The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling 

The Casual Vacancy is J K Rowling’s first book written for adults. It opens with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother which leaves a ‘casual vacancy’ on the parish council in an idyllic village in South West England. Barry’s death becomes the crucial point in a war between the members of the council and a political battle is fought out over the vacancy. One faction, led by the Mollison family, wants to cut The Fields housing estate out of the town’s catchment area. The Mollisons are small business owners who see their town as the perfect model of middle-class society. They feel they are entitled to run the town and keep it “untainted”. They hate the thought of the children from The Fields housing estate sharing a classroom with their own children.  They are also desperate to slash funding for the addiction support clinic believing it to be for “junkies” and “scroungers”. 

The book jumps between different characters’ points of view so we see the same events in different lights as we see different perspectives. In the novel, we meet Terri, a mother and a herion addict who is being scrutinised by social work. At first we see Terri through the eyes of her desperate teenage daughter, Krystal, who is struggling to cope looking after both her mother and her young brother. Krystal has been through more than any girl her age should have and you feel so sorry for her. But then we see things from Terri’s point of view. We see into her past and the poverty, neglect and abuse is revealed. Terri is so beaten down that she is barely there anymore. Yet people still want to take what little support she has away from her. 

In The Casual Vacancy we see racism. sexism, class inequality, etc. We see the barely veiled distaste of the white middle-class characters directed towards the Sikh Jawanda family. We see the Mollisons’ snobbery towards those they deem beneath them on the social ladder even though their morals and behaviour leave a lot to be desired. It is enraging at times. 

The Casual Vacancy is a grim story. At times it seems hopeless and the ending is tragic. But there are moments of human kindness, compassion and fighting spirit. Rowling shows us the injustices that are prevalant everywhere in our society but she also shows us that there is good in the world too. 

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Tudor: A Family History – Leanda de Lisle

Tudor: A Family History opens with the Wars of the Roses and ends the with the death of Elizabeth I and with that the end of the Tudor dynasty and the passing of the throne to the Stuart King James I. The history in this book begins much earlier than most books about the origins of the dynasty.   Tudor: A Family History gives us a birdseye view of the dynasty encompassing everyone, it addresses many lesser known but just as important family members. Instead of individual character accounts, the author weaves in and out of each characters life allowing us to see how the people and events link together.

The writing is fact-driven but it reads like fiction. It reads as a narrative and is written in a style which makes it easy for those not too familiar with the history. It is engaging and accessible without sacrificing itself as a factual, historical text. It contains an awful lot of information but is never overwhelming.

This book rehabilitates figures like Margaret Beaufort and other women who have been attacked because of their religious beliefs. we get an insight into the Tudors not just as royals but as a family, as real people. We seetheir relationships with each other and how those relationships changed and evolved. It’s not just all the Tudor stuff.

This is a great book.it is a book for anyone – from someone who knows their history to someone who wants to start learning. I would thoroughly recommend it. 

The Butcher Bird  – S D Sykes 

The Butcher Bird is the second Oswald de Lacy novel and I have to say, I enjoyed this one as much as the first.

Oswald’s situation is no better at the start of this novel. The deaths caused by the plague have left behind an abrupt shortage of labour, wage grievances and temptation for tenants to leave for greener pastures. He is still having to deal with his mother interfering in everything he does. He still has no respect from the servants and tenants. Brother Paul is still missing. On top of all this, Oswald’s sister Clemence, after her disastrous marriage in the first novel to a sadist, is pregnant and now has custody of her late husband’s two daughters. She has no time for the feral, undisciplined girls and hands over responsibility for their care to Oswald. Oswald takes the girls into his home only for them to run away to London to their aunt, Eloise Cooper, a beautiful woman who is also rumoured to be a witch.

Then the butcher Bird arrives in Somershill stealing infants and leaving their bodies in the shrubbery. Oswald intervenes to stop the lynching of a grief-stricken local man who is accused of inviting the bird to Somershill after losing his own children to the plague. He brings him into his own home and locks him up there for the man’s own safety and to give himself time to solve the murders. As in the first novel, nothing is as it seems and everyone is hiding secrets. 

