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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE INVINCIBLE MISS CUST: A NOVEL Penny Haw (@PennyHaw) A seamless and compelling work of historical fiction telling the story of a fascinating woman #RBRT

Hi all:

I bring you another one of the books from Rosie’s Book Review Team. This one helped me discover the story of a woman I had never heard of. And it is a great story.

The Invincible Miss Cust by Penny Haw

The Invincible Miss Cust: A Novel by Penny Haw

Aleen Cust has big dreams. And no one—not her family, society, or the law—will stop her.

Born in Ireland in 1868 to an aristocratic English family, Aleen knows she is destined to work with animals, even if her family is appalled by the idea of a woman pursuing a veterinary career. Going against their wishes but with the encouragement of the guardian assigned to her upon her father’s death, Aleen attends the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh, enrolling as A. I. Custance to spare her family the humiliation they fear. At last, she is on her way to becoming a veterinary surgeon! Little does she know her biggest obstacles lie ahead.

The Invincible Miss Cust is based on the real life of Aleen Isabel Cust, who defied her family and society to become Britain and Ireland’s first woman veterinary surgeon. Through Penny Haw’s meticulous research, riveting storytelling, and elegant prose, Aleen’s story of ambition, determination, family, friendship, and passion comes to life. It is a story that, even today, women will recognize, of battling patriarchy and an unequal society to realize one’s dreams and pave the way for other women in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

https://www.amazon.es/Invincible-Miss-Cust-Novel-English-ebook/dp/B09NQR1NPP/

https://www.amazon.com/Invincible-Miss-Cust-Novel-ebook/dp/B09NQR1NPP/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Invincible-Miss-Cust-Novel-ebook/dp/B09NQR1NPP/

Author Penny Haw 

About the author:

Penny Haw is the author of The Invincible Miss Cust, a work of historical fiction based on the life of Britain and Ireland’s first woman veterinary surgeon; The Wilderness Between Us, winner of the WFWA 2022 Star Award in the general category; and a children’s book called Nicko, The Tale of a Vervet Monkey on an African Farm. Before turning to fiction, she was a journalist and columnist with bylines in many of South Africa’s leading newspapers and magazines. She lives near Cape Town.

https://www.amazon.com/Penny-Haw/e/B0759SRC4W/

My review:

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.

This is the first time I come across this author; she is a journalist and has published other works of fiction before, but this is her first book in the historical fiction category. She has chosen a fascinating topic, and her touch when it comes to making use of her research is pretty light. In the author’s note she includes at the end of the book (where she also clarifies what is factual and what is not in this novel about Aleen Cust, the first woman veterinary surgeon in Britain and Ireland) she says that, for her, the best historical fiction is that where a reader cannot tell where the facts end and where the imagination of the author starts, and she manages that in her debut in the genre. The novel contains more factual information than I thought as I was reading it (some of it I found quite surprising, although perhaps not so much the more I thought about it), this being a case where reality is more incredible than fiction.

The story follows the life of the protagonist, from a young age, in Ireland, which she misses terribly when she has to leave due to her father’s death, and we see her grow, be educated with her brothers, become interested in animals (like her paternal grandmother), and decide that she would like to become a veterinary surgeon. Queen Victoria was very old-fashioned in her ideas about gender equality, especially in her old age, and although women had started attending university (in Edinburgh) to become physicians, becoming a vet seemed an even worse idea for a woman, because according to the establishment it was more immoral, less dignified, and less suited to the “weaker” sex. She faces pretty tough opposition, at home with her family and in society at large, and it does take quite a few lucky coincidences, some male support, and an iron determination, to get as far as the university. And even then, the obstacles appear unsurmountable at times.

Women’s rights, Victorian conceptions of morality and the role of women in Victorian society, the situation in Ireland, the role social class plays in one’s future, the importance of reputation and how much that weighs and rules personal decisions (at least at that time), familial bonds (real families and created or chosen families), religion, prejudice, animals and their care, advancements in veterinarian science, friendship, ambition, love… Those are some of the themes we find in this novel. And for those who wonder, there is romance as well, although, as with everything else in Miss Cust’s life, a somewhat unusual one.

Aleen is the protagonist, and she tells us the story in the first person, so we are direct witnesses of what goes through her head, of her frustration, her determination, and her iron will, but also of her hesitation, her attempts at ingratiating and reconciling herself with her family, always trying to make them understand and see things from her perspective. She is trapped between trying not to disappoint her family or inconvenience them (as two of them have a connection to the royal family), and at the same time fulfilling her life’s vocation. Although this makes for a frustrating read at times, and I think most readers will feel the need to shake her and tell her to forget her family at times, it also feels realistic and appropriate to the era. There have always been historical figures who seemed to have been ahead of their time, but this is not a woman who grew in an enlightened or liberal family with progressive ideas, and she is presented as somebody who couldn’t see why women couldn’t study or do the same things as men, but she didn’t necessarily want to totally change the social order, and she mostly tried to avoid calling attention to herself, especially in the early part of her career. Some aspects of her personality are difficult to understand from our perspective, but she is not a woman of our time, and she achieved great goals, although perhaps more quietly than some of her better-known contemporaries.

There are plenty of other characters in the novel, and also, as you can imagine, plenty of animals. Some of the people are portrayed in more detail than others, especially those who had a great impact on Aleen’s life, and I particularly liked her friend Dorothy, who is always supportive (and whose personality is also pretty peculiar). Dorothy’s parents and her brother also play a major part in the story, and, in some ways, behave more as a family toward her than her real family. They encourage her and help her, in contrast with her own family, who never, not even once (apart from her brother Orlando) put her happiness and her wishes first. That is never a consideration for them. Professor William Williams is also a great character and somebody fundamental in getting Aleen to finally become a vet, there is Willie Byrne, the veterinary surgeon, in Ireland, who gives her a chance to practice, and whose role is much more than that (but you’ll have to read about that). Her family, by contrast, I found very difficult to warm to. Their attitude is understandable, perhaps, given the historical time and their position, but not everybody behaved the same way, and, let’s just say they were not my favourite characters. She meets many others who help or hinder her, although none of them manage to stop her. Of course, this is all from her perspective, although the author includes extracts from real documents, articles, letters, etc., and that gives us a pretty accurate picture of what kinds of prejudices and opinions she had to fight.

I have mentioned animals, and animal lovers will enjoy this book (although there are some scary moments as well). The author explains that one of her friends is an Irish retired vet, and his assistance was invaluable in making sure the book was accurate when it came to both, veterinary procedures and science, and also to the descriptions of Ireland. I enjoyed this aspect of the book very much, and I felt the author reflects well the protagonist’s interest, as she spends more time looking and talking about animals and procedures than she does about people.

The book follows the story of Miss Cust in chronological order, although it does not get us to the very end of her life, and there are some small jumps forward, focusing on the most relevant aspects of her story. This is not a book full of descriptions of clothes, accommodation, habits, and customs, and, in that sense, it is perhaps thinner in detail than some other works of historical fiction, but because the story is told in the first person by a character whose interests are not those, it is not surprising. Aleen makes some observations and reflects upon certain aspects of life that will give readers pause and make them wonder what life must have been like in those conditions, but those who prefer a story that doesn’t stray from the main plot and the action and does not go into unnecessary details will feel right at home. This does not mean that the author’s writing is not compelling, and there are some lyrical and beautiful moments, especially when the protagonist is contemplating nature and admiring animals (well, and some men as well). No complex terminology is employed, and people not familiar with veterinary science don’t need to worry about that.

The book also includes, apart from the author’s note, a bibliography for those who might want to dig deeper into the biography of Miss Cust and the people around her (although the author’s summary of the factual information contained in the novel is very informative), a set of questions for book clubs (and this book would be perfect for book clubs, as there is much to discuss), and the acknowledgments. I recommend reading all those as well, especially for those who like to learn how a book came into being, and the process involved.

This is a great read, about an actual historical figure I knew nothing about, a determined woman, whose life is fascinating, with all its contradictions and its complications. Her achievements are inspiring, and anybody interested in women’s history, especially in Britain and Ireland, in the Victorian period, animal lovers, the history of veterinary science, and anybody who likes a well-written book with a strong protagonist whose life is extraordinary will enjoy this novel. Also recommended to book clubs. I look forward to Penny Haw’s future projects.

Thanks to the author, to Rosie and the members of her team for their ongoing support, and, most of all, thanks to you all for reading, sharing, liking, for always being there. Keep smiling!

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog SISTERS AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by Ailish Sinclair (@AilishSinclair) Sisterhood, ancient Scottish history and plenty of poetry and magic #RBRT

Hi all:

I bring you a book by an author I’ve been intrigued by for a very long time, because of the many fans she has on Rosie’s Book Review Team, and I finally got to read one of her books. It was quite an experience.

Sisters at the Edge of the World by Ailish Sinclair

SISTERS AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by Ailish Sinclair

When Morragh speaks to another person for the very first time, she has no idea that he is an invader in her land.

What she does next constitutes a huge betrayal of her people, threatening her closest relationships and even her way of life itself.

As the conflict between the Caledonian tribes and the Roman Sons of Mars intensifies, can she use her high status in the community to lessen the coming death toll or even prevent outright war?

