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 chronicle of a life spent chasing the news

Deadlines on the Front Line. Travels With a Veteran War Correspondent - Paul L. Moorcraft

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

I have become interested in the world of the press and reporters of recent, and when I read the information about this book, I had to check it out.

This book is part memoir/part chronicle of Moorcraft’s life as a war correspondent, but it is not only about that, as he does talk in detail about periods of his life dedicated to teaching (for example in Australia and New Zealand) and also about a variety of other projects he took on, like creating documentaries of all kinds, mostly following his instincts and his interests. If he was living in a particular country, and he heard about something going on in a neighbouring one, he’d always manage to find a reason to be there. He knew how to sell his ideas and how to get news agencies and broadcasters interested, for good reason, as he is an engaging and knowledgeable reporter, with a knack for meeting all kinds of people and getting into difficult places. Some of the stories of his trips to meet fighters, guerrilla leaders, and his stays at dangerous places at particularly risky times make for scary reading, as it’s impossible not to think what we would have felt like in that situation. I don’t think many of us would have dared to try some of the stunts he pulls, and it is easy to see why he wonders about the nature of courage in his conclusion. Courage might take many forms, but there is little doubt that what he and many of his colleagues did, and do still, takes courage and something we might call a true vocation or “calling”. And yes, perhaps some form of “madness”.

I’ve read a review that says the author has covered all countries almost from A to Z (and yes, Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and many in between, all around Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania, some which no longer exist as well) and that is true. He writes well, extremely well, and he is far from politically correct or careful when it comes to stating his opinions, that are deeply personal and do not ever purport to be neutral or even fair. Some of his views will be unpopular with some readers (I must admit I do not share his point of view on many subjects), but he narrates his own experiences candidly, he does not take himself too seriously, being as critical of himself as he is of the rest of the people who make an appearance in this book, and he humbly acknowledges that his opinion might be biased and one-sided.  Although his adventures reminded me of James Bond at times (a character I must confess I’ve never been fond of), he shows empathy and a deep concern for those in a position of weakness and powerlessness, suffering due to the poor decisions of those who are supposed to protect them. He is self-deprecating at times, and there are plenty of jokes and humour, very British humour (or Welsh, although he acknowledges that for someone who deeply loves Wales, he has spent most of his life away) in the book. There are also many photographs, maps, a timeline, and great observations of places, countries, and ways of life that, in some cases, have totally disappeared (his early chapters on Africa and South-Africa I found particularly illuminating in this respect).

I recommend this book to people interested in how being a war correspondent and a reporter has changed over the recent years, to those who want to read a personal account of what it was like to live in some of the most conflict-ridden areas in the world from the early 1970s until recently, and to people interested in life as a university professor in different countries over the years. The author has written many other books, fiction and non-fiction, and if readers enjoy his writing, there’s plenty more to explore.

As an example of his style, I’ll leave you with his closing reflections:

I still plan a few more comebacks, just like the guy who grew up in the same Pontypridd street where my mother’s family lived: Tom Jones. I have accepted that instead of always wondering why I inevitably sat next to the nutter on the bus, train or plane, I realize that people often thought I was the nutter. I spent my working life at places such as Sandhurst or Staff College assuming I was the only sane man in the lunatic asylum. I finally realized that they couldn’t all be wrong.

 

Compelling, both living up to and challenging the tropes of the slasher genre.

Slash (Fiction Without Frontiers) - Hunter Shea

Thanks to NetGalley and to Flame Tree Press for providing me an early ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I recently read one of Hunter Shea’s books, Creature, that I really enjoyed, and this novel shares quite a few characteristics with that one. I find it a bit difficult to sum up exactly what I think about it, but I’d say it is a book that both indulges in and challenges the usual tropes of the slasher subgenre, while digging dipper into some of the characters’ backgrounds and emotions. Yes, there is a monster (with a horrific past and a number of paranormal characteristics), there is a group of friends (more or less) in a creepy location, there is plenty of action (especially in the second half of the book), there is gore by the bucket load, and some dark humour. But the first part of the book looks into survivor’s guilt and grief, and it might feel slow to readers expecting a standard slasher novel, and the second part might prove too heavy for those interested in psychological horror but not so much in bloody mess and body parts galore.

The book is narrated in the third person, mostly from Todd’s point of view, although we are shown some other characters’ perspectives at the beginning and the end of the book. Through Todd, we get a fair amount of background information into what happened to Ashley, his fiancée, a final girl proper. There is much discussion about her final girl status, and I particularly enjoyed that aspect of the book, and also the exploration of Ash’s and Todd’s state of mind and difficulties coming to term with what had happened to them. Todd clings to Ash’s memory, and it makes perfect sense that he would want to hold on to her and explore any clues she has left for him, especially in his disturbed frame of mind. He continually wavers between trying to avoid putting others at risk and his need to keep on looking for any vestiges of his girlfriend.

We don’t know so much about the rest of the members of the team that end up joining the mission. One of them, Sharon, the sister of one of Ash’s friends, is not welcomed by most, and she is treated rather badly, especially by Jerry, the policeman, who is far from likeable. As is typical of the genre, the other characters are reduced to their habitual behaviours and salient characteristics (we have a gambler who is forever quoting odds, the friend who always tries to avoid conflict, Todd’s closest friends are a couple devoted to each other…). None of them are particularly sympathetic (perhaps also due to the somewhat distanced and obsessive point of view provided by Todd), but then, you don’t want to get attached to the characters in a slasher novel or film, as you know what will likely happen to them. I did like Sharon, who kicks ass, but I wasn’t sure about the depiction of women in the book. Again, the book tries to balance genre expectations and challenges, but I’m not sure it always works. We have Heather, Vince’s wife, who seems to play the part of the woman in old-fashioned films and books. She is the carer, looks after everybody, worries about Todd and her husband, spends a fair amount of the second part of the book unconscious and being carried around, and… (no, no more spoilers). Sharon, on the other hand, is a tough chick, determined, and courageous, sometimes too hot-headed for her own good, and she is an exotic dancer (or a stripper, as Jerry insists in calling her). As I said, I liked Sharon, but I didn’t appreciate the abuse she has to put up with, some of the jokes, and would have liked to know more about her, and not just the little snippets we get. We meet Ash when she has been torn out by her experience, and it’s difficult to get a full sense of her.

I’ve read reviews decrying plot holes (I wondered about quite a few things as well, but this genre is not about fine plotting, in general), others complaining about the ending and the explanation behind the murderer/monster (I agree with reviewers that compared the book to a series-B movie, particularly when it comes to the action and the paranormal elements), and emphasising their lack of empathy for most of the characters. I agree with all these points, although they seem typical of the genre, rather than problems specific to this book per se.

For me, the main strength of the novel —apart from the psychological aspects, the exploration of grief and survivor’s guilt, and the wonderful setting (that, as tends to be the case in horror novels, becomes another character)— is Shea’s writing. He writes beautifully and compellingly, making it impossible to stop reading even when he is describing horrific and vivid scenes of carnage and violence.

I’d recommend this book to readers who enjoy horror books and love genre tropes but want a bit more depth and appreciate a challenge. This is a book full of horrific scenes graphically rendered, with a murderer/monster with paranormal features, and some of the characters are prejudiced and misogynistic, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people who prefer their horror more low-key and insidious rather than in your face. I have become a fan of Shea’s writing style and look forward to reading more of his books.

 

A solid first novel for lovers of psychological suspense and Basset Hounds

Closer Than You Think - Lee Maguire

Disclaimer: the publisher offered me a free ARC copy of this book. This this not affect my review.

In brief, this is a promising debut novel (in a planned series of psychological thrillers), narrated in the first person, with a solid stalker plot (clues, red-herrings and twists likely to make most readers of the genre happy), an interesting setting (a mental health treatment facility for troubled youths) and a good development of the main character (psychologist Bryce Davison, a man with an unsettled and traumatic past), and a wonderful Basset Hound. On the minus side, it could do with a tighter editing, more development of the secondary characters, and more attention to the pacing of the action.

This book will be especially appealing to those who enjoy psychological suspense, with particular emphasis on the “psychological” part. The author’s professional experience shines through, and that aspect of the novel is particularly well achieved, although it might seem overdetailed to people used to faster-paced thrillers.

The first-person point of view works well for the type of story, as it allows readers to share in the doubts and thoughts of the victim, experiencing his anxiety, reliving the trauma he experienced when he was young, and also trying to piece together the clues with him. On the other hand, the novel reads, at times, like a poorly focused memoir, with plenty of repetition of everyday living activities and chores that don’t help move the action forward and don’t add much to our understanding of the character. (There are so many times we can read about the character having a shower, the fact that his fridge is empty, or his switching or on off the computer). I’ve read novels that meander through stuff that does not seem particularly noteworthy, but the style of writing makes it impossible not to enjoy the detour. In this novel, neither the style of writing nor the genre are best suited for it. The other characters are not very well developed, partly perhaps to do with the choice of point of view, and in some cases, like Bryce’s wife, that has the effect of making them appear inconsistent or totally at odds with the protagonist’s opinion of them.

The suspenseful plot and the way it builds up work well, although I agree with some of the reviewers that complain about the ending and the final explanation being too rushed. The story is not heavy on action or violence, although there is some, and the ending itself is satisfying.

As I said, this is a solid first novel that could be further improved by another round of editing, and I’d recommend it to people who prefer psychological suspense and who value plot over character building. Also recommended to Basset Hound lovers.

