Just Olga and her books

I've loved books since I learned to read and now I love to read and writer books, to read about books, and although most of all I love fiction, I write other books that might tickle my fancy. I'm originally from Barcelona and I also read in Spanish and Catalan. I love movies and theatre so these are things I also love to read about.

Anybody interested in post-WWII Germany and in Wolfe Frank should read this book.

The Undercover Nazi Hunter: Exposing Subterfuge and Unmasking Evil in Post-War Germany by Wolfe Frank. Ed by Paul Hooley  - Wolfe Frank, Paul Hooley

I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have read and reviewed the fascinating Nuremberg’s Voice of Doom: The Autobiography of the Chief Interpreter at History’s Greatest Trials by Wolfe Frank ( you can check my review here) and when I heard there was a second book about Frank, centred on a series of articles about post-war Germany he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, I had to read it as well. This book is also fascinating, but I missed more of Frank’s own voice, which made the previous book so distinctive and impossible to put down. On the other hand, I appreciated the work of the editor, who does a great job of providing background and trying to tie up loose ends.

The book includes several distinct parts. First, the preparation and background to the project. Although everybody seemed interested, getting everything in place in such a complex operation, as Frank was going undercover and there were many logistical complications to sort out — we must remember Germany was divided up into four zones under the control of different countries following the war. This part includes letters and documents of the time, and beyond its interest for Frank’s biography, it also provides a good insight into how newspapers and news organizations and syndication worked at the time. The editor also provides a good background into Frank’s personal history and his biography, which will be familiar to people who have read the previous book but means those who have not will easily get a sense of who Frank was and how he came about the project.

The second part is the articles as they were published at the time, The Hangover after Hitler series. Having read the previous book, it is clear that the articles were heavily edited, and Frank was writing under clear instructions. One cannot help but wonder what he would have written otherwise, but they are interesting as documents, not only of what was happening in Germany at the time, but also of what other countries wanted to know about Germany (mostly the USA), and how the different zones of post-WWII Germany were like. It sounds as if the different countries had completely different approaches to rebuilding and reorganising post-war Germany, and although we are all aware of what happened in the case of the Russian part, I had little idea of this in regard to the other regions before I read this book.

The third part is the confession of SS-Gruppenführer Waldermar Wappenhans, the SS General Frank discovered was still living in Germany after the war, in the British section of Germany, working for the British and living under a false identity. This is one of the most interesting sections of the book, and although the editor gives his own thoughts about it in the fourth part (and it makes perfect sense to think that Frank had a lot of influence in the way the “confession” was written), this man, who fought in both, WWI and WWII, and who in the confession comes across as somebody who never questioned his duty or what he had to do, and whose main interest was to go back to active duty (despite being repeatedly wounded) because that is what true men were supposed to do, provides an account of campaigns, weaponry, and also of agreements and disagreements between the different factions and actors that will delight anybody interested in the history of the period. He does not go into a lot of detail about his personal relationships or even his own reactions (although there are some light biographical moments, some that would horrify us [he casually recounts buying a young girl, with some other officers, in Haifa], some he seems to quickly skip by) and he depicts himself as somebody who speaks his mind no matter what, often resulting in his being moved and transferred to more risky posts. (I agree with the editor, who in part four writes that Wappenhans’s testimony “is more the autobiography of a brave warrior who unquestioningly obeyed the orders of superiors than the ‘confession’ of a Nazi wanted in connection with war crimes” (p. 282).

Part four, the aftermath, was the part I enjoyed the most. Here, the editor explains what happened and how the identity of Wappenhans came to be revealed (it seems Der Spiegel got hold of the information and revealed it on the same day Frank’s article came out, and there are clues as to where they might have got the information from), and also talks about some of the people involved and mentioned in the text and what happened to them. He also asks if Frank was working for British Intelligence, and makes a good case for it (it sure would explain a few things), and there is a final conundrum as well, as there were some drawings that might or might not have been by James Thurber that turned up in the file with the articles and documents. Personally, I like the drawings.

I recommend this book to anybody interested in post-WWII Germany, in finding more about Wolfe Frank (yes, we need a movie about him), interested in Wappenhans himself, and also in the workings of international newspapers in the late 1940s. I missed more of Frank’s own words, and if anybody reads this book first, I recommend you check Nuremberg’s Voice of Doom. It is a must read.

 

 

A highly recommended tough and inspiring read

winter flower - Charles Sheehan-Miles

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.

This is the first novel I read by Charles Sheehan-Miles, who is a brand new author to me, although he has published a large number of books, and from the comments I guess he has a legion of fans that were surprised by this book, as it is not a romance. I cannot compare it to his previous work, but I agree with the warning. If readers from his previous books approach this novel as a romance, they will be shocked, because it is far from it.

This is a long book (over 600 pages long), divided up into four parts, with a prologue set two years before the main action of the book, although there are flashbacks (memories) narrated in the first-person by the four main characters —all members of the same family— that offer readers a good understanding of the background to the current situation and help them get to grips with their circumstances, their pasts, and who they are. This is the story of a family, a married couple and their two children, on the brink of collapse due to a terrible tragedy that took place two years before the action we follow chronologically. Or so it seems. (The truth is a bit more complicated than that). Sam and Brenna, the children (adolescents by the time we met them) are close, and Brenna has always willingly played the role of big sister to Sam, there to protect and guide. Until she disappears. Carrying on without her puts a big strain on a family we soon learn was going through difficulties already (some more out in the open than others), and whose communication had ground almost to a halt. The parents, Cole and Erin, are living example of the “opposites attract” edict, at least from a political perspective (Cole, the father, who as a young man decided formal education wasn’t for him and moved up the corporate ladder at lightning speed, is conservative as can be, while Erin, the mother, a college  graduate, is a convinced liberal who sacrificed her career to look after her children), and although the story opens up with Sam’s narration, we soon get to read their own perspective on the matter, and the kind of traps they find themselves in.

This is a story that deals in many important subjects, and it could have been told in a variety of ways, but I am impressed not only by the subjects (adultery and its toll on family relationships, sex trafficking, rape, prostitution, bullying, harassment and violence against the LGBT community, missing youths, the isolation of the trans-gender experience for young people, prejudice and harassment at work…) and the sensitive and enlightening way they are handled, but also by the way the story is told. The author allows each character to tell his/her own story, and that makes us walk a mile in their shoes, no matter how uncomfortable they might feel. I am sure many readers will think, as they read, that they would have never reacted in a certain way, or allowed their circumstances to deteriorate to such an extent, but, do we truly know? Although, as the author reminds us in the final note, the events in the book are far from unique (yes, it is a work of fiction, but many individuals and families unfortunately will go through similar experiences to those depicted in the book), many of us will never have been in close contact with somebody in such dire circumstances, much less be directly affected by it, so, how do we know what we would do? The characters are not necessarily the most likeable when we meet them (drinking heavily, harassed, afraid for their lives, paralysed and frozen, unable to make decisions and move on), and they are all closed off from each other, trapped, physically or mentally, sometimes by others and their preconceptions, sometimes by their own fears and inability to grief and forgive. The author also makes a conscious decision to introduce the rest of the family —the parents and Sam— first, so we get to see the effect her loss has had on the family, before we meet Brenna, the missing girl. Her situation is heart-wrenching, and the most extreme and difficult to read about, although none of the characters have an easy ride.

Thankfully, the author manages to achieve a difficult balance between telling the story, not pulling any punches, making sure people can understand and empathise with what the characters are going through, while avoiding extremely graphic scenes (both of sex and violence), and gratuitous iterations and repetitions of the abuse, which would risk further exploitation rather than facilitating understanding and empathy. Don’t get me wrong; this is a hard read, and readers with triggers arounds topics such as child abuse, rape, bullying, violence against women and the LGTB community, and racism need to be aware of it. Even people who don’t have such triggers will find it a tough read, but, on the other hand, this is a book with a big heart, and the individual journey of each character, and of the family as a whole, make for an inspiring and hopeful read.

I have already talked about how impressed I am by the story and the way it is told. I grew fond of all the members of the family by the end of the book (it’s impossible for our hearts not to go out to Sam and Brenna, but we get to appreciate their parents as well), and I particularly enjoyed the journey of enlightenment Cole’s father goes through. The author includes most of the reactions we can imagine to these subjects, from the sublime to the ridiculous, (not everybody changes and accepts either. Bigotry remains alive and well, as we all know), and they all felt true. I was particularly fond of Jeremiah and his wife — almost too good to be true— who are an ideal we should all aspire to. I also liked the fact that the story does not stop when most readers would expect it to, and even Sam makes comments on that. There is no magical happy ending here that just makes everything right again. All the members of the family will have to keep working at their relationship and supporting each other, but that is as it should be.

There were no negative reviews of the book at the time I wrote this, and the only objections (apart from the warning that it is not a romance) some people had referred to were Sam’s virtual game  playing (that a reader didn’t feel added anything to the novel. Personally, I think it helps readers understand what life is like for the character and experience the kind of coping strategies adolescents in similar circumstances might use), and some others felt the book could have been shorter and still managed to tell the same story. That might be true, but I suspect some of the nuances would have been lost.

