Category Archives: family history

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Indie EBOOK arc Sadie’s War – Book 3 of the Currency Girls series by Rosemary Noble #Brainfluffbookreview #Sadie’sWarbookreview

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I read and thoroughly enjoyed Noble’s novel about the early days of Grimsby in her engrossing tale, Ranter’s Wharf, see my review here. So when I heard she was bringing out a new historical novel – this time featuring Australia – I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy in return for an honest review.

Sadie is brought up amongst the vineyards of the Yarra Valley whilst her work-obsessed father reaps riches from the boom years before the Great War. With post-war depression looming, Sadie’s only option is to flee from her disastrous marriage, seeking refuge in Cleethorpes, a small seaside town in northern England. Years later, when her sons are in RAF Bomber Command, she receives a letter from her long-lost brother which forces her to confront the past and her part in her family’s downfall.

Noble has done a great deal of research, as many of the characters featuring in this family saga are actual family members, including Sadie, although not much is on record about this intriguing woman, other than the fact that after her failed marriage, she left for England. This is a fascinating tale fictionalising her life, stretching back to Sadie’s childhood, where her earliest memories are of being constantly moving houses, the next one ever grander and better than the previous one. Though her growing up years are blighted by the sudden death of her mother, which brings about a set of circumstances which probably wouldn’t have happened if there had been a vigilant and caring mother-figure at home. I really enjoyed Sadie as a character – she wants to please and conform, as girls were trained to do back in those days, but when it all hits the fan, she also proves that she has plenty of courage to take the necessary steps to start again.

In charting Sadie’s life, Noble gives us a vivid insight into the life and times, including customs, food and entertainment in an easy, natural writing style I have come to associate with her books. This is a real strength of the book, which makes it a delightful read.

The depiction of life during WW2, which is the other narrative running alongside Sadie’s earlier experiences, works well as a contrast to those days of heat, sunshine and socialising in Australia, as life in England on the Home Front was demanding. People were frequently hungry, cold and exhausted as they dealt with food rationing, war work and sleepless nights during bombing raids. This is all well described as part of Sadie’s daily round without holding up the story, while she is also desperately worried about her sons, who are all away fighting.

The only niggle I have is the wrinkle in the developing love story. It feels a bit contrived for the purposes of the narrative arc, but it’s not a dealbreaker. Do also read the Afterword, which is fascinating. I had no idea that Stanley, Sadie’s beloved brother, had led such an interesting life after his time in Australia. This is highly recommended for fans of sagas and historical adventures featuring WW2 and Australia.
9/10

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Teaser Tuesday – 18th September, 2018 #Brainfluffbookblog #TeaserTuesday

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Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by The Purple Booker.
Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This is my choice of the day:
Sadie’s Wars: An Australian Saga – Book 3 in the Currency Girls series by Rosemary Noble

99% One day, in the late 1970s, a reporter from the Grimsby Evening Telegraph visited the Dolphin looking for a story. The landlord suggested he talk to his oldest regular, Stanley Timms, and a piece was written for the newspaper detailing his life. We read it; made fun of it because it sounded unbelievable. A father who owned an award-winning vineyard and a million-acre sheep station, a friend of the Murdochs, and Dame Nellie Melba, a winner of horse races and a member of the CIA in WW2. Not possible, we thought, until he produced his CIA membership card at Christmas dinner. Unassuming, gentle Stanley had spent his war behind Japanese lines as a coast watcher in Borneo. After the war, his forest, the sole remaining piece of Timms property was taken over by the Indonesian government, without compension, and he was left penniless.

BLURB: An astonishing tale, spanning continents, where truth is stranger than fiction. This historical saga of an extraordinary Australian pioneer family continues into a new generation. Sadie is brought up amongst the vineyards of the Yarra Valley whilst her work-obsessed father reaps riches from the boom years before the Great War. With post-war depression looming, Sadie’s only option is to flee from her disastrous marriage, seeking refuge in Cleethorpes, a small seaside town in northern England.

Years later, when her sons are in RAF Bomber Command, she receives a letter from her long-lost brother which forces her to confront the past and her part in her family’s downfall.

No… I haven’t given you a flavour of the story – you’ll have to take my word for it that the writing is fluent and very readable. This extract is from the Afterword as I was just boggled at the manner in which this family discovered they’d been related to a colourful, once highly-regarded member of Australian society who has now been written out of history… Noble has done a storming job of recreating this era through her fictionalised account of the life of Sadie, one of the family members in the middle of this eventful time.