Set in 1st century Northern Scotland, SISTERS AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD is a story of chosen sisters, fierce warriors, divided loyalties and, ultimately, love.

 https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Edge-World-Ailish-Sinclair-ebook/dp/B0BBH5QS1Y/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sisters-Edge-World-Ailish-Sinclair-ebook/dp/B0BBH5QS1Y/

https://www.amazon.es/Sisters-at-Edge-World-English-ebook/dp/B0BBH5QS1Y/

Author Ailish Sinclair

About the author:

Ailish Sinclair trained as a dancer and taught dance for many years, before working in schools to help children with special needs. A short stint as a housekeeper in a castle fired her already keen interest in untold stories of the past and she sat down to research and write.

She now lives beside a loch with her husband and two children where she still dances and writes and eats rather a lot of chocolate.

 https://www.amazon.com/Ailish-Sinclair/e/B07XCCJ8P3/

https://ailishsinclair.com/

My review:

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.

I have read many glowing reviews of Ailish Sinclair’s previous books, and when I saw this one, I thought it was my chance to finally get to read one of them. I must confess to not remembering the exact details when I started to read the story, and I found it a pretty unique reading experience.

Morragh, the main protagonist, doesn’t talk at the beginning of the story (we don’t know if she can’t or chooses not to), at least she doesn’t talk to other people, but she communicates with gods, animals, and can see the future, We know all that because the story is narrated in the first person, from her point of view, and that gives the story a special feel, as she doesn’t experience things as most of us do. Reality, dreams, and visions of the past and the future (her own and others’) are all one for her, and she doesn’t always know when she is being herself or when she is being inhabited by the goddess. The language is poetic, made up of impressions and abstract images, and I felt as if I was in the middle of an ancient world I didn’t know the rules of, witnessing something momentous but alien. Her relationship with her sister (Onnagh) —who is not her biological sister but rescued her from a tragic fate— is one of the strengths of the book for me. I loved the bond between these chosen sisters, because, despite their closeness, they don’t always see things the same way. There are conflicts, moments when they don’t understand each other, and moments of anger and disappointment, but, ultimately, theirs is the strongest relationship in the book, as the beautiful title indicates.

Morragh learns much during the book, about love, about men, the importance of speaking, and the trade-off of communicating and interacting with the larger community, as there is something to be gained and something to be lost by changing her ways. Ultimately, though, she does what she thinks is right and necessary, even if it doesn’t always seem wise or advisable. Being her (as we know because we are inside her head) is not easy, and that is what makes her, her decisions, and her actions, such an extraordinary character.

The description of the book contains enough details of the plot, so I won’t add too much to it. There are quiet and contemplative moments when Morragh reflects, thinks, chats to her sister and peers, meets new people… and there are also rites, battles, fleeing, tragedy, and plenty of drama for those who love action, although they are not what fans of most historical fiction would expect. This is not an objective account full of detailed descriptions of clothes, strategies, and locations, as if the reader was an observer watching everything from the sideline, but a whirlwind of impressions, thoughts, and feelings, as if one was suddenly dropped in the middle of the battle. And some of the events take on a magical and mythological quality that adds much to the story but are not the usual fare of narrowly-defined historical fiction.

I am not very familiar with Celt folklore and mythology or ancient Scottish history, so although I enjoyed the story, I was grateful for the historical note the author includes at the end of the book. It clarifies which parts of the novel are based on historical fact, giving readers the opportunity to explore that era of Scottish history further if they are interested, and it provides locations for those keen to visit Aberdeenshire. I also enjoyed her comments about the process of creating the novel. Having read it, I can easily understand why it took her so long to write and publish it. The melding of the magical, mythological, historical, fictional, and, especially, emotional elements of the story, require a special kind of talent. And plenty of time and work.

There is much pain, death, loss, and destruction in this novel, but there is also plenty of love, loyalty, a sense of community, dedication, self-sacrifice, generosity, a sense of duty… There are moments of joy and very sad moments too, but, in my opinion, the sense of wonder and hope prevails, and I loved the ending.

Here are a few fragments of the novel, although I recommend checking a sample of the book to be sure the style suits the reader’s taste. 

She did not get to be a child, my dear sister. Not after she saved m. And I am so sad for this. Onnagh should have been carefree and full of joy and fun and had someone to care for her too. 

We cannot go back. Not ever. And nor should we. We can learn from the past, but we must only ever create the new. Water flows ever on. As do we.

And we all change.

 The small metal discs are shiny with the heads of men who have been made important on them. These are the men who play games of war and conquest. But these are not the men who will fight or die in those games. There we differ from Rome. Our leaders will be among us in the fullness of the fray. The heads on these coins? They will stay in their grand and shiny stone houses, eating the oily little fruits that I have come to love. These metal men are not in any danger.

 From some of the reviews I’ve read, I understand that the book is set in the same location as some of the author’s previous novels, but not having read any of them, at times I missed having access to more standard descriptions of the places and the people who play a part in the story, but, in all fairness, I don’t think it would have suited the style of writing, which at times reminded me of stream of thought, especially when Morragh was experiencing unusual events.

I cannot compare this novel to others by the author, but I am pretty sure her fans will enjoy this story as much or even more than the previous ones, and those who are looking for a strong females protagonist, love lyrical and expressive writing styles, and favour stories with a touch of magic and ancient mythology, particularly set in Scotland, should put it on their list. They are bound to discover a new author to follow, and a protagonist they’ll never forget.

Thanks to the author, to Rosie, and to all the members of her team for their support, thanks to all of you for reading and always being there. Remember to stay safe, to do whatever makes you happy, and to always keep smiling. 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE SHADOW OF THE MOLE by Bob Van Laerhoven (@bobvanlaerhoven) A dark and beautiful novel set during WWI that explores the depths of people’s minds and souls #literaryfiction #WWI

Hi all:

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

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

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Mole-Bob-Van-Laerhoven-ebook/dp/B09RTTK28K/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadow-Mole-Bob-Van-Laerhoven-ebook/dp/B09RTTK28K/

https://www.amazon.es/Shadow-Mole-English-Bob-Laerhoven-ebook/dp/B09RTTK28K/

Author Bob Van Laerhoven
Author Bob Van Laerhoven

About the author:

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.

DEBUT

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.

AVID TRAVELLER

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.

MASS MURDERS

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.

MULTIFACETED OEUVRE

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.”

https://www.amazon.com/Bob-Van-Laerhoven/e/B00JP4KO76/

My review:

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.

 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog DREAM TOWN (ALOYSIUS ARCHER SERIES BOOK 3) by David Baldacci (@davidbaldacci) (@panmacmillan) A solid, well-written and complex mystery with a good dose of 1050s historical detail

Hi all:

I bring you a novel by a best-selling author you all know. I read one of his books recently, and I thought I tried another one. I think I enjoyed this one a little bit more, even though it is the third in a series, but it can be read as a standalone.

Dream Town by David Baldacci

DREAM TOWN (ALOYSIUS ARCHER SERIES BOOK 3) by David Baldacci

Private Investigator and WWII veteran, Aloysius Archer, returns to solve a new case in Hollywood in this riveting thriller from international number 1 bestselling author, David Baldacci.

All that glitters . . .
1952, Los Angeles. It is New Year’s Eve and PI Aloysius Archer is dining with his friend and rising Hollywood actress Liberty Callahan when they’re approached by Eleanor Lamb, a screenwriter who would like to hire him, as she suspects someone is trying to kill her.

Murder and mystery
A visit to Lamb’s Malibu residence leaves Archer knocked unconscious after he stumbles over a dead body in the hallway; and Lamb seems to have vanished. With the police now involved in the case, a close friend and colleague of Lamb’s employs Archer to find out what’s happened to the screenwriter.

The City of Angels – or somewhere much, much darker?
Archer’s investigation takes him from the rich, glamorous and glitzy LA to the seedy, dark side of the city, and onward to the gambling mecca of Las Vegas, just now hitting its stride as a hot spot for celebrities and a money-making machine for the mob. In a place where cops and crooks work hand in hand, Archer will cross paths with Hollywood stars, politicians and notorious criminals. He’ll almost die several times, and he’ll discover bodies and secrets from the canyons and beaches of Malibu and the luxurious mansions of Bel Air and Beverly Hills to the narcotics clubs of Chinatown.

With the help of Liberty and his PI partner Willie Dash, Archer will risk everything and leave no stone unturned in finding the missing Eleanor Lamb, and in bringing to justice killers who would love nothing better than to plant Archer six feet under.

 https://www.amazon.com/Dream-Town-Aloysius-Archer-Book-ebook/dp/B09HQX4N8R/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dream-Town-Aloysius-Archer-Book-ebook/dp/B09HQX4N8R/

https://www.amazon.es/Dream-Town-Aloysius-Archer-English-ebook/dp/B09HQX4N8R/

Author David Baldacci

About the author:

David Baldacci has been writing since childhood, when his mother gave him a lined notebook in which to write down his stories. (Much later, when David thanked her for being the spark that ignited his writing career, she revealed that she’d given him the notebook to keep him quiet, “because every mom needs a break now and then.”)

David published his first novel, ABSOLUTE POWER, in 1996. A feature film followed, with Clint Eastwood as its director and star. In total, David has published 44 novels for adults; all have been national and international bestsellers and several have been adapted for film and television. His novels have been translated into over 45 languages and sold in more than 80 countries, with 150 million copies sold worldwide. David has also published seven novels for younger readers.

