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BOOK REVIEW: On The Blue Train by Kristel Thornell

Sunday, March 12, 2017



BLURB:

What really did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? An entrancing novel of creativity and grief.

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it's wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie of London became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha's lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until, Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.


MY THOUGHTS:

This novel by Kristel Thornell, who won the Vogel award with her first book, was inspired by the true-life story of how Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926. Her car was found at the edge of a quarry, its hood up and lights on. Inside the police found her fur coat, her old driver’s license, and a bag of clothes. There was no sign of Agatha Christie herself. Murder was suspected, and thousands of police and volunteers combed the countryside, looking for her body. Eventually she was found staying at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, booked in under the same surname as her husband’s mistress. 

I’ve long been interested in this story myself and have on my bookshelf an earlier novel inspired by the same incident entitled Agatha: A Novel of Mystery, by Kathleen Tynan, which I read years ago. I also have nearly every book Agatha Christie ever wrote, including her autobiography (in which there is no mention of her Harrogate adventure.) 

So I was really looking forward to On the Blue Train

My feelings on finishing the book are mixed. I think I was hoping for a book that brought Agatha to life, giving insights into her character and her creative processes, as well as illuminating the impulse which led her to run away from her life. Agatha Christie’s books are clever, witty, and very carefully constructed, and I had always imagined her as being acerbically funny and acutely observant. I was also, of course, interested in the relationship between her and her husband, who was at the time suspected of being her murderer. Was that her intention? Was she punishing him?

The heroine of Kristin Thornell’s book is something quite different. Clearly unhappy, she drifts around, buying herself new clothes and eating rather a lot of cake. She falls into company with another drifter, a man named Harry, and they remember past failed love affairs and contemplate the possibility of running away together. The pace of the book is slow and dreamy with little sense of tension or drama; and the heroine seems quiet, timid, and indecisive, which is not how I imagine her at all. 

On reflection, I probably would have liked On the Blue Train better if I was not so familiar with Agatha Christie’s own voice. Compare this:

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.

(Agatha’s own words) 

She sat and then stretched out, her head by the base of a tree, the coat like a silky languorous animal she was entwined with. She was also entwined with the possibility of death. 

That nacreous eye, watching over her. If she chose to, she could stare into it again, drift towards the magnet of a watery end. The end would come about by her own hand. In her own hand she would write a carnal full stop. 


(Kristel Thornell writing from Agatha’s point-of-view in On The Blue Train, page 295)


The two voices are so very different. I cannot imagine Agatha Christie describing a moonlit pool as a ‘nacreous eye’, or – a little earlier on the same page – ‘on a dim arboreal path she was taken by an imperious desire to lie down.’ 

So, as an act of ventriloquism, On The Blue Train does not succeed for me. 

It is, nonetheless, a slow, melancholy, and beautiful meditation on failed love. 

BOOK REVIEW: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Friday, February 17, 2017

BLURB:

Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.

While herding the family’s goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. 

Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson’s widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice.

As the seasons change, and the “wolf winter,” the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family’s survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers’ secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. 

Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.

MY THOUGHTS:

Atmospheric, compelling and full of foreboding, Wolf Winter was one of my best discoveries this year. It is set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, and begins with the discovery of a dead man’s body in the mountains by two little girls. The girls’ mother, Maija, finds herself unable to let the murder rest. It must be someone she knows, she reasons, and yet … who? 

Filled with superstitions and the fear of witchcraft, the local people all have secrets to hide. And so does Maija. The result is something so eerie, so chilling, so powerful, I could not put the book down. It reminded me of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, two of my favourite books, in the sheer desolation of the landscape and the sense of a dark threat that hangs over the characters. Brilliant.


BOOK REVIEW: Enemy: A Daughter’s Story by Ruth Clare

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

'I was born into the war still raging inside my father.'


Ruth Clare's father came back from the war a changed man: a violent and controlling parent and a dominating, aggressive husband. Through a childhood of being constantly on guard, with no one to protect her but herself, Ruth learned to be strong and fierce in the face of fear.

After escaping her difficult upbringing, Ruth went on to have children of her own. The challenges of parenting left her desperate for reassurance that she would not repeat her father's behavior. She met with other veterans and began learning about the effects of conscription, military training and post-traumatic stress disorder. The stories Ruth uncovered left her with surprising empathy for the man who caused her so much pain, and renewed her determination to stop the legacy of war passing down to the next generation. 

Weaving a striking personal narrative with a revelatory exploration about the effects of war, Enemy is a bold, compelling and ultimately triumphant memoir from a hugely impressive new Australian writer.


MY THOUGHTS:


I met Ruth Clare at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and was so intrigued by her story I bought her book – a memoir of growing up with a brutal and domineering father who had been damaged by his experiences in the Vietnam war. 


I’ve always been interested in the way violence done to one generation can warp and cripple the generations to follow, and the difficulties in breaking the cycles of harm. Ruth Clare’s memoir is a searing indictment of the shadow cast by the Vietnam war, and a timely reminder of the imperative to learn from the mistakes of the past.


The most poignant aspect of the novel, for me, was the way Ruth Clare’s mother was broken by her husband’s violence … and the fact that Ruth herself was able to survive and heal, and build a new life for herself. 


A powerful and heart-rending memoir, told with grace and empathy.

BOOK REVIEW: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed.

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. 

Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. 

Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction — into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist — but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who — born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution — bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert's wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.



