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.

A fun revenge story, set in the world of acting. Recommended if you’re looking for a light read set in London.

Faking Friends - Jane Fallon

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

This is the first time I read one of Jane Fallon’s novels, and I’ve realised she has quite a following, and this is not the first novel she writes about revenge.

In this case, we have an actress, Amy, (not a big star, but an actress who has struggled from bit-part to bit-part until she managed to get a regular role in an American crime series. Well, or so she thought) who goes back home to surprise her childhood-friend Mel for her birthday, and she is the one to get a nasty surprise when she discovers her fiancé, Jack, is having an affair and somebody has taken her place. It does not take her long to discover that her supposed best-friend has stabbed her in the back, and rather than confronting both, her fiancé and her friend, she decides to try and get a new life and show them that she can make it on her own, before letting them know she is aware of their betrayal. This creates many awkward and difficult situations and a complex net of lies and deceit that will keep readers turning the pages.

The book is narrated in the first person, mostly from Amy’s point of view (who alternates what is happening in the present with the story of her friendship with Mel), although towards the last third of the novel we also have a few scenes when we follow Mel’s point of view, and that gives us some insight into her plans (more than her feelings, that we don’t know in detail, other than her wish to give Amy’s her comeuppance) and a different perspective on Amy’s relationships. (Sometimes both points of view might alternate in a single chapter, although it is easy to tell them apart).

Amy is a likeable character, although her reaction to the betrayal and her insistence in carrying on with her revenge plans for months and months and dragging others into it (including her friend Kat and Kat’s husband, Greg, two great characters, and Simon, a new love interest she meets when she moves back to London) make her less so at times, and she appears immature and too dependent on Mel’s friendship. Although both, Mel’s current behaviour, and what we learn about the history of their friendship, shows Mel in a very negative light (she is full of herself, self-aggrandizing, self-centred, vain, shows clear narcissistic personality traits, and is jealous of Amy’s good fortune, never giving her any credit and ruining her other friendships), sometimes, when Amy fights fire with fire, she goes so far that we have to wonder if they are not as bad as each other. Eventually, though, Amy has some scruples and there are lines she won’t cross, and it is easy to see that her friendship with Mel has made her doubt herself and lose her confidence. When a friend dismisses everything you do and only uses you to make herself feel better, she is not a friend, as Amy discovers.

There are a number of other characters (university friends, relatives, love interests, agents, etc.) that create an interesting and varied background, and London also provides a realistic setting for the story, from the difficulties of finding an affordable apartment, to the landscape, shops, food, and transportation. I particularly enjoyed the insights into the acting career (that the author has good knowledge of), that go beyond the glamor and big successes we are used to in films and books. Amy is a working actress who has to fight tooth and nail for tiny parts (woman in park, woman in pub), who is no longer young, and who has dedicated plenty of time to the career because she loves it, not because she thinks she will become famous and make it big (most of the time she can hardly make a living out of it). The fact that Mel, who also wanted to become an actress, and who was the more attractive and popular of the two when they were younger, never made it is a particularly nice touch.

The novel is enjoyable, full of lies, deceit, and twisted individuals, but it is a pretty light fare. There is some suspense, but it is not difficult to guess some of the events; there are some pretty funny moments, and some cringe-inducing ones too. Although the book exemplifies a toxic friendship, it is not a treatise in psychology and it is not a guidebook or a serious treatment of the subject (there are true memoirs and books written by experts if you are interested in the topic), but a light revenge novel, whose final message is a hopeful and positive one. Although the character goes through much heartache during the book, she learns from the experience, and she discovers who she really is and who her true friends are. (And, to be honest, she seems to be much better off without Jack, as there does not seem to be much love lost or chemistry between them).

Fallon’s style is fluid and the novel is easy to read and moves at good pace, although I don’t think the main characters will stay with me for long. A solid chick-lit book, set up in the world of acting, and one I’d recommend to those of you who enjoy revenge stories (and might have fantasised about your own).

A guide to dusting your heart and clearing out your soul. Simple and beautiful.

A Buddhist Monk's Guide to a Clean House and Mind - Shoukei Matsumoto

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

Sometimes I read the title and the description of a book in one of my favourite genres and it is intriguing enough or it has something that makes me want to read it. But sometimes I see a book that is completely different to what I normally read but still, it seems to call me and this is one of those books.

As I am about to move (houses and countries), I thought a book about cleaning (not only our houses but also our minds) might be an asset. And, oh boy, was I right!

This book does what it says on the tin. I can’t guarantee you that you’ll end up cleaning more if you read it, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t make you think about the process.

I don’t know how accurate a translation of the original this is, but I loved the simple style of writing. Although the sentences are not elaborate or complex, and the ideas it contains seem extremely simple, they are beautiful in their simplicity and unassuming. This is not a book of advice that will quote analytics, statistics, and numbers of followers. It just explains what life for Zen monks living at a temple is like, and explains their philosophy.

I am not very house-proud and I can’t claim to spend a lot of time cleaning (and even less thinking about cleaning), but there are some chores that I do enjoy, and some whose mechanics can free my mind and make me forget the things around me. Although this is not what the book is about (it is a way of life and it is very specific and ordered), I think most of us will identify with some of the thoughts behind it.

The book highlights the importance of respecting nature, our bodies, our possessions (and we don’t need many), all life, and each other. It is a short book and it is also a relaxing read that will make you look at things differently and give you some pause. And, as I said, you don’t need to be big on cleaning to enjoy it.

I thought I’d share some examples of passages I highlighted from the book, so you can get an idea of what to expect:

I hope you enjoy applying the cleaning techniques introduced here in your home. There’s nothing complicated about them. All you need is a will to sweep the dust off our heart.

‘Zengosaidan’ is a Zen expression meaning that we must put all our efforts into each day so we have no regrets, and that we must not grieve for the past or worry about the future.

It goes without saying that dust will accumulate in a home that is never cleaned. Just as you have finished raking the leaves, more are sure to fall. It is the same with your mind. Right when you think you have cleaned out all the cobwebs, more begin to form. Adherence to the past and misgivings about the future will fill your head, wresting your mind from the present. This is why we monks pour ourselves heart and soul into polishing floors. Cleaning is training for staying in the now. Therein lies the reason for being particular about cleanliness.

I hate ironing. I must say that after reading this I know what I’ll think about when I have to iron something from now on:

How to Iron. When ironing, visualize yourself ironing out the wrinkles in your heart.

By letting go of everything, you can open up a universe of unlimited possibilities.

 A lovely book, a deep book, and a simple book. I kept thinking of friends and relatives who might enjoy/benefit from it (and I don’ t mean because of the state their houses are in!). And I am sure many of you would enjoy it too. Just try it and see.

A poignant and lovingly written ode to an unsung hero. Beautiful and heart-wrenching.

Fred's Funeral - Sandy Feldstein

This is a short book, but it punches well above its weight. The book, written mostly from the point of view of Fred Sadler, a Canadian veteran of WWI who never quite recovered from the war and spent years in and out of mental institutions (such as they were at the time), takes its readers on a journey through Fred’s memories (he has just died, so I guess I should say his ghost’s memories, but, in many ways, Fred had been a ghost of his former self for many years already) and those of the relatives who attend his funeral. We have brief hints at times of what other characters are thinking or feeling (as Fred’s consciousness becomes all-encompassing), but mostly we remain with Fred. We share in his opinions and his own remembrances of the facts his family members (mostly his sister-in-law, Viola, who is the only one left with first-hand-knowledge of his circumstances, at least some of them) are discussing.

