Book Review: The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley

The Clergyman’s Wife makes me want to pick up Pride and Prejudice again, as it revisits the story of Lizzy Bennett’s friend, Charlotte Lucas. As you may recall, Charlotte is twenty-seven when she meets Mr Collins in the Austen novel. She is too plain to have sparked any interest from a suitor and without a dowry is doomed to spinsterhood. When Collins fails to snare one of the older Bennett girls, he settles for Charlotte, and she for him.

Greeley’s novel picks up the story several years later, showing Charlotte as the young mother of baby Louisa, living at the parsonage on Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s estate. Collins is still cringingly sycophantic towards his benefactress, passing on her advice to his wife about how to raise a baby and other domestic affairs. Lady Catherine is just as bossy and overbearing as ever. Charlotte passes her days quietly avoiding her husband if she can, but for the most part contented in her lot. She’s a sensible and pragmatic sort of girl.

When Lady Catherine bestows some rose bushes on the young couple, local farmer, Mr Travis, is given the job of ripping out a stump and preparing the flower bed. Charlotte chances upon him in the garden early one morning, Travis sweaty with exertion, Charlotte lugging a restless Louisa, both of them tousled and not yet dressed for the day. Travis and Charlotte strike up a conversation and as summer merges into autumn, a friendship develops.

The story is very much within the mind of Charlotte as she discovers feelings she has never experienced before and considers what it might be like to marry for love instead of convenience or duty. She had always said to herself she wasn’t a sentimental sort of person, but Travis has made her less than steady and distracts her thoughts. It is soon obvious he feels the same way for her.

The novel is very heartfelt and sympathetic to Charlotte and the sad events of her life she has had to hide from others. It examines the difficulties of being expected to live up to society’s expectations and how even the comparatively comfortably off can struggle to meet these demands. The powerlessness of women comes through again and again to say nothing of the poor, dependent as they are on the bounty of the likes of Lady Catherine, who will only see what she wants to see. She is such a loathsome creature, you want to shout at her.

I was a little disappointed that the scope of a couple of seasons gives Charlotte little opportunity to change her lot although we leave her with renewed determination – pragmatic yet again. But the novel brings rural England in the Regency period nicely to life, and you can’t help getting caught up in the emotions that run high. I was a little doubtful about the use of present tense, but soon got used to it – it doesn’t have to read like Austen, after all, and the storytelling nonetheless sounds authentic, only marred occasionally by the odd Americanism.

I love the character of Charlotte Collins – she has such a good heart, while striving in small ways to be her own person. She definitely deserves to have her story told at least as much as those Bennett girls that keep popping up in Pride and Prejudice sequels. The Clergyman’s Wife is Molly Greeley’s first book, a three and a half out of five read from me. I shall definitely seek out her next, The Heiress, which takes another shadowy character from Pride and Prejudice, poor Anne de Bourgh, the daughter of ghastly Lady Catherine, a seen-and-not-heard character who spends entire scenes, lolling on a chaise longue, often asleep. It will be interesting to see how Greeley wakes her up.

Book Review: The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

The Marwood and Lovett series is such a joy for anyone who loves a good mystery, with a historical setting that takes you there. Taylor’s series brings alive the nitty gritty of everyday life plus the machinations of the powerful at court. Set during the reign of Charles II, The Royal Secret has government agent James Marwood investigate the death of a former colleague, a Mr Abbott. He comes across the man in his cups and full of regret on his way from a gambling house.

When Abbott dies suddenly, it is hard not the think about the opening scene of the novel, where Abbott’s stepdaughter and a young maid plot his death by witchcraft. But the twenty-first century reader knows that the man’s death will be a lot more complicated than that. Another incident sees Marwood getting in Cat Lovett’s bad books when he takes her to the theatre and ogles the leading actress. The two have been friends and associates through several hair-raising adventures and now meet regularly for outings. Dating? I think not.

