If I Gave the Award

I recently posted my last review of the books on the shortlist for the 2010 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. So, as usual, it’s time for my feature, If I Gave the Award, when I tell you if I think the jury got it right.

Cover for Conspirata2010 was a strong year for historical fiction, and the shortlist reflects that. Of the seven books on that year’s list, I really enjoyed four of them, liked one other, and didn’t enjoy two others as much. Of the weakest entries, I felt that The Glass Room by Simon Mawer was cold and withdrawn, and I did not enjoy the subject matter of Hodd by Adam Thorpe, although it was effective at evoking the historical period. The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds was interesting, but I still felt removed from the subject.

Cover for Wolf HallThe strongest entries, in my opinion, were Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, Lustrum by Robert Harris (published as Conspirata in the U.S.), Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears, and the winner, Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel. Sacred Hearts, Lustrum, and Wolf Hall were best at evoking a sense of period and place, while Stone’s Fall had a great mystery.

If you follow my blog closely, however, you can probably guess which one I will pick. Wolf Hall was on my Best Books list for the year 2012. It is, in fact, one of my favorite books ever. So, I agree with the jury this time.

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Day 1169: A Treacherous Curse

Cover for A Treacherous CurseA Treacherous Curse is the third Veronica Speedwell novel by Deanna Raybourn. I don’t think much is lost in reading the novel out of order. Background information is provided as you go.

Veronica Speedwell is apparently a woman well ahead of her time. She is a scientist and a feminist who believes in free sex. She wears trousers and picks locks. She is also the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales. Is she a very likely character for 1888? Not so much.

Veronica and her professional partner, Stoker, are working with a collection of artifacts when they begin hearing about a curse on the Tiverton expedition to Egypt. Soon, the news of the expedition affects Stoker, whose wife deserted him for John de Morgan, a member of the expedition. De Morgan and his wife left the expedition, apparently with the diadem, one of its most important finds. His wife has returned to her parents, but de Morgan is nowhere to be found.

The police want to question Stoker about de Morgan, because their enmity is well known. The story has reopened all the rumors of Stoker’s disastrous expedition to the Amazon, where he was left for dead by his wife and de Morgan, and the lies they told about his relations with his wife. So, Stoker decides he must find de Morgan to clear his name. Any notion that he is going to do this without Veronica’s assistance, he must speedily dismiss.

Concerned parties are the Tivertons and their assistant, Mr. Fairbrother, and Caroline de Morgan. Stoker and Veronica begin looking into the incident, but they can find no trace of de Morgan beyond his landing in Dover. Oddly, though, apparitions of the god Anubis, which haunted the Tiverton expedition, have now relocated to London.

For some time, I followed Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series, a mashup of the mystery and romance genres. I tired of the series because of the cliché of the couple always arguing about the wife taking part in the investigation. Apparently, Raybourn has decided to hold the couple of Stoker and Veronica apart indefinitely, maybe hoping to avoid this problem.

link to NetgalleyBut I don’t like Veronica nearly as well as I did Lady Julia, and there is something about the breezy, sometimes slightly racy narration that I find irritating. Too many young men are stripping to the waist for no apparent reason, for one thing, in a time that was much more modest than our own. As I mentioned before, I find Veronica not very believable for the time period.

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Day 1168: Hodd

Cover for HoddI was never one for the romantic legends of Robin Hood. I always thought that, if he did exist, he was probably just the leader of a gang of thugs. And such, apparently, is indicated by the older ballads about him. In Hodd, Adam Thorpe weaves a story of the man that is closer to that told by the older ballads.

This novel is all about the manuscript, as the text of Hodd is supposedly the find of a medieval manuscript, written by a 13th century monk. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is writing the story of his youth. The novel includes scholarly notes from its translator and comments by its discoverer, a soldier in World War I. Some of these notes are funny, and some, I think, are meant to be parodic.

The narrator is about 14 when he is traveling with his master, a monk named Thomas, to Nottingham. They are held up by Hodd’s men and the narrator’s harp is stolen. He decides to go back and get it and is captured by Robert Hodd and his men.

Hodd is actually a sort of lunatic cult leader, who believes that there is no sin and that he is better than God. His followers believe him. He keeps himself intoxicated and has constant visions. He and his men are utterly ruthless and cruel. But rather than killing the narrator, Hodd decides to keep him as one of his men. He is a musician, and he can write songs about Hodd.

The narrator tells a parallel story of his education and upbringing by a holy hermit. This story continues throughout the book and comes in strongly at the end.

I think Thorpe realistically imagines the workings of the medieval mind, showing us strange beliefs. As such, this is a very unusual novel. I could have done without some of the religious moralizing, which filled the novel, as it would a medieval manuscript.

