Book Reviews

Please note - These reviews are in no particular order

Amazon links are given solely for ease of reference not as a form of promotion by me. Please buy or borrow from your own preferred source if any of these titles are of interest.


Tuscan Rose

by Belinda Alexandra


Rosa is an orphan who was born in 1914 and raised at a convent in Florence and her only link with her mystery parentage is a small silver key. The convent ensures that she is well-educated and is accomplished in several languages. She is also musically gifted and when she turns fifteen is seen as the ideal candidate to be governess to Clementina, only daughter of the wealthy Marchese Scarfiotti.

But Rosa’s life with the Scarfiotti family does not go to plan. It is fraught with sinister and dangerous undercurrents, many of which seem to emanate from the Marchese’s cold and distant wife and it isn’t long before Rosa finds herself facing a horrendous accusation that will affect her whole future.

And this is just the beginning of an epic that builds in ever-increasing layers that are packed with romance and personal conflicts, with politics, war, and adventure - as well as antiques and some curious paranormal sidelines involving witches and angels.

Although this is a heartfelt story about one woman’s endurance and strength of spirit when faced with enormous challenges in life under fascism in Italy before and during World War II, it is far too long and gets tangled up in itself, with its complicated contrivances in both Rosa's and other individuals' family connections, plus a ludicrous ending twist that I must admit I didn’t see coming and felt like sickly icing on an already over-gooey cake. In contrast, there are also hard, gritty and unsettling descriptions of violence that didn’t need to be quite so graphic to be effective in a novel of this type.

All this aside, Belinda Alexandra always writes rattling good yarns and I'm sorry not to give it my highest rating, but Rosa’s psychic images that were prevalent in the first half of the book seemed to indicate that it could be a paranormal or magic-realism type of novel, which it most certainly is not. I don’t know how Rosa (or anybody) could manage to survive and function in a world where a pair of leather shoes, fur coat or lamb chop could trigger nausea and acute psychic awareness about the animal’s suffering - even if this ability is not consistent throughout the story. Competing with this is Rosa’s parallel ability of being able to “see” the history of certain antiques. Either of these psychic assets would be enough of a basis for a very different kind of book and not suited to what is really a saga, tied up with a family mystery and, for much of its length, a patriotic war story. It would have been better if all the pseudo-psych-babble and witchcraft aspects had been deleted as they served no real purpose by the end.



3 1/2 stars


The Blood-Dimmed Tide

by Anthony Quinn


The Promise

by Ann Weisgarber


As a reader, sometimes you are lucky enough to come across a writer of historical fiction who has such a deft and capable touch that you know you will be swept up in the world they have created without ever being distracted by inconsistencies or incongruities and you are fully immersed in the period setting, the characters and their stories.

Ann Weisgarber is one such writer, and The Promise is pure genius. You don’t feel you are being manipulated in some way by her as an author, neither do her personal opinions intrude. You are completely in the hands of the characters she has created. And thus you experience something very special.

This story is set mainly in Galveston, Texas, in 1900. It is told through the eyes of two women – one being Nan Ogden, the illiterate housekeeper for the recently widowed dairy farmer Oscar Williams, and the other is Oscar’s new bride, Catherine Wainwright, a refined classical pianist who has slipped in her social standing due to an illicit affair with a married man and whose only option is to find a husband who won’t mind taking on ‘soiled goods’.
And the man she chooses is Oscar, who has known Catherine since childhood and when he used to deliver coal to her house in Ohio. He worshipped her, but she was out of his league. Only when Catherine falls into disgrace does she remember Oscar who now lives in Galveston and she begins a correspondence with him, hoping that he doesn’t already know about her shame.

The two women get off to a bad start. Nan is heartbroken at losing Oscar to another woman and can only contain her jealousy in a gruff, matter-of-fact and often harsh manner, while Catherine quickly discovers how useless she is as a farmer’s wife, never having had to cook or keep house and that she also has to live with the ghost of Oscar’s religious first wife, Bernadette, and also find a way through to her small son, Andre, who misses his mother greatly and reaches for Nan.