MY THOUGHTS:


Somehow I never got caught up in the Eat, Pray, Love fervour – I was busy and it just didn’t sound like my kind of book. Then I met Elizabeth Gilbert at the Perth Writers Festival and she was very warm and personable. Quite a long time later, I asked the twitter-sphere for the most inspiring book on writing or creativity that they had read that year, and dozens of people named Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. One lovely reader even sent me their copy. So I read Big Magic and liked it a lot. After I blogged about it, a lot of people said to me, ‘oh you must read The Signature of All Things. You’ll love it.’  

So I did read it and they were all right. I loved it.

Such a wonderful book! It’s big and deep and clever and wise, telling the story of a brilliant and unconventional woman in the early 19th century. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of the self-made millionaire Henry Whittaker, who made his fortune in the quinine trade. She is fascinated by botany, and studies on her own, developing a theory of evolution very like that of her contemporary Charles Darwin. Tortured by unfulfilled desire, angered by the society in which she lives, Alma refuses to be anything but herself – and the resulting story is utterly original and captivating.

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  


Read my review of Big Magic or take a look at other books set in the same time period. 


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



BOOK REVIEW: The Good People by Hannah Kent

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

County Kerry, Ireland, 1825.

The fires on the hills smouldered orange as the women left, pockets charged with ashes to guard them from the night. Watching them fade into the grey fall of snow, Nance thought she could hear Maggie's voice. A whisper in the dark.

"Some folk are born different, Nance. They are born on the outside of things, with a skin a little thinner, eyes a little keener to what goes unnoticed by most. Their hearts swallow more blood than ordinary hearts; the river runs differently for them."

Nóra Leahy has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year, and is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál. The boy cannot walk, or speak, and Nora, mistrustful of the tongues of gossips, has kept the child hidden from those who might see in his deformity evidence of otherworldly interference. 

Unable to care for the child alone, Nóra hires a fourteen-year-old servant girl, Mary, who soon hears the whispers in the valley about the blasted creature causing grief to fall upon the widow's house. 

Alone, hedged in by rumour, Mary and her mistress seek out the only person in the valley who might be able to help Micheál. For although her neighbours are wary of her, it is said that old Nance Roche has the knowledge. That she consorts with Them, the Good People. And that only she can return those whom they have taken...


MY THOUGHTS:

Like so many others, I loved Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites and so I was excited to be sent a proof copy of her second novel, The Good People. In her letter to readers included at the front of the book, Hannah described herself as ‘someone who – as my friends describe it – writes books about dark happenings in cold places’; a description that gave me a little shiver of anticipation. She did not disappoint me.


The Good People is set in the Irish countryside in 1825, and begins with the death of a man. His body is found at the crossroads, a place of superstition and danger. His widow Nora, knocked sideways with grief, nonetheless takes care to send her grandson away for the day. She does not want her neighbours to see him and speculate about him. For all is not well with her grandson Micheal. Nora fears he is a changeling child, given to her by the Good People who have stolen her real grandson. Micheal is four years old, but he cannot walk or talk. He screams all the time. 


Unable to cope, Nora hires a girl to help her … and turns to the local wise woman, Nance, for advice. These three women must struggle to find a way to deal with the changeling child, at a time when long-held superstitions are being shaken by new scientific and rational thinking.


Dark, poetic, and intense, The Good People is a fascinating and atmospheric tale of the ancient fairy lore of Ireland and how it shaped the people who believed it. One of my best reads of 2016.


You can read my interview with Hannah Kent about Burial Rites here 


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

BOOK REVIEW: Hexenhaus by Nikki McWatters

Monday, January 02, 2017


THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

In 1628, Veronica and her brother flee for their lives into the German woods after their father is burned at the stake. 


At the dawn of the eighteenth century, Scottish maid Katherine is lured into political dissent after her parents are butchered for their beliefs. 

In present-day Australia, Paisley navigates her way through the burning torches of small-town gossip after her mother’s new-age shop comes under scrutiny.



MY THOUGHTS:


Nikki McWatters and I share two nephews, though we have never met. So when my sister-in-law told me that her other sister-in-law was writing a novel for young adults inspired by witch-hunts through history, I was intrigued. Tell her to send me a copy, I said. I’m very glad that I did. Hexenhaus is a gripping story of three different young women at different times of history who all find themselves persecuted in some way for witchcraft. 

Veronica lives in Bamburg in what is now Germany in 1628. Katherine lives in Scotland in 1696. Paisley lives in Bundadoon, Australia, in the present-day. They are linked by a kind of pagan sisterhood, with their names inscribed in an ancient book called the Systir Saga. All three suffer witch-hunt hysteria, with the first two inspired by real-life events in Germany and Scotland. 

Told in short yet evocative alternating chapters, the story follows each character’s struggle to escape the narrow-mindedness and cruelty of the societies in which they live. Aimed squarely for a teenage audience, the novel moves swiftly and yet does not shy away from depicting some of the horror of the historical witch-hunt. The modern-day narrative helps ground the story in the here-and-now, showing that prejudice and intolerance to other people’s belief systems still causes harm today. 

I gave Nikki an endorsement for the front cover: ‘A riveting novel inspired by the true history of witchcraft and witch-hunts. Unputdownable.’ 



LOVE FANTASTICAL YA FICTION? So do I!


I have heaps of other YA fiction reviews on my blog, including writers like Maggie Stievater, Belinda Murrell, Juliet Marillier, Helen Lowe and Kate Constable.  Click here to read them!


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



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: 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!





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