Fred’s story — based on the life of a relative of the author and on documents and letters he left behind— will be familiar to readers interested in the history of the period, and in the terrible consequences the war had on the lives and mental health of many of the young men who fought and suffered in the war. Shell-shock (now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD) was little understood at the time and psychiatry (that is not a hard science at its best) was pretty limited in its resources at the time. Even nowadays, delayed onset PTSD is rarely diagnosed and not well-understood, and the condition results sometimes in permanent changes in the personality of the sufferer, who might end up with all kinds of other diagnoses and are often misunderstood and mistreated.

Sandy Day’s beautifully descriptive and, at times, lyrical writing —the author had previously published a poetry book— captures both strands of the story: the terrible disintegration of the life of such a promising young man, and the changes in his family and the society around him, which he was only a spectator of (and was never allowed to take an active role in). His brother married and had children, his parents died; the family property, so dear to him, was split up and eventually sold, and he was only the weird uncle nobody knew much about.

The novel (as it is a fictionalization of the events) succeeds in giving Fred a voice, in bringing forth the fear, the thrashed hopes, the puzzlement, the resignation, the confusion, of this man who put his life on the line and got only pain in return. It is a poignant and beautiful memorial to the lives of many soldiers whose trauma was misunderstood and whose lives were destroyed. The writing is compelling and gets the readers inside of Fred’s head, making us share in his horrifying experiences. The book can be hard to read at times, not so much because of graphic content (although the few descriptions are vivid), but because it is impossible not to empathise and imagine what he must have gone through. But there is also a hopeful note in the interest of the new generations and the fact of the book itself.

There are time-shifts, and some changes in point of view (because Fred’s ghost can at times become the equivalent of an omniscient narrator), but past events follow a chronological order and are clearly demarcated and easy to follow, and the device of the funeral helps anchor the story and provide a frame and a background that give it a more personal and intimate dimension. The Canadian landscape and setting also add a touch of realism and singularity to the story.

Although the book is very short, I could not resist sharing at least a tiny sample of the beautiful writing with you:

He looks down half-blindly as his old Canadian Expeditionary Force Uniform dissolves into a constellation of colourful snowflakes, twirling away from him in a trail. Beneath the uniform he is nothing. He has no name or age. He is at once as old as a flickering blue base at the wick of a candle and as young as a flame surging into brilliance.

This is a poignant and lovingly written ode to a man who returned from WWI (at least in body) but was as lost as many of the men who never came back. A story about an unsung hero that should be cherished and its lessons learnt. I cannot recommend it enough.

 

The Old-But-Not-Dead Club strikes again. A truly inspiring read, whatever your age.

On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old - Hendrik Groen

Thanks to Net Galley and to Penguin UK-Michael Joseph for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

A while back I read The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old (check my review here) and loved it. I was on the lookout for the next one, and when I saw the next one was available for download at NetGalley I did not hesitate. It has now been published and I could not pass the chance to share my review.

Hendrik explains what has happened since his last diary (yes, he is older now) and decides to write his diary for another year, as a way to keep his brain going. He is now 85 and he needed some time to get over some of the sad events of the last book. But the Old-But-Not-Dead Club is still going strong, with new members and plans, including regularly exploring international cuisine (more or less), a short holiday abroad, and an attempt at local (extremely local) politics. Hendrik’s voice is as witty and observant as it was in the first book, although there is perhaps a grittier and darker note (he is feeling low, everything is getting tougher and unfortunately, life gets harder as the year goes along). But not all is doom and gloom and there are very funny moments, as well as some very sad ones. His comments about politics and world events, always seen from an elderly population’s perspective, are sharp and clear-sighted and will give readers pause. Some of them are local and I suspect I was not the only one who did not know who many of the people where or what anecdotes he referred to at times (I must admit that although I know a bit about Dutch painters, I know little about their politics or music, for example), but even if we cannot follow all the references in detail, unfortunately, they are easily translatable to social and political concerns we are likely to recognize, wherever we live. Funding cuts, social problems, concerns about health and social care, crime, terrorism, global warming feature prominently, although sometimes with a very peculiar twist.

The secondary characters are as wonderful and varied as in the previous book. Some of them have moved on (physically, mentally, or both), and we get to know better some of the ones that only briefly appeared in the previous volume. We also have new arrivals at the nursing home, and a more direct involvement in the home’s politics (with anxiety-provoking news present as well. Is the nursing home going to close?). I loved some of the proposed and adopted rules (a complaint-free zone to avoid wallowing in conversations about ailments and illnesses, a high-tea facilitated by the residents, an art exhibition, even if the artist is not the most sympathetic of characters…) and the sayings of the residents. Of course, life at a nursing home comes with its share of loss and although I don’t want to reveal too much, I can say the subject of death is treated in a realistic, respectful, and moving way.

I shed some of the quotes I highlighted, to give you a taster (although I recommend checking a sample and seeing what you think. And, although it is not necessary to read the first book first, I think it works better knowing the characters and their journey so far):

The idea of using care homes to look after the comfort, control and companionship of the elderly is fine in principle. It just fails in the execution. What old age homes actually stand for is infantilizing, dependence, and laziness.

One in four old people who break one or more hips die within the year. That number seems high to me, but it’s in the newspaper, so there is room for doubt.

It’s always astonished me to see the wide support clowns and crooks are able to muster. Watching old newsreels of that loudmouth Mussolini, you’d think now there’s a bloke only his mother could love. But no, millions of Italians loved him.(Yes, I’m sure this can make us all think of a few people).

Difficult new terms that tend to obscure rather than clarify, especially when uttered by policy-makers. It often has to do with hiding something —either a budget cut, or hot air, or both at once.

Managerial skills alone don’t make for better care, it only makes for cheaper one.

And, a great ending (and one we should all take up this year):

A new year —how you get through it is up to you, Groen; life doesn’t come with training wheels. Get this show on the road. As long as there’s life.

The tone of the book is bitter-sweet, and, as mentioned, it feels darker than the previous one, perhaps because Hendrik is even more aware of his limitations and those of his friends, and is increasingly faced with the problem of loneliness, and with thoughts about the future. But, overall, this is a book that makes us think about the zest for life, about living life to the full, and about making the best out of our capabilities. As I said on my previous review, I hope I can meet a Hendrik if I get to that age, and I’ll also make sure to join the Old-But-Not-Dead Club and be an agitator and enjoy life to the end. Don’t ever settle for the easy way out.

A great book for those interested in the subject of growing old, in great characters, and in an out-of-the-ordinary setting. It has plenty of adventures and events (even trips abroad and international cuisine), although it is not a book I’d recommend to people who love fast action and high-octane thrillers. If you enjoy first-person narrations, love older characters, and don’t mind thinking about the long-term (ish) future, I recommend this very inspiring book.

A light and fun read, recommended if you need an injection of sun and romance

A Wedding At Two Love Lane - Kieran Kramer

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

Although this is book two in The Two Love Lane series (a series about the owners of a matchmaking agency), I have not read the first one and can confirm it can be enjoyed as a standalone read, although I’m sure that knowing the set-up and the characters would add to the reading experience.

