If you like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake (28th March 2019)

It has been nice to see so many people picking up the Shardlake series recently on booktube and instagram. I remember when I first read Dissolution many years ago, I was so smitten with it, I immediately started looking for books that were similar. And this has continued to this day. So I thought I share today some of the books that I think may appeal if you like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, set in Henry VIII’s England.

S.J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno Series

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The first book in the series is called “Heresy” and sets the tone nicely for the overarching theme of the book: Religious tensions leading to political intrigue. We are in Elizabeth I’s England and the religious situation for those of Catholic (or other faith’s) is difficult in England and all over Europe religious tensions are growing. Giordano Bruno was a real person and he really came to England and Parris weaves a wonderful fictional world around him. A former monk, he was on the run from the Inquisition in Italy and sought refuge in England. Officially, he is in England to take part in a debate about Copernicus’ findings, but then some grizzly murders happen and he starts to investigate.

There are currently 5 books out and book 6 is scheduled for publication later in the year.

Publisher: HarperCollins

 


PF Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey Series

We stay in Elizabethan England for this series, but venture north. Sir Robert Carey is another real historical figure and with a modicum of creative license Chisholm brings him alive wonderfully in this series. I was instantly smitten with this daring, intelligent man – even though he is also a bit stupid. His father was the first cousin of Elizabeth, some rumours say half brother, Tudor family politics are nothing if not complicated. In 1596 towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Carey is appointed as Warden of the Middle Marches which is essentially the border region with Scotland. An area of great unrest at that time, skirmishes between Scots and English on a daily basis, chief amongst them cattle theft. In the books, Carey arrives into a badly managed fort with people on his forces that have rather different allegiances and priorities than serving their Queen.

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There are 9 books in the series, the most recent one only published last year.

Published by Head of Zeus and Poisoned Pen Press.


Ellis Peter’s Cadfael

Before there was Shardlake, there was Cadfael. I discovered the Cadfael series as a teenager back in the 80ies and I was a loyal devotee from the first book. The series was hugely popular in Germany, Germans do love historical fiction set in the Middle Ages and you will find the historical fiction section full of titles like this. What I loved the most about Peter’s books was the sense of place. She evokes Shrewsbury of the 12th century so vividly, it is just such a joy to read. We follow Cadfael a Benedictine monk, a conversus who only joined the order in his 40ies and was a warrior in the crusades before. As someone who always has been interested in herbs and their properties, I loved the little side notes on Cadfael’s herbal preparations for healing. Peters sets Cadfael’s chronicles in the year’s of the Anarchy, 1137 to 1145, a turbulent time and in particular what is now Shropshire saw itself frequently torn between the factions. Needless to say that murders happen in each of the novels, but Peters skilfully weaves the wider historical aspects and conflicts into the story. A joy to read.

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There are 20 books in the series and some short stories.

Publisher, various imprints, now Macmillan


SG MacLean’s Alexander Seaton series

We are leaving the Middle Ages behind and move to 17th century Scotland. Alexander Seaton is set to become a minister of the Kirk, but due to a revelation of an event in his past, the Session rejects his application. Set in Banff in the 1620ies, Maclean masterfully brings Scotland alive, no dashing Highlanders sweeping time travellers of their feet, but a young scholar plagued with guilt desperately trying to redeem himself and to get a grip of his guilt. When one of his last remaining friends is accused of murder, Alexander tries to prove his innocence. I have rarely read a book that both gave me such insight into events of a historical period I had little idea of, but at the same time also really made me understand how people thought at the time. I read all the books in this series in short succession and then moved on to her next series (which you will find below).

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There are 4 books in this series and the series is complete.

Published by Quercus


SG Maclean’s Seeker series

Yes, I mention the same author twice, because I truly love her books and in my personal opinion her books are far too underrated and deserve a wider audience.

Damian Seeker is an officer in Cromwell’s army. The series starts in 1654 during Cromwell’s Protectorate (which ends in 1660 with the Restoration of the Monarchy) and a murder happens in one of London’s new coffee houses. Seeker investigates as it may be linked to a wider conspiracy to bring back the King.  Intrigue, betrayal and murder. I love how we get to know Seeker slowly, he is a mystery that needs to be solved as well, some excellent female characters in this series too, in particular a female villain, we love to hate.

