Can it really be June already? Where has the time gone? For various reasons, this last month has been frenetic and if I’m honest, pretty fraught. Writing has been put on hold and I can’t remember the last time I’ve even looked at Facebook or Twitter let alone added a post. On the plus side, things are beginning to settle at last and I can get back to something more like normal. The first problem was that we had to find a new yoga hall. After investigating several possibilities, last week I was able to teach my first yoga lesson post-lockdown. Bar last-minute Covid complications, my next cruise lecture is now sorted. And finally, I was able to collect my husband from hospital yesterday two days later than originally expected. Though his op was far from life-threatening, it was a tense time while he was in there. It’s great to have him home but it will be a while before he’s active again.
All told, there hasn’t been much time to think about – let alone write – a blog, so I thought I’d share with you the books I’ve enjoyed most this year so far. I’ve been lucky enough to have read several very enjoyable novels but three stand out particularly. All three are by writers who were new to me though by no means new to writing. By coincidence, they are all historical novels though from very different periods.
‘The Jazz Files’ by Fiona Veitch Smith
The story is set in 1920. Poppy Denby hankers to do more with her life than charity work in her father’s parish in Morpeth but all the job opportunities in the North are snapped up by the men returning from the Great War. Her Aunt Dot, an ex-actress and militant suffragette is now in a wheelchair and invites her to London to be her companion. Poppy arrives to discover that Aunt Dot already has an able companion, Grace a fellow suffragette and one of the militant Chelsea Six.
Poppy answers an advert as assistant editor at The Globe – a role that turns out to be sorting out the piles of documents cluttering up the editor’s office. These include the Jazz Files – ‘any story that has a whiff of high society scandal but can’t yet be proven’.
The Political Correspondent Bert Isaacs falls to his death from the third floor to the atrium below. Was it an accident or was he pushed? Beneath Bert’s body, is a letter. Saturated in blood, the letter is now illegible, but it sets off a whole chain of events.
It is not only the many twists and turns in the wonderfully conceived plot which ultimately draws together the many seemingly unconnected threads that glued me to my seat, but also the characters. From the feisty heroine to the evil, manipulating Lord Montague Dorchester and his repulsive son Archie, they are drawn so cleverly that I found myself cheering them on or wanting to punch them on the nose. The period setting of London, both the carefree youthful exuberance of the flappers and London’s social elite to the poverty in the back streets have been meticulously researched and evocatively recreated. The romantic sub-plot also has its inevitable hiccups to keep me turning the pages long into the night.
‘Blood Runs Thicker’ by Sarah Hawkswood
My second choice took me to 1144 during the dark days of the feudal system. The body of the Lord of the Manor, Osbern de Lench is discovered near the top of the hill where he rides every day at noon. His death appears to be mourned by no one. He was a hard task master with a vicious temper which he was always quick to take out not only on the peasants subject to his authority but the wife he despised and his two sons. Even his neighbours had become sworn enemies. When Hugh Bradecote, Undersheriff of Worcestershire and his men arrive to find the killer, they have plenty of suspects to choose from.
As evocative of the period as Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, the harsh conditions of the peasants as they struggle to bring in the harvest and the powerlessness positions of the women are deftly handled. Though they accept their status, they refuse to be bowed down by it. It is an indication of the strength of Hawkswood’s talent for characterisation, that none are daunted by their situation. In the main, the men are determined and there is a definite feisty streak in the women. From the major players in the story – Hugh Bradecote, the fair-minded Undersheriff of Worcestershire; wily Serjeant Catchpoll and his enthusiastic young apprentice Walkelin to Baldwin the eldest son of Osbern de Leche, much like his irascible, hot-tempered father; his autistic stepbrother Hamo and young Hild who is suddenly thrust into the role of Healer when her mentor is murdered – each character is truly memorable.
There are several strands to the plot of this medieval police procedural which taxed me as much as the investigators trying to unravel the clues from the red herrings in this tangled web of treachery, duplicitous characters and downright malice.
‘Blood Runs Thicker’ is the eight Bradecote and Catchpole mystery though as I mentioned earlier it’s the first of Hawkswood’s mediaeval series that I have read. Stylishly written, fast-paced this is a memorable read.
‘The Anger of Achilles’ by Peter Tonkin
My final choice takes me back even further in time to 1190 BC and the Trojan Wars. I must confess that I chose to read this book because I am fascinated by ancient history. It’s one of the topics for my cruise lectures.
Achilles has taken the city of Lyrnessus which now lies in ruins. It appears that the only Royal survivor from the battle is Princess Briseis. The story opens with Briseis holding a knife to her throat claiming she would rather die than be dishonoured by Aias who is prevented from raping her by Achilles. Princess Briseis rewards Achilles by accusing him of taking the city by treachery. Outraged by this slur on his reputation for honour, Achilles appeals to King Odysseus who agrees to investigate how the city fell into enemy hands.
The book’s narrator is Odysseus’s bard. A young man with a disabled leg and poor eyesight but a quick brain second only to that of his master. As the conquerors search the defeated city, they find King Euenus who appears struck down in recent days by a stroke and the bodies of Prince Mynes, his twin brother and Briseis’s two brothers laid out in the temple.
The lengthy funeral rites of those killed in battle must be conducted with due ceremony and Odysseus’s investigation is further hampered by the approach of the fleet of Prince Sarpedon, a Trojan ally. The much depleted and battle-weary Greek fleet stand little chance against Sarpedon’s superior numbers. It becomes a race against time complicated by the fact that every line of enquiry is thwarted by an unknown assassin in their midst intent on misdirecting their efforts. No one is safe.
Among its large cast of characters are many memorable figures, but my favourites are the young disabled narrator, unquestioningly loyal to his master Odysseus and the astute, feisty Princess Briseis. The two work together to solve much of the mystery while Odysseus and his fellow princes see to the funeral rites.
After the introductory chapters, I was gripped by the plot with its twists and turns that taxed my detective powers to the full. The whirlwind of treachery and deceit kept me on the edge of my seat.
Peter Tonkin may not have the following of my other two choices, and I will admit a list of the various characters would have been useful in the opening chapters, but I have no hesitation in adding it to my top three reads this year.