When the great hurricane comes that destroys Galveston, there is a resolution that is tragic yet satisfying in its soulful way.

My only small quibble with the book is the title – as one could point to several ‘promises’ in the book - and something a little more dynamic may have served it better and made it more memorable.



5 stars



------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



by Loretta Proctor


The serendipity in family research led me to discover this remarkable novel that features an aspect of World War I that is little-known, the Salonika Campaign (my aunt served as a VAD nurse there). It is also an exploration about identity, belonging and sense of place, and it delivers on all counts.

My aunt’s old photo albums show the primitive conditions living in tents that the soldiers and nurses endured, and it is as if the author had these self-same photos at her fingertips as she describes the frustrations of this stop-start campaign, the filth and endemic diseases such as malaria that took a heavy toll.

The first half of the book is in diary form and concentrates mainly on the love affair between Dorothy, an English nurse, and Greek fighter and spy, Costas. The second half tells how Andrew, their misfit son, travels from England to Greece in an effort to find his roots.

Descriptions of the countryside and the old city of Salonika (Thessaloniki) prior to its destruction by fire are just superb and while some readers may find the pace is slowed by too much detail, others will be thoroughly absorbed in the author’s finely-written and sympathetic insights into modern Greek history.

The main characters all have their individual flaws, but are believable. The doctor, Ethan, is a reflection of British grit and decency while Andrew’s anarchic friends, the displaced and impoverished family from Smyrna, can’t afford such niceties of morality but are appealing in their own way.

This is a book to be savoured and not rushed, yet strangely by the end I felt that the characters’ personal stories had an ephemeral quality and were secondary to the fierce landscapes with its violent history and the generations that have inhabited them. It left me with many thought-provoking images that will linger for a long time.


4 1/2 stars



------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Sister Janet - Nurse & Heroine of the Anglo-Zulu War 1879

Brian Best & Katie Stossel

As this story has a topic relevant to one of my other blogs, it has been posted there, see The History Bucket

4 stars

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------





by Jessica Brockmole

The epistolary novel has become fashionable of late, and there is a certain style appeal as, by its very nature, it can’t get too long-winded and is a great way of conveying immediacy and character in the first person.

This one tells two stories in tandem, one set during WW1 and the other in WW2. This can get a little confusing at times if you don’t pay close attention to the address headings or the dates, not least because Elspeth is also called Sue and her daughter Margaret is also called Maisie, but it generally flows well and is an easy read.

Elspeth (Sue) is a poet who lives on the Isle of Skye and just prior to the outbreak of WW1 begins a letter friendship with David, a younger American who admires her book. They hit it off right away and soon the letters are full of chatty revelations that foretell a deeper relationship forming between them.

In WW2, Margaret discovers one of Elspeth’s letters that sets her on a quest to find out more about that part of her mother’s life of which she knows very little. She also has correspondence with her own love, Paul, and a grumpy uncle, Finlay.

The author’s heartfelt creation in these characters certainly shines through. The background setting of the Isle of Skye is beautifully conveyed and there were will be many readers who rate this book highly for its romance without going in for too much analysis.

But - and I do hate to have to add a ‘but’ in any book that is well-crafted - the language is all wrong for the time and it is is just too modern and seems more like emails than carefully considered letters. I am old enough to remember people who lived during WW1 (I have my late aunt's collection of real love letters written from the trenches) and they would never have written anything like this. Also, the two wars that impact on both these lives seem a secondary inconvenience at times to their selfish obsessions with themselves, which is a 21st Century trait. 

I put these quibbles aside and enjoyed the book for the most part although I felt the mother and daughter seemed to have voices that were too similar, and the coincidence in a prisoner of war camp was too contrived. Also, Elspeth’s early failure to even mention her husband makes her less considerate and appealing than she might have been and there is little exploration of the serious ostracism someone like her would have suffered in a close Scots community that would have no sympathy at all for any woman who failed in her morality and duty to her husband and family.

And sometimes it is the annoying small detail that puts me off female characters in novels. In this case, failing to think ahead and pack a suitcase for a weekend away, or refusing to take an offered umbrella when going for a long hike across Skye in the rain, leaves impressions of ditzy scattiness rather than any charming impulsiveness. 


