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BOOK REVIEW: A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merritt

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads)

Britain is a nation of bird-lovers. However, few of us fully appreciate the sheer scale, variety and drama of our avian life. From city-centre hunters to vast flocks straight out of the Arctic wilderness, much-loved dawn songsters to the exotic invaders of supermarket car parks, a host of remarkable wildlife spectacles are waiting to be discovered right outside our front doors.

In A Sky Full of Birds, poet and nature writer Matt Merritt shares his passion for birdwatching by taking us to some of the great avian gatherings that occur around the British isles – from ravens in Anglesey and raptors on the Wirral, to Kent nightingales and Scottish capercallies. By turns lyrical, informative and entertaining, he shows how natural miracles can be found all around us, if only we know where to look for them.


My Thoughts:

Matt Merritt is a poet and the editor of Bird Watching magazine, and in this beautiful book he brings together his love of words and birds into one beautiful package.

I’ve always liked birds too. I do my best to tell magpies apart from currawongs, and I’d love to see an owl in flight one day. I also love the collective nouns for birds – murders of crows, murmurations of starlings and exaltations of larks, for example.

Matt Merritt writes with simple and lyrical elegance of his own fascination with gatherings of birds, weaving in personal experience with quotations from a 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem about wild swans, Shakespeare, Samuel Coleridge and other writers and poets.

Each chapter is a self-contained essay about a different kind of bird, so it’s an easy book to pick up and read and then put down and leave for a while. A lovely addition to my collection of books about the natural world.

If you like reading interesting non-fiction books about nature, you might also like Rising Ground by Phillip Marsden.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: The Pearler’s Wife by Roxane Dhand

Friday, February 16, 2018



The Blurb (From Goodreads)

The year is 1912. Nineteen-year-old Maisie Porter watches from the deck as England fades from view. Her destination is Buccaneer Bay in Australia’s far north-west. Her fate: marriage to distant cousin Maitland Sinclair, a man she has never met.

When Maisie arrives in her new home, she finds a stifling small town bound by Victorian morals. Shocked at her new husband’s callous behaviour towards her, she is increasingly drawn to the intriguing William Cooper, a British diver she met on board ship. It soon becomes clear that secrets surround her husband, as turbulent as the waters that crash against the bay. Secrets that somehow link to her own family – and secrets that put Cooper and his fellow British divers in great danger…

From the drawing rooms of London to the latticed verandas and gambling dens of Buccaneer Bay, The Pearler’s Wife is a sweeping, epic read, inspired by a lost moment in history.


My Thoughts:

An assured debut by author Roxane Dhand, The Pearler’s Wife is a sweeping romance set in a little-known corner of Australian history, the pearling industry in the far north of Western Australia. The heroine, nineteen-year-old Maisie, is sent to Australia from England to marry a man she has never met. Her new home is called Buccaneer Bay, which sounds like something out of a pirate novel but is in fact a real place (the Buccaneer Archipelago was named after the English buccaneer and privateer William Dampier, who charted the area in 1688).

Maisie’s new husband is a cruel and ruthless man who treats his employees with reckless disregard. Lonely and bored, Maisie finds herself drawn to a British diver named William Cooper. The sensual tension between them, and the slow realisation of dangerous secrets hidden by her husband, add slow-burning suspense to the narrative. The claustrophobic setting of a small pearling town in 1912 is superbly evoked, and the story is full of action, drama and romance, making it perfect escape reading for a long, hot summer.

For another wonderful historical novel, also set in Western Australia, check out my review of The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

Remember to leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts.

BOOK REVIEW: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson

Wednesday, February 14, 2018



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners; the second was loved by John Betjeman; the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley; the fourth idolized Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party; the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire.

They were the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. Born into country-house privilege, they became prominent as ‘bright young things’ in the high society of interwar London. Then, as the shadows crept over 1930s Europe, the stark – and very public – differences in their outlooks came to symbolise the political polarities of a dangerous decade.

The intertwined stories of their lives – recounted in masterly fashion by Laura Thompson – hold up a revelatory mirror to upper-class English life before and after World War II.


My Thoughts:

I first became aware of the controversial and fascinating lives of the six Mitford sisters when Mary Hoffman, a writer friend of mine, took me to see their graves in the cemetery in Swinbrook, a village in the Cotswolds near where the family grew up. Only four of the six sisters are buried there – Nancy the Writer, Unity the Nazi, Diana the Fascist, and Pamela the Boring One. The other two sisters are known as Jessica the Communist and Deborah the Duchess, I kid you not.

