As per usual, I’d like to share my favourite reads of the previous year, and here they are:
The Chateau on the Lake by Charlotte Betts
Imagine traveling to France at the height of the Revolution… That is exactly what Madeleine Moreau does when after a personal tragedy she goes in search of the French side of her family. This takes her to the heart of France in 1792, right when the country is in the grip of the terrifying Reign of Terror.
Foolhardy, yes, and the very idea of it had my toes curling in horror, but the author weaves a beautiful tale of a different side to Revolutionary France. Even so, the strong political undercurrents are undoubtedly there in everything which occurs, and it seems that no one is safe – the authorities react with merciless swiftness to anonymous tipoffs, cutting down innocents rather than letting people not sharing the required revolutionary zeal “get away”.
This novel packs a punch with romance, intrigue, and mystery, the pastoral charm interspersed with horrific scenes, and the author’s research is impeccable.
The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hogdson
Set in the notorious debtor’s prison in London in 1727, this is a gripping murder mystery. The author hooked me from the start with that classic thriller structure, a Prologue detailing the brutal murder itself, and then the main story. Here this is divided into 3 parts: Robbery, Murder, Life and Death, with the Murder section occurring over five days. It may sound contrived but this structure really works because it highlights how much action actually takes place in the span of a very short time.
The wastrel Tom Hawkins lands himself in debtor’s prison shortly after a murder has been committed there and soon becomes embroiled in an investigation. The Marshalsea is vividly described, with emphasis on the segregation of the prison into the paupers’ section, which for many inmates spelled certain death due to the appalling conditions, and the section for the more privileged debtors like gentlemen such as Tom.
Even so, this is no walk in the park for Tom, with violence and betrayal lurking around every corner. It’s a page-turning read from start to finish and even includes a budding romance, a little light in the darkness.
Fatherland by Robert Harris
I’ve always wanted to read this seminal novel, or indeed anything by Robert Harris, but never got around to it. As the author recently published another novel, I decided to start from the beginning, as it were.
Fatherland is an intense political thriller set in Berlin in 1961 against the backdrop of an alternate reality in which Hitler and the Nazis won World War II. The discovery of a body near the house of a high-ranking official days before the Führer’s 75th birthday takes homicide investigator Xavier March right into the corridors of power where he unearths a cover-up on a grand scale: the murder of six million Jews.
With the knowledge of history we have today, including the knowledge of this genocide, it’s hard to imagine a nation of people as isolated and indoctrinated as the German population in this book. Some obviously suspect that something has happened but dare not question the status quo, but most are just ordinary people who simply want to go about their business and survive in this totalitarian regime.
I read this very quickly because it was so gripping, right from the moment inspector March steps out of his car to inspect the dead body, but also because of the spine-tingling premise. A modern classic in my opinion.
A Cruel Necessity by L C Tyler
This is a classic whodunnit set during the time of the English Republic. John Grey, a young lawyer, literally stumbles upon the body of a murdered man, and the local magistrate, a retired colonel from Cromwell’s army, reluctantly accepts that John now has the task of finding the killer. It soon appears that the murder could be linked to a Royalist conspiracy to restore Charles II to the throne.
It was refreshing to read a novel where the majority of the characters’ loyalties lie with the republic and not the monarchy like so many other novels, presumably because Royalists are perceived to be more “dashing and romantic”.
John Grey is neither. He’s young and inexperienced and fumbles his way through the investigation, landing himself in political hot waters on more than one occasion. This makes for a very endearing hero and the plot so much more realistic because in real life nobody is perfect. At the same time it doesn’t pay to underestimate him, nor his mother who constantly exasperates her son but has a very sharp mind. The final denouement is not quite what I expected, but all the more rewarding for it.
The Wedding Cake Tree by Melanie Hudson
Celebrity photographer Grace Buchanan doesn’t expect to lose her mother Rosamund so soon in life, but even so Rosamund has the ability to reach far into her daughter’s life beyond death. The terms of her will state that for Grace to inherit her mother’s peaceful Devonshire cottage she has to drop everything for two weeks and go on a journey around the country with world-weary ex-soldier Alasdair Finn.
This isn’t quite what Grace had in mind, but she goes along with it because she realises that she didn’t know her mother as well as she thought she did. It turns out to be the journey of a life-time for both Grace and Alasdair, who are the quintessential odd couple.I loved the way Alasdair was in charge of each letter from Rosamund to Grace as well as the various items to be revealed at each stage of the journey. It gave him an important role in Grace’s life, one she didn’t particularly welcome, as well as setting the scene for love to blossom. Otherwise, as a character, he could so easily have been a bystander to the plot.
I read this debut novel with a strong sense that this was an author who was going places, and lo and behold, Melanie Hudson has just won a RoNA prize for the best contemporary romance of the year!