I have a few non-fiction books pending reviews, but I was reminded of this one because of a Fair of Miniatures and Dolls’ Houses I had to cover for the radio station I collaborate with (Sants 3 Ràdio), and I had to bring you the book and its review as well.
I was so busy during the fair, there were so many people to interview and talk to (including a couple of wonderful charities, one that provides ergonomic cushions for women who had had a mastectomy due to breast cancer [Asociación almohada del corazón] and one that rescues and rehouses animals in Barcelona [Los Ángeles del Raval]), so many miniatures, exhibits, and objects to see, and so many pictures to take for the web of the radio, that I forgot to take any pictures to share here. But I promise I will add a link to the article when it is published. Oh, and you can see some examples of the work of the association organising the fair, Assarmicat, Associació d’Artesans Miniaturistes de Catalunya, here.
Here is the link to the article (in Catalan, but you can check the pictures):
And here, the book, from the always reliable Pen & Sword.
Life in Miniature. A History of Dolls’ Houses by Nicola Lisle
Popular in Britain since the late seventeenth century, dolls’ houses are tiny slices of social history that give us a fascinating glimpse into domestic life over the last 300 years. In this beautifully-illustrated book, Nicola Lisle explores the origins and history of dolls’ houses and their furnishings, from the earliest known dolls’ house in sixteenth-century Bavaria to the present, and looks at how they reflect the architecture, fashions, social attitudes, innovations and craftsmanship of their day. She discusses the changing role of dolls’ houses and highlights significant events and people to give historical context. She also takes a look at some of the leading dolls’ house manufacturers, such as Silber & Fleming and Lines Brothers Ltd (later Triang). The book includes numerous examples of interesting dolls’ houses, the stories behind them and where to see them. This includes famous models such as Queen Mary’s spectacular 1920s dolls’ house at Windsor Castle and the eighteenth-century baby house at Kew Palace. There is also a chapter on model towns and villages, which became popular in the twentieth century and also give us a window on the past by replicating real places or capturing scenes typical of a bygone era. There is advice for dolls’ house collectors, as well as a detailed directory of places to visit, a timeline of dolls’ house history and recommended further reading. One of the most comprehensive guides available on the subject, this book offers unique insights into the world of dolls’ houses and is a must for anyone with an interest in the history and appeal of these miniature treasures.
Nicola Lisle is a freelance journalist and author specialising in history and the arts. She has written numerous articles for family history magazines, including Who Do You Think You Are?, Your Family History and Discover Your Ancestors, and was a regular contributor to Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine for many years. She is the author of Tracing Your Family History Made Easy (Which? Books, 2011) and Tracing Your Oxfordshire Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2018).
I received an early hardback copy of this non-fiction book from Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, which I freely chose to review.
I have always been fascinated by miniatures and dolls’ houses, although I have never collected or played with them. One doesn’t need to be an expert to enjoy this book, where Nicola Lisle introduces the history of miniatures (which have been found by archeologists in Egyptian and Roman digs) and dolls’ houses (some from as far back as the XVII century).
The book opens with an introduction and a discussion of some of the oldest known dolls’ houses, where the author also explains how they transformed from luxury items whereby the rich and important could boast and exhibit their riches, to eventually becoming children’s toys, affordable for the majority of the population. Then there are several chapters which, in chronological order, talk about some notable English dolls’ houses, explaining their history and describing them in such loving detail, that even those of us who haven’t seen them feel as if we were there.
There are also chapters dedicated to dolls’ houses in the literature, model towns and villages, a chapter containing advice on how to start collecting dolls’ houses, and one on notable collectors.
The book also contains a large section of images, which give us a taster of the type of houses mentioned, and it will also be useful as a reference for anybody interested in the topic, as, apart from a detailed index, it also contains two appendixes: places to visit, featuring houses and museums where we can see good examples of dolls’ houses live, and further reading, where we can learn even more about this hobby, art, and way of life.
Dolls’ houses are not mere toys: they reflect the mores of the different periods, the role of women in the house, the differences in social classes (with the separate quarters for owners and servants), the evolution of architecture and art movements, and they were (and are) great education aids, apart from transporting us to a different time and a different place.
I recommend this title to anybody who is interested in miniatures, especially in dolls’ houses, and in social history. It is a compact title with plenty of information for those already well-informed, and a good introduction for those who don’t know much but are eager to learn. A beautiful present for those interested in toys, collectibles, and social history in general.
Thanks to Rosie Croft and Pen & Sword in general and to the author for the book, to all of you for visiting and reading my blog, and remember to share, click, like, keep smiling, and take care. Be creative and enjoy what you do! ♥
I don’t normally review books months in advance of their publication (as I’m always behind with my reading), but, for some reason, I read a comment about this book, and as I’ve been following the author for the last few years and have always enjoyed her novels, I managed to convince myself that I had missed the launch of the book, managed to get hold of a review copy, and rushed to read it as soon as I could, only to discover that it is not due to be published until the 19th of January 2023. I considered programming the post for later, but as I don’t know what my circumstances will be like by then, and the book is already available for pre-order, I thought I’d share the review with you. I’ve realised that the author had published a book of short stories as well, and I hope to bring you those in the near future.
This is a good one.
The Drift by C. J. Tudor
An overturned coach. A stranded cable car. An isolated chalet . . .
Three groups of strangers. A deadly killer. No escape.
THE DRIFT . . . survival can be murder
Praise for C. J. Tudor:
‘C. J. Tudor is terrific. I can’t wait to see what she does next’ Harlan Coben
‘Britain’s female Stephen King’ Daily Mail
‘A mesmerizingly chilling and atmospheric page-turner’ J.P. Delaney
‘Her books have the ability to simultaneously make you unable to stop reading while wishing you could bury the book somewhere deep underground where it can’t be found. Compelling and haunting’ Sunday Express
‘Some writers have it, and some don’t. C. J. Tudor has it big time’ Lee Child
C. J. Tudor lives with her partner and young daughter. Her love of writing, especially the dark and macabre, started young. When her peers were reading Judy Blume, she was devouring Stephen King and James Herbert.
Over the years she has had a variety of jobs, including trainee reporter, radio scriptwriter, dog walker, voiceover artist, television presenter, copywriter and, now, author.
Her first novel, The Chalk Man, was a Sunday Times bestseller and sold in thirty-nine territories.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I discovered C. J. Tudor when she published her first novel, The Chalk Man, and I had no doubt that her name would become a familiar one for many readers. I have read several of her novels since (all of them, if I’m not wrong), and I also have a collection of her short stories already waiting on my reader. I am happy recommending her books to readers who love thrillers with a touch of menace and more than a few drops of dark humour. Her writing is fluid and engaging; her plots are gripping, and her protagonists always have a surprise or two in stock for us. She is the real deal.
All of this is in evidence in her latest novel, which is due to be published in January 2023.
The description of the plot is sparse, and that is for a very good reason. As you can guess, the action of the book is divided into three settings, and readers of classic mysteries will soon realised that they all seem to be variations of the isolated location mystery: a number of characters are locked (sometimes physically, sometimes not) in a place that is not easily accessible to others, where strange things start to happen (characters disappearing and being murdered are the most common). One of the characters becomes the de-facto investigator (sometimes a real investigator, sometimes not), and readers follow this character’s attempts at finding out what is going on. So, here we have a similar situation, only that we have three stories taking place in three different locations, in a fairly dystopian version of the not-so-distant future (although nowadays not quite as outlandish as it might have been a few years back) where the population has been decimated by an infectious illness. We have two groups of survivors headed to the same safe place, and the third is a group of people actually working and living at that safe location. I can’t share too many details of the story without revealing too much, but I can say that two of the characters whose point of view we follow are women (one, Hanna, a young student, and the other, Meg, an ex-policewoman), and then there is Carter, who works at the Retreat. All of them are survivors, all of them keep secrets, and you would be right if you thought these groups must be connected somehow. But no, of course, I can’t tell you how.
Those readers who worry about different storylines and points of view making things confusing don’t need to worry. Although the three stories are narrated in the third person, each section is clearly labelled, and the three characters are quite different in their thoughts and outlooks, so confusion should not be an issue. For those who appreciate having advance warning, there is violence; there are pretty graphic scenes that have made some reviewers class it as horror (I think it is a combination of both thriller and horror, but I love horror, so that is a plus for me), and there is nothing cozy about the story (even though there is a dog and… No, I can’t say). Also, those who prefer not to read and/or think about pandemics after COVID-19 might want to give it a miss.
Anybody who doesn’t fall into these categories appreciates a well-written, tightly plotted, and gripping story (stories) that will keep their mind going and wandering about what is really going on and who is doing what should read this novel. I liked the two female protagonists in particular (not that they were without their issues and contradictions), but even in the case of the male, their circumstances and their sheer determination to keep going made me side with them and keep reading. The story centres on the plot, which is beautifully and cleverly constructed, but the characters have to face many personal and moral challenges, and some of the questions and decisions they have to make will have all readers wondering about right and wrong and about what they would do if they were in the same circumstances.