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There are currently 3 books in the series and book 4 (The Bear Pit) is coming out in July 2019

Published by Quercus


Ruth Downie’s Medicus series

I am currently listening to this series after having read them a few years ago. Highly addictive material. Ruso, a doctor with the Roman Legions, arrives in today’s Chester virtually broke, just having lost his father and divorcing his wife. He was not particularly keen to end up in this outpost of the Roman Empire, but needs must. Within days of his arrival, he finds a female corpse that no one wants to deal with and then he saves a slave girl and that adds to his troubles. His boss, Deva is also constantly on his case and, yes, he continues to be broke. I absolutely love this series and how Downie imagines Roman Britain.

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Currently 8 books in the series, the most recent one published last year.

Published by Bloomsbury


There are more books I could talk about, but I think I keep it at this length for now. Any books you want to add? Any series, I should be aware off? Any great new first book in series coming out? Please let me know in the comments.

 

And mother is dead

We were reading Pippi Longstocking. The child then about 4 asked: But what happened to Pippi’s Mommy. Me: She is dead. Child: Ah ok, at least Pippi has a horse and a monkey. Yes, indeed, dear child of mine, she does have that.  At that age, the fact that mothers were quite often dead and fathers were mostly absent did not bother the kid. That came later, once her own mother nearly succumbed to pneumonia, the possibility of a parent dying became something tangible and for a long time, she avoided narratives with dead mothers like the plague. And let me tell you: finding stories with parents around and healthy is quite difficult.

Now, I understand why parents in children’s books are often dead or away: It makes it easier to explain how the kid can take such tremendous risks, go on adventures without anyone shouting “bedtime” or “brush your teeth”. It is just simpler and more straightforward if there are no parents. A lot less explaining to do.

20893529And the whole dead and absent parent thing is not new at all. Look at the Little Princess. Heidi moves in with Grandpa after her aunt takes a job in Frankfurt, both her parents are dead. Before that, the brother’s Grimm collected folk stories and a lot of them speak of absent, dead or cruel parents, which you may argue reflected reality for a lot of children then.

When I was little, I preferred stories of whole families, because I did not have one. The dead/absent parent thing was not something I needed to explore, nor did I need to explore the cruel parent thing. I wanted to be Annika rather than Pippi with a mother who tucks the kids at night and a father who leaves to go to work each morning. I wanted to be the Nesthaekchen, adored by a large family even though she was a lot naughtier than I would have ever been. As much as we seek reading material that reflect our lives, we also want to explore what life could be like. If you have healthy parents, exploring how to overcome hardship after your parents die will be fascinating. It teaches empathy and the “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. It also teaches you about independence, consequences of decisions without the parental safety net. You can also explore how it would be to be brave or ask yourself what you would do yourself in certain situations, this being something I still often ask myself as an adult reader.

I admit that at times, I groan when there is another story of “mother is dead and father is away”, but I truly understand the doors it opens for storytelling. I am not quite ready to say “The mother is dead, long live the mother”, but I feel we need to accept that this aspect of storytelling will stay with us for good and for valid reasons.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

39087664The latest Maisie Dobbs – The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear is coming out on the 26th of March and I was lucky enough to get a review copy via Edelweiss. Thank you so much.

Naturally, I do not want to talk to much about the plot, this is book 15 in the series and naturally, things happen along the way, you would want to find out for yourself as you are reading them. Let’s just say this: The Blitz has started and London (and the rest of the country) experiences horrific bombing attacks each and every night. Everyone is tired but doing their bit despite the fear. At this time, a young woman is found murdered and Maisie is asked to investigate.

I have read this series for a long time, so I am always in the state of waiting for the next instalment, but I really like it that way. Every time it feels like I am meeting my old friends again. The books are easy to read, brilliant for escapism yet they deal with subjects like grief and loss, but are never without hope. In fact, I would say the main storylines of these books are resilience, failing and starting again. Certainly something I can identify with.

The Maisie Dobbs books are often looked down upon by more “serious” readers, and yes, they are not literary fiction, but so often the things women enjoy to do or read is being ridiculed, so we must just ignore that. Otherwise, we never get to do anything we truly enjoy. If you like historical mysteries, then you may just like this series. If you just want to sit down and read something that takes you away for a few hours, then these books may be for you. Whether you will enjoy the books or not will depend on whether or not, you gel with Maisie herself. I do. I find a lot of things in common with her, but also plenty that frustrates me about her. And that keeps me reading.

This latest instalment I read in one sitting as I did with all the other books. I am looking forward what the rest of WWII will bring to Maisie and her family and friends.


ebook, 384 pages

Expected publication: March 26th 2019 by Harper

The Way Home – Mark Boyle

42515426 (1)Mark Boyle may be known to you as the Moneyless Man; after the financial crash in 2008, he decided to live for a year without exchanging anything for money. Not being paid, nor paying money for anything either. I vaguely followed his journey back then.