This is an excellent book that manages to combine complex and credible characters with a plot that deals with several difficult subjects, without becoming preachy or too graphic. It is horrifying, touching, and insightful all at the same time, and it makes readers witness the highs and lows of the human condition. I recommended it to readers interested in the subjects, but I advise those who might worry about possible triggers to proceed with caution. The author adds some resources (links to websites) for people who need more information about some of the issues raised in the book, and I thought the final conversation of the book, between Brenna and her grandfather in the garden —when the grandfather talks about the snapdragon, and how it grows back after getting rid of the dead stuff, stronger and more beautiful— stands as a great metaphor for the story. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

A must-have for lovers of art and Paris.

The Art Lover's Guide to Paris - Ruby Boukabout

I freely chose to review an ARC paperback copy of this book provided by the publishers. This in no way affected its content.

There’s something exciting and reassuring about guide books. Exciting, because we feel submerged in a place we don’t know (or we don’t know well) and we vibrate with the adventures its pages offer us, and that happens even when we’re just checking to get some ideas rather than committing to a visit or a definite plan. And reassuring, because having information about a place that might be unknown (and sometimes pretty different to our everyday experience) and holding onto facts, advice, and suggestions, we feel less alone and more in control.

There are many guidebooks, and as many different approaches and styles as readers and travellers. Some people have their favourites and stick to them (we all know that some guides are parts of series and come with a seal of approval from trusted organisations and/or publishers), others shop and change, and there are people who might have a true collection of guides for locations they love, and are always in the lookout for a new approach, or one that covers in more detail some aspect of a place that they are particularly interested in. If you love travelling and books, for instance, there are literary guides that will offer you information about different authors, where they lived and what they did in a particular place (it would be difficult to visit Dublin and not think of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, visit Bath and not see in your mind’s eye the characters of Jane Austen’s novels, or walk around Barcelona and not keep coming across places mentioned in The Shadow of the Wind). I love reading and books, so I’ve always paid particular attention when visiting places to information about writers and authors, but I’m also enamoured with art (I am no aficionado, as I don’t know much, but I’m in awe of artists and love to learn about them and their works of art), so I could not resist when I saw this book.

I’ve visited Paris quite a few times (I’m lucky that one of my best friends lives in Paris, and I can visit one of my goddaughters when I go there), and I do love it. The idea of an art lover’s guide to Paris, one of the cities considered the cradle of art, fundamental to many art movements and to the career of so many world famous artists, was just perfect. And the book is a delight.

Considering this is a small-sized book, it is packed with information, and fairly up-to-date. (It does talk about Notre-Dame before the terrible fire, but the rest of the information is timely and there are reminders to check all the information for updates throughout the book). After a foreword by the author and a brief introduction talking about art history, the book (which includes an arrondissements map to allow people to get their bearings as to the location of the places), the book is divided into chapters including: the museums, foundations and institutions (organised by location), the galleries, it has a chapter on photography (including some photography tips), architecture, art in public places, then come two chapters talking about two neighbourhoods of Paris that are more “arty”, Montmartre (this one is divided into several parts and can be followed as a walking guide), and one on Belleville (a delight for those interested in modern art and new, up and coming artists),one on street art (I loved this one), a chapter containing advice on how to attend and art auction, one on arty cafés, restaurants and hotels, a chapter inviting people to explore greater Paris (that I found particularly inspiring, as it includes places easily accessible from Paris, just about an hour’s journey from the centre of Paris), a chapter called “art close and personal” with suggestions on where to go to meet artist and to learn more about art (and even practise your own!), arty day trips (these are longer visits, and include a lengthier segment on Giverny), another chapter offering tips, this one on buying art, by art experts, and an art diary, highlighting the different art fairs and events that art lovers might want to attend. The book also includes an index and a bibliography, although many of the entries contain relevant information and links that can be further explored.

The book is full of wonderful colour photographs, which make it a delight to leaf through, even if you’re not planning a trip straight away, and it contains nuggets of invaluable information about places and people, without becoming overwhelming or excessive. It is light-hearted, conversational in style (you feel as if you were strolling with the author at times), the language used is easy to read (and family-friendly), and it also includes references to other arts (for example, it highlights the real-life settings of movies).

This book will make a great present for anybody thinking about visiting Paris, art lovers in general, and anybody who likes specialised guide-books that remain accessible and user-friendly. Many of the tips and suggestions are useful in any setting and for any journey, and, personally, it will become a trusted companion in my future visits to Paris.

 

An exception to the rules about second parts.

The Devil in the Dock: A Bowman Of The Yard Investigation  - Richard James

I received an early ARC copy of this novel and I freely chose to review it.

I recently read, enjoyed, and reviewed the first novel in this series, The Head in the Ice, and was aware the second novel was on its way, and made sure to read it as soon as I was able to. And, let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint. If anything, I’d say I enjoyed it even more than the first instalment (and that is saying something).

The story is told from an omniscient point of view (I talked about it at length in my previous review, so I won’t repeat it here), and that gives the reader a chance to see things from different characters’ perspectives, and sometimes experiencing the confusion of their circumstances and the events they are confronted with (we see things from the point of view of one of the victims of the story at some point, and it does make for pretty unnerving reading). Although we mostly share in the point of view of D.I. Bowman, we also read more about Graves, one of the younger detectives working for him and the most sympathetic to Bowman’s circumstances, and that helps us not get completely sucked in by Bowman’s subjective experiences. I know some readers don’t feel comfortable with the changes in perspective implied by this point of view, but I again feel it fits the story well, and I’d advise checking a sample of the book in case of doubt.

We meet again some of the same characters from the previous novel, and the events follow chronologically on from the previous ones, to the point where Bowman gets moved onto a security detail because of doubts about his performance and his mental state in the previous case. Bowman is disappointed and tries even harder to get a hold on his flashbacks and on his difficult recovery from the trauma of his wife’s death and from his guilt about it (I’m trying not to give away spoilers). He is not totally successful; he drinks a bit too much and does not always look after his appearance as well as he should, but he manages to keep his wits about him, and the fact that his analytical mind keeps ticking, despite the stress and the grief, evidence his intelligence and suitability for the job. He is also determined, and although he knows his word is doubted because of his mental health issues, he never gives up in his pursuit of the truth.

We also learn more about Graves, who is a pretty jovial and genial character, but we discover he hides depths of feeling not so evident in the first novel. Even Hicks, a man mostly interested in making his employment in the police force as painless an experience as possible, appears less obnoxious and more willing to work as a member of a team, despite his questioning some of the decisions. We meet some other characters, get to know better Bowman’s boss, we meet Callahan, who seems only interest in advancing his career within the ranks of the police, no matter what it takes, and we also come across a host of secondary characters, including plenty of inhabitants of the criminal underworld (and the distinction is far from clear-cut at times). Oh, and I loved the baddy (but I won’t add anything else on that subject).

The novel is atmospheric and conveys extremely well the feeling of the era, without becoming a catalogue full of description of Victorian clothing and wares. We have fascinating historical notes, such as information about the building of Tower Bridge, in London, also of the Thames Tunnel (initially for pedestrian use), the Queen’s steamer, and I particularly enjoyed the insights into the London Docks and how they were used at the time, as they were the point of entry for most of the goods arriving from around the world into London. We see the extremes of poverty and wealth, and how they are hardly separated by a few yards, and the characters themselves reflect upon the social gap between the haves and the have-nots (in fact, a chasm), also noting the level of crime, corruption, and the intermingling of the criminal underworld and the everyday activities of many people. There are workers being injured, protection rackets at work, goods being stolen, kidnappings, illegal betting, drug use… but the legal side of things is hardly blameless, and it is not surprising that the population remain suspicious of the police and of the workings of the justice system. There is much talk in the book of the Empire, Queen Victoria, and certain practices —like the transportation to the colonies as punishment— are highlighted and questioned. Readers can make their own minds up, but it is difficult not to look at it and conclude that such projects have a high cost, and those who pay for it are rarely the ones who end up reaping the benefits.

The mystery part of the novel is extremely well constructed, and as I advised in the first novel, here it is necessary as well to keep one’s eyes open, and not miss anything, as there are clues dropped along the book, and none of them are casual. There are red-herrings, some of the characters are led down wrong lines of enquiry (it is all to do with the Fenian Brotherhood [the pro-Ireland Independence movement of the era]?, is it all part of a protection ring?, who is the Kaiser?), and Bowman’s mind starts seeing connections between what is happening and his own tragedy, but, are they real?  The novel alternates scenes of action with those of observation and enquiry, but the rhythm increases as the story progresses and towards the end, the action scenes come fast and thick, and we can hardly turn the pages quickly enough to keep up. I enjoyed the ending, even if it is not what I’d call a “happy” one per se, but it fits perfectly well with the story, it shows Bowman in a very good light, and it answers many questions, not all pertaining exclusively to this book.