Despite the tense atmosphere and the dire straits, the characters find themselves in, or perhaps because of them, the author also offers us some glimpses of humour (mostly dark), some beautiful descriptions, and thought-provoking reflections that allow us to catch our breath. There are some wonderful little details that we only become fully aware of at the end (oh, and I love the ending, mini-epilogue and all), and I am very impressed by the talent of the author to make all the pieces of the puzzle come together seamlessly. People who love a mystery will probably start to tie some threads early on, and some will be faster than the characters (although, of course, we have more information than they have, and we are not under the same kind of pressure), but, my guess is that most won’t be disappointed when everything is revealed.
In sum, this is another great novel by C.J. Tudor, and one that I am sure will keep her followers coming back for more. And those who haven’t read her yet, if you like the sound of this, what are you waiting for?
I leave you a few quotes, although I recommend checking a sample online if you aren’t sure the writing style will suit your taste.
‘Here’s the other thing my grandpa taught me. You´re either a good guy or you’re a survivor. And the earth is full of dead good guys.’
One of the characters, when asked why they care, says:
‘Because caring is all we have left. If we stop caring —about life, about other people— who are we? What have we become?’
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it’s also a oneway street. No going back.
Thanks to the publisher, the author, and to NetGalley for this very early ARC copy (there might be changes to the final version, although I didn’t spot any evident mistakes), and thanks to you all for your patience, your comments, and for reading my reviews and sharing them around. Make sure you keep reading, and never forget to smile. ♥
I want to share the review of a novel by an author those of you who read my blog regularly will already be familiar with. He never disappoints and his books are always pretty special.
The Shadow of the Mole by Bob Van Laerhoven
1916, Bois de Bolante, France. The battles in the trenches are raging fiercer than ever. In a deserted mineshaft, French sappeurs discover an unconscious man, and nickname him The Mole.
Claiming he has lost his memory, The Mole is convinced that he’s dead, and that an Other has taken his place. The military brass considers him a deserter, but front physician and psychiatrist-in-training Michel Denis suspects that his patient’s odd behavior is stemming from shellshock, and tries to save him from the firing squad.
The mystery deepens when The Mole begins to write a story in écriture automatique that takes place in Vienna, with Dr. Josef Breuer, Freud’s teacher, in the leading role. Traumatized by the recent loss of an arm, Denis becomes obsessed with him, and is prepared to do everything he can to unravel the patient’s secret.
Set against the staggering backdrop of the First World War, The Shadow Of The Mole is a thrilling tableau of loss, frustration, anger, madness, secrets and budding love. The most urgent question in this extraordinary story is: when, how, and why reality shifts into delusion?
“The Flemish writer Bob Van Laerhoven writes in a fascinating and compelling way about a psychiatric investigation during WW1. The book offers superb insight into the horrors of war and the trail of human suffering that results from it” – NBD Biblion
Bob van Laerhoven was born on August 8th, 1953 in the sandy soil of Antwerp’s Kempen, a region in Flanders (Belgium), bordering to The Netherlands, where according to the cliché ‘pig-headed clodhoppers’ live. This perhaps explains why he started to write stories at a particularly young age. A number of his stories were published in English, French, German, Polish, Spanish, and Slovenian.
Van Laerhoven made his debut as a novelist in 1985 with “Nachtspel – Night Game.” He quickly became known for his ‘un-Flemish’ style: he writes colorful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. His style slowly evolved in his later novels to embrace more personal themes while continuing to branch out into the world at large. International flair has become his trademark.
Bob Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991. The context of his stories isn’t invented behind his desk, rather it is rooted in personal experience. As a freelance travel writer, for example, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2004. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Mozambique, Burundi, Lebanon, Iraq, Myanmar… to name but a few.
During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF – Doctors without frontiers – in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings. At that moment the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Van Laerhoven was the first writer from the Low Countries to be given the chance to speak to the refugees. His conversations resulted in a travel book: “Srebrenica. Getuigen van massamoord – Srebrenica. Testimony to a Mass Murder.” The book denounces the rape and torture of the Muslim population of this Bosnian-Serbian enclave and is based on first-hand testimonies. He also concludes that mass murders took place, an idea that was questioned at the time but later proven accurate.
All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven’s rich and commendable oeuvre, an oeuvre that typifies him as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, theatre pieces, biographies, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles… He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best crime-novel of the year with “De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge.” “Baudelaire’s Revenge” has been published in the USA, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Russia. In 2014, a second French translation of one of his titles has been published in France and Canada. “Le Mensonge d’Alejandro” is set in a fictitious South-American dictatorship in the eighties. The “junta” in this novel is a symbol for the murderous dictatorships in South-America (Chile and Argentine, to mention two) during the seventies and beginning of the eighties. In The Netherlands and Belgium, his novel “De schaduw van de Mol” (The Shadow Of The Mole) was published in November 2015. The novel is set in the Argonne-region of France in 1916. In 2017 followed “Dossier Feuerhand (The Firehand Files), set in Berlin in 1921.
“Baudelaire’s Revenge” is the winner of the USA BEST BOOK AWARDS 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense.
In April 2015 The Anaphora Literary Press published the collection of short stories “Dangerous Obsessions” in the US, Australia, UK, and Canada, in paperback, e-book, and hardcover. “Dangerous Obsessions” was voted “best short story collection of 2015 in The San Diego Book Review. In May 2017, Месть Бодлерa, the Russian edition of “Baudelaire’s Revenge” was published. “Dangerous Obsessions” has been published in Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Spanish editions. In January 2018 followed “Heart Fever”, a second collection of short stories, published by The Anaphora Literary Press. The collection came out in German, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish. “Heart Fever” was one of the five finalists – and the only non-American author – of the Silver Falchion Award 2018 in the category “short stories collections.” In April 2018, Crime Wave Press (Hong Kong) brought forth the English language publication of “Return to Hiroshima”, Brian Doyle’s translation of the novel “Terug naar Hiroshima”. The British quality review blog “MurderMayhem&More” listed “Return to Hiroshima” in the top ten of international crime novels in 2018. Readers’ Favorite gave Five Stars. In August 2021, Next Chapter published “Alejandro’s Lie,” the English translation of “Alejandro’s leugen.”
I thank the publisher and the author for the ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review. Having read three of Van Laerhoven’s novels before (in their English translations), I knew I had to read this one, especially because of the early psychiatry theme that plays such an important part in the story. I might not work as a psychiatrist now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find it a fascinating topic. And it is particularly well-suited to fiction.
To do full justice to this novel would require a very long review (even by my standards, and I do tend to go on a bit), perhaps even a whole book, but I will try and cover a few aspects of it while not spoiling it for readers. To be honest, although there is a mystery (well, mysteries) in this book, there are many interpretations possible, and I have no doubt that reading it will be a complex and unique experience for each and every reader.
The setting is momentous, both in space and time (the French trenches during WWI), but the book contains a variety of narratives, not only the overall story taking place in chronological order and involving a young psychiatrist (Michel Denis) who has recently lost an arm, during the war, when we meet him, and his adventures (both professional and personal), but also the story of the Mole, a man found at the very beginning of the novel in one of the tunnels the soldiers are digging. (That aspect of the novel, the setting in WWI, and some of the psychiatric elements reminded me of Regeneration by Pat Barker, a novel I recommend as well to anybody interested in the subject. The two books are very different, though.) He claims he has lost his memory when they find him, and he also says he is dead. The main way he communicates with others around him is through his writing, a story set many years earlier, full of symbolism, darkness, violence, and surreal elements, and whose protagonist cannot truly be him, but somehow comes to be identified with him. This diary/novel seems to be the result of automatic writing, and we have the opportunity to read it as well and reach our own conclusions. We are also provided with several letters, extremely personal in nature, one written by a character we meet earlier in the story, and another one by a character who plays a very small role in the events. And although we mostly see things from Michel Denis’s point of view (although written in the third person), we also get access to the diary of a very peculiar (and wonderful) psychiatrist he meets later in the book, Dr. Ferrand, who challenges him and helps him face his own fears and issues. Don’t worry, though. Although the book is complex, this is due to the concepts and issues it raises, not the way the story is told. The narrative is not straightforward, and it is far from an easy read, but the way the story is told is not confusing, and the changes in point of view and narrative are clearly signalled.
The novel is a kaleidoscope of narratives, perspectives, opinions, true events, dreams, imagination… and the veil separating all those is very thin indeed. The author and his book ask some pretty big questions: what makes a human being feel whole? Is it a matter of physical health, appearance and looks, having a name and identity recognised and respected by others, having a job title, holding a position, and being part of a family? What makes us human, and how much cruelty, suffering, and pressure can we endure before we disappear or become a shadow, dead to the world? How do we develop our personalities and what makes us who we are? It is only a matter o genetics, or experiences, trauma, education, influences, role models, and everything around us play a part?
