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BOOK REVIEW: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

Saturday, December 31, 2016



THE BLURB (From GoodReads):

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. 

The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel--the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author's own experiences as a ship's officer and a lawyer.
 



MY THOUGHTS:


Like many people, I have always been interested in the story of the Titanic. But my interest never reached the obsessive proportions of David Dyer, who first wrote a story about it when he was in primary school and used to prop up two of the legs of his bed so that he slept at a tilt, as if he was on board a sinking ship. 


The Midnight Watch is the result of this lifelong fascination, and it illuminates the tragedy in an entirely new and original way. It is not so much the story of the ill-fated Titanic, but of the ship that watched her sink and did nothing to help.


The Titanic hit an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, and fired eight distress rockets into the starlit sky. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting only a few miles north, saw the distress rockets and alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was asleep in the chartroom below. Lord did not come to the bridge, or give any orders to help the sinking ship, despite several more attempts to inform him of the signals. The next morning, the Titanic had sunk to the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. 


I knew nothing about the SS Californian, despite the many books I have read about the tragedy (and of course, watching the famous movie with Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet countless times). It seems incomprehensible that anyone could have ignored those eight distress signals. However, by the end of David Dyer’s book I felt I understood how such a terrible thing could have happened. The Midnight Watch is powerful, compelling, and utterly illuminating – a must-read for anyone with even the slightest interest in the tragedy of the Titanic. 


Other books about the Titanic which I have read & enjoyed are The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Raynor and my daughter's favourite book, Kaspar, the King of Cats by Michael Morpurgo.

Have you read any great novels set on the Titanic? Let me know as I'd love to read them. 


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!



BOOK REVIEW: The Mothers by Rod Jones

Wednesday, December 21, 2016



THE BLURB (from GOODREADS)

That’s what life is about, at the bottom of things, she thought: women keeping babies.

In 1917, while the world is at war, Alma and her children are living in a sleep-out at the back of Mrs Lovett’s house in working-class Footscray. When Alma falls pregnant, her daughter Molly is born in secret. As Molly grows up, there is a man who sometimes follows her on her way to school.

Anna meets Neil in 1952 at her parents’ shack at Cockatoo. She later enters a Salvation Army home for unmarried mothers, but is determined to keep her baby.

Fitzroy, 1975. Student life. Things are different now, aren’t they? Cathy and David are living together, determined not to get married. Against the background of the tumultuous events of the sacking of the Whitlam government, a new chapter is added to the family’s story.

The Mothers is a book about secrets. It interweaves the intimate lives of three generations of Australian women who learn that it’s the stories we can’t tell that continue to shape us and make us who we are.
 




MY THOUGHTS:


The Mothers tells the stories of three generations of women in Footscray, a working-class suburb of Melbourne. Each of them struggle to survive hard times. Each is vulnerable yet strong; they all make mistakes and yet try to be good mothers. 


The first narrative strand is set during the last years of the First World War. Alma has left her husband but has nowhere to go. She and her children find refuge with a kind-hearted woman, and Alma finds comfort in the arms of her benefactor’s son. However, when Alma becomes pregnant, her troubles start all over again. Her daughter Molly needs to be kept secret, and when Alma cannot afford to support her anymore, she is sent to a foundling home. 


The second narrative thread is that of Anna in the 1950s. A country girl, she is seduced by her boyfriend and finds herself in a home for unwed mothers in Melbourne. Despite her determination to keep her baby, her parents refuse to support her and her baby is taken from her. 


The final thread takes place in the 1970s, amidst the political turmoil of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. Cathy and her boyfriend David do not believe in marriage, but when she finds out she is pregnant she finds herself in a quandary, and under pressure from her father.


The three narratives are woven together in interesting ways, and it is fascinating to see how attitudes towards women change (and yet in many ways do not change) over fifty years. Rod Jones has said that he began the book as a memoir of his own life, and that of the women in his family, but decided to shrug off the shackles of fact so that he could invent more freely and so explore the deeper issues of the story.


The knowledge that the book was inspired by real-life women deepens the sense of poignancy and verisimilitude, and makes it a very moving testament to the strength of these women.  


It reminded me of Toni Jordan's brilliant novel Nine Days which I have reviewed here.