I don’t want to discuss in too much detail the plot, as the description introduces the main characters and some of the main themes. There is  a contest for a wedding dress, that ends up becoming a reality show, an English baron (quite a few of the reviewers have commented that considering his father and his older brother are alive and well, that does not make sense), a nasty store owner and his side-kick who become the villains of the piece (well, perhaps), several side-plots (a designer with an interesting idea and a hidden love story, the background stories of both protagonists and their families, the stories of the other couples involved in the contest, and  a big win at the TV quiz show The Price Is Right), and Charleston. The Charleston of the book is a genteel and lovely place, full of great restaurants, fascinating shops, and lively characters. It is also a welcoming place where people from all over are made to feel at home, and where everybody feels inspired.

Many of the usual tropes and themes of romantic novels are at play here, and also quite a few typical of chick-lit. Greer is alone and very good at finding love for others but not so good at getting finding her own. She is obsessed with creating the perfect wedding, not only for her clients but for herself, and has been collecting wedding scrapbooks since she was a child. Although she is supposed to be the logical one in charge of the technical side of things at the agency and the ever important algorithms, she plunges head first into crazy situations and keeps denying what is plain to see. We have an English nobleman, who is, of course, very attractive and also a talented painter, but needs a muse to find his true art. He’s been jilted at the altar but still offers to play Greer’s fake partner. We have pretend relationships, secrets, will they won’t they, not quite love-at-first-sight, but close enough, and a good cast of secondary characters that all sound interesting enough in their own right (Personally, I’d love to hear more about Miss Thing). Ah, and donuts, cakes, wonderful wedding dresses, intrigue, and misunderstandings galore. There are plenty of fun moments, some sad ones, and some inspiring ones (I was particularly interested in Ford’s struggle to connect with his art), and the book is an easy and light read, although I agree with some reviewers that it tries to pack so many things in that at times it feels too busy, and some of the side-stories deserve more time and development than what they get.

The characters are likable enough (I’ve never been obsessed about weddings, but quite liked Greer’s idea of entering the contest as a single participant), and although the novel stretches our suspension of disbelief on occasions, I don’t think it goes beyond genre expectations. The writing is fluid, with nice local touches and British expressions, and includes descriptions that put readers right in the middle of the action, without overdoing it.

After spending a fair amount of time with the characters, the ending felt a bit rushed, and I agree with reviewers that felt there should have been another chapter to clarify matters (I think we all felt as if they had banged the door on our faces), although perhaps the author has something up her sleeve and it has something to do with the next book. (Let me clarify. It does not end up on a cliff-hanger, but we miss the big event, perhaps because after talking about it so much, it could never have lived up to everyone’s expectations).

A light and fun read, recommended if you need an injection of sun and romance, in a great setting, with many secondary stories to keep you occupied if you easily get bored.

 

A great reimagining of Emma, in a wonderful setting, and with some very heart-warming touches.

I Could Write a Book: A Modern Variation of Jane Austen's

I recently reviewed a book called Dangerous to Know: Janes Austen’s Rakes & Gentlemen Rogues Ed. by Christina Boyd (you can check my review here), a collection of stories about some of the male characters (the rakes and rogues of the title) in Jane Austen’s novels and loved it. The editor of the book kindly got me in touch with some of the authors featured in the book, and now I have some of their books waiting in my e-reader. And this is the first book I’ve read, partly because of the cover, partly because of the title (well, I’m a writer after all), and partly because I had read great reviews of the book, that has received the prestigious RBRT (Rosie’s Book Review Team) Award for historical novel. Although I’m a member of this fabulous group of reviewers, I can’t catch up with all the great books that come up, but if you have not checked the list of awards yet, I leave you the link here (and if you’re an author or a reviewer, don’t miss the chance to explore Rosie’s great blog and her team).

I thank the author for providing me a copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

This book is a reimagining of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. I’m not an Austen scholar (I wouldn’t even call myself a devoted fan) but I enjoy her novels, some more than others, and I have always been intrigued by new versions, adaptations, and sequels of well-known books (not only other books but also movies, plays, ballets, TV programmes…). What gives a novel, or a film, its meaning? What makes it recognisable? Can we change the setting, the historical period, the medium used, and make it maintain its identity somehow? Can we improve on the classics, or can we create a completely new work that retains some of the charms of the original, but is different enough to gain new readers and make it accessible to a new generation? I Could Write a Book manages to do many things at the same time. The action is moved from Regency England to 1970s Kentucky. The setting is a rather gentle and charming small town, where everybody knows everybody, and where although modern ideas are making inroads, there is still an underlying culture of Southern tradition, hospitality, class, and good manners. Appearances are important, and although some of the old families have lost their properties, or at least no longer manage them in the manner they were used to, names and reputations still count for a lot. The Woodhouse and the Knightley families have known each other forever, the men of both families created a joint law firm, and the children grew up together (and now two of their children are married). Emma, by her own confession a modern young woman, although annoying due to her meddling in the lives of others and her self-assurance, is more likeable than Austen’s eponymous heroine. She has a big heart, and she truly loves her family and puts their needs before her own. She suffers several tragedies at a young age. Her mother ends up in hospital severely disabled when she is very young and she keeps looking after her when others find her condition difficult to cope with. And when her father suffers a stroke, she decides to give up her dreams of a college education away from home and transfers back to the local college. Although financially she has no problems, and she can (and does) access help, her way of looking after the father is heart-warming, and that gives her a depth of feeling that is not always evident when we observe her behaviour in the social sphere.

Emma lives vicariously through the love lives of others, and in that, Emma Woodhouse is no different to the original. Although some of her match-making works well (it is difficult to know if it is because of or in spite of her), she can be remarkably clueless at times and thinks that she knows what others think much better than she does (notwithstanding her degree in Psychology). I won’t rehash the plot, as you are probably familiar with it, be it through the novel or through one of the many versions available. Let’s just say that there is much plotting, interfering, match-making, misunderstandings, blunders, embarrassing moments, and yes, plenty of romance. And in this version, much Southern charm and tradition.

The story is told by two of the characters, by Emma, in the first person (and that allows us to understand her motivations, and see that although misguided at times, there is no true malice in her, and she doubts herself more than she lets on), and by George, in the third person (until the last chapter, when we finally hear from George in his own words). George is a true gentleman and a worthy hero of one of Austen’s novels, although he is not perfect. He has a long list of short-term girlfriends and can be, at times, as lacking in insight as Emma. But he is tall, handsome, and he always behaves impeccably (something we cannot say of all the male characters). The two points of view help us get a wider perspective and we get to see Emma from the point of view of somebody who knows her well and still loves her, with all her faults and quirks. We also get a good insight into the different roles played by men and women in the society of the time and get a good understanding of what being a member of such society is like, from an insider’s perspective.

The setting works well, as although it is a more modern period, is not the present, and the location and the type of society reflected in the novel translates well the characteristics of the small, tradition-laden era of Austen’s novel. Emma’s naïveté is justified in part by the insular society she lives in, and by her self-appointed role of her father’s carer, that keeps her somewhat isolated and less likely to mix with others outside of her social circle. Although she is not the easiest of characters to identify with (her lifestyle is very different from what most of us have experienced and many of her difficulties are of her own doing, rather than due to any hardship or real-life problems), she does love her family, and although we might not like to be reminded of it, we have all been, young, naïve, and believed we knew everything.