Clemency suffers a great deal in this novel – an extremely painful childbirth, the stress of trying to control her wild step-daughters and then the “doctor” her mother privides for her when she is recovering from her son’s birth. After discovering the truth about Oswald in the first novel there is a lot of tension between Clemence and Oswald who have never been close. She makes him promise to leave the manor of Veney to her son and Oswald agrees.

Again I really enjoyed this book. They are light-hearted and easy to read, entertaining stories. Oswald’s mother and sister bring a lot of humour to the novel and you sympathise with Oswald throughout, you are rooting for him to do well. You do need to read the books in order because there are a lot of references to the first book in the second. I would definitely recommend.

Plague Land – S D Sykes

Plague Land is the first novel about Oswald de Lacy. Oswald was a novice monk training under his long-time mentor, Brother Peter. After the death of his father and older brothers, Oswald reluctantly and unexpectedly becomes lord of the manor. The manor and its village has recently been ravaged by the plague and many have died. There is a shortage of labour and the workers are demanding more pay. 

Oswald lacks confidence, power is not natural to him. He is young and he lacks any experience. The peasants are rude to him and the servants do not respect him at all. He also has to contend with the fact that his remaining family members and the local churchmen trying to control him.

Not long after assuming his new role a young girl is found with her throat slit and then a second girl disappears. The mystery provokes local superstitions about a dog-headed man working for the devil. Oswald tries his best to subdue this hysteria and convince the villagers that there must be a rational explanation for the murders. However, he is undermined at every step by the parish priest, John of Cornwell, who feeds into the locals’ superstitions conveniently making money in the process by selling relics to the frightened peasants. As Oswald tries to solve the murders and exert his authority over the manor he unearths numerous family secrets and realises that Brother Paul, the man he has looked up to all his life, is not the man he though he was. 

Peasant life and the harshness of life at the time is portrayed well in the novel. There was an inherant unfairness in society. We also see the superstitions that the people really believed at the times. In these senses it is similar to Karen Maitland’s books though nowhere near as dark. There are also some good female characters in the novel. They are survivors – strong, fiesty, pragmatic women.

I thought this was well written and researched. It is an easy-to-read historical mystery. I look forward to reading the next instalment.

The Plague Charmer – Karen Maitland 

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland is set in the village of Portlock Weir near Exmoor in 1361 during the second wave of the plague. The villagers are poor and earn their living from the sea. The story begins with a ferocious storm and the body of a woman, Janiveer, being rescued from the sea. At first the villagers believe her to be dead but she is then revived. When she wakes Janiveer gives the villagers a choice, she will Will protect them from the oncoming pestilence but only if they sacrifice one of their own. 

At first the villagers refuse but in the storm’s aftermath a bundle is pulled out of the sea – a pair of children bound together. It is clear that one of them was dead when thrown overboard but the other was still alive when tossed into the stormy waters. As one village woman, Sara, takes the children into her home to inspects the bodies it becomes clear why the children were thrown overboard – the bodies bear the buboes of the plague. The rest of the villagers panic and seal Sara and her family up inside their home to prevent further spreading of the disease. But the plague soon starts picking the villagers off one by one. The village is then cut off from the ruling manor and they become desperate to find Janiveer and take her up on her offer. 

In true Maitland style there is a large cast of colourful and eccentric characters and several storylines running through the novel. We also see Porlock Manor where Sir Nigel Morning’s newly-wed niece, Christina, has produced a son but no-one believes that it is her new husband’s. We also see Sara’s two sons escape and get caught up in an underground cult run by the Prophet. 

One of the most interesting characters in the story, and my favourite, is Will. Will is an artificial dwarf who has been thrown out of the manor and has been living near the village stealing and scavenging food from the villagers. His story is so sad and interesting. I didn’t know anything about the practice of creating dwarfs where people where bound and kept confined in cages to deliberately stunt their growth. It sounds barbaric and truly awful. 