3 1/2 stars.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

With an interest in stories from the British Empire, I was looking forward to this book. The cover is evocative and the fun title alone is enough to catch anyone’s eye.

It starts well, giving the background to the girls of the “fishing fleet” and the men they were out to snag in their nets and the early adventures and the extreme details of etiquette are really interesting, but the book gets bogged down with its concentration on mostly early to mid 20th Century stories, all of which follow a similar pattern and involve characters that are indistinguishable from one another.

There is chapter after chapter detailing how well brought up Miss V-W of Dorking, Devizes or Datchet was introduced to some son of the late Sir, Lt Col, General, Bishop, etc - also from the home counties and usually with double-barreled surnames - how they married quickly and set up house in the mofussil, shot tigers, went to a lot of “do’s” and spent the summers playing polo at Ooty, with their children packed off at a tender age to some boarding school at “home” for their education. Frankly, it became a big toffy-nosed yawn.

Nowhere did we gain much insight into how successful these often hasty marriages turned out in the end. How did these couples fare when they left India and retired to Bournemouth or the Isle of Wight without the servants and the strictures of etiquette to keep them in check? I was left feeling deprived of the truth.


3 stars.



-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Many Lives of Miss K: Toto Koopman, Model, Muse Spy, Jean-Noel Liaut. 
Click here.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




by Clare Mulley


In the annals of World War II espionage there are many incredible stories of bravery, courage and sacrifice, but one of the most remarkable of all is about the woman now known to posterity as Christine Granville who certainly out-performed many of her male colleagues in this regard.

This beautiful, fascinating and often frustrating woman had an aristocratic Polish father and a Jewish mother. She played fast and loose with her age, went by numerous aliases, married a couple of times and had untold numbers of lovers. Men of all nationalities were drawn to her like moths to a flame. With her cool style and ease of transcending all levels of society, her knowledge of languages, and range of important contacts throughout Europe and the Middle East, she was a shoe-in for employment as a special agent when war broke out in Europe.

She took part in disciplined covert operations, yet could also demonstrate foolish and rash behaviour at border posts or in doubtful company. With her indiscriminate collection of lovers – some of whom could quite easily have been double agents - and with her face and reputation known in the international spy rings that operated from Poland to Istanbul, and particularly in Cairo, why she wasn’t easily picked up or knocked off by the Nazi SS early on in the War is astonishing.

In spite of her personal courage, Christine had insecurities and contradictions. She might have got her thrills openly carrying documents in a backpack or microfilm in her gloves,
could dodge bullets with aplomb and loved parachuting but she had an irrational fear of riding a bike, could not swim, and even had difficulty in wireless training. Admittedly, individuality or eccentricity was more admired or valued in her day than it is now but it meant she could be difficult to handle and although she worked for the British, her deepest passion was for her homeland of Poland. This led to conflicts of interest at times and had a long-lasting effect on her life.

Christine’s treatment by the British Government after her huge contribution to the war effort leaves one feeling outraged on her behalf. She didn’t care for medals, all she wanted was the security of a British passport and full residency. The failure of the British authorities to properly compensate her shows them to be petty-minded pen-pushers who perhaps didn’t really know how to deal with a woman whom they considered amoral or some kind of loose “foreign” cannon. Still, she could be her own worst enemy and the head of female operatives of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), Vera Atkins (who had a similar Eastern European background) understood her completely and her statement about Christine is an accurate estimation of her:

... very brave, very attractive, but a loner and a law unto herself.”

The bickering between the various Polish intelligence groups and their animosity towards Britain make for interesting reading, and the handling of Poland and her tortured inhabitants by all countries involved – Germany, Britain, Russia and the United States - in 1945 is one of the most disgraceful and tragic episodes in all of Europe’s history.

Like the process of being in a war itself, this book has extreme highs followed by lows. Much of the book is thrilling and absorbing, but there are other passages that are a bit pedestrian, and I am still musing over some facts including the coyly worded suggestion that one of Christine’s planned parachute drops into France was cancelled due to a monthly event that coincides with phases of the moon … did SOE really did plan its operations around its female operatives’ PMT?!