After Mary told me something of their lives, I became so interested that I read a few biographies about the family. Unity and Diana ended up having cameo appearances in my novel The Beast’s Garden, which tells the story of the secret underground resistance to Hitler in Berlin during the Third Reich. Both Unity and Diana were avid supporters of Hitler and the Nazis, and Unity shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany (Diana spent most of the war in prison).

The Mitfords were an impoverished aristocratic family with seven children (the only son, Tom Mitford, could be nicknamed the One Who Everyone Forgets).

Nancy (b. 1904) was a bestselling novelist and biographer; Pamela (b. 1907) was a country woman who bred chickens; Tom (b. 1909) was killed in action during the Second World War; Diana (b.1910) was considered one of the most beautiful women of the age and left her first husband Bryan Guinness (of the Guinness beer fortune) to marry Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists; Unity (b. 1914) was in love with Hitler and tried to commit suicide the day war broke out (she survived another nine years); Jessica (b. 1917) eloped with her cousin Esmond Romilly to serve in the Spanish Civil War and was later active in the American Civil Rights movement; and Deborah (b. 1920) become the Duchess of Devonshire and ran Chatsworth House, the house famous for playing the role of Pemberley in the 2005 film with Keira Knightley).

No wonder people find them fascinating!

If you have never heard of the Mitford sisters, this is may not the place to start as the author assumes the reader is familiar with the lives, loves and hates of the six young women. (Start by reading Nancy’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in A Cold Climate, and then move on to Jessica’s autobiography Hons & Rebels.)

However, for someone who knows the background and is familiar with previous biographies, this book offers fresh material in the form of interviews with the last two surviving Mitfords, Diana and Deborah, before their deaths. And Laura Thompson does not pass judgement on the six sisters and their sometimes disastrous choices – she allows them to speak to us in their own words, through quotes from letters and diaries and interviews, so we may draw our own conclusions.


You might also be interested in reading this blog post from 2013, in which my guest blogger Michelle Cooper lists some of her favourite books set in the '20s and '30s.

What are your favourites set in that period? Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.


THE BLUE ROSE: my work-in-progress

Monday, February 12, 2018

In recent months I have been slowly but steadfastly working away on on my novel-in-progress, The Blue Rose.

So far, I have written 44,000 words.

My star-crossed lovers, Viviane and David, have met and fallen in love, but been torn apart by cruel circumstance.  

Those early scenes are all set in a chateau in Brittany, which I imagine being like the beautiful medieval fortress, the Château de Trécesson


My heroine Viviane has lived there all her life, not even travelling far enough away to see the sea, which is never far away in Brittany. 

My hero, David, is a Welshman and the grandson of a poor pastor. He has come to the chateau to build a garden for Viviane's father, the Marquis.

But, of course, a lowly gardener must not fall in love with a Marquis's daughter. 

Viviane is now at Versailles and desperately unhappy. Her own inner turmoil is reflected in the escalating violence in the streets. For, in the world of my book, it is July 1789, and the Bastille is about to fall.



I'm aiming for a total word count of around 120,000-125,000 words, and so at 44,000 words I am more than one-third of the way through the book. However, I've only written about a quarter of my planned story.  

I'm not worried about this.

I always write much more than I need as I discover my story, and so the first section will need to be cut back strongly. I will do that when I finished a rough first draft (what I like to call my 'discovery draft') as I will then have a stronger idea what must stay and what can go.)

The title of the book is inspired by an old fairytale set in China called 'The Blue Rose'.



You will just need to wait to find out what this has anything to do with a novel set during the Terror of the French revolution ...

Desperate to know more?

Read my earlier blogs about the inspiration of The Blue Rose.





   

BOOK REVIEW: The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

Friday, February 02, 2018


The Blurb for Book One (from Goodreads):

On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that -- the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril.


My Thoughts:

The five books in ‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’ are among my most treasured books from my childhood. I have the old Puffin paperbacks, which cost my aunt $2.75 each when she bought them for my 11th birthday. I have read them so many times they are battered and creased and faded. I read them again this Christmas as part of an international reading challenge initiated on Twitter by British authors Robert Macfarlane and Mary Bird. Thousands of readers joined in to read The Dark is Rising, Book 2 in the series, which takes place between Midwinter Eve (20th December) and Twelfth Night (5th January). Some read it in one big gulp (like me) and others read each chapter on the date that corresponded with events in the book (i.e 1-2 chapters a day). Readers shared their memories of the book, discussed the meaning of symbols and events, created original art, found kindred spirits. It was absolutely wonderful.