If you are a reader who needs a character to like, this is probably not the book for you, for even the relatively innocent narrator is perfidious. He so much wants to be loved that his jealousy turns him against people.

This is another interesting book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1167: My Darling Detective

Cover for My Darling DetectiveMy Darling Detective is an absolutely charming book. It is not a conventional mystery novel, despite its title. Instead, it focuses more on the characters’ everyday lives.

In 1970’s Halifax, Jacob Rigolet is attending an auction, bidding for his employer on a photograph from World War II, when a woman runs in and splashes the photo with a bottle of ink. To Jake’s horror, the woman is his mother, who is supposed to be safely tucked up at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital.

Jake’s fianceé, Martha Crauchet, is a detective who has caught a cold case that she thinks may be related to this incident. Back in 1945, the year Jake was born, Detective Robert Emil was suspected of murdering and assaulting some Jewish citizens of Halifax. A woman who identified him as being near the victim at the time of the murder disappeared. The connection Martha sees is that Emil also attacked Jake’s mother during the same time period, the same day Jake was born, in fact. Alert Martha also realizes that Bernard Rigolet could not possibly be Jake’s father, as he had been deployed to Europe for a year when Jake was born and in fact died in Germany two days after his birth.

Nora Rigolet’s breakdown is also a mystery. Long a respected librarian at the Halifax Free Library, she was committed after an incident in which she appeared to believe the war had just ended. In the midst of this breakdown, she set up a display in the library of photos by the same photographer whose work she tried to deface three years later at the auction. This photo, called “Death on a Leipzig Balcony,” actually shows Bernard Rigolet in battle one day before he was killed.

As Martha and her two partners, Hodgson and Tides, gather evidence against ex-Detective Emil, Martha tries to get to know Nora, to uncover the events surrounding Jake’s birth. This novel is said to be an homage to film noir, but it’s not really noirish. The charm of this novel lies in the relationship between Martha and Jake, with their honest and funny discussions, their love of the radio program Detective Levy Detects, and the details of their everyday lives.

This is a charming and likable novel, with amusing dialogue. I understand that Norman is known for his novels set in the Maritimes, and I will be seeking out more.

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Day 1166: The Mingham Air

Cover for The Mingham AirA broken engagement followed by a bout of pneumonia brings Hester Clifford to Mingham and her godmother, Cecily Hutton, for recovery. She is inclined to think the Huttons need some organizing. Cecily is a woman of two moods, the creative and the motherly, of which the creative is the predominant. So, her household is poorly run. Her husband, Bennet, has been an invalid for so long that invalidism has become more of a habit than a necessity. Maggie works hard on a nearby farm, but Cecily is constantly scolding her for her dress and general messy appearance. Derek can’t decide what to do with his life, so keeps changing jobs.

The Huttons used to be friendly with Thomas Seamark, but since his wife’s death four years ago, he has become a bit of a recluse. Hester thinks it’s about time the friendship was renewed, and her efforts are successful. This renewed acquaintance leads Cecily to the conclusion that Hester would make a perfect wife for Thomas. She becomes so convinced of this that she doesn’t even notice she is putting obstacles in the way of his pursuit of her daughter, Maggie.

Like Fair’s other novels, The Mingham Air is full of colorful village characters, like Mrs. Hyde-Ridley who competes with her closest friend to entertain her while spending the least possible money, and Mrs. Merlin, the rector’s wife, who co-ops the parish féte for a display of country dancing. I enjoy these light novels, which contain just the slightest edge.

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Day 1165: The Winter Isles

In the 12th century, a boy warrior named Somerled in the islands west of what would become Scotland began leading his father’s small band out of obscurity. His father was ineffectual. After a victory, he failed to post guards while his people celebrated, and they were nearly annihilated, driven from their home. Afterwards, the much smaller band moves back to the caves where they first lived when they came from the mainland. But Somerled’s friend Eimhear, nicknamed Otter, is taken away by her father, who returns to the mainland.

The Winter Isles follows the rise of Somerled as he becomes Lord of the Isles. It also follows the love story between Somerled and Eimhear. Much of the novel is devoted to battles, as Somerled takes on one lord after another.

Although the novel covers an interesting period and person, it is only a middling success as a historical novel. It does not have the depth of feeling of the period or character that I expect from a really good historical novel. Characters have a few characteristics rather than distinct personalities, and we are mostly left to imagine the details of ordinary life that make a good historical novel convincing.

It was interesting to read about Somerled, but for a fuller experience of a similar time and a similar character, try King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, the queen of the historical novel.

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