A couple of years ago, Mark Boyle decided he would give up technology and live a “simple life” on his smallholding in Ireland. Not just giving up his phone and social media, but all technology. No electricity, no landline phone. An interesting premise for any book and so I was keen to get an ARC via Netgalley, which I then very ironically read on my ereader…

Naturally, a book like this invites people to feel attacked, anyone who ever steps out of the norm and declares they want a different life has the potential to make people who don’t do the same feel as if judgement is passed on their life and that someone like Mark Boyle is looking down on them. Yet, I hope people go into this book not thinking that or reacting that way, because I fear they may miss a wonderful opportunity to be inspired. I found it both an enlightning reading experience as well as a good moment to look at myself and see where I could do more. No plans to move to a smallholding at present, but we can all do better and must all do better if we want to save the planet (and us, because let’s face it if we are gone, the planet is going to be just fine).

I think what immediately drew me in was how he approached it: No dogma, just exploration. The best things are started like this in my opinion. Too many rules set you up for failure or as Mark Boyle puts it:

On top of that, those years taught me that rules have  a tendency to set your life up as a game to win, a challenge to overcome, creating kind of black and white scenarios our society leans towards.

The book is written like a diary and yes, without a computer, putting pen to paper. Boyle reflects a lot on this slower writing process, but after some time he feels that this new pace improves his writing. I cannot judge this as I have not read any of his other books, but I can see how “thinking twice, writing once” makes a nice change from the write a rubbish first draft and then start writing the actual book preaching, we have come to accept and although I know this to be true for myself, I also know that a lot of writers have written in a more deliberate way.

The year was not plain sailing that’s for sure. He missed calling his parents and hearing their voice. Jobs that a machine could have done in minutes took hours or days. He went from being vegan to being a meat and fish eater again and that required quite some soul searching.

He started this journey with his partner Kirsty and how that ends, you will have to find out for yourself. Kirsty, or rather the lack of her in the narrative of his reflections, is the one thing that I would found missing in this book. As a woman, I found it interesting (and alarming) how easily the couple slipped into established gender roles: Mark out with this axe creating his environment, tending to his land, shaping his universe, while at home in the self-built hut, Kirsty tends to the hearth. He does comment on it once, briefly, but this was an aspect that I would have liked him to explore more. Did he really not see this more, did this really not bother him?  The thought that a return to a simpler life would render women consigned back into the kitchen, really gave me something to think about and Kirsty’s absence in the narrative for long stretches, made me worried that this ideal he was creating would ultimately lead to another silencing of women, women absent from the overall narrative: seen but not heard. There was so much I wanted to know about this journey from Kirsty, that part of me hopes that she will write her side of it at some point.

The lack of rules he set himself meant that he was making it up as he went along and I think that was the charm of the book. He is often conflicted in his choices. Often unhappy with the compromise he has to make. Yet, I think, this is what stopped this book from becoming too preachy. Yes, Boyle judges society, but he also does not claim he has got it all figured out.

It is rather hard work: There is no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

As for me and my reaction: Boyle has inspired me. Maybe not in the way he intended. We are not going to move to a smallholding in Ireland, no returning to the husband’s roots. We lack the skills. I lack the health. But we shall push forward with the changes we have made, the way we feel we can make a difference. And yes, there is so much more we can do and I think I needed that kick in the behind.

Here is a little video about the book.

The book is coming out 4th April 2019.

Kindle Edition, 304 pages
Expected publication: April 4th 2019 by Oneworld Publications

The thing about death

The bookclub that I attend at the library is not often reading non-fiction and so when Smoke Gets in your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty was chosen, I was both surprised and pleased. Surprised that the group was willing to read about what happens when we die and about how our bodies are disposed off and pleased because this book had made the rounds on booktube and I was keen to read it.

For years, I have repeated to my husband my wishes about what should happen when I die. No funeral. No wake. Cremation and then he and the kid shall take my ashes and spread them in Scotland somewhere in the hills.

I grew up in Germany and death is big business there. The selling of plots, gravestones and grave panels is  a profitable enterprise. When a cousin of mine was seeing an undertaker for a while, the family was equally repulsed but also quite impressed since after all, there was money there. The maintenance of graves, unless you do it yourself, can cost dearly, too, especially these days with relatives often living far away from the graves that need spring planting, summer planting, winter decoration, possibly a light lighting if you are Catholic at certain holidays throughout the year, then you best hire a local service to do that for you or give money to a local friend to sort this all out for you.

