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Be still my beating heart! Sarah Dunant remembers the romantic historical novels that sparked her interest in history.

Think of 3 adjectives to describe Lucretia Borgia. Now hold those thoughts while I describe Sarah Dunant in 3 adjectives.

Earthy, funny, cool.

This was by far my favourite event of the 2017 festival, and that was, in no small part, down to the author’s engaging style – she really connected with the audience, talking to us not to the chair.  She had us eating out of her hands in no time.

Of Lucretia Borgia’s reputation, she said: “I started my research and within about 15 minutes, I thought, hang on someone’s done a number on her.  This is a classic example of the victors writing history.  But if Lucretia has been maligned, then who else has received the same treatment?  And isn’t it about time someone set the record straight, instead of perpetuating the myth?”

And that is the purpose of her two novels, Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Father.   It is an attempt to rehabilitate the Borgias, except that sometimes that is impossible.

On Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI, Lucretia’s father: “I can’t rehabilitate him. Rodrigo is bad news, but he must be judged by the times he lived in.  He was a Spaniard, an interloper, not an insider in the Vatican court.  He had to be a consummate politician to get to the top.  His behaviour was no different from everyone else, except that he did everything in technicolour.  Rodrigo was a big man of insatiable appetites – that’s why Jeremy Irons (who played him in the recent Sky series) is too thin in many ways.”

“His Catholic church was corrupt but don’t forget that that corruption financed the creation of some of the greatest Renaissance art.  ”

Rodrigo loved all his illegitimate children and held them close, but viewed them as valuable political assets when they came of useful age – in Lucretia’s case at the age of 13, when he married her off for the first time.

Of Cesare: ” Cesare was a man of extraordinary physical presence, popular with his troops, asking nothing of them that he wouldn’t do himself.  A ruthless manipulator and strategist, aware that time was running out as his father got older. Frustrated at what he saw as his father’s dithering.  “The trouble with the old is that their blood runs tepid, while ours runs boiling hot”, he says at one point In the Name of the Family.”

Can Cesare, who did murder Lucretia’s second husband, be rehabilitated?  Partially … when we remember that he was afflicted with syphillis at a young age, (actually when he was a cardinal) and so badly disfigured by it, that he resorted to wearing a mask, and yet look at what he achieved, despite the protracted illness.  I began to think of him as a malevolent superman while reading Dunant’s novels.  What did Dunant say? “An extraordinary physical presence.” She also said of him: “I think he was, without doubt, a sociopath, but, looking at his patterns of behaviour, I also think he was bi-polar.”

Machiavelli makes an appearance in the second novel as a young Florentine diplomat, observing Cesare Borgia, whom he was later to capture in the pages of the infamous The Prince. A consumate piece of political reporting according to Dunant.  “His dispatches from that time are gold-dust,” said Dunant.  She also said: “I thought he was smart.  I like smart!”

But what of Lucretia? Have you been following how she has been used by the men in her life?  Married to Giovanni Sforza at 13, forced to divorce and marry Alfonso of Aragon at 18 (a man she came to love), widowed at 20 by the hand of her brother.  Her third marriage to the much older and syphilitic Alfonso de l’Este, Duke of Ferrara at the age of 21.  Does this sound like the well-known strumpet of ill-repute or more like a dutiful daughter?  She became Rodrigo’s and Cesare’s political tool at the age of 13, and look at the pain they put her through by the time she was 20!

Yes, she left her son by her second husband to be brought up by others when she married for the third time.  But Dunant stressed that she should not be judged by our standards, but thar we should live with her in her own moment when this was the done thing.  She’s not the feisty heroine the C21st desires, but – and here is where she earns Dunant’s admiration – she gradually realises that the only way to gain a measure of independence is to get out of Rome.  She agrees to the marriage with the Duke of Ferrara and rides away, knowing that the Ferraras do not want her.  Because of her family connections, she is tainted goods, but Rodrigo makes the marriage worth their while with the biggest dowry ever paid in Italy. She does not love her third husband, but is sufficiently savvy to understand that her marriage is a diplomatic alliance and eventually forges an effective partnership with him.  She establishes her court, and transforms herself into the well-respected Duchess of Ferrara.  This is the journey Lucretia makes in the pages of In The Name of The Family.