Sunday Post – 22nd April, 2018

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This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

The sun is shining! The last few days have been glorious as Spring has finally sprung. Grey skeletal branches are now fuzzed with the vivid new green of unfurling leaves and Friday was actually hot. I finally got to take my sister to Highdown Gardens and we wandered around in a haze of cherry blossom and primroses, while the bluebells are readying themselves for what promises to be a wonderful show this year. We have several fabulous bluebell woods nearby and this year, I must take her to see them.

I’ve had one of those weeks where I’ve been working hard without much to show for it. On Tuesday, I was at Northbrook for our catchup session that was cancelled due to the blizzard in March, while Tim and I are rolling up our sleeves and working through past papers, so he is thoroughly prepared in just over a month’s time when he sits his exam. On Wednesday, I was supposed to be out in the evening for my writing group, but had to cry off as I was smitten with a headache – unusual these days, but just occasionally it happens. I still felt a bit washed out on Thursday morning, but when Mhairi came over and continued helping with my latest marketing effort and we were able to load the new Dying for Space cover, I suddenly felt a great deal better – she has done such a fantastic job on it.

On Friday, Sally and I had a meeting with our local school regarding the COPE folder, which needs a fair amount of work before we hand it in, but we needed further advice on how to tackle some of the issues regarding cross-referencing and record-keeping sheets. Today I will be hard at it, getting the last of my admin and paperwork prepared for my Summer term courses, which start this coming Monday – and all three classes are running again this term, which is marvellous. I hope the weather is finally warming up for everyone else, too – I can’t believe what a difference just a few days of warm sunshine has made. Have a lovely weekend, everyone.

This week I have read:

Still Me – Book 3 of the Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

Louisa Clark arrives in New York ready to start a new life, confident that she can embrace this new adventure and keep her relationship with Ambulance Sam alive across several thousand miles. She steps into the world of the superrich, working for Leonard Gopnik and his much younger second wife, Agnes. Lou is determined to get the most out of the experience and throws herself into her new job and New York life.
I loved the first book in this series, Me Before You, and if you have read it then you’ll know that Lou has had a time of it… This book doesn’t perhaps hit the high emotional peaks and lows of that amazing read – but nevertheless, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable story with some interesting things to say about the faultlines in US society, amongst the mayhem and Lou Clarke quirkiness. I’ll be reviewing this one.

 

Head On – Book 2 in the Lock In series by John Scalzi

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it. Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.
I was definitely suffering withdrawal symptoms from science fiction goodness, so scooped this one up. And loved it. The worldbuilding is really interesting with a fascinating dynamic around the Haden’s Syndrome that sees sufferers trapped in their paralysed bodies and using robots to once more integrate into society. A worthy successor to Lock In – see my review here.

 

One Way by S.J. Morden

It’s the dawn of a new era – and we’re ready to colonize Mars. But the company that’s been contracted to construct a new Mars base, has made promises they can’t fulfill and is desperate enough to cut corners. The first thing to go is the automation . . . the next thing they’ll have to deal with is the eight astronauts they’ll send to Mars, when there aren’t supposed to be any at all.

Frank – father, architect, murderer – is recruited for the mission to Mars with the promise of a better life, along with seven of his most notorious fellow inmates. But as his crew sets to work on the red wasteland of Mars, the accidents mount up, and Frank begins to suspect they might not be accidents at all.
As regards the setting and the colonisation efforts, I felt this aspect of the book was very well done. I was less convinced about the thriller holding it all together, though.

 

My posts last week:

Sunday Post – 15th April 2018

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of The Blood – Book 3 of the Jem Flockhart series by E.S. Thomson

Teaser Tuesday featuring Still Me – Book 3 of the Me Before You series by Jojo Moyes

Can’t-Wait Wednesday featuring The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes by Ruth Hogan

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of The Ashes of London – Book 1 of the Marwood and Lovett series by Andrew Taylor

Cover reveal – Dying for Space – Book 2 of the Sunblinded trilogy

Friday Face-off – Where there’s fire there’s… featuring Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Review of The King’s Name – Book 2 of the Tir Tanagiri series by Jo Walton

 

Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

Women in SF&F Month: Claire North http://www.fantasybookcafe.com/2018/04/women-in-sff-month-claire-north/ Claire North of 84K fame has written this punchy, thought-provoking article at Kristen’s marvellous blog site. If you celebrate, or abhor the trend for strong, warrior women in SFF, then this is required reading…

#BookReview: Wheelchairs, Perjury & The London Marathon by Tim Marshall @AuthorightUKPR @Authoright https://rathertoofondofbooks.com/2018/04/20/bookreview-wheelchairs-perjury-the-london-marathon-by-tim-marshall-authorightukpr-%e2%80%8fauthoright/ I don’t normally single out book reviews in this section – but I’m making an exception for this one. I was shocked at just how much I didn’t know about this slice of modern history…

5 of the Best Literary Travel Guides to Britain https://interestingliterature.com/2018/04/18/five-of-the-best-literary-travel-guides-to-britain/ Once again, this excellent site delivers…

From the ‘Predicament’ series https://photolicioux.wordpress.com/2018/04/18/from-the-predicament-series/ A pictures tells a thousand words – and sometimes a handful tell a lifetime.

6 Important Money Management Tips for Kids https://photolicioux.wordpress.com/2018/04/18/from-the-predicament-series/ As a former teacher, I always felt this was a woefully neglected subject at school – Wanda, as ever, provides sensible, helpful advice for parents trying to put children on the right track with managing their money in a world where gambling has become an acceptable hobby and we can buy whatever we want with the click of a mouse.

Have a great week and thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to visit, like and comment on my site.

Review of NETGALLEY arc We Care For You by Paul Kitcatt

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When I read what fellow book blogger, Ana, from Ana’s Lair had to say about this offering, I immediately hightailed it over to NetGalley to request it. I was delighted when I was approved and bumped it up to the top of my pile because I was so keen to read it.

Margaret Woodruff is slowly dying in a care home. When her son is presented with the chance of exceptional care in her final months, he finds the offer hard to resist. Winifred is assigned to Margaret’s care. She’s a Helper: a new kind of carer that’s capable, committed and completely tireless – because she’s a synthetic human being.

This is ambitious book is not only a gripping story about what happens to an old lady in a care home, but it is also a discussion about what it means to be human. Kitcatt isn’t afraid to hold up the pace of his unsettling story to provide detailed conversations between Margaret and Winifred, which have stayed with me since I finished reading the book. I’m not sure if I agree with the conclusions he comes to, but they are certainly food for thought and I do thoroughly agree with the prevalent view throughout the book that the life experience gained by the elderly is essentially thrown away in our modern society. This is in sharp contrast to almost every other culture throughout history, where the wisdom of the aged is valued and held in high regard. Although the conclusions that Winifred come to are somewhat worrying…

Any niggles? Well, I do have one. I’m still scratching my head as to why Kitcatt has set the book in 2022, given the sophistication and real-life appearance of the robot. That is only four years away and I simply don’t believe we are anywhere near producing an artificial being with that sophistication and complexity to be rolled out and fully interact with a very fragile human being in the manner described in the book. To be honest, when I saw the date I nearly didn’t continue, being rather nerdy about this sort of thing. While I’m aware, great strides have been made in the field of AI and robotics. I simply don’t believe we are within touching distance of the likes of Winifred and her hub.

However, the writing is sufficiently good and the book has been produced to a high standard with solid formatting, so I decided to proceed and give the author a pass on the unrealistic timeline. Other than that, this is an engrossing read with some important things to say about what we value as a society and a species, and though I thought I knew exactly what the ending would be, that final twist did leave me with a shiver up my spine. All in all, this is a memorable and unsettling read, recommended for anyone who enjoys near future science fiction relating to our current society.
8/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook Ranter’s Wharf by Rosemary Noble

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Rosemary Noble happens to attend my Fitstep class and when we discussed our relative projects, I tracked down her book as it sounded really interesting…

This is a family saga about love, loss and betrayal. It is an intimate portrayal of a family dealing with big ideas of the times. The backdrop is the decaying, coastal town of Grimsby trying to reinvent itself amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, dissenting religion and the fight for voting reform.