 

A beautiful family saga full of magic and compelling writing

The Dutch House - Ann Patchett

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

I’ve heard of Ann Patchett but hadn’t read any of her novels until now, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to get started. And I really liked the book cover and was intrigued by the title as well. Having read this novel, I’m sure it won’t be the last of the author’s books I read.

Although most reviews are positive, some readers who are familiar with her previous novels felt disappointed, while others loved it as much, if not more, as her previous work. As I said, I have nothing to compare it with, but I enjoyed it. I loved the characters (most of all), I loved the setting, and the writing, that can be lyrical, touching, and humorous in turns.

This is the story of a family, or, to be precise, of two siblings and the people they meet along the way. Maeve and Danny become a family-unit through unfortunate (and at times bizarre) circumstances. Their mother leaves when Danny, the younger of the two, is only three years old, and Maeve becomes his sister/mother/life coach/career advisor and many more things. Their father, Cyril, a real estate magnate, is consumed by his business and never explains much, either about his background, their mother, or the house, the Dutch House of the title. When he marries Andrea, who has two daughters of her own, things change, and when he dies, things take an even more dramatic turn.

The story, such as it is, is narrated in the first person by Danny, who claims to have intended to tell the story of his sister (a rather extraordinary individual I’d love to meet in real life), but he realised that this could not be done in isolation from his own and from that of many others who had also played parts in the events they might not have been fully aware of at the time. Although there is an overall chronological order to the novel, Danny’s memory sometimes circles back and forth to moments or events that are related or linked, at least in his mind, to what he is thinking or talking about at the time. He explores the memories around the Dutch House (a seemingly mysterious place although things don’t go in the direction readers might expect), and how the different people seem to have contrasting versions of what went on and totally different feelings about it as well. Was their mother a saint, or a heartless woman who abandoned her children in her eagerness to help unknown others? Was Andrea a greedy woman (the wicked stepmother of fairy tales) who married their father for his money and then threw them out? Or did she truly love him and resented them for their connection to him? Was Maeve domineering and manipulative or selfless and generous? Why didn’t Danny’s wife, Celeste, and his sister get on? What power did the Dutch House have over its inhabitants?

As I have already mentioned, I loved the characters. Although we don’t get to know all of them completely (this is the story Danny is telling, and at times he can be remarkably lacking in insight and even curiosity), that is part of the charm of the story. This would make a great novel for book clubs, as there is much to discuss, and I am sure different readers will have totally different opinions on the characters and their possible motives and/or justifications. Interpretations are left open, and although there is an end (yes, a happy ending of sorts), the ending does not necessarily provide an explanation for everything that happens, at least not a definitive one. As is the case in real life, people are unknowable, and even those we think we know best can surprise us at times.

I also loved the house. The similarities to a fairy tale are mentioned in the description and in many of the reviews, and perhaps because we first see the house from the perspective of a little boy, there is something magical about it. There are secret drawers, paintings of previous owners, gold leaf decorations, hidden storage places, and the house seems to hold an ongoing influence over those who’ve ever lived or worked there. I would love to visit it, and the combination of grand mansion and some of the characteristics of a gothic castle work well and give it a strong personality, although it might not live up to everybody’s expectations.

I have read some of the negative comments, and I do understand them and don’t necessarily disagree with the points they make, although I feel they don’t detract from the novel. Some people note that there is no plot or story behind it and complain that it is slow. This is a family saga, and as such there is no conventional plot or a great revelation (there are quite a few secrets and misunderstandings that get cleared out, but that is not the same) at the end. Because this is a book about memory, family life, growing older, and forgiveness, it is not a straightforward narration or a page-turner where the main point is to keep the action moving. Life happens at its own pace; there are funny moments, sad moments, enlightening moments, inspiring ones, and disappointments as well. The writing is compelling, but people who love stories full of action and a quick pace should not attempt this novel, unless they are willing to try something different. Some readers also complain that some of the storylines are unrealistic… Well, this is a novel, and I’ve read some that required a much higher degree of suspension of disbelief than this one, but I am sure realism is not what the author was after.

I loved this novel and would recommend it to readers who appreciate a focus on character, beautiful writing, and some touches of magic and are fond of the adult fairy-tale. As usual, I recommend readers who aren’t sure if they’d enjoy it or not, to try a book sample and see how they feel. I look forward to reading more of Patchett’s stories in the future. I have the feeling that they won’t disappoint.

 

 

Highly recommended to Brontës fans and to early XIX century historians

The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick  - Sharon Wright

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

Despite being a fan of the Brontës, having visited Haworth, and read about them (although I’m no expert), on seeing this book I realised I didn’t know much about their mother, other than she had died when they were very young. The author explains quite well why that is the case, as there seems to be very little trace of her, other than some letters she wrote to her then husband-to-be, Patrick, and a religious tract she wrote. There are also comments and memories collected by others, mostly by those writing the biographies of her famous daughters, but little dedicated solely to her. I am grateful to the author for putting that to rights. She has done a great job, digging factual information about Maria Branwell, compiling written records (be it newspaper cuttings, diaries written by neighbours or social connections, correspondence and accounts by others), introducing and interpreting the few writings we have by Maria herself, and pulling together information about the era and the places where the family lived to help readers place the family as actors and social beings in the period and the locations where they lived.  The level of detail is just right, as well. Wright explains how dangerous and dreary the trip from Penzance to Yorkshire would have been in the early XIX century, the unrest in Yorkshire due to the Industrial Revolution and the machines replacing workers (the Luddites had much to say about that, although their actions didn’t have any long-term impact), and the differences in the social settings of Penzance and Thornton, for example, but these explanations never detract from the story. Rather the opposite; they make it all the more compelling.

I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil the enjoyment of the many interested readers, but I thought I’d share some of the things I noted as I went along. I’ve already mentioned that Maria was from Penzance, but it seems that her father and the rest of the family were likely involved in smuggling (that, to be fair, seems to have been an almost universal occupation in the area). Hers was a large family, and to illustrate just how hard life was at the time, although they were fairly well off, five of her siblings died before they got to adulthood. Religion played an important part in her life, and it’s only fitting that she would end up marrying a priest. She knew Humphry Davy (later Sir Humphry Davy) when she was young, her life was quite full and she was well-connected in Penzance, so we get a sense of how much she must have loved her husband to sacrifice all that to follow him in his career moves, and also what a change in her circumstances she must have experienced. She was a keen reader, and their love of books was one of the things likely to bring her and Patrick together, and it is clear from her letters that she was a good (and even passionate at times) writer, with a sense of humour. She was a woman of her time, and although she had the confidence of those around her, she wished for a life-long companion to support her and guide her in accordance to the norms of the time and as we can see from her own religious tract, her ideas (or at least those she expressed in writing for the public) were pretty conventional. I was gripped by the difficulties Patrick had to face to get the post as priest in Haworth. It seems they were not fond of being told what to do or who to choose there, and he renounced twice to his position before everybody was finally in agreement with his nomination.

I was fascinated by the comments of the author about women’s diarists and their importance to get to understand what everyday life was like at the time. Men of the period wrote the official history, but they hardly ever took the time to note the little details, those we are truly interested in, that help us bring to life a particular era. I am particularly fond of the entries from the diary of Elizabeth Firth, one of the Brontës’ neighbours. My favourite must be: “We sat up expecting the Radicals.” For your peace of mind I’ll let you know that it seems they never came. Wright also defends the importance of the local press, as again they are the ones that keep records of those things that are not considered notice-worthy by big publications, but help make a community what it is. She laments the demise of many of those papers, and I could not agree more.

The book includes two appendixes with the full text of Maria’s letters and also her religious article titled “The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns.” There is also an index with all the texts the author has consulted when writing this book, and I am sure people interested in learning more about the Brontës will find plenty of material there. There are also a number of illustrations, mostly photographs from the houses and locations mentioned in the book, some portraits and illustration, and also a recreation of what Patrick and Maria might have looked like on their wedding day (that I loved).

I recommend this book to anybody interested in the Brontës, in the history of Haworth and Thornton, and in the history of the early XIX century England, especially those who, like me, enjoy getting transported to the era and having a sense of what life was really like then. A deserved homage to a woman whose heritage was so important and so little acknowledged.

Recommended to lovers of historical fiction, pioneer narrations, and women’s stories

Not My Father's House: A Novel of Old New Mexico  - Loretta Miles Tollefson

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team, and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.

When I first read about this book, I was intrigued by the setting (one I must confess I’m not very familiar with but I’ve always been interested in) and the period of the story most of all. I’ve become an eager reader of historical fiction, and I’ve learned plenty about times and places I knew nothing about. This is another perfect example of the way novels can inform and entertain at the same time, immersing us on a time and place completely at odds with our everyday experience. This is book two in the series of novels of Old New Mexico, and although it can be read independently, I must admit I would have liked to be better acquainted with the previous lives of the characters.

Suzanna is very young. Newly wed and only sixteen, she is thrown in at the deep end. She is not very domesticated for a woman of the period (the story is set in the early XIX century): she does not know how to cook, and she was brought up by her father to love books rather than other more feminine tasks, although she does sew, cleans, and knows how to keep a house, more or less (but she did have help back at her father’s house, in Taos, and she still has some help here, because Ramón does the cooking, otherwise they’d die of hunger). She loves to be outdoors and grow plants and vegetables most of all and that is another source of irritation for her in her new location, as this is high mountain territory, and neither the weather nor the seasons are as mild as what she was used to at home.

