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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Simples and Treacles – botanical secrets of 17th century England

I have loved researching 17th Century botany and herbs for my novels, The Lady’s Slipper and The Gilded Lily. For both of them I have had to research the botanical beliefs of a society that relied on native plants for a good many things, including medicine, cleaning agents, and home-manufactured goods such as cloth. One of my characters is a “cunning woman”, a person skilled in folk medicine. She has no daughters and is looking for someone to whom she can hand down her vast store of knowledge. Remedies were passed down orally, and the plants used were readily and commonly available to a populace which was mostly illiterate. Because little was written about it, evidence of these remedies is most often to be found in kitchen manuals because cooking and medicine were so closely related.

The difference between folk medicine and the “official” medicine was largely that folk medicine used plants that occurred naturally in Britain and had not been brought over from abroad. Official medicine drew on metals, chemical compounds and herbs and spices imported from other countries, such as the Mediterranean or Arabia. Physicians could charge more for their exotic-sounding imports, which by dint of their strangeness appeared to offer more appeal.

In the 17th century many Folk remedies were “simples”, ie a single species of plants used as a cure or palliative, whereas apothecaries mixed perhaps thirty or more of ingredients for their “treacles”. Venice treacle, given by Thomas Sydenham to Lady Sedley in 1686, contained more than 70 ingredients including:

wormwood, orange peel, angelica, nutmeg, horseradish, scurvy grass, white horehound, centaury, camomile, and juniper berries. All infused in 5 pints of sack!

And what was this medicine for? A headache.

Servants probably made do with feverfew leaves, and were probably better off for it. So in one of my books the middle-class Thomas Ibbetson is given a ‘drench’ (Pouring a vast quantity of liquid medicine into the throat) which worsens rather than cures his condition. In the 17th century, the richer you were, the more likely you were to die of the treatment rather than the disease. Mercury and antimony were common remedies, as was copious blood-letting to release stagnant humours.

17th century herbalists such as Gerard, Pechy and the Puritan, Culpeper, were immensely influential in their day, and there was much cross-over between the medicinal and the domestic. For example Culpeper recommends the leaves of the Alder tree for burns, but also for attracting fleas. The leaves were strewed on the ground to attract the fleas, and then the whole lot could be swept out and disposed of. Culpeper’s Herbal is one of the few 17th Century books still in print today.  I can also recommend Nicholas Woolley’s book about Culpeper, The Herbalist.

Napier’s History of Herbal Healing says that nettles were used as a pot herb in the Spring, but also its fibres were used in weaving instead of flax, to make tablecloths, sheets and even shirts! It was used medicinally to treat anaemia and as a general tonic, and also to dye the hair as it produced an intense yellow dye. With interest in ‘green’ products today, nettle fibre is again being used to make clothing.

Along with the practical uses of plants was a vast body of mythological lore, both superstitious and religious. Ideas such as that making love under a Rowan tree was a certain cure for infertility, were common. So the herbs themselves were used in a broad rather than a narrow context, embracing the physical, emotional and spiritual being of the user. Many people believed in the “doctrine of signatures” of Paracelsus. This suggests that each plant bears a physical sign, placed there by God, of what it should be used for. So the small bulbs of celandines should be used for piles, because that’s what they look like.

In The Lady’s Slipper, Alice Ibbetson is an artist fascinated by painting wild-flowers, the lady’s slipper being a rare wildflower with medicinal properties.

In The Gilded Lily the plants are used as a beauty aid by Ella Appleby, a serving maid who becomes obsessed with her appearance and the glitter and glamour of Restoration London.

Nettle blouse!

Many 17th century beauty preparations involved common plants. One for a fair complexion is to “take wilde Tansy and lay it to soake in buttermilke.” I haven't tried this yet, but I probably will.For more recipes I can recommend The Artifice of Beauty by Sally Pointer.

This post was first written for the Hoydens and Firebrands blog, why not visit them  - a great site about the seventeenth century.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The King's Carver

CONGRATULATIONS to Susan who is the winner of The Lady's Slipper picked out of the hat today!
Many thanks to everone else who stopped by my blog and made the effort to enter, wasn't it a great idea of Amy's. Hope you might have won something in the other draws.