This is another great Victorian mystery novel, with solid and complex characters, which poses questions about the society of the time and also about the nature of the British Empire. I look forward to reading more adventures of Bowman and his team in the future.

A beautiful gift for anybody who enjoys Georgian history and art.

All Things Georgian: Tales From The Long Eighteenth Century  - Joanne Major, Sarah Murden

Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

This book would make a perfect present for anybody who loves history and historical anecdote, especially from the Georgian era. There are elements that make it useful for reference (it includes family trees for the Hanover House and for the Stuarts, who were also pretenders to the crown; there is a timeline of the main events, covering the whole era [from 1714, when George I’s reign began, to 1830, when George IV died], a map of the UK highlighting all the towns and locations later mentioned in the book, and a detailed bibliography at the back of the book, listing the sources the authors have used to compile each one of the 25 chapters). This is a beautiful book, full of colour illustrations, that would delight art lovers (there are landscapes highlighting the settings of many of the stories and also, portraits of public figures, aristocrats, and other people who are the protagonists of the stories, some by famous artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds), as well as drawings and cartoons of the period, which help set the stories in their context.

As the authors explain in the introduction, the period has long fascinated people, and not only historians, because it was a quickly evolving era and many events that would change the world took place around this time: the French and the American Revolutions, Napoleon’s rise and fall, technological advances and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, and many scientific discoveries as well. The book does not cover the whole era in detail, as it would be impossible, and instead choses to pick up some specific events and historical figures that help highlight different aspects of the time, and manage to create a good picture of the era as a whole.

Although the content of the book mostly centres on events in the UK, there are also a couple of chapters dedicated to French characters (notably one to the attempted escape by Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, to Varennes), and the protagonists do range far and wide, including people from all walks of life. To my delight, there are many episodes dedicated to women (we have male impersonators [probably!], smugglers (high-ranking, as it seems that attempts at keeping the purchases of fine clothing limited to British manufacture made ladies turn very resourceful), actresses, jockeys, astronomers (Caroline Herschel’s story is fascinating), ladies taking to the air in balloons (I have a book on the subject, and I can’t wait to read it), a female bonesetter, a con woman…  There are plenty of men as well, of course, and curious episodes, like that of the Brighton’s travelling windmill, or Queen Anne’s zebra, and some darker happenings, like the assassination attempts on the king’s life, or the trade in dead bodies the resurrection men were involved in.

The authors, who are clearly experts in the subject (and, as mentioned above, have a blog called All Things Georgian, as well), write in a conversational style, and as we read the chapters, it feels as if they were talking about people they knew personally (the same way others would talk about their relatives, or current celebrities), adding titbits of information and connections to other relevant characters as they spin their tale.

I recommend this book to anybody interested in the Georgian era, even if the interest is only in passing. The illustrations are an added bonus, and the stories are so varied that most readers will find topics to their liking that will merit further research. This is not a book that will solve the doubts of people wanting to learn everything there is about the Georgian period, but it is a great appetizer, and will provide hours of entertainment and plenty of material for conversation. Don’t forget to check the authors’ other books if you are interested in the subject.

A lyrical book full of feeling and “duende”

The Other Half Of Augusta Hope - Stephanie Racine, Joanna Glen, Jude Owusu

Thanks to NetGalley and to HarperCollins UK/The Borough Press for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is an achingly beautiful book, one of those books that you read and don’t want to finish because… well, because you know you won’t find many, if any, quite like it. And certain experiences are there to be savoured.

The story starts with Augusta, one of a set of twins (her sister, Julia, was born on the 31st of July, therefore her name, and she was the second born, already on the 1st of August…) living in Britain, whose parents bought the first house in their neighbourhood, and who lead extremely conventional lives (their choice of names for their daughters seems to be the most adventurous thing they’ve ever done). Augusta —who narrates the story in the first person— and Julia are very close, although they are polar opposites (they look different, their attitudes to life are different, and other than their mutual affection, and their interest in Diego, a Spanish boy who moves to the same street, they seem to have little in common). Augusta loves words, reading the dictionary offers her comfort, her favourite poem is one about a pedlar [‘The Pedlar’s Caravan’ by William Brighty Rands], she sees herself travelling the world in a colourful caravan, when given the choice, she takes up Spanish at school —I love her teacher, Mr Sánchez— and starts chasing “el duende” (a concept difficult to translate, but something aficionados to flamenco music, singing, and dancing refer to when the experience of a performance reaches beyond aesthetic pleasure and enjoyment and transcends that, as if speaking directly to the soul), and decides to study far away from home, at Durham University. Her sister, by contrast, wants to make their parents happy, loves to live in their small town, become a nursery teacher, and marries her first boyfriend (the aforementioned Diego).

Augusta picks a country, seemingly randomly, just because she likes the sound of it, Burundi, keeps track of the events there, and she feels compelled to keep a big folder of notes on any interesting news item she comes across about Burundi (because, let’s face it, Burundi does not often make the news). Something happens during a holiday in Spain when they are teenagers, which Augusta is no party to, and the whole family, especially her sister, seem changed by the experience, but they don’t tell her anything, and that makes her feel even more of an outsider.

At the beginning of the book, I assumed that the other half of Augusta was her sister, but I was wrong (although yes, there is some of that as well). Some parts of the novel, alternating with those narrated by Augusta, are narrated by Parfait, a boy, slightly older than Augusta, from Burundi. He has six siblings, and his life couldn’t be more different to Augusta’s, although readers will pick up similarities as well (the love for words and learning, the eagerness to travel and move away, although here easier to justify due to the circumstances his family and the whole country are going through). He also meets a wonderful Spanish character, a priest, Victor, who inspires him. As we read, we start to make connections and the magic of the book envelops us. But, don’t be mistaken. The book is magical, lyrical, beautiful, full of poetry (Augusta loves Federico García Lorca’s poems and his plays, and there are many references and points of contacts with Yerma, La casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba), and Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), and there are also references to other poems, cante jondo songs, music, dance, and paintings), but terrible things happen as well to the characters, and although not described in detail (they happen “off-the-page”), they are hard and heart-wrenching. Some we are fully aware of at the time, some we only get to know in their entirety much later on. Like much of Lorca’s work, this is a book about death, grief, loss, and about topics as current as war-torn countries, migrants and refugees, race relations, Brexit, and families. But, there are wonderful and funny moments too, many touching ones (I did cry more than once reading this novel), and, well, the main character’s surname, Hope, is pretty becoming to the story as a whole.

Augusta is a fabulous character, and so are all her family, and Parfait and his, and also the friends they both meet in Spain. (Oh, and Graham Cook and his family. They are priceless). The two narrators are, in some ways, mirror images of each other, or even better, like the positive and the negative of the same image, in old-style photography. None of the characters are perfect, (well, Parfait fits his name well), but all, even the secondary ones, are complex enough, with their good and their bad things (of course, we see them through the narrators’ eyes, but the two narrators are not trying to deceive us here, and this is not a story of unreliable narrators, at least not intentionally so. They might be mistaken in their judgements or impressions, but they never try to lead the reader down the garden path). The places, especially La Higuera, the house in Andalucia and the town around it, become characters in their own right, and the writing is fluid, and gorgeous. The ending is also pretty wonderful, in case you were wondering.

I highlighted so much of the book that it was almost impossible to choose something to give you an idea of what the writing is like, but I’ve tried. In the first one, Augusta shares an anecdote that beautifully illustrates the different approaches to life of the two sisters.

We were given tricycles, mine, yellow, and Julia’s, pink. Julia drew chalk lines on the drive and spent the day reversing into parking spaces. I rode out of the drive, turned left, curved around to number 13, at the top of the crescent, twelve o’clock, crossed the road precariously to the roundabout and drove my trike into the fishpond singing ‘We All Live in a Yellow Submarine’.

There are places —aren’t there? Places which are so full of feeling you hardly dare return to them.

‘Do you think our brains will gradually evolve to hold less and less information? And soon we’ll be Neanderthals again but with iPhones?’

‘I suppose that could be a good definition of love,’ I said. ‘Crying for another person —like their pain is yours.’

In sum, if you love quirky and wonderful characters, you want to read about Spain, Burundi, and poetry, you enjoy beautiful writing, and you don’t mind having a good cry, this is the book for you. Personally, I can’t recommend it enough. And I look forward to more novels by this author.

A solid reference book for authors, amateur historians, and people interested in the big British families.

Great British Family Names and Their History: What's in a Name?  - John Moss

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me a hardback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Let me clarify something from the very beginning: the book includes an ample biography and online resources for people interested in genealogy and doing their own research about the origins of their family (and an index to find specific information as well), but it is not a book where most British people (or people with British roots) are likely to find their direct ancestors. (Oh, by the way, because of the many historical changes and the way members of a family have moved across over the years, although the book centres on Great Britain, it does include both, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland). The author explains, in his foreword, his method, including the documents he based most of his information on (oh, taxes and taxation documents are older than we realise, The Domesday Book features prominently, and quite a few others), and also his choices. As he explains, this book is only a snapshot and tries to include names of families who’ve played pivotal roles in the history of the country. Some are already lost, but many remain familiar, be it because of history books or, in some cases, because their descendants still play important roles that help maintain them under the limelight (in some cases, quite literally).  