Suzanna finds fault with everything and she is not the most likeable of characters to begin with, although as we keep reading, the sheer drudgery and harshness of her life, and her brave attempts at making the best out of it end up by endearing her to the reader. We also come to understand that there is something more behind the changes in mood and she needs help, although it is difficult to imagine what form it could take at that point and in that place. Gerald, her husband, does his best and tries to understand her, although he has little time and no workable solutions to make things better. Ramón is a quiet presence and a likeable one, as he is always at hand to help. A perfect example of the strong and quiet type, Mexican style. He and the main characters in the novel experience major and very traumatic losses, and they use different coping strategies to deal with very difficult circumstances. There are other very colourful characters that make their appearance in the book, including Native Americans of different tribes, trappers, Mexican Army soldiers, and assorted animals as well. Some of them, as the author explains at the end of the book, where real historical characters, and they seamlessly mix with the fictional characters whose story we are reading.

The story is a slow burner, rather than a quick page turner, and it is narrated in the third person, mostly from Suzanna’s point of view, but also from a pretty nasty character’s viewpoint (I’m trying to avoid spoilers, although the description will give you a fair idea of the plot), that gives us a different perspective and also creates a fairly uncomfortable reading experience, as we get to share in the thoughts of a man who does not seem to have a single redeeming feature. The author does an excellent job of capturing the natural rhythm of the seasons, and we experience the harshness of the natural environment, the difficulty of coping with extreme weather conditions and having to survive on one’s own wits, but she also brings to life the beauty and the joy of the landscape and the location.

Another very strong point of this novel is the way it reflects the mental health difficulties of Suzanna. Her dark moods, the way she is influenced by the seasons and the lack of light and exercise in the winter months, her irritability, her difficulty explaining her feelings, and how she is further hindered by several losses throughout the book and the effect the birth of her children has on her already fragile mental health are explored and made palpable. Because we share in her perspective, although at first we might think she is just too young and immature for the situation she has landed herself in, we later come to see how hard her circumstances would be for anybody. And when her father visits and explains that she’s always had difficulties in certain times of the year, but they’d managed it well, we understand that she had not been aware of these problems until she had to face them by herself, in more extreme and tough conditions. The author explains her research on depression (post-natal depression and also seasonal affective disorder) and provides the historical context as to how the condition would have been dealt with at the time, in her note at the back of the book. From my experience as a psychiatrist, having talked to and looked after many patients suffering from similar conditions, her portrayal is realistic and vivid, and it reflects well the feelings and desperation of the sufferers.

I learned plenty about the New Mexico of the era, its inhabitants, its customs, and its politics. The author’s research shines through, and she makes an excellent use of it without overbearing the reader. The book also includes an index of the sources used, and a list of the historical characters that make an appearance in the series.

I would recommend this book to anybody who loves historical fiction of this era and location, in particular people who enjoy books about the pioneers and the settlers of the Southern United States. It is not a book for people looking for constant action or for a light read. There are humorous moments, and there is light relief (mostly provided by the dogs. I loved all the dogs, although my favourite was Chaser), but there are also sad and scary moments, and although the book is not terribly graphic in its depiction of violence (and there is no erotica at all), there is violence and a sense of menace and threat that permeates a lot of the novel. If you are fans of Little House in the Prairie and prefer narrations that build up slowly but have a realistic feel, you must check this novel out. I am intrigued by the series, and I hope to learn more about the further adventures of Suzanna and her family.

 

A fun read, unique, quirky, and full of love for art.

Stealing The Scream - Theodore Carter

I thank the publisher for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had a ball reading this book. This is one of those books that are fun to read (even if you think you know where things are headed, you still want to read all the nitty-gritty details and end up discovering that things can go in unexpected directions), and are also great fun to tell others about. Because the plot of the book is both out-there and plausible at the same time, it’s impossible not to keep thinking about it, pondering over the details, and wondering how far things will go. And my bet is that anybody you tell about this book will also be left wondering and will want to know more.

The book’s description explains the main points of the plot in detail (too much detail for my liking, although luckily for me I didn’t remember the description when I got immersed in the book), so I won’t go over them again. This is a book suffused by art, painting in particular: love of art, the technique of painting, studying art, the obsession for art, collecting art, art museums and how they work, art as a business, but also and more importantly, the way art can communicate and affect people. The author, an artist in his own right, captures and transmits the way some art pieces can have an incredible effect on people, how we can feel moved, stirred, saddened, horrified, or utterly joyous by contemplating some artworks.  The power of some images (or sounds, or movements…) is undeniable and, as the main protagonist of the story learns, does not reside on a perfect technique. Some paintings have a soul that reaches out, touches our hearts and, like here, even screams at us.

The story is narrated in the third person from the four main characters’ points of view. This does not cause confusion as each chapter is told from a single character’s perspective, and it is clearly signposted. Percival, the retired CEO who takes up painting, is the central character, the one whose actions set the story in motion, although he does that at the suggestion of Lucinda, whose role in the story seems to be that of observer/facilitator, but whose motives and actions are, perhaps, the most intriguing of the whole book. She was an actress and seems to have fallen into her role as a mixture of PA, housekeeper, and live-in help of Percival quite by accident. She has lost her self-confidence and is both restless but unable to act, having lost her sense of purpose. Percival is a quirky character, who seems to show traits of Asperger’s (he has difficulty dealing with people other than a few individuals who know him well, is obsessive and once he has focused on something, he finds it difficult to switch off, he is rigid and inflexible in his routines…), and has a peculiar, sometimes child-like, sense of humour. Towards the end of the book his mind goes into freefall, and he reminded me of the Howard Hughes’s character as portrayed in the film The Aviator, but here the focus is on painting and art. Red, the shadiest character, is perhaps the most easily recognisable and familiar of them all, but although not particularly likeable, his resourcefulness and the ease with which he accepts the most bizarre requests make him rise above the typical crooks of novels and films. My favourite character was Leonard, the museum security ward. Although he is not well-educated or sophisticated, he is an observer of people, loves art (for its own sake), and has a curious and clever mind. He is the amateur detective, the only one to make sense of what is going on and who pursues the answers, no matter how difficult it might be.

The author assembles a cast of characters that seem, at first, to be familiar types we’ve all read about or watched on movies, but we might not feel a particular connection to. (As I said, Leonard is perhaps the most “normal” of them all, and, at least for me, the easiest to empathise with). But as we read about them, we discover they all have something in common. They are lonely and disconnected from others. Percival and Lucinda live in the same house (although it is a huge mansion, the author manages to create a sense of claustrophobia and encroachment) but, as Lucinda eventually realises, they live in separate worlds. Red has chosen to live in the edges of society and doesn’t know how to relax or enjoy other people’s company, other than at a very basic/business-like level. And although Leonard has a regular job and some friends, he lives alone in his apartment, has been stuck in his job for years, and has no meaningful relationships to speak off. The “common” experience they go through teaches all of them something, not the same, but important lessons nonetheless.

The language is versatile, adapting well to each different character, with some very funny lines at times (Lucinda keeps collecting Percival’s pearls of wisdom, and some are laugh-out-loud funny), lyrical descriptions of paintings and experiences (some take on an almost hallucinatory quality), and accurate depictions of paranoid and disturbed mental states. The plot involves a variety of locations and settings, and some action scenes, without any real violence (although there is menace and veiled threats), and the narration moves at a good pace, with some reflective and contemplative moments, but never slowing down to a halt.

I also loved the end. As I have mentioned, all the characters learn something new about themselves, and the end of the central story (the robbery of The Scream) will bring a smile to readers’ faces.  I hope somebody decides to make a movie out of it, because it would be a joy.

This is a book a bit difficult to categorise, as it has elements of the mystery novel (perhaps a cozy mystery with a difference), of the alternative historical fiction, even if it is real history (a reimagining of what might have truly happened when The Scream was stolen), of literary fiction, it’s also a study on obsession and art… I’d recommend it to people who love quirky stories with intriguing characters that do not fit into a given genre and are not followers of trends. If you love art, have a sense of humour, and are looking for something fresh and different, you must read this.  I am very intrigued by the author’s biography and his other books, and I’ll be checking out the rest of his work.

 

 

A quick read, full of frights, tension, and touches of dark humour

Dead Meat : Day 1 - Nick Clausen

I received an ARC copy of the story from the author which I freely chose to review.

I have recently read a novella from the same author that I enjoyed, and when he contacted me and offered me a copy of the first part of his new zombie series (new in English, although already published and successful in Danish) I had to say yes. Despite being a horror fan, I haven’t read many zombie books but, like many of us, I’ve watched enough living-dead movies and series to be familiar with the genre.

In this brief narrative (the first in the series, as the title indicates), we are plunged into the action (or rather, the tense waiting) from the very beginning. The author does a great job of making us feel the heat, the anxiety, and the claustrophobia of the basement where the three youths have taken refuge and the fear and uncertainty of the characters, whom we don’t know yet but will soon get to grips with. We have Thomas, his girlfriend Jenny, and Dan, Jenny’s younger brother. What had started as a standard newspaper run, ends up getting them into real trouble.

The action, narrated in the third person from different characters’ point of view (not alternating, so there’s no risk of getting confused. I don’t want to discuss this in detail to avoid spoilers, but we all know mortality is high in zombie stories) is pretty relentless. There are brief intervals when the characters are waiting and trying to decide what to do, but this is, perhaps, more scary and anxiety-provoking than the actual direct confrontations.

The explanation behind the zombies’ existence is believable within the constraints of the genre; there is plenty of gore (despite the young protagonists, I wouldn’t recommend this story to people who are squeamish); due to the use of alternating points of view, we get to experience the story as if we were there, and I kept wondering where and when the next zombie would turn up (and trying to come up with a workable solution to their predicament). There were a few moments when things seemed to be about to get sorted, but weren’t, and also hair-raising scenes aplenty. Oh, and there is some slapstick and dark humour as well (although it might depend on what you find funny).