David is also the cofounder, along with his wife, of the Wish You Well Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting literacy efforts across the United States.

https://www.amazon.com/David-Baldacci/e/B000AQ0STC/

My review:

I thank NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

I read Baldacci’s Zero Day a while back, and I said that I was likely to try another one of his books at some point, and after seeing this novel featured and commented upon in several places, I decided to read it. A detective novel set in the early 1950s in Los Angeles promised to be interesting. And I can confirm that Dream Town delivers. In summary, this is a solidly plotted and well-written novel, with plenty of twists, turns and red herrings, providing beautifully observed historical nuggets of the place, the era, and especially of 1950s Hollywood, with a likeable and morally strong hero, and a varied cast of interesting secondary characters. Although with plenty of touches of noir, it reminded me more of the detective novels of the 1930s, and I tend to agree with a review that mentioned Philip Marlowe, down to the clever retorts and especially the moments of insight and reflection Archer, the P.I. protagonist, shares.

I won’t discuss the author in detail, as he is too well-known for that. Much of what I wrote in my previous review of one of his novels applies to this one as well. I didn’t realise when I requested this novel that it was, in fact, the third novel in a series about Archer, but I can confirm that it is not necessary to have read the previous two to enjoy this one. I am sure readers who have will be more clued to the nuances of Archer’s relationship with his partner, Willie Dash, and with his female friend, Liberty Callahan, although it is true that this book seems to represent something of a crisis point for Archer, I won’t say too much about that, to avoid spoilers. I mentioned above having checked some reviews, and it seems that there isn’t agreement on how this novel compares to the rest of the series. Some readers think this is the strongest of the three, while others enjoyed the first two more, but it seems this relates to the setting, to the ending, and, as always, it is a matter of personal choice more than any specific flaw of the novel itself.

This is a novel with many subplots and plenty of characters, and it is difficult to describe what happens beyond the blurb provided above, not only to avoid spoilers but also because of the many strands Baldacci weaves into this spiderweb of a story. The subplots cover many themes we would expect of novels set in that period, particularly in L.A.: Hollywood, the film industry, and how it worked; the Cold War; contraband, drugs, and a variety of other crimes; police corruption (it made me think of a non-fiction book set in Compton a few decades later that I reviewed recently); Las Vegas, gambling debts and the mafia; gender and power relations in the era (a single woman could not get a mortgage without the signature of a man, it seems, no matter how solid her financial situation); the nuclear era and the fear of the bomb; property speculation; the fate of WWII veterans, and many more. Not all of them are developed in detail, but they are well-integrated into the story and give the novel plenty of backbone.

The story is told in the third person from Archer’s point of view, and he is an acute and detailed observer. I had mentioned in my previous review that some readers might find the descriptions (of rooms, places, people, even gestures and facial expressions) a bit too much, but I am sure fans won’t mind, and most of those paragraphs were original and vivid, managing to create a clear (and sometimes humorous) image in one’s mind. There is plenty of action and adventures; Archer moves about a fair bit and gets a beating or two as well. This is not a protagonist-hero as superman, who never puts a foot wrong, and in fact, he is lucky to get off unscathed (or with only a few bruises) considering the situations he ends up in. Thankfully, some people have his back, and although this is a novel full of deceitful characters, betrayals, and two-timing scoundrels, there are also upstanding friends and associates of Archer, and that makes it quite different from some of the noir novels of the period, as those P.I.s tend to be less than exemplary and morally ambiguous, while Archer is… well, a bit of a Boy-Scout, and an honest man. I liked Archer’s friends as well, particularly Willie, his ersatz father, and Jake, a man who’d paid a heavy price for going after the bad guys, but I was also impressed by the number of female characters included in the novel. There are men as well, of course, and one of the baddies (perhaps the most typical one) is a man, but most of the important characters are female, and they are not only important to the development of the mystery itself, but they all have their own lives and professions, and that makes them quite remarkable for the period. They are not all good or bad either, but that is to be expected, and I enjoyed that aspect of the novel in particular.

This book takes its time to build up the story and the characters, and in that, it has more in common with classics of the genre than with some of the frantic page-turning thrillers we are more used to reading these days. I did not mind at all, as I enjoyed the writing style, the background, and the detours Archer took us on, and I think it helped with the mystery as well, as most readers will have time to come up with their own hypothesis as to what is going on, but there are so many strands to the story that most people will find one or two surprises along the way. Did I like the ending? Yes, I did. I have mentioned that this book seems to represent a crisis point, or rather, a big change for Archer and his career, and I felt that worked well, although I understand why some people might have hoped for a more conventional all-around “happy” ending.

Readers can always check a sample to see if the writing style suits their taste, but I decided to share a few random quotes, to give you a bit of a taster.

Here a character is talking to Archer about a movie project and a particular director:

No way in hell Bette Davis is letting Danny direct her. It would be like Lassie directing Brando, and that’s an insult, actually, to the dog.

One of the women I mentioned says this:

No one ever assumes the wives in this town have anything to do other than dress nicely, stay skinny, not dribble what little food we do eat down our fronts, and never, ever drink as much as our husbands, at least in public.

Archer always liked to approach a problem from the rear. He had learned in the war that frontal assaults made generals look heroic, but made their soldiers simply dead.

I recommend this novel to people who enjoy historical detective novels set in the 1950s, particularly in L.A., especially if they are fond of the classics of the genre, to fans of Baldacci, and to those who enjoy complex mysteries with strong characters and a descriptive and engaging writing style.

Thanks to NetGally, Pan Macmillan, and the author for this enjoyable novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling and encouraging others to read!

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog MURDER AT BUCKSKIN JOE. A NOVEL by J.v.L. Bell (@jvlbell) A cozy historical murder that is worth its weight in solid gold #RVRT #historicalfiction #cozymystery

Hi all:

I bring you a novel I truly enjoyed, which combines two fascinating genres, and it works very well, at least in my opinion. See what you think!

Muder at Buckskin Joe. A Novel by J.v.L. Bell

Murder at Buckskin Joe. A Novel by J.v.L. Bell

Territory of Colorado, 1865

Millie knows the raucous mining town of Buckskin Joe is no place for children, but when Dom’s Uncle George shows up needing help, the whole family reluctantly heads to South Park. George has been accused of murdering his mining partner, Wandering Will, and although Millie questions his innocence, she finds there are many suspects who wanted Will dead.

There’s fancy-girl Queeny, Will’s ex-wife, and dancehall-girl Kate, who wanted to be Will’s next wife—until he dumped her. Mountain man Kootenay despised Will enough to have dispatched him and the Odd Fellows have seized George and Will’s mine, claiming the gold inside for themselves.

Millie’s investigation heats up when Dom volunteers to visit the local saloon for some hands-on investigating of Queeny and Kate. Interruptions from hostile Utes, the children’s devilment, and the local schoolmistress chasing after Dom make this Millie’s most difficult investigation—especially when the killer decides she is getting too close.

Murder at Buckskin Joe weaves a cozy murder mystery with fascinating South Park mining history and lovable, unforgettable historic characters.

https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Buckskin-Joe-J-v-L-Bell-ebook/dp/B09G39199C/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09G39199C

https://www.amazon.es/Murder-at-Buckskin-Joe-English-ebook/dp/B09G39199C/

Author J.v.L. Bell

 About the author:

Author J.v.L. Bell is a Colorado native who grew up climbing 14,000 ft. mountains, exploring old ghost towns, and hiking in the deserts of Utah. Whenever possible, she and her family can be found hiking, rafting, or cross-country skiing.


https://www.amazon.com/J-v-L-Bell/e/B01KKX8WZQ/

www.JvLBell.com

 My review:

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.

Cozy mysteries can be a bit hit-and-miss for me, but this one, with the added attraction of the historical gold-mining background setting and the fabulous cast of characters, worked wonderfully for me, and I loved it. Even though this is the third book in a series, it can be read and enjoyed in its own right, as it does provide readers with all the relevant details needed to follow the story, although I confess I wouldn’t mind reading the two previous ones.

The description of the book is quite apt, although it can’t reflect the full catalogue of adventures and characters included in the novel. We have the fabulous background of the gold mining town (already running out of gold at the time of the story), with plentiful but well-integrated historical detail; we have the day-to-day drudgery of living in an outpost of “civilization” (a term I use fairly loosely here); we have the animals (I love Buttercup, the fainting goat, and don’t ask me to explain, but I am also fond of the burros [donkeys in Spanish], and even the bear… No, I’m not explaining that either); we have a sheriff who is a gifted baker (the characters aren’t the only ones drooling over his confectionery); we have secret and newly found relatives all around; we have ill-fated love stories, and others that seemed impossible but work out; we have Dom and Millie’s children, Rachel (oh, she is infuriating but such a fabulously realistic character and I love her to bits), and Hosa (who wouldn’t worry about a Navajo boy who lost his family but only wants to go back and fight against the white men?)… And, of course, we have Dom and Minnie. Minnie is the main character, and although the story is told in the third person, we see everything from her point of view, and it is impossible not to like her. I particularly enjoyed the fact that she is not a modern heroin transplanted to the past. Although she has her own ideas, she also hesitates, tries her hardest to conform to the norms (down to using etiquette books and all), and feels conflicted about her desire to investigate and what she feels is her duty towards her husband and children, and she is not perfect. She is daring and determined, rushed at times, but she can also be frightened and even phobic about certain situations. She doubts her own skills as a mother and questions herself, and that made her a true character rather than a caricature for me. Dom, her husband, is again not perfect. He supports her, is patient with her, and understands her, but he is not beyond making mistakes, trusting people he shouldn’t, and even turning on her when he gets anxious or scared. Yes, they do fight, and yes, they do love each other. It feels like a real marriage, with two people trying their hardest to make everything work in their highly unconventional family.