Discussing the characters is not easy, because, at least as it pertains to the main characters, our experience in reading this book is akin to being privileged witnesses of their undergoing an analysis that digs deep into their minds, their early memories, their dreams… Although the mysterious identity of the Mole is at the centre of the novel (or so it seems), learning who Michael Denis really is, is as important, and we discover many truths about some of the other characters in the process. Many of them are perhaps things we’d rather not know, but we cannot choose. Everything is somehow related, and every piece of the puzzle is necessary for the final reveal (which I won’t talk about).
As I had mentioned psychiatry and my interest in it, for those who might feel as intrigued as I am, there are wonderful references to the early figures of the history of psychiatry, important psychiatric texts, famous cases… which I thoroughly enjoyed, but more than anything, I loved the discussions between Michel and Dr. Ferrand, who is a man and a professional with great insight and with ideas well before his time. His comments about the nature of psychiatry and the way it might evolve are both beautiful and thought-provoking.
Talking about beautiful, the writing is gorgeous. The different sections are written in very different styles, as it befits the characters doing the writing within the story, but they are all compelling, feel true, and are powerfully descriptive. We might be reading about a bombing, a sexual assault (yes, this book is not a light read, quite the opposite, and readers should be warned about the dark nature of the story), a historical event, or a beautiful landscape, and we feel as if we had a first-row seat, even though sometimes we’d rather be anywhere else. Reading the biography of the author is easy to understand how all he writes rings so true, as he has lived and witnessed extremes of human behaviour most of us will never (luckily) have to confront.
A few quotes from the book:
“We’re moths in the night, burning our wings every time there’s a ray of light.”
It wasn’t a sound. It was every sound sucked away from the world by a powerful vortex that distorted time so that the world shrivelled and subsequently expanded until a point where everything had to burst. In front of Denis, the wall erupted open, and behind it a great bull was belching fire.
Remember you said you couldn’t live with yourself anymore after your arm had been hacked off? That’s how you said it: hacked off. And here’s what I thought, if you can’t live with yourself, who is being ‘you’ then?
The book includes poems, quotes from famous (and not so famous) books, songs… some in French and German, and these are translated in a series of notes easily accessible, even in e-book format.
I recommend this book to readers looking for deep meanings, who love historical fiction that goes beyond the usual, who are prepared to face the darker aspects of human behaviour and the human soul, and to anybody looking for a new author who is not afraid to move beyond convention and to make us face some dark truths. A complex and rich book for those who dare to ask some tough questions. I hope it helps you find the answers you were looking for.
Thanks to the publisher and the author for this novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember, if you have a chance, to comment, share, click, like, and especially, to keep smiling and safe. ♥
I’m sharing today another great find thanks to Rosie’s Book Review Team. This will appeal to lovers of Italy and anybody who enjoys a bit of armchair travel.
Tales from the Hamlet. Memories of Italy by Cassandra Campbell-Kemp
At the age of 61, Cassandra, a single and peripatetic Brit, was asked to pack up her house and move to Italy to take up the offer of a much-needed job. 15 months later she was made redundant, leaving her unnerved, broke and unable to return home. Her dream of a new life was rapidly turning into a nightmare and, saddled with all her belongings, her antique furniture, over 800 books and her aged Siamese cat she had nowhere to go.
A kind friend offered them sanctuary in a tiny converted former barn in his family’s ‘Borgo’, a cluster of rustic properties grouped around a late-Medieval manor House in the mountains; the beautiful and mysterious Emilian Appenines of northern Italy. There she was befriended and watched over by the owner; an eccentric octogenarian, his household ghosts and 14 semi feral cats.
The experience proved to be challenging yet deeply transformative as she struggled to recover her equilibrium and rebuild her life.
Cassandra is a somewhat eccentric, unconventional and fiercely independent woman of pensionable age. Formerly an international real estate executive she travelled widely, living and working in various European countries – including Italy, Greece and Spain. During her time in Europe she fell in love with the countries, their cultures, the people and the food! She learnt several languages and spent all her spare time exploring.
Now happily retired, she lives alone with her rescue cat, Felix, in a quintessential 17th century English cottage where she writes about her 30 years of adventures. Her first book, ‘Cauliflowers through the Catflap and other tales from a solitary lockdown’ is a humorous and very tongue-in-cheek look at her experiences of shielding alone through the Covid pandemic. Her second book, ‘Tales from the Hamlet’, is a heartwarming tale of what happened when, living in Italy, she was unexpectedly made redundant and saddled with all her antique furniture, over 800 books and an elderly Siamese cat, she had no money to return home and nowhere to go.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
As a memoir, this is a book that shares the experiences of the author, narrated in the first-person, at a particular point in her life, rather than being an exhaustive account of her biography. That means that the author has chosen a particular aspect or period of her life to share, and this is interesting in its own right, as from the little she tells us at the beginning and what she reveals throughout the book, it soon becomes evident that she has embarked in many adventures, has lived and worked in many different countries, speaks many languages, and her lifestyle does not conform to what many people would expect in somebody of her age. She is not married, has no children, grandchildren, or close family, and although she loves her own space and her independence, she is neither domestic nor domesticated.
There are several elements that make this book unique: the protagonist is not a young woman, she is not in the best of health, and she makes a risky choice at a point in life when most people would be looking forward to their retirements (or even taking early retirement). After years of living abroad, going from country to country, and moving from one challenging but fulfilling job to another, she doesn’t seem to be able to find a suitable job at home (back in the UK). So when an offer from Italy comes knocking at her door, she does not hesitate. This is not a woman who is trying to find herself or discover anything new (even if she learns plenty); she is moving due to her career. Also, although she meets plenty of people and makes many friends, there is no romance in sight (thankfully)! The topic of the Brexit (the book takes place before the treaty was finalised, but it had been voted already and was in the process of being finalized) results in plenty of jokes about her having to marry an Italian man, but these are only jokes, and despite passing comments about the attractiveness of some of the men she meets, and some harmless flirting, this is not a story about a woman who finally finds “the right man”. She is quite clear in her choices, and she enjoys living by herself.
This being Italy, there is plenty of food, wine, amazing landscapes, and Italian words and phrases, but the protagonist is not a cook, and she enjoys the food but does not share recipes or tricks about Italian home cooking. (Sorry if you were expecting those).
She is not big at sharing her past history either, and, other than a brief introduction (that goes some way to explaining how she found herself with a CV full of experience in many different jobs all over Europe but with no formal qualifications or diplomas, and also a polyglot without any certificates in any of the languages she is fluent in), she only reveals things that are directly relevant to the story or to the background of characters we come in contact with (her best friend from home, Ugo, her Italian friend, who finds her the perfect accommodation…), and she also answers the direct questions of some of the people she meets, but Cassandra is not a woman who spends her time idly mulling over her past and what could have been. Yes, she does worry about the future, and she needs a bit of help to assess her options in a realistic manner. Nonetheless, this is a woman who is always looking forward and thinking of what task she can undertake next, and that might vary from the very practical and every day (like changing banks and getting the internet installed), to projects that could help develop and reshape the region she is staying in, bringing in foreign investment and all that involves. No matter what the difficulties and she has to face quite a few, both personal and bureaucratic, she is a force of nature, and she does not give up easily.
I liked many things about this book: Italy, and Cassandra’s love affair with the area, the province of Emilia Romagna (she doesn’t fall in love with a man, but she does with the location, its history, its traditions, and its people). She is an avid amateur historian and researcher, and she feels strong connections with people and places, to the point of having quasi-mystical experiences when visiting certain spots and natural wonders. I was fascinated by her descriptions of places, the information she shares on the history of the region, the way the food is prepared (I knew little about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, but now I share in her fascination), and her lyrical renderings of attending a choir concert, or sharing a delightful moment with a boy and his grandmother. You don’t just feel as if you were there, you feel at one with the protagonist, no matter how little or how much you have in common with her (which, in my case, I realise is quite a lot, despite thinking we had very little in common at the beginning). I also loved her observational skills. Sometimes these might result in minute and mundane things being explained in detail (how to get a trolley in the supermarket, or how to access a parking spot at the airport), but, considering how many places she has visited, and the many different ways of doing things she has had to battle through, it makes perfect sense. Who knows how familiar people reading the book might be with things we give for granted in our own environments?
I also enjoyed her love of language, which results in the use of some uncommon words that one is unlikely to read in a newspaper article or a bestseller (but once you’ve read them, and, in some cases, checked them in a dictionary and learned them, you are likely to adopt), but I am sure advanced English students will be enchanted by. I also loved her use of Italian words (whose meaning is always explained), which pepper the narrative and are often more descriptive than any English equivalent.
I am no Italian history buff and had never heard of Matilda di Canossa before, but after reading of her role in the region and the lasting impression she left, palpable even 900 years after her death, now I also share in the protagonist’s interest in this amazing woman, whom we all should know more about.