So where does the rumour of incest originate? Dunant pinpoints it to the first divorce.  Lucretia had been married to Giovanni Sforza for 3 years without issue.  But Sforza had outlived his usefulness and Rodrigo needed her to be free to make another strategic marriage.  He decided to annul the marriage on the grounds of Sforza’s impotence, and Lucretia, who still did everything her father demanded of her, signed papers to that effect.  How did Sforza react with the following statement: “I have known her an infinity of times, but he (Rodrigo) just wants her back for himself.” Thus is a reputation destroyed!  “Fake news!”, cried Dunant.

Had these people no conscience?  “The Catholic practice of confession allowed them moral wriggle room”, she explained. “But, at times, it became a wild dance.”  Indeed and it is one that she captures brilliantly in her two Borgia novels, which I devoured within a week.  They are truly compulsive; with such protagonists and shenanigans, how could they not be? And there is also a feisty heroine in the form of Machiavelli’s wife.  He didn’t have it all his own way.  However, I would argue that there is a character bigger than any named so far:  Syphillis – a pestilence that arrived in Europe when Columbus returned from the Americas and cut a swathe so rapidly that, following the first reported cases in Naples in 1494, brothels were closing in Aberdeen in 1497.  Dunant includes the then hopeless fight against the disease and details the gruelling treatments that Cesare had to endure.  The doctors were at a loss – all they could do was slow its progess in an individual, but they could not cure.  As Dunant pointed out, syphillis remained a killer until the discovery of penicillin in 1946.  She is also convinced that Lucretia died of it, contracting it from her third husband.  It was the final wrong done to her by the men in her life.

To conclude the session, the chair, Jenny Brown, asked Dunant to summarise Lucretia in 3 adjectives.  She chose:

canny, loving, able to learn

Were these the words you picked at the beginning of this post?

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Translated from German by Peter Millar

After 1945 and 1946, the third part of my fictional exploration of post-war Hamburg reaches the bitterly cold winter of 1946 and the torridly hot summer of 1947, which seemed designed to inflict further suffering on the population of the devastated city.

The Murderer in Ruins, as ice-cold as the landscape,  is killing people and leaving their naked bodies amidst the rubble of Hamburg.  There are no identifying marks. Neither are there any reports of missing persons.  Not as strange as it sounds, given that Hamburg is full of displaced persons with little to no connection to the surviving home population.  The unfortunate chief inspector Stave is tasked with finding the killer, aided by the British officer, Lieutenant MacDonald, but where to start?

Based on a real case in which the four victims remained as unidentified as the killer, Rademacher’s novel reflects the frustration of a case with no leads, no clues in a city trying to reestablish the rule of  law.  After all, given recent body counts, what difference do 4 more bodies make?  The reader must be patient – very patient – as each assumed lead draws a blank.  But, as the author explained at Newcastle Noir, he has reconstructed the case fictionally in order to provide his own solution.  And so the resolution, in which the crimes of the present are inextricably linked with German crimes of the past,  depends on a chance observation ….

I admit, as a thriller, I struggled with the tortoise-like pace of the investigation, but, as a piece of historical fiction, I was bound by the detail of Rademacher’s reconstruction of post-war Hamburg and the psychologies of the characters. Stave, himself, is damaged goods, having lost his  wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his only son to the Nazis and the Eastern Front.  Despite their ideological estrangement, the father loves his son, desperately combing Hamburg main station for him whenever a train arrives with soldiers returning from the war.  His anxiety is palpable and can only increase when he discovers his son is a POW in Siberia ….

I found Stave a very sympathetic character.  Hamburg is, despite the weather, a hot bed of vice and black-marketeering, and he is a man who understands the importance of overlooking petty crimes to prevent being deflected from the main chase. However, racked with guilt about his wife, anxiety about his son, he is in need of a break. And in Anna, a mysterious aristocratic refugee and skilled black marketeer from East Prussia, it would appear he gets one.  It’s a relationship that seems destined for  greater things, if only he can forget that she tells him nothing of her past …

The exploration of East Prussia and the people who fled to avoid the “Ivans” is continued into the second novel of what will be a trilogy.  The Wolf Children is the collective name given to the mass of child refugees who flowed westwards.  Either orphaned or separated from their parents during the mass exodus at the end of the war, they lived a feral existence in Hamburg, learning to capitalise on opportunities presented by the black market or to engage in child prostitution.  They had their enemies and there was plenty of gang in-fighting,   So when the body of a teenage boy is found lying on top of an unexploded bomb in the harbour area of Hamburg, it is assumed that he is one of them.