I am not British, have no British ancestors that I know of, and my interest in the book was mostly for reference. As an avid reader and writer, I am always intrigued by the historical connections between characters and families, and also by names. I’ve often read interviews with authors where they explain their process when researching the names of their characters and how, on many occasions, they look for names whose meaning or connections can become significant to the story, even symbolic at times. Although I haven’t done that too often, I must confess to struggling with surnames sometimes, and I can imagine this will be a much bigger concern for authors who write historical fiction. This book, divided into ten chapters covering the whole of Great Britain geographically, is a great starting point. It links the family names to their seats and areas by zones, including information on the origin of the name (many came with William the Conqueror from France, or followed shortly after, but not all), how the family fared later, the houses and titles they had, where the different branches of the family ended up, and where are they now (if there are any members of the family still connected to the name). Although it does not include all the details, it does mention members of the family who moved to Australia, America, etc., so it will be of interest to people from those countries aware of family connections and also to people interested in history and the ins and outs of the connections between noble and aristocratic families in the UK.

One of the things that grabbed my attention, and I hadn’t thought about before, was the information about the mansions, palaces, and houses that had belonged, at one point or other, to the members of those families. I love to visit historical houses (and the National Trust and National Heritage in the UK have done a great job of maintaining and restoring many of those properties and opening them up to visitors), and as I read, I discovered information about the owners of many of the properties I had visited over the years, some I was familiar with, but some that was totally new to me. I knew, for instance, that the Howard family’s (of Norfolk, yes, Thomas Howard, the uncle of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, that Howard family) seat was Arundel Castle (a beautiful Grade I listed building I recommend visiting. Don’t miss the Canaletto painting), and I knew they were related to the Howards of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, one of my favourite places. (If you’ve watched the Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard is Brideshead in that series and in a more recent movie adaptation. If you haven’t watched it, what are you waiting for? It’s a masterpiece!). I enjoyed learning more about the family, reading about the Fiennes Family of Banbury (a very illustrious and busy family, with current members of branches of the family as well-known as William Fiennes, author; Sir Ranulph Fiennes, explorer; Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, actors; and travel writer Celia Fiennes). The Russell (Roussel or Rosel) Family of Dorset has produce over the years members of parliaments, a Prime Minister (John Russell), and Bertrand Russell, Nobel Prize for Literature, and many more.

If I had to make any recommendations to the author and the publisher, it would be to consider including some family trees. I know there are far too many names and families to be exhaustive, but the family trees of some of the most significant family names —with many branches and connections— would make for fascinating visual documents and clarify how closely-knit some of those family circles are. Photographs of some of the family seats, the wonderful mansions, castles and properties, would also enhance the appeal of the book and make it visually more exciting.

I recommend this book to authors, historians, and researchers looking for general information about the big British families and their origins, and also to people interested in learning more about an area’s history and about how the ownership of the big properties in a region have changed over time.

 

A gently inspiring story in a charming Texan setting

Jackson - Emily March

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed one of Emily Barr’s novels in the Eternity Springs series, The Christmas Wishing Tree, last summer and enjoyed it, particularly the lovely town of Eternity Springs, and I could not resist checking what her new story was like.

This novel is a crossover (or a spin-off, I guess) of that other series, as it does include quite a few of the characters of Eternity Springs, and, in fact, Celeste Blessing plays quite a part in getting things started,  but it focuses on three male cousins, the McBrides, who are very close in age and grew up together, share wonderful memories, but have taken very different paths in life. They are left a pretty interesting legacy from their great-aunt, and it gives them an opportunity to start a project together, in Texas.

Jackson McBride, the protagonist of the story (or one of them. Caroline Carruthers plays a very important part in the story, if not the most important), is a musician, a composer of Americana/country music, who’s been unable to compose since his marriage ended, and he lost the custody battle for his little girl, Hailey. But his love for music remains unabated, and the project at Last Hope gives him a different avenue to invest it on, one that will allow him to help other performers and recover a historical venue.

We meet Caroline Carruthers at a difficult time in her life. She married a man fifteen years older than her, a professor, when he was quite young, and she seems to have become his wife, first and foremost. She writes articles about Texas for magazines, but her life is turned upside down when her husband is diagnosed with early dementia. Her sister-in-law does not accept her decision of having her husband looked after in a nursing home, and the situation brings home just how dependent Catherine has become on her husband and how limited her personal support network is. A chance encounter with Celeste makes her discover Redemption, Texas, and she gets a second chance.

This novel shares many of the characteristic that made me enjoy the previous one. Redemption is a pretty interesting and welcoming place, Enchanted Canyon Ranch, and Ruin, the ghost town, are great settings, beautiful, magical, and we get to see how Angelica (Celeste’s cousin, another cousin in a book full of them, and my favourite character), Jackson, and Boon transform the place into a haven, the Texan cousin of Celeste’s inn at Eternity Springs. The landscape and descriptions of the natural beauty of the area are vivid and make readers wish they could be there, and the writer captures well the language, customs, and local expressions (even if it some of the situations ring of an adult fairy tale). There are also great secondary characters, some that are likely to play bigger parts in other books in the series, and for those readers who are already familiar with Eternity Springs, there are plenty of familiar faces who make an appearance here (even I, who’ve only read one of the books, recognized quite a few). I also enjoyed the relationships between friends and family members, and the interactions between the cousins had that ease and familiarity that made them ring true. There is plenty of humour, some drama (yes, bad things happen and there’s grief in store for many of the characters), and a fairly gentle story, with bickering and discussions over decorating and sports, music, dogs, food, families and friendships.

The main characters are likeable, have suffered in their personal lives, and deserve a second chance. They are both reluctant to commit to new relationships because they are grieving for their last ones, but… Well, I was going to say this is a romance after all, and it is, but it also has much in common with women’s fiction, despite the male coprotagonist. Caroline grows strong throughout the book, takes control of her own life, and acquires a network of female friends who support her no matter what. Jackson already had his cousins, although they all seem to keep secrets, and his recovery involves helping his ex-wife stand tall and start behaving like an adult. Women are the ones who change and grow the most throughout the novel, and although their roles might appear conventional at first, they prove they are stronger and more determined than they thought. As I said, I found the characters likeable, but I felt about them a bit like I would about a nice couple I’d met and chatted one evening. I have the best wishes for them, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them around every now and then, but I don’t think they’ll leave a lasting impression, and there wasn’t anything particularly distinctive or memorable about them (although I liked the sound of Caroline’s bookshop, The Next Page).

I read some reviews that complained about the references and inclusion of characters not directly related to the stories, and got a bit lost. As I said, I have met some of the characters before, so I was slightly more familiar with them, but I wouldn’t let that scare any possible readers, as it is not a big part of the book, and it does not hinders the understanding of the action. (It involves the chapters around the opening of the new inn, and Boon’s friends from Eternity Springs turn up as guests, and that means a fair amount of new people who suddenly land there). On the other hand, I’m pretty convinced that readers of the series will be delighted to catch up with some of their favourite characters in the new setting.

This is a nice and gentle read, with no violent or sex scenes, in an enchanting Texan setting , likely to appeal to readers of romance, especially that set in the world of the music industry, Americana in particular, women’s fiction, and stories about second chances. The characters don’t break any molds, and it is not a particularly challenging story, but it is a comforting one. Recommended to readers of the Eternity Springs series and to anybody keen on a refreshing and gently inspiring story.

A must for researchers and a fascinating book for anybody interested in the topic.

The Sniper Encyclopaedia: An A–Z Guide to World Sniping - John Walter

I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me a hardback review copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Let me be clear about this: I know next to nothing about weapons in general, and I only know about snipers and their weapons of choice what I’ve picked up in TV series and documentaries, movies, and books. So this is not an expert’s review, rather the opposite.

You’ll probably ask why I was interested in this boo. Partly, because I’ve watched movies and news items about snipers (both modern and historical), and it’s impossible not to recall certain events and think about the people and the weapons behind them. Also, because I’m a writer, and I know how important it is to have reliable sources to research topics we want to write about. I’m also a translator, and after dedicating a fair amount of my time to working on books by other writers, I’ve discovered how complicated it can be to find the right word or term to refer to an object or device you know little about, and how complex it can get to describe an action that might come natural to an expert on the field, but is anything but for somebody totally new to it. Of course, you also have to think that not all readers are going to be experts either. How do you explain something that you don’t understand yourself? After trying to make sure a fight scene in a petrol tanker sounded accurate without having any idea what it looks like inside, I can tell you it’s not easy.