As for the characters, although we don’t know too many details about them, due to the extreme situation they find themselves in, to their normalcy (from the bits of information we learn they are not extraordinary in any way, and it’s easy to imagine we might have reacted in similar ways if we were in that situation) and to the way the story is told, where we hardly get any break, it’s impossible not to empathise and root for them to survive. Of course, this is only the first book in the series, and we’ll have a chance to learn more about the characters in the next books. Although… well, this is a genre book.

As you can imagine, there is no definite conclusion or closure to the story. Although things change and it looks at some point as if everything might work out all right (at a heavy price, of course), well, there is no happy ending, and I suspect most of you will spot what is the missing element and why this is only day 1.

I enjoyed this short read, which provides thrills and scares aplenty, captures the claustrophobic atmosphere and the anxiety of the situation, and makes good use of all the tropes of the genre. I look forward to learning more about the characters and also seeing what happens next.

A coming of age story with a big heart

The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae - Stephanie Butland

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

This is the first book I’ve read by the author and can’t compare it to her previous work, although I’ve noticed reviewers show plenty of love for The Lost for Words Bookshop, and I’m keen to check it out.

The plot of this book is easy to summarise, and the description is quite detailed. Ailsa was born with a congenital heart condition (Hypoplastic left heart syndrome) and has been ill (to a greater or lesser degree) all her life.  Now, when there isn’t much time left, she gets a new heart. The novel follows her journey to learn how to live her new life, which in her case is also akin to a coming of age story. Although she is 28, due to her circumstances she has lived a very sheltered life, always protected by her mother, her aunt, and her friends, and now she has to face lots of challenges.

The author chooses an interesting way of telling the story. The bulk of the story is narrated in the third-person, although exclusively from Ailsa’s point of view, and alternates between the “now” of the story, and what was going on in Ailsa’s life a year ago. Some readers complained about the jumps in timeline. I did not find them too confusing (the timeframe was clearly stated, and it was easy to tell from the content as well), and those chapters did add some perspective on Ailsa’s situation. Because we meet her just before her operation, this device works as a way of letting us know what her life was like before, and also helps us understand some of the difficulties she faces now. I wasn’t sure all of the chapters set in the past added new information or were particularly significant, but they didn’t slow down the pace of the story either.

Apart from the third person narrative, we can also “hear” Ailsa’s narrative in the first-person thanks to her blog. She has a blog where she had been writing about her illness and the difficulties of being on a transplant waiting list, and we get access to some of her posts.  The book also includes her e-mails and text exchanges with some of the other characters. These provide us with a different perspective on the events, even with the caveat that blogposts are written to be published and are not spontaneous pouring of one’s heart (well, most of the time), and we get to hear from other characters as well. This is the third book I’ve read recently featuring a blogger as one of the main characters, so there seems to be a trend. The most curious part of it, in this case, is that Ailsa seems to be otherwise pretty disconnected from some aspects of everyday life (she does not know Seb, the young actor she meets, although he is well-known, and seems oblivious to much of what is shown on UK television, for example). One of the particular characteristics of her blog, though, is that she asks her readers to participate in polls that inform her decisions and the way she lives her life. Although in some cases the decisions are pretty neutral (choosing a name for her new heart, for example), others are more fundamental, and there’s much discussion about that throughout the book.

As for the characters… I liked Ailsa, although I agree with some comments that say she seems much younger than she is. I have mentioned above that the book, at least for me, reads like a coming-of-age-story, and although she’s gone to university and had a boyfriend (and there’s a story of loss and grief there as well), there’s much of normal life that she has not experienced and that explains why there is much growing up she still needs to do. She is childlike at time, stubborn, selfish, she lacks self-confidence, and struggles between her wish to grow up (she insists on sticking to the plan of living independently) and her reluctance to take responsibility for her own life (she is so used to living day to day and not making long-term plans that she uses her blog and the polls as a way to avoid ultimate responsibility). I loved her mother, Hailey, who can be overbearing and overprotective, but she is strong and determined, cares deeply for her daughter and has sacrificed much for her (even if she finds it difficult to let go now),  and I felt their relationship was the strongest point of the novel. I was not so convinced by Seb, her love interest, and their on-off relationship, although it adds another dimension to Ailsa’s experience, seemed too unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, he is handsome, a successful TV actor, and he is interested in her from the beginning, and yes… it reads like a very young and idealised romantic fantasy, so it might work in that sense, but as a character… What I liked about his part of the story was the acting background and the references to the Edinburgh Fringe. We only know Lennox through Ailsa’s memories and some of the chapters set in the past, and he is the other side of the coin, the one for whom luck run out too soon. This highlights the randomness of events and it makes more poignant the plight of so many people waiting for transplants. The efforts to keep his memory alive and make it count ring true.

The book is set in Edinburgh and I enjoyed the setting (although I’m only a casual visitor) and the references to the weather and the location. There are some local words and expressions used through the novel; although I cannot judge how accurate they are (the author is not Scottish although has done her research). I particularly enjoyed the Tango lessons and the setting of those above a pub.

The writing flows well and although in some ways the book is a light and gentle read (the romance is behind closed doors, and despite the talk of illness and hospitals, the descriptions of symptoms and procedures are not explicit or gore), it deals in serious subjects, like chronic illness, transplants (and it debates the matter of how to increase organ donations by changing it to an opt-out policy and removing the right of relatives to overrule the desires of a loved one), parental abandonment, grief, mother-daughter relationships, side effects of medication, popularity and media coverage of famous people, fat shaming… Although some of these topics are treated in more depth than others, I felt the novel dealt very well with the illness side of things, and it opened up an important debate on organ donations. As I said, I also enjoyed the mother-daughter relationship, and the fact that Ailsa becomes her own woman and grows up. I do love the ending as well.

This is a novel with a likeable main character who has had to live with the knowledge that she might not grow to be an adult, waiting for a miracle (unfortunately the miracle requires somebody else’s death, which deals sensitively in some very important topics, and is set in wonderful Edinburgh. I loved Ailsa’s mother and although some aspects of the novel work better than others, in my opinion, the quality of the writing and the strength of the story makes it well-worth reading. And yes, it is a heart-warming story (forgive the pun)! I’ll definitely be checking out more of the author’s books.

A must read for anybody interested in London crime history

The 19th Century Underworld. Crime, Controversy & Corruption - Stephen Carver

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

I am not a scholar in the topic of XIX century Britain, London in particular, although I have read a number of fictional books set on that period and place (it has always proved popular, especially with crime writers, for evident reasons) both recent and from the era, and also some historical books (some of the best coming from Pen & Sword as well) on specific aspects of the era, like children’s deaths. I was therefore not sure about what I would find here but hoped that it would enhance my understanding and give me a better sense of what life might have been like, away from the sometimes romanticised version we have of the Victorian era. This volume did that and more.

The book, which contains illustrations of the period as well (some black and white photographs, but mostly sketches and ink drawings that appeared in publications of that era, with a separate table of illustrations), contains facts and descriptions of the less savoury aspects of the XIX century life in London, but the emphasis is not on a XXI century perspective, but on written (and illustrated) sources of the period, and how the different topics were approached by the press, literature, and theatre of the time (movies are also mentioned, although those are references to later versions of the stories and characters discussed). Although most of us will be familiar with the penny dreadfuls, the author shares his expertise and offers us a catalogue of publications, authors (quite a few anonymous), publishers, guides and popular venues that reflect the fact that the hunger for certain types of subjects and the morbid interest in crime and vice are nothing new.

The book combines scholarship (there are detailed footnotes including information and sometimes explanations about the quotes and sources used in the text, at the end of the book, and also a lengthy bibliography and an index) with an engaging writing style, and manages to include plenty of information in each chapter, without cramming too much detail or leaving us with the impression that we are missing the most important part of the story. Although I’m sure most readers will be intrigued by some of the events and characters mentioned in the book and will want to learn more about them, Carver facilitates that task with his sources, and this book is a goldmine for researchers, writers, and anybody interested in the era in general. I usually mark passages I find interesting, to research later or to mention in my review, and in this case I can honestly say I broke the record for number of notes.

To give you an idea of the topics, I’ll briefly (-ish) go through the chapters. Chapter 1: Various Crimes and Misdemeanours, where the author explains that our view of the XIX century underworld is a product of popular culture, and he explains the efforts the society of the time made to try to categorise and control the crime in the capital. Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and magistrate who liaised with Jeremy Bentham (a philosopher and social reformer we studied in Criminology for his ideas about prisons and reforms) wrote a book called A Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis in 1796, where he classified the criminals in London into 24 separate categories and estimated that there were around 115000 of them. The Radcliffe Highway murders and how these influenced some of the legal reforms are also discussed in detail.

Chapter 2: A Corinthian’s Guide to the Metropolis, talks about bare-knuckle boxing, betting, and also about a number of articles, guides, and books, purporting to inform discerning gentlemen of the entertainments and lifestyle that could be found in this part of town. We learn where Tom and Jerry came from (Pierce Egan’s writings and his characters seem to have inspired Hanna and Barbera), and the author notes that at this point (early in XIX century), the underworld was not represented as the gothic nightmare it would become later.