I went on to read all five books in the series:

Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the series, and was written by Susan Cooper in response to a publishing content organised to honour the memory of Edith Nesbit, one of the great Golden Age children’s writers. She did not finish the manuscript in time to enter, and the book was subsequently turned down by more than twenty publishers, before being accepted by Jonathan Cape and published in 1965. 

It tells the story of Simon, Jane and Barney who go to Cornwall on a holiday with their family and end up being caught up in a quest to find the lost Holy Grail. Drawing on Arthurian mythology but set in contemporary times, the book introduces the children’s Great-Uncle Merry, a professor at Oxford who ends up revealing mysterious powers. The book is more like an old-fashioned mystery than a traditional fantasy, except with eerie unsettling moments of darkness and magic, particularly towards the end. 

The second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, was published in 1973. It tells the story of Will Stanton, seventh son of a seventh son, who turns 11 on Midwinter Eve, and finds his safe and comfortable world threatened by strange and eerie events. For Will is, he discovers, an Old One, destined to fight on behalf of the Light against the ancient and malevolent forces of the Dark. Merriman Lyon – the character of Great-Uncle Merry – returns as the Oldest of the Old Ones, and becomes Will’s guardian and mentor. Will needs to find Six Signs if he is to defeat the forces of darkness this midwinter and help fulfil a mysterious prophecy:

“When the Dark comes rising six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; Water, fire, stone;
Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday; bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning; stone out of song;
Fire in the candle ring; water from the thaw;
Six signs the circle and the grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the sleepers, oldest of old.
Power from the Green Witch, lost beneath the sea.
All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.”

Of all the books in the series, The Dark is Rising is my favourite, perhaps because it was the first I ever read, perhaps because of the vividness of the setting (a small snow-bound English village that seems outwardly normal but is still shadowed with magic, menace and danger), perhaps because I loved the idea of an ordinary boy who finds himself the carrier of an extraordinary destiny. The book as a ALA Newbery Honor Book in 1974, and is often named on lists of the best books for children ever published.

Greenwitch, the third in the series, brings Simon, Jane and Barney back to the little Cornish village where they had discovered the lost Holy Grail. Jane watches an ancient ritualised offering to the sea and makes a wish that then helps the Light unlock the secrets of the Grail. Greenwitch is the favourite of many female readers of this series, because the key protagonist is a girl and she triumphs not because of any battle of strength, but because she is compassionate and empathetic. 

The Grey King, the fourth book, returns to the point-of-view of Will. He wakes after a long and terrible illness with no memory of his role as an Old One and at risk from the forces of the Dark who seek to strike him own while he is vulnerable. Sent to Wales to recuperate, Will meets an albino teenager called Bran who has a strange dog like a wolf. Guided only by snatches of memory, Will and Bran must find the golden harp that will waken the Sleepers under the hill. This is my favourite second of the series, again because of the setting – the wild mountains and moors of Wales is brought so wonderfully to life – and also because of the sense of the great struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Grey King won the 1976 Newbery Medal. 

Silver on the Tree is the final book in the series, and brings Will and Bran together with Simon, Jane and Barney and their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry. They are searching for a magical crystal sword which will enable them to cut the mystical mistletoe, the ‘silver on the tree’, in the final battle against the Dark. Drawing on Welsh mythology and stories of a drowned land, the suspense is heightened by the presence of a hidden enemy, someone who is trusted but betrays them in the end. 

It was truly wonderful to re-read this series, which had such a powerful shaping force upon my imagination as a child. And a great deal of the pleasure came from sharing it with like-minded people. The twitter book club set up by Robert Macfarlane and Mary Bird intends to choose other great works of fantastical literature to read over the year. I’ll can’t wait to be a part of it.

If you love children's literature, you might also be interested in my review of Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken. 

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 


BOOK REVIEW: The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

When Ada’s clubfoot is surgically fixed at last, she knows for certain that she’s not what her mother said she was—damaged, deranged, crippled mentally as well as physically. She’s not a daughter anymore, either. What is she?