So, beyond my personal curiosity, (and yes, I must confess I’ve always wondered about the kind of training and personality required for somebody to be able to focus on such a task and not think… well, you know what I mean), I thought this sounded like a great resource for researchers and writers, and the reviews from people who knew about the subject reassured me that it wouldn’t disappoint.

And it didn’t. The book is fascinating and, as you can imagine, packed with information. The author explains his methodology, and clearly states that although he has tried to include as much information as possible, the sheer numbers of people and weapons made it necessary to scale down the size of the project. The availability of data was another difficulty. The book refers mostly to USA, UK, German and Russian snipers, and mostly those in the military (Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper credited with somewhere between 505 and 542 kills, depending on the sources, and who proved to be a nightmare for the Russians, who called him ‘the White Ghost’, is also included, and his memoir, called The White Sniper, sounds fascinating, I must say) and/or security forces, and Walter explains that in some cases (for example when having to choose weapons and manufacturers), his personal taste has played a part. He has also included more detailed entries about snipers whose biographies have been published, as people can easily access more information. (There have been, and are, many snippers in the armies of other countries, but their details are not available to outside researchers).

The author includes a page on bibliography and sources, dividing it into general studies, genealogical details, weapons and equipment, and tactics and training. Those include online resources and books that will delight people keen on digging deeper into the topic.

The encyclopaedia is, of course, organized in alphabetic order and full of illustrations, mostly photographs, but also drawings with details of sights and weapons. There are also lists of snipers, some about specific conflicts (WWI, for example), or even battles (Leningrad snipers is one of those), but also lists of male and female top snipers (they are both Russians, as it seems the Russian army uses snipers far more than any others). As an outsider it is a bit strange to think of what these numbers actually mean (the top male “scorer” has over 700 “scores”) and reading this book one’s mind boggles at times. I was fascinated, at the same time, by the female snippers, their pictures, and their stories. Among them, one that will stay with me is the story of Nataliya, or Natasha, Kovshova who fought during WWII and died with Mariya Polivanova after being badly injured, by pulling the pin of a grenade and taking some of the enemies with them. They were made Heroes of the Soviet Union posthumously and, although it seems there have been some questions as to what exactly happened, the basic facts are correct.

As I said, there is especial attention given to snipers who have written books about their experiences or have had books written about them, and that makes this encyclopaedia interesting to those trying to explore or find personal accounts on the topic, as it provides biographical information and also information about the content of the book, if available in English. As the back cover summarises, this book includes: 750 standard entries, 100 extended features and ‘top 20’ lists, over 400 biographies and 200 illustrations, and I recommend it to anybody who wants to gain a solid basis in the knowledge about sniping, the people involved and their weapons. Another great book by Pen & Sword.

Creature/cosmic horror, a great protagonist, and a fascinating historical setting

The Resurrectionists (The Salem Hawley Series) - Michael Patrick Hicks

Wow! I read and reviewed another novella by Michael Patrick Hicks not so long ago (or at least it remains very fresh in my mind), and I’d read great reviews for this novella as well, so I knew it would be good. In this novella, like in the previous one, the author manages to pack great (and pretty scary) action scenes, to create characters we care for, and to bring depth into the proceedings, with a great deal of sharp social commentary, all in a small number of pages.

This novella also combines elements from a large number of genres, and it does it well. Yes, it is horror (and “cosmic” horror fits it well) but that’s only the beginning. We have historical fiction (the 1788 Doctor’s riot, which took place in New York as a result of the actions of a number of medical students and their professors, known as Ressurrectionists [hence the title), who robbed graves to get bodies for study and experimentation, disproportionately those of African-Americans, was the inspiration for the whole series, as the author explains in the back matter); elements of gothic horror (fans of Frankenstein should check this novella out); some of the experiments brought to mind steam-punk, there are monsters and creatures (Lovecraftians will definitely have a field day); a grimoire written in an ancient  language with fragments of translations that brings the occult into the story (and yes, secret societies as well)… All this in the historical background of the years following the American War of Independence, characters traumatised by what they had lived through, and an African-American protagonist, Salem Hawley, who has to deal with the added trauma of past slavery on top of everything else.

The story is narrated in the third person, mostly from Hawley’s point-of-view, although we also get to see things from the perspective of some of the less savoury characters (not that anybody is whiter than snow here, and that ambiguity makes them all the more real), and it is a page turner, with set action pieces and scenes difficult to forget. The rhythm of the language helps ramp up the tension and the frenzy of some of the most memorable battle scenes (we have memories of real battles and also battles against… oh, you’ll have to read it to see), which will be very satisfying to readers who love creature/monster horror. There are also some metaphysical and contemplative moments, but those do not slow down the action, providing only a brief breather and helping us connect with the characters and motivations at a deeper level.

I guess it’s evident from what I’ve said, but just in case, I must warn readers that there is plenty of violence, extreme violence, gore, and scary scenes (especially for people how are afraid of monsters and strange creatures), but the monsters aren’t the only scary beings in the story (there is a scene centred on one of the students —the cruellest one, based on a real historical character— that made my skin crawl, and I think it’s unlikely to leave anybody feeling indifferent). Also, this is the first novella in a series, and although the particular episode of the riot reaches a conclusion, there are things we don’t know, mysteries to be solved, and intrigue aplenty as the novella ends (oh, and there’s a female character I’m very intrigued by), so people who like a neat conclusion with all the loose end tied, won’t find it here.

I have also mentioned the author’s note at the end of the book, explaining where the idea for the series came from, offering insights and links into some of the research he used, and also accounting for the historical liberties he took with some of the facts (I must confess I had wondered about that, and, as a doctor, there were scenes that stretched the suspension of disbelief. Fans of historical fiction might take issue with the factual inaccuracies if they are sticklers for details. Perhaps a brief warning at the beginning of the book might put them at ease, because I think that moving the note to the beginning could detract from the element of surprise and enjoyment). I was fascinated by this historical episode (I was more familiar with the body snatchers exploits in the UK), and I’ll be sure to read more about it.

A thrilling story, well-written, packed with action, creature and cosmic horror, a great protagonist and a fascinating historical background. I can’t wait for part 2!

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this novella that I freely chose to review.

An American-Latina Cinderella story and a whirlwind soap opera

The Perfect Date - Holly L Lorincz, Evelyn Lozada

I thank NetGalley and St. Martin’s (MacMillan) for providing me an early ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Although I don’t normally look at the reviews of a book in detail before I read it (I do to decide if I’m interested in reading the book or not, but I don’t want to spoil my enjoyment), because I update my current reading on several book sites, I can’t help but see what the general ratings for the book I’m about to start reading look like. Let me tell you I was alarmed when I saw how many 1 star reviews this book had. I was even more concerned because, based on the description, I had agreed to participate in a Blog tour, and I was worried about having made a serious mistake and having to vow out of it. Luckily, I enjoyed the book (yes, it’s far from perfect, but I wasn’t expecting perfection), and I wonder if having read the reviews and getting a clear idea of what had upset other readers didn’t prepare me for what was to come and helped me not go into it with false expectations.

The cover, I think, can make people expect a “sweet” or “cute” romance. Well, that, it is not. The description hints at the personality of Angel (perhaps more accurately than that of Duke, whom many readers didn’t like at all), but readers might have expected a more standard romance, where the romantic side of things is the main story. I agree with the readers who said this novel has a lot of “drama”. Oh, yes, it does. It is like a melodrama on steroids, rough around the edges, and it feels like a fairly extreme soap opera. People wear their hearts (and rage) on their sleeves, they don’t do stiff-upper-lip or measured emotions, and they throw themselves headlong into life. It might be because I’m Spanish and we are supposed to be “red-blooded” (what other colour our blood would be, I have no idea), “passionate”, and “hot tempered” and those attributes (I don’t think they are always helpful, but I refuse to call them defects) are also expected of Latinos in general, and because I’ve watched and enjoyed Central and South-American soap operas, but I did like the oomph of Angel, the main character, even if she was not always consistent (but hey, I’ve never found characters in romantic novels or chick-lit entirely consistent). In some ways, her part of the story has strong elements of women’s fiction, even if the style of writing is different. A young Puerto-Rican woman, a single mother from a young age, she’s had to fight against the odds to try to make a living for herself and her little boy, Jose, who unfortunately suffers from asthma. Working two jobs at the same time, studying all hours to get her nursing qualification, and relying on her friend Gabriela, the hairdresser with a heart of gold (the interaction between the women sometimes made me think of Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes, minus the Southern gentility), being subject to a #metoo kind of situation (well, more than one), she is pushed and pulled in all directions but tries to remain strong and keep her moral compass. Yes, she loses her cool every so often, but I cheered her on more than once.

