The bookseller of Inverness by S.G. Maclean

Iain MacGillivray survived the Battle of Culloden six years ago, when the Duke of Cumberland -nicknamed the Butcher- mercilessly crushed the Jacobites during the 1746 uprising. His face was badly injured and he’s still traumatised by the death of his cousin and best friend Lachlan. Iain now keeps his head down and runs a bookshop in Inverness. One day, a man comes into the shop rummaging through the books of the ‘old fox’ – Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. The next morning he finds the same man murdered in the shop, with the symbol of the Jacobites stabbed under the knife.

This is my first book by Maclean and I was particularly curious about it because it’s set after Culloden. We meet Iain who owns a bookshop with some regular customers, but suddenly there’s an unknown man looking for Lord Lovat’s books. That man is later murdered and it seems that there’s a link with the Jacobites, especially when Iain’s father – who was supposed dead – turns up on his doorstep.

Iain’s family has been fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie for years and was also involved in the 1715 Rebellion, during which Iain’s grandfather was executed in London. His grandmother is still a great fighter for the cause, but after Culloden Iain’s enthusiasm for the Jacobite cause had cooled down.

The book contains quite a lot of characters and it was not easy to follow in the beginning. Besides the murder, there’s a lot to tell about what happened six years ago and in the previous rebellions. This makes it a bit complex at times, luckily I already knew the history a bit.

Because of this, the mystery is not so much about finding a murderer, but rather about some old secrets that come up again after all those years. I guessed quite early on who the murderer was and by the end I had more or less figured out why.

In terms of style and plot, it was not quite my thing. There’s also the side perspective of Lady Rose, but I did not really understand the added value of her story. Maclean did a good job exploring the time period, it’s just not a story that grabbed me. I also don’t know if the author is planning a sequel, but I’m not inclined to read it at the moment.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

This is book 8/20 of ‘20 books of summer‘.


That bonesetter woman by Frances Quinn

Endurance, Durie, Proudfoot dreams of a career as a bonesetter – a kind of 18th century chiropractor – and hopes to be apprenticed by her father to succeed him. But a female bonesetter is not what people are used to. Still, she and her brother are allowed to join their father so he can choose who’s got the knack. But then Durie’s sister Lucinda gets pregnant and the sisters go to their aunt Ellen in London so Luncinda can give up the child to The Foundling Hospital. Drurie sees her dream go up in smoke.

What a fantastic book! Quinn has such a fine storytelling style and is tremendously good at creating believable characters that you really empathise with. Durie is a sturdily built woman and bold in her speech, which makes her constantly feel out of place. But she is strong and therefore very suitable to become a bonesetter.

Her sister Lucinda is her total opposite and tries to get a good position through the men in her life. And then there is Aunt Ellen, who has built a career on her own through her cake shop, without any help from men. As you can tell, there’s a strong feminist theme in this book. The men in Durie’s life (with one exception) make things very difficult for her, especially the other doctors. Purely out of jealousy.

You would think that a female chiropractor has sprung from the author’s imagination. But Durie’s story is loosely based on the life of Sally Mapp, a female bonesetter who earned her living in London during the 18th century.

There are so many different plot lines in this book: rurie bonesetter’s dream, Lucinda’s career as a stage actress, Ellen’s cake shop, Durie’s visits to the menagerie of the Tower and The Foundling Hospital where Lucinda’s baby ends up. 18th century London really comes alive.

I now urgently need to read Quinn’s first book ‘The smallest men’ and look forward to whatever she will write next.

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

This is book 7/20 for ‘20 books of summer‘.

Have you read anything bij Frances Quinn?

The lost apothecary by Sarah Penner

Caroline travels on her own to London where she was supposed to celebrate her 10th wedding anniversary with her cheating husband James. She unexpectedly ends up mudlarking in the Thames and finds an old vial, used to contain a medicine, with a picture of a bear on it. She sets out to investigate this further and discovers an 18th century apothecary who mixed poisons to help other women.

The Lost Apothecary is a historical novel with two timelines set in London, one in the 21st century and one in the 18th century. We meet Nella, an apothecary who is asked by 12-year-old Eliza to prepare a poison for her master. Nella has a backstory of loss and revenge and now helps other women free themselves of toxic men. Two centuries later, Caroline wanders alone through the streets of London after discovering her husband’s betrayal. Her love for history and research awakens when she finds an old vial and starts looking for it story.

This book immediately reminded me of Nicola Cornick’s books. The two perspectives are lightly worked out and only partly connected and there’s a small magical backstory. An entertaining read, but not exactly one that will stay with me for long. Perfect for a long summer evening.

Towards the end, the story becomes a little implausible. And yet that did not bother me. Penner writes well, knowing that this is her debut novel. And I was drawn into the lives of Nella, Eliza and Charlotte. Of course, I slightly preferred the historical perspective, also because there was more tension in the story. Nella and Eliza must fight to keep their apothecary with all of its poisons secret.