When Betsy, a strong and determined spinster of independent means, adopts her motherless nephew, she doesn’t mean to fall head over heels in love with the child. When she plucks William from the bosom of his family, she does it out of self-interest, hoping to thwart unwelcome suitors. Her plans to raise William as a gentleman, allowing his respectability to rub off on herself, almost works. But things don’t always go to plan…

I’ve somewhat tweaked the very chatty blurb which gives away far too much of the story – but this is a historical novel loosely based on Noble’s own family history. She has clearly assiduously researched the period and knows a great deal about living conditions, the geography and weather conditions. As a fellow historian, I am full of admiration for her close attention to detail – but in order to write an entertaining story, there needs to be strong characters that ping off the page the reader can identify with and a page-turning story. So has Noble also managed to people her vivid depiction of a by-gone age with sufficiently readable characters and an engrossing tale? Oh yes.

I particularly loved the opening section of the book when we see Betsy visiting her stricken brother on the day of his wife’s funeral with a proposition to take one of his children and raise him as her own. As a point of information, this arrangement was far commoner than you might think. Time and again, records show that one child from a large family is taken off to be brought up by aunts, uncles, grandparents and in quite a lot of examples, older married siblings. What those records don’t report is how it turned out. Betsy becomes devoted to the bright, intelligent little boy, who grows up to be able to first rent and then buy a small dairy farm. It may not seem much, but is a world away from the labouring jobs that were his father’s lot.

We then follow the fortunes of that small boy – William – and what happens to him and his children, as well as charting what becomes of the family he left behind. As well as the personal family drama, what I found particularly fascinating is how Noble also situates the family’s fortunes within the political situation of the time. She shows us William’s involvement in the Primitive Methodist movement which also gives us an insight into how working men coped with the dreadful conditions they found themselves confronting after the Napoleonic War ravaged the economy. The following generation becomes even more embroiled in the politics of the day when his son John gets increasingly caught up with the Chartists.

Reading of this particular family dealing with the fallout, brought home to me just how high the price was and how our social history was sculpted by brave, forward-thinking men and women whose consciences wouldn’t let them rest when so many around them were suffering such acute privation. It also makes it easier to understand how some of the modern faultlines in our Parliamentary and class system came into being.

Noble provides a highly readable account of a turning point in the political life of the country and is recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction that gives an insight into who we are now.
9/10

Review of The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley

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Being a shallow soul, I hefted this substantial tome off the shelves because of the very cool cover and lugged it home, because the first couple of pages were evidently well written and intriguing. Would my slavish attraction to star-spattered covers pay off this time around?

thesevensistersMaia D’Aplièse and her sisters gather together at their childhood home of Atlantis – a fabulous, secluded castle situated on the shores of Lake Geneva – having been told that their beloved father, the elusive billionaire they call Pa Salt, has died. Maia and her sisters were all adopted by him as babies and, discovering he has already been buried at sea, each of them is handed a tantalising clue as to their true heritage – a clue which takes Maia across the world to a crumbling mansion in Jio de Janeiro in Brazil. Once there, she begins to put together the pieces of where her story began…

This sprawling saga has two narrative timelines. The first features Maia, eldest of six adopted sisters struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of their beloved father, aggravated by his odd request to be buried at sea without any family present. The second timeline delves back into the past as Maia discovers who her genetic family are and what befell her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother so that she ended up in an orphanage, being put up for adoption as a tiny baby.

I haven’t encountered Riley’s writing before, but it didn’t take long to realise I was in the experienced hands of a gifted storyteller who knows her craft. Interweaving two narratives throughout such a long book so the reader isn’t skimming one storyline to get to the other takes a significant amount of technical skill. And Riley manages to braid the two timelines together without any jarring or stuttering in the impressive pacing of this engrossing tale.

She also whisks the reader around the world. We start in luxurious surroundings on Lake Geneva, then we’re taken back to Rio in the 1920’s to the sumptuous life of coffee baron’s daughter Izabela Bonifacio and on to bohemian life in Paris during the same period. The historical plotline heavily features the creation of one of the most famous landmarks in the world – the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer, where Riley has managed to interleave fact and fiction very deftly.

The 600+ pages whizzed by as I became caught up in the plight of Izabela, humbly grateful I hadn’t been born a beautiful, rich young heiress at that particular time. Riley gives us a heartrending insight into her plight. It shows, once more, just how bleak women’s lives are when they aren’t permitted equal rights. During narrative twists and turns I waited to get impatient with Maia’s passive attitude to life… to become tired of Izabela’s struggle between heart and head… and it didn’t happen. Storylines that regularly have me switching off and putting a book down never to return, held me right to the end.