Oh, and the characters… She does meet some wonderful people, and she never has anything bad to say about anybody. Everybody is a source of information, amusement, knowledge, friendship, help, or delight, and always generous when they encounter this peculiar but good-natured and interesting English woman. And the animals are also wonderful. We have plenty of cats (not only Cassandra’s own Geisha, but the manor house cat, Mimi, the farm cats), a fabulous dog, and some less welcome inhabitants of the area. Yes, Cassandra is a mosquito magnet, another thing we have in common.
Is there anything I didn’t like? Not as such. Readers who prefer their stories streamlined, minimalistic, and pared down, might get frustrated with this book, and many editors would probably trim it down to a fraction of what it is now, as the author narrates similar anecdotes of meeting people who are surprised at seeing her driving a right-handed car, speaking Italian though she is evidently a foreigner, looking at her and asking her all kinds of personal questions, where her husband is, being the most frequent. There are also innumerable descriptions of meals in different restaurants, shopping trips to buy a variety of items and foodstuffs, and her attempts at dealing with Italian bureaucracy. In some ways, this is like having a conversation with a close friend, somebody you might talk to very often, and with whom you share the little things that fill up your days, even when there isn’t anything amazing or extraordinary to say. As the author explains, in her acknowledgments, this book originated in a series of Facebook posts she shared about her adventures in Italy, and as a result of the encouragement, she received from her followers to turn it into a book. With this origin in mind, it becomes easier to understand and appreciate the conversational tone of the writing, which is also full of humour. Life is made up, mostly, of these little quotidian things, and we only realise how much we miss them when “normality” disappears, as we’ve all had to learn recently, unfortunately. (I highlighted many quotes throughout the book, but as I often do, I recommend to those who might not be sure if the writing style will suit them or not, to check a sample of the book and take their time with it. It is worth it).
The ending is a return, to the UK; not a true ending, but a “to be continued” with a promise of a book of Further Tales to be published later. This suits the hopeful nature of the book and leaves us wanting more. I am aware that the author has written about her experiences during the COVID confinement, although I haven’t read her account, so those who are impatient to read more from the author while waiting for the next book in this series can check that.
If I had to issue a warning, I agree with what the author says, on the back cover of the paperback version of this book, also included in the Kindle version: Don’t read this book when you’re hungry, and I would add, especially if you’re on a diet because you might feel compelled to raid your fridge or rush to your nearest restaurant on reading about the wonderful meals Cassandra partakes of. On the positive side, the author includes a list with information, and in some cases links, to the restaurants and eateries she mentions in the narrative, at the back of the book, so those planning a trip to the region can compare notes, try the food and meet some of the people. And if you need any further encouragement, the author includes a link to her website, where you can check photos of the locations mentioned, and also access other useful links.
By the way, if you are not into paranormal happenings or ghosts, don’t worry. Despite the mention of ghosts in the description, that is not what the book is about.
I recommend this book to people who enjoy non-fiction, especially memoirs, but are looking for something a bit different. Yes, the book is inspiring and life-affirming, but its protagonist is so unique that getting to know her and to expend some time with her is what makes it a worthwhile read. There is plenty of useful and fascinating information as well, and people thinking about moving to Italy, or just visiting it, will find it invaluable. So, if you are ready to meet a truly eccentric and wonderful woman, her cat, and are happy to follow her in her adventures (culinary and others) throughout a little-known but gorgeous region of Italy, don’t hesitate. Cassandra will become the guide you never knew you needed.
Thanks to the author, to Rosie and all the members of her team, and to you all for your support and for always being there, reading, commenting, and sharing. Make sure you stay safe, happy, and keep smiling and living life to the full!
I bring you a review with an addendum because… Well, you will see why.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
A NEW YORK TIMES, USA TODAY, and WASHINGTON POST BESTSELLER!
A 2021 Alex Award winner!
The 2021 RUSA Reading List: Fantasy Winner!
An Indie Next Pick!
One of Publishers Weekly’s “Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2020”
One of Book Riot’s “20 Must-Read Feel-Good Fantasies”
Lambda Literary Award-winning author TJ Klune’s bestselling, breakout contemporary fantasy that’s “1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a pinch of Douglas Adams thrown in.” (Gail Carriger)
Linus Baker is a by-the-book case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He’s tasked with determining whether six dangerous magical children are likely to bring about the end of the world.
Arthur Parnassus is the master of the orphanage. He would do anything to keep the children safe, even if it means the world will burn. And his secrets will come to light.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is an enchanting love story, masterfully told, about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.
“1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a pinch of Douglas Adams thrown in.” —Gail Carriger, New York Times bestselling author of Soulless
TJ KLUNE is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author (Into This River I Drown) and an ex-claims examiner for an insurance company. His novels include the Green Creek series, The House on the Cerulean Sea and The Extraordinaries. Being queer himself, TJ believes it’s important—now more than ever—to have accurate, positive, queer representation in stories.
This is the first book I have read by TJ Klune, and I didn’t know much about him or his books before. This story feels like an adult fairy tale, although I think it would be suitable for teens and YA as well. I also think it can fit into the category of an adult coming-of-age story, as the protagonist, Linus Baker, finds himself and learns to be his own person throughout the story, which covers just a few weeks of his life.
Linus Baker, the main character, is a grey man who lives in a grey world and has a grey job. The reviews mention 1984 and the similarities with the protagonist of George Orwell’s story are evident (minus the political angle. This book feels much more YA than that), and it also reminded me of the protagonist of Brazil, working at his little desk, and swallowed up by a strange world whose rules he tries to live by. Linus has no close friends, he doesn’t get on with his peers or his superiors at work either, and he only seems to care about his cat (it doesn’t appear to be mutual), his music (he loves to listen to records), his sunflowers (a splash of colour in his otherwise grey life), and his job. He lives by the book of Rules and Regulations of his organization and reads it as if it were the Bible. Suddenly, he is sent on a special mission, an extremely secret one, and he discovers an orphanage on an island very close to his dreams of a tropical paradise. The sea is blue (well, cerulean), the skies are sunny, and everything would be wonderful, almost like a vacation, if it weren’t for the peculiarities of the magical children who live at that orphanage. Well, and of the master of the orphanage and…
The novel looks at prejudice, persecution, harassment, intolerance, fear of the other, and the way society tends to lock away those who make it feel uncomfortable or don’t easily fit in. We are all familiar with such issues, that thankfully, have been changing in recent times, but not everywhere, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The novel is also full of hope; it explores the idea of found and chosen families; of finding a place you really belong to, and of how we can all help change things, one step at a time. There is also love (a couple of sweet ‘queer romances’, as they are described by the author) although it doesn’t become the dominant element of the novel, and the main romance is one of those “will-they/won’t they” situations where everybody else sees what is going on before the protagonists do.
The six children living at the orphanage are magical in totally different ways: some can do things, some are just… well, nobody knows exactly what kind of being they are, others have powers that can turn them dangerous, and all of them have been abused and marginalised because they don’t fit in. In a society that encourages compliance, surveillance, and uniformity, they are too visibly different. And that causes fear in the population, and it is encouraged by the powers that be.
Linus is reluctant and suspicious at first, but it seems that his superiors misjudged him. He is not just a bureaucrat without a heart who follows blindly the rules and remains detached and professional at whatever cost. He is genuinely devoted to the spirit of the job and cares about the children’s welfare, and that means he learns to see them for who they really are.
I loved the characters, especially the children, and Arthur and Zoe, the adults on the island, as well (later we meet some of the inhabitants of the town who are also formidable, Helen, the mayor, most of all); the way the story is told, like a fairytale; Linus’s transformation (which never becomes overdramatic or unbelievable); and the wit, humour, and quirkiness of it all. Some of the descriptions are as magical as the story, and by the end of the novel, I wanted to visit the island and meet the children and the rest of the characters as well. There are some reveals too, as things are not as they seem in more ways than one, but I wasn’t surprised by what we discover, and I think many readers will have guessed, or at least suspected, what we find out. But that didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, and I hope that will be the case for most readers.
If I had to mention something I liked a little less, it would probably be the fact that “the message” of the novel is made quite evident and repeated in different ways, and readers who prefer subtlety and are fond of a less-is-more approach might feel it is heavy-handed. This fable makes its point clearly and somewhat forcefully, but it does have its heart in the right place, and the style of the story does fit into the genre, as does the fact that the story is not set in a specific time or real location (there are some vague references, mostly to do with music, but that is all). Some readers also felt that there are too many negative comments about the weight of the protagonist, but as we see the story from his point of view (although it is narrated in the third person), this seems to be another element of his lack of insight into who he really is, and further evidence of how much he has internalised society’s standards and opinions.
I have mentioned that the children have suffered abuse in the past, and they aren’t the only ones in the novel to be victims of prejudice. This is not described in too much detail, and it is mostly left to readers’ imaginations, but I would advise caution to those who feel they might be upset by such topics. You might also want to read my addendum to the review, as that might affect your feelings towards reading it.
The ending is as happy as it should be, and there is a final surprise thrown in (well, a couple) that will delight readers.