I have already mentioned some of the things I really liked about this novel. I enjoyed the way the characters are created because even those who don’t play big parts are not simple cut-outs. They all have their personalities, their distinctive features, and they all keep us guessing. I also like the historical note the author includes at the beginning of the novel. I have read historical novels where I spent most of the time wondering how much of what I was reading was based on fact and how much was creative license. Here, the author covers that at the very beginning, before we start reading, and although in her acknowledgments she talks about her sources and her process of creation in more detail, we are in no doubt as to what we are reading.

I also enjoyed that, despite the many things going on throughout the novel, the actual investigation is never too far away from the centre of the action, and although, evidently, this is not a police procedural novel where everything is highly scientific and all the details are accounted for, if we take into account the era and where the action takes place, the murder mystery works well, and I loved the slightly bittersweet ending as well.

The writing is dynamic, flows well, and it combines inner reflection and observation on the part of Millie with plenty of action scenes, which keep us turning the pages. There are many amusing moments, some scary ones as well, and the dialogues bring the characters to life and make them jump out off the page truly realised. We also learn about gold mining and about the era, its social mores and the way daily life was organised. The knowledge and research the author has done and her talent in combining a cozy murder mystery with a historical novel portraying the life in the second half of the XIX century in the Territory of Colorado shines through. It’s a winner.

I don’t really dislike anything about the book; I can only say that I hope there will be further adventures, and we’ll get to know what happened to some of the other characters we’ve met here. I am happy there are previous novels I can catch up on as well.

In summary, this is a fantastic novel. It is funny, it is informative, it is full to the brim with unforgettable characters, it has plenty of adventures, it contains historical information about gold mining that never impedes the flow of the story, and it includes adventures and action scenes to satisfy those who prefer stories that keep moving along at a good pace. And a fairly solid, if cozy, mystery. There are threats, scary moments, and even violence, although not extreme, and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys a good yarn. It’s solid gold.

Thanks to the author for this novel, thanks to Rosie and all the members of her team for their support, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and always keep smiling and keep safe!

Categories
Book review Book reviews Rosie's Book Review Team Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog Dark Hunter: A town under seige. A killer within by F.J. Watson #RBRT #historicalfiction

Hi all:

I bring another of the books I discovered thanks to Rosie’s Book Review Team, and although this is the first fiction book by the author, she is well known for her historical books and her work on TV.

Dark Hunger by F.J. (Fiona) Watson

Dark Hunter: A town under seige. A killer within by F.J. Watson

The year is 1317, and young squire Benedict Russell has joined the English-held garrison of Berwick-upon-Tweed after the spectacular Scottish victory at Bannockburn three years earlier.

Serious and self-doubting, he can’t wait for his time there to come to an end. Living on the disputed territory between Scotland and England is a precarious existence, and as the Scots draw ever closer and the English king does nothing to stop them, Benedict finds himself in a race against time to solve the brutal murder of a young girl and find the traitor who lurks within Berwick’s walls.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09QV7VZJT/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Hunter-F-J-Watson/dp/1846976111/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B09QV7VZJT/

Author F.J. (Fiona) Watson

Fiona Watson is a medieval historian and writer. She is the author of A History of Scotland’s Landscapes, Scotland from Prehistory to the Present, and, with Birlinn/ John Donald, Under the Hammer: Edward I and Scotland. She was the presenter of the BBC TV series In Search of Scotland.

Fiona lives in rural Perthshire.

 My review:

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.

I have never read any books by the author, but she is an expert in Scottish history and has written and talked about it often, and that is evident when reading this novel, that fits well in the historical fiction genre, with the added attraction of a mystery, the murder of a young woman, thrown in. The investigation of that murder would have been difficult enough in normal circumstances, but it becomes almost impossible in the trying and tense times Scotland, and particularly Berwick-upon-Tweed, are living through in the historical period the novel is set in.

I don’t want to discuss the plot in detail. I am not referring to what really happened during the siege of the city (that is easy to check, and the author doesn’t stray from the facts but puts plenty of flesh onto the bare bones that have reached us about the event), but to the mystery introduced by Watson. I don’t want to spoil the story for readers, and there are plenty of details that I feel need to be read to be appreciated, but I am pretty sure that most mystery readers would enjoy the story because although it is not conventional, they will recognise many of the elements of stories with amateur sleuths (a good observer, with no special training but clever, with particular talents to go beyond and see what others don’t, a keen eye for picking up clues and examining evidence, some very peculiar allies, some early forensic analysis of the scene of the crime, and even a cipher). But there are plenty of themes that play a part in the story and that will easily connect with all kinds of readers: doubts about one’s identity and profession (particularly relevant for the protagonist, a young man on the verge of adulthood); the difficulty in really knowing and understanding others (and not jumping to conclusions and judgements about those around us); how to go beyond appearances and listen to one’s heart; the importance of learning to accept our own priorities and ignoring other people’s opinions; issues of national identity, loyalty, duty…; conquerors and conquered and their relationship (changing at times), and particularly the way women are victimised and pay a big price in war situations (something we are all thinking about at the moment); the social differences of the period and how those dictated one’s fate…

There are many characters in this novel, and in some ways it made me think of Shakespeare’s historical plays, where there is a vast cast of characters with very complex relationships of power and influence between them. Here we have the same, with the complication of the added fictional characters. Although with so many characters it is impossible to get to know them all in-depth, the author’s skill in making us see things from the protagonist’s perspective means that it is difficult to tell apart the historical characters from those she has created for the story. Benedict is the perfect protagonist for this novel. He is an outsider, both to the situation and to the place, and that makes him the perfect guide for the reader, as we feel as puzzled and uncertain as he does. He is naïve and has little experience in soldiering and real life, as he was following religious studies before a family tragedy changed his fate and threw him in the middle of a dangerous and fairly alien situation. On the one hand, he is more educated than many of the men around him, even those in charge, and that gives him unique skills that help him solve the mystery and discover other behaviours far from exemplary. On the other, he is new to the politics and to the struggles for power that underpin many of the events that take place, and his view of army life and of the situation he finds himself plunged into, at least at the beginning of the story, is simplistic and unrealistic. He expects people to behave according to high moral standards, but he soon discovers those around him are only human beings and far from perfect, and the “enemies” are not big scary devils either. As the story is narrated in the first person and present tense from Benedict’s point of view, readers` opinions are coloured by his judgement, sometimes pretty quick and one-sided, and only get to appreciate the nuances of some of the other soldiers and inhabitants when the protagonist is confronted with evidence that contradicts his first opinion. To give him his due (and I did like Benedict because he is passionate and devoted to what he feels is his mission, and is willing to give a chance to people ignored by the good society), he is willing to acknowledge his mistakes, to change his point of view, and he is, at times, a good judge of character, even when that means going against general opinion. In her acknowledgements, the author describes Benedict as “priggish” and “naïve”, but she also refers to “his kindness and gentle spirit” and to a “less jaded view of the world” that reminds her of her son, and I cannot argue with that.

His love interest (and there is one, as there should be in a novel that is also a coming of age story) is, perhaps, my favourite character, and Lucy is fascinating and unusual for many reasons. It was refreshing to see a female protagonist (quite a few women appear in the story, although most don’t have big parts, as seems to be the case in many war stories) who isn’t conventionally beautiful but is irresistible nonetheless. The fact that she has to face many challenges, (other characters call her “a cripple”) but never bends to conventions or hides behind closed doors make her unique, although I have a soft spot for all the women in the novel, as they have to endure trials beyond those of the men, with little if any, acknowledgment.

Berrick-upon- Tweed plays a very important part in the novel, and it is more than a setting, as it does reflect the feelings and the changing fortunes of Scotland, England, and the people inside it, with its changing loyalties and sense of self. The author includes a map of the town with the main locations that play a part in the story, and that helps us better imagine the comings and goings of the characters and the intrigues that take place. (There was no cast of characters included in my copy, and I am not sure if that is to appear in the final version or the paperback copy, but I think it might be useful to readers to have a bit of added information about the characters, especially those based on real historical figures).

I enjoyed the writing. Apart from the first person present tense narration of most of the novel, the first chapter contains a brief fragment, in italics, told from a different point of view, whose meaning we don’t fully understand until much later in the story (but we might suspect from early on). There are descriptions of places, people, and everyday life that give us a good sense of what living in that period must have been like, and despite the tense atmosphere, there are lighter interludes as well. There are beautiful passages, some contemplative, reflective and poetic, and also some very tense and action-packed moments, although the rhythm of the novel, which takes place over a year, reflects well the seasons and the experience of the men at the garrison, with a lot of waiting, preparing and hanging around, and some frantic moments when all hell breaks loose. The alternating of quiet moments with fast-paced ones (and those become more frequent towards the end) accommodates well both, the historical events and the mystery, giving each enough time to develop. Mine was an ARC copy and there might be changes in the published version, but I share a couple of fragments I highlighted:

 I stretch and walk again, trying not to think about the passing of time, for such thoughts only draw it out like an arrow that is never sprung.