There are misguided characters, some not-so-nice characters (some can be mean but I would hardly call any of them truly bad, although Tim is very self-involved, although he is a politician, so it fits) and some lovely characters as well. (I was particularly fond of Nina and Helen and found John, Emma’s father, endearing and sympathetically portrayed). The locations and the social setting is brought to life beautifully by the author, who shows an in-depth knowledge of the subject, and I wished I could have been there with them at many of the events (although I’m afraid I’d stick out like a sore thumb). There is even some sex, although not very descriptive (and as you know I’m not a lover of erotica or sex in novels), and the final chapter brings us up to date with the fates of the characters, with some lovely and funny surprises.

The novel has some touching moments, plenty of romance, some moments when we feel embarrassed on behalf of the central character (and many when we want to strangle her), and some funny ones. It is a light read although it will make us think about family and remind us of our youth. There are also some great questions for book clubs at the back, which I think would engender much discussion for readers.

In sum, an amusing and light read, a great reimagining of Emma, in a fabulous setting, with a heroine we’ll love and hate at times, a gorgeous love interest, and a great period piece for those who love the genteel South.  

A great book about a fascinating historical period and one of the forefathers of forensic science.

Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor & the Dawn of Forensic Science - Helen Barrell

Thanks to Pen & Sword, particularly to Alex, for offering me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

As a doctor, a writer, and an avid reader of crime fiction (and spectator of crime films and TV series) when  I read the description of this book I knew I had to keep on reading. Although my studies in Criminology included a basic history of the discipline, this book offers a very detailed look into one of the main figures in the early times of forensic science, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor. The author, Helen Barrell, uses her expertise in history and genealogy to research his biography and investigate the legacy of this fascinating man. As she states:

This is both Taylor’s biography and the story of forensic science’s development in nineteenth-century England; the two are entwined. There are stomachs in jars, a skeleton in a carpet bag, doctors gone bad, bloodstains on floorboards, and an explosion that nearly destroyed two towns. This is the true tale of Alfred Swaine Taylor and his fatal evidence.

I found the book riveting. Not only the biographical details (and, as a doctor, I was intrigued by his studies, and by how complicated it was to study Medicine at the time. In fact, becoming a surgeon and becoming a medical doctor involved a very different process in the early XIX century, and although now the degree combines both, their origins were completely separate), but, especially, the in-depth study of his close involvement with forensic science, his passion for the subject, and his total dedication to ensure that forensic evidence was rigorous and given the importance it deserved in criminal trials. He produced books on the subject that were updated and continued to be published well into the XX Century and his expertise as a chemist, photographer, and defender of public health made him a well-known and respected figure. On the other hand, he was not the easiest of men, he did not tolerate fools gladly, he was a staunch supporter of unpopular measures (banning certain products containing arsenic, for instance, or introducing a register of the purchase of poisons), and he held grudges that found their way into his writing, and perhaps made him not receive the recognition others did (he was never knighted, while some of his peers were).

The book follows Taylor’s life in chronological order, and although it delves more into his professional life (the cases he gave evidence in, other cases of the period he advised on, his teaching, his books), it also talks about his wife, and how she was fundamental to his books, as she helped him organize and compile the cases, about the children they lost, his friendships and collaborations… We get a good sense of the person behind the scientist, but it is clear that he was a man dedicated to his work, and it is not so easy to differentiate the public from the personal figure.

The book is written in an engaging way, it flows well, and the author provides enough detail about the cases to get us interested, making us experience the tension and the controversies of the trials, without becoming bogged down in technicalities. And, despite her historical rigour, the author’s observations showed subtle hints of humour on occasions.

The chronology and all the cases he worked on help give us a very good idea of what crime was like in the period. Having recently read some other historical books (many published by Pen & Sword as well) about the era, it manages to create a great sense of how easy it was to buy poison, how difficult it was to detect crime (even confirming if a red stain was blood was very complicated), and how dangerous everyday life could be (wallpaper contained colours filled with arsenic). Some of the cases are still remembered to this day, but Helen Barrell offers us a new perspective on them. This book would be a great addition to the library of anybody interested in the history of the period, especially the history of crime detecting and poisons, and also to that of writers of crime novels who want to know more about forensic science and its origins.

The last chapter includes a summary of some of the ways Taylor influenced crime writers, including Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers (who either created characters based on him or used his books as reference). I am sure many writers will feel inspired anew by this book, especially those who write historical crime fiction. There is also a detailed bibliography and notes that would help anybody interested in finding more information about any of the cases.

As the author writes in her conclusion:

Alfred Swayne Taylor is one of the ancestors of modern forensic science: he is part of its very DNA.

A great book, of interest to anybody fascinated by crime detecting and its history, to readers of the history of the period, and to writers (and readers) who love crime historical fiction. A fascinating historical figure and a well-researched and engaging book that gives him some the credit he deserves.

Highly recommended to Western, steampunk, and zombie lovers.

Bodacious Creed, A Steampunk Zombie Western (The Adventures of Bodacious Creed) (Volume 1) - Jonathan Fesmire

I was offered a free copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

When I read the description of this novel, I must say I was intrigued. It’s a Western. But not just any Western. It’s a steampunk Western. I have not read a lot of steampunk (some blogs and short-stories) but I am intrigued by the concept, the art, the clothes… Oh, and there are zombies. OK, I could not resist. I generally like Westerns and historical fiction set in that period, but the unlikely combination of the three elements proved impossible to resist. And it did pay off.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the plot, as it is full of surprises, and although some you might see coming, I assure you there’s plenty to keep the brain ticking and the pages turning. James Creed (“Bodacious” indeed) is a great character, although we only get a glimpse of the true man before he is killed and then… resuscitated. Anna, the madam of the bordello the House of Amber Doves, has something hidden in the basement, and she is an inventor, and also… Well, let’s say she hides more than her scientific knowledge and talents. We have Anna’s lover, Jonny, who was injured and now is also part of her experiments, although loyal, loving, and also a great inventor. There is a bounty hunter, Rob Cantrell, who, although morally grey at times, becomes a part of the team we root for. We have a variety of baddies, from psychopaths to business types ready to sacrifice anybody for an advantage and for the power to harvest all the knowledge, legal and not. Although not all the characters are psychologically complex, in most cases we learn what makes them tick, and discover that most of them hide interesting background stories and hidden motives for what they do.

The story, told in the third person but through a variety of character’s points of view (including Creed, Anna, Jonny, Cantrell, and some of the baddies), is set in a fascinating alternative version of historical Santa Cruz. Imagine that there is a compound (the ether) that can be used for the construction of automatons, cyborgs, healing units, and ultimately units that can bring the dead back to life. Imagine that human beings can be enhanced with something akin to bionic technology (yes, I know, but imagine that happened in the late XIX century). Imagine that a company has the monopoly of all these inventions (Tesla works for that corporation as well) and anybody who tries to invent or commercialize such things is breaking the law and can become an outlaw. And imagine that kind of technology in the hands of a crime syndicate in the old West. Yes, the combination of crime and technology, as we well know, can be very dangerous, and, unfortunately, not all the experiments bringing back the dead go well. Although that causes violence, mayhem, and deaths, we also have the good and useful automatons (or steelies, as they are called), the automated pets, Creed acquires a pet cyborg coyote later in the story, and we have undead cats and zombie rats… And the characters are not the only ones hiding secrets. Santa Cruz also has a few aces up its sleeves and it is an important protagonist of the story. Yes, not a moment’s boredom.