Readers who are fond of fantasy, fairy tales, fables, and particularly enjoy adult coming-of-age stories and those who like quirky characters and Young Adult books should check this novel. It does have a positive message, and it wraps it up into a whimsical story full of heart. Highly recommended.
Just a few quotes as a taster:
‘These children aren’t animals. You aren’t on a safari with binoculars, watching them from a distance. How are you supposed to evaluate the children if you don’t even take the time to know them?’
‘We all have our issues. I have a spare tire around my middle. His father is Satan. Nothing that can’t be worked out if we try hard enough.’
‘Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard. You might not ever be able to change their minds, but so long as you remember you’re not alone, you will overcome. ‘
‘Why can’t life work whatever way we want it to? What’s the point of living if you only do it how others want you to?’
When I was checking the reviews of this novel, having almost finished it, I found out that there was a fair bit of controversy going on about it. Many reviewers that had given it good (or at least fair) reviews at first, went back to change their reviews and give it only 1 start (You can check the novel’s entry in Goodreads if you want to read about it in more detail).
There’s plenty of information about the Sixties Scoop available, but it seems that a lot of the people who read the novel had never heard of it. I hadn’t either, although, unfortunately, such things have happened before (and we can but hope they won’t happen again, but perhaps they are already happening) in other places, and other things that share similarities with it have happened, even though the circumstances were different. (In my country, many children from Republican and/or communist families were removed from them and “given” in unofficial adoptions to people loyal to Franco’s regime in the years after the Civil War and up to the 1970s. The case of the Australian aborigines is well-known, and I have reviewed books talking about similar subjects before).
Some readers felt the author was exploiting the story and the children and the communities involved.
If we take into account that nobody would have known about it if the author hadn’t freely mentioned it on one occasion (I read some other interviews, and it never came up); it doesn’t appear as if he was trying to use the historical events and people’s interest in it to sell his story, but I know these days it is difficult to know what might or might not cause outrage. I am sure many writers have read some horrific stories or news items that have sent them down a pathway that has resulted in a book that is very far from the original event, because authors are influenced by many things, and inspiration can take bizarre forms sometimes.
In any case, you don’t need to worry about the book upsetting you because of mentioning the real events or being very close to the facts. That is not the case, although that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have an emotional impact, because it does. But you can always read the reviews, the comments, and counter-comments and make your own minds up.
Thanks to the author for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, sharing, and liking, and remember to keep smiling and keep making the best of things. ♥
I bring you another book from Rosie’s Book Review Team that I discovered thanks to some of the reviews by other members. They were right!
Eat the Poor (Galbraith & Pole Book 2) by Tom Williams
A werewolf is on the loose in London.
Chief Inspector Pole, the vampire from the mysterious Section S, teams up once again with his human counterpart to hunt down the beast before the people of the city realise that they are threatened by creatures they have dismissed as myths.
Time is short as the werewolf kills ever more recklessly. Can Galbraith and Pole stop it before panic spreads through London?
Galbraith and Pole start their search in Pole’s extensive library of the arcane, accompanied by a couple of glasses of his excellent malt whisky. All too soon, though, they will have to take to the streets to hunt the monster by the light of the moon.
But the threat is even greater than they think, for in its human form the werewolf is terrifyingly close to the heart of government.
This is Tom Williams’ second tongue-in-cheek take on traditional creatures of darkness. Like the first Galbraith & Pole book, Something Wicked, this will appeal to fans of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London.
You never know when the forces of darkness may be released and there will be no time for reading then. Buy Eat the Poor before it’s too late.
Tom Williams used to write books for business. Now he writes novels set in the 19th century that are generally described as fiction but which are often more honest than the business books. (He writes contemporary fantasy as well, but that’s a dark part of his life, so you’ll have to explore that on your own – ideally with a friend and a protective amulet.)
His stories about James Burke (based on a real person) are exciting tales of high adventure and low cunning set around the Napoleonic Wars. The stories have given him the excuse to travel to Argentina, Egypt, and Spain and call it research.
Tom lives in London. His main interest is avoiding doing any honest work and this leaves him with time to ski, skate and dance tango, all of which (before covid) he thought he did quite well. In between he reads old books and spends far too much time looking at ancient weaponry.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
The description of the novel sets up the plot quite clearly, and I won’t elaborate on it. Readers can find elements of the police procedural novel (one flexible enough to allow for a supernatural element rather than one where logic and realism to the minutest detail are the required standard) with an unlikely and seemingly unsuited couple of investigators, and the tongue-in-cheek approach suits beautifully the description of the inner workings of the police department, and the way promotions and a career in the police are likely to progress for those who care for the actual job and are not that keen on cultivating influences and playing political games within the force.
The ironic commentary on UK politics helps make the story even more memorable. After recent shenanigans in the UK Parliament, one can’t help but wonder if a conservative MP with pretty radical (and classist) views, with the peculiarity of being also a werewolf, would really be that much worse than what had been happening. (And, of course, readers in other countries would wonder the same as well, as although the details might be different, the behaviour of the political classes has been less than stellar pretty much around the world).
There is a mystery that owes plenty to the cozy genre (despite some vicious murders and the addition of the supernatural Others that usually belong in the horror genre) and is likely to attract people who are more interested in quirky and original characters than in the investigation itself.
I haven’t read the first novel in the series, so I don’t know anything about the background story between Pole and Galbraith, and I can confirm that this book can be read as a stand-alone. There are some references to the previous case, but those are contextualised and don’t affect the action or the development of the story. Of course, having read this book, I’d like to know more about the first case, but that is to be expected, having enjoyed this one so much.
The story is narrated in the third person from two of the characters’ points of view (mostly, although there are some paragraphs and comments from an outside observer’s perspective), those of Galbraith and of the criminal they are trying to track. That gives readers a better understanding of the personality of the perpetrator and the circumstances behind the crimes, some of which are well beyond anybody’s control. That doesn’t make the criminal more likeable, at least to me (his politics are quite extreme, although looking at the general political situation, it is evident that many people share similar views), but it allows us to follow his reasoning and to see how easy it could be for someone to move from similar type of thoughts to action. Despite the light tone of the story and the amusing characters and events, there is more than a slight touch of social criticism and a call to attention that is impossible to miss. From feeling privileged and proud of one’s achievement to thinking that those who aren’t as well-off as one is are undeserving of any help or assistance there is but a small step.
Chief Inspector Galbraith is a sympathetic character, and especially those readers of a certain age who have seen their jobs change and become enmeshed in bureaucracy and a never-ending litany of meetings and committees are likely to identify with him. (I had to nod at many of the situations, and some of his reflections as well).
Pole is a mysterious character who never quite reveals much about anything, especially himself —he mentions Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, and it is impossible to read about his character and not think of Doyle’s creation—, but there are moments when his real feelings and emotions filter through the hundreds of years of containment and good breed. I came to like him more and more as the story progressed, and I hope there will be plenty of occasions to get to know him better in future books.
I’ve talked about the baddie already, but towards the end of the novel, a new character was introduced and became one of my favourites. Robson is a masterpiece, and he makes the closing of the investigation totally memorable. (And no, I won’t say anything else about him).
Those readers who dislike head hopping and sudden changes in viewpoint don’t need to worry, as each chapter is told from a single point of view, and it is clearly marked. Oh, and I love the old-style titles of the chapters. They are a joy.
You’ve probably guessed that I enjoyed the ending from my mention of Robson, but apart from the resolution of the case, there are a couple of scenes at the end that I also enjoyed. Especially because Pole and Galbraith share a moment that reminded me of Casablanca’s closing scene when Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains disappear into the fog. Very understated and very moving.
So, if you enjoy mysteries but are not a stickler for realism, love quirky characters and appreciate a touch of the paranormal, have a sense of humour, and like to look at politics and society from a critical but seemingly light-hearted point of view, you should give this novel a go. The author has written plenty of historical novels and has a talent for highlighting trends, connections, and behaviours that many might not perceive. I have discovered another author whose books I’m eager to learn more about, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in this.
Thanks to Rosie and her team for the support and the suggestions, thanks to the author, and especially, thanks to all of you for visiting, reading, liking, commenting, sharing… Don’t forget to keep cool, safe, and smiling!
Oh, and before you go, I wanted to let you know that from the 20th of August, for a week or so, we’ll be having a local festival (la Festa Major de Sants), and we’ll be doing live coverage at the radio, so I’ll be quite busy. Just in case you don’t see me much around, don’t worry, I’m just busy doing radio-related things.
I have mentioned my family’s involvement in the French Resistance, and that and the fabulous reviews of this novel, another one of Rosie’s Book Review Team discoveries, meant that I had to read it (and I’d wanted to read one of the author’s novels for quite a while). Well, the novel is a must-read, and I discovered even more connections to the topic.