A short post today as I'm one of the stops on the Fantastic Historical Fiction Holiday Blog Hop.


Top Pick! Swift's eye for detail and language augment this atypical debut. Compelling and intriguing, this is a well-told story full of wonderful prose and surprising events. It's a vivid addition to the genre.
--RT BookReviews
To win a copy of my debut novel THE LADY'S SLIPPER please leave a comment below. 
Giveaway Open Worldwide. Don't forget to leave an email address. One extra entry if you follow this blog, and another if you tweet my post.

As for the Historical Holiday Blog Hop - Just look at the fabulous prizes you can win! Click on the banner above to follow the other blogs on this hop.Historical Holiday Blog Hop Grand Prizes - $25 Amazon or Barnes and  Noble Gift Card - Prize package(s) from SIXTY historical novels. 

Grinling Gibbons - such a wonderful name - was the "King's Carver", in the Restoration period and was famous for beautiful carved wood decoration for St Paul's Cathedral, the Palace of Windsor, and the Earl of Essex's house. Legend had it that his carving was so fine that the wooden pot of carved flowers above his house in London would tremble from the motion of passing coaches.

Walpole later wrote about Gibbons: "There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with the free disorder natural to each species."

Grinling Gibbons was introduced to Christopher Wren by the diarist John Evelyn who spotted him at work and was impressed by his talent. He was able to make wood appear to flow and move and was thus one of the master carvers of the Baroque style. More information about this seventeenth century sculptor in wood can be found at wanderings in eden
 or in the book, The Work of Grinling Gibbons by Geoffrey Beard
A Man's cravat, carved in lime wood by Gibbons,
courtesy of the V&A Museum
I love comments!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Temptation of the Restoration

The seventeenth century in England had a lot going on. First there was the English Civil Wars where brother fought brother over the division between King and Parliament. Secondly, there was the Plague. And then there was the Great Fire of London. All of these events took a massive toll on human life. 84,830 men were killed in the Civil Wars, 70,000 more died in the Plague. The Great Fire of London destroyed most of the familiar old Tudor streets. What’s more, the beheading of King Charles I had a huge impact on England’s psyche. There was a sense that the governance of England hung in the balance – that the old order was subject to change, and that nothing could be relied upon. It is hardly surprising that at this time, astrologers predicted doom and destruction to come.

Yet the period just after King Charles II was restored to the throne, known as the Restoration period, was one of unrestrained celebration and entertainment. There was a mere five years between 1660, when Charles arrived back in London to fanfares and jubilation, until June 1665 when the first impact of the Plague deaths hit London. I was fascinated to write about this period, a time eclipsed by the bigger events of the century, sandwiched in between the dark days of Cromwell and his Puritan rule, and the dread disease that ravaged the country.

This was the time in which I set The Gilded Lily – a time of surface optimism, but with undertones of unease beneath. The two sisters, Ella and Sadie Appleby, on the run from the Law, escape their rural village hoping for a new and better life in London. This was a quite different City of London from Tudor London where the Queen aimed for political expansion and gripped the nation with a firm hand - looser and more reactionary.

Lely - Nell Gwyn
Very much as London in the 1960’s was known as the “Swinging Sixties” and heralded a new era of sexual exploration, 1660’s London was a city of new fashions, of theatres, entertainment, lavish food and a renewed moral freedom. The King gathered his “Merry Gang” around him, the wits, the rakes, the young bloods, such as Buckingham and Rochester. Their sexual exploits fuelled the gossip of the nation, as Charles went through no less than thirteen royal mistresses, and probably a few more undocumented liaisons besides. Men dressed like peacocks in ribbons and bows, women’s d├ęcolletage drifted ever lower. An actress like Nell Gwynn could come from nothing yet make her fortune at court.

In The Gilded Lily, Ella, the bolder sister, has her sights set firmly upward on handsome Jay Whitgift, the son of a pawnbroker, who in turn is fixed on moving upwards to enter the coterie at Court and buying himself a baronetcy. If you have seen the film, The Libertine, with Johnny Depp, this is the sort of society in which Jay Whitgift moves, and to which Ella aspires.  I modelled Ella partly on paintings by Gerrrit Von Honthorst, a 17th century Dutch artist, who painted Courtesans and women of the lower classes with clarity and detail.

 Sadie, the more timid sister, finds the size of London terrifying. London in these times is owned by the young – many older people lost their lives in the Wars, there is a feeling that life is short. Death by burning is the penalty for those, who like Sadie and Ella, have stolen from their employer. Writing the story through Ella and Sadie’s viewpoints was eye-opening. In an age of conspicuous wealth there is always the flip-side, and Restoration London is no exception. Poverty and the accompanying criminal underworld lurk just beneath the surface, and I enjoyed researching these. London is well-documented at this time, and I spent much time poring over old maps to find where they might have lived. Blackraven Alley, where I placed their lodgings, was later destroyed by the Great Fire of London.

I encourage anyone interested in this period to explore a little further by reading: The Daling Strumpet by Gillan Bagwell – a lovely account of the life of Nell Gwyn, The Apothecary’s Daughter by Charlotte Betts or Year of Wonders by Geraldine Green, two very different books about the Plague, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann about the English Civil Wars, and Restoration by Rose Tremain - insights into Charles II and his court. Please feel free to add to my list!

Today there are reviews up for The Gilded Lily at One Book at a Time and at The Eclectic Reader. Giveaways are running at both. 
This post first appeared on The True Book Addict Blog.- A great blog with the feature 'this Day in History.'

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Celebrating the Missing Maidservants

Camille Pissarro 1857 The Maidservant
As you know, I like to write fiction about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. No Kings and Queens for me, but the hidden, often unseen, lives of the ordinary people. The missing maidservants so often ignored by historical biographers, but loved by historical novelists as the ideal witnesses to great historical events. With this in mind, my post on recommended books featuring feisty maidservants is over here at One Book at a Time along with a chance to win The Gilded Lily. Why not go over for a look to see which books I've chosen? Have you any historical fiction books you would recommend featuring interesting maidservants?

Below: A Woman and her Maidservant feeding a Pancake to a Dog.
by the Dutch artist Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667)In The Gilded Lily Sadie and Ella cook pancakes or griddle cakes in this way, although their surroundings are not nearly so lavish!

Below: Lady with her maidservant holding a letter by Jan Vermeer

Below: My favourite - The Chocolate Girl by Jean Etienne Liotard

The story behind the commissioning of this painting sounds like a fairy-tale romance. The girl in the portrait, Anna Baltauf, worked as a maidservant in one of the Viennese chocolate shops which had become hugely popular during the 17th and18th centuries. She had little chance of good marriage as her father was too poor to give her a good dowry, however in the summer of 1745, a young Austrian nobleman - Prince Dietrichstein - came into the shop. He fell in love with the Chocolate Girl and asked her to marry him, despite objections from his family As a wedding present to his 'chocolate girl' he commissioned this portrait of his wife wearing the maid’s costume she was wearing when he first set eyes on her. Is this true? I guess we'll never really know.
Ella Appleby from The Gilded Lily would have loved this story. It was what she dreamed about for herself! Sadie, her sister, would have gently told her to stop dreaming and to deliver the tray to the customer before the chocolate went cold.

Maidservants spent a lot of time fetching and carrying, but also a large proportion of their time cleaning - here is an interesting post about buttermaking and cleanliness in 17th century. Food for thought!

Monday, 3 December 2012

What to do with Snow

Today you can find the latest review of The Gilded Lily on Luxury Reading, a site dedicated to books of all varieties; fiction, non-fiction and childrens. A treat for bookworms and bibliophiles - and if you don't know the difference between a bookworm and a bibliophile, pop over and be enlightened.
There is still a Giveaway for The Gilded Lily open too at the Lit Bitch along with an interview about my writing process.

Meanwhile here are some photos taken during our severe winter in the UK in 2009. Probably not as severe as the Little Ice Age of the 17th Century, but it still took us all by surprise, and provided me with real snow through which I could imagine the scenes of snowbound London in The Gilded Lily.

I remember at that time (2009) there seemed to be an interest in sculpting figures sitting on town benches. I loved these - they are very evocative - something about their ephemeral nature expresses the human condition really well. They are strangely meditative in their white snowy stillness and tell their own story by their solitude or togetherness. Enjoy!