The alternating points of view help us get more perspectives into the story and understand better the motives behind some of the characters’ surprising actions. And although it is not always pleasant, it is interesting to see the action from the point of view of the bad characters as well (as some of their reasons are not always bad). Matters of morality, spirituality, personal versus community interest, and family ties are also part of this story that should satisfy Western lovers (yes, there are plenty of gun and fist fights, shootings, traps, wild rides), steam-punk enthusiasts, and although the zombie angle is a bit more subtle (well, at least for a lot of the book), I don’t think those who are into zombie novels will be disappointed either.

The story flows well, the language fits in with the imagined historical period (I am not sure what historical fiction readers would think, but my guess is that they might find it interesting), and there is enough description of the places and the inventions to make us feel as if we were there, without unduly slowing the action. As a doctor, I could not help but wonder about some of the actual experiments (Frankenstein is mentioned more than once), but sometimes you just need to go with the flow. There are lots of characters, though, so I recommend paying close attention when reading it. I did enjoy the ending of the story (well, I imagine there will be more books) but no spoilers here.

The end note of the author explains the peculiarities of the Santa Cruz of the book (the author hails from there) and also shares how the book came to be. The story of the startup he organized to fund the book is fascinating in its own right, and he explains how as perks for participating in the project, some people got to have characters named after them, including Cantrell, the bounty hunter, and in some cases, even helped write the part. A fascinating story inside another one.

A great mix of genres, recommended to those who love to try something original and don’t fear to tread outside of the normal paths. For Western, steampunk, and zombie lovers. Highly recommended.

A solid romance in the world of the music industry with no major surprises

No Place Like You: A Cloud Bay Novel - Emma Douglas

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

Although I am not a big reader of romance, this novel is an example of what I think is a subgenre of it, the romance that takes place in the world of music and musicians. The setting of the novel is a small imaginary American island called Cloud Bay, off the coast of California, best known for a music festival and for being home to the musicians of a well-known band and their families. Grey Harper, the singer and leader of the band, passed away a few years back, and his family members and associates have been keeping the music festival and the studio going, quite successfully, but although the business is going well, their personal lives have seen a fair amount of turmoil.

The story centres on the second generation of the family, on Zach, Grey’s son, and Leah, a good friend of his sister Faith, and daughter of the sound engineer of the band. She also does sound engineering and producing now, and has had a crush on Zach since they were teenagers, and they have a bit of a history together. Their professional and personal lives get entangled in a way that seems impossible to avoid in Cloud Bay, and no matter how determined they are not to allow things to get complicated, they do.

The author manages to create a good sense of place and of the strange and slightly incestuous relationships that happen in such a setting, where everybody knows everybody and nobody can step outside of the house without somebody knowing about it. Nothing is private and the actions of one person have far-reaching consequences. I particularly enjoyed the exchanges between the female friends (Faith and Leah in particular) and the wedding preparations (Leah is due to get married after the festival, at the end of the summer), as their friendship is portrayed in an easy and natural way and the way they support and care for each other is heart-warming and feels real. Those and other elements of the novel reminded me of a chick-flick (there are plenty of cakes, pastry, and ice-creams as well) but the fact that half of the story is told from the point of view of Zach gives it a different emphasis.

As for the romance, although both of the characters are gorgeous, as is to be expected, this is not a love-at-first-sight story, as Leah and Zach know each other and have a bit of a history (however brief) together. I found it interesting that their behaviour at times goes counter to the traditionally expected male and female roles, as Leah is the one to initiate their relationship (both in the past and now), and she is the one to suggest a no-strings-attached sexual relationship, while he initially resists (although his resistance doesn’t last long). I don’t think you need to be an eager reader of romance novels to suspect how things are going to go from the beginning, and although there are some twists and turns, there are no major surprises. There is sex, but it is not very explicit (described in a lyrical and poetic manner), and although I do not like erotica or sex scenes, as I feel they slow the action, I don’t think many readers would feel offended by it (but I would not class it as “sweet” or “clean” either). The ending… I think romance readers will enjoy it, and there is a hook to keep people coming to read the next novel, although it is a side-story not directly related to the romance.

The story is told in the third-person from the alternating points of view of Leah and Zach. This is not always separated into chapters, but the transitions are clear and not confusing. As mentioned above, the division between the characters is not down to standard gender roles, and they both seem to behave more in keeping with their characters and their history (that we get snippets of thanks to their conversations and memories throughout the book) than with traditional male or female roles. There is a moment of crisis towards the end of the book, and I felt that the novel’s pace grew faster at that point, while until then it had moved steadily. I realised later that this is the third book in the series (for some reason I thought it was the first) so I am not sure how well it fits in with the whole series, although I had no difficulty following the novel (but I imagine the background story would increase the expectations and enjoyment). I must admit that I did not think there was much depth to the characters and they seemed to act younger than they were (Leah had been married, and Mina, Zach and Leah’s sister, is a widow), but perhaps they have developed slowly and it is unfair to judge them by the events in a single book. Leah is a fairly rounded and sympathetic character, and I felt she behaved in a consistent manner, although I was not as convinced about Zach, who has much to atone for.

The music business background will be of interest to those who enjoy that genre, and the descriptions of the way the characters feel about music are inspiring, but it is not as detailed or technical as to interfere with the enjoyment of readers of other types of romance.

In sum, a romance set in the background of the rock music business and in a lovely setting, which will be enjoyed by lovers of the genre and followers of the series, but with few surprises for the rest of readers.

A short read recommended for those who prefer psychological rather than gory frights.

Ghosts of Manor House - Matt Powers

I write this review on behalf of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors check here if you want to get your book reviewed) and thank Rosie Amber and the author for providing me a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

The description of the book provides us with a good gist of what the book is about (and it is accurate) but the title itself will stir readers in the right direction. Yes, this is a book about ghosts and it centres on a house. Manor House is a house with plenty of history behind. And Mr. Travels, the old oak tree in its vicinity, has seen its share of events, mostly dark ones.

The book is a ghost story in the best tradition of psychological horror. The clever way in which the story is designed made me think of magicians and sleight of hand artists who misdirect the spectators and create an atmosphere where the most bizarre or magical things can come true. The story is told in the third person and although it mostly tells of the events that happen to the family Wilder, it also has a prologue and an epilogue that beautifully bring the story full circle and incorporate it into the mythology of the house, turning it into a representative of what the house stands for, and of the stories of the rest of its inhabitants. The story is set in the recent past, before social media and mobile phones were the norm, and it is told in the third person, in its majority from the point of view of Edmund Wilder, (although later there are some chapters told from the point of view of his brother-in-law, Charlie), who was a happy husband and father until tragedy stroke and he lost his son, Tommy. His wife is depressed and when she suggests spending a few days at Manor House to have a break and strengthen their family ties, he agrees. The plan is for him to take the opportunity to write the book he has been talking about for ages. The narration is not straightforward. Although the book is pretty short, the reader needs to remain attentive, as Edmund experiences strange events, and his story is interspersed with his writing, that includes stories about the house, a diary where he narrates dreams (sometimes experienced whilst awake and sometimes asleep), and the time frame is not as evident as it might seem at times. Edmund is not a reliable narrator. He interacts with a number of mysterious characters that keep reassuring him that everything is all right, but he is not totally convinced of that. There are moments when he feels that he is not in control of what is happening or what he is writing, but that he is rather a conduit for somebody or something else (Manor House?).