Inspector Stave’s second case is a little easier than the first, in that he does at least identify the corpse.  Otherwise the waters are as murky as those of the Elbe, with his prospective Wolf Children witnesses being killed almost as soon as he has talked to them.

Once again I didn’t find the case as enthralling as the social history it explored. The identification of the murderer is quite well-signposted although the motivation for the boy’s killing would be utterly unbelievable if it wasn’t based on obscure historical fact. The things we do not know! Rademacher’s vision for these novels is greater than the murder mystery, and I would say that the scope of this second novel is to investigate the impact of war on the younger generations.  It is quite heartbreaking in places – no more so than in relation to Chief Inspector Stave’s son.

The war may be over but the repercussions are severe.  The world remains fractured, its logic twisted.  Why else could nothing and nobody function without the black market and what are the British occupation forces doing dismantling the remaining machinery at Hamburg docks?  This can hardly be called peace. Personal relationships are suffering also.  Like the temperatures of the summer of 1947, resentments are rising.  Where is this heading?  I can hardly wait for the third instalment!

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imageWinner of the 2014 Nordic Council Award
Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

I was rooting for this novel to lift the Petrona Award (for best Scandi Crime novel) on Saturday night, but it was not to be.  All I can say is that the winner (which I will be making a beeline for) must be utterly fantastic because The Wednesday Club was one of the most satisfying reads of 2017 to date.

It’s not your standard crime novel. In fact, after the prologue, in which Claes Thune’s secretary, Matilda Wiik goes missing, there’s no mention of the police for another 300 pages! Instead the narrative rolls back eight months to describe the events leading up to the disappearance.

Set in Helsinki 1938, following the Austrian Anschluss, it documents the unrest and tensions arising in Finland through the eyes and attitudes of Claes Thune’s fellow members of the Wednesday Club, a group that meets once a month to drink lots of liquor (!) and to debate issues of the day. Long-standing friendships mean that there is no rancour when disagreements arise. It is very civilised. For the sake of the group, Thune even swallows his pride when one of them runs away with his wife! And yet at this critical point in time, political attitudes are diverging and hardening. The group’s cohesion begins to weaken, and division becomes inevitable.

This group of gentlement works as a microcosm of society. There are Nazi sympathisers, supporters of appeasement, adherents of resistance and others, like Claes Thune who seem to be as bemused politically as he is personally. Hoping for the best. And there is the Jew, Joachim Jary, destined to be the victim, not only because of his race, but because of his chronic depression. His illness enables a disquietening discussion on the Nazi rationale for euthanasia of the disabled.

All of which is not necessarily specifically Finnish. The novel becomes so through the revelations of Mrs Wiik’s history. She’s a woman with a past she would love to forget and keen to keep secret. Why? Because 20 years previously she was on the wrong side of history, finding herself on the losing Red side of the Finnish Civil War. Even now this counts against her even though she was punished for it at the time with internment in a concentration camp, where unspeakable things happened to her. Yet her memories flood back, when she hears the voice of her persecutor on the night she works late to deliver drinks to the Wednesday Club.

And while she recognises him, he doesn’t recognise her, leaving the way free for her to plan a leisurely revenge. The identity of the man and how Mrs Wiik’s intends to revenge herself are the mysteries at the heart of this novel, both solved, along with her disappearance, only in the final 5 pages.

I didn’t see any of it coming, possibly because I found the historical revelations alongside their warnings for our future fascinating; the characterisation equally so.  Westö’s characters are not ciphers, one dimensional representations of political viewpoints; they are fully human with the capacity to surprise, by acting in ways contrary to their utterances.

So even though I now know the outcome, this is a historical crime novel with sufficient depth to fully repay a reread or two.  It is, in summary, quite brilliant!

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I’m taking a different approach to literary festivals this year.  Pre-festival I’m going to read some of the books I’ve bought in previous years.  That way new festival purchases won’t simply get added to the old ones, and the overall effect on the TBR should be a zero increase rate.  That’s the theory anyway.  I’ll test it out with Ayewrite! which is just one month away.

First up is the book I bought following one of the best events I’ve ever attended at Ayewrite. The year was 2015 and Chris Dolan chaired an event entitled My Era is better than Yours!  3 authors were asked to pitch their chosen eras to the audience, which then voted on the one which appealed most.  The choice was between Tudor England (Rory Clements), The English Civil War (Michael Arnold) or Georgian England (Antonia Hodgson). I forget the way the public vote went but I came out and bought Antonia Hodgson’s debut, for which she won the 2014 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger.

imageI was intrigued by a crime novel set in the notorious debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Not the Marshalsea brought to life in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, but the previous iteration – a place where the governor was so violent, he could act with impunity, (whipping prisoners to death, chaining them to corpses as punishment, etc) because as long as the place made a profit, its aristocratic owner didn’t really care what went on behind the gates.

So how could anyone make a profit in a debtor’s prison?  Because the debtors had to pay for food and lodgings and any other services that might be rendered. If they couldn’t, they were removed from the gentleman’s area and thrown into The Common Side, a squalid hell on earth, where gaol fever  (typhus) ran rampant and survival was improbable.

When Tom Hawkins lands in the Marshalsea for a £10 debt, it is a place in crisis.  The recent death of debtor Captain Roberts has been deemed a suicide (although his hanged body bears evidence of a severe beating), and now his ghost haunts the place.  His widow remains in situ, determined to discover her husband’s murderer.  This is not good for the reputation of the prison’s aristocratic owner.  So when Tom, having made an enemy of the governor, finds himself almost at death’s door, he is happy to come to an arrangement with the authorities.  If he can identify Captain Roberts’s murderer, his debt will be repaid and he will find himself a free man once more.

Little does he know what he’s let himself in for ….

The danger to Tom’s life and limb in the Marshalsea is palpable – whether it be from smallpox or typhus, corrupt officialdom, government spies or his roommate , Samuel Fleet, widely suspected of being the murderer.  Not that I cared much for Tom at first.  He’s the malcreant son of a vicar, reaping what he has sown through wine, women and gambling. Though not yet entirely without conscience, he hasn’t forgotten the meaning of charity and loyalty.  Personal betrayal was not a word in his vocabulary, but 4 days in the Marshalsea will etch it on his soul forever.

While the plot is good, the historical detail is a masterclass.  Hodgson shows how the Marshalsea had a microcosmic economy of its own.  There were those who, having established successful businesses which enabled them to pay off their debt, chose to remain within the confines of the prison walls.   The mix of fictional and historical characters is interesting also: the governor and most of the wardens and lawyers were real enough and their histories are included in an appendix.  So too was the infamous Moll King, mistress of the den of iniquity  coffee house Tom chose to frequent, which featured in the painting Morning by William Hogarth. That’s the world waiting for Tom, should he escape the Marshalsea: dirty, ribald, just as immoral and treacherous.  Hodgson paints the reality of that Hogarthian London too. It’s somewhat of an eye-opener to say the least!

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This novel is as luscious as its cover!

Last year I very much enjoyed Gavin MCrea’s Mrs Engels – the story of Friedrich Engel’s mainly invisible-to-posterity female companion. That was a novel written very much into the spaces left by history. Czerkawska’s fictionalisation of the life of Jean Armour, the wife of Robert Burn’s has more historical backup. Nevertheless, in writing from Jeanny’s point-of-view, the talents, strengths and weaknesses of Scotland’s national bard are seen through the subjective eyes of the young girl who fell in love with him and never stopped loving him until her dying day, and that despite the hard times, repeated infidelities, and a widowhood that lasted 38 years.