Hers is a Cinderella story, indeed, one in a more soap operatic style than a gentle fairy tale (not that fairy tales are truly gentle), with over the top villains who seem to be villains just because they are (no justification or exploration of the baddies. In olden times, I’m sure one of them would have worn a big moustache he’d twirl, and the other one would have been a proper witch), and where Cinderella is far from the passive and pretty young girl just waiting for the prince to come rescue her (she actually kicks him out more than once). The love interest, Caleb, “The Duke”, has his own Cinderella story, as they share in their humble origins (although he is African-American rather than Puerto-Rican), but he’s now living the aftermath of the Cinderella story, and realising that the people who surround him are not true friends, and money cannot buy the really important things. Many readers say he is not likeable because he thinks only of himself (well, yes, mostly, although he shows concern for Angel’s boy, puts his own career at risk for him, and he is also outraged when he reads about the lack of appropriate asthma treatment for children from diverse ethnic background). We do learn about his circumstances, he is put through the wringer in the novel, and his character bears some resemblance to the rakes readers of Georgian and Victorian literature are so fond of. (Perhaps he lacks some of the charm, but that might be in part because we see him from his own point of view at times, rather than what tends to happens with the rogues, who tend to remain attractive, mysterious and dangerous men, whose motivations we know little about). He helps save the day in the end, and, although he will not rate among my favourite male protagonists, he isn’t the worst either.

The book includes many side-stories —I’ve mentioned the issue of the lack of treatments for Jose, and the novel makes a serious point about the lack of investment in research, by the pharmaceutical companies, of appropriate treatment for diverse populations. Yes, we are not all young white males and our bodies do not respond the same as theirs to the medication; and we also have difficult family relations, grief, sexual harassment, alcohol and drug abuse… — and it is set in the world of sports (baseball), and of celebrity culture. Considering Lozada’s credentials, I am not surprised she has a lot to say on the subject, and the baseball players’ wives (a bit like the footballers’ wives in other countries) interactions rang true. There are comedic moments, although they are far from subtle and some people might not find them funny, but if you let yourself go along for the ride and get into the spirit of it, this is a fun read, touching and inspiring as well.

The book is narrated in the third-person, alternating the points of view of Angel and The Duke. As I said, I read an early ARC copy of the novel, and I noticed readers complained about there not being a clear distinction between the one point of view and the other, but expect this will have been corrected in the final version of the novel, as will, I hope, some awkward Spanish phrasing at the beginning of the book.

Although this is not a standard romantic novel, the ending does live up to the genre (wish-fulfilment and all) and yes, I enjoyed it. If you’re easily offended or are looking for a genteel and/or gentle romance, this is not the book for you. I’d recommend reading through the sample and being prepared for a full-on whirlwind soap, that stretches the limits of credibility (and for some, perhaps, of good taste), and mixes a lot of other genres. If all that doesn’t scare you, give it a go! It will be a wild ride!

A wonderful gift for lovers of the Brontës, walking and history

Literary Trails: Haworth and the Brontës  - Catherine Rayner, David F. Walford

Thanks to Rosie Croft of Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I love walking. Perhaps because I was a clumsy child (and I can’t say I’m the most graceful of adults, either), overweight, and lacking a good sense of balance, many sports didn’t like me (it was mutual!), but walking I could do, and I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity it gives us to contemplate life at a slow pace and to discover things, people, and places that might pass us by if we use other means of transport.

I love the Brontës as well. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre have long been among my favourite novels (I must read some of Anne’s novels in English, I know), and I’ve lived and worked in Yorkshire, quite close to the area where they lived for lengthy periods, and loved the landscape as well. So, of course I had to have this book.

Wherever I visit, if I can fit in, I try to join a literary walk. It’s a great way to combine two of my favourite activities: reading and walking. (I also listen to audiobook while going for walks sometimes). If the guide is skilled and knowledgeable, you can learn fascinating information about the city or area, about the author or authors, and feel as if you were going back in time and experiencing what the place might have been like when the author lived there. This book offers us the same kind of experience. Although it is written as a companion for people planning a visit to Haworth and its vicinity, it is so packed with information, photographs, maps, literary references, and advice, that it will be indispensable to anybody who wants to learn more about the sisters and submerge herself or himself in the landscape the authors loved so much.

The book is divided into 20 chapters, it contains 19 walks of varied difficulty (some are short walks within the town of Haworth itself, and the first one, in fact, is a walk around the Parsonage where the Brontës lived, now a museum), and a few introductory chapters. There is the introduction proper, explaining the reasons behind the writing of the book, chapter 2 talks about West Yorkshire and the Haworth area, chapter 3 offers a guide to safe and responsible walking, chapter 4 summarises the history of the Brontë family and chapter 5 talks specifically about the Brontës in Haworth and what happened to them there. Then follow the chapters about the walks (some containing one walk in detail, while some of the later ones, which are longer and stray farther away from Haworth, sometimes include a couple of walks that might be combined, always offering options to reduce their length. There are even some that include the option of jumping on a train). The final chapter talks about the art of walking and what effects it had (positive and negative) on the Brontës. There is also a bibliography that will be of interest to anybody keen on increasing their knowledge on the sisters.

All the chapters are structured in a similar way, first offering a narrative, a fact file of the walk (including the Ordnance Survey Map, general information as to the terrain, level of difficulty, length, likely duration, facilities, and also any relevant warnings), followed by maps or graphics (depending on the topic), and then a collection of photographs, all in black and white, which can aid people going for the walks to find their location easily, but will help readers imagine what the place is like as well. (I must confess I would have liked to see colour photographs, but I can see how the black & white pictures recreate the nostalgic air of the area and help us imagine the old times, as they combine more seamlessly with the archival old photographs. It is also true that the moors change colours so dramatically with the seasons that it would be difficult to give readers an accurate idea of what the place is like in different times of the year).

What did I enjoy the most? Having visited Haworth, the surrounding area, the Parsonage, and having walked around (in town, but also some of the longer walks that include landscapes and buildings said to have inspired the sisters’ writing), I enjoyed the pictures, which reminded me of many familiar places and others that had passed me by (I must visit Thornton, where the family lived before they moved to Haworth, if I can). I also enjoyed the titbits of information about buildings, how those had changed over time, and how the authors managed to make readers imagine what the sisters and their family would have experienced and seen at the time, including also poems, and references to their work.

These are the moors above and beyond Haworth spreading for miles to the west and containing old farmsteads and ruined houses dating back to the Elizabethan era and where people have lived and worked for centuries. They can be covered in swirling mist or blazing sunshine, snow and piercing gales, or have an eerie calm. They can be loud with the cries of animals and birds or silent as a tomb in their deep holes and clefts. They are harsh and they are beautiful. (Walford & Rayner, 2018, p. 5).

While most of the book centres on the beauty and the wonders one can see and experience when visiting the place, the authors excel also at explaining what the living conditions were like at the time. Although today Haworth might feel quaint, charming, and romantic (yes, it is all that and lovely to visit, believe me), this is quite different to what it had been like at the time, when the living conditions were quite terrible, the industrial revolution was steamrolling everything, mills were popping up all around, filling the atmosphere with smoke and soot, transport was difficult, sanitation ranged from bad to inexistent… It is not surprising that the six Brontë children died young, as did their mother, and they were not the only ones.

“Through hard and dangerous work, squalid living conditions, polluted water supplies, poor sanitation and disease, the town of Haworth was killing its own community in the nineteenth century” (Walford & Rayner, 2018, p. 8).

The chapter of the walk around the graveyard attached to the Parsonage, chapter 8, reads at times like a gothic horror novel, with graves piled up 10 to 12 high, and rainwater running from the moors down the graveyard filtering into the drinking water, and likely being the cause of cholera, typhoid fever, and some of the other illnesses common at the time. (Life expectancy was 25 at the time). On the other hand, this same chapter also includes information on the symbolism of the carvings on the graves (for instance, a Celtic cross would mean eternity, and an angel with open wings, the flight of the soul to Heaven).

One of my favourite chapters (and yes, if I go back to the area I’ll be sure to take the book and follow as many of the walks as I can) is the last one, on the art of walking. It is a fascinating reminder of a time when people mostly walked everywhere, and they didn’t have appropriate clothing or shoes in most cases (the authors remind us that the father of the Brontës never owned a horse, and tells us of a visit of Branwell [their brother] to Charlotte that would have meant a 65 km (40 miles) round trip, walking, in one day. If you didn’t have a lot of money, there weren’t many options then, and your health could suffer if the weather was bad. But nowadays, we are lucky, and walking is a healthy option with many benefits, for our bodies and minds.

In summary, this is a fantastic book for people planning a visit to Haworth and the surrounding area, but also for anybody who loves the Brontës and wants to learn more about their time and lives in a visual and tangible way. It will inspire readers to visit (even if it is only with their imagination) the landscapes and the streets the sister walked, and will help them understand better what makes their voices so haunting and distinct. This book is also a beautiful gift to walkers and historians who want to learn more about this time and area in an engaging and enjoyable way.

As the authors say:

It is important to remember the old ways and the people of the past and the efforts they made to improve and enhance society, so that in the 21st century people in this country, and many others, can live healthier, easier and more entertaining lives. There is still much evidence of the past remaining which can help modern society to recall and appreciate its heritage. (Walford & Rayner, 2018, pp. 273-4)

A solid police-procedural with an inspiring female protagonist

A Woman of Valor - Gary Corbin

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.