These mysterious characters who work in the house (Lucas, the housekeeper, and the groundskeeper) give him some clues as to what might be really going on, but we experience events through Edmund’s eyes and senses, and although we might be as convinced as he is that things are not right, and we have some extra information (the prologue and later the chapters from Charlie’s point of view), we still feel as lost and puzzled as him.

Matt Powers does a great job of enveloping the story in suggestion and creating intrigue, without using gore descriptions or openly violent scenes. He manages to make the readers autosuggest themselves and creates a psychological atmosphere of disquiet and dread. The fact that we only know some basic facts about the family and the protagonist rather than having a very personalised and detailed portrayal of the individuals and their characteristics helps us immerse ourselves in the story and we can easily identify with the role of observer and writer Edmund takes on (more or less willingly).

The style of the writing is atmospheric and it alternates with stream of consciousness and with descriptive writing of historical events and lore, but as mentioned, due to the state of mind of the character whose point of view we share in, it needs to be followed closely and it is not a light and easy read.

The author explains that he intended to pay homage and create his own version of the horror stories about ghosts and haunted houses he loves, and in my opinion, he is successful. Fans of horror stories will find plenty of nods to stories and authors who have written in the genre and will enjoy that aspect as much as the story itself. Although I did not find the novel scary or the ending surprising per se, it is eerie and it does a good job of exploring the psychology of anxiety and fear, while at the same time touching on the themes of loss, grief, guilt, and the toll losing a child can have on family relationships.

A short read recommended for those who prefer their frights more psychological and less gory in nature. And I agree with the author’s chosen quote by Dean Koontz:

Houses are not haunted. We are haunted, and regardless of the architecture with which we surround ourselves, our ghosts stay with us until we ourselves are ghosts.

 Another author to keep a close eye on.

A morally ambiguous thriller and a story of tainted friendships that will appeal to readers of King’s It.

The Chalk Man: A Novel - C.J. Tudor

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

This story, told in two different time frames by Eddie Adams (known as Eddie Munster as a child, because all the friends had nicknames and somehow the Munsters and the Adams became conflated into one…), has all the elements fans of mysteries and thrillers love. Strange characters, plenty of secrets, red herrings and false clues, lies, many suspects, a slightly odd setting, bizarre murders, strange relationships… A murder involving bizarre circumstances (a chopped-up body with a missing head, strange chalk drawings…) took place in a small and picturesque UK city (it sounds small enough to be a town, but as it has a cathedral, it is a city) in 1986 (although there were other strange things that happened at the time too, coincidental or not), and became known as the Chalk-Man murder. Thirty years later someone starts asking questions and stirring things up. Eddie narrates, in the first-person, the events, including his memories of what happened when he was a teenager and also telling us what is happening now. Those of you who read my blog know I have a thing for unreliable narrators, and, well, Eddie is a pretty good one. He is an English high school teacher and seems fairly reliable and factual in his account, and he does a great job of making us feel the emotions and showing us (rather than telling us) the events; although slowly he starts revealing things about himself that make him less standard and boring, and slightly more intriguing. Eddie does not have all the information (it seems that the friends kept plenty of things from each other as children), and sometimes he is unreliable because of the effect of alcohol, and possibly his mental state (his father suffered early dementia and he is concerned that he might be going down the same path). But there are other things at play, although we don’t fully get to know them until the very end.

The story reminded me of Stephen King’s It, most of all because of the two time-frames and of the story of the children’s friendship, although the horror element is not quite as strong (but there are possible ghosts and other mysterious things at play), and the friends and their friendship is more suspect and less open. In some ways, the depiction of the friend’s relationship, and how it changes over time, is more realistic. Of course, here the story is told from Eddie’s point of view, and we share in his likes and dislikes, that are strongly coloured by the events and his personal opinions. The main characters are realistically portrayed (both from a child’s perspective and later from an adult one), complex, and none of them are totally good, or 100% likeable, but they are sympathetic and not intentionally bad or mean (apart from a couple of secondary characters but then… there is a murderer at work). Morality is ambiguous at best, and people do questionable things for reasons that seem fully justified to them at the time, or act without thinking of the consequences with tragic results. I am not sure I felt personally engaged with any of the characters (perhaps because of Eddie’s own doubts), but I liked the dubious nature of the narration, and the fact that there were so many unknowns, so many gaps, and that we follow the process of discovery up-close, although there are things the main character knows that are only revealed very late in the game (although some he seems to have buried and tried hard to forget). The parents, and secondary characters, even when only briefly mentioned, serve the purpose well, add a layer of complexity to the story and are consistent throughout the narration.

The mystery had me engaged, and the pieces fit all together well, even when some of them are not truly part of the puzzle. I can’t say I guessed what had happened, although I was suspicious of everyone and, let’s say I had good reason to be. I liked the ending, not only the resolution of the mystery but what happens to Eddie. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean.

The writing is fluid, it gives the narrator a credible voice, it gets the reader under the character’s skin, and it creates a great sense of place and an eerie atmosphere that will keep readers on alert. The story deals with serious subjects, including child abuse, bullying (and sexual abuse), dementia, and although it is not the most graphically violent story I have read, it does contain vivid descriptions of bodies and crime scenes, and it definitely not a cozy mystery and not for the squeamish reader.

A great new writer, with a very strong voice and great ability to write psychological thrillers, and one I hope to read many more novels by. 

 

A ripping good read recommended to lovers of WWII historical fiction in a naval setting and atmospheric thrillers.

Jonah - Carl Rackman

I write this review on behalf of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you want to have your books reviewed, check here. I know I am one of the members, but it is a great team) and I thank Rosie and the author for providing me an ARC copy of the book that I freely chose to review. Although I had read great reviews of one of Rackman’s previous books, Irex, I had not read his work yet but I was eager to check his new novel, especially as it came greatly recommended by other reviewers from Rosie’s team. The novel did not disappoint. It is a thriller set (mostly) in a US Navy destroyer in the Pacific during WWII. Moby Dick is one of my favourite novels (depending on the moment you ask me, my favourite) and I do like a story set at sea, although I’m not an expert on the topic. As we read the novel it becomes clear that the author has researched the historical period and the setting well and he is skilled at making readers get under the skin of the characters and share in their experiences and settings. Although some of the nautical terms might not be familiar to us, we can easily guess from the context, and we share in the heat, exhaustion, tension, anxiety, fear, and camaraderie. The setting of the novel, the destroyer, apart from being a confined space is a microcosms where we can find men from all walks of life, career navy men, enlisted men, older and younger men, some who’d never even seen the sea and others from long nautical tradition, and men from a variety of religions, ethnic backgrounds, and regions of the USA. These men are thrown together to fight a war under extreme circumstances and when we meet them they have all experienced things we would not wish on anyone. The story is written in the third person, mostly from the point of view of Mitch Kirkham, “Lucky” Kirkham, a gunner who seems fated to survive when everybody around him dies. Early in the book, we witness another example of his good luck (by that point he had already earned his nickname following a battle in Okinawa where he was one of the few survivors), but unfortunately, not everybody sees things the same way, and he gets bullied and victimised, accused of being a coward. To add to his difficulties, strange things start happening on the ship. Some of the men start experiencing unusual things, there is paranoia, violence, deaths, and the weirdest explanations are suggested. His peers insist that Mitch is a Jonah (they believe he is bringing them bad luck or worse and want to throw him overboard), and his life becomes increasingly complicated. The narrative of what happens in the ship (mostly from Mitch’s point of view, although at times, often when he is out of action, we also share in the point of view of a few other characters, like the medic of the ship, or the second in command), is interspersed with flashbacks (or memories) of incidents of the past of some of the men in the ship, usually those that end up right in the middle of the action. These snippets give us a better idea of what these men were like at home, in their real lives, when they were not cogs in the Navy machine, and they provide clues as to the psychological make-up of the characters (and also make us wonder what they might all have in common). Although the novel is mostly action-driven, we get brief glimpses into the men’s personalities and motives that add to the complexity and to the enjoyment for those of us who like well-defined characters. As a psychiatrist and somebody who enjoys psychological thrillers, I started wondering about the situation and coming up with my own theory from early on (no, I won’t share any spoilers). Yes, I was right; although the nitty-gritty detail is not fully revealed until the very end of the book and it is… Well, if you like conspiracy theory books, I think you’ll be pleased. It is also very believable and that is the scariest aspect of it. I had to do some research of my own after reading the book, because although I had read about some aspects of the story (it is not based on real events, but it realistically portrays the life of navy men at war and the way the Navy operated), I did not realise the extremes to which these men were subject to. The book is not only vividly written, intriguing, and tense, but it also deals with many important topics, such as survivors’ guilt, PTSD, war and fighting, the treatment of the combatants, experimentation, and the use of attention-enhancing drugs and its dangers. And yes, as a Moby Dick lover, I did particularly enjoy the end. As mentioned, the book is well researched and there is a glossary of terms and also an author’s note to explain the background to the story and clarify which aspects are based on truth and which have come out of the author’s imagination. I’d recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, especially set in WWII, people who love atmospheric thrillers, within a naval setting and to anybody who enjoys a ripping good read.