Cat has inherited her husband’s architecture business and at the theatre, meets her client, Mr Fanshaw, along with a Dutchman, Mr Van Riebeeck, a family connection of Fanshaw’s. Cat is charmed by Van Riebeeck, while Marwood takes an instant dislike to the man. The scene also introduces us to the world of the Dutch in England at the time and the political difficulties posed by rivalry between the Netherlands and France. This rivalry will come closer to home when Cat earns a commission to design a poultry-house for the King’s sister who lives at the French court. So many threads of historical interest.

The plot ramps up with plenty of action – James Marwood seems to attract trouble, as his suspicions around Van Riebeeck grow along with jealousy over Cat’s growing friendship with the man. There’s the usual tension of Cat and Marlow’s see-sawing relationship and Marwood is often in trouble with his own servants, which adds a degree of lightness.

While we get to see kings and their courts close up, their finery and excesses, Taylor doesn’t stint when it comes to describing the grubbiness of ordinary life in the 1600s. Characters puke, piss and evacuate their bowels in fairly graphic ways, not surprisingly when there are growing suspicions of poisonings. He throws in some other quirky details, such as the interest in collecting by the wealthy. Fanshaw, an avid collector, adds a disconsolate and elderly lion to his household, caged in the garden to impress visitors.

It’s a brilliant read, well-researched, pacy and as for the characters, I can’t get enough of Cat and Marwood – they are so lively and interesting. Sometimes you want to bang their heads together. But in a world where it is important to find favour in the right places, not just to succeed but to survive, they are refreshingly themselves and more inquisitive than is good for them. I can’t wait for the next book in the series. This one’s a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

There have been quite a few novels telling the story of World War II female British agents dropped into France, and their resistance fighter counterparts, and they often make good reading. It was a time for women getting to do some gutsy jobs, involving danger and cunning – not the usual ‘keep the home fires burning’ roles they were often accustomed to. But what about the earlier war? Kate Quinn puts us in the picture with one particular network run by Alice Dubois (real name Louise de Bettignies) in German occupied France during the First World War.

Although The Alice Network is partly written through the eyes of a fictitious character – Evelyn Gardiner, a British spy (code name Marguerite Le Francois) – Dubois and her network of spies are also incorporated into the story. We first meet Eve years later as an ageing drunk with deformed hands, a bad temper and a tendency to wave her Luger around, firing off a round when startled.

It’s an evening in 1947 when nineteen-year-old New Yorker, Charlie St. Clair, hammers on Eve’s door demanding to be let in. It’s pouring with rain, and Charlie has escaped her mother during a visit to Europe for a completely different purpose. Charlie is determined to track down a long lost French cousin, Rose, angry that no one has found out what happened to Rose in the recent war. Without a death certificate or witness statement, she still hopes Rose is alive. Eve, working at a bureau that helped locate refugees, had corresponded with Charlie’s father about Rose giving no reason for hope.

That’s not the only problem for Charlie – she’s three month’s pregnant and was supposed to be going to a clinic for an abortion. But Charlie needs to track down Rose before it’s too late and take control of her own life. Eve is set to turn Charlie out into the street, but a new lead sparks her curiosity. Before long they form an unlikely alliance, heading to France with Eve’s Scottish hired help, Finn Kilgore, in his ageing Lagonda. Finn also has his own war story, which eventually emerges, but the narrative is mostly Eve’s and Charlie’s, flipping between WWI and 1947 to fill us in on the story of the Alice Network, and Charlie’s journey of discovery.

This is a nicely paced novel. The story of Eve’s war is a grim one, unfolding to reveal how women spies picked up gems of information about troop movements and planned attacks. Eve, with her stutter, looks naive and youthful, but as a waitress in the only decent restaurant in Lille, is an ideal spy with her ease in both French and German. There’s lots of tension here and the sudden switches to Charlie’s story give a bit of light relief. Although her’s is a sad story too, there’s a bit more fun in the way the three travellers interact and develop a grudging respect for each other. Things simmer between them until the past finally catches up with the present and everything comes to a dramatic finish.