THE PEACEFUL VILLAGE. A NOVEL by Paulette Mahurin
During the German occupation of France, nestled in the lush, verdant countryside in the Haute-Vienne department of central France was the peaceful village of Oradour-sur-Glane. It was a community where villagers woke to the medley of nature’s songs, roosters crowing, birds chirping, cats purring, and cows plodding on their way out to pasture. The people who lived there loved the tranquil nature of their beautiful home, a tranquility that existed year-round. Even with the German occupation, Oradour-sur-Glane – the village with cafés, shops, and a commuter tram to Limoges – remained relatively untouched by the stress of the occupation.
While Oradour-sur-Glane enjoyed the lack of German presence, twenty-two kilometers to the northwest in Limoges, the Germans were reacting with increasing cruelty to organized attacks on their soldiers by the armed resistance organization Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP). Headed by Amédé Fauré, the Limoges FTP was considered the most effective of the French Resistance groups. Fauré’s missions prompted the German military to kill and incarcerate in concentration camps anyone perceived as supporters or sympathizers of the Resistance.
Up until the middle of 1944, the German anti-partisan actions in France never rose to the level of brutality or number of civilian casualties that had occurred in eastern Europe. A little before the Allies landed in Normandy, all that changed, when German troops, and in particular the Waffen-SS, stationed on the Eastern Front were transferred to France. It was then that FTP’s increasing efforts to disrupt German communications and supply lines were met with disproportionate counter attacks, involving civilians. Fauré’s response was to target German officers. When he set his sights on two particular German officers, all hell broke loose.
Based on actual events as told by survivors, The Peaceful Village is the fictionalized story of the unfolding of the events that led up to one of the biggest World War II massacres on French soil. Much more than an account of Nazi brutality and the futility of war, this is a story of love. The love of family. The love of neighbor. The love of country. Compassion and courage burn from the pages as the villagers’ stories come alive. Written by the international bestselling author of The Seven Year Dress, Paulette Mahurin, this book pays homage to the villagers who lived and loved in Oradour-sur-Glane.
Paulette Mahurin is an international best selling literary fiction and historical fiction novelist. She lives with her husband Terry and two dogs, Max and Bella, in Ventura County, California. She grew up in West Los Angeles and attended UCLA, where she received a Master’s Degree in Science.
Her first novel, The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, made it to Amazon bestseller lists and won awards, including best historical fiction 2012 in Turning the Pages Magazine. Her second novel, His Name Was Ben, originally written as an award winning short story while she was in college and later expanded into a novel, rose to bestseller lists its second week out. Her third novel, To Live Out Loud, won international critical acclaim and made it to multiple sites as favorite read book of 2015. Her fourth book, The Seven Year Dress, made it to the bestseller lists for literary fiction and historical fiction on Amazon U.S., Amazon U.K. and Amazon Australia. Her fifth book, The Day I Saw The Hummingbird, was released in 2017 to rave reviews. Her sixth book, A Different Kind of Angel, was released in the summer of 2018 also to rave reviews.
Semi-retired, she continues to work part-time as a Nurse Practitioner in Ventura County. When she’s not writing, she does pro-bono consultation work with women with cancer, works in the Westminster Free Clinic as a volunteer provider, volunteers as a mediator in the Ventura County Courthouse for small claims cases, and involves herself, along with her husband, in dog rescue. Profits from her books go to help rescue dogs from kill shelters.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her, NetGalley, and the author for this opportunity.
I have been following the author over the years, have checked her blog on occasions, and have read many positive reviews of her novels. I am sure that several of her novels are on my e-reader already, and after reading this one, I will make sure I locate them and put them on my “sooner-rather-than-later” to-be-read list. This is a novelised account of a real event that took place during WWII, one that I didn’t know anything about before I read the novel, but I will never forget now. I don’t hesitate to recommend this book to all readers, those who love fiction and those who prefer non-fiction, as it should be read. Due to the events that take place, this is not an easy read (it is hard, harrowing, and emotional), so I would recommend caution to readers who are not in the right place or frame of mind to read about such subjects.
It is impossible not to think about the war and its victims these days, and that makes this narration more poignant and urgent than ever. We should never forget what happened because we all know what happens to those who forget. I will not spend too much time on the plot, as the book description provides plenty of information, and anybody interested can research what is known of what happened on that day, the 10th of June of 1944 in Oradour-sur-Glane. The author includes a disclaimer, where she explains that the book is a work of fiction, and other than the historical characters included, the rest is her attempt at fitting what is known to have happened into a narrative. Her research shines through, and, to clarify matters even more, together with her disclaimer, the author includes a Glossary of Terms and Historical Figures, a list of the German military ranks used in the novel, of the organizations and political groupings, and of the locations, and also the translation of a few German terms used in the book (when the translation is not included in the text itself) right at the beginning of the book. There is also a postnote that explains what happened afterwards, to the village and at the trial of a few of those involved in the onslaught.
Mahurin manages to recreate Oradour for us. Through the locations, the characters, and the events that take place there, we get a good sense of what a lovely place it was, a peaceful village in the German-controlled part of France, where life goes on almost undisturbed, although there are also things happening that remind the inhabitants of the war, and there is a sense of dread hanging over the proceedings. The beauty is in the detail: we see characters going about their jobs and their lives (the doctor, who is also the mayor, looks after his patients, and so does one of his sons, also a doctor; the priest is involved in welfare and also tries to help families in need [Jewish families escaping the Nazi regime among others]; we have mechanics; we have farmers; we have teachers; we have children; we have hard-working mothers…) and we have people who know each other and who do what they can to help others, their family, their neighbours, their friends, and also the newcomers who need help. This is an ensemble novel, and although we perhaps learn more about some characters than others (like Marguerite, who is exhausted by farm work —among other things— and manages to find her perfect role in helping the priest with his church work and his other tasks, or the mayor, the priest, and even others who don’t live in the village, like the head of the Maquis du Limousin…), this is a novel about a community, where everybody has a part to play, as must have been the case at the real Oradour. The shock of that normality, where nothing out of the ordinary had happened, being interrupted by the senseless massacre, has a devastating effect upon us, and it is not surprising to read how the people in the village were totally stunned and unable to believe what was going on.
The author writes beautifully about the place, the people, their lives, and their customs, and despite the horrific tragedy that eventually unfolds, there are incredibly beautiful passages as well. Plenty of happy and inspiring moments fill up the pages of this novel, and, the choice of a third-person omniscient point of view works very well for the story, as it allows us to see and understand how the different characters feel and what their lives are like, and it also shows us some of the events that preceded the massacre (although the reasons, as the author explains, have never been fully explained, and there are only a variety of conjectures historians have proposed over the years). We do see and follow what the Germans do as well, and the third-person narrative plays a pretty neutral observer’s role, not overdramatising events because it is totally unnecessary. It leaves it up to the readers to make their own minds up, experience the events, and feel the emotions. And that makes it even more moving and poignant.
A couple of samples of the writing:
May moved along with goodwill radiating warmth through Oradour like a hot bath soothing a stiff body on a frigid day.
Then he thought of the plans he’d heard to make the ruins into an untouched museum. To leave everything as is. Wistfully, words flowed from him like a feather floating through air when he said, “That magical place is a reminder of the living people who lived there in harmony.”
This is not a mystery novel, and we know what is going to happen (what really happened, not the details, but the bare facts), so the ending of the story is not, in itself, surprising, but I felt it was perfect. There was a hopeful note, but a somewhat bittersweet one, as the postnote reminds us of how many crimes of war are never solved, properly investigated, or even truly acknowledged.
I have already recommended the novel to all readers (with a note of warning), in particular to those interested in stories set in WWII in France, both fictional and non-fictional; to those who enjoy reading beautifully written books with a historical theme, and to anybody who likes to learn about real events, especially those that affect us all and should never be forgotten. I was inspired to read more about the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, and discovered that 19 of the victims were Spaniards (11 of them children), refugees who had escaped from Spain during the Civil War to avoid the fascist reprisals by Franco’s regime. After that, it felt even more personal, if that were possible. What else can I tell you? Read it, if at all you can. I have learned something I won’t forget and discovered a writer I will carry on reading for a long time to come.
Thanks to Rosie and all the members of her team, thanks to the author and to NetGalley, and thanks to all of you for reading, for sharing, for liking, for commenting…
Oh, before I forget. For those of you who read Spanish and might be interested in my comment about my research into the subject, I share an article I found.
I bring you a lighter read than I have you accustomed to and another one from Rosie’s Book Review Team. Don’t forget to visit her blog!
When Emma Came to Stay: When family ties uncover family lies by Cheryl Waters
Emma’s just turned thirty. She’s just lost her job. And she’s just as single as she always is. Fortunately, her beloved Aunt Maude – a fun-loving septuagenarian – lives in the south of France. It’s just what Emma needs: time to swim in the sea that sparkles, let the sun kiss her skin, and to work out what she wants and where she’s going.
When yacht-owning Marc comes sailing into her life, Emma can’t believe her luck! But there is something she just can’t work out about him…
When her fun-loving aunt ends up in hospital Emma learns that Maude has her own secrets. Just how did her aunt come to have a masterpiece in her attic?