 Wandering downstairs before bed, I stand outside in the yard for a moment, watching the moon —waning now— cast her patient gaze upon us. The stars lie above, held up by angels. I pray that all will be well.

 I see, too, that we live in difficult times precisely because those, from the king down, who should behave the most honourably, the most justly, are little better than liars and thieves. This I have learnt.

 The ending… As I said, the historical events are easy to check, and the novel remains faithful to them, although it emphasises how things change and nothing is settled forever. As for the fictional characters, especially Benedict, the ending is fairly open but hopeful, and I liked that aspect in particular. And, do not fret, the mysteries are solved.

 I really enjoyed this novel, set in a historical period I knew very little about, and I particularly enjoyed the feeling of closeness and of sharing what it must have been like. I would recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those interested in Scottish history, lovers of mysteries set in the past, those who enjoy puzzles and ciphers (I always feel I would like to be shown the actual text they are trying to decipher), and readers who enjoyed The Name of the Rose might want to check this one (although it has been a long time since I have read it or even watched the movie, so take that with a pinch of salt). This is not a cozy mystery, though, and readers should be warned about the use of strong language at times, violent scenes (not the most explicit I’ve read, but this is a war after all), torture, rape, and violence towards women (again, not explicit but disturbing nonetheless). But anybody who enjoys well-written and well-informed historical fiction set in the XIV century, are interested in the Scottish-English conflict and don’t feel the warnings apply to them, should check this novel. Fiona Watson’s move to fiction is a success, and I hope this will be the first of many of her novels to see the light.

Thanks to the author, the publisher, and to Rosie and her team for all their support, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, keep being kind, and keep safe.

Ah, and I wanted to let you know that I’ll be away from home for a couple of weeks or so, so don’t worry too much if you don’t see me around. I am not sure how much I’ll be able to connect while I’m away (I hope for a nice break with friends, so fingers crossed!), so I might not appear or be able to say much when I do, but don’t worry. I’ll be back soon. Stay well!

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog There Will Be Consequences by Loretta Miles Tollefson A gripping novel set within a changeable, dangerous, and exciting historical period #OldNewMexico

Hi all:

I had the pleasure of getting a very early copy of a book by an author I met through Rosie’s Book Review Team and has become a big favourite of mine since. She writes historical fiction, but in this case she has written what she calls a ‘biographical novel’, where she never deviates from the historical facts and tries to give a voice to many of the historical characters involved. I was impressed by the results, and I recommend you check them for yourselves.

Cover of the novel, which includes a Native American man, a warrior, and a landscape of mountains
There Will be Consequences by Loretta Miles Tollefson

There Will be Consequences by Loretta Miles Tollefson

“It’s August 3, 1837, and rebellion has broken out in northern New Mexico. By the end of the week, Governor Albino Pérez and key members of his administration will be dead, and a governor with indigenous ancestry will be installed in Santa Fe. 

Trouble’s been brewing for over a year, fed by new laws restricting the right to vote, the threat of new taxes, and a governor who’s quicker to borrow money than distribute it. On top of that, Pérez has jailed the Santa Cruz de la Cañada alcalde for making a decision he didn’t like. The locals free the alcalde and go to war, campesinos and Pueblo warriors against the ricos of the south.   

But the rich aren’t about to give up their privileges so easily. More people will die before the violence ends.

 A deeply-researched biographical novel with implications for today, There Will be Consequences explores the events before, during, and after early August 1837 through the eyes of the people who participated in them. Twelve linked stories propel the narrative forward from the perspective of individuals as diverse as Albino Pérez, rebel governor José Angel Gonzales, Santa Fe gambler Gertrudis “Doña Tules” Barceló, Taos priest Antonio José Martinez, and that most flexible of New Mexico’s politicians, Manuel Armijo.”

 https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09KVL1M7J/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09KVL1M7J/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B09KVL1M7J/

Author Loretta Miles Tollefson
      Author Loretta Miles Tollefson

About the author:

Loretta Miles Tollefson has been publishing fiction and poetry since 1975. (She’s not old–she started young!) Growing up in foothills of the Olympic Mountains in the log cabin her grandfather built and her father was born in led naturally to an interest in history and historical fiction. When she retired to the mountains of northern New Mexico, writing historical fiction set there was a logical result. The Moreno Valley Sketches books are the first in many planned books set there.

Before turning to historical fiction full time, Loretta wrote Crown of Laurel, a novel set in Seattle in the recession of the early 1980’s. Loretta holds a B.S. in Bible Education from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. This background informs her poetry collections Mary at the Cross: Voices from the New Testament and And Then Moses Was There: Voices from the Old Testament.

In the mid-1980’s, Loretta and her husband suffered the loss of their first child in the fifth month of pregnancy. Her poetry collection But Still My Child came out of that period and is designed to help others deal with the pain of miscarriage.

Loretta holds M.A.’s in Communication and in English Literature from the University of New Mexico. Most days, you’ll find her researching New Mexico history in the 1800’s and writing furiously. She publishes short historical fiction every week at LorettaMilesTollefson.Wordpress.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Loretta-Miles-Tollefson/e/B00I47VVZ4/

 My review:

I was given access to a very early copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

I have read and reviewed several of the author’s series of Old New Mexico novels, which includes some interlinked stories following the same characters, and others that explore in more detail the background of one of the side-characters, as well as different types of fiction, such as short stories and microfiction. I was initially intrigued by the setting of the stories, as it is a place that I know very little about but one I’ve always been interested in, and I have come to appreciate how much one can learn from a good historical novel while at the same time enjoying the fictional side of the story.

Here, Miles Tollefson takes on a new challenge that I think many of us will identify with: you are researching a historical period or an event and cannot find a detailed and unbiased account of what happened. The author goes into her thoughts and the particular difficulties she came across when researching the August 1837 rebellion in New Mexico in her author’s note, and it is a must-read, as is this book described as a ‘biographical novel’. Although it follows the events chronologically, each chapter is told from a different point of view, by characters who were directly involved or witnessed what happened, on both sides. And she does include a big variety of voices: women, children, priests, rich owners, governors (both rebel and official), military men, rebel fighters… sometimes right in the thick of the action, and sometimes in the outskirts of it, providing an immersive experience.

There are twelve chapters that could be read as independent episodes (making it ideal for people with little time who can only manage to snatch a few minutes to read, here and there), but together create a clear and vivid picture of the historical era and the people involved in those events. By writing each chapter from a different point of view, but always in the third person and in the present tense (not something I generally like, but it gives the narrative immediacy and a sense of continuity), it has the effect of a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece has been slightly twisted this way or that, but with a bit of effort, we can find a way to make them fit. The author does a great job of putting flesh in the bones of the facts she has found and of filling in the gaps in as non-judgmental a way as possible. She explains the biases in the reporting of the events she covers in her novel, and she excels at presenting each individual and their thoughts in their own terms, rather than trying to impose her interpretation on them. It is easy to see how the conflict would have escalated, with such differing and seemingly irreconcilable opinions, positions, and points of view. Even those characters whom we might totally disagree with are shown as human beings with their reasons and motives, and it does feel at times as if you were there, willing everybody to come to an agreement and avoid the bloodshed, but also knowing that it will happen nonetheless. This is a novel that will make people think about these kinds of conflicts, and, hopefully, also understand a bit better how easy it is to escalate matters when the positions become entrenched and people are unable to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes.

Readers don’t need to worry about not having read any of the author’s novels set in New Mexico or not knowing about this historical period, as that is not necessary to enjoy this book. (Enjoy never seems to be the best word when much of the book describes painful and violent events, but I am sure readers know what I mean). This book can be read independently, although I enjoyed learning more about the historical events that feature as background in some of the author’s novels I’ve read. Miles-Toffeson also incorporates a list of character biographies at the end, a vocabulary (including Spanish and unusual English terms used in the book), and also a short bibliography for those who might want to learn more about the historical events featured here.

This is a book about a rebellion, and there are some terribly hard scenes, so I would warn readers who need to avoid explicit violence and blood-shed, as some of the chapters are very hard (even for somebody who does not have an issue with it. Knowing that this is based on real events makes it more poignant). The writing is excellent throughout, descriptive enough without going into excessive detail, and it manages to turn readers into privileged witnesses of the action, down to the protagonists’ thoughts. I am no historian, so I cannot comment in detail on the accuracy of the language and/or events described, but the dialogue and the characters jump off the page, and at times one feels like grabbing the characters, shaking them, and giving them all a piece of your mind. Remember you can always check a sample of the book to see if the style of writing suits your taste. As my copy was a very early ARC, I have decided not to share any quotes from it, but I highlighted plenty of passages, and some have left a long-lasting impression.

 I recommend this book to anybody interested in New Mexico’s story or historical fiction with a difference. I think there is much here that will interest writers who work in the same genre, as well as any reader looking for a gripping novel set within a changeable, dangerous, and exciting historical period.

Thanks to the author for providing me with an early copy of the book (and for the information about its progress), thanks to Rosie for helping me discover this author, thanks to all of you for reading, for sharing, for commenting, and always,  remember to stay safe, and to keep smiling.