I reviewed another one of this author’s books (The Mountain Man’s Badge, the third book in the Mountain Man’s Mysteries series), enjoyed it and was pleased when I was given the chance to review this book, as I always feel slightly uneasy when I start reading a series in the middle, because I am aware that I am missing on the background and the development of the characters throughout the previous books, and my review will not be able to reflect that aspect of the story. Here, we have a stand-alone novel (after reading the book and getting to the end of it, it seems that there is a second novel with the same protagonist, Valorie Dawes, due for publication in the spring of 2020, so you won’t have to say goodbye forever to the characters if you get attached to them) and therefore we get an opportunity to meet the characters and become familiar with the setting from the start.

This novel combines the police procedural (a rookie policewoman following in the footsteps of her uncle, who was more of a father and hero figure for her than her own father, joins the police local police force, learns the difference between the books and the streets, and tries to catch a criminal that brings back memories she’d rather forget) with subjects and themes more common in women’s fiction (the protagonist was sexually abused as a child and despite her best efforts is still affected by the experience; she has to confront plenty of prejudice and sexism in the police force, has a difficult relationship with her father, and can’t help compare herself to her best friend, who seems to have a much easier and happier life than hers). The author manages to make the mix of the two genres work well, providing plenty of details of how the local police force works that felt quite realistic (and the language and descriptions of the characters, narrated in the third-person —mostly from the point of view of the protagonist— seem straight out of a police report), and demonstrates a good insight into the mind-set of a young woman who has survived such trauma and finds herself confronted by sexist, abusive, and old-fashioned attitudes. (There are small fragments of the book told from some of the other characters’ point of view, also in the third-person, but those are brief, and other than giving us an outsider’s perspective on the main character, I didn’t feel they added much to the plot). Her fight to overcome her difficulties, to take other people into her confidence, and to make meaningful connections, is inspirational and will also feel familiar to readers of literary fiction or women’s fiction.

As mentioned in the description, this book feels, unfortunately, very current, not only because of the abuse (even if the story was originally developed well before #metoo shone some light into the scale of the problem), but also because of the prejudiced attitude of the police towards ethnic minorities (racial profiling is evident throughout the plot), and the way social media can spread falsehoods and fake news, ruining somebody’s reputation only to gain a bit of notoriety. There are plenty of action scenes, chases, and violence (although not extreme) but there are also the slow moments when we see the characters patrolling the streets, making connections with the local gang, or interacting with the locals, and that also felt more realistic than the non-stop frantic rhythm of some thrillers, that seem to never pause for characters to have some breathing space. It shows the work of the police in its various forms, not always running after criminals, but there are also the quiet moments (waiting around, doing research, manning the phones), and when there are actions scenes, these are also followed by consequences that some novels brush over (filling up forms, reporting to Internal Affairs and seeing a having a psychological evaluation after a lethal shooting). Although it is mostly set in a chronological order from the moment Val joins the police force, there are chapters where something makes her remember what happened ten years ago, and we get a flashback from her perspective as a 13 y. o. girl. These interludes are clearly marked in the book, and rather than causing confusion, help us understand what Val is going through and why she reacts as she does to her experiences. She is very closed off, she is insecure, finds it difficult to trust people, men in particular, and struggles to maintain her professionalism when confronted with certain types of criminals. There is much discussion in the book about different types of policemen (I’ll leave you to read about those yourself), and she fights hard to be deserving of her uncle’s memory.

The author is skilled at managing a large cast of diverse characters: Val’s friend, Beth; her father, who is on a slippery-slope of self-destruction; Gil, her partner, a sympathetic and likeable character; the other policemen in the team, including her superiors (more enlightened than most of the other men), the other women in the force (and there are wonderful scenes of sisterhood between the women), her brother, sister-in-law and her cute little niece (obsessed with becoming a policewoman like her aunt), the members of an African-American gang (who although tough and engaged in criminal activities, live by their own code of honour), a blogger with inside information who is happy to distort the truth… and of course, the nasty criminal, who has no redeeming features. Even those who play a small part are realistically portrayed and add to the atmosphere and the realism of the novel. This is not one of those books that take place in a city but feel as if only four or five people were living there. We see neighbours, the owners of businesses, and we also have a good sense of the connections between the local police force and the others in the same county and state.

On reading the author notes after the novel, I felt quite touched by the story behind it, and understood why it feels so personal, despite this being a novel with a main female character written by a male author. In the acknowledgements, the author thanks several members of law enforcement for their expertise and advice, which he has incorporated well into the novel, and the book contains a list of questions that should prove particularly useful for book clubs.

In my opinion, this is a novel that includes a solid plot, with a main bad character (who is truly bad) all readers will hate, some lesser unlikeable characters (the blogger, many of the other policemen Val comes across), some intrigue (who is feeding inside distorted information to the blogger?, what really happened to Val’s uncle?), a hint of romance (don’t worry, honestly. This is not a romantic novel), sympathetic characters easy to engage with and root for, even if we might have very little in common with them, particularly Val and Gil, and a more than satisfying ending.

As I said, I read an early ARC copy of the book, so there might be some minor changes in the final version. This is a book that contains some violence, shootings, and sexual abuse of young girls (and although not extremely explicit, I am aware this could be a trigger for some readers).

A wonderful chronicle for anybody interested in local history

Barnsley at War 1939–45 (Your Towns & Cities in World War Two)  - Mark Green

I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This volume is one in a series about different towns and cities during WWII in the UK, called Your Towns & Cities in World War Two (for those interested, Pen & Sword also publishes a similar series about towns and cities during WWI). I was particularly interested in Barnsley because I used to live in Penistone, a town within Barnsley Metropolitan Borough, and I spent a fair amount of time in Barnsley and the surrounding area, so I was curious as to how life must have been like at the time in the area (beyond the visual reminders, like monuments and parades). Each book is penned by a different expert, so the writing might differ, but if I were to judge by this one, anybody interested in researching in more detail what life was like during the war in a particular area of the UK would find plenty of useful material in this collection.

The book, which contains a detailed index and end notes that can serve as a bibliography, is peppered with photographs, maps, propaganda posters and advertisements, and images taken directly from newspapers which illustrate the text, from maps of the German bombers targets in the area (in Sheffield, a few miles South, they manufactured parts for the RAF planes, and it was therefore a target and suffered heavy bombing in 1940), posted silhouettes of the German planes and images of their uniforms, so the population could recognise them, pictures of the men and women who helped in the war effort (both home and abroad), the bomb shelters, a gas hood for babies (it looks right out of a sci-fi movie)…

The four chapters follow the war effort in Barnsley in chronological order, from the preparation period (detailing the ARP’s [ Air Raid Precaution] efforts to recruit people in the whole area, also talking in detail about the poor living and working conditions in some parts of the town, especially for those working at the local collieries [George Orwell visited and reported on what he saw], it also mentions those men from Barnsley who went to join the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War [Thank you], the building of air shelters and the reuse of some facilities for training and as shelters; to what became known as “the Phoney War”, because for eight months, after war had been declared, nothing much seemed to happen, although there were plenty of preparations and movements taking place (for some soldiers who had never travelled abroad it felt like a vacation, while at home they were practicing imposing blackout —there were several deaths and a large number of accidents as well until people got wise to the risks—, rationing, and an increase in manufacturing);  then when Germany invaded the Low Countries and France, we have more rationing, the first men start dying abroad including the first British soldier killed in France, Private William Roper, who although living in Dewsbury at the time of the war, was born and spent his childhood in Barnsley, the women joining more actively in the war effort, heavy rationing, children refugees arriving from some of the heavily bombed areas (there are letters and personal accounts included as well)… And finally, after the victory, we have the celebrations, of course.  The book does not shy away from talking about some of the less than edifying incidents, like crime and robberies taking place during the period, and hate incidents towards some of the allied troops visiting the area (including an incident in Penistone when an African-American soldier was assaulted outside a pub, although seemingly not by locals), and it is a fairly complete chronicle of all aspects of life in the area during WWII period.

As a small but representative sample of the book, I thought I’d share a fragment of a letter by Gunner William Barraclough, a Barnsley hero, summing up the British spirit of Dunkirk, which brought a smile to my face: ‘we had a hot time, but we’re not licked yet —not by a long chalk.’

I cannot sum up the whole book, but I am sure anybody from the region, or interested in researching the local history of that area, will find plenty of useful information about what was happening in the area, and also about what happened to the locals who were mobilised during the war. This would be a perfect present for relatives or friends who remember the era or are interested in it, and also for anybody wanting to become better acquainted with that period of UK history at a local level.

An intriguing read, but not an accurate depiction of mental healthcare.