I enjoyed the novel immensely as an escapist read, but was also really interested to learn more about the spy-ring run by Alice Dubois and the fate of those who were captured. Remembering that this is a time before women had the vote in Britain, it’s remarkable how these female agents were allowed to take on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. The execution of Edith Cavell, a nurse shot for aiding the escape of Allied soldiers, is a stark reminder that this wasn’t a game.

The characters of our three main players are both interesting and engaging, and the cliff-hanger chapter endings keep you racing through the story. It’s not surprising this novel has been extremely popular and well-recommended, and many will be eager to read Quinn’s new book: The Rose Code. The Alice Network is a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Dig by John Preston

This could be the greatest story you’ve never heard of – well, it was for me until the Neflix movie version came out earlier this year. It had a terrific cast including Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes playing Mrs Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo, and the man (Basil Brown) she hires to investigate the ancient burial mounds on her Suffolk property. The film had much going for it, including costuming that had me longing for the comfort of classic tailoring.

When I came across the book by John Preston – first published in 2007 – I was happy to revisit the story which is just so interesting. Not only did Sutton Hoo offer up a hoard of fantastic Anglo Saxon treasures: a stunning metal helmet, bowls, amulets and jewellery – a quick trip to google will show you – but it was also encased in a ninety foot ship. Of course the ship’s timber had long since rotted to nothing, so how Basil, and the archaeologists who followed, sensitively excavate the site to reveal it is a wonder.

When Basil discovers a coin the site is soon shown to date from around the seventh century AD – so not a Viking hoard, as first thought, but Anglo Saxon. Suddenly people’s opinions of the what were termed the Dark Ages were challenged. The departure of the Romans from Britain didn’t seem to herald a time of barbarism, barren of any artistic sophistication after all, if the stunning artefacts were anything to go by.

And while the reimagining of all this is enthralling enough, the characters are engaging too. We follow several viewpoints, beginning with Edith Pretty, a frail widow in her late fifties who wants to excavate the mounds before her health fails or there’s a German invasion – this is the summer of 1939. She has a young son, who’s at a loose end having lost his governess, so he chums up with Basil. We’re also in the mind of Basil who’s not an academic, but knows his soil. When the British Museum gets involved, he and Mrs Pretty are sidelined.

This creates plenty of tension and intellectual snobbery which brings in some terrific scenes and personality clashes. Also on the dig is newly married Peggy Piggott (apparently a relative of the author’s) who is helping her university professor husband. Already cracks are appearing in their marriage, and things get complicated when Edith’s young cousin, Rory, turns up on his bike with his photographic equipment.

While the film gives you the visuals to imagine the excavation site, the book adds lots of interesting detail – although the author has taken a few factual liberties, as he explains, ‘for dramatic effect’. I would recommend both for anyone who loves history and archaeology, or a cracking good story. Incidentally, John Preston is also the author of A Very English Scandal – another book on my wish list. The Dig gets a comfortable four out five from me.

Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

I thought I already knew about the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), thanks to all those English and American writers who went there to fight and wrote about it later. Then there was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica which I remember studying at one time. But really I hardly knew anything. I certainly didn’t know quite how brutal it was.

Isabel Allende’s new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, gave me a lot more insight, I am happy to say. It is mostly the story of Victor Dalmau, a medic on the Republican (Communist) side, glad he doesn’t have to fire a gun. He learns so much in the harsh reality of battlefield surgery and makes a name for himself by restarting a young soldier’s heart who has been left for dead. He’d like to finish his training as a doctor, but as the war ends, it becomes a fight for survival, with Republicans fleeing across the border to France to avoid slaughter.