As with every Karen Maitland novel, there is no shying away from describing the horror the chracters suffer when the plague descends upon their village. There are hard-hitting scenes throughout with Sara’s family being shut up in darkness and the underground scenes with the Prophet. 

Another dark, atmospheric novel from Maitland who is a natural storyteller. Her ability to weave lots of different, complicated threads and bring them all together at just the right moment is amazing. As with all her books, I thoroughly recommend this novel.

The King’ s Dogge – Nigel Green

The King’s Dogge is a novel about Francis Lovell who was Richard III’s best friend and loyal supporter. I enjoyed reading this novel as it was a different portrayal of Richard III and his wife, Anne Neville, but it was very frustrating at times.

First of all, there is Richard and Lovell’s supposed first meeting when Lovell was fighting for the Lancastrians. It is known that Richard and Lovell were childhood friends at Middleham and that they trained together as youths. I don’t believe they ever fought on opposite sides. So why Green felt the need to change this was a bit strange.

Another flaw in the story is that Lovell is built up so much that you wonder why he, who apparently defeated the Scots by his own skill and cunning, who was brave and tenacious, who was admired by all, etc. etc. would swear loyalty to such a man as Green’s version of Richard III? Richard cannot make decisions for himself, he is under his wife’s thumb, he takes glory for all Lovell’s work and is unpopular with nearly everyone. We are asked to believe that this able duke and later king never had an original idea of his own and that his power was all due to Lovell and Anne Neville. And Lovell makes a lot of mistakes throughout the story yet is still portrayed as a hero and the brain behind Richard’s power. 

The other problem is the author can’t seem to make up his mind about what Richard’s personality actually is. One minute he is described as “impetuous”, the next he is “habitually cautious”. It is all just a bit confused.

I will admit it was refreshing to see Anne Neville portrayed as a strong woman. A lot of novels portray her as nothing more than a doormat.  However, Green seemed to go way too far in the other direction. In this novel she is power-grabbing and dominates Richard, making all his decisions for him and ranting publicly about her “idiot” husband. Would this really have happened in the 15th century when women were subject to their husbands in every aspect of life? She is merciless and comes across almost like a pantomime villain.

There was also a bit too much military stuff for me. It seemed to linger on the campaigns for far to long and I found myself skimming at one point. There are also annotations in the novel which were a bit strange and seemed unneccesary. 

I have highlighted a lot of problems with this novel and it might seem like I really disliked it but I honestly didn’t. I did enjoy it, I just couldn’t get on board with the portrayals of Richard and Anne and was a bit frustrated by the author’s decisions. I will still read the sequel though. If you like Richard III then I would still give this book a read because there isn’t a lot out there about Francis Lovell. 

The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey

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Inspector Grant is in the hospital recovering from a broken leg and he is bored. He is given some picture by a friend and one of the is of Richard III. Grant decides that a man with such a face could not possibly be guilty of the murders of his nephews and been the monster he is portrayed as in the history books. He sets about finding out more and discovering who killed the Princes in the Tower.

The Daughter of Time was written in 1951 and you can tell this as you are reading it. It reminds me of one of those ITV shows that are on tv on weekday afternoons. And there is no way someone would be in hospital for that length of time these days, especially for a broken leg.
This novel makes you think about history and the fact that it is the winners who write it. It is an interesting idea – historical”facts” as possible fakery, an idea that is still relevant today in our world of constant fake news. Governments have always used propaganda and misinformation to bring about what they want or need. The 1400s were no different.

I knew nothing about ‘Tonypandy’, the Wigton martyrs and only a little about Glencoe before reading this novel so it was interesting to read about these events. I will need to look them up and learn a bit more about them.

The Daughter of Time is a lovely little nostalgic novel. It is very short and could probably be read in one sitting. It was pro-Richard before it was cool. There is a sort of middle-class attitude running through the story though – “he has nice face, must be a decent sort of chap”. If you want any modern  theories on Richard and the Princes this book isn’t for you but it is a light-hearted, fun read.