Rags of Time by Michael Ward

Wool merchant Joseph Venell is strangely murdered on the countryside near London. Spice trader Thomas Tallant, just returned from India, is asked for his opinion on the case by an investigator. Against his will, the suspicion falls on him, even more when Venell’s business partner dies at the house of his parents. How can he prove his innocence? Luckily, Thomas gets some help from the intelligent but mysterious Elizabeth Seymour and his best friend Edmund.

The cover states that the murder was just the beginning of the affair and actually this is a great description. The story has many different plot lines that have nothing to do with the murder mystery. 17th century England under the reign of Charles I comes alive in this new historical mystery series (as I suspect there will be more books with Thomas and Elizabeth as main characters).

The 1630’s isn’t exactly a time period that I know a lot about. There’s a lot of historical context in the other plot lines, such as the religious uproar between the puritans and the Anglican followers of bisshop Laud, the protégé of the queen. We also get some insight in the world of the merchants working for the East-Indian Trading company. I especially loved the description of London, a city full of possibilities by trade. As a result many people move to London and the city is overcrowded, full of disease and with a strong stench of human filth.

There’s an enormous cast of characters. I liked Thomas Tallant, he’s no ordinary detective as in many mystery novels, but a spice trader who becomes involved in a series of strange events. This is quite an original starting point for the whole affair as Thomas doesn’t have any particular skills on how to catch a killer. However, he does have the skill to get himself into trouble 😅.

Elizabeth Seymour has a lot of potential as a character. She’s beautiful and witty, way ahead of her time and interested in science. She also has a gambling problem. But I believe she didn’t get enough ‘screen time’ in this novel to really flower.

At the end, it all comes together. For me the revelations felt a bit messy sometimes, especially the action scenes. I’m not yet sure if I’ll read any sequel though. Rags of time is an entertaining mystery novel with a great cast and an interesting historical setting.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Thanks to Michael Ward for a copy of his book in return for my honest opinion.

The strange adventures of H by Sarah Burton

H. has never known her full name. After her father has died, her five sisters all go their own way. H. and her sister Evelyn go to live with their caring aunt in London. Once there, her nephew rapes her and a deadly plague strikes down, killing one third of the town’s population. Orphaned, homeless and pregnant H. needs to survive on her own strength. But her adventure has only just begun.

The strange adventures of H. is a fun historical novel with a modern twist. We follow the adventures of H., a young Englishwoman born into poverty who, after some dramatic personal events, needs to sell her body to survive. And 17th century London proves quite a challenge: from a devastating plague summer, the Great Fire of 1666 to the Shrove Tuesday riots. This novel offers a vivid historical setting for anyone interested in the Restoration period.

But what I liked most about this book wasn’t the setting. The characters make this book. They are almost caricatures, whereas the plot is a web of coincidences. The narrator even admits this during the story and jeers at the implausibleness of certain events. Normally, this would put me off. But Sarah Burton possesses such an own voice in her writing that it kept me hooked until the end.

The book is divided into three parts corresponding the development H. goes through as a person: the shy H., seductive Doll and confident Halycon. I liked H. most of the times, despite being very naive (but she’s still so young in the biggest part of the book). ‘Her adventures’ bring her in touch with many different persons. Some you’ll love instantly, others you’ll loathe. I was quite satisfied with the ending and am curious if Burton plans to write another novel about one of the other sisters.

This isn’t the story I’ll remember for ages. But I’ll look out for more books of this author in the future. She’s a new voice in the genre who offers straightforward historical entertainment. And sometimes that’s all you need (especially during a global pandemic).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher to provide me with a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

The fire court by Andrew Taylor

A few months after the fire of London, James Marwood is still working as a clerk at Whitehall Palace when his elderly father falls under the wheels of a wagon and dies. The night before his death, he came home with blood on his sleeves telling a strange story about a women in a yellow dress with red spots. Marwood dismisses the story as nonsense until suddenly a body of a woman in a yellow dress is found in the ruins of the burnt city. This leads him to the fire court, where judges are trying to solve conflicts between landowners and renters about the reconstruction after the fire. A case about a place called Dragon Yard guides Marwood again in the arms of Cat Lovett, daughter of a regicide, who’s now hiding at the house of Dr. Hakesby as his niece Jane Hakesby.