BOOK REVIEW: Gillespie & I by Jane Harris

Monday, December 19, 2016

BLURB:

As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved.

Back in 1888, the young, art-loving, Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes - leading to a notorious criminal trial - the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disorientate into mystery and deception.

Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a tour de force from one of the emerging names of British fiction. 


MY THOUGHTS:

I loved Jane Harris’s debut novel The Observations, which was told in the tough, humorous voice of a young Irish serving-maid, Bessy. It was a tour-de-force of ventriloquism, and a real page-turner. So I was interested to see what Jane Harris would do next. 

Gillespie & I, her second novel, is very different. The narrator, Harriet Baxter, is a plain and rather nosy spinster who becomes embroiled in the life of a young artist and his family in Glasgow in 1888. Her tone is wry and self-deprecating, and yet there are darker shadows beneath the narrative – hints of mysteries and tragedies and misunderstandings – that slowly build until we no longer know whether or not Harriet’s view of events is can be trusted at all. 


Once again, the voice is utterly compelling and the desire to know the truth of what is happening drives the suspense of the deftly handled plot. In the end, it is a darker more heart-rending book than The Observations, but one that stayed with me for a long time afterwards. 



Interested in Jane Harris's first book, The Observations? You can read my review here.

BOOK REVIEW: Peacock & Vine – A.S. Byatt

Saturday, December 10, 2016



THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

From the Booker Prize-winning author: a ravishing, intimate, richly illustrated meditation on two astonishingly original artists whose work--and remarkable lives--have obsessed her for years. 

William Morris and Mariano Fortuny were born decades apart in the 19th century. Morris, a wealthy Englishman, was a designer beloved for his floral patterns that grace wallpaper, serving ware, upholstery, and countless other objects even today; Fortuny, a Spanish aristocrat, is now less recognized but was revolutionary in his time, in his ideas about everything from theatrical lighting to women's fashion. 

Though seeming opposites, these two men of genius and driving energy have long presented a tantalizing juxtaposition to A. S. Byatt; in this delightful book she delves into how their work converses with her across space and time. At once personal, critical, and historical, Peacock & Vine is a gorgeously illustrated tour of their private and public worlds: the women who were their muses; their eccentrically curated homes; the alluring works themselves, and above all what it means to this one brilliant and curious writer, whose signature gift for rendering character and place enlivens every page. Rich with insight and color, this book is itself a work of art, one to savor and treasure.


MY THOUGHTS:


This beautiful little hardcover book was a gift from a writer friend of mine who knew of my fascination with William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites. 


It is an extended personal essay, in which A.S. Byatt shares with us her personal response to the lives of two men whose art and creativity echoed each other in interesting ways. The first is William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement and a poet who refused to become Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate. Nowadays he is best known as the designer of beautiful intricate wallpapers and fabrics. 


The second subject is Mariano Fortuny, the aristocratic Spanish fashion designer and artist who lived and worked in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. They were not really contemporaries – Morris died in 1896 in London and Fortuny was born in 1871 in Granada – and they never met. However, A.S. Byatt finds interesting correlations between the two men, and the book is enriched with beautiful photographs of both of their work. 


I love books like this, which illuminate art and history and creativity in such interesting and unexpected ways, and which are themselves are work of art. 


Read my review of A.S. Byatt's POSSESSION or SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites - and please leave a comment, I love to know what you think. 


BOOK REVIEW: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Friday, December 09, 2016




BLURB:

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.


They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.


Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.


MY THOUGHTS:

When I was in the UK, every bookshop had a window display with this gorgeous hardback novel by Sarah Perry. I had to buy it, and the story was just as lush and intricate and surprising as the cover. 


The setting is Essex in the 19th century, where superstition and science collide in a series of events that destabilise and transform the lives of all the characters. Cora Seagrave is a young widow who has been damaged by the cruelty of her dead husband and who has lost all faith. Her son is odd and withdrawn and difficult to understand, but she loves him and does her best for him. Her best friend is a hunchbacked surgeon who is secretly in love with her. Cora, however, is attracted to the local rector, a married man who believes in God. Throw in a mysterious serpent, strange and wondrous events, murderous intent and miracles, and you get this absolutely marvellous book. 


One of the best reads of the year for me. 