For readers who love inspirational stories, complex female characters, and historical fiction

Bear Medicine: A Novel - G. Elizabeth Kretchmer

I have read two of Elizabeth Kretchmer’s books before. The Damnable Legacy (you can check my review here) and Women on the Brink (check the review here) and enjoyed them. When I was informed that the author had published a new book, I had to check it out.

Once again, Kretchmer focuses on issues that relate to women’s lives and also to the environment and to human beings’ place in the world. The story is narrated by two women, Brooke and Anne, in the first-person. Although both women have a lot in common (both are married and not terribly happy in their marriages, although they are not fully aware of it or at least they haven’t acknowledged it to themselves yet, and they both love nature), they are separated by a hundred and forty years. Whilst Brooke lives in our present, Anne convinces her husband to visit Yellowstone not long after the Park is established, seriously underestimating the risks. Both women suffer because of their decisions (Brooke is mauled by a grizzly bear and is seriously injured, and Anne ends up alone and defenseless without experience on surviving in the wild) and are helped by other women. And in both cases, these seemingly terrible decisions end up totally changing their lives. The book is part contemporary women’s fiction and part historical fiction, and an inspirational read.

Both characters are sympathetic because of the terrible circumstances they find themselves in, although they are not the standard heroines that suddenly and almost magically become enlightened and proficient at everything. They sometimes show little insight into their real situations, can be naïve, do little to help themselves, moan, and take one step forward and two steps back. If anything, Anne, who married young and has little experience of the world, seems to take to the new situation and accept Meg’s teachings more easily, although it must have been a bigger shock to her and farther away from her everyday experience. The society of her time was also more prejudiced, and the fact that she becomes best friends with a Native American woman is much more of a leap of faith than Brooke’s friendship with Laila and her confused feelings about the younger woman. But Brooke has also been victimised (even though it takes her quite a while to accept that) for much longer, has two grown-up children, and therefore has much more to lose. It is understandable that she struggles more and it takes her longer to fully embrace her new reality. I think most women will recognize themselves in one of the characters, either the narrators or their friends and helpers, and feel personally involved in the novel.

The writing is beautifully descriptive and there are very touching moments, some because of the extremes of emotion and suffering, and some because of the moments of clarity and insight that the love of the women and their cooperation with each other brings them. The author has done her research (she explains her process at the end and also acknowledges her sources) and I learned much about the birth of Yellowstone and the Indian Wars by reading this book.

There are serious and current subjects discussed in the novel (abuse [mental, physical, and sexual], rape, drug abuse, mental illness, nature and environment, the protection of wild animals, politics, parent-child relationship), there are adventures and risky situations, secrets, betrayal, and plenty of love. Although most readers will figure out soon enough the connection between the two women, we care enough for both characters and their adventures to keep reading and hoping we will be right about the end. And yes, the ending is empowering and positive too.

An emotional book (yes, I did cry), an enlightened book, and also a realistic book, that shows us some women who are not the perfect heroines, all powerful and knowing, but who make mistakes, hesitate, don’t know what to do for the best, and can be annoying and irritating at times, but who become stronger and learn about themselves by joining with other women and choosing to work together.

An inspiring read and a book that I recommend to women (and men) who enjoy multi-dimensional characters. It will also delight people who love historical fiction, in particular, the Indian Wars, and readers interested in Native American tradition and mythology. Another great book by a writer I will keep my eye on.

A great resource for writers of historical fiction, historians, and people who love social history and the Victorian period.

Life on the Victorian Stage: Theatrical Gossip - Nell Darby

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

If you have been following my reviews for some time, you will be aware that I have read a number of the historical books published by Pen & Sword. I tend to be more interested in social history and how historical changes affected the lives of those who don’t always figure in the big History treatises. Being a lover of plays and a kin theatregoer, I was very curious about this book. Yes, theatre gossip was intriguing, but getting a sense of what life on the Victorian stage must have been like was my main interest. Although sometimes we discover that life has changed dramatically in a reasonably short period of times, some things do not seem to change much. And human curiosity and the love of gossip are among those things. If Victorians had no access to social media, there were plenty of newspapers and periodicals to keep them entertained, and actors were as much a subject of interest then as they are now.

The author does not follow a narrative or chooses a few big cases in this book, but rather illustrates the sheer amount of theatrical news that occupied the Victorian press of the time, not only in London but also in the provinces. As communications improved, newspapers even started featuring stories about actors in America (either natives or British authors touring there) and although sometimes the features lacked in detail (in some cases a suicide or a death would not feature the name of those involved) they were always after items that would attract the public’s attention. Darby divides the book into three parts: Part 1 deals with the business side of things (including such matters as licenses, libel, bankruptcy, breach of contract…), Part 2 looks at criminal lives (from blackmail and assault to prostitution and murder), and Part 3 delves into the personal lives of the actors (what we would probably consider gossip proper, although not all of it is gossip. The chapter on death and disaster deals with serious matter and also makes us look at security measures and disasters in theatres, bigamy seems to have been much more common than it is today, and personally I was fascinated by the chapter on breaches of promise, as I had not realise that there were laws that offered more protection to women in those circumstances than I would have expected).  Each chapter shares both, examples of standard cases of what would usually find its way into the newspapers (brief pieces with hardly any detail) and it dedicates more space to others that were better known, but no single case gets all the limelight. In many ways, this book is like a sampler, where people interested in the subject can learn more and be pointed in the right direction to research further.

