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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies by Jackie French

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Inspired by true events, this is the story of how society's 'lovely ladies' won a war.

Each year at secluded Shillings Hall, in the snow-crisped English countryside, the mysterious Miss Lily draws around her young women selected from Europe's royal and most influential families. Her girls are taught how to captivate a man - and find a potential husband - at a dinner, in a salon, or at a grouse shoot, and in ways that would surprise outsiders. For in 1914, persuading and charming men is the only true power a woman has.

Sophie Higgs is the daughter of Australia's king of corned beef and the only 'colonial' brought to Shillings Hall. Of all Miss Lily's lovely ladies, however, she is also the only one who suspects Miss Lily's true purpose.

As the chaos of war spreads, women across Europe shrug off etiquette. The lovely ladies and their less privileged sisters become the unacknowledged backbone of the war, creating hospitals, canteens and transport systems where bungling officials fail to cope. And when tens of thousands can die in a single day's battle, Sophie must use the skills Miss Lily taught her to prevent war's most devastating weapon yet.

But is Miss Lily heroine or traitor? And who, exactly, is she?


My Thoughts:

I’ve long been a fan of Jackie French’s historical novels for children, and so I was intrigued when I heard she had written a book for adults. The cover was gorgeous and the blurb told me it was set during World War I, one of my favourite historical periods, and so I bought it to read on my summer holidays.

The novel tells the story of Sophie Higgs, whose father made his fortune making tinned corned beef. When Sophie falls in love with the boy-next-door, her father decides to send her to England for the Season, to give her a chance to see the world and meet other men. She is to spend a few months with the mysterious Miss Lily first, however, to be taught how to be charming. The idea is not just to win themselves rich and aristocratic husbands, but also to use feminine wiles to affect change in the world. She and three other young women spent their days learning how to walk, how to sit, how to hold a discussion whilst eating, and how to placate and persuade.

There is a quote from various letters at the beginning of each chapter. The first reads:

“… that was when I realised that war is as natural to a man as chasing a ball on a football field. War is a scuttling cockroach, something that a woman would instinctively stamp on. Women bear the pain of childbirth, and most deeply feel the agony of their children’s deaths. Could one marshal women to fight against the dreams of war? But women have no power, except what they cajole from men.”
Miss Lily, 1908

As Sophie learns and make friends, the world lurches ever closer to war. Sophie and the other ‘lovely ladies’ must dig deep within themselves if they are to survive. And, meanwhile, Sophie falls in love …

It’s a big book but the pace rarely flags. Sophie is a captivating character, being determined, clever and kind. The historical setting is brilliantly rendered, and I just adored Miss Lily and her wry and wise reflections on life and society. I loved the book right up until the very end, when the romantic promise of the story failed to materialise.

This was partly because Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies is the first in a series, and so some narrative threads were left dangling. It was also, I think, because Jackie French did not want to give her readers too predictable an ending. A lot of writers avoid a happy ending because romantic love in novels has been so often equated with plots that are trite or sentimental or melodramatic. This is such a shame. The longing for love is such a universal human desire, and should be celebrated. I suspect that Sophie will find true love and happiness after many more suspenseful and dangerous adventures in Book 2 & 3. I hope so.

You can read my review of Hitler's Daughter, also by Jackie French here.

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



BOOK REVIEW: Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier

Friday, February 23, 2018

  

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Bored and restless in London's Restoration Court, Lady Dona escapes into the British countryside with her restlessness and thirst for adventure as her only guides.

Eventually Dona lands in remote Navron, looking for peace of mind in its solitary woods and hidden creeks. She finds the passion her spirit craves in the love of a daring French pirate who is being hunted by all of Cornwall.

Together, they embark upon a quest rife with danger and glory, one which bestows upon Dona the ultimate choice: sacrifice her lover to certain death or risk her own life to save him.


My Thoughts:

I loved Frenchman’s Creek as a teenager and read it again this month for the first time since. It’s a swashbuckling tale of love and betrayal, featuring a bored noblewoman and a bold pirate in the time of Charles II. Put like that, it sounds like a real bodice-ripper but Daphne du Maurier is far too clever and subtle than that. As always, her Cornish setting is wonderfully depicted and all her characters swiftly and deftly drawn. Lady Dona St Columb is beautiful, restless, and filled with longing for some kind of adventure or danger. She has left London and her husband and taken her children to the country estate in Cornwall. Slowly she becomes aware of a mystery. A French pirate is terrorising the coast. By accident, Dona meets him and falls in love for the first time in her life. But she is a wife and mother, and she cannot abandon her family for the thrill of life on the high seas. And the Frenchman attracts danger: the local people want him hanged and all who help him.

Like all Daphne du Maurier’s books, Frenchman’s Creek creates a slow but inexorable tightening of dramatic tension that makes it impossible to stop reading. Full of atmosphere and mood, with complex and believable characters that you cannot help but care about, this slender novel is a masterclass in writing romantic suspense.

I also recently re-read My Cousin Rachel by the same author. You can read my review here.

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

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. 



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