As a kid, my job was to water my grandfather’s grave when it needed it and considering where I grew up in Southern Germany, that meant going twice a day during the summer for most of that season. My grandmother would plant the grave with spring flowering plants, then with summer plants and then in autumn once the geraniums and petunias were finally gone, an elaborate winter decoration would be arranged. My job was to go and water. If I did not, someone in the village would know and report back to my grandmother that I was not taking my duty seriously.

 

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Foto by Alina Blue / Flickr – Creative Commons License

The consequences of improper grave care are at best the whole village talking about you, some maybe even to your face. At worst, the graveyard management will send you a bill for sorting it out themselves. Judgement over grave care comes before the judgement of God and while you are still alive. So even my grandmother, who never cared much for my grandfather while he was still alive, cared a lot about his grave once he was dead. To pay for the gravestone, we lived on one pot soups for an entire year. When I was 11, I declared much to the shock and horror of my aunts and uncles present for Sunday afternoon coffee that I would never be buried but burnt and my ashes scattered. My uncle pointed out that this was illegal in Germany (still is as far as I know) and so I said: well, I move somewhere to die where it is legal, then. Hello England. (Although that is not the reason, I moved here, I hasten to add, I am not that morbid.)

So Caitlin Doughty’s book that I am finding hugely fascinating really brings up some issues that I have felt strongly about since I was a kid. The weird connection we have to the dead. And my weird relationship with it all. I cannot say that Doughty changed much of my outlook on my funeral plans other than, I should maybe explain my reasoning a bit more to my loved ones, so they can “buy in” to my wishes. After all, it will be them sorting it all out.

The descriptions of the cremations of people who were not that loved reminded me of the death of my father 8 years ago. When he died we had not spoken since my grandmother died, with her death, my obligation to speak to him or to pretend that we had any sort of functioning relationship died as well. In German law, I was responsible for paying for the funeral. Much to the shock and horror of some of my relatives I went for the cheapest option: cremation and anonymous grave (no grave care, you see). They thought me heartless and thoughtless despite them knowing my father and knowing at least some of the things I suffered because of him. Minor offence: his refusal to work and thus growing up in benefit poverty. I could have forgiven that. Medium offence: His constant stealing of money from me starting when I was a kid. He plundered my savings account more than once, went to collect my earnings from the grocer who I distributed flyers for etc. He ordered stuff from mail order in my name and I then had to pay for it. And the thing no one knew apart from probably my grandmother although we never spoke of it, was that he sexually abused me until I was 14. So here I was having to make the choice of being a fool and keeping up pretence and paying for a plot with a gravestone or doing the bare minimum I was legally obliged to do and having an entire village shaking their head in disbelief at my uncaring ways. I chose the latter and still the entire pleasure cost me over €4,000. Reading Doughty’s book, I wonder if the funeral director thought me uncaring when he pressed the cremation button and interred my father’s ashes in an unmarked plot. I cannot say that I care too much about that or what the villagers think.

I think there has to be more conversation about death and how we deal with dead bodies, after all, we are all going to die at some point. And although I still got about 100 pages to read, I already highly recommend this book. It is written from an American point of view but I think even us Europeans (soon I have to say: Europeans and Britains) have similar attitudes.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes PBK mech.indd

Paperback, 272 pages
Published September 28th 2015 by W. W. Norton Company

Reading Scotland – January 2019

One of my favourite things is to read books set in Scotland. I have been doing this every year for the past 7 years and this year is no exception. Living here in the English Midlands, I long to be in Scotland, but alas, I am not but books give me the opportunity to travel to Scotland without packing any boxes or suitcases.

I am part of a Goodreads Group each year that encourages you to pick up books set in Scotland or written by Scottish authors and a few weeks ago I made a video about my Scottish TBR for 2019:

So, what have I read so far this year with a Scottish connection.

I do like a dual timeline story and this month I read two of them:

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

This is part 2 in her loose duology centered around Slains Castle and the Jacobites fighting to get their King back on the throne. There is a present day love story/narrative and then the story in the 18th century. I adore her books, if I want to escape my head (which at the moment I want to all the time), then a Kearsley will always, always do the trick. Sadly, I only have one book left by her, her most recent Belleweather, which I shall procure at some point this year.