Among the refugees is Roser, a promising musician who lived with Victor’s family. Roser is carrying the child of Guillem, Victor’s brother. Guillem is most certainly dead and chance to start a new life in Chile forces Victor and Roser to marry. Chile needs musicians more than it needs doctors, but the two make a new life together, and the novel follows their hard work and difficulties, their successes and new friendships. Among these is Felipe del Solar, who introduces Victor to Salvador Allende who is eventually to become President of Chile. Felipe also introduces Victor to his beautiful sister.

Chile is kind to the Dalmau family, but waiting in the wings is another Fascist insurrection and it seems a bit like history repeating itself. Another round of mysterious disappearances, of killings and concentration camps. Isabel Allende weaves into the story of ordinary people some major events and at times the book read more like non-fiction than fiction. This worked well for me and saved me the trouble of constantly reaching for the Internet, as it filled in all the factual stuff you needed to know in an accessible way.

Among the real people who make an appearance is Pablo Neruda, Chile’s famous poet. It is Neruda who had described Chile as ‘a long petal of the sea and wine and snow … (with) a belt of black and white foam’. Neruda, as Chile’s consul in Paris, organises the ship that brings the Dalmaus to Chile and fittingly his poetry introduces each chapter, e.g.:

I have slept with you
the whole night long
while the dark earth turns
with the living and the dead
("Night on the Island" - The Captain's Verses)

Allende deals with some big themes in her book – displacement, nationhood, the effects of war, family issues and so on. But it is also a love story and the way she writes this is with much humanity, sensitivity and tenderness. You can’t help falling in love a little with the characters themselves – especially gentle, hard-working and reliable Victor and fiery, clever and determined Roser. Allende shows us what is both ordinary and special about each of them.

This is such a stunning book, handling some really terrible scenes from history with a lightness of touch but still making them real. I frequently felt a lump in my throat as I read. A five out of five star read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

The plot-line for The Lost Lights of St Kilda is fairly classic: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl and she with him; circumstances tear them apart and years later, boy tries to find girl again and wonders if it’s too late. Nothing very original here, but what makes this novel so very interesting are the settings.

The story opens with Fred, a prisoner of war courtesy of the Germans, following his capture at St Valery. It’s 1940, and while many British servicemen were evacuated at Dunkirk, he’s stuck in a dark, dank prison cell with others from the 51st Highland Division, dreaming of home. Fred’s in his thirties, has lived all around the world with his work as a geologist, but what he can’t stop thinking about is the girl he left behind a dozen years before when he was researching the rock strata on St Kilda.

St Kilda is a wild and rugged island group off the coast of Scotland. Quite a way off the coast of Scotland. Lewis and Harris are part of the Outer Hebrides, and are hardly within cooee. St Kilda’s home to thousands of seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars which earn the islanders their livelihood. It’s pretty much subsistence living – it has to be as there’s no regular postal service, no radio communication, so the locals rely on visiting fishing boats and such for mail and supplies.

There’s also a bit of tourism in the summer – visitors make day trips to buy St Kilda handcrafts and to photograph ‘Britain’s last hunter-gatherers’. You can imagine what a smart St Kilda girl like Chrissie thinks of that. Chrissie’s story is woven in with Fred’s. She’s a plucky young girl when we meet her and her narrative describes among other things her fondness for the laird’s son. Archie Macleod is a charismatic but wayward young man who visits the island as a child and instantly causes trouble. Later during his final year at Cambridge, he turns up with Fred Lawson, the two of them settling in for a summer that will change their lives.

Through Fred’s eyes we see a dying way of life. The breathtakingly dangerous work the St Kilda men do each year to harvest fulmar chicks for their oil and meat, abseiling off the steep cliffs that border the main island of Hirta. Then there’s the evenings spent around the fire, the women weaving, the singing and storytelling. The intense devotion the families have for their children who are precious, because so many have died as infants.

Events conspire to have Fred making a new life for himself, though his story is mainly about his wartime bid for freedom, his survival through a terrible winter and his struggle to get back to his girl not knowing what he will find when he gets there. It’s a hymn to the sterling work of French Resistance and ordinary people, often at great cost, to get Allied escapees home.