Did Riley succeed in corralling her wide-ranging narrative into a suitably satisfying ending? Oh yes – which is much trickier than it might seem, given that I would have also flung the book across the room in disgust if the conclusion had been too tritely satisfying.

The Seven Sisters is the start of a series, where Riley will be examining each of the sibling’s backstory and their reaction to Pa Salt’s unexpected demise and I will be eagerly looking out for the next one. If you tastes run to family sagas, complete with enjoyable backdrops and a dollop of historical detail, then this comes highly recommended.
9/10

Teaser Tuesday – 21st July

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TeaserTuesdays-ADailyRhythm3-300x203Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teasers:
‘The wind ruffled the pages; raindrops caught and tossed in the breeze spattered down, as if they too wanted to read decodedthe contents of this letter. Maybe it was because he had not slept well the night before; maybe it was because the letter had touched some hidden corner of his mind: the old man sat quiet for a long time after he had finished reading.’ P.97 of Decoded by Mai Jia, who is China’s bestselling espionage novelist, according to the cover.

It’s certainly an intriguing and very different read, and I’ll be reviewing it in due course.

Review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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I spotted this 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction winner on the shelves and scooped it up, after recalling it was recommended by a couple of my students.

WeareallcompletelybesideourselvesWhat if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.

As soon as I started reading, the surefooted first person voice pulled me in – and then about a quarter of the way in, came the revelation which I didn’t see coming. At all. This is such a clever, original book. What you think must be the themes when you start reading about the fallout surrounding Fern’s disappearance on her family, once you get past That Point, you realise there is another agenda alongside the expected issues of loss and identity. As Rosemary starts facing up to the fallout and decides to try and put things right, it would have been so very easy for this book to have lapsed into sentimentality – which Fowler manages to avoid, chiefly by giving us dollops of madcap humour.

All the supporting characters ping off the page, filtered by Rosemary’s sharp observations and interleaved with the apt and layered dialogue scenes that resonate with all the unspoken conversations. Fowler’s handling of the narrative is sophisticated and deft – given that Rosemary starts her story in the middle because she cannot face starting at the beginning, we get a ringside seat as she starts crumbling until she has to confront what happened when she was five. As she then provides the backstory, along with the extra layer of information we need to know about Fern and Lowell’s part in the story, it would have been all too easy to have lost the tension, let the narrative stray. But she keeps absolute control – this book is a tour de force, which is hardly a surprise, given it is Fowler’s sixth novel and she has also two collections of short stories published.

She is an experienced author at the top of her game and this book was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker award – with good reason. But don’t take my word for it – track it down. It is an outstanding read that will remain with me for a long time – oh, and if you do intend to read it, do avoid the reviews by The Guardian and Telegraph. For reasons best known to themselves, both reviewers have seen fit to give the spoiler regarding Fern’s disappearance that the publishers have been very careful to omit in their blurb, which is a disgraceful betrayal of their readership in my opinion.
10/10

Review of A Half Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb

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half forgotten songI’d read The Legacy a couple of years ago and loved it. And – more to the point – it is among the handful of books that I can vividly recall. So, would I find Webb’s latest offering just as engrossing and memorable?

1937. In a village on the Dorset coast, fourteen-year-old Mitzy Hatcher has endured a wild and lonely upbringing – until the arrival of renowned artist Charles Aubrey, his exotic mistress and their daughters, changes everything. Over the next three summers, Mitzy sees a future she had never thought possible, and a powerful love is kindled in her. A love that grows from innocence to obsession; from childish infatuation to something far more complex. Years later, a young man in an art gallery looks at a hastily-drawn portrait and wonders at the intensity of it. The questions he asks lead him to a Dorset village and to the truth about those fevered summers in the 1930s…

Those of you familiar with The Legacy will recognise that Webb has again revisited the dual narrative, with one story unfolding back in the past and one storyline gradually progressing in the present. The past finally meets the present in an exciting and unexpected denouement – but the engine that drives this story is a lost, unloved soul who anchors all her hopes and affection on a charismatic artist. Webb apparently loosely based Charles on Augustus John, who had a reputation as a womaniser and clearly loved women’s bodies with a strong, sensual appreciation – you only have to look at his sketches and paintings to realise that.