I definitely enjoyed the book. If you’re expecting a little more depth, than you better skip this one. I’m curious to see what Sarah Penner will write next.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite book set in London?

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott

Eliza Schuyler meets young Alexander Hamilton at a soldier’s ball in the early days of the American Revolution. Hamilton is an immigrant without family and means, but he has given himself a name as the aide-de-champs of General Washington. Eliza and Alexander fall in love instantly and get married in the middle of the war. Her friends and sister Angelica immediately warn her about her husband’s ambition, but Eliza is not looking for a dull life.

I usually don’t read historical fiction set in America but I was really looking forward to reading this in the hope of learning more about Eliza after seeing the musical Hamilton. Yes, the musical did this to me. And I’m not ashamed. Fiction, either as a novel, a play or a movie can introduce us to characters and events that would otherwise remain unknown.

Having finished ‘I, Eliza Hamilton‘, I must admit that I’m a bit disappointed. In this book Eliza is so head over heels in love with Hamilton that the whole novel, and it is quite a daunting book, is an anthology about her husband’s achievements and gentle nature.

Eliza either doesn’t see his faults or sweeps them under the carpet. She immediately develops a grudge against his political opponents and eagerly awaits his return every time he’s away from home. I had hoped for a book about the woman Eliza and her view of things, but I got a kind of retelling of the musical. When also the famous affair was soon forgotten in Eliza’s mind (all one big plot to ruin Hamilton politically), my resentment towards their perfect love match grew.

Scott writes quite well, but doesn’t know the principle of show don’t tell. There’s a big focus on politics and their relationship, leaving little room for side characters. Angelica is well developed, but Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Burr… they all remain in the background.

The historical note is sublime and the best thing about the book. Scott clearly did her research and I appreciate that. She just has a different vision of writing historical fiction from a woman’s point of view. Too bad, I hesitate to read another one of her books about a woman I know less about.

Have you read anything by Scott or about the American revolution?

Demelza by Winston Graham

Demelza has just given birth to their daughter Julia and wishes to celebrate the occasion with a double baptismal party, one for Ross’ elite relations and one for their friends and Demelza’s family. But when her father pops up during the wrong party, Demelza hides away from shame. Her next undertaking is to bring cousin Verity and captain Blamey together again. For this, she has to go against her husband’s wishes. In the meantime, Ross has established the new Carnermore Copper Company to save the mines in Cornwall. In this he faces the Warleggans as his enemy. At the same time a young girl named Keren arrives with a theater group and the miner Mark Daniel falls in love with her.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read on with this series, after having read the first part ‘Ross Poldark‘. I enjoyed it but I would have liked more action. Still, I started Demelza because I needed a light read and now I can say that I enjoyed it more than the first book. The story felt more mature with different plotlines that all come together at the end. It was also easier to read that way. The book has been written in 1946 but the writing is still compelling.

I loved Demelza’s character development. In this book she turns into a young women who tries to please everyone around her and learns a few hard lessons in that regard. You feel her struggle trying to fit in while comparing herself to the high-bred and beautiful Elizabeth. I knew what would happen at the end of this novel, as I have already seen the BBC series. There is a lot of tragedy which still broke my heart.

Ross is the imperfect hero who I loathed and loved at the same time. In this book, we finally get introduced to Dwight Enys, my favourite from the series. His character still needs to develop further and for that I look forward to reading Jeremy Poldark, the next installment in this series.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any of the Poldark books? Or seen the TV series?

The queen’s dressmaker by Meghan Masterson

Versailles, 1789. Giselle is one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women and hopes to draw her own dresses one day. But revolution is looming in the streets of Paris and Giselle gets herself involved in a riot. She’s saved by Léon, a young revolutionary, and soon the two of them start to develop an intimate friendship. When things get worse and the king and queen are blamed, Giselle needs to choose between her loyalty to the queen and her revolutionary friends.

I was happy to get a chance to read ‘The queen’s dressmaker‘, a reissue of ‘The wardrobe mistress’, Masterson’s debut novel that already was on my TBR. It tells the story of Giselle, a wardrobe women of Marie Antoinette and is set in the final years of her life during the revolution.

Although I love French history, Marie Antoinette isn’t one of my favourite historical figures. I believe she wouldn’t be that famous without her dreadful end. As a queen she didn’t get a chance to change things. Or rather: she didn’t grab the chance for change.