In Chapter 3: Bad Books for Bad People, we hear about authors that are more familiar to us, like Dickens and Thackeray, although also some others who’ve faded into oblivion mostly because their take on the topic lost the favour of the Victorians. They chose to write about criminals and outlaws (like Dick Turpin), but not in an overly moralistic or condemnatory manner, and although that was popular at first, later reformists condemned that stance, and it resulted in their loss of popularity and later ruin. There are wonderful examples of the use of jargon and vernacular, very popular at the beginning of the period but that would later fall out of fashion.  (This chapter reminded me of the gangster movies of the 1930s, which could depict violent and immoral characters as long as they ended up getting their just deserts).

Chapter 4: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, looks at the Resurrectionists, those who stole bodies from graves and sold them to medical schools. Although I’ve read some fiction about the subject and knew about Hare and Burke, I didn’t quite realise it was such an organised trade and the huge amounts of money involved. The inquiries and the law changes these incidents caused are discussed, and it is difficult to imagine how such events could have been ignored for so long, but there were powerful interests at play.

Chapter 5: The Real Oliver Twist, focuses on how life was like for children living in poverty, and it reminds us that studies of the 1840s showed that half the children born in the UK at that time died before age five. Children living of picking up dog’s dung, or being trained to become pickpockets or worse were not only the protagonists of fictional stories. They were all too real.

Chapter 6: Fallen Women, talks about prostitution, and I was fascinated by the author’s account of the biography and writings of French writer and activist Flora Tristan, a woman who was a feminist, a social commentator and reformer, who rather than blame prostitution on women’s lack of morals, blamed society and the lack of opportunities for women to get an education and make an honest living. She talked to prostitutes and wrote about what she found in 1840 and she anticipated some of Marx and Engels ideas. A woman I definitely want to learn more about.

Chapter 7: The Greeks Had a Word for It, talks about pornography, the ups and downs its publishers went through (as the period grew less and less tolerant), and it starts by reminding readers of the fact that pornography as a subject is very ancient, as people digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum found out. Many ancient objects of this nature that were recovered made it into private collections, mostly those of discerning gentlemen, and many museums had (and still have) hidden stashes of them. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this chapter, not because of the topic, or the content of the books mentioned (although some of the samples are hilarious) but because of the cat-and-mouse games writers and publishers played with the authorities and also of the evident hypocrisy of the whole endeavour.

Chapter 8: The Death Hunters, treats about what the author describes as “another type of pornography”, the interest in crimes and murders. True murder is not a new genre and although there were not many murders in London (or even the whole of Britain) at the time, the public appetite for it was huge, and sometimes writers would make them up. I had a chuckle at some of Illustrated Police News headlines (‘A Burglar Bitten by a Skeleton’ and ‘A Wife Driven Insane by a Husband Tickling her Feet’ are my favourites). The chapter ends up with Jack the Ripper’s murders, which the author elaborates further on Chapter 9: A Highly Popular Murder, where he notes that much of the speculation about the murders was created by media, and Jack the Ripper has become a phenomenon that combines reality with fiction. He does note that while the Ripper has grown in attention and popularity over the years, little time is dedicated to the victims. I am pleased to say that there is a new book due to be published by Pen & Sword about the victims of Jack the Ripper, and I hope to comment on it in the future.

I recommend this book to anybody interested in London history, history about crime in the XIX century, researchers and writers keen on exploring and writing on any of the topics covered in the book, and to anybody who wants to gain a different perspective on the London of the Victorian era. Highly recommended.

 

A lyrical and romantic story set in a magical Ireland

Seven Letters - J.P. Monninger

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. Because I read an early copy of the story, some of the details mentioned might not fully correspond to the final published version of the book.

I had never read any of the author’s work before, but the description of the setting, the protagonist and her reasons for visiting Ireland drew me in. I had read about the Blasket Islands in a previous book and become fascinated by what I came across, and, personally, I would love to have the opportunity to be a scholar researching the topic, in Ireland. The novel offered me the chance to vicariously live that experience through the main character, and I did enjoy it enormously. The beautiful writing, interspersed with Irish sayings, stories, and references to books were pure delight.

I am not a big reader of romance, and perhaps for that reason, the aspects of the novel that I most enjoyed were not the truly romantic ones, that I found a bit over the top. Kate, the protagonist, has a strong Irish (and Blasket Islands) connection, and she seems more than ready to fall in love —and under the spell— of Ireland, and the islands in particular. I did love the setting of the story, the description of her life at the university, her research, the people she meets there, and I would have loved to know more about some of the secondary characters (the Bicycle  Society members, for example, Gran, Seamus, Daijeet, Dr Kaufman, and even Milly although we learn more about her later). Also, and I suspect I might be in the minority here, I would have loved to have had more details of Kate’s research, for example, samples of the stories she reads and of the book she writes (she is studying women’s accounts of the life in the Blasket Islands before they were abandoned and the few inhabitants left there had to move out), although I know there are accounts published and available, but her work process, and her description of how she felt as she engaged in it resonated with me (yes, I have a PhD and re-experiencing that period was a huge bonus for me).

Of course, Kate’s experience in Ireland would not be complete without a romance, and we meet the man in question very early on, and no, readers don’t need to be avid romance consumers to spot him and know where things are headed. As I said, not being a habitual romance reader, I wasn’t too convinced by that side of things. I never felt we got to know Ozzie well, but that is reasonable in the context of the story, as Kate seems to falls in love/lust with an idea or an image in her head, more than with the real man, and neither one of them give each other much chance to know what they are getting into and who with. Because we see the story from Kate’s perspective, we are expected to see him through rose-tinted glasses, at least initially, although things (and him) don’t fit neatly into the romanticized image she has in her head. (Oh, there are sex scenes as well, but they are not explicit and are overly romantic and totally unrealistic, but hey, as I don’t like sex scenes, I was pleased they were not many and didn’t mind they were unrealistic). Theirs is the perfect embodiment of a whirlwind romance. As we all know, the course of true love never did run smooth, and there are separations, trials, and many obstacles in the way, some that go well beyond what most people would expect from a typical novel in this genre, and deal in some very serious issues (like the Mediterranean refugee crisis), so although this is a romantic novel, it is not a light and cheery read (although yes, there is the mandatory happy ending that I won’t spoil for you).

The structure and the way the story is told is quite original, as it revolves around letters, the seven letters of the title, some formal and official, some personal, and they help create the backbone of the novel, written in the first person, from Kate’s perspective. In fact, although the novel is classed as a romance (and I’ve mentioned some of the more conventional romantic aspects of the story), for me it seemed to fit better into the Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story (although the character is perhaps a bit older than most of these kinds of characters tend to be), and it is written as if it were a memoir, where the letters serve as anchors, points around which the protagonist organizes her memories of the events, because although the story is told chronologically, it is not linear and there are jumps in time, during which life has gone on and settled, but the narration is only retrieved when something of some significance to Kate’s journey and to her relationship with Ozzie takes place. (There are scenes that showed potential, for example, an archeological trip Kate gets involved in, but it ends up becoming only a setting for an encounter with Ozzie, and we are given no details as to what else might have happened during the trip). Although she is not the typical innocent-abroad of many XIX and early XX century novels, she does not know herself, her trip abroad changes things and she goes back to the USA a changed woman, although there are many more things that she must learn, not only about herself but also about others, before the end of the book. Her process of discovery felt realistic, and I empathized with her struggle between her idea of what her life should be like, what her heart wants, and her attempts to reconcile the two, if possible.  Oh, there is also a prologue including a lovely Irish story about a man falling in love with a fairy woman, although, to me, in this case Kate plays the part of the man —who cannot settle in the magical land and misses home— and Ozzie that of the fairy woman.

I agree with comments that say perhaps the story would have gained in depth and become more realistic if some part of it had been told from Ozzie’s point of view, but, considering Ozzie’s backstory, that would have been a completely different book, and one that would have taken the focus away from the romantic angle.

In sum, this is a story I enjoyed, and I don’t hesitate in recommending it to romance readers, in particular to lovers of Ireland and anything Irish. There are many elements that make the story worthy of reading even for those who are not big on romance, especially the setting, the beautiful language, and the protagonist, who although flawed and contradictory, loves books, scholarship, her friends, Ireland and has a wonderful zest for life. The descriptions, not only of Ireland, but also of New Hampshire, Italy, and other settings, take readers on a lyrical journey, and I was sorry it came to an end. Oh, and there’s a wonderful dog too.

A complex book with an incredibly simple and sound suggestion.

Junglenomics: Nature's Solutions to the World Environment Crisis: a New Paradigm for the 21st Century & Beyond - Simon Lamb

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review, and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this non-fiction book.

I must confess to feeling totally unequal to the task of reviewing this book. I did mention that to the author of the book, who insisted that it would be of interest to authors and to the general public, as well as to economist, and particularly to anybody interesting in preserving the environment and finding new (and workable) ways to do it.

I am not an expert in Evolution, Economics, and/or Environmental Sciences, and this book’s approach uses and builds on elements and concepts of all three, so my opinion is far from a knowledgeable one when it comes to evaluating it. All my comments about this book are, as are all reviews, only an expressional as my personal point of view, and in this case I feel particularly unqualified to make an in-depth analysis, as I lack the knowledge required and cannot debate the nitty-gritty details to be able to either agree or disagree with the research. Don’t get me wrong, the basic idea is easy to grasp, but, as usual, the devil is in the detail.