The author’s style of writing is direct, and mostly allows the sources to do the talking. She provides sufficient background (on legal matters, the nature of performances, technical issues…) for readers to appreciate the items she discusses, and also some reflections on her own take on the materials. She notes how some periodicals, like The Era, were in a double-bind of sorts, as they tried hard to defend the profession of acting on the stage (that had a pretty bad reputation, especially in the case of women), insisting that actors were honourable and true professionals, whilst at the same time featured “sensational” news to attract readers. Although these days respectability is not a concept many people are worried about, it is true that the press has a hard time trying to reconcile the ideal of protectors of the truth, whilst fighting to keep the attention of the public by any means necessary. Is it possible to keep the moral high ground whilst publishing gossip and innuendo?

Although this is not, perhaps, a book for the general reading public, as I read I kept thinking about how useful this book would be to writers of historical fiction interested in the period (and not only for those considering using a theatrical background in their story but also for those thinking about the press of the time and even society at large) and to historians. Darby provides end notes full of details, both of the sources of her research and also of further information available. Although she mostly uses newspapers, she digs on the archives to confirm details such as names (as many actors and actresses used stage names and some of those were fairly popular) and discovers that Mark Twain wasn’t the only one whose death had been grossly exaggerated (deaths, marriages… were often misreported). The paperback also contains pictures that allow us to put faces to some of the names and help transport us to the era.

In sum, this is a book that will greatly assist writers, historians, and people passionate about the Victorian era and the history of the stage in the UK. It is a good starting point for those who want a general view of the topic and/or are looking for inspiration for their next story or research project. And if you just want to confirm that people’s love for gossip about the stars has not changed over the years, this is your book.

A great debut novel for those looking for a bit of magic and hope.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance - Ruth Emmie Lang

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

This book is a joy. Readers need to be prepared to suspend disbelief more than usual, perhaps, but from the very beginning, you realise you are in for a ride where everything will be extraordinary. Weylyn, the protagonist, is born in circumstances that his doctor never forgets, and he grows up to be more than a bit special.

I will not repeat the description of the book, which summarises quite well the main aspects of the novel. Weylyn’s story is told, mostly, from the point of view of the characters he meets along the way, and who, somehow, are changed by his presence in their lives. The story is set in the present, with interludes where a boy who literally falls on Weylyn (who lives like a hermit in the forest, with a wolf as his only company) keeps pestering him to tell him his story, and then goes back to the past, and the story is told, always in the first person, by a number of characters. As all readers know, narrators have a way of revealing a lot about themselves when they tell somebody else’s story, and this is true here. None of the narrators are unreliable, but they tell us more of their own stories through their memories of Weylyn than they do about Weylyn himself. We get to know him by the effect he has on those around him (children, adults, some of the characters —those he is closest to— her revisits over the years) and he remains a bit of a cipher, perhaps because he does not know himself or can explain himself fully either. We hear from him towards the end of the book, also in the first person, but he is not a character who defines himself by his “powers” (if that is what they are), and he never gives his talents a name, although he allows people to think whatever they like (He even tries to hide his prowess behind a pig, Merlin, insisting that the horned pig is the one who controls the weather). Despite all these points of view, the book is easy to read as each point of view is clearly delineated and their stories and narrative styles are distinct and appropriate to the characters. The writing flows well and there is enough description to spur readers’ imagination without going overboard.

In a world where children and parents have difficulty communicating, where fitting in and appearances are more important than true generosity, where politicians are self-serving and corrupt, where people stay in relationships because they don’t know how to end them, and where the interest of big corporations always trumps the needs of the common man, Weylyn is like the energy and light he manages to harvest, a ray of hope and a breath of fresh air.

Weylyn is a great character, but so are most of the other characters in the book. Some are more memorable than others, but they are all likeable and changed for the better by their interaction with Weylyn.

Although there are magical and fantastic elements in the novel, in my opinion, it fits into the category of magic realism (as the world the characters live in is our world and that is precisely why people are touched and surprised by his skills, his “specialness”). It would also fall under literary fiction, although it is a much easier read than many books classed under that label (and I feel this is a book not exclusively for adults either. There is minimal violence, clean romance, and many young characters, all distinct and likeable in their own ways).

A story for readers who love great characters and like to let their imaginations fly, not always feeling the need to remain anchored to reality. This is one of those books that we feel sorry to reach the end of and are thankful because we know their memory will remain with us. A great debut novel.

A fun and light read recommended to lovers of fairy tales and Scottish-themed adventures

Enchanted by the Highlander (A Highland Fairytale) - Lecia Cornwall

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press/Swerve, for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I love fairy tales. Although probably Beauty and the Beast is my favourite, I have a soft spot for most classics. I also love the Scottish Highlands (I’ve visited two or three times but I hope I will visit again in the future). When I saw this book, which combined a retelling of Cinderella with a setting in the Highlands, I could not resist (I also liked the cover).

This is book 4 in A Highland Fairytale series, but it can be read as a standalone (I haven’t read any of the other books in the series). The story is told in the third person from different characters points of view, but there is no head-hopping and the changes in perspective are clearly marked. The novel is set in the XVII century and tells the story of is Gillian, a young girl daughter of Donal, the laird of the MacLeod’s clan, quiet and shy, whose father and sisters think will never get married (although she is very pretty but too quiet to make herself noticed). Quiet waters and all that, because Gillian has dreams and wants to marry for love. While visiting one of the sisters, she meets an Englishman who is Captain of her brother-in-law’s men, John Erly, and although he has no fortune to his name and a terrible reputation, she discovers there is more to him than people think and falls in love with him. At a masquerade ball, they kiss (he is not wearing much of a disguise but he does not know who she is) and she loses her mask. Despite the effect she has on him, nothing happens and she goes back home. A few months later she is engaged to get married to an old nobleman (older than her father) as her family is convinced she wants a quiet life and an old husband is just the ticket for her. Somehow, John ends up escorting her to Edinburgh with a full complement of Highlanders… And the rest, well, you’ll need to read the book to know.

I don’t want to rehash the plot or reveal any spoilers. As this is a romance and a fairy tale, you can imagine how things end up from the beginning, but the beauty is in the details. Gilliam is far from the wilting violet everybody mistakes her for, and John isn’t the rogue others think either. They go through many adventures, including being assaulted by outlaws, a wedding that is ruined, numerous suitors, fights and perils, a competition to obtain Gillian’s hand in marriage, secrets, confessions, and plenty of Highland traditions, expressions, songs, whisky, and a fair amount of fun (and romance). Of course, it is a fairy tale, so it does require a deal of suspension of disbelief, but both main characters are likeable, and most of the secondary characters are great too (even if we don’t get to know them as well, they provide light relief and liven up the action).

The retelling of Cinderella is limited to the mask and the ball, as the circumstances of the character are quite different (she is beloved by her family even if they don’t understand her true feelings) and what happens later bears no resemblance to the story, but is an enjoyable romp. There is plenty of action and humour, there is violence, there are also scary moments, and a couple of erotic scenes (they are quite mild but I would have enjoyed the book more without them as I’m not a big fan. Especially the first one felt particularly unrealistic, and I know I’m talking about a sex scene in a fairy tale, but for me, it did stretch credibility more than the rest of the book). The writing is in keeping with the story, easy and fairly dynamic, at times reminding me of the serials of old, like the Perils of Pauline, where there is a never-ending amount of trouble waiting for the heroine (who luckily is pretty resourceful).

A fun and light read recommended to lovers of fairy tales and Scottish-themed stories, who enjoy adventures galore and don’t mind some violence and a bit of sex.

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