Two snowmen chill out in St James's park after a night of heavy snow on February 2, 2009 in London, England. Heavy snow has fallen across parts of England leading to major disruption on roads and to public transport services. Forecasters have warned of the most severe snow for six years.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

17th century transport in Snow - The Gilded Lily

Today The Gilded Lily is being reviewed at The Book Garden blog. Why not take a stroll to the Book Garden and see what the reviwer makes of it. Meanwhile I'm continuing my snowy theme as The Gilded Lily takes place in the little Ice Age, a time when temperatures in London dropped as low as -30 degrees and the Thames froze solid.

In the seventeenth century a sedan chair was a favoured means of transport for a lady. Sadie Appleby is horrified when her sister Ella takes a sedan as this signifies she has gone up in the world. Originally called a 'litter', it was created by lashing two poles to a chair. For royalty or the very well-to-do, it could consist of a bed or couch for the passenger or passengers to lie on. These were carried by at least two porters in front and behind, or by horses.

For the Sedan chair -an enclosed cabin- the porters were known as "chairmen". Sedans were commonly in use until the 19th century and were accompanied at night by link-boys who carried torches. Where possible, the link boys escorted the fares to the chairmen, the passengers then being delivered to the door of their lodgings. There are still houses in Bath and London that have the link extinguishers, shaped like a candle snuffers, outside the door. On this Victorian print featuring life in earlier times you can see the link boy, except there he is carrying a lantern. It shows well how precartious this method of transport might be in snow!

Link extinguisher

There is no evidence I can find that snow shoes were used in the 17th century in England. But I did find this print of a snow-shoe race outside the Crystal Palace in London in 1867. It must have been quite hard work as the men are bare-chested. What was a common form of transport in snow in the 17th century was a sleigh or sledge. Rich people owned several carriages and at least one sleigh for use in ice and snow. They were beautiful objects but not many examples survive except in diary entries. Here is a horse-drawn sleigh  from the Saskatchewan Museum.

Above - Seventeenth Century sleigh travel (as interpreted by a Victorian artist). It looks very romantic, but probably the realities would have been harsh, with freezing conditions for the occupants, skidding horses, and hidden ruts and obstacles.

And just for fun for my american readers and to complete today's snowy journey I've added this wonderful picture of New York in a Blizzard in 1888. Picures from The Daily Glean There should definitely be a book about this blizzard, it sounds spectacular.

Madison Avenue

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Gilded Lily is out in the USA

Thanks to my editor Hope Dellon, and to Silissa Kenney, Loren Jaggers and all the team at St Martin's Press for the publication of The Gilded Lily in the USA - It looks lovely and I'm so pleased it will have a wider readership.

I will be travelling over to the USA to the Historical Novel Conference 2013 in Florida, where I will be part of a panel talking about my journey to publication - 'Making it to Mainstream'.
Other members of the panel are Jenny Barden, Pat Bracewell and Nancy Bilyeau, and we will kept in order by Gillian Bagwell. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with american writers I met at the London Conference and through Macmillan New Writers. I am taking a holiday beforehand with my DH and we're also looking forward to some sightseeing and exploring some of the interesting attractions in the area. (Recommendations welcome - St Augustine is already on my list!)

Meanwhile I'm busy promoting The Gilded Lily and you can find my post on Why the English Took to Tea here
and you can find the latest reviews for The Gilded Lily at

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Literary Sisters and the Italian Belle Epoque

How would you feel if your sister burnt your manuscript?

My post on the turbulent life of literary sisters The Brontes is over at Enchanted by Josephine, a blog that more often specializes in book reviews and posts about French Royalty and La Belle Epoque. I thought a bit of Yorkshire grit and the wild moors would make a nice contrast over there.

For those of you more used to me talking about the wilds of Westmorland I thought I'd bring a flavour of Enchanted by Josephine over here. Below is a picture from an exhibition of the Italian Belle Epoque. I love this picture of a woman sewing. More similar pictures can be seen at the Dolce Vita blog: or why not visit Enchanted by Josephine where you can click to enter a Giveaway of THE GILDED LILY.
Scroll down for snow!