Love books set during Victorian times? You may also enjoy Sarah Water's AFFINITY or Tracey Chevalier's FALLING ANGELS  (two of my favourite books!)


I'd love to know what other books I should read set during the 19th century - please give me your recommendations!




BOOK REVIEW: The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece - Carola Hicks

Thursday, December 08, 2016

BLURB:

One of Europe’s greatest artistic treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. 


For all its fame, its origins and story are complex and somewhat cloudy. Though many assume it was commissioned by Bishop Odo—William’s ruthless half-brother—it may also have been financed by Harold’s dynamic sister Edith, who was juggling for a place in the new court. 


In this intriguing study, medieval art historian Carola Hicks investigates the miracle of the tapestry’s making—including the unique stitches, dyes, and strange details in the margins—as well as its complicated past. For centuries it lay ignored in Bayeux cathedral until its discovery in the 18th century. It quickly became a symbol of power: townsfolk saved it during the French Revolution, Napoleon displayed it to promote his own conquest, and the Nazis strove to make it their own. 


Packed with thrilling stories, this history shows how every great work of art has a life of its own. 


MY THOUGHTS:

I have always been interested in the Bayeux tapestry and made the trip to see it in its little French stone village this year. 


It really is a fascinating artefact, the world’s longest piece of embroidery and quite possibly the first real comic strip. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, in a series of small scenes sewn with extraordinary vigour and humour. 


I bought Carola Hicks’s book in Bayeux, and read it over the next few nights. It begins with the story of how the embroidery came about, and then the extraordinary story of its survival over the next three thousand years. It survived the French revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, years of being kept in a damp church cellar, and the Nazis who tried to steal it. A really lively and beguiling story about an utterly unique piece of art. 


Love books set in France? I have a list of my favourites here


Do you love non-fiction books that illuminate history for you? Any suggestions for me? Please leave a comment for me.

BOOK REVIEW: Sophia’s Secret by Susanna Kearsley

Wednesday, December 07, 2016


BLURB:

When bestselling author Carrie McClelland visits the windswept ruins of Slains Castle, she is enchanted by the stark and beautiful Scottish landscape. The area is strangely familiar to her but she puts aside her faint sense of unease to begin her new novel, using the castle as her setting, and one of her own ancestors, Sophia, as her heroine. Then Carrie realises her writing is taking on a life of its own and the lines between fact and fiction become increasingly blurred. As Sophia's memories draw Carrie more deeply into the intrigue of 1708, she discovers a captivating love story lost in time. After three hundred years, Sophia's Secret must be told.


MY THOUGHTS:

A parallel narrative set in Scotland, filled with spies and secrets and forbidden love, Sophia’s Secret (also published as The Winter Sea) is just the kind of book I love to read. 

A young author named Carrie McClelland is writing a novel about the Jacobite invasion of England in 1708, but is struggling to bring her work of fiction to life. 


On a whim, she travels to Scotland for research and finds herself inexorably drawn to the ruins of an old castle that she knows had a key role to play in the rebellion. Slowly she finds herself drawn into the stories of the past, and makes a number of baffling discoveries that logic simply cannot explain. Meanwhile, back in the past, Sophia finds herself drawn into the dangers of the secret mission to return the Stuarts to the throne, risking everything to be with the man she loves.


I really love this period of history, and I also loved Susannah Kearsley’s deft mix of suspense, romance, and magic. Her books are smoothly and swiftly paced, and the heroines of both narrative threads are strong and interesting and likeable. I’ll be reading more of her work, that’s for sure. 


Enjoy books with dual timelines? Then you may enjoy some of the many other wonderful books with parallel narratives that I've read and reviewed.


Any suggestions for me to read? Please give me your recommendations!

BOOK REVIEW: The Nightingale – Kristen Hannah

Monday, December 05, 2016



BLURB:

Despite their differences, sisters Vianne and Isabelle have always been close. Younger, bolder Isabelle lives in Paris while Vianne is content with life in the French countryside with her husband Antoine and their daughter. But when the Second World War strikes, Antoine is sent off to fight and Vianne finds herself isolated so Isabelle is sent by their father to help her. 

As the war progresses, the sisters' relationship and strength are tested. With life changing in unbelievably horrific ways, Vianne and Isabelle will find themselves facing frightening situations and responding in ways they never thought possible as bravery and resistance take different forms in each of their actions.