The fire court is the second book in a series of historical mysteries set after the fire of London in 1666. You don’t need to have read the first book ‘ashes of London‘ but I do recommend to do so. When reading ashes of London, it felt like an introduction to the background of the main characters James Marwood and Cat Lovett. The murder mystery wasn’t that big. And that disappointed me a bit.

But in this novel, the mystery is the main focus point of the story and there’s a lot more action. Again, you get to read different chapters from either James’ or Cat’s perspective, but there’s also a third narrator. Jemina Limbury is the rich but troubled wife of Philip Limbury, an important man at Whitehall who also has an interest in the Dragon Yard case of the fire court.

I liked the setting of the fire court, as I had no idea about the details of the reconstruction of London after the fire. Taylor again does a great job in creating an atmosphere where you can smell the ashes from the pages. This setting in combination with a complex mystery made it an enjoyable read. There are some convincing side characters from James’ traumatized father Nathaniel, his servants the caring Margaret and Sam, the one-legged war veteran, to the scheming Jemina Limbury, her loyal maidservant Mary and Gromwell. A man as dark as the man whose name resemblances his own.

I finally felt some connection with Cat, now Jane Hakesby. James Marwood goes through a lot in this story. The death of his father, a personal tragedy when trying to save a victim from a fire and conflicting loyalties towards his two employers at Whitehall. I’m curious what lies ahead for them in the next installment in the series: the king’s evil.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite mystery series?

The man in the iron mask by Alexandre Dumas

Our hero d’Artagnan is in the service of king Louis XIV as captain of The Musketeers. What he doesn’t know is that his friends Aramis and Porthos are plotting to remove the king. On the countryside, Raoul is still heartbroken over his love for Louise de la Vallière, the king’s mistress. His father Athos tries to console him. And in the Bastille, a young prisoner Philippe who bears a likeness to Louis, has no idea of the crime he has committed. These events will bring the former musketeers to opposing sides of a conflict at the heart of the Sun King’s court.

The man in the iron mask is the last part in the d’Artagnan romances. As I haven’t read the other books, apart from the first ‘The three musketeers’, I needed some time to understand what has happened before. Some day, I hope to read all these books again in order. Quite a task, I know.

The book opens with a strong prologue where Aramis visits a prisoner in the Bastille. We quickly discover our former musketeer, who is now bishop of Varenne, has contrived a plot against the king. Slowly, the other musketeers appear in the story and I did find the first few chapters very compelling and funny. There are a few scenes at a tailor’s shop that made me laugh out loud.

But when Aramis’ plot falls apart in the middle of the novel, the story does the same. Our attention moves to minister Fouquet and his fall out of grace with the king. There’s also the subplot of Raoul and Athos that I found a bit messy, but that might be because I haven’t read the previous books. Towards the end, the story grows stronger again and I did enjoy the last few chapters. I believe this is a great end to the series and to the lives of these characters that I love so much.

Maybe this book lacks a Milady De Winter or some other villain against which the musketeers can stand together. Now they are at opposing sides while still honoring their friendship. But nonetheless this is again a great piece of storytelling from Dumas and also a fine look into a fascinating part of French history.

This is book 2/50 for the Classics club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Alexandre Dumas novel?

Milady by Laura L. Sullivan

Clarice is living with her mother on the English countryside when suddenly her father decides to take her to the court of James I. But first she gets a training in court etiquette and lovemaking together with George Villiers. Slowly, we discover the story of this formidable woman who will become Milady The Winter, one of France’s most notorious and feared spies.

Let’s start with the fact that I’m a huge ‘the three musketeers’ fan. I loved the book by Dumas and the BBC series ‘the musketeers’ is one of my favorite series that I could watch over and over. But my all-time favorite character of Dumas’ universe is definitely Milady. She’s the perfect female antagonist. I admire her strength, courage and wit.

So I needed to read this book. I hadn’t heard of Laura L. Sullivan before and this appears to be her first adult novel. She has written Milady’s story with tons of respect for the original plot. You feel that she has done a lot of research into Dumas’ story and the history behind it. The novel has two different time frames. We learn Milady’s story behind the events in ‘the three musketeers’, but Sullivan also takes us to her past as Clarice, a young Englishwoman.

I loved the first setting at the English court where she and George Villiers try to make their place at court. I also enjoyed to read about her relationship with Athos, the compte de la fère. But there’s also a setting in the middle of the novel that I enjoyed less. In the convent Sullivan lost me at times, as not every element of the plot contributed to the story in my opinion.