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog The Vanished Days (Book 3 Slains) by Susanna Kearsley (@SusannaKearsley) (@simonschusterUK) Beautiful Scottish-themed historical fiction with a twist in the tale

Hi all:

I bring you a book I enjoyed enormously, and I hope you find it interesting as well.

The Vanished Days (Book 3 Slains) by Susanna Kearsley

The Vanished Days (Book 3 Slains) by Susanna Kearsley

A sweeping love story set against the Jacobite revolution from much-loved, million copy bestselling author Susanna Kearsley

There are many who believe they know what happened, but they do not know the whole of it. The rumours spread, and grow, and take their hold, and so to end them I have been persuaded now to take my pen in hand and tell the story as it should be told…

Autumn, 1707. Old enemies from the Highlands to the Borders are finding common ground as they join to protest the new Union with England, the French are preparing to launch an invasion to carry the young exiled Jacobite king back to Scotland to reclaim his throne, and in Edinburgh the streets are filled with discontent and danger.

Queen Anne’s commissioners, seeking to calm the situation, have begun settling the losses and wages owed to those Scots who took part in the disastrous Darien expedition eight years earlier.

When Lily, the young widow of a Darien sailor, comes forward to collect her husband’s wages, her claim is challenged, and one of the men who’s assigned to examine her has only days to decide if she’s honest, or if his own feelings are making him blind to the truth, and if he’s being used as a pawn in an even more treacherous game.

A story of intrigue, adventure, endurance, romance…and the courage to hope.

‘A hugely engrossing book and a complete world created’ Ian Rankin

Praise for Susanna Kearsley’s books:

‘A thrilling, haunting and deeply romantic story powerfully told by an engaging heroine…enchanting and beautifully evoked.’
RACHEL HORE

‘I’ve loved every one of her books! She has bedrock research and a butterfly’s delicate touch with characters?sure recipe for historical fiction that sucks you in and won’t let go!’
DIANA GABALDON, bestselling author of Outlander

‘A deeply-engaging romance and a compelling historical novel… a marvellous book.’
BERNARD CORNWELL

 https://www.amazon.es/dp/B08HZG8F44/

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08HZG8F44/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08J1FQB27/

Author Susanna Kearsley

About the author:

I‘m a former museum curator, avid amateur genealogist, and writer of modern gothic novels that interweave contemporary suspense and romance with historical adventure, meaning they don’t fit neatly into any category and are therefore a marketer’s nightmare.

The Bookseller once said of me, in a review, “She has a poetic sensibility and a sense of mystery; she could write the modern Rebecca.”

So that’s what I strive for.

https://www.amazon.com/Susanna-Kearsley/e/B000APO704/

My review:

I thank NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK for providing me an early ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

I read so many great comments and recommendations of this novel that I decided to request it, even though I normally avoid starting to read a series in the middle (or the end, as seems to be the case here, because this is the third novel in Susanna Kearsley’s Slain Series: The Winter Sea and the Firebird are books 1 and 2), but as this was described as a ‘prequel’, I thought it should work for me even if I hadn’t read the others, and it would be a good way to get introduced to the author, whom, although very popular, I had never read before. And yes, I was right. It worked for me, beautifully, I might add. But, of course, now I feel very intrigued by the other two books in the trilogy, and by the rest of Kearsley’s novels as well.

Although I will try not to go on and on (I’m known for doing precisely that), for those of you who are in a hurry, I will summarise my opinion straight on. Yes, I loved it. I loved the setting (I love Scotland and stories that take place there as well), the historical period (not one I knew much about, but now I am pretty intrigued by it), the characters (I’ll keep thinking about them for a long time), the quality of the writing (beautifully descriptive, full of detail but never over the top, and packed with scenes that pop out of the page), and a final twist that makes us reconsider (and better understand) what has previously gone on.

Having never read this author’s work before, I cannot comment on how this novel might compare to the others she has written. I checked the reviews to get some sense of what her fans thought, and most seem to love it as well, although others complained that there was far too much historical detail, and also that it differed from most of her other novels, as there wasn’t a dual timeline (there sort of is, but not how most people think of it) or any paranormal elements. I have seen her work recommended to readers who love Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (I’ve never read it or watched the series, so, again, I can’t comment), and Gabaldon herself recommends it, so, if you like that series and others similar, you know what to expect.

The story is set, as the description explains, in Scotland (mostly Edinburgh and Leith, although other places are mentioned as well) in 1707, but the book moves back and forth between the late XVII century and the action taking place in 1707, as the narrator, Adam, gets involved in an investigation that makes him have to dig into the past of a woman, Lily, who claims to have been married to a sailor who lost his life during the Darien expedition and is seeking compensation. I must confess to knowing nothing about the Darien expedition —a Scottish attempt at setting up a colony in America— before reading this novel, and only a little about the Jacobite revolution and the twists and turns that resulted from the fights between the different claimants to the throne of Scotland, the unification with England, and the important role religion played in those events. The author couldn’t have chosen a most fascinating historical period, and although it can be confusing at times (I’m not sure I always knew exactly who was supporting who), I think she manages quite well to incorporate the historical detail into the story and also to weave real characters into the novel, without shoehorning them into narratives that would have been alien to the real people. I recommend the author’s notes at the end, as she explains her process of creation, how the novel changed in the writing (and she quotes Robert Louis Stevenson, a favourite of mine), and also her method in trying to ensure historical accuracy while at the same time making sure the reading experience is an enjoyable one. I think she made the right choices, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I have visited Edinburgh but I am not a great expert on the place, and I appreciated the feeling of walking through its streets as they must have been at the time, the atmosphere of the place, the way the people behaved and talked, the different social classes, their habits, customs, and expectations, and this worked to make the book come alive for me, and I felt immersed in the place and the period, thanks to her descriptions and the reflections of the character. Some of the themes discussed in the book are: the nature of identity (what makes us who we are), legacy and the importance/weight of family history, self-made people versus those who have inherited their positions/wealth, truth and lies (and the grey area around them), how to judge other people’s characters, loyalty and betrayal, beliefs and convictions and how far we’d go to defend them, different kinds of love, the power of literature and stories to keep us sane and hopeful in dreadful situations, and more.

One of the things that I most enjoyed was the way the story is told. Adam, the narrator, put me in mind of other narrators in other novels (Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby), although I eventually decided that, perhaps, he reminds me most of Ishmael in Moby Dick, as he at times is talking in the first person about himself and his actions (when investigating the case), addressing the reader directly, and at other times, mostly when he goes back in time to narrate parts of the story of Lily, he seems to disappear and the story is narrating itself, although we have the odd authorial comment, where he might include something akin to an author’s note, or realise that some of the things he has narrated do not make sense as he has written them and adds a little clarification. The only thing that bothered me for much of the narration was the fact that Lily’s story was being told by another, and a man at that, rather than herself (cherchez la femme once more), but the final twist puts a spin on things and brings a new perspective into what had gone before (and no, of course, I am not going to mention it). It also helped me make sense of some of the events and behaviours narrated, which I had felt seemed out of character.

I don’t want to talk too much about the characters, as I don’t want to risk revealing anything that might affect the enjoyment of readers, but I liked Lily from the beginning (even if the revelations kept making me change my mind about what she might be like and her circumstances), and Adam was an intriguing character from the beginning and he grew more and more on me as the book progressed (and I love him now, for sure). There were many other memorable characters (servants, the family Lily grows up with, in Leith, who become very important for the story), including the historical ones, and from the notes, I understand that readers of the author’s previous novels will recognise many of them from before, so that will be an added appeal. However, let me reassure you that it is not necessary to have read the previous novels to understand or enjoy this one (and yes, I can easily imagine previous followers of the author will enjoy it even more). There are some bad characters, truly horrible ones, and some that are somewhat suspect but we don’t get to know well enough to pass judgement Oh, and don’t let me forget Gilroy, who has many surprises up his sleeve as well. The book is full of characters, and we don’t get to know them all in detail, but the main characters are well-drawn and feel real and true. They had become friends and companions by the end of the story.

I’ve already talked about the beauty of the writing; there is a lot of history and stories told, and there is a degree of telling as pertains to this type of story, the writing is vivid, and although the narration meanders at times, it never dragged for me, and I was always eager to keep reading.

Because I read an ARC copy I am not keen on sharing too many quotes, in case they have changed, and, as usual, I recommend anybody interested to check a sample of the book to see if it suits their taste. To give you a taster, I share a few of the fragments I highlighted (and there were many): 

Here, Adam is addressing the reader directly, and explaining his method of narration:

And you are right. She did not tell it to us in that way. She told it haltingly. We asked her questions, and she answered, and from there the story took its shape. Some details I did not learn till long afterwards, but since my purpose is to write things down for you in all their fullness I have woven everything in place as best I can, that you may have the clearest picture.

 It is no small thing, hope. Without it, darkness wins. My mother used to set me on my feet again and tell me, ‘Were it not for hope, the heart would break,’ and she was right. Sometimes, when all seems darkness and despair, hope is the only thing that does remain for us to grasp —a tree branch beating at the ice within a child’s hand.

And so we make an opening, and day by day press forward, and we hold that hope.

And therein lies its power.

 I have a certain memory of that night, held in the way one holds a seashell gathered on the shore —time dulls its brightness, and wears down its sharper edges, yet we only have to hold it to our ear and we can once more hear the singing of the sea. And so it is with memory.