MY THOUGHTS:

I have never read any of Kristen Hannah’s books before, and at first I was not sure if I was going to like this book (even though I love books set in the French underground resistance in World War II). Kristen Hannah’s style is very straightforward and the plot seemed quite predictable to me. However, as the novel progressed I found myself turning the pages faster and faster, and I had a little choke in my throat at the end. 


It’s a story of two sisters in rural France, whose lives are turned upside-down by the Nazi invasion. They each react in different ways. Viann tries to protect her family and keep their farm safe, while Isabelle joins the resistance and fights to save as many as she can. Each of their choices led to heartbreak and sacrifice, as well as ultimately to redemption. A real page-turner!


Another novel I really loved that was set in France during World War II was ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr  or you may enjoy my blog SPOTLIGHT: Best Books on the German Resistance, which contains many of the research books for my novel set in Berlin during the Nazi years, THE BEAST'S GARDEN.


Have you get any other suggestions for great books about the Resistance to Hitler? Let me know!

BOOK REVIEW: The Other Daughter – Lauren Willig

Saturday, December 03, 2016



BLURB:

Raised in a poor yet genteel household, Rachel Woodley is working in France as a governess when she receives news that her mother has died, suddenly. Grief-stricken, she returns to the small town in England where she was raised to clear out the cottage...and finds a cutting from a London society magazine, with a photograph of her supposedly deceased father dated all of three month before. He's an earl, respected and influential, and he is standing with another daughter-his legitimate daughter. Which makes Rachel...not legitimate. Everything she thought she knew about herself and her past-even her very name-is a lie.



MY THOUGHTS:

I met Lauren Willig at the Historical Novel Society conference in Chicago a few years ago, and bought her first book The Secret History of the Pink Carnation on the strength of the cover and the blurb. Since then, I’ve read all sixteen of her books, which just keep getting better and better.


The Other Daughter is the story of Rachel Woodley, a poor young English woman who is devastated when her mother dies, leaving her an orphan. Clearing out her mother’s house, she discovers a news cutting with a photograph of her dead father. Except that the newspaper article is only three months old, and the man in the photograph is an earl. Photographed with him is his daughter, who is just the same age as Rachel. 


Realising that everything she thought she knew about her life is a lie, Rachel sets out on an elaborate game of revenge and retribution. She assumes a false name, and slowly insinuates herself into her half-sister’s glamorous social circle. Her deception soon begins to have unexpected ramifications, including Rachel falling in love with her sister’s fiancé. The result is a suspenseful and romantic historical novel with great period detail and characters. 


I also loved Lauren Willig's novel THE ASHFORD AFFAIR - you can read my review here.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK.

BOOK REVIEW: The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

Thursday, December 01, 2016

BLURB:

When seventeen-year old Phoebe Turner visits Wilton's Music Hall to watch her Aunt Cissy performing on stage, she risks the wrath of her mother Maud who marches with the Hallelujah Army, campaigning for all London theatres to close. While there, Phoebe is drawn to a stranger, the enigmatic Nathaniel Samuels who heralds dramatic changes in the lives of all three women. 


When offered the position of companion to Nathaniel's reclusive wife, Phoebe leaves her life in London's East End for Dinwood Court in Herefordshire — a house that may well be haunted and which holds the darkest of truths. In a gloriously gothic debut, Essie Fox weaves a spellbinding tale of guilt and deception, regret and lost love.



MY THOUGHTS


The Somnambulist is a dark neo-Victorian Gothic romance, with lots of unexpected twists and turns. The 19th century atmosphere is so vividly realised, you can hear the horses’ hooves clopping and taste the fog on your tongue. 


Phoebe Turner lives with her Bible-thumping mother and her young and beautiful aunt, who used to be a singer.  A chance encounter at a music-hall changes Phoebe’s life forever, catapulting her into a world of dark secrets. She travels to Dinwood Court to work as a companion to a reclusive woman who walks the corridors at night. What she discovers there will change everything she thought she knew about her life. 


I also really loved Essie Fox's novel THE GODDESS & THE THIEF - you can read my review here and an interview with Essie here.


HAVE YOU READ ANY OF ESSIE'S BOOKS? LET ME KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS.


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