Sullivan hasn’t changed the character of Milady, she just made her more human. A young naive girl in a man’s world. A girl that grows into a villain, a murderess and a spy because of all the men that have abused her in so many ways during her life. She’s a woman that has learned her lessons the hard way. But she still does evil. And she doesn’t hide from the consequences of her misdeeds. You can love and hate her at the same time and so you understand what Athos must be feeling towards her.

Milady is a great retelling of one my favourite classics. It made me want to reread the three musketeers immediately, as I felt that I’ve missed some of the details. And maybe I should reread this book too after finishing Dumas’ masterpiece! Milady has once again stolen my heart. Highly recommended if you loved the original story.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite retelling?

The glass woman by Caroline Lea

Iceland. 17th century. After the death of her father, Rosa has to make a good marriage to help her impoverished mother. When the stranger Jon comes to her village looking for a new wife, only a few months after the death of his first spouse Anna, Rosa agrees to the marriage. After a three-day-ride to her new home, Rosa discovers the villagers are afraid of Jon and that there’s some mystery around Anna’s death. Why did Jon burry her on his own in the middle of the night? And what are the strange noises coming from the loft, that Rosa is forbidden to enter?

Nearing the end of year, I think I can say that this novel will be one of my favorite reads of 2020. The glass woman is a gothic romance novel reminiscent of Rebecca and Jane Eyre. It’s about a young woman that marries an older widower she barely knows anything about. Once married, he seems to hide a lot from her, not in the least the true fate of her predecessor. It all sounds very familiar.

But Lea writes her own gothic story in a unique setting. The hardships of Iceland, a rough and cold land. A country where religion is rising, but people still believe in the old myths and sagas.

Rosa is her own woman and has a strong character. I admire her strength. But she’s not perfect and makes mistakes. And that’s maybe what I loved the most about this book: all the characters are extremely human.

Until halfway the tension is built. You can’t trust anyone and have no clue what the hell is going on. It surprised me that the story took a turn when you get to read from Jon’s perspective. Suddenly you start seeing things in a different light. I couldn’t stop reading until I reached the end.

I loved the ending. It was fulfilling in a way that all my questions were answered. The glass woman is highly recommended for everyone who loves a gothic story or just wants to try something different.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

1666. London is burning. In the midst of the chaos a body is found at St. Paul’s. James Marwood, the son of a convicted traitor during Cromwell’s Glorious Revolution, is charged with finding the murderer. And time is running out. A few days later a new victim is found, murdered in the same way. During his investigation the name of Catherine Lovett always pops up. She has left her aunt’s house after the first murder and is looking for her father, a regicide on the run.

I do love a good historical mystery and this has been on my list for some time. I’m really intrigued by The Great Fire of London and the premise of a murder investigation during this disaster caught my attention.

The story opens with James Marwood, an anonymus clerk living outside London to hide his ill and traitorous father from the world, standing in the crowd before St. Paul’s cathedral to watch it burn. He saves a young boy running into the fire. But the boy turns out to be a girl! Before he can talk to her, she bites him and runs off with his jacket. A few hours later James is told a body has been found inside the church, with his thumbs bound behind his back.

A few chapters later we meet Catherine Lovett, a young heiress who is forced to marry an older man she doesn’t like by her aunt and uncle. She’s looking for her father and leaves the house, just before Marwoord arrives to inform the family the body in St Paul’s was one of their servants.

The story switches between James and Catherine both looking for the murderer and each other. Step by step, you discover what happened. I had hoped to read a good murder mystery, but the hunt for the killer isn’t the real focus of the novel. It’s all about the historical setting and the background stories of James and Catherine in the light of the still recent rebellion and Civil War. Even the king himself meddles in the case. And there is the fire. During the whole book we walk through a burning London. You can smell the ashes through the pages.

It took some time before I could empathize with James and especially Catherine. The revelations are slow and the whole book felt like an introduction to the coming books. The ending didn’t really give an explanation for all the murders but I liked it nonetheless. And as I read in other reviews that this series gets better and better, I’m inclined to give the second book ‘the fire court‘ a chance.

The ashes of London gives a nice and dark insight into the greatest natural disaster on British soil in the aftermath of the Restoration. But for real suspense, you’ll need to read some else.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Or any other books about the Great Fire or Restoration?

The passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Artemisia Gentileschi has learned to paint from her father Orazio and his colleague Arentino. When the latter rapes her and her father forces her to take the case to court, 18-year-old Artemisia becomes the talk of Rome. After being tortured and her father’s betrayal, Artemisia marries the painter Pierantonio who lives in Florence. Trapped in a loveless marriage she fights for acceptance as a female painter in a world full of men. In Florence, she will find a patron in Cosimo II De Medici and a friend in Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo The Younger. Her life will never be easy, but the greatest art springs from sorrow.

Ever since creating a Goodreads account, this book has been on the recommendations list. When I recognized the title in our library, I decided to give it a try. I love stories about art and painters and I adore novels about Italy and especially Rome and Florence. So yes, this might be something for me.

The story opens in Rome when Artemisia goes to court to defend her case against Arentino, a colleague of her father who raped her. She needs to endure some awful things and you immediately get an insight in the male dominated society of Baroque Italy.

I must admit that I didn’t know much of Artemisia’s life and work. But what a life she had! I loved to read about her search for acceptance and her journey through Italy. We travel to Florence, Rome, Naples and Genoa to look for patronage amongst the nobles. I was especially interested in her friendship with Galilei. As he is also struggling to be taken seriously by the Pope.

The story takes some leaps in time which made the transitions a bit too fast sometimes. Vreeland tries to include most of the key moments of Artemisia’s life and adds her own imagination to fill the gaps. The author takes some liberties regarding Artemisia’s relationship with her father and husband.

Artemisia first and only love was painting and in this novel she creates her most-known works such as her Judith paintings and Susanna and the elder. After every chapter where she created a painting, I Googled it to study the details. It certainly enriched my reading experience.

The book reads like a fictional biography. The writing style is dry and some characters feel distant. But I still enjoyed it a lot. I’ve added Vreeland’s other famous novel ‘Girl in hyacinth blue‘ about Johannes Vermeer to my list.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The poison bed by E.C. Fremantle

The beautiful and ambitious Frances Howard is locked in The Tower after having confessed the murder of Thomas Overbury, her husband’s best friend. That husband is Robert Carr, the personal favorite of king James I. Robert himself sits also behind bars in the Tower, suspected of the same murder. One of them is the murderer. The other will go free. Who speaks the truth?

I absolutely loved Elizabeth Fremantle’s Tudor novels. I read them all, except ‘Watch the lady’, as I’m saving this for a special moment :D. I love the fact that she always includes different perspectives, both from real historical figures and fictional characters. I must admit that I was disappointed when I heard her next book would a historical thriller in Jacobean times, published under a slightly different author’s name. I was afraid this story would be too different from her previous work. Luckily, I was wrong as ‘the poison bed’ is one of my favorite reads of 2020 so far!

The poison bed, being the first written as E.C. Fremantle, tells the story of the infamous murder of Thomas Overbury in The Tower Of London. It was at the time itself a real political scandal, and this unsolved murder still intrigues us centuries later.

The story opens with Frances imprisoned in The Tower with her baby daughter and Nelly, a wet nurse. Frances has just confessed and recounts her side of the story to Nelly. She starts with her first marriage to the earl of Essex and slowly we discover how she and Robert Carr fell in love. At the same time, we get to know Robert’s story. His friendship with Overbury, his relationship with king James and his first meeting with Frances.

Slowly events are unfolding and you get some clues why Overbury was murdered and who could be behind it. But at the same time Fremantle waves other historical topics into the narrative. The Jacobean court comes alive with tensions between the catholic and protestant fractions at court, the witch hunts, a king that has some personal secrets…

Halfway, the novel’s atmosphere changes and it all becomes darker. It is a historical thriller after all. The ending lingered on for a while in my mind. If only we could travel back in time to discover what really happened ;).

Fremantle’s writing style is gripping and the short chapters make it a real page turner. The chapters switch between Frances in third person tense and Robert in first person narrative. I found Frances’ perspective more interesting than Robert’s story. Robert was too soft and passive for my liking.

It’s such a shame that I haven’t yet read more books set during the Stuart reign. Fremantle proves not only The Tudors make for a good story.

The poison bed is a story about love, treason, lies and murder. For all those that love a good mystery novel or a compelling historical story. This book has both.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Do you like reading historical thrillers? Which one is your favorite?