As this delightful corner of France wraps Emma (and us) up in its charms, we wonder if Marc is all that she wants – or is true love somewhat closer to home?
Born in London, Cheryl grew up in Cheshire. Cheryl married Phil in 1991 and that same year they moved to Scotland where they both worked in Edinburgh & grew a family of two children. In 2011, with the young adults off at University, Cheryl’s dream of living in France became a reality.
Renovating an early 19th-century farmhouse, in 2014 Cheryl & Phil made the permanent move to the Creuse region of southwest France, opening their B&B.
Whilst Cheryl had talked of writing a novel for many years, between the demands of full-time work and all that comes with a young family, there never seemed to be the time.
Moving to France brought the opportunity of a (slightly) quieter lifestyle, and then Coronavirus arrived, pausing the world, halting the B&B and delivering long stretches of precious free time! So, one such time- led day, Cheryl typed an opening sentence into the computer. After eighteen months of writing, re-writing, and learning how to publish later the debut novel; “In My Mother’s Footsteps” was ready.
What was originally a dream to simply write a book “one day” had become a tangible result. Cheryl plans to continue, with the idea for a second book now well underway. If you would like to contact Cheryl, she would love to hear from you. www.facebook.com/cherylwaterswrites
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity, and, in this case, for providing me with an early paperback review copy of the novel.
I tend to read a lot of thrillers and heavy-going psychological novels, and I fancied something light and gentle, and this novel hit the right spot in that respect.
The description provides quite a few clues as to what to expect. There are a variety of elements that converge in this novel: we have romances (yes, more than one); we have second chances (for several of the characters involved); we have secrets, lies, and plenty of reveals (not impossible to work out, but they add interest to the story and keep it moving); we have a bit of the adult coming of age story for the protagonist, Emma (whose priorities change massively after losing both, her long-term boyfriend and her long-term job quite by surprise), but, for me, this is mostly a wish fulfilment novel. Not for everybody, of course, because some people would, perhaps, hate the lifestyle the protagonist chooses/finds herself thrown into, but many people will, at some point, have probably wished they could just leave everything behind, move to a different country, and have a go at making a living in a totally different way, in a wonderful setting, staying in a nice house, finding a (new) loving relationship, and acquiring a perfect (if somewhat unconventional) family. If you are one of those people, you are likely to enjoy this novel. There is no explicit sex, and although Emma’s aunt, Maude, can be a bit outrageous at times, the language used if fairly mild. I won’t say it is unlikely to offend anybody, because I know that is a very personal thing, and a few of the situations and behaviours in the story might not sit well with some readers. I definitely wasn’t offended and didn’t mind Maude’s funny banter, which I find good-humored and endearing.
My favourite things in this book were: the setting, although those who hate long descriptions don’t need to worry, as there aren’t many and they aren’t excessively detailed either; the upbeat attitude of Emma and most of the characters, who take things in their stride, and although they might experience doubts and hesitations, they eventually decide to take a chance and take risks to try to improve things; the characters, especially Maude, who is wonderful. She is youthful, colourful, has a great sense of fun and joy, and is determined to enjoy life and unwilling to slow down due to her age or her ailments. Some of the other characters are somewhat thinly drawn, as the story (other than when it comes to Maude and her past) is very much focused on what is happening now, and we only get rare glimpses of what life has been like for the rest of the characters. But I liked them all well enough, and the main protagonist, Emma, is kind, generous, and it is easy to root for her. This is not a heavy novel, as I have mentioned, and it doesn’t go into the deep psychological reasons for the characters’ actions, and none of them are depicted as particularly complex. There is the typical will they/won’t they situation regarding one of the romances, but the obstacles are not insurmountable, and this isn’t a heavy melodrama where suffering and tragedy play a big part, thankfully.
Was there anything I disliked? Although most of the events are told from Emma’s point of view, and the whole story is narrated in the third person, there are also parts of the story where we get to see what some of the other characters think and feel. That adds to the mystery and to the tension in some cases, as we realise what is going to happen but don’t really know how it is going to come about, but because the swap in point of view can happen from one paragraph to the next and without any clear separation or indication of the change, some readers might get a feeling of head-hopping and take issue with it. Due to the nature of the story and to the rhythm of the narration, I didn’t have any difficulty following the thread and didn’t get lost despite these changes, but I thought I’d warn readers, just in case that might be a serious problem for them.
The other issue I had, and I am aware that it might have to do with my book being an early copy and a paperback at that (and I know formatting can be a nightmare sometimes), was that there were a large number of typos and similar issues (dialogue apostrophes missing, the same or similar word repeated several times in a paragraph…) that could be easily solved by a further round of proofreading if that hasn’t happened already. The writing itself is easy to follow, and there is plenty of everyday life reflected in the story, which follows the rhythm and the chronology of the seasons, and the ending is… well, happy as it should be, with no ifs or buts.
If you’ve always dreamed of changing your life completely and finding the perfect adoptive family, in a beautiful setting, with a good dose of romance and good cheer thrown in, I would recommend you to check this book. It will make you smile.
Thanks to the author and her publishers for the novel, thanks to Rosie and her team for their support, and, of course, most of all, thanks to you for reading, commenting, liking, sharing, and keeping me going. Stay safe and never forget to keep smiling!
Today I review a novel by an author who never fails to impress me (and to make me cry as well), one linked to the first of his novels I ever read.
Michel: Fallen Angel of Paris by Hans M Hirschi
Preparing to evacuate from an approaching hurricane, Haakon Chitragar stumbles upon the diary of his first love, Michel, who died from AIDS in his arms in November of 1986. Diary in hands, Haakon embarks on a journey back in time, to learn about Michel’s life, his difficult and painful path to accepting his true self, despite pressure from family, church, and society.
Michel – Fallen Angel of Paris is the story of one young man, one of countless victims of a pandemic still claiming lives every day, almost forty years after his death on a park bench in Paris. It’s also a story about the most unlikely of friendships, connections across time and space, acceptance, redemption, and learning to love and to be loved for who you are.
Michel – Fallen Angel of Paris is based on a character from The Fallen Angels of Karnataka. While both stories are intertwined, Michel can be read as a stand-alone novel.
“Michel – Fallen Angel of Paris is a masterpiece. Brilliantly written, it tells a riveting, heartfelt story that shows that, in spite of all the crises (present and pre-existing) there is still reason for hope. Michel is an awe-inspiring and memorable read, impossible to put down.”
Hans M Hirschi has been writing stories ever since he was a child. Adulthood and the demands of corporate life put an end to his fictional writing for over twenty years. A global executive in training and channel development, Hans has traveled the world extensively and published a couple of non-fictional titles on learning and management.
The birth of his son and the subsequent parental leave provided him with the opportunity to once again unleash his creative writing, writing feel-good stories you’ll remember.
Having little influence over his brain’s creative workings, he simply indulges it and goes with the flow. However, the deep passion for a better world, for love and tolerance are a read thread throughout both his creative and non-fictional work.
Hans lives with his husband, son, and pets on a small island off the west coast of Sweden. English isn’t his first or even second language. It’s his seventh!
I was provided with an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I have been following Hans M Hirschi’s career for a few years now, and he is one of a group of authors whose books I immediately add to my list (and as close to the top as I can), as soon as I know they’ve published something new. I don’t hesitate. I know I’m going to get a book that will touch my heart, make me think, and will often deal with uncomfortable and/or controversial subjects (his adult books are never “light and easy” reads, but they are well worth the emotional challenge), whose characters I’ll get to know and love (or hate, sometimes), and a story that I will not forget. And, although the author explains that he had a pretty tough time of writing this book, and the whole process took him longer than usual, the results are up to his usual standards, if not better.
This book held another hook for me, as the main character had appeared in one of the author’s previous novels, The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, the first I had read by him, and one where I had been left hoping to know more about the background and the previous story of some of the characters. I agree with the author, though, that this book could be read and enjoyed without having read the previous novel, as the story told here is complete and fairly independent, and there is sufficient information provided to understand the few references to that book. And those who have read it, even if it was a long time ago, will enjoy catching up with some of the characters and getting a fuller understanding of the build-up to the events of that book.
This is a coming-of-age story. Perhaps because the future looks uncertain and dangerous and he is facing a crisis; when Haakon comes across his first love’s diary, he decides to read it. He had only read the bits related to their relationship, but they hadn’t known each other long, and there was much he didn’t know. We hear about Michel, a young boy of 12 when he gets his diary, living in Rennes. We learn about his family, his very religious (Roman Catholic) mother, and his father, very concerned about appearances. They used to live in St. Malo but when his father couldn’t carry on being a fisherman, they had to move somewhere with more opportunities. The family is never well off, and they struggle to make ends meet, although they don’t have any serious problems. As an only child, his mother in particular is always concerned about him and insists that he help at mass and that he meet the Monseigneur, for spiritual guidance. If you suspect the worst… Well, you’d be right. Michel doesn’t realise until many years later what had really happened, but he discovers he is gay, at a time when that was not easily accepted, thanks to some unlikely friends. He is lucky and finds support in an ersatz family (his real parents are not so understanding), although he is also a victim of hate crimes, and abuse, and has to live through pretty traumatic experiences. When things seem to be looking up, an illness that changed everything and took the lives of so many, strikes him down, allowing him only the briefest of glimpses at happiness. Haakon realises that there are many unanswered questions and important people in Michel’s life who deserve closure as much as he does. And he decides to put things to rights.