La Belle Epoque Italiana

And for anyone wondering why there is no snow yet on this post (The Gilded Lily is set in the snow of the winter of 1661) - here it is! A picture of Gabrielle Ray who was known as one of the most beautiful women of the Edwardian Era and often photographed. This photo came from a blog dedicated to Gabrielle Ray - click on it to take you there.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

My snowstorm inspiration - Make time for Poetry, the bigger horizon

Today THE GILDED LILY is being reviewed by Sarah Johnson at her great blog, Reading the Past. The Gilded Lily takes place in London in a freezing winter of the 17thC Little Ice Age, hence my posts on all things snow-related.

As my Christmas Cracker post today I invite you to take a moment to read Mary Oliver's poem. I am a big poetry fan and Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets who always points to the bigger horizon.Why not buy one of her books or find out more about her from The Poetry Foundation?

Beyond the Snow Belt 
by Mary Oliver

Over the local stations, one by one,
Announcers list disasters like dark poems
That always happen in the skull of winter.
But once again the storm has passed us by:
Lovely and moderate, the snow lies down
While shouting children hurry back to play,
And scarved and smiling citizens once more
Sweep down their easy paths of pride and welcome.

And what else might we do? Les us be truthful.
Two counties north the storm has taken lives.
Two counties north, to us, is far away, -
A land of trees, a wing upon a map,
A wild place never visited, - so we
Forget with ease each far mortality.

Peacefully from our frozen yards we watch
Our children running on the mild white hills.
This is the landscape that we understand, -
And till the principle of things takes root,
How shall examples move us from our calm?
I do not say that is not a fault.
I only say, except as we have loved,
All news arrives as from a distant land.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Costume reference for The Gilded Lily - 17thC snow artist Hendrick Avercamp.

I am on tour with THE GILDED LILY today at
Pop over and see what the reviewer makes of the book. Meanwhile, as part of my Christmas Cracker series of posts, here are some wonderful paintings by Hendrick Avercamp, a dutch painter who excelled at snowscapes and winter landscapes. He was deaf and dumb and known as "de Stomme van Kampen" - the mute of Kampen.

Avercamp's work enjoyed great popularity and he sold his drawings during his lifetime for a good profit. He tinted his drawings with water-colour, and as finished pictures they were pasted into the albums of collectors (an outstanding collection is at Windsor Castle).

I used this research when writing The Gilded Lily - I love the game of ice hockey and the man who appears to be rowing backwards on the ice. The costumes are particularly useful - notice the combination of ruffs and fall collars, and the low broad-brimmed hats.

More articles on Avercamp can be found at The Guardian

and at Lines and Colors

Monday, 19 November 2012

Snow at the Church Stile - A Victorian Christmas Cracker

I am on tour with THE GILDED LILY, which takes place in one of the coldest winters of the Little Ice Age in 1661, so I am celebrating with all things snowy and christmassy here on my blog, even though Christmas is still a month away. I am calling these posts my Christmas Crackers, because I hope my blog tour goes with a bang! (groan)

Today THE GILDED LILY is featured at The Maiden's Court, with a Giveaway and Review.This blog features mainly historical fiction and is a great mix of reviews, posts, movies and more.One of the great features is "Two Sides to Every Story" where people are invited to discuss contentious historical ideas, such as - 'Christopher Columbus - Hero or Brute?'

The print at the top of my post is called A Warm Embrace or Melting Moments and it is dated 1892.
This wonderful print can be purchased at

When writing The Gilded Lily I spent a lot of time looking at all sorts of snowy landscapes and pictures, to give me inspiration for London in snowfall.These are two ideas I didn't use, but aren't they delightful?!

I  love this one - 'No getting over, snowed-up at the Church Stile' from 1905 by Lucien Davis, but it is clearly set in earlier times than twentieth century judging by the Empire line dresses.If you like old engravings as I do, the Old Print site could distract you from your work for a long time!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Gilded Lily on Tour - Christmas Crackers


Thanks to Amy Bruno, I am on tour to US and Australian blogs from the 19th November with THE GILDED LILY. Look out for reviews, giveaways and more.