 The ending… I haven’t mentioned that there is a love story at the heart of the book (aren’t I forgetful!), and yes, the ending more than lives up to my expectations. As I’ve already mentioned the twist in the tale, I won’t talk about it again, and no, in my case I didn’t see it coming (some people did), although there were details and things that gave me pause, I think it works beautifully.

They were not included in my ARC copy, but from the author’s note, I guess that there were plans to include a family tree/list of characters, and also a map or several of the different settings mentioned in the story. I don’t know if they appear in the final version, but I am sure they would enhance the reading experience if they do.

In sum, my first experience with one of Susanna Kearsley’s novels couldn’t have been better. I loved the story, the setting, the characters, the writing style, and learned a lot about the historical period. So, I recommend it to anybody keen on historical fiction, particularly Scottish historical fiction, to anybody looking for a great story, full of unforgettable characters, adventures, and perhaps, eager to discover an author new to them.

Thanks to the publisher, to NetGalley, and to Susanna Kearsley for this wonderful book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to keep safe, to do things you enjoy, to always keep going, keep reading, and keep smiling. 

Oh, a quick note, when I was trying to share the review of the book on Amazon, I realised that the book is only available in a paper version at the moment, and the Kindle version won’t be out until April, but you might want to add it to your wish list if you prefer to read an electronic version.

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion by George WB Scott (@GeorgeWBScott) For those who love storytelling and history alike #RBRT #historicalfiction

Hi all:

I bring you a book from Rosie’s Book Review Team, and one I read based on Terry Tyler‘s recommendation. You can’t go wrong with that.

I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion
by George WB Scott

I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion by George WB Scott

Civil War Novel Sees Conflict Through New Eyes

“A deftly crafted, inherently engaging, and entertainingly riveting Civil War novel. Scott’s impressive flair for originality combined with an informative attention to historical detail, ‘I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion’ is an especially and unreservedly recommended addition.” —Midwest Book Review

“Scott’s novel offers a spellbinding glimpse into Civil War Charleston, reminding us that the war touched those far removed from the battlefield.” —Caroline E. Janney, University of Virginia John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War and author of Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation

Civil War Novel about a young stranger from Boston marooned in Charleston just as the Civil War begins. His relationships with working men and women, slaves, merchants, planters, spies, inventors, soldiers, sweethearts and musicians tell the story of a dynamic culture undergoing its greatest challenge.

Jonathan’s adventures include the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the last great Charleston horse race, the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, the Battle of Secessionville, visits to the North Carolina mountain homes of wealthy Low Country planters, a run through the Federal Blockade, a visit to the raucous boomtowns of Nassau and Wilmington, battles of ironclads and monitors, the Battle of Battery Wagner (made famous in the movie ”Glory”) and an encounter with a Voo-Doo conjure man. His story documents the hopes and struggles of a young man making a new life in a strange land in a time of war and change.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08GH3YPJ1/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08GH3YPJ1/

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08GH3YPJ1/

Author George WB Scott

About the author:

George WB Scott was born in Stuart, Florida where he lived until he went to college in North Carolina. He graduated from Appalachian State University and went into television news in Tennessee. He is now an independent video producer and lives in Knoxville with his wife Mary Leidig.

His childhood memoir “Growing Up In Eden” explores experiences of his youth and of Martin County during the 1960s and 1970s. It includes more than a hundred photographs, mostly taken by the author just before the 2004 hurricanes, and has a CD with a screensaver of photographs and music by Gatlinburg acoustic guitarist Bill Mize.

In autumn of 2020 he will release his first novel, “I Jonathan, a Charleston Tale of the Rebellion.” More information is available on my blog at www.southernrocket.net/i-jonathan

https://www.amazon.com/George-WB-Scott/e/B089B7LM6H/

 My review:

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.

I chose this book after reading a review by a fellow member of Rosie’s team, and, as usual, she was right. This is a great book.

As I’ve done some times before, I recommend readers to check the additional content at the end of the book. The bibliography will be of great use to anybody thinking about studying the Civil War Era in the American South, particularly in South Carolina and Charleston, but, I especially enjoyed reading the author’s note and acknowledgments, as they give a very clear idea of the process of creation of this book, and of how many people contributed to the final result. Illuminating.

I will not rehash the description of the novel, because the information that accompanies it is detailed enough, in my opinion, but I thought I’d add a few comments about the way the story is told, and what it made me think of. This is a framed story (well, a double-framed story), as the Jonathan of the story passed away in the early 1940s, and the novel is the result of the narration of his life story to a great-grand-nephew who goes to visit him to participate in the celebration of his centenary. Realising that the story should be told, and it is unlikely that Jonathan will live much longer, he decides to write it all down. Then, it seems that this written second-hand account falls into the hands of the editor of a small publishing house specialising in historical books (and/or historical fiction) and they decide to publish it. This structure made me think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and that wasn’t the only similarity (one only needs to think about a young man getting exposed to a completely different way of life, habits, and customs alien to him), although, of course, the anti-war sentiment also brought to my mind Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s film that adapts that novel to the Vietnam War setting. The fact that the novel —which for me has a lot in common with a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story), as it focuses mostly on the early years of the character— is told by an old man recalling his early years, also reminded me of many classics, like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Charlote Brönte’s Jane Eyre, or Herman Melville’s White Jacket, with the wonderful nuances of an old (or at least more mature) character looking back at his actions and recalling his feelings from youth, because there is always some nostalgia, but also reflection, self-deprecation, and even self-mockery at times. It is a way of telling a story that feels traditional but can work incredibly well, especially when the times have changed dramatically and so has the person. This is particularly well-done here, as Jonathan’s voice feels very real, his use of words and expressions of the period help give it authenticity, and his way of reporting other people’s stories and even episodes he never witnessed directly is engaging and endearing. So much for the advice to writers of always showing and never telling! In fact, Jonathan can make us feel as if we were there even when he is describing something somebody else narrated, but if you are totally opposed to telling, I’d recommend you check a sample of the novel before dismissing it. Oh, and before I forget, there are fragments of poems and songs peppered throughout the book as well (and the details of those are also provided at the back of the book).

I have mentioned the anti-war theme of this novel. This is the strongest message, and the focus is on the American Civil War, although other wars are mentioned as well. It is true that due to the use of increasingly more sophisticated weapons (we all know wars tend to push research and industry forward if nothing else), the improvements in technology (the novel mentions ironclad vessels; an early version of a submarine; and one of Jonathan’s friends, Charles, is an inventor working on all kinds of long-distance weapons), and the length of the conflict, the death toll was very high, and all the more shocking because of that. But this is not an anti-South book, as the author explains. It is a book that paints a complex picture of what the United States South, South Carolina, and Charleston, in particular, were like in that era. Although many of the events narrated are episodes of the war, battles, or the destruction brought by it to the inhabitants of the city, there are also other moments that give an idea of what peace life must have been like: the last horse racing event before the war, several big parties in the city, how the business of importing luxury goods worked (and that gets more interesting as the war advances, including a visit to Nassau as well), the lives of freed black men and their participation in business and social life (down to having their own fire-brigade), musical entertainment (of the hand of Abe, a Jewish performer with an impossible love story), voodoo, the less savoury aspects of life, the different rhythm of life in the properties and plantations in the mountains and that of the big city, and much more. All together they create a sense of what life was like, probably more effectively because the story is narrated from an outsider’s perspective, but one who is accepted and adopted into that world.

Jonathan is a northerner who ends up, due to a conjunction of strange circumstances, stranded in Charleston, and rather than going back to Boston, where he feels there is nothing for him, he stays in the South, barely surviving, at first, but later getting to the point where others even think he was a hero of the war (on the Confederate side). Jonathan never fights, though, and he abhors slavery, although he comes to appreciate many things and people he meets through his adventures. He is a bit of a Hamlet, though. He is forever hesitant, wondering what he should do, avoiding direct conflict when he can, and although he dislikes some of the things he sees around him (especially slavery, although the bad aspects of slavery are only mentioned and never discussed in much detail. For example, he helps transport some slaves being sold when their owners decided to leave the Charleston area towards the end of the war; he takes a free black to help him, but never even gives a thought to liberating them, and we never hear their stories), he lets things happen or come to him, rather than stepping forward to meet any challenges or take any firm decisions. He discovers, a bit late, that if you wait too long, the decision can be taken off your hands for good. That does apply to his personal life as well, but I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers. He is very naïve when he arrives in Charleston and suffers a terrible loss and a disappointment, but he grows and matures, and even the character observes, quite late in the novel, that only four years have passed since his arrival, and it still feels like a lifetime. He can be witty and ready to play a prank as well, though, and there were events that reminded me of Mark Twain and some of his amusing tales as well.

Apart from Jonathan, who is at first lost, undecided, and passive, we meet a fascinating catalogue of characters during the novel: wealthy and high-class families, poor construction workers, freed black men happy with their lifestyle (and others not so happy), a slave that ends up in charge of the whole property (although still a slave), inventors, tragic romantic figures, true heroes, women hiding from a terrible fate, ship captains adept at avoiding a blockade, rogue deserters, nurses (Clare Barton makes a fleeting appearance), there are surreal moments brought on by a voodoo man, and even interesting animals (perhaps).