Overall, a most accomplished book that fully acknowledges Christine’s amazing life and achievements.


4 stars.


Postscript

The original hardback edition of this book has the sub-title, “The secrets and lives of Christine Granville, Britain's first special agent of World War II”, and on the later paperback edition, “The secrets and lives of one of Britain’s bravest wartime heroines”.

This suggests that somebody prompted the publishers with the fact that CG wasn’t the first special agent. I’m no expert on the history of World War II spies and skulduggery in Europe or the methods of SOE and have taken everything written in the book on faith with the assumption that the author and her editors have done their homework. After reading the book, I researched various reviews and it seems there are some tactical anachronisms or errors but that shouldn’t deter the general reader.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Distant Hours

by Kate Morton


Is it ethical to do a review of a book one couldn’t finish? Probably not, but I figure I’ve read and reviewed enough books now that I can spot a big fat lemon pretty quickly and am not adverse to giving my opinion.

I picked this up from a bargain table recently as I remembered that I had quite enjoyed Morton’s first book The Shifting Fog - in spite of my sneaky reservations that much of it was derivative of other posh-house servants & secrets sagas and various TV series of that ilk.

This is a monster book of 601 pages and heavy! I lugged it back and forth on the train while commuting and risked getting RSI in my wrists from trying to read it in bed at night.
But at page 197 my mind started wandering to my shopping list and that was a sign I’d lost the plot. I scanned to the last few chapters and figured out the end.

It had started with promise and intriguing ingredients to suck you in – a mysterious letter that turns up after being lost for years – three crazy old ladies (daughters of a famous reclusive author) living in a crumbling old castle – a young woman searching for answers to her mother’s past.

But the book rambles and whines all over the place, first person, third person, back and forth through time and up and down spooky attic stairs endlessly without ever really grabbing you or scaring you. 

Sadly, if the book had been taken in a firm hand and drastically tightened or condensed it could have worked well.

Why are editors so afraid to wield the red pen with famous authors and massacre their overblown descriptive “darlings”?

Big-shot authors are just as guilty as we little writers of over-writing and need other more experienced eyes to point out our failures and yet so often it seems nobody is game to call them to account.

The lack of good editing does a disservice to the reading public because it means that I (and no doubt many others) have resented wasting my dollars even on the bargain table and I won’t be reading any more Kate Morton unless she goes in for short stories!


1 star (on the 197 pages)
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



by Rachel Joyce

I bought this book on impulse, thinking it sounded quirky and amusing, and after reading a slew of historical fiction titles I fancied something contemporary. I didn't know ahead of time that it had been short-listed for the Booker Prize which is not necessarily always the best recommendation.

Harold Fry is an unhappy recently-retired man who has led a very ordinary life and lives in Kingsbridge, Dorset. He has grown apart from his wife Maureen who is more devoted to dusting, net curtains, and chatting to their only son David than she is to him.

One day Harold receives a letter from a woman called Queenie who is suffering from terminal cancer in a hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed. He hasn't heard from her in twenty years but she used to work with him. Harold writes a reply and then goes for a walk to post it.
Except he doesn't, he just keeps walking and gets the idea into his head that as long as he walks Queenie will live. Without anything but the clothes on his back, he heads north across England to Berwick. Meanwhile, Maureen is left at home to wait and worry.

I do understand the basic premise of this book, which is about self-discovery through pilgrimage and finding a purpose by reaching out to others, and it does have some moving and inspirational passages, but I had problems with it.

My practical nature couldn't for one moment believe a man in his mix-sixties who sat in a car or behind a desk for much of his working life could suddenly take to the road and walk hundreds of miles across England with no more serious physical mishap than a bunch of blisters and cramp. And in flimsy yachting shoes too!

Plus the people he meets casually are just too nice to be believable, and many seem embarrassingly quick to share their deepest secrets and emotions with him. In reality, a lone ill-equipped gent his age wandering along the motorways and roads of modern England would be in great risk of not just taunts but also mugging, or worse, so I kept worrying about him.