Junglenomics proposes using Nature’s blueprint —the way ecosystems work— to solve the environmental disaster we’re quickly approaching. The author uses evolutionary theory to illustrate how we have got to where we are, explaining that all species are hungry for resources, and that is a normal evolutionary trait. The fact that Homo Sapiens is more successful at it than the rest of the species in our planet, means that we have exploited and accumulated Earth’s resources beyond the point where Nature itself can counteract our actions and re-establish the balance. Although ecosystems can adjust to increases in one bio product or species in different ways, our disruption of our environment has been so quick and drastic, especially in the last couple of centuries that our recent attempts at redress seem to be too-little/too-late.

The author goes on to analyse both, the situation and the attempts at redress, noticing that most have been piecemeal and lacked in a consistent application, for a variety of reasons, but most of all, because rather than appealing to the market (money makes the world go around, let’s not forget, and Lamb makes a good case for how money came to be what it is, a stand-in for our hunger for resources), and trying to find solutions that make sense from an economic point of view (something that will either produce money or reduce costs, or both), so far the focus has been on penalising and restricting practices that, until now, have resulted in great profit and advancement for the markets. Getting a lot of nations, not only developed ones, but also developing nations (that feel they are bearing the brunt of such policies without any of the benefits Western developed nations had had years to reap) to sign up to agreements is difficult, and enforcing them is near impossible, as we have all seen. Rather than accusations and counter-accusations (and the author discusses in detail the reasons for the difficult relationships between ecologists and economists, but also points at some positive recent trends), a combined effort based on a new perspective and understanding of the issues could be the way forward.

This is a book full of gems and information (some totally new to me, and other that I had only heard about in passing), and although what I’ve said might make it sound as if the text deals only in generalities, nothing is further from the truth. The author looks at all (or most) aspects of the question, from climate change (noticing that there is now an extreme focus on that to the detriment of the rest of the imbalances in the ecosystem equation), to waste management (not only factories but also human and animal), not forgetting the pollution of the seas, and the depletion of certain animal species, to name just a few. He highlights organisations, programmes, schemes, industries, and even countries (Costa Rica gets the gold star) that have found workable solutions to some of the problems, proposes specific ways to deal with issues such as funding (issuing bonds, and he mentions war bonds and the similarities with the situation we are in now), the need to find international organizations to monitor the implementation of such plans, and also, the importance of coordinating the efforts and working together at a supranational level.

I am not sure if I am a sceptical who tries hard to give new (and idealistic) proposals a chance, or I’m a dreamer trying hard to be a sceptical. In any case, as I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but write down many of my ideas and my objections/questions in relation the content, and was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that most of them were tackled by the author, who has done much research and has tried to be as even-handed as possible, presenting always the two sides of any argument, and also dealing with the possible criticism and objections. Although his attitude is never complacent and he points out the facts, he does not point the finger of blame at individuals (while he praises those he feels are already applying a Junglenomic-like approach), and despite his realism, he remains optimistic and encouraging.

As I said, I don’t know enough about Economics or Environmental Sciences to offer an informed opinion as to how successful a model Junglenomics would be. It made me think, and at a completely untrained level, the suggestions make sense, although implementing them would be as complicated as the author already envisages. This is clearly a labour of love and much time and effort has gone into the creation of the book and the theoretical/philosophical/practical approach behind it.

Regarding the style of the book, it is not an easy book to read. It is a very ambitious text, and it seems to try to be all things to all people. It does contain some examples and anecdotes to try to make it accessible to all (and it has great quotes in all the chapters), but it also contains tonnes of footnotes, and detailed disquisitions on subjects that are quite specialized, sharing much in common with academic texts (there is an index at the end, and illustrations, charts and diagrams to explain some of the concepts). I kept thinking that a non-expert reader might benefit from more of the examples and stories (we like stories), while if the book is addressed at policy-makers and analysts (both Ecologists and Economists) they wouldn’t necessarily care for the basic explanations. Perhaps two versions, or two separate texts, might achieve both, to reach a wider audience and raise awareness, and to also get into the hands of the people likely to be able to influence policies and induce change. I am sure it would make for a very compelling documentary in the right hands. I’d recommend possible readers to check a sample of the book to decide if they think it would be a good fit for them.

At an anecdotal level, I observed that many of the studies mentioned come from the UK and the European Union (probably down to availability of studies and familiarity with the material, although it does reflect the true situation of the research as well); I wondered about the use of words such as “benign” (it might depend on one’s perspective or definition) and also about the fact that despite trying to be as inclusive and non-Eurocentric as possible, there are topics that are culture-sensitive (the issue of the kinds of animal products used in Chinese Medicine, which he discusses, although I couldn’t help but notice that he uses rabbits as an example of an animal most people would only eat in dire circumstances. I don’t eat any meat, but rabbit is regularly grown for food and eaten in Spain, and I’m sure in other countries as well). I’ve always wondered, when it comes to Ecology, if we can truly observe the ecosystem we’re a part of in any objective manner (we are, indeed, part of the problem, and we know about the observer’s paradox), but…

In summary, this is a book that requires a dedicated reader, keen on digging beyond the surface into the topic of how to save the environment, taking as an example the way ecosystems work (symbiotic relationships in particular) and using sound market strategies. I’ve learned a great deal from it, and I thought I’d leave you with the last quote from the book, a particularly relevant one when it comes to this topic:

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do. Edward Everett Hale

You only need to think of Greta Thunberg (that the author mentions as well).

Historical fiction where sisterhood wins the day. Highly Recommended

The Giver of Stars - Jojo Moyes

Thanks to Penguin UK-Michael Joseph and NetGalley for an advanced readers copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

Jojo Moyes was a name familiar to me (from bestseller lists, movie adaptations, bookshops…) but she was one of the authors I knew by name but hadn’t yet read. When I saw this book on offer at NetGalley and read the description and the fact that it was based on a real historical scheme, the 1930s Horseback Librarians of Kentucky, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to familiarise myself with her writing. As a book lover, I am always fond of stories about books and libraries, and the historical angle was a bonus for me. The Horseback Librarians of Kentucky was one of the projects set up by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a New Deal Agency established as an attempt to provide work for victims of the Great Depression. In this case, women who could ride (horses, mules…) set up the equivalent of a mobile library, and offered books and reading materials to their neighbours, reaching even those who lived deep in the mountains, too far and too busy to regularly visit the town. In an area as beautiful as it was poor (and it seems it still remains fairly poor and under resourced), the levels of literacy were minimal, and the librarians went beyond the simple delivering of books, becoming a lifeline to many of the families they regularly visited. Although I had read about the WPA and some of their projects, I wasn’t familiar with this one, and it does make for a fascinating setting to the story.

Moyes usually writes contemporary fiction (with more than a touch of romance), so this novel breaks new ground. As I haven’t read any of her previous novels, I cannot make comparisons, but I had a great time reading this novel, which combines an easy and fluid writing style (with some wonderful descriptions of the Kentucky mountains), strong and compelling characters, especially the librarians, with a plot full of adventures, sad and joyful events, romance, and even a possible murder. This is a tale of sisterhood, of women fighting against all odds (society’s prejudices, difficult conditions, nature, illness, domestic violence, evil…), of the power of books, and of a time and a place that are far from us and yet familiar (unfortunately, some things haven’t changed that much).

What did I like, in particular? Many things. I am not an expert on Kentucky or on the historical period, so you must take this with a pinch of salt, but I loved the atmosphere and the period feel. I enjoyed the description of the feelings of the women as they rode their routes, particularly because by telling the story from the point of view of two of the women, Margery, who’s lived there all her life, and Alice, just arrived from England and totally unfamiliar with the area and the lifestyle, we get the familiarity and the newness, and learn that the heartfelt experience goes beyond being comfortable and at home. The mountains have an effect on these women, and at a point when Alice’s life is collapsing around her, give her the strength to go on. Both, the beauty of untamed nature and the comfort of literature, help give meaning to the lives of the protagonists and those who come in contact with them. Of course, not everybody appreciates those, and, in fact, the true villains of the story are people (mostly men, but not only, and I’m not going to reveal the plot in detail) who don’t care for literature and don’t respect nature. (There is an environmental aspect to the story as well, the coalmining industry caring little for the workers or the land if it got in the way of the profit margin).

I also fell for the characters. Margery is magnetic from the beginning: a woman whose father was violent, an abuser and an alcoholic, with a reputation that has tainted her as well; she is determined to live life her own way, help others, and not let anybody tell her what to do (and that includes the man she loves, who is rather nice). Although the novel is written in the third person, we see many of the events from her point of view, and although she is a woman who guards her emotions tightly and does not scare easy, she is put to the test, suffers a great deal, and she softens a bit and becomes more willing to give up some of her independence in exchange for a life richer in relationships and connections by the end of the story. Alice, on the other hand, starts as a naïve newcomer, with little common sense, that makes rushed decisions and believes in fairy tales. She thinks Bennett, her husband, is the charming prince who’s come to rescue her from an uncaring family, but she soon discovers she has changed a prison for another. Her transformation is, in some ways, the complete opposite to that of Margery. She becomes more independent, learns to care less about appearances and opinions, and discovers what is truly important for her.

 In a way, the librarians provide a catalogue of different models of womanhood and also of diversity (we have a woman who lives alone with her male relatives, smokes, drinks and is outspoken; a young girl with a limp due to polio who lives under the shadow of her mother; an African American woman who gave up on her dreams to look after her brother, and who is the only trained librarian; and a widow from the mountains, saved by the power of books and by her relationship with other women), and although there are male characters —both, enablers, like Fred and Sven, and out and out enemies— these are not as well defined or important to the story (well, they set things in motion, but they are not at the heart of the story). I was quite curious about Bennett, Alice’s husband, whom I found a bit of a puzzle (he does not understand his wife, for sure, but he is not intentionally bad, and I was never sure he really knew himself), and would have liked to know more about the women whose points of view we were not privy to, but I enjoyed getting to know them all and sharing in their adventures. (Oh, and I loved the ending, that offers interesting glimpses into some of the characters we don’t hear so much about).