The writing, as I have mentioned, is compelling. It is one of those stories that would keep you sitting by the campsite long into the night, and by the time you checked your watch, you wouldn’t believe how long you’d spent there. Because although this is a fairly long book, and it can be meandering at times, there is magic in the images conjured up by Jonathan’s narration, the good ones (despite the dominance of the war episodes, there are beautiful moments as well), and especially some of the battles and the desolation brought to the people and the city (the description of the Battle of Battery Wagner, and yes, I do remember Glory, is unforgettable and one of the best depictions of the never-ending madness of war I’ve come across) that makes us keep turning the pages, hoping to know how it all ends (not the war, but the life), and at the same time wishing the story would keep going and we could carry on reading.

What happens after the war is given relatively little space in the book, although there are some surprises to come, some good and some open to interpretation (I am not sure I agree with the main character’s take on a late reveal about the fate of one of the characters, but you’ll have to read the novel to know what I am talking about), but overall, I thought the ending worked very well, and there is a very touching detail that I hadn’t paid much attention to and made me like the character even more.

I would recommend this book to anybody interested in historical fiction set around the American Civil War, how it affected the South, South Carolina, and Charleston in particular. It offers an interesting perspective, friendly towards some aspects of southern culture, but critical of others. The main character is not a standard hero (rather the opposite for much of the novel), and he spends a lot of time listening to others as well, incorporating their stories into his. Perhaps I missed more of an insight into the minds of the female characters (they are interesting, strong, and stoic, but we hear very little directly from them), and I have mentioned some other minor issues before. Overall, though, this is a great novel, and one that I am sure will make many readers grab their history books and learn more about the period. I look forward to seeing what this author, new to me, will publish in the future.

In case you want to read a bit more about the author’s thoughts on his own book, you can check his own review on Goodreads, here:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3802842066

Thanks to Rosie, to Terry, and to the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and above all, keep safe and keep smiling. 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (@LittleBrownUK) Fabulous writing about 1960s Harlem (and much more)

Hi all:

I bring you a review by an author who has become very well known in recent years and has won two Pulitzer Prizes, although I had only read one of his novels before. But I am sure I’ll keep reading his books.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Now a major Amazon Prime TV show)

‘Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…’

To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably-priced furniture, making a life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger and bigger all the time.

See, cash is tight, especially with all those instalment plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace at the furniture store, Ray doesn’t see the need to ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweller downtown who also doesn’t ask questions.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – the ‘Waldorf of Harlem’ – and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do, after all. Now Ray has to cater to a new clientele, one made up of shady cops on the take, vicious minions of the local crime lord, and numerous other Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he starts to see the truth about who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle is driven by an ingeniously intricate plot that plays out in a beautifully recreated Harlem of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem. 

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08VNSGJK7/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08VNSGJK7/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B08VNSGJK7/

Author Colson Whitehead

About the author:

Colson Whitehead is the author eight novels and two works on non-fiction, including The Underground Railroad, which received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Heartland Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hurston-Wright Award, and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. The novel is being adapted by Barry Jenkins into a TV series for Amazon. Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys received the Pulitzer Prize, The Kirkus Prize, and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.

https://www.amazon.com/Colson-Whitehead/e/B001IZ1GHW/

 Here you can read an interview he gave in Goodreads about this novel:

https://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/1553.Colson_Whitehead/

 My review:

I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (a Pulitzer Prize winner), loved it, and when I heard he had a new book coming out, I had to check it out. Well, it is different, that is true, but I loved it as well.

Most of what any prospective reader might want to know about this novel is well summarised in the last paragraph of the description:

Harlem Shuffle is driven by an ingeniously intricate plot that plays out in a beautifully recreated Harlem of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

 

Perhaps ‘a hilarious morality play’ is a bit of an exaggeration (the hilarious part, although it depends on one’s sense of humour: I agree there is plenty of humour in the novel, but most of it is on the twisted and dark side of the spectrum), but the rest, pretty accurate.

I am not known for my brief reviews, but I’ll try to offer an overview of the most important aspects, in my opinion, and then add a few comments.

Whitehead writes beautifully and has a great skill in making readers feel as if they were walking the streets of Harlem in the 1960s, boiling with racial tension, social upheaval, corruption at all levels, but beauty and hope as well. He also brings to life a complex and engaging cast of characters who are interconnected in different ways. Family plays an important part in the story, not only the family tradition (the sins of the fathers, in this case), but also the relationship between Carney and his cousin, Freddie, who has a knack for getting into trouble. The overall novel is divided up into three crime-related episodes or novellas, several years apart, which illustrate the changes in the characters’ lives, in the society of the time, and also in New York and Harlem. In some ways, the two cousins seem to have taken two completely opposite paths: while Carney’s life is on the up, getting more successful with his business (and his ever-so-slightly crooked activities) as we progressed through the novel, Freddie’s lifestyle is deteriorating, and he is falling down a slippery slope. Or at least that’s how things appear to be on the surface, to those who aren’t in the know. The ending is fitting, and although some readers felt disappointed because they expected something different; based on its own merits, this is an excellent book. As one of the reviewers put it, this is perhaps not a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but one can’t blame the author for wanting to write a different kind of book and succeeding.

I’ve said I wanted to add a few comments, and here they come.

The novel is written in the third person, mostly from Carney’s point of view, but also from some of the other characters, and that works well, as we get access to other perspectives and see Carney from outside, as others see him. There is a fair amount of telling in the story, because a lot of things happen to some of the characters who are not centre stage, and it is not unusual for the story to take detours and provide us with some background information that might appear surplus to the story at the time (but it rarely is). This is not a mystery, though, so it does not follow the standard format of the novels in that genre, and it is much more focused on other issues, like the location, the dynamics of the neighbourhood, the local politics, the social unrest, the race riots, the local politics, the corruption… It brought to my mind a fabulous scene from the movie Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) —which I fervently recommend to anybody interested in heist movies or good movies in general— where an experienced con-man is teaching his apprentice the lay of the land. They are talking about tricksters, con-men, and crime, and the more experienced con-man tells the other that crime and tricksters are all around; one only needs to know where to look, and the camera picks up an incredible variety of crimes taking place around them. It is mind-boggling. And, indeed, although the action of the novel takes place in Harlem in the early 1960s, the events and the underlying politics could easily be transplanted to many present day locations. (It definitely made me think of fairly recent incidents in the city where I live).

I have mentioned the reviews. Apart from the issue of unmet expectations (and reading some other reviews it is quite evident that the author has been writing for quite a while and loves to try different genres, so this novel seems to fit in his overall oeuvre), some readers did not feel they cared much for the central character. Carney is neither totally sympathetic, nor the opposite. He protests too much at times, and although he has a strong sense of family, tries to protect his cousin (which costs him at times, but it is not all bad either), and loves his wife and children; he is no model citizen either. He does not fight the system as much as adapt to it and always makes sure he is in the best position to take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves. He is not a conventional hero, for sure, and there are secondary characters which readers like much more than him (Pepper, a totally uncharacteristic criminal type, is a favourite, and yes, I like him as well), but if we read the novel as a morality play, as suggested, then this is not surprising but totally understandable. Other points many reviewers make are the meandering nature of the stories, how often we get sidetracked, and also the fact that there is a fair amount of telling. That is true, but I didn’t mind at all. I was happy to follow the characters and the stories wherever they took me, but if readers are expecting a standard mystery or crime novel, where every little detail propels the story forwards and the prose is bare and streamlined, this is not their book.

If I had to find fault, or complain, I would say that I would have liked to hear more from and about the female characters in the story. Carney’s wife sounds interesting, and her job at a travel agency catering for African-American travellers made me think of Green Book, but we never see things from her perspective, and the same is true of Freddie’s mother, who brought him up almost single-handedly and also played a big part in Carney’s life, despite holding a job as a nurse at the same time. There are other women in the story, but none take centre stage, or only fleetingly.

Whitehead writes beautifully, and his words flow with ease and flair, no matter if he’s describing a place, immersing us in the internal thoughts of a character, sharing a bit of witty dialogue, or providing us an insight into the historical and social reality of a place and an era. I highlighted much of the book, and I must admit that his first lines are joining my list of favourites, and this book’s opening proves it again.

‘Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…’

 As usual, I recommend people thinking of buying the book to check a sample first, if they aren’t sure it would be a good fit, but I couldn’t resist sharing some bits of it. Please, remember that I read an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final version of the novel.

 “Newspapers talking about ‘looting,’” Buford continued. “Should ask the Indians about looting. This whole country’s founded on taking other people’s shit.”

 These days he didn’t know where everybody’d gone. Jail, the graveyard, sure, but besides that. There were no pension plans for retired safecrackers, for heisters and hustlers.

 Pepper faced the man, with the resignation of a man discovering his toilet is still busted after the plumber had left.

 So, if you are looking for a novel by one of the most interesting novelists around, one who isn’t afraid to challenge and/or disappoint expectations, love unusual takes on recent historical fiction, enjoy books that don’t stick to a genre, want to learn more about Harlem in the 1960s, and love fantastic writing, this is for you. It is neither The Underground Railroad nor The Nickel Boys, but it is well worth a read.

Thanks to the author, the publisher, and especially to all of you for reading, commenting, hopefully liking, and sharing it with anybody who might be interested. And please, stay safe and keep smiling. ♥

 

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