Although the author offered some explanation how he paid for things, washed, slept, ate, etc. it was all too implausible. Even the spring and summer weather wasn't really English – it was sunny for just too much of the time.

And when his pilgrimage becomes common knowledge and all sorts of weird individuals (e.g. a man in a gorilla suit) and self-promoters attach themselves to him, I thought his character became really too wussy. I kept wishing he'd stick to his original plan and tell them all to **** off.

The final revelation about David confirmed a suspicion I had at the beginning with Maureen's possessiveness towards her son. And the denouement with Queenie was not the easiest reading, but actually closer to reality than much of what had gone before. In spite of this, I really liked the pilgrimage idea at the core of the book even if it didn't always work as well as I would have wished. I will certainly remember it.



3 1/2 stars. (Might have given it more if Harold had accepted the decent boots when a pair was offered to him.)

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



by Catherine Bailey

As Catherine Bailey started researching a book about the estate of Belvoir Castle (which like all posh English names is never pronounced as it's written and is "Beaver")  she discovered something far more intriguing. Why had John, 9th Duke of Rutland, incarcerated himself in the archives for two years prior to his death in 1940 and systematically destroyed every scrap of evidence covering three specific periods during his own life?

Bailey immediately knew here was a much better story and switched her focus to the Duke. Despite missing major pieces, her extraordinary detective work in solving this puzzle reveals a disturbing and murky side to this aristocratic family, some of whose descendants include people like Lady Diana Cooper sometimes called the "beauty of the century" [i.e. early 20th].

The first half reads like a thriller with twists, turns and shocking revelations. But once the basis of the third mystery is apparent it gathers a lot of extra dust in the way of lengthy extracts of private notes, letters, and war movements that become yawn-inducing and can quite easily be skipped across without losing the story’s impact.

By the epilogue, any early sympathy you feel for the Duke following his appalling treatment as a child is worn away by his complicity with his odious mother Violet, an example of the worst kind of manipulative, self-entitled aristocrat that leaves you wondering why England never had a Russian- or French-style revolution and rolled the heads of the lot of them.

3 1/2 stars.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




by John Harwood

Georgina Ferrars wakes up in an asylum on Bodmin Moor with no memory of how she got there. But she isn't Georgina any more, she's now Lucy Ashton, a name that means nothing to her but which, as observed by the head of the Asylum, Dr Straker, is the name for Walter Scott's deeply disturbed heroine in The Bride of Lammermoor, a florid and tragic tale about blighted troths and which gives some hint of what's to come.

Mistaken identity is just the beginning and this has all the traditional ingredients of Gothic tales. Dark moors and creepy mansions with locked rooms and endless corridors, woman in jeopardy who faints a lot and/or is always bewildered, autocratic father, secret assignations, elopements, secret babe, unfaithful lover, identical sister/cousin, disguises and false names, desperate flights by carriage and train while being tracked by sinister man with scars (naturally!), fortunes controlled by dodgy lawyers who hold letters and Wills that will solve the mystery …phew - take a breath … plus escapes that are not really escapes but all part of a fiendish plot devised by mad doctor with ghastly therapies and gadgets including helmet with lots of wires attached. It's the whole shebang of Dickensian and Victorian melodrama, Dr Frankenstein and Gilbert & Sullivan all rolled into one – and with a bit of very un-Victorian modern-day erotica just to upset the balance. I kept visualising Helena Bonham Carter in her best mad-woman attitude for the doppelganger heroines.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, in a strange sort of way. Knowing nothing of the author or his previous work, I started reading this thinking it was a psychological thriller but once I realised it was a deliberate pastiche, I approached it with a more humorous frame of mind. I was delighted how Harwood managed to keep going with such straight-faced and well-written prose in spite of the preposterous story. The first half of the book is better constructed. After the mid-way point when the “reveal all” passages begin, it does become a bit too clever for itself and is tripped up by its own convolutions and the narrative falls into a morass, with the finish an anti-climax.

3 stars.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

No comments: