I bring you the review of a boxed set today, 5 full-length novels, so, as you can imagine, it’s going to be long, so you’ve been warned. It’s a fantastic collection though, so you might want to read on.
No Woman is an Island: Inspiring and Empowering International Women (Pandora’s Boxed Set) by Liza Perrat (@LizaPerrat), Linda Gillard, Lorna Fergusson, Clare Flynn, Helena Halme
Together for the first time: award-winners and trail-blazers. Five international women authors showcase five unforgettable novels.
Blood Rose Angel, by Liza Perrat
1348, France. A bone-sculpted angel and the woman who wears it––heretic, Devil’s servant, saint.
Despite her bastardy, Héloïse has earned respect in the French village of Lucie-sur-Vionne for her midwifery and healing skills. Then the Black Death sweeps into France.
Hidden, by Linda Gillard
A birth. A death. Hidden for a hundred years.
1917.“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.” When Miranda Norton inherits Myddleton Mote and its art collection she is haunted by the dark secrets of a woman imprisoned in a reckless marriage.
The Chase, by Lorna Fergusson
The past will hunt you down.
Gerald Feldwick tells his wife Netty that in France they can put the past behind them. Alone in an old house, deep in the woods of the Dordogne, Netty is not so sure.
Netty is right.
The Chalky Sea, by Clare Flynn
July 1940. When bombs fall, the world changes for two troubled people.
Gwen knows her husband might die in the field but thought her sleepy English seaside town was safe. Amid horror and loss, she meets Jim Armstrong, a soldier far from the cosy life of his Ontario farm. Can war also bring salvation?
Coffee and Vodka, by Helena Halme
Eeva doesn’t want to remember, but in Finland she must face her past.
‘In Stockholm, everything is bigger and better.’ Her Pappa’s hopes for a better life in another country adjust to the harsh reality but one night, Eeva’s world falls apart. Thirty years later, Eeva needs to know what happened.
About the authors:
Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years.
When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living with her husband and three children for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator, and as a novelist.
Several of her short stories have won awards, notably the Writers Bureau annual competition of 2004 and her stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Magazine and France Today.
Spirit of Lost Angels is the first in the historical “The Bone Angel” series set against a backdrop of rural France during the French Revolution. The second in the series, Wolfsangel, set during the WWII German Occupation of France, was published in October, 2013. The third in the series, Blood Rose Angel, set during the 14th century Black Plague years was published in November, 2015.
The Silent Kookaburra, a domestic noir, psychological suspense novel set in 1970s Australia, was published in November, 2016. The second in this Australian family drama series, The Swooping Magpie, was published in October, 2018. The third in this series, The Lost Blackbird, was published in August, 2020.
Friends & Other Strangers is a collection of award-winning short stories from Downunder.
Liza is available for virtual book club visits (via Skype) upon request.
Linda Gillard lives in North Lanarkshire, Scotland. She’s the author of nine novels, including STAR GAZING (Piatkus), shortlisted in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and The Robin Jenkins Literary Award for writing that promotes the Scottish landscape.
Linda’s fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE became a Kindle bestseller. It was selected by Amazon as one of their Top Ten Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category.
In 2019 Amazon’s Lake Union imprint re-published THE TRYSTING TREE as THE MEMORY TREE and it became a #1 Kindle bestseller.
Lorna Fergusson was born in Scotland and lives in Oxford with her husband and two sons. She runs Fictionfire Literary Consultancy and for many years has also taught creative writing, including at the University of Winchester’s Writers’ Festival and for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education’s various writing programmes. Her novel ‘The Chase’ was originally published by Bloomsbury and is now republished by Fictionfire Press on Kindle and as a paperback. Her stories have won an Ian St James Award, been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. Her chapter on Pre-writing appears in ‘Studying Creative Writing’, published by The Professional and Higher Partnership. Her story, ‘Reputation’, a finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s short story prize 2012, appears in the e-anthology ‘The Beggar at the Gate’. She is working on a collection of historical stories and a novel, the opening of which won Words with Jam Magazine’s First Page competition in 2014. Also in 2014, she won the Historical Novel Society’s London 2014 Short Story Award with her story ‘Salt’, which now appears in the Historical Novel Society’s anthology ‘Distant Echoes’.
Historical novelist Clare Flynn is a former global marketing director and business owner. She now lives in Eastbourne on the south coast of England and most of her time these days is spent writing her novels – when she’s not gazing out of her windows at the sea.
Clare is the author of twelve novels and a short story collection. Her books deal with displacement – her characters are wrenched away from their comfortable existences and forced to face new challenges – often in outposts of an empire which largely disappeared after WW2.
Her latest novel, A Painter in Penang, was published on 6th October 2020. It is set in Malaysia in 1948 during the Malayan Emergency.
Clare’s novels often feature places she knows well and she does extensive research to build the period and geographic flavour of her books. A Greater World – 1920s Australia; Kurinji Flowers – pre-Independence India; Letters from a Patchwork Quilt – nineteenth century industrial England and the USA; The Green Ribbons – the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century in rural England, The Chalky Sea – World War II England (and Canada) and its sequels The Alien Corn and The Frozen River – post WW2 Canada. She has also published a collection of short stories – both historical and contemporary, A Fine Pair of Shoes and Other Stories.
Fluent in Italian, she loves spending time in Italy. In her spare time she likes to quilt, paint and travel as often and as widely as possible. She is an active member of the Historical Novel Society, the Romantic Novelists Association, The Society of Authors, and the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Get a free copy of Clare’s exclusive short story collection, A Fine Pair of Shoes, at www.clareflynn.co.uk
Helena writes Nordic fiction with a hint of both Romance and Noir. Her latest series, Love on the Island, is set on the quirky and serenely beautiful Åland Islands filled with tourists in the summer and covered by snow and ice in winter.
Prize-winning author, former BBC journalist, bookseller, and magazine editor, Helena Halme holds an MSc in Marketing and an MA in Creative Writing. Full-time author and self-publishing coach, Helena also acts as Nordic Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors and has published twelve Nordic fiction titles and three nonfiction books.
Apart from writing stories, Helena is addicted to Nordic Noir and dances to Abba songs when nobody’s watching.
You can find more about Helena and her books on www.helenahalme.com, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)
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 authors for this opportunity.
I am known for my long reviews, but I’ll try to provide brief reviews for each one of the novels that compose the boxed set, which comes with my highest recommendation.
Blood Rose Angel, by Liza Perrat.
I read and reviewed this novel in full a while back, and you can read my original review, here.
For the sake of briefness, I include few paragraphs below:
This is the third novel in the series The Bone Angel. We are in Lucie-sur-Vionne, France, 1348. The whole series is set in the same location and follows the characters of the female line of a family who are linked by their midwifery skills (or wish to care for others) and by the passing of a talisman, the bone angel of the title. All the women of the series feel a strange connection to this angel (whose story/legend we hear, first- hand, in this book) and to each other, although this novel is, so far, the one set further back in the past, and at a very momentous time (like all the others). The Black Death decimated a large part of the world population and this novel offers us the perspective of the people who lived through it and survived to tell the tale.
Midwife Héloïse is the main character, a strong woman, dedicated and caring, who has had a troubled and difficult childhood, and whose vocation gets her into plenty of difficulties.
The novel’s plot is fascinating and as good as any historical fiction I have read. History and fiction blend seamlessly to create a story that is gripping, emotionally satisfying, and informative. Even when we might guess some of the twists and turns, they are well-resolved, and the ending is satisfying. The life of the villagers is well observed, as is the relationship between the different classes, the politics of the era, the role of religion, the power held by nobles and the church, the hypocrisy, superstition, and prejudice, and the social mores and roles of the different genders. The descriptions of the houses, clothing, medical and midwifery procedures, and the everyday life are detailed enough to make us feel immersed in the era without slowing down the plot, that is a page turner in its own right. I particularly enjoyed the sense of community (strongly dominated by women) and the optimism that permeates the novel, showing the strength of the human spirit even in the hardest of circumstances. The author includes a glossary at the end that explains the words no longer in use that appear in the novel and also provides background information on the Black Death and the historical figures that grace its pages. Although it is evident that the book involved a great deal of research, this is flawlessly weaved into the story and adds to the feeling of authenticity.
Although part of a series, the novel can be read as a stand alone (although I recommend the rest as well).
Another great novel by Liza Perrat and one of my favourites. I will not forget it in a hurry and I hope to keep reading more novels by the author. I recommend it to readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the era, the Black Death, and medical techniques of the time, readers of women’s fiction, and anybody looking for great characters and a writer to follow.
Hidden, by Linda Gillard
This is the first novel I read by Linda Gillard, and, to save you time, in case you’re in a hurry, I can tell you I’ve added her name to my list of authors to watch out for.
This historical novel is also a dual-time story, combining a contemporary chronological timeline (set in 2018) following Miranda Norton, a woman who inherits a beautiful building from a famous father she never knew, and decides to move in with her whole family (her mother, her adult pregnant daughter and son-in-law and her twin teenage sons) to make ends meet, and the story of a previous owner, Esme Howard, a painter whose family had lived in the house for generations, who after several losses during the Great War, makes a decision that will have drastic consequences for all involved. Her story takes place from 1917 until the very end of the war, and there are all kinds of links and connections between the two stories, and even a touch of the paranormal.
Myddleton Mote, the property that links both time periods and sets of characters, becomes a protagonist in its own right, and there is something of the Gothic romance in the story, with multitudes of secrets, forbidden love stories, people being kept prisoner, losses and bereavements, hidden rooms, mysterious findings, rumours and disappearances, heroes and villains, some unexplained events (a ghost, perhaps), and even a moat. These are not the only themes touched upon by the novel. Women in abusive relationships take a central role in both stories, but there is also plenty of information about life during WWI, shell shock and the experience of returning soldiers, the world of art, especially for female painters, and also the feelings of grief, guilt, and sacrifice. It is a grand melodrama, and there are moments that are very sad and emotional, although the novel also contains its light and happy moments.
The story is divided up in three parts: the first and the third one are told in the first person by Miranda, and the second one narrates the story of Esme in the third person, although the narration moves between the different characters, giving readers a chance to become better acquainted not only with what happens, but also with the feelings and state of mind of the main characters (Esme; Guy, her husband; and Dr Brodie; although we also get to follow some of the others, like wonderful Hanna, the maid who plays a fundamental part in the story). Part one and two also contain fragments of Esme’s narrative, in the first person, of her own story. That means that when we read part 2, we already have some inklings as to what has been going on, but we get the whole story ahead of Miranda, and everything fits into place.
I don’t want to go on and on, so I’ll just try and summarise. I loved the story. Some of the high points for me were: the relationships in Miranda’s extended family, and how well the different generations get on; the way the author handles the experience of domestic abuse/violence, including fascinating comparisons and parallels between the circumstances of two women separated by 100 years; the descriptions of London and the UK during WWI and the experiences of the people in the home front; shell-shock and how it affected soldiers during the war; I loved the descriptions of Esme’s creative process, her inspiration, and her paintings (which I could see in my mind’s eye), and also the true story of Baroque Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (which I am fascinated by), a woman deserving of much more attention than she has been given so far. I also enjoyed the mystery side of things and trying to piece the details of the story together, although, for me, Esme’s story, the house, and Miranda’s family were the winners.
I have mentioned the abuse the female characters suffer, and although this is mostly mental, it should come with a warning, as it is horrifying at times. Some of the descriptions of the experiences during the war are harrowing as well, and there is also illness to contend with. Notwithstanding that, I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. Any readers who love historical fiction set in the early XX century, particularly during WWI, in the UK, who are keen on mysterious houses, a good love story, and prefer stories told (mostly) from a female perspective, should check this one. Oh, and the ending is… as close to perfect as anyone could wish.
The Chase, by Lorna Fergusson
As was the case with the previous novel, Fergusson is a new author to me, although she is well known, especially for her short stories, and, in fact, this novel had been published by Bloomsbury years ago. That goes some way to explain why, although the structure of the book seemed to alternate between chapters set in different historical periods (from prehistory until WWII), and those telling the chronological story of a couple of Brits expats who move to France (to the Dordogne, the Périgord) trying to leave their tragic past behind, the main story is set in 1989 and at times it gives one pause to think how different things are today from that near past (many of the events and some of the storylines would be completely changed by the simple introduction of a mobile phone or the internet).
This novel will delight readers who love detailed descriptions of places, local culture, and food and drink, especially those who know or are thinking of visiting la Dordogne. Fergusson has a beautiful turn of phrase and manages to seamlessly incorporate some buildings and locations fruit of her imagination into the real landscape of the region, so effectively that I am sure those who have visited will wonder if they have missed some of the attractions as they read the book. Le Sanglier, the house Gerald Feldwick falls in love with and buys, in particular, is a great creation, and as we see the house mostly from (Annette) Netty’s point of view, we get a very strong sense of claustrophobia, of hidden and dark secrets that can blow-up at any minute, and of a malignant force at work, undermining her efforts to settle and forget (although she does not really want to forget, only to remember with less pain).
The author also manages to create a totally plausible community in the area, consisting mostly of expats, but also of some local farmers and even an aristocrat, and their interactions and the complex relationship between them add depth to the novel. Although the newcomers, the Feldwick, might appear ill-suited to the area, and we don’t get to know their reasons for the move until the story is quite advanced, the network of relationships established since their arrival has a profound impact on their lives.
This is a novel where the historical aspect is less evident than in the previous two, and it might not appear evident at first, although, eventually, the historical fragments (narrated in the third-person —like the rest of the novel— from the point of view of a big variety of characters from the various eras) fall into place and readers discover what links them to the story. Secrets from the present and the past coalesce and the influence of the region and its past inhabitants on the present come full circle.
The psychological portrayal of the main characters is powerful as well. Although I didn’t particularly warm up to any of them (it’s impossible not to feel for Netty, whose tragic loss and unresolved bereavement make her easy to sympathise with, but her behaviour and prejudices didn’t do much to endear her to me, personally. Gerald is less likeable, especially as we see him, most of the time, from Netty’s perspective, but the fragments narrated from his point of view make him more understandable, if not truly nice or appealing; and we only get to see the rest of character’s from the main protagonists’ perspectives), the fact that they all had positive and negative aspects to their personalities, the way they behaved and reacted to each other and to their plight (sometimes in a selfish way, sometimes irrationally, sometimes totally blinded to the world around them, sometimes obsessed, overbearing, and/or abusive…), gave them humanity and made them more rounded. These were not superheroes or insightful and virtuous individuals, perfect in every way, and although by the end of the story they’ve suffered heartbreak, disappointments, and have been forced to confront their worst fears, this is not a story where, as if by magic, they are totally enlightened and all their problems have disappeared. The ending is left quite open, and although some aspects of the story are resolved (in a brilliant way, in my opinion), others are left to our imagination.
I want to avoid spoilers, but I wanted to include any warnings and extra comments. The main storyline is likely to upset readers, especially those who have suffered tragic family losses recently, and I know the death of very young characters is a particularly difficult topic for many. There are also some scenes of violence and death of animals (it is not called The Chase for nothing), battles and death of adults as well (in the historical chapters), and an off-the-page rape scene. There are other sex scenes, but these are not very explicit either. There are some elements that might fall into the paranormal category, although other interpretations are also possible. On the other hand, I have mentioned the interest the novel has for people who have visited the Dordogne or would like to visit in the future; readers who are interested in embroidery, mythology, and history of the region will also have a field day; its treatment of bereavement is interesting and compelling; and I think all those elements would make it ideal for book clubs, as there is plenty to discuss and think about.
A complex and beautifully written story that is likely to get everybody siding with one of the main characters, and a great option for those who love to travel without leaving their armchairs.
The Chalky Sea, by Clare Flynn
Clare Flynn is a favourite author of many readers, and although this was the first of her novels I’ve read and reviewed, I am not surprised, as she is a fine writer, who combines a strong sense of place and historical detail (WWII, especially the home front experience in the UK, particularly in Eastbourne, East Sussex, a seaside resort in the South of England that was heavily bombed during the war), with characters who undergo many trials and challenges, remain strongly anchored in the era, and whose innermost thoughts and motivations we get to understand (even when we might have very little in common with them or their opinions and feelings).
The two main protagonists, Gwen and Jim, are totally different: Gwen is an upper-middle-class British woman, well-educated, married, who enjoys volunteering and helping out, but whose life is far from fulfilled, as she never had children, her husband spends long periods of time away, and that gets even worse when the war starts. Jim is a young Canadian farmer, engaged to be married and happy with his lot when we meet him (although feeling somewhat guilty for not enlisting), whose life takes a sudden turn for the worse, and ends up enlisting and being sent to England. Although initially their stories only seem to have in common the fact that the action takes place during WWII, most readers will suspect that the characters are meant to meet at some point. I don’t want to spoil the reading experience for anybody, but let’s say both of them meet in Eastbourne in the latter part of the war, and they help each other understand their experiences, and be ready for life after the war. Gwen has experienced many losses from a very young age and has never been encouraged to express herself or talk about her feelings, afraid that her love could be a curse to anybody she met. Jim is presented as kind and patient (sometimes unbelievably so), but despite his good qualities he is betrayed and abandoned repeatedly and doesn’t trust his own feelings anymore. There are many secondary characters that add a touch of realism and variety to the novel (some good, some bad, some mean, some somewhere in-between), and I particularly enjoyed the details about the home front realities during WWII, the tasks women engaged in (Gwen gets to play a bigger part in the war effort than she expected), and the descriptions of Eastbourne, as I lived there for a while and the level of detail made the story feel much closer and realistic.