And yes, adventures there are aplenty. I’ve seen this book described as an epic, and it is not a bad word. There are floods, a murder trial, stories of corruption and shady business deals, bigotry and scandal, a couple of books that play important parts (a little blue book, and, one of my favourite reads as a young girl, Little Women, and its role made me smile), recipes, libraries, births, deaths, confrontations, violence (not extreme), and romance (no erotica or explicit sex scenes). This being a very conservative (and in some ways isolated society), the examples of what was considered acceptable male and female behaviour might seem old-fashioned even for the time, but, as the #MeToo movement has reminded us, some things are slow to change.

Was there anything I didn’t like? Well, no, but people need to be aware that this is a light read, a melodrama, and although it provides an inspirational tale of sisterhood, it does not offer an in-depth analysis of the ills of the society at the time. The villains, are presented as bad individuals, pure evil, and we learn nothing about them other than they are bad.  Although many other important topics are hinted at and appear in the background, this is the story of this particular individuals, and not a full depiction of the historical period, but it is a great yarn and very enjoyable.

The author provides information on her note to the reader about the historical background and how she became interested in the story, and I’ve read some reviews highlighting the existence of other books on the topic, that I wouldn’t mind reading either. For me, this book brings to light an interesting episode of American history and of women’s history, creating a fascinating narrative that illustrates the lives of women in the Kentucky Mountains in the 1930s, with characters that I got to care for, suffer and rejoice with. Yes, I did shed the odd tear. And I’d recommend it to anybody who enjoys historical fiction, women’s fiction, and to Moyes’s fans. This might be a departure from her usual writing, but, at least for me, it’s a welcome one.

 

A joy of a book that will make readers feel as if they had been there.

Apollo 11: The Moon Landing in Real Time - Ian Passingham

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review. What a blast!

There are events that become fixed on people’s minds, either because they witnessed them and felt they were momentous, or because the impact of the news when they heard them made them remember forever the moment when they heard about it and what they were doing at the time. Some become part of the collective memory. The first manned mission to land on the Moon is one of those. As I was a very young child (four years old, if you want to know), I don’t remember it, but I do remember my father recounting having gone to a neighbour’s to watch it as we didn’t have a TV at home at the time. And I’ve watched the images, seen pictures, and read articles and watched documentaries about it over the years, but no, I didn’t experience it live at the time. So, on this year of the fiftieth anniversary, I couldn’t resist this book. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The author collects an incredible amount of information from a large variety of sources (there is a bibliography at the end, which includes the sources although not the specific details of each and every one of the articles and news items, as that would have taken more space than the book itself), and manages to select the most informative, wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and entertaining materials, creating a fun and gripping reading experience that, although we know where it’s going, never gets boring. He is also at pains to try to provide a balanced view of the facts, collecting as well the voices of those opposing the project for a variety of reasons (mainly economic, to do with poverty and conditions in the USA, but also some for religious reasons, and others due to the fear of what that might mean for humanity and the likelihood of space’s exploitation for war purposes).

Passingham lets the materials speak for themselves in most instances (and it is a joy to read the opinions of the general public at a time before social media gave everybody the tools to share their voice with the rest of the world), and he does so while creating an easy to read and compelling account of events that evidence his professionalism and his experience as a journalist. Where some authors would feel tempted to butt in and make explicit their points of view, here we are allowed to make our own minds up.

After a first chapter called ‘Race to the Moon: 1957-69’ highlighting the USSR’s successes in what would become known as ‘the space race’ and the USA’s determination to turn things around (spurred on by JFK’s promise, in 1962, to get to the moon before the end of the decade), the book takes on the format of a count-down, from Wednesday, 2nd of July 1969 (launch minus fourteen day) to Splashdown day (24th of July) and a final chapter looking at what has happened since. This format makes us share in the excitement of the team (and the whole world), at the time, and, although we know what took place, we get to feel a part of it.

I have marked many items in the book that gave me pause, and the description also gives a good hint of some of the gems readers can find in the book. If I had to choose some, perhaps the comments by Michael Collins about how he felt about the possibility of having to leave his two fellow astronauts behind if things went wrong with the Moon landing; the advancements on computer sciences and technology brought up by the project (when looking at the data it sounds underwhelming today, but it’s incredible to think they managed to do what they did with the equipment they had) and the same applies to the cameras they took with them and used; the mention of Amy Spear’s role in developing radar systems used for landing and docking the module; worries about what would happen to all the people who had been working on the project once the flight was over, many of whom had come from other states (would the new jobs be maintained?). I loved the enthusiasm and the optimism of people convinced that in ten years there would be hotels in the Moon and humanity would be settling other planets (oh, and they were phoning aviation companies to book their flights already!); the sad comments by US soldiers in Vietnam who contrasted the public support the  Apollo 11 enjoyed with the general opinion about the Vietnam war; I was very sad about the fate of a monkey they sent into orbit (alone! Poor thing!);I was interested in the opposing voices as well, in the fact that Russian women had gone into space but at that point there were no women in the programme (and due to Navy regulations, Nixon’s wife couldn’t even accompany her husband when he went to welcome the astronauts aboard USS Hornet…), and a mention that the astronauts had access to a microwave oven in the Mobile Quarantine Facility (they had been in existence for a while, but they were large and only used in industrial settings at that point), and, oh, so many things.

I enjoyed the book, which also contains many illustrations, all from NASA, and apart from making me feel as if I had been there, it also gave me plenty of food for thought. Many of the things people imagined didn’t come to pass, although it is not clear why (yes, it would have been very expensive, but that didn’t seem to stop them at that point. And why did the USSR pull back as well?), there were many advances due to it, but space exploration has remained controversial, perhaps even more so now than before. I wonder if there will be some positive event that will pull so many people together again in the future, rather than the catastrophes and disasters (natural or man-made) that seem to have become the norm in recent years. I guess only time will tell.

I cannot imagine there will be anybody who won’t find this book enjoyable (OK, people who believe the Earth is flat or conspiracy theorists might not care for it, and experts on the subject might not find anything new in its pages), and I’d recommend it to anybody who either remembers that event and wants to re-experience it, or wasn’t there at the time and wants to learn all about it. A joy of a book.

A fictionalised biography of a fascinating historical character searching for knowledge against all odds

A Matter of Interpretation - Elizabeth MacDonald

I thank NetGalley and Fairlight Books for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is a case of a historical figure whose life is so gripping and fascinating that we would find it difficult to believe in if he was a fictional character. Although I must confess to not having previous knowledge of Michael Scot, the setting of the story in the XIII century, the variety of locations, and the endeavours of Scot attracted me to the book, and I’m happy that was the case.

Although the story is seemingly simple (a monk, particularly gifted for academia, pursues his objective of getting to the source of knowledge wherever it might be and in whichever language, in XIII century Europe, travelling, translating, accumulating knowledge, and having to fight against conspiracy and orthodoxy), there are many different strands woven into it, and reflecting the complex push-and-pull of the politics of an era in which religion and faith wars played a huge part in the struggle for power and combining that with Scot’s quest for knowledge is a mighty task. In my opinion, MacDonald does a great job, but I am not sure everybody will appreciate the way the story is told, and it is not one for people looking for a plot that moves along quickly and is full of adventures. There are journeys and adventures, but some of the most interesting parts of the book come from philosophical discussions and disquisitions as to the nature of truth and knowledge.

The book is written in the third person, from an omniscient narrator’s point of view, and even though we read the story from what appears to be Scot’s perspective most of the time, this is not always the case, and even when we are following his adventures and are privy to his thoughts, we might learn about the way he appears to others and get comments and observations from others around him as well. There is also some first-person narrative, a “Confession” Scot is writing, interspersed with the rest of the novel, which, for me, was the part that made Scot appear more sympathetic and human (at points he is so obsessed with his studies and his project, that he seems unaware of the human beings around him, and he made me think of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, although he seems to also have his “humanities”). The story starts close to what we later find out (and most readers might already suspect) will be the end, with an event that hints at a mystery, and then most of the rest of the story is told in something akin to a flashback, offering readers a chronological account of Scot’s lifestory.  Although this did not bother me, I suspect readers approaching the story with the expectation of a standard mystery (and no, this is not The Name of the Rose either) might be disappointed. Yes, there is a mystery, or several, but the book is not about that. It is about Scot and his time, and how his figure was more important and his pursuit worthier than he and his contemporaries realised. I’d recommend possible readers to check a sample of the novel to see if they feel the writing style would suit them.

Scot’s life has all the elements that would mark him as a heroic figure (and as I said, one that we’d struggle to believe possible if he were fictional). He has a traumatic childhood, with the loss of his mother (who was a healer and suffered because of it); he proves himself a great scholar despite his humble beginnings, and although he faces opposition from the start, he also gets some help and assistance, manages to become Frederick’s (later to become Holy Emperor Frederick the II) tutor, and with his patronage, he sets off to find and translate Aristotle’s old texts. His journey towards knowledge makes him face dangers, come into contact with other countries and cultures (in Toledo and Cordoba he studies closely Arabic texts and his main collaborators are Jewish scholars), and be faced with the strict opposition of the Church, which at the time saw much knowledge (other than approved Theology) as a likely source of heresy and inherently dangerous.