The Silent Patient - Alex Michaelides

Thanks to NetGalley and to Orion for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Being a doctor (although I’d always had the same interest, even before studying Medicine), I’m always intrigued by books with the word “patient” (or doctor, hospital, or similar healthcare-related terms) in the title. Being a psychiatrist and having worked in forensic psychiatry in the UK, the description of this book seemed right up my alley. (And yes, in case you’re curious, I have treated patients who presented as temporarily mute, more than once, although not in circumstances quite as shocking as those in the book. Even one of the characters in one of my own thrillers is totally unresponsive after she is accused of a crime, but that’s another story). So I requested this book and it went into my very long list of books to read and review. Then, I started seeing great reviews, recommendations, etc., and grew curious, to the point where it jumped up to the top of my list.

Now, it’s quite difficult to review this book without revealing any spoilers, and this is a book where the twists in the plot are quite important, so I won’t be able to say much, as I’m sure many people will enjoy it and I don’t want to ruin it for them.

What can I tell you? What did I think? Well, I know this is a work of fiction, rather than a treatise in psychiatry or psychotherapy. (Theo Farber, one of the main characters, is a psychotherapist, a psychologist by training, not a medical doctor and, let’s say, he is not too enamoured with psychiatrists, anyway). But still, having work experience in high secure units in the UK, and also in low and medium secure units, both NHS and private, I couldn’t help but find so many things wrong with the characterisation of the professionals involved in the care of the other main character, Alice Berenson —the silent patient of the title— and also with the procedures followed and the way the unit is run, that it shattered my suspension of disbelief and made the rest of the book difficult to judge in its own right, for me. Despite the great reviews the book has had, I’ve noticed some other people have also had issues with the characterisation of the therapist and with other details of the novel, so if you are somebody who likes mysteries and thrillers to be realistic and tight when it comes to details, I’d say you should give it a miss.

The actual mystery side of the story… Well, as I said there are twists, more than one, red herrings, and some people have described it as original. Others, not so much. How well the twists work depends on how much you engage not only with the story, but also with the main characters. The story is narrated from two points-of-view, both in the first person, one the therapist’s, and one the patient’s, although, as must be evident from the title, the patient mostly does not talk, and what we get are entries from her diary, the diary she wrote before the events that landed her in the psychiatric unit. I like unreliable narrators, and they can work very well for mysteries, indeed. Here we have two. If Alice might be seen as an unreliable narrator due to her mental state, Theo seems to be very good at not applying his therapeutic insights (such as they are, but I’ve already said my piece on that and won’t insist) to himself and his own situation. But, I’m sure you won’t be surprised if I tell you that things are not quite as straightforward as they seem, even if you suspect they are far from straightforward.

My inkling is that people who don’t read tonnes of thrillers or mysteries are likely to enjoy this book more than people who mostly read thrillers and are used to smelling a rat from afar. Because of the issues I had with the novel, I included the editorial reviews, so you can get a sense of what the official line is on it. When I read the negative reviews I saw that some readers felt cheated by the twist (and yes, I understand that point of view, although,  as I said, I had other issues with the book); there were complaints about not liking any of the characters (other than the two main characters, none of the rest are drawn in much detail, I agree); some readers found the descriptions of therapies and the use of psychotherapeutic terms over the top (too much telling and not enough showing, and some complained they slowed the action); some reviewers objected to the use of swear-words (as this was mostly by one of the patients, from personal experience I’d say that bit is not unrealistic); and also some comments about a somewhat prejudiced depiction of a couple of characters (the Greek professor running the clinic comes out of it much better than the Turkish patient, it’s true). I mention those as a warning for people who are thinking about reading it and the concerns might resonate with them.

After reading the whole book, and with the caveats I’ve mentioned, personally, I was intrigued by the reference to a play by Euripides I hadn’t heard about, Alcestis, and I want to explore it further. I also enjoyed the references to Alice’s paintings and her creative process.

If you aren’t familiar with psychiatric care (particularly forensic psychiatric care in the UK), don’t regularly read tonnes of mysteries, and prefer books with enticing plots rather than those focused on a strong and psychologically consistent depiction of, you are likely to enjoy this book. Otherwise, my recommendation would be to check a sample of the book and see if it hooks you and you feel compelled to keep reading.

Twists, turns, a fascinating backdrop and a new hero

The Never Game (Colter Shaw #1) - Jeffery Deaver

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins for providing me an early ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

Jeffery Deaver does not need an introduction. He has been writing and publishing crime and mystery novels and thrillers for a very long time, and he has been collecting awards and accolades for almost as long. Despite my interest in those genres, I hadn’t read any of his books yet, partly because I always hesitate to start reading a series halfway through (yes, and I had many other books to get on with). When I saw this novel, the first in a new series, I thought this was a good chance to remedy that.

This novel has all the required elements for those who love the genre: an enticing opening (in fact, we are given a glimpse of an extremely tense scene that will come much later in the book), a hero with pretty amazing abilities, a complex past, and a few secrets (and a curious name too, Colter Shaw), a twisted case that gets more and more complicated as we go along (red herrings, false endings, action scenes, bizarre clues, plenty of suspects), useless and useful members of law enforcement (LaDonna Standish is my favourite character in the whole book, and she ticks all the boxes: African-American, lesbian, married with a child, a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, intelligent, a good professional, dismissed and bullied by her co-workers), some sort of love-interest (I didn’t care too much for that aspect of the story), an intriguing backdrop to the story (Silicon Valley and the gaming industry), another case he is working on as well that is pretty personal for the hero, and a twist/hook at the end.

If you like the description and are seeking for those elements in a story, do not hesitate. I can’t fault Deaver’s writing. He knows his stuff and he delivers in all aspects. He knows how to bait the reader’s interest, and his mastery of plot is evident. He drops hints, and when you think you have worked out who is the guilty party, or what is going on, he pulls the rug from under your feet. He is good at combining a fairly modern writing style, including plenty of action and the latest technologies, with well-tried classical elements; including the final explanation of how he worked out who the guilty party was (it is not quite a Sherlock Holmes or Poirot moment, but not that far from it). Although most of the story is told in the third-person from Shaw’s point of view, we don’t get all the information he does, for very good narrative reasons.

Any negatives? I cannot compare this book to his previous novels, and although I’ve checked the reviews, it seems that some people see this as the beginning of another winning series (it seems that the character of Colter Shaw had already been introduced in one of his short-stories), and others feel that is far from his best work. For me, one of the issues was the main character. If you had told me about this man, who was home-schooled and grew up raised in a survivalist household in the mountains of California, whose parents were both brilliant professors, but whose father (Ash) suffered from paranoia and insisted in educating his children (two boys and a girl) in the art of survival, totally isolated from the world and who ended up dead in somewhat unclear circumstances; whose mother was her husband’s psychiatrist and chose to follow his radical lifestyle and indulge (?) his paranoia, whose brother disappeared, and who now lives by working on a variety of criminal cases and collecting rewards (but seems to have other financial means) while at the same time pursues his own investigation, I would have said we were onto a winner. He is skilled, he seems to be attractive, he has commitment issues (unsurprisingly), he is somewhat obsessive and does things his own way (he loves to keep notebooks and writes his observations by hand), he is clever and witty, calm and collected under pressure, and no danger or risk faces him. Although he is not that bothered about rules and regulations, he has a sense of morality and of right and wrong (and he chooses to do the right thing). Despite all those characteristics and his back story, which should have made the character irresistible and compelling, I didn’t feel a particular connection to him. I wonder if it was the third-person narration (we also get flashbacks of episodes of his childhood, as a way to flesh out the character’s background and to build up interest and offer more clues) or something else, but although he was interesting, I felt as if I was observing the action rather than getting really engaged and worried about what might happen to him (or most of the other characters). Perhaps it read too much like a movie, and I can take or leave action flicks (I enjoy them, but they don’t engage my mind for long). Some reviewers have compared the character (negatively) to Jack Reacher, and I guess other characters will come to mind for those who love the genre. The character himself goes to pains to explain he is neither a private investigator nor a bounty hunter, but I’m not sure that makes him unique or distinctive enough. As I said, most readers love the character, and I am convinced he’ll be further developed in future novels in the series, so this should not put anybody off if the rest interests you.

I saw some readers complaining about the fact that the book was centred around the world of computer games, some because they didn’t enjoy it and found that slowed the novel down, and others because they felt there were inaccuracies (I can’t comment on that), but although I’m not a gamer, I found the descriptions interesting (not too detailed) and enjoyed the main plot line and the mystery behind the kidnappings (it is not unique but it works well). I made some general comments about the ending earlier, and I’m trying to avoid spoilers, so I won’t go into it in more detail, but I agree that there seems to be a sudden and surprising change of direction at one point (some readers have complained of a “rushed” ending), although everything is explained and I guess that is the name of the game.

In sum, personally I enjoyed the story and the plot, but at this point I am not sure I’m interested enough to keep reading the series. On the other hand, I am convinced Deaver’s reputation is well deserved, and I intend to read more of his novels in the future. (I read a very early ARC copy of the novel, so it might well be that not all I say applies to the finished product).

Currently reading

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