 

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Down to the Sea by Sue Lawrence

When I saw this book listed on the Bookseller, I knew I had to read it. We all have those keywords that make us pick up books, for me they include “Scotland”, “dual timeline” and “mystery”. The book’s “present” day timeline is actually in the 198oies and the past timeline is in the 1890ies. A couple buys an old house in Newhaven, outside Edinburgh to renovate and open as a luxury care home for the elderly, while in the 1890ies, the building was used as a poorhouse. It was a bit spooky in places (I am easily scared), very atmospheric, and a fantastic cosy read by the fire while it was freezing cold outside. Saraband kindly sent me a copy and the book is published on the 21st Feb on the Kindle and 14th March as a paperback. I was delighted to find out that the author is the same Sue Lawrence of the Scottish Baking book, which I would highly recommend, I adore this book. If you like Scotland and baking, it’s a must really.

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

I have been obsessed with Arthurian myths since I was single digits in age. Oh, how badly, have I wanted it to be true and for magic to be real and I dreamt that it would be me one day, rediscovering magic and bringing it back to the world. I still read most books about Arthur and Merlin and any character surrounding the myths, both fiction and non-fiction. Pike has taken inspiration from Adam Ardray’s books Finding Merlin/Finding Arthur, which make the case that Arthur/Merlin was Scottish. I had read those books myself and they are a great travel itinerary if you want to explore some of those sights yourself. Here, we follow Langueroth, a high-born noblewoman whose twin brother is set to become Merlin, although, he is not quite there yet at the end of book 1. I enjoyed it, although I did not quite love it as much as I had hoped, the downside of going into a book with too much expectation. I believe book 2 is set to be released Summer 2020. A long wait, but I know that books need to be written and I am painfully aware how lengthy this process can be (hello second draft edits).

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The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Set in Edinburgh in the 1840ies within the medical profession, in particular that of women’s health and childbearing. It’s part mystery, part historical fiction centred on medical advances, part role and place of women in society and the world as a whole during that time period and it was certainly an interesting read. I liked the book a lot, but did not quite manage to love it because for my taste it was rather grim. I am glad my childbearing years are over.

Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight by Alyssa Cole

This was a very short novella about a black woman at court of King James IV and her Highland Lord. I don’t read much romance of the saucy variety, but I thought this was entertaining enough and I shall definitely pick up another one by her.

 

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Lanark by Alasdair Gray

A Scottish modern classic and one I have been meaning to read for years. I was put off by the description of it as being difficult, hard to access and strange and offputting. You see, don’t let words like that put you off from a book because personally, I thought this was one of the best books I have read in a long time. It’s a like the Bildungsroman meets Weird Fiction, so yes, it is strange, but it is also wonderful. I likened it to my husband as “Mann, Grass and Kafka went on holiday together to Scotland, drank too much whiksy, had a love child, which was reared by China Mievielle in a Glasgow tenement and the child was read daily Lovecraft stories. And the child became the book.” And quite frankly, I have no better explanation for it.

The Art of Coorie by Gabriella Bennett

January is grey and dull and my asthma was bad and then this book arrived kindly sent to me by Black & White Publishing and it was just such a wonderful little thing taking me to Scotland. Coorie may just well be Scotland’s answer to Hygge and Lagom, combining the wonderful feeling of being outside in Scotland’s nature and then returning inside to cosy up by a fire with nice food and drink. If you are planning a trip to Scotland, I highly recommend this to get you into the mood. The images are beautiful and the writing is informative and interesting. I have a Coorie video coming up on my channel later this week. So check back there.

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Nature Writing and writers of colour

As someone who loves nature, the advent in recent years in nature writing has been very exciting. When I cannot be out there myself, I do quite like to enjoy the hearing the experiences of some accomplished writers in the field.

I have followed publishing long enough to know that these kind of fields (pun?) are normally mostly dominated by male writers and some serious effort has to be put in to find more female authors once you ticked off the well known ones like Helen Macdonald and Kathleen Jamie. There is a list on Goodreads for Irish and British Nature Writing and of the 175 books, only about 20 are by women and some of these books are over 100 years old (Hello old friend, “Diary of an Edwardian Lady”). So things are not that great, but I guess that’s a pretty normal picture across publishing, after all more men get published than women.

But then, I thought: Hm, I really would like to find some writers of colour who write nature non-fiction. And so my search began. And I came up with not much. Found a couple of essays, some US based books but personally, I prefer my nature writing to be set in places I know or are about to visit. And that made me wonder why that is? Are there writers of colour with manuscripts waiting to be published, but because there has been no precedence no one is publishing them?

I would love to see some British and Irish nature writing by authors of colour. If you know of anything that has been published or is about to be published, please let me know.