What did he do to deserve it?  I was shaking my head at times, but then, times were different in 18th century Ayrshire, and Jeanny’s options were limited – particularly after falling pregnant to Burns, not once, but twice outside of wedlock. The wedlock status, it turns out, can be debated.  Certainly the civil arrangements that Burns had put in place were not recognised by her parents during the first pregnancy.  They loathed him.  He had no morals, no money and no prospects at that time, and so Jeanny’s parents packed her off to relatives in Paisley.  At which point Burns felt deserted and started the affair with Highland Mary, a rebound relationship, not only for him, but for her.  Just one of the many surprises in the twists and turns and emotional anguish that were endured before Burns and Jeanny were recognised as man and wife.

Not that the anguish abated.  9 children, only 3 of whom survived to adulthood.  Adopting her husband’s illegitimate daughter.  Recognition of her husband’s poetic talents brought fame, no fortune, but plenty of opportunity for further amorous adventures.  And pain when their private lives were put on show in his published poetry.  Further pain and humiliation when poems about his other women were published.  Czerkawska’s novel makes the emotional cost to Jean Armour of Burns’s success all too clear.

But, as we say in Scotland, she was some woman…. with an amazing generosity of spirit. She was Burns’s feet-on-the-ground anchor in Ayrshire.  Not without artistic talent of her own either.  She had a wonderful singing voice and the ballads that she learnt from her mother were the source of much of Burns’s material.  It’s no wonder Burns genuinely loved her (as best he was able.) She was the Belle of the Belles of Mauchline to him, his jewel, and his pet name for her was “mae wee lintie” (songbird).  In tribute to her, he included a woodlark on his personal seal.

The choice of an omniscient 3rd-person narrative gives the author freedom to include descriptive passages, conversations, and conjectures in a much more natural way than a 1st-person narrative would have done. The narrator doesn’t intrude for the most part.  (Except with one she’ll rue the day type statement after the couple’s first reconciliation.)  The dialogue has a distinctive Scottish cadence using local vocabulary of the time. It rings true, and there is a useful glossary at the back for non-Scots (like me).

Each chapter is headed by a short excerpt from one of Burn’s poems, relevant to forthcoming events.  I found this an effective way of showing the sublimation of life into art. Behind some of those poems are events that are often anything but sublime. Also people made invisible due to the brightness of their spouses’s star. Such as Jean Armour.  Czerkawska’s novel certainly brings her out of the shadows to give her the credit that is due. It also confirms that, when Burns chose her, he chose well.

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To the victor the spoils they say, and in terms of historical reputation, Johannes Gutenberg was the conqueror.  Inventor of the first moveable type printing press and publisher of the first book – the Gutenberg Bible – or so established history would have me believe.  A visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the final destination of my Germany 2016 mini-tour, and a reading of Alix Christie’s 2014 historical novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, opened my eyes to other possibilites.

Gutenberg didn’t invent moveable type.  That was invented about 4 centuries earlier in China by Bi Sheng using ceramic plates.  Moveable metal type was then developed in Korea.  What Gutenberg developed (because he had no prior knowledge of these Eastern systems) was a method of casting reusable metal type from a mould. The letters, together with his printing press, constituted the typographical system that proved to be the greatest invention since the wheel.  There has been nothing of similar importance until the invention of the internet.

imageThere I go, giving Gutenberg all the credit. Yet was this achievement really all his own, or should the roles of his financier, Johann Fust, and his apprentice Peter Schoeffer not be recognised also? They certainly are in Christie’s novel which is narrated by Schoeffer, looking back on the events of 1450-1455.

In 1450 Schoeffer is called back from his training as a calligrapher and engraver by his guardian, Johann Fust, to be apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg.  Of course, he is resentful.  This new-fangled technology is going to destroy his career, and besides, mass production will never be able to able to produce books as beautiful as those made by hand.  Well events are to prove him wrong but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Christie takes us into the workshop and shows us the struggles that the team had: the technical struggles, the trial and error involved in finding the perfect alloy of lead, tin and antimony (a recipe that could not be improved upon for 500 years); the personal struggles resulting from the long hours; the political struggles that needed negotiation and the absolute secrecy that had to be maintained for 5 years to prevent the Archbishop of Mainz from confiscating the press; the personality clashes arising because Gutenberg was not the saint that we perhaps think he was ; and finally, the financial problems that contributed to the court case in which Gutenberg was forced to hand over his press to Fust.

