish author Sinead O'Hart. Sinead's debut novel Eye of the North is published by Alfred A Knopf in the U.S. It is aimed at Middle Grade readers and is currently enjoying some rave reviews on amazon and goodreads. The novel tells the story of  Emmeline, when her scientist parents mysteriously disappear she must take ship to a safe house in Paris. On board she befriends a scruffy orphan boy; Thing but before she reaches safety Emmeline is kidnapped by Dr Bauer and Things sets off to rescue his new found friend. It's a fantasy adventure which will appeal to fans of Shane Hegarty, Dave Rudden and E.R. Murray 

The Books That Made Me

THE CHILDCRAFT LIBRARY/WORLD BOOK: When my brother and I were kids, back in the distant 1980s, our parents invested in the best encyclopedias they could afford. I loved them, particularly the sturdy, colourful Childcraft books; some of the illustrations in my most-read volumes remain bright in my memory to this day. I first encountered Beowulf and Gawain and the Kalevala here, along with the work of Snorri Sturluson - this probably lay behind my decision to study medieval literature at university, many years later, as well as shaping the kind of stories I love to read and write. 

ELIDOR, by Alan Garner: My older cousin gave me her copy of Elidor when I was about eight, and it was the first book I remember reading which pinned me to the pages and refused to let me go. It settled into a corner of my mind and has lived there ever since. Feeding into my budding love for mythology, folklore and medieval-ish things, this is a book I still read at least once a year, and which I recommend to everyone!

THE LITTLE PRINCE, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: The book which inspired me to create my first story (a sequel, complete with my own illustrations, which is probably best lost in the murk of my childhood), this beautiful, meditative story is one which helped to form my way of thinking about love, words and the world. It will always be precious.

A WRINKLE IN TIME, by Madeleine l'Engle: I recently re-read this (along with another childhood love, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster) and, while it hasn't aged very well in some respects, in others it reminded me why it was, and is, such a pivotal book. It showed me the power of a strong heroine, the breadth and depth of a timeless story, and opened my mind to science-fiction and speculative fiction. I will always go back to it for inspiration, and to relive the wonder I felt when reading it for the first time. (It's also the first book I remember buying for myself, with my own money, and it cost the grand sum of three pounds ninety-nine pence!)

THE HOUNDS OF THE MORRIGAN, by Pat O'Shea: This was a present from my father when I was eleven, and there aren't enough words to describe how profoundly it shaped me, both as a reader and a writer. Its vivid imagery, perfectly realised characters and dialogue - which are so authentically Irish, yet somehow universal, too - and fantastic use of mythology, folklore and history, not to mention its absurd hilarity, meant it became one of the foundations of my mind. 

WYRD SISTERS, by Terry Pratchett: I could choose any (or all) the Discworld novels here, but I mention this one because it was the first one I read. I saw its amazing cover art, by Josh Kirby, some time in the late 80s, and made my dad buy it for me despite his misgivings. I read it, cover to cover, and didn't understand a word - but I knew I liked it, and that one day I would understand, so I put it away until I grew up a bit. I read it again when I was older and loved it so much I collected everything Sir Pterry wrote, and he became my biggest literary influence. 

Thanks so much to Sinead for taking part. You can keep up to date with the author at her blog

Buy the book HERE