Webb’s depiction of Mitzy’s harsh childhood, where she spends much of time scavenging the surrounding countryside for plants, herbs, fish and small animals to eat or make up potions for her mother to sell, is far from the rural idyll that soft-focused adverts use. Yet, she still manages to evoke the beauty and rhythm of the Dorset countryside – so much so, that I fell asleep with the colours of this book swirling in my head. The initial friendship of Charles’ two girls is a revelation for Mitzy, who is shunned by all the village children, except for Wilf. This particular narrative caught at my heart and as it spirals into a tailspin of obsession and the inevitable darkness, so much so that I found myself reading through the night to discover what happens to forlorn Mitzy.

Zach’s story becomes entwined with Mitzy’s narrative when as an expert on Charles Aubery, he is commissioned to write a book about the artist and decides to investigate his personal life – particularly the events surrounding the tragedy that caused him to unexpectedly join up in the early days of World War II, when he died on the Normandy beaches. Zach has miseries of his own, as his ex-wife is emigrating to America with his only daughter, all set to start a new life with another man – and if he doesn’t complete this book, he’ll have to return the advance and shut down his struggling art gallery. But when Zach visits the village and discovers that one of Aubery’s most famous sitters is still alive as an old woman, he is astonished and realises that if he can get her to talk about those days, he will have a unique angle on the artist.

So, piece by piece, the story is uncovered as Mitzy starts to remember. Or tries to forget…

The themes of remembering, of obsessional love and loyalty are all played out in the small cast of vividly depicted characters, where Mitzy’s tragic story rises above the rest, as she has to continue to live with the consequences of what happened all those years ago.

The book may be called A Half Forgotten Song – but I won’t be forgetting this beautifully told tale for a long, long time.
10/10

Review of The Hare With the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

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This winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award was fervently recommended by my sister-in-law, so I decided to give it a try – although to be honest, the blurb didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

264 Japanese wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first harewiththeambereyesencountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the netsuke, they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined.

From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siècle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century.

In my humble opinion, the blurb doesn’t do the book justice. However, I have a fair amount of sympathy with the publishers. How do you explain or sum up this story that spans three generations of a family caught right in the middle of the most turbulent events of the last two centuries? For de Waal, a noted potter in his own right, just happens to belong to one of the major Jewish banking families who operated out of Vienna, Paris and London at the height of their powers. Fabulously wealthy and highly influential, Charles Ephrussi, the younger son who didn’t go into the family banking business, collected and commissioned artworks from the likes of Manet, Degas and Monet. It is this section of the book that really sings off the page as de Waal is clearly entranced by Charles, both as an art collector and person. He charts Charles’ life and his collecting habit – including his long-term affair with Louise Cahen d’Anvers, until his collection of netsuke is given as a wedding present to his cousin, Viktor and his beautiful young wife, Emmy.

The special cabinet, known as a vitrine, that houses this collection ends up in the corner of Emmy’s dressing room and these small, valuable Japanese pieces become the playthings of the Emmy’s children. de Waal is particularly good at describing objects – not just their appearance, but their feel and quality along with the emotions they engender. He produces slices of the family history as Vienna is rocked by a series of world-shaking events.

However, the middle part of the book is the least satisfactory. While we get tantalising details of Emmy’s beauty and fashion sense, the candour he displays about Charles’ life is lacking. There is a sense that he has edited swathes of detail out of his great-grandparent’s lives. His grandmother, Elizabeth, clearly a remarkable woman, is also depicted with a frustrating amount of information omitted. Her persistent refusal to languish in depressed misery in England when the Nazi looting of her family home is airbrushed out of German history by an insultingly low offer of compensation had me initially convinced that she would be a major protagonist in this amazing story. She isn’t.

That honour goes to Uncle Iggie, another resourceful and remarkable member of the family, who becomes the custodian of the netsuke and finally takes them with him when he settles in Japan in the mid 1950’s. Once more, the narrative picks up and becomes rich with detail and anecdotes as the painful subject of World War II recedes, and de Waal recounts his uncles life and times.

So, given the sketchiness of some of the most catastrophic events in the family’s history – does de Waal do justice to his family’s unique and remarkable story? The answer has to be – a qualified yes. Using a collection of objects as the nucleus of the narrative was inspired and probably made it possible to consider recounting the trauma caused by the Nazi’s aggression and the vicious anti-Sematic comments and open prejudice that winds a dark thread through this account. Overall, though, this book is a testament to the sheer resilience and toughness of a family who have managed to not only endure being ripped apart, stripped of all their property and evicted from their country of birth – but thrive. Along with their collection of Japanese figures.
9/10