I loved this book. There is plenty of dramatic tension among the characters, particularly Chrissie, Fred and Archie who are each sympathetic in their own way. Even Archie, who continues to cause trouble as an adult, is well fleshed out, battling his private demons. But mostly it’s the geography that steals the the show here, sending you to the Internet and the haunting images of a lost way of life. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The blurb of this book says Natasha Pulley’s debut novel is ‘utterly beguiling’ and well, I’m not going to argue. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is beguiling in spades. But wonderful too. On the surface it’s a kind of whodunit about a real event, the bombing of Scotland Yard in 1884 by Irish nationalists.

Twenty-five-year-old Nathaniel (Thaniel) Steepleton is a telegraphist for the Home Office – his abandoned skill as a pianist has trained him well for the quick interpretation of cables – when reports of planned bombings of official locations around London come through. Back home at his meagre room in Pimlico, Thaniel discovers a strange but beautiful watch among his effects – a watch that doesn’t work until towards the bombing that almost kills him, but saves him just in time.

Grace Carrow has a watch too. She’s in her last term studying physics at Oxford, hoping to discover and measure the existence of ether, the substance Victorian scientists believed to be the vehicle for light. Light travels faster than sound so it was thought that while sound travelled through air, light must travel through a different substance to make it quicker. Grace is out to prove it, but struggling, not only with something that in the end didn’t pan out, but also her destiny as the daughter of a lord to settle down and marry well.

But all Grace wants is a basement somewhere full of bunsen burners and test-tubes. She’s had to cut off her hair because she accidentally set fire to it, which is kind of convenient for when she sneaks into the male-only library dressed as a man. I like Grace.

These two main characters eventually become connected through a third – you guessed it the watchmaker of the title. Thaniel, wanting to find out more about his watch, hunts him out and finds an enigmatic Japanese artisan, Keita Mori. Mori is also of noble birth and we get a picture of his heritage in Japan which Pulley creates beautifully here. There are further Japanese links – a model village nearby in Knightsbridge and Grace’s friend at Oxford, the dandyish Matsumoto.

And then there’s the clockwork. Mori not only makes beautiful watches, he creates flying insects and has an articulated octopus that steals socks. While the police are wondering if his handiwork is behind the bomb-making terrorising London, Gilbert and Sullivan are rehearsing The Mikado, set to debut at the model village. There are layers of music – which incidentally, Thaniel can see in colours – dazzling magical effects, fireworks, clairvoyance and even modern art incorporated into this complex, delightful and (that word again) beguiling story.

It is so easy to become swept away with all the visual images here, the elegant writing and the Victorian and Japanese settings but you need to have your wits about you to keep up with the plot as Pulley also plays with time and memory. But even if I do feel as if I’ve missed a few important details and a reread may be in order, I can’t help feeling that this has been a particularly pleasurable entertainment. The sequel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, is already on my ‘to read’ list for 2021. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks doesn’t write happy novels but there is much joy to be had in reading them. The writing is wonderful, the characters flawed but interesting with enough of their history that you can see why they are the way they are. With On Green Dolphin Street we have three people, each of them bright and talented, but who are struggling with other people’s expectations of them and the politics of their time.

Mary lost her fiancé in the Africa campaign of World War 2. She didn’t think she’d ever fall in love quite like that again. Then she met Charlie, a dazzling young man who made everyone laugh and the room come alive. We catch up with them a decade or so later, married and living in Washington where Charlie’s a career diplomat at the British Embassy. It’s 1960 and we have a sense of a world where things are beginning to change.

Charlie had been an officer in the war, and still remembers all the letters he’d had to write to the loved ones of his men fallen in battle. At work a lot depends on Charlie too, all that glad-handing, maintaining a perpetual state of exuberance while his finances are shaky to say the least. It’s not surprising that he self-medicates with alcohol.

Then there’s Frank, a journalist fighting his way back into political reporting after an FBI probe deemed him unsafe a few years before – the McCarthy era hadn’t been kind to the press. Frank still dreams of all the enemy soldiers he had to kill in the war, remembering all the chilling details. He considers all the men he sees on the street, wondering if they too are murderers. The thoughts are fleeting as Frank is too busy with an upcoming election. Old hand Richard Nixon is poised to win, if only he can hold off newbie John Kennedy. But it’s the young buck who looks so much more assured on television.

The election provides an interesting backdrop to the main drama of the novel: a love triangle, triggered by the party when Frank met Mary. The story of their affair adds a lot of the dramatic moments through the book, fraught with difficulties of distance (Frank in New York based at the NY Times), and all the people who depend on Mary, particularly her children, but also her parents in England (Mary’s mother is ill) and not least of all, Charlie, who is struggling to keep himself together.

Ultimately it is Mary we most feel for as it is Mary who has to decide the fate of all three. With no career of her own, in spite of a university education and her mother having been a doctor, her role in life is to be the perfect hostess, wife and mother. Under this facade is a seething mess of feelings. In their own ways it’s not so different for Charlie and Frank, the secrets, the emotions. No wonder there are a lot martinis and scotch going down. Goodness, such a lot!

I was very moved by On Green Dolphin Street. It could have been a little maudlin, but it all seemed so real, the characters so intense and believable, and the politics of America in the midst of an election resonating with today. Lovers of New York will be enchanted by Frank’s informative tour of the city. Throughout, we have Faulks’s nice way of prose, though he likes to show off his vocabulary (describing a little boy peeing off a balcony as ‘micturating’). It’s a very minor quibble in a novel that is in all other ways memorable and superbly crafted with an ending that took my breath away. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

I probably wouldn’t have picked up a novel set around the Bubonic Plague of 1348 if I hadn’t embarked on a reading challenge. You had to read a book about a pandemic and dodging dystopian themes I plumped for this historical novel – its tagline: For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

Venturing into The Last Hours, I found myself thoroughly swept away into Middle Ages Dorseteshire. Of course I remember all those creepy, atmospheric crime novels of Walters I’d enjoyed years ago so knew she could spin a yarn.

Here we’ve got a dysfunctional family – at its head, lord of the manor, Sir Richard Develish. Bawdy, cruel and lacking any subtlety of thought, he believes he keeps his serfs productive by the threat of violence. But it’s his clever wife, Lady Anne, who works with the serfs to ensure productivity is high for the area, all the while keeping her husband’s potential to harm in check. It helps that she can read and he can’t.

Unfortunately, their daughter, Lady Eleanor, takes after her father in stupidity and general nastiness. At fourteen she has beauty and a small dowry. The plan is to marry her off to a local lord’s son in the hope that the union will win Sir Richard preferment, but the lad is said to be sickly. The story begins with Sir Richard setting out to visit his future son-in-law to see for himself. He is accompanied by his steward Gyles Startout and a small team of armed men to guard the dowry but when they arrive, it is soon obvious that people are falling sick.

Gyles, who acts as eyes and ears for his master and mistress, quickly spots there are good reasons to leave hastily, and the party take flight. But by the time they reach home, everyone is ill or left to die, except Gyles. Bringing news of her husband’s death, Gyles nurses the remaining soldiers and stays on the far side of the Develish moat, quarantining himself. Meanwhile Lady Anne decides to bring in all the serfs from their village to keep them safe. It’s effectively a lock-down.

Lady Anne is pretty smart, and maybe just a little before her time. She learnt to keep the sick separate from the healthy when she was growing up at a convent so keeping the world at bay and shoring up the moat are sensible moves. As well as good practices in hygiene, Lady Anne has taught many of the serfs to read, including tall, dark and handsome Thaddeus Thurkell. Growing up a serf and a bastard, young Thaddeus was maltreated by his adopted father, but fortunately rescued by Lady Anne. Now he’s her right-hand-man. As well as Gyles, it’s Thaddeus Lady Anne turns to for advice about protecting her people, and what to do when supplies run low.

The Last Hours is a rip-roaring read, full of danger and acts of valour, intrigue and secrets. You also get a good picture of social conditions of the time. The role of women as chattels of their landowning husbands. The place of serfs, often at the mercy of harsh laws and crueller masters and their priests who reinforce the status quo. Memories of the Norman conquest of barely three hundred years before still fester with those of French descent having the upper hand and often reviled for it. But times are a-changing and maybe all that is needed is a plague to sort out the sheep from the goats, the survivors from the doomed and to auger a new way of doing things.

I suppose I’ll find out in the sequel, The Turn of Midnight, now on my to-read list. The Last Hours is a tale of endurance and human ingenuity with characters you want to cheer for and all the suspense you need to keep you whipping through its 550-odd pages. A surprisingly quick read and an easy four out of five from me.

Book Review: Jerningham by Cristina Sanders

Cristina Sanders has done an immense amount of research to recreate the first years of colonial settlement in Wellington with her debut novel, Jerningham. Starting off in 1839, the story follows newly arrived Arthur Lugg, an imaginary character, through whose eyes we meet a bunch of the key players in the colony, particularly Colonial William Wakefield and his loose cannon of a nephew, Jerningham Wakefield. They’re the down-under representatives of the New Zealand Company, which sold land that wasn’t exactly theirs to sell. So it’s up to the colonel and his nephew to make it happen.

There are a number of story threads here which help to build a picture of what it was like for the early settlers arriving in a promising new colony, expecting a plot of land on which to start their new life. We all know the story: how Maori were given items ranging from nails to guns to blankets for land – but was the land to be shared or bought outright? And then the ships came, bringing wave upon wave of hopeful new settlers ready to roll up their sleeves and rebuild England’s green and pleasant land.

The story follows the difficult relationship between the Wakefields and Governor Hobson who was pushing through the Treaty of Waitangi, to events building up to the Wairau Affray several years later. Arthur Lugg, first working for Colonel Wakefield as a procurement officer, is a witness to it all as well as a friend and minder to Jerningham who it seems can charm Lugg into anything.

There are some wonderfully evocative scenes as the two travel to Wanganui (as it was spelt then); the river, the bush and the friendly local Maori are all described in detail. Jerningham has his own mini empire, trading with whalers and Maori alike. There’s lots of wine, women and song wherever Jerningham (still barely 20) holes up.

I enjoyed meeting Charles Heaphy – I’ve always loved his stylised watercolours of the country he explored – who becomes a particular friend of Lugg’s. Meanwhile Arthur has his own personal trials, disappointment in love, losing his thumb and almost his life, a struggle with his own personal demons. Somewhat naïve, he fails to see how much he is manipulated by Jerningham.

And behind the scenes the machinations of the New Zealand Company, the governor and the treaty – much of it on morally and legally shaky ground. We get our fair share of earthquakes too.

At the heart of the story is Jerningham, the charmer; a young man of immense talent, if only he could use it wisely. He’s a wild boy but also has the knack for seeing the country as it is, falling into easy friendships with Maori, even daring to sit down to korero (talk) with the powerful chief Te Rauparaha.

Cristina Sanders tells it with plenty of factual detail and colour – what it’s like living in a raupo whare, the basic food (lots of pork and potatoes), a storm at sea, encountering Maori and their way of life for the first time. The workings of the men with power, the greed and the determination. It all makes for a fascinating read for anyone interested in the early years of New Zealand, colonisation or issues of empire. It reminds me why I love historical fiction so much – you can learn a lot about a period and place all wrapped up in a darn good story. It’s an impressive debut and well recommended – a four star read from me.