World War II continues, and Ada and her brother, Jamie, are living with their loving legal guardian, Susan, in a borrowed cottage on the estate of the formidable Lady Thorton—along with Lady Thorton herself and her daughter, Maggie. Life in the crowded cottage is tense enough, and then, quite suddenly, Ruth, a Jewish girl from Germany, moves in. A German? The occupants of the house are horrified. But other impacts of the war become far more frightening. As death creeps closer to their door, life and morality during wartime grow more complex. Who is Ada now? How can she keep fighting? And who will she struggle to save?


My Thoughts:


The sequel to Kimberley Brubaker Bradley’s Newbery-Honor-winning book The War That Saved My Life, this lovely children’s novel continues the story of Ada, crippled from birth with a clubfoot and cruelly mistreated by her mother. Ada and her little brother Jamie have found refuge in the country with Sudan, a clever and sharp-tongued woman with a lot of love to give. She arranges for Ada to have the surgery she needs to correct her deformed foot, but the scars from Ada’s childhood are clawed deep into her psyche, and there is no surgery for emotional wounds. Ada must learn to trust others, and to understand the hidden hurts of those around her, all while living through the horrors of the Blitz. I had not thought the sequel could possibly live up to the power and beauty of the first book, but The War I Finally Won had me blubbering like a baby. These books are destined to be classics of children’s World War II evacuee stories, up there with Carrie’s War, Goodnight, Mister Tom and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.


You can read my review of The War That Saved My Life here. 


Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts! 



BOOK REVIEW: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Friday, January 26, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds set during World War 2, from the acclaimed author of Jefferson’s Sons and for fans of Number the Stars.

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making. 


My Thoughts:

The War That Saved My Life is the favourite book of the daughter of a friend of mine. She has read it dozens of times. I am always interested in knowing what books kids are reading and loving (as opposed to the books adults think kids should be reading), and so I bought it with a sense of great interest and curiosity. It is set in England during the early days of World War II (a period of time I am always interested in), and tells the story of Ada, a poor girl from the East End who is evacuated to the country with her little brother Jamie.

Ada has a clubfoot. This is a congenital deformity which means that she was born with the sole of one foot twisted inwards and upwards, so that she must walk with the soft upper flesh of her foot pressed into the ground. A clubfoot can be corrected by surgery, but Ada’s mother chose instead to keep her daughter locked up in their one-room flat. Ada has never been outside, never seen trees or meadows or the stars, never been taught to count or read, never been loved.

When word comes that London children are to be evacuated, Ada seizes her chance and runs away. Or, rather, hobbles away. She and her brother end up being housed by Susan Smith, a woman who is crippled by grief. Together, Ada and Susan learn a great deal about their unknown inner strength, kindness and wisdom. Ada is given a crutch and is taught to read, and finds joyous liberation learning to ride (which reminded me of the great Australian children’s classic, I Can Jump Puddles, inspired by author Alan Marshall’s struggle to overcome his crippling poliomyelitis). 

The War That Saved My Life is simply and sensitively written, the kind of book that leaves you with a big lump in your throat. It was a Newbery Honor Book in 2016, and became a New York Times bestseller. I loved it so much I went straight out and bought the sequel the day after I finished it. One of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Please check out my post, The Best Children's Books Set in World War II for more recommendations.

Are there any other similar books that you'd recommend? Let me know in the comments! 


BOOK REVIEW: Inspector Morse Book 3, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Dexter

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Nicholas Quinn is deaf, so he considers himself lucky to be appointed to the Foreign Examinations Board at Oxford, which designs tests for students of English around the world. But when someone slips cyanide into Nicholas's sherry, Inspector Morse has a multiple-choice murder. Any one of a tight little group of academics could have killed Quinn. Before Morse is done, all their dirty little secrets will be exposed. And a murderer will be cramming for his finals.