As I read the book, I felt as if I was immersed in the different countries, smelling the spices, contemplating the landscapes, touching paper for the first time (an amazing discovery for Scot), and was captivated by Scot’s goal. As a person who regularly does translations, I appreciate how hard his self-imposed task was and enjoyed learning a bit more about the process and the difficulties he faced. If I missed something, though, was hearing a bit more about the texts themselves. Perhaps that is only me, and many people would think there is enough detail, but I felt many of the discussions about Aristotle and about the work of some of his other interpreters and commenters was very vague and general —either assuming that all readers would already know, or that they would not be interested— especially when compared to more detailed accounts of Scot’s use of astrology and his dreams/visions. At some point in the novel Scot makes peace with his interest in Medicine (something he had tried to avoid due to his mother’s fate), but although he manages to avoid the worst of the church’s ban on Aristotle’s works and on translations by studying Arabic texts on Medicine, I missed a more detailed account of his work on that subject. (I studied Medicine, so perhaps this accounts for my interest more than any gaps in the novel itself).

There are many characters, as is to be expected in a novel covering so much ground and where many of events are of great historical importance. We have several popes, bishops, abbots, we have the crusades, we have kings, scholars, politicians… It is not always easy to keep straight who is who (especially if you don’t know much about the era), and I wonder if the final version will contain some charts or even a timeline to clarify matters for readers who are not experts on the topic. The political intrigue, corruption, battles, and jostling for power and influence make it as gripping a read as modern political thrillers can be.

I have mentioned the distance imposed by the point of view of the narration. I must also confess to feeling more intellectually interested in Scot than connected with him at an emotional level. Only towards the end of the story he seems to come to reflect and appreciate the importance of engaging with people and the help others have given him through the years, but there is little in the way of connection to other human beings, and that perhaps is where he fails (for me) in the role of hero. His weaknesses seem to come only from his illness and, perhaps, from his single dedication to knowledge, that results in others less qualified getting into important positions likely to influence events more than he can. (There are warnings about the risks he faces from early on, but he dismisses them and only comes to realise they were right later in his life). Women also play very little part in the story (apart from mentions of his mother —the most significant— and the wives of some of the characters, only in passing), and other than a comment about their role according to a philosopher, towards the end, this is not a book about them, and we learn close to nothing about their lives.

We know what the end will be from the beginning, but most people will enjoy seeing Scot get some redress (even if it is a case of too little, too late). The author’s note at the end of the book explains her interest and reasons for writing the book, and also her sources, which I am sure, will be useful to many readers who will want to explore the topic in more detail.

Overall, this is a book I’ve enjoyed, and I recommend it to people interested in XIII century European history, especially in the struggles for power and knowledge, the interaction between the different religions, and the influence of the various centres of learning. It is sobering to realise that attitudes have changed so little in some scores, and how even the seemingly most enlightened civilisations are (and have been) afraid of intellectual enquiry, knowledge, and research, as if, indeed, they believed it to be a poisoned apple. Attempts at keeping the population under control by limiting their access to knowledge (or by manipulating the information they are given access to) are not new and, unfortunately, never seem to go out of fashion. Not a light read, but one sure to make readers want to learn more about the period and the man.

 

Informative, entertaining, inspiring, and part of an important series.

A History of Women's Lives in Eastbourne - Tina Brown

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

This book is one of a series about Women’s Lives, and I recommend you check Pen & Sword’s website if you are interested in a particular city or area, as a large number of books have already been published and you’re likely to find a relevant one (or one might be on the making). I had been intrigued by the collection for a while and finally requested this one because my first job as a junior doctor was in Eastbourne, East Sussex, in the South East of England, I remained in the area for quite a few years and although I visited museums and talked to people about the place, I didn’t learn much about the role of local women and their lives in the past.

Eastbourne felt quite different to what I was used to when I first move there, with its gentile atmosphere, the seafront, the fancy (if somewhat old-fashioned) hotels, the Victorian pier, and the natural beauty of the Downs and Beachy Head. As the author explains in the description, the book centres on the lives of women from 1850 to 1950, and it also offers a brief but useful background into the history of the period. Although this will not cover new ground for history experts, it will help casual readers place the lives of these local women in context, and it contains gems specific to the local history and to the women´s social history, and it also incorporates previously unpublished personal accounts and those narrated by relatives and friends of women who had lived in the area.

The book is divided into an introduction, seven chapters, a brief bibliography (a good starting point but not too lengthy or detailed), a section of acknowledgments, and an index. The book also includes pictures and illustrations, some belonging to the personal archives of some of the women mentioned, and also postcards and landscapes of the area. I highlighted many details I found interesting as I read it, and I thought I’d share some of those to give you an idea of the kinds of things you might find in this book (and probably others in the series). Chapter One, Education and Professional Life includes, like other chapters, brief biographies of some local women (either women born in Eastbourne or who lived there for significant periods of time), such as Emily Phipps, who studied for the bar and later moved into teaching. She was said to live by this saying: ‘If you make yourself a doormat, do not be surprised if people tread on you’, and Rosalie Harvey, a medical missionary worker, who helped over 1500 sick people, many children and babies, and animals.

Chapter 2, Working Life, included a mention of the life of female smugglers in Eastbourne, the way the people from town helped families affected by WWI, and the touching story of a woman whose biological father was a Canadian soldier in WWII whom she never got to meet, who considered herself lucky because her mother’s husband (who was also a soldier and away for most of the war) accepted her as if she were his own child, and in fact she never discovered she wasn’t his until she was 22.  One of the biographies included in this chapter is that of writer and journalist Angela Carter, who was born in Eastbourne.

Chapter 3, Family Life: ‘Home Sweet Home’, highlights how society’s rules and political laws curtailed women’s freedom in all aspects of life, even when it came to dress and fashion. Getting a divorce was very difficult for women, even after changes in the law in the late 1850s and in the 1920s.  Having recently read a book about Lady Astor and her penchant for fashion, I found out in this chapter that Queen Victoria wore a headdress made of bird feathers in 1851 and that sprung a fashion (and resulted in the deaths of a very large number of birds). Reading about the change brought to the lives of women by a minor invention, such as the electric iron, made me reflect upon how hard tasks that might seem easy now were for our ancestors. This chapter also includes imaginative and resourceful war-time recipes, and it mentions the good reputation of Eastbourne schools and, in particular, Eastbourne College (a wonderful building I lived quite close to for a while).

Chapter 4, Quality of Life, talks about the changes brought by the NHS, efforts in welfare, and reforms to the workhouse, and the important role women played in those.

Chapter 5, Social Life, is one of my favourites, and includes some gems, such as the fact that nearby, in Bexhill-on-Sea (where I also worked) in 1901, male and female bathers were allowed to mix in the same beach for the first time. The chapter talks in detail about the Eastbourne Pier (I only knew some details of its history and had heard about the controversy caused by its recent refurbishment, but I haven’t seen it since, so I dare not comment); it also mentions the well-known female tennis tournament at Devonshire Park, and I was very taken by the brief biography of Emily Mary Shackleton, who moved to Eastbourne, and when her famous husband died during one of his expeditions, was left to fend for herself with a considerable debt to settle. She worked tirelessly for the Red Cross and became divisional commissioner for the Girl Guides of Eastbourne. The Luxor cinema was before my time, but from the description I would love to have seen it, and it had a Compton Organ, a fantastic instrument I was lucky to get to hear at the Penistone Paramount (don’t miss it if you are anywhere near).

Chapter 6, Political Life, places an emphasis on the local suffragist movement and some of the women who took part, including some of their heart wrenching accounts of being imprisoned and going on hunger strike, the way the attempts at reforming gender discriminatory laws were received, the first women mayors of the area, and such puzzling things as the fact that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wasn’t formed until 1891, almost seventy years after the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Chapter 7, Spiritual and Religious Life, talks not only about the churches in Eastbourne, how new denominations became more popular as time passed, and also how the churches started organising social events, clubs and activities for all ages. This chapter also includes mentions of three ghosts: the redoubt fortress one, the one at Devonshire Park Theatre, and two nurse ghosts at the All Saints Hospital. I have heard about some of them, and considering the author has written books on that topic, I would take it in good authority.

I enjoyed the combination of general history with local events, the biographies of the local women, and, especially, the personal accounts of women who had lived in Eastbourne at the time and shared their experiences (or those passed on by their relatives) with the author. As I have said before, those are the kinds of details that help history come to life and make us understand what a period was truly like, not for politicians and royals, but for the people in the street.

As this is the first book I read in the series, I cannot compare it to others, and I know each one of the volumes is written by a local historian, so their approaches might be quite different. Mine was an early review copy, and I’m sure there will have been changes in the final version, but my only recommendation, based on the copy I had access to, would be to ensure that the biographies are clearly marked as separate from the rest of the text (by using a different type of letter or by encasing them in a box, for example), as currently they are interspersed with the rest of the content of the chapter, and it is not always easy to tell where one finishes and the other one starts again. Some of the topics overlap with each other and that makes the chapters perfect for reading independently, although it results in similar content being mentioned in several chapters when the book is read in one go, but I did not find this a major problem.

I enjoyed this book, which is informative, entertaining, and inspiring, and includes enough information about the general and social history of the period to be suitable for any readers, even those who don’t generally read history. At the same time it contains a wealth of information on the local history of women in Eastbourne, which will satisfy those trying to get a picture of the era, be it for personal interest, research, or as part of an ongoing project (Writers, I’m looking at you). I recommend this title to anybody interested in any of those aspects, and I will be checking other titles in the series.

  

 

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