What I loved about this story is that it also shows the bloody and fearful side of the revolution. The events of 1789 and the coming years are glorified nowadays, but it were uncertain times and the terror that followed the execution of the monarchs made many victims. You walk with Giselle through the street of Paris where no one is quite sure how things will play out as royalists and Jacobins can’t agree on the role of the king in their new regime.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of Marie Antoinette. You feel some sympathy for her, while at the same time she behaves herself as a snob not understanding the real threat of the revolution. But this is Giselle’s story, not Marie Antoinette’s. I liked her character and the fact that she’s constantly in between two conflicting loyalties. There’s also a heavy romance. And as you know, I’m usually not a big fan of those, but I did become quite invested in it this time. But for the wrong reasons. I didn’t think Léon deserved Giselle so I became quite mad at him sometimes 😅.

In the end, this book couldn’t really grip me as much as I would liked it to. The second part is certainly a lot better than the first but the ending is a bit sudden. I had hoped to know a bit more about what happens next to the characters. But this is a good read for anyone interested in the French Revolution and/or Marie Antoinette.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Ross Poldark is alive. After having fought in the American Civil War, Ross returns to Cornwall where he discovers his father has died, his estate is neglected by lazy servants and his sweetheart Elizabeth has married his cousin Francis. Not really the warm welcome he had expected. Slowly he tries to rebuild his life. He reopens an old mine and saves a young girl from a dog fight to make her his kitchen maid. Meanwhile, his cousin Verity has fallen in love with captain Blamey, much against the wishes of her family.

I must admit I discovered Winston Graham’s books thanks to the excellent Poldark series on BBC with Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. I was quite addicted to the series and have watched the five seasons more than once. Leaving behind a gap in my heart when the series stopped, I decided to start the book series. The last four books haven’t been screened and I’m curious how the story of Ross and Demelza will end.

The first book represents the first four episodes of season one. So I knew it would be a slow story and it is. The book is written in 1945 so the ‘older’ writing style makes for no easy read. Especially not since some characters are speaking a kind of Cornish dialect. I was already accustomed to the typical language of Jud & Prudie which made me comprehend the story, but I’m not so sure it will be effortless for newcomers to the story.

This book is full of adventure, humor and romance. Ross is the typical anti-hero. He makes a lot of mistakes and bad decisions but it makes him human and real. I was surprised by how young Demelza is in the first book, her character still needs to develop a bit more to the strong women I know.

But what I like most about the story is that you get an insight in mining and the contrast between the noble ruling class and the poor workers. We’re in the 18th century, so revolution is coming to Europe. There’s also a third class on the rise: new men such as George Warleggan who have become rich by trade and banking but aren’t from noble birth. They struggle at being accepted by the old families. It’s such a great historical setting to start off a series.

I’ll probably continue reading this series and enjoy the storylines, although the first book didn’t make me immediately jump onto the next.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Bess Bright sells shrimps with her father in the city of London. When she gets pregnant by accident, she has to leave her daughter Clara behind at the Foundling hospital where she will be cared for and learn a trade. Determined to get her daughter back, Bess saves every penny. But when she returns six years later, they tell her that her daughter has already been claimed years ago by herself. The woman who took her even knew about the token she left with Clara, a half heart of whalebone.

A few streets further a woman plagued by a childhood trauma forbids her young daughter Charlotte to leave the house. The only exception is their weekly trip to the chapel where they have a chat with Doctor Mead, a friend of Alexandra’s late husband.

I read Stacey Halls other novel, The Familiars, and I loved it. So it didn’t take me long to read The Foundling also. It’s a total different setting. This story takes us to Georgian London where me meet young Bess who is living with her father and brother in poor circumstances. She has just made the most terrible choice a mother can face: she is going to leave her infant daughter in the care of the Foundling hospital.

At the same time we are introduced to Alexandra, a widowed mother who has all the financial means she needs to take care of her household, her daughter and herself. But there’s one problem: she doesn’t go out, nor does her daughter. They only leave their house by carriage on Sundays to attend mass at the chapel only a few streets further. A long-time friend convinces Alexandra to take in a nursemaid to look after the welfare of her daughter.

As you can guess this two women are connected in some way and slowly we discover their background stories. I liked the Bess parts, but I had a better connection with Alexandra. She has placed herself in some kind of self quarantine and is troubled by mysterious fears. I don’t know if being in lockdown myself made me sympathize more with Alexandra, but I looked forward to her parts.

There are some other colorful characters in this story, particularly Ambrosia and Lyle. Halls brings the different layers of Georgian society to life. From the smelly and dirty fish market to the golden cage of Alexandra’s home. We also get an inside look in the Foundling hospital that really was a child’s home for deserted young children in the 18th century. This book reminded me that I should visit the Foundling museum next time I’m in London.

The revelation at the end is a bit rushed. I would have liked a more in-depth confrontation between Bess and Alexandra. But I did get an answer to all my questions. The Familiars is my favorite Halls novel so far, but this one is also a good choice if you want to discover her solid writing style.

I’m eagerly awaiting Stacey Halls next book as I don’t doubt it will have an interesting premise as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any of Stacey Halls novels? What’s your favorite story about Georgian London?