During this time I will be posting a series of short posts by other writers  under the banner Christmas Crackers. I invite anyone who wishes to, to contribute a picture, a short extract, a poem or an anecdote with a Christmas or Winter theme.
You can message me on Facebook at if you would like to send something or contact me via this blog.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Next Big Thing - A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

I've been tagged in The Next Big Thing by fellow writers Gillian Bagwell and Debra Brown. Do click on their names to find out about Gillian's exhaustive research and Debra's new Victorian romance. I'm instructed to tell you all about my next book by answering these questions and then to tag five other authors about their Next Big Thing. So here I go!
What is the working title of your next book? 
A DIVIDED INHERITANCE, scheduled for publication next September.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Viggo Mortensen - Alatriste
Three things -
one was the idea of exploring how much of our inheritance we take for granted. Our inheritance such as our cultural expectations and identity, and what might happen if these were challenged. I wanted to show that a 17th century woman could survive in a man's world, despite the expectations of the age.

At the same time as I was mulling over this, I came across a fascinating book about 17th century fencing masters and thought it would be interesting to research women who fought using rapiers and to find out more about whether any women used these training techniques. I have an interest in this through practising swordplay through martial arts. The particular Spanish training method I was researching is an esoteric system designed to produce a kind of 'Renaissance man' - or in this case, woman.

I was also interested in a period of history in Spain where there was massive cultural change and Phillip II expelled a large population of Spanish citizens - an act that divided families and was to impoverish Spain for generations.So this seemed an ideal backdrop for my family drama.

What genre does your book fall under?
It is historical fiction - literary rather than romantic, but I hope a good page-turner too.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I was very impressed with the film 'Alatriste' which I watched for some of my research into the Spanish fighting arts, and so I'd go for Viggo Mortensen. I also loved him in Lord of the Rings. For the female lead role I would choose Anne Hathaway who when she played Jane Austen had the quality of Englishness appropriate for my female lead Elspet Leviston..

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A DIVIDED INHERITANCE is set in 1609 and is the story of a woman whose life is turned upside down when a cousin she has never met arrives unannounced at her house. It is a story of courage, hope and the triumph of kinship over adversity. 
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book has already been sold to Pan Macmillan via my agent Annette Green.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About eighteen months, of which six months was solid research. I travelled to London to the museums and to get a sense of the early Jacobean architecture, and also to Seville where I was knocked out by the Alcazar Palace and the wonderful Moorish palaces and decorative arts such as ceramics. I visited museums and galleries there and then did lots of further research through archives and by writing to swordplay experts in Spain and the US. Once most of the background research was done I wrote fairly intensively every morning. At the moment the book is being copy-edited, and I'll expect more small points to be smoothed out at that stage, and after that it will be proof-read.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I've no idea! Other people compare my books to Philippa Gregory, Tracy Chevalier and Jane Harris - these are all very different writers, so I guess I'm happy to just be myself! I enjoy to read historical adventures such as Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth and the C.J Sansom thrillers too, so perhaps there is some influence there, ans similarly, I write about ordinary men and women from the past who are caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired by the wonderful Moorish architecture of Seville, and its passionate flamenco culture. I wondered how an Englishwoman might cope in Golden Age Spain, which was a hotbed of religious dissent, and where people lived in fear of the Inquisition. I was also inspired by the idea of how deeds from the past might come to bear on one's children, even when they are grown up. And I wanted to explore how people with nothing in common can band together under adversity.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Well, here's the blurb so far - which I am working on at the moment. Condensing a very large book into 150 words is a difficult exercise!

~ London 1609 ~

Elspet Leviston hopes to follow her scholarly father Nathaniel into the lace trade, but already Nathaniel’s past is on its way back to haunt her. Her hopes are threatened by the arrival of her mysterious cousin Zachary Deane – a man who has his own ambitions for Leviston’s Lace.

But wherever Zachary goes trouble seems to follow. So Nathaniel sends him on a Grand Tour, away from the distractions of Jacobean London, and Elspet believes herself to be free of her interfering relation. But when Nathaniel dies, Elspet’s fortunes change dramatically and she is forced to leave her beloved home and go in search of Zachary, determined to claim the inheritance that is rightfully hers.