The novel explores issues like sexual identity, growing up in a small town and being “different”, religious faith and religious intolerance, traditional families and intergenerational conflict, LGTBI culture in the 1970s and 80s, AIDS, guilt, grief, acceptance, second chances, happiness, charity, sex abuse, intolerance and hate crimes, and friendship and love…
We get some of the story directly from Michel’s pen, but most of it is mediated through Haakon, and that adds a layer of interpretation and also his emotional reaction to what he reads. He learns many things he didn’t know about Michel, and there is also his own life and the present time to be taken care of. Michel’s story covers from 1976 (well, from 1964 when he was born) until 1986; there are also some small sections of present-day narration at the beginning and in the middle of the book, and once Haakon has finished reading the diary, the final section follows him and his husband in their trip to France, in the present.
I’ve particularly liked the way the story is told, as it allows us to see what it must have been like for Michel at the time, and also provides us with the perspective of somebody who is familiar with some of the issues and with bits of the story, but not all. There are heart-wrenching moments, moments that will horrify and upset many readers (be warned), but Haakon is exactly as Michel describes him: non-judgmental, kind, and understanding. Michel is harsher on himself and his behaviour than Haakon could ever be, and despite the hard and painful moments, the love story between the two is very moving. This novel also reflects a recent historical period, one that perhaps the younger readers will not be familiar with, but many of us remember what happened when the AIDS epidemic first appeared, and the panic, paranoia, and terrible consequences it had. There was a before and an after AIDS, and it is important to remember that it hasn’t gone away.
The author’s writing reflects perfectly the events, with the right amount of description to make the places, the people, and the era come alive before our eyes, and despite how difficult some parts of the story are, there are also extremely beautiful passages and scenes that will make a strong impression in all readers.
There is nothing I didn’t like about the story. The ending is not surprising, but that is not what the book is about. Hirschi has been called “the queen of unconventional happy endings” and he lives up to that title here as well. Yes, the story’s ending is not “happy, happy” but it is a good ending, everything considered. And it is a hopeful ending as well.
As usual, I recommend readers to check a sample of the book to make sure that the writing style will suit their taste, and, I have already warned of the type of content people can find here. As you will imagine, there is also sex in the novel. Although this is neither erotica nor pornography, and there are very few explicit scenes, readers take that into account when choosing to read this story.
If you enjoy good writing, are interested in the historical period, are partial to first-love stories, and are unlikely to be disturbed by an open and honest look at the coming of age story of a young gay man growing up in a small French town in the 1980s, you should read this book. If you’ve never read one of Hans M Hirschi’s novels, you’ll discover a new author to add to your favourites, and if you’ve read The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, you are in for a special treat.
Thanks to the author for his novel, thanks to all of you for reading, liking, sharing, commenting, and don’t forget to keep safe and keep smiling.
Ragnar Jónasson is the award winning author of the international bestselling Dark Iceland series, the Hulda Trilogy and standalone crime fiction.
CBS Studios is to adapt The Darkness as an eight-part TV series.
The Times selected The Darkness as one of the 100 Best Crime Novels and Thrillers since 1945. Snowblind was selected as one of Top 100 Crime Fiction of all time by Blackwell’s.
Ragnar has been a no. 1 bestseller in Germany (Spiegel Bestseller), a no. 1 crime fiction bestseller in France and a no. 1 Kindle bestseller in the UK and Australia. In 2020 he became the first Icelandic author ever to have three books in the top ten of the German Spiegel bestseller.
Ragnar has also enjoyed awards across the international crime scene. He won the Mörda Dead Good Reader Award for Nightblind, and The Mist won the Amazon Publishing & Capital Crime Mystery of the Year award in 2020. Snowblind was selected by The Independent as one of the best crime novels of 2015. His books have also won praise from publications such as The Times of London, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Times Literary Supplement.
He has also been shortlisted for Novel of the Year in Sweden, The Barry Award in the US and the Petrona Award. The film rights for The Darkness have also been snapped up by Hollywood production company Stampede, led by former President of Warner Bros, Greg Silverman. They have struck a deal with CBS Studios to adapt the novel into an eight-part series.
Ragnar is the co-founder of the Reykjavik international crime writing festival Iceland Noir. From the age of 17, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic. Ragnar has appeared on festival panels worldwide, and lives in Reykjavik. Ragnar has a law degree and works as an investment banker in Reykjavik, in addition to teaching law at Reykjavik University.
I thank NetGalley and Penguin Michael Joseph UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I read one of Ragnar Jónasson’s novels some time ago (The Darkness, the first in his Hidden Iceland series), and I really enjoyed the novel, although I hadn’t managed to catch up with any of his other books yet (although I am sure I have some others on my list).
When I came across this one, I decided it was time to try another one of his novels, although people seemed a bit more divided on their opinions about it. And it is not difficult to see why that should be the case. I also thought that a book set in Iceland in the middle of a snowstorm would be the perfect read to combat the current heatwave. One thing is for sure, the story and its protagonists are quite chilling.
As it clearly states in the description, this is a stand-alone novel and not a part of a series, so readers don’t need to be worried if they haven’t read anything by the author. Nordic thrillers have become almost a genre in their own right, and this novel fits into the category perfectly.
It also fits into a group of books that are reminiscent of the locked room or isolated location mysteries, but with some twists. Now, instead of an impossible mystery (or in addition to it), we have a house or some other location (a mountain refuge in this case) where a group of people ends up trapped, for one reason or another, and although things appear pretty harmless and even nice at first, the situation starts deteriorating soon enough, the relationship between the characters (when there is one) starts to unravel, and secrets and lies surface with dire consequences. Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party is a popular example that I was reminded of when I read this novel, although not the only one.
We have four friends who’ve gone on a hunting trip in the Icelandic highlands, three men and one woman, and they are as different as you can imagine: one is an actor living in the UK, with a girlfriend 15 years his junior, his best friend is a lawyer and a recovering alcoholic who has been dry for a couple of years now, the woman is still grieving the loss of the love of her life in pretty tragic circumstances, and the man who organised the trip, who know owns a tour company, has a bit of a dark past, and got into a fair amount of trouble in Denmark.
As seems to be the norm, the characters are not particularly likeable, and because the story is told (in the third person) alternatively from the point of view of the four friends, we get to know how their minds work and some (not all) of their secrets. The author is good at plotting and at creating psychologically realistic characters, and he knows what to show and what to hide in order to keep the intrigue going, as there are things that are very important to the plot, and we don’t get to know until very close to the end. But well… It’s the nature of the beast.
Of course, there are hidden reasons behind the trip and the bizarre things that start happening, although not everything is part of the plan. There are some red herrings as well, that might rise the readers’ suspicions and they work well, especially considering there are very few characters and it is difficult to keep the tension going, but the author manages to do that pretty well.
What I most liked about the story is the setting and the way the author uses Iceland and the specific location and the weather conditions to add to the tense atmosphere. I also appreciated the way the story is told and the skill the author has in revealing and hiding some pieces of information to make the story work. It is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. It is easy to put some pieces together, but the whole picture reveals new and unexpected things. The chapters are short and the story progresses at a good pace, even when there is not much actual movement. I also enjoyed the way we get to know how the characters think, and we can almost see their brains ticking while trying to save themselves and make the right decision, whatever the price. The situations are so extreme that it is impossible not to wonder what we would in those circumstances, but, on the other hand, the characters have such particular baggage that it is unlikely we would feel exactly the same as they and be compelled to do some of the things they do.
The characters have very few redeeming features, if any, although I won’t go into any detail to avoid possible spoilers. Readers who need to connect with the characters or have, at least, someone to root for, will find it a bit difficult here, but the plot and the reasons behind what happens are likely to keep most people sufficiently intrigued to keep going. I have said before that I don’t mind unlikeable characters as protagonists, and although I wouldn’t like to call any of the people in this book my friends, I was quite keen on reading about them and trying to guess what would happen next.
The ending worked for me. There is a note of disquiet that I feel suits the genre pretty well, but people who like neatly tied and wrapped stories where the world is put to rights, will not share my opinion.
I’d recommend this novel to people who enjoy Nordic thrillers, especially those with few protagonists and who prefer stand-alone stories. I enjoyed The Darkness much more, as it is a more complex book, not so driven by the plot, but I am sure this won’t be the last of Jónasson’s novels I’ll read.
Thanks to the publisher and to NetGalley for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, keep smiling and keep cool! Take care!
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