Was that the real reason for the rift between the two partners? The facts are hard to establish as only a fragment of the court papers remains.  There is a school of thought  that Fust and Schoeffer (who testified against Gutenberg) had always planned to seize control of the press. This novel does not subscribe to that view and interprets events in an entirely different but thoroughly plausible way.  Although, with hindsight and with Schoeffer as apologist, that shouldn’t be so surprising.

Although, having no prior knowledge of these events, this took me completely by surprise and I found myself turning the pages ever faster.  It also ensured that I entered the Gutenberg Museum looking for evidence of Christie’s hypothesis. Naturally I found only the historical version of events – i.e the fragment from the court papers and only a couple of mentions of both Fust and Schoeffer.

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To beautiful books!

This saddened me as I’d grown quite fond of the latter, who, following his apprenticeship with Gutenberg, went on to publish the Mainz Psalter, generally recognised to be the most beautiful book ever published. (Note to self – must find one and visit.) Still I was gratified to learn later that Mainz hasn’t forgotten him entirely, and I can verify that the wheat beer that bears his name is as refreshing as it looks!

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Now if I were handing out a prize for most entertaining narrator on this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, Lizzie Burns, protagonist and narrator of Mrs Engels, would win hands down.  She’s a real character.  How’s this for an opener ….

No one understands men more than the women they don’t marry and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.  It’s no matter what line he’s in or which ideas he follows, whether he is sweet-tempered or ready-witted, a dab at one business or the next, for there isn’t so much in any of that, and you won’t find a man that hasn’t something against him.  What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping  – is the mint that jingles in his pockets.  In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.

Her outlook, which when you consider that Lizzie, a working-class Irish girl, is the unmarried Mrs Engels of the title, shacked up with the exceedingly rich, cotton-mill owning Mr Friedrich Engels but still pining for her poor former Irish lover, explains a lot.  (Even if it doesn’t explain her ongoing desire for the latter given the legacy of that relationship.)  The further into the novel we go, the more unconventional and complex Lizzie’s domestic arrangements become.  Without the wedding ring, there is only so much that Lizzie can do in Victorian society, but she is a force to reckon with, a pillar of strength for Engels, the smoother of many obstacles and embarrassments.  Yet she has to put up with Karl Marx, a rival who takes all of Friedrich’s time and a lot of his money.  Worse still, his wife, Jenny, towards whom she feels a natural antipathy, not unrelated to the history of Lizzie’s sister, Mary, Lizzie’s predecessor to Engels’s affections.  But put up with her she must, and also with Engels’s sometimes high-handed approach, if she wants to continue enjoying his wealth in their “grand” house in Primrose Hill.  Otherwise it’s back to the Manchester slums for her.

Through her not-so-convinced eyes we see the birth of Marxism.  And it’s a revelation, I must say.  The portraits of Marx and Engels as political theorists are not always flattering, and Jenny Marx comes across in places as Mrs Bennett reincarnated.  Nor are the French comunards, displaced by the failure of their 1871 uprising,  and seeking refuge in London, a sympathetic crowd. Fine clothes and wine, their particular weaknesses.

Shifting between the present life in Primrose Hill and her earlier impoverished life in the Manchester factory, Lizzie’s narrative is always honest, graphic, and in places very down to earth.  Even the pragmatist she accepts some real blows with a shrug of her shoulders.  I suspect the reigniting of the affair with her Irish pro-Fenian lover is fuelled more by rebellion than by affection.

How much of Lizzie is the real woman?  Impossible to say because the real Lizzie Burns was illiterate, and so has left no written records.  Engels, of course, had other things to write about other than his partner who died at 40 and who he refused to marry until she lay on her death bed. (But at least he made an honest woman of her in the end.)  McCrea has, therefore, written into the gaps of the historical record, and not only created a credible  record of what might be true but an absorbing novel to boot.

Mrs Engels was my fourth read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, and the first I thought would make a worthy winner.  Will book 5 A Place Called Winter or book 6 Tightrope snatch the shadow trophy from McCrae’s hands?  All to be revealed before Saturday’s official award ceremony …….

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