Under the searing Spanish sun Elspet and Zachary find themselves locked in a battle of wills,
But Seville is a dangerous place and soon they are embroiled in the roar and sweep of a tragedy that will set them both on a journey of discovery, and unlock for them the mystery of what family really means.
Here are some more lovely authors I've tagged to tell you about their Next Big Thing! 
Gabrielle Kimm 
Len Tyler
Katherine Clements
Charlotte Betts
Sue Millard

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake - Review

Frankie Bard is a reporter who wants to get to experience the real life stories she hears covered on the Radio, about life in England during the war. She travels to England where she has a tragic chance encounter with Dr Trask, the husband of Emma.

Emma Trask, fragile and alone in a small town she does not know - Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is pregnant with her first child and waiting for her doctor husband to return from England.

She is befriended by Iris James, the postmistress of the book's title, who is involved with the town's mechanic, Harry, who is obsessed with watching for German U-boats.Most of the neighbours think he is crazy, and that the Germans will never appear in their small town. Iris is in charge of delivering the letter to Emma which was given to Frankie by Emma's husband.

The book centres around the lives of these three women, who eventually meet up near the end of the book. The plot is more complex than I can outline here, and that goes too for the themes in this book. It is extremely well-researched and detailed - history that feels real. Towards the end there is a moving chapter where Frankie travels the route of Jewish refugees through Europe, the chaos and randomness of war is movingly explored in this section.

This is a piece of literary fiction that explores how humans are apt to assign significance to random events, about what we decide is newsworthy and how we select what to remember through the media. It is a story too about love and loss and the unexpected, and the small stories that happen on the fringes of larger stories.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to lovers of historical fiction and anyone interested in this period of history.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Review of The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

Agnes has lived in the sleepy town of Chartres for years. She has become ingrained in the fabric of the community; she cleans the tiled floor of the cathedral, acts as muse and model for a local artist, organises the correspondence of a befuddled academic and does the occasional spot of babysitting. But despite her involvement, the townspeople know little about this tall, elegant, stoic woman with turquoise eyes and matching pendant always around her neck. No one knows where she came from, or what stories she may have brought with her to Chartres. She is indispensable to them, but completely enigmatic.

But Agnes can’t stop the tide of gossip that comes with small-town life. When the local busybody takes a dislike to her, Agnes’s past comes stretching up into the light. What is revealed is an incredible story of grief and loss, but one that also reveals the way in which small acts of kindness can shape a person’s path in life.

My thoughts:
This is a beautiful moving novel with depth
Agnes Morel is an unlikely main character in a novel - quiet unassuming and middle-aged. The beginning of the book is slow with lengthy descriptions of Chartres Cathedral and not much dialogue, so at first I thought I would struggle to make it to the end. But I loved Miss Garnet's Angel so I persevered and was more than richly rewarded.

The characters of the nuns with all their un-saintly quirks and human failings are acutely well-drawn and Agnes's past as it is gradually revealed is horrifying yet utterly believable. Her malicious neighbours are described with gleeful venom. The characters in this book slowly seeped into my imagination and soon had me in an iron grip so that I had to know what would happen to Agnes when her unfortunate past was uncovered. 

This is a beautiful portrait of small-mindedness in all its ways, but it is also a vehicle to tackle the really big questions, such as: Where does evil lie? What constitutes sin? How is the spirit of a religion preserved in its buildings? What is the power of truthfulness?

I'll certainly be looking forward to Salley Vickers's next.

The soaring arches of  Chartres Cathedral

Monday, 15 October 2012

Author Eliza Graham reveals her Desert Island Books and love of cakes

Today is the last of my Desert Island Posts. Today I'm not touring the blogosphere but actually really touring the Cumbrian landscape on my way to Cleator Moor Library to give a talk about THE GILDED LILY. Cleator Moor is one of the more remote towns in the county, up near the west coast, so it will take me almost two hours to drive there. On the way I'll have the company of Radio 4 and some spectacular scenery. Just looked out of the window and it's raining - but hey, you can't have it all! If you'd like to see where I have been touring lately, why not visit Hoydens and Firebrands for my post on Old London Bridge, or Historical Tapestry for my post on The Smell of Old Coffee Houses.

Eliza Graham lives in Oxfordshire and is the author of four novels blending historical and contemporary themes. Eliza's first novel, "Playing with the Moon" was a smash hit in Germany where she has sold over 100,000 copies. Her latest, THE HISTORY ROOM, was published in May and combines reborn dolls and the Prague Spring in the setting of an English boarding school.
Eliza's first young adult novel, BLITZ KID, will be published this month as a Kindle e-book. Look out for further information.

Over to Eliza:
For my classic novel, I would choose OUR MUTUAL FRIEND by Dickens. It was one of my A level novels and I've loved it ever since. It's a big novel in every sense of the world: a little messy in times, but full of life and insight. The descriptions of the murkier parts of Victorian London would probably make me look around my beautiful desert island with relief. 

For my contemporary novel, I would choose I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith, even though it's not that contemporary, having been written in the fifties and set in the thirties. The descriptions of the novelist father imprisoned in an old castle dungeon to make him finish his novel would scare me into using the desert island as a chance to write, write, write. It's such a very English novel, too, that it would make me feel a little bit of home was with me.

For non-fiction I was going to select The Book of Common Prayer because, as a cradle Catholic, I had no exposure to its beautiful language. Each image is almost a novel in its own right. But now I'm going to crack and reveal my true greedy self and ask if I can choose Mary Berry's Book of Cakes (with a magic supply of equipment and ingredients). I'll be very healthy on that island, what with all the fish and tropical fruit, so a bit of indulgence on cake is in order.   

(Hope Eliza leaves me some of that cake when she goes!)

Friday, 5 October 2012

Contemporary romance writer Mary Metcalfe's Desert Island Books

Today I welcome women's fiction and contemporary romance novelist Mary Metcalfe whilst I am touring the blogosphere. Find my interview today at Fly High
About Mary:
Originally from the Toronto-Hamilton area of Ontario, Canada, Mary moved to Ottawa to study journalism and fell in love with the region. Shortly after graduating, she met and fell in love with her soul mate.

In addition to being a full-time novelist, Mary edits memoirs, fiction and non-fiction manuscripts. She's adopted the moniker Lakefront Muse to reflect (pardon the pun) her love of living by a small lake and gaining inspiration from nature in her rural surroundings. While her novels are set in or near Boston, she lives in the foothills of the Laurentians in Quebec, Canada.

'The whole point of a good novel, in my view at least, is to journey with the characters as they learn about themselves and what is important in life. We tend to learn best when we are challenged; when we have to dig down deep to our core values; to what’s negotiable and what’s not negotiable. I don’t cut my characters any slack when it comes to challenges.' 

From an interview with P Y Delagrange

Here are Mary's choices:Non-fiction: Official biography of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. She was an amazing woman who stood by her husband through thick and thin and helped keep up the morale of the Brits during WWII.

Classic: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. They are such wonderful stories, with bawdy women and shameless men and wonderfully archaic writing.

Fiction: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It's the first in an amazing series of books about an 18th century Scotsman and his time-travelling wife. Beautifully written with masterful storytelling, I'd read it again any day.... or several, as it's very long.

And below are details of Mary's latest novel, Winds of Change.

After losing her husband and daughter in a plane crash, Boston social worker Jennifer Barrett is rebuilding her life. Finding solace in her work, Jennifer helps young client Mark Powell find work at the seniors' residence where her father lives. After learning Mark hasn’t seen his father, an internationally-known broadcast journalist, in over four years, she can’t understand how a father could abandon his only son to chase war stories.

When Jennifer meets Ben Powell, she is prepared to dislike him, despite his charm and affable manner. But, when he reveals he’s been battling post-traumatic stress disorder, she realizes he didn’t want to bring his demons home to Mark, who has suffered from clinical depression. As Jennifer gets to know Ben, she realizes there may be room in her heart for laughter and new love.

Lana Fitzpatrick, a close friend of Jennifer’s and a young nurse helping care for Jennifer’s father, is also a widow, raising her young son Danny alone. As Lana gets to know her handsome co-worker, Mark Powell, and sees him bonding with Danny, she finds her heart swelling with love.

As new family bonds form, all discover the power of friendship and love to overcome loss so they can face life with renewed hope.

Find out more about Mary at her blog