My Thoughts:


I have been assured by Colin Dexter fans that the Inspector Morse series gets better as it goes along and so I read the third book in the series, though not without qualms. Published in 1977, the book is set in the claustrophobic world of the Oxford Examinations Syndicate and centres on the murder of a deaf academic. The case is as labyrinthine as the earlier two books in the series, but in this instalment Inspector Morse seems less like a bumbling fool and more like a man gifted with the ability to make intuitive leaps of deduction. He and Sergeant Lewis seem more in tune with each other, with Lewis providing the dogged methodical police work. And my major gripe with the series so far – Morse’s sexist attitudes to women – is a little less acute in this book (perhaps because there is only one female character). The books have an oddly old-fashioned feel about them, because of their lack of forensic evidence and modern-day technology, and also because of Dexter’s writing style. He was born in 1930, in the midst of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, and his books have the same feel of being a cerebral puzzle as writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (whose work I admire enormously). It is this aspect of Dexter’s work that I enjoy – the task of pitting my brains against Inspector Morse’s. I have to admit that Morse won. I had no idea who the murderer was until the very end, which offered a most satisfying twist. Of the three Colin Dexter books I have read in recent weeks, this was the most enjoyable. It is up to Colin Dexter fans to convince me to keep on reading the series. 

You might also be interested in reading my reviews of book 1 and book 2 from the Inspector Morse series. 

Have you read this series? Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. 



BOOK REVIEW: Inspector Morse Book 2, Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter

Friday, January 19, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Valerie Taylor has been missing since she was a sexy seventeen, more than two years ago. Inspector Morse is sure she's dead. But if she is, who forged the letter to her parents saying "I am alright so don't worry"? Never has a woman provided Morse with such a challenge, for each time the pieces of the jigsaw start falling into place, someone scatters them again. So Valerie remains as tantalizingly elusive as ever. Morse prefers a body—a body dead from unnatural causes. And very soon he gets one…


My Thoughts:

I’m giving the Inspector Morse mysteries by Colin Dexter a go, having never read them before. I started with Book 1, which I enjoyed with reservations. I have had exactly the same experience with Book 2. The mystery is interesting, with lots of unexpected twists and turns. It focuses on a cold case of a missing girl, who disappeared on her way to school at the age of seventeen. The detective working the case concluded she had run away with a man, but now that detective is dead. Only a few days later, the parent of the dead girl receive a letter from her telling them not to worry. Suspicions are raised, and Morse is assigned the case. He believes the girl is dead, and so he sets out to find the murderer. However, every time he thinks he has come close to solving the case, something happens to up-end all his suppositions.

I don’t find the character of Inspector Morse very likeable in these books. He seems to bumble round, leaping to conclusions, then trying to force the facts to fit his theories. He is also, I am sad to say, a misogynist with a taste for pornography. The depiction of women was my major problem in Book 1, and it is even more marked in Book 2. I understand that the book was published in 1976, and that it is aimed for a male readership, but it still makes me uncomfortable. The saving grace for me with this series so far has been the pleasure Colin Dexter takes with playing with language in his plots – Inspector Morse’s facility with crosswords and other word puzzles adds a welcome intelligence to the plot. 

You might be interested in my review of Book 1 in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock.  

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 



BOOK REVIEW: The Betrayal by Kate Furnivall

Wednesday, January 17, 2018



The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Could you kill someone? Someone you love?

Paris, 1938. This is the story of twin sisters divided by fierce loyalties and by a terrible secret. The drums of war are beating and France is poised, ready to fall. One sister is an aviatrix, the other is a socialite and they both have something to prove and something to hide.

Discover a brilliant story of love, danger, courage ... and betrayal.

This epic novel is an unforgettably powerful story of love, loss and the long shadow of war, perfect for readers of Kate Morton and other exceptional historical fiction.


My Thoughts:

I bought this novel at the airport, having finished the book I had taken with me to read. I had never read anything by Kate Furnivall before, and bought it because the cover and the blurb made it sound like the kind of book I would like to read: a story of love, danger, courage and betrayal set in Paris, 1938.

The story begins with the brutal murder of the father of seventeen-year-old twins, Romaine and Florence. The family’s Arabic gardener is guillotined for the crime, but the twin sisters know that he is innocent.

Eight years later, Florence is a rich socialite married to a Nazi sympathiser, and Romy is an impoverished, reckless, hard-drinking aviatrix who flies guns and supplies to the rebels of the Spanish Civil War. From that point on, the plot gallops along with lots of surprises and nail-biting suspense. The contrast between the characters of the sisters is fascinating, while their love and support for each other is – by the end – heartbreaking. I particularly loved Romy: wild, passionate, loving, haunted by the past and determined to, somehow, make amends. This is historical storytelling at its best, and I am very keen now to read more by Kate Furnivall.


If you're interested in the lives of women during WWII, please take a look at my post about Women of the German underground resistance. 

Remember to leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

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