The story is narrated in the third person, from the points of view of the two main characters, and the author writes beautifully about places and emotions, without getting lost in overdrawn descriptions or sidetracked by titbits of real information. The novel touches on many subjects beyond WWII: there are several love stories, legally sanctioned and not; the nature of family relationships; morality and what was considered ‘proper’ behaviour and the changes those concepts underwent due to the war; women’s work opportunities, their roles, and how they broadened during the war; prejudice and social class; the Canadian contribution to the UK war effort; miscarriages/abortions and their effects on women; childless marriages; the loss of a sibling; was destruction and loss of human lives… Some of them are dealt with in more detail than others, but I am sure most readers will find plenty of food for thought in these pages.
Although this is the first novel in a series, I found the ending extremely fitting and satisfying (quite neat, but I’m not complaining)! And, of course, those who want to know more will be happy to hear that there are two more books to deep into as soon as they’ve finished reading this one.
A great option for lovers of historical fiction set during WWII in the UK, particularly those with a keen interest in the home front. A novel that reminded me of Brief Encounter, with some touches of Graham Greene as well. Also recommended to Flynn’s many fans.
Coffee and Vodka, by Helena Halme
Both the author and the setting of part of the story were completely new to me. Nordic crime novels have become quite popular, and I have read some, and also watched some series set in the area (mostly Sweden and Denmark), but had never come across any Finnish literature, so I was quite intrigued by the last novel in the boxset.
This is another story set in the recent past, but in contrast with many of the other texts in this volume, it is a pretty personal one. The story is told in the first person by Evva, and the timeline is split up into two. One half of the story takes place in 1974, when Evva is only a teenager and her family migrates from Finland to Sweden; and the other half takes place thirty years later, in 2004, when she is in her early forties and has to go back to Finland (not having been there even for a visit in the meantime) because her beloved grandmother is dying. The chapters in the two timelines alternate (although sometimes we might read several chapters from the same era without interruption), building up to create a clear picture of what life was like before, and how things have moved on. This is another one of those novels that I sometimes call an adult coming-of-age story, although in this case, we have both. We see Evva as a young child having to face a traumatic move, leaving her friends and her grandmother behind and having to start again in a new country, having to learn a new language, and having to face a degree of prejudice, although that is far from the worse of her experience, as things at home are not good either, and the situation keeps getting worse. And then, in 2004, Evva discovers that some of her beliefs and her version of events might not be accurate, and that much information about her family has been kept hidden from her. Everybody seems to have tried to protect her from the truth, although she realises she has also contributed to this by refusing to face up to things and continuing to behave like a naive teenager, both with her close family and in her personal life.
The author captures well the era and the teenager’s feelings and voice, and although I have never visited Finland or Sweden, I got a strong sense of how living there might be. She also manages to structure the novel in such a way that we get to know and understand Evva (young Evva is much easier to empathise with than older Evva, although I liked the way she develops and grows during the novel) whilst getting a strong suspicion that she is missing a lot of the facts, and the two timelines converge to provide us a reveal that is not surprising for this kind of stories, but it is well done and beautifully observed and written. I particularly appreciated the understated tone of the funeral and the conversations between the family members, and the fact that despite their emotions, they all behaved like the grown-ups they are.
There are harsh moments, and although those take place mostly off the page, readers who prefer to totally avoid the subject of domestic violence should be warned.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a well-written family drama, especially those interested in new settings and Nordic literature, those who love stories set in the 1970s, and anybody who enjoys dual timelines, coming-of-age stories, and beautifully observed characters.
Thanks to Rosie and the authors for this wonderful collection, thanks to all of you for reading (especially today!), keep reading, reviewing, smiling, and above all, keep safe.