I enjoy Claire North’s writing – see my reviews of The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. So I was delighted when I was approved to read this intriguing offering. I will be linking this review to the Wyrd and Wonder 2020 event, featuring all kinds of fantasy.
BLURB: South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by the white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William. William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.
Every book North has written under this current pen name – see my review for A Madness of Angels – Book 1 of The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin – has ostensibly been a standalone. However, there is a theme developing here. Individuals who, by luck or some kind of genetic predisposition, find themselves coping with an unusual trait that takes them beyond everyday life and into the realms of the paranormal. William is another of these unfortunates – having been cursed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and when his shadow approaches, he divines the truth of those around him. And as his shadow gets ever closer, he is forced to babble that truth aloud.
This adventure stretches from the 1880s, and ends in 1914 in a field hospital during World War I, so you won’t be surprised to discover that it isn’t long before William’s unique ability draws down attention from the British Empire intelligence services and their department Nineteen. In return for keeping William on the move, so that his shadow is never able to completely catch up with him, he goes where they send him and learns the truth from ambassadors, princelings, other agents all around the world. It gives North an ideal opportunity to chart some of the political shenanigans that goes on during that turbulent time, which she does in impressive detail.
This is, indeed, an impressive book. The prose is impassioned and elegant, the character caught up in a horrible situation so that he is so far out of his comfort zone, he is almost drowning. And yes, if you’re sensing a but, you’re right. I didn’t really like William all that much. I didn’t like anyone all that much. While I sympathised with him intellectually, I simply found him too annoyingly wet and steeped so deeply in his own self-loathing, that I was unable to truly bond with him. And that’s a real shame, because the book is a magnificent achievement. I don’t think I’ve encountered a more impassioned and literate critique of our social value system, both then and now.
I just wish there had been a few more shafts of light and humour, which I know North is capable of writing brilliantly – because by the time I was two-thirds of the way through this one, I was conscious that I’d become a bit numbed to the ceaseless acts of violence against the poor and powerless. That might just mean I’m a really shallow person, but my sense is that if that burning anger against the social injustice of the capitalist, elitist mindset had been just a bit less intense, then there would have been room for me to jump on board, too. I’m also not a fan of the ending.
I’m conscious this sounds like one long moan – but if someone offers me the chance to read her next book, I’ll take it like a shot. North is a remarkable talent, who sees the world in a particular way and although I often find the journey alongside her uncomfortable, there is too much to admire to want to miss it. Recommended for fans of magic realism adventures with a literary edge. The ebook arc copy of The Pursuit of William Abbey was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.
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.
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.
This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.
Another busy week – last Sunday was amazing as we completed filming all the major scenes, including the finale and once again, the weather was unbelievably kind with bright sunshine, though it was very cold. Monday and Tuesday were teaching days – though a number of students were off, smitten by tummy bugs and colds. On Wednesday, I attended Pilates and Fitstep again, although I still have a way to go before I regain the fitness I attained in the summer. On Thursday, Mhairi came over and provided a sympathetic listening year as I had a bit of a meltdown over the fact that I was STILL going through the line edit on Dying for Space after working on it for hours and hours… In the evening, I attended West Sussex Writers as Phil Williams was giving a talk on marketing for indie authors – it was an excellent evening with lots of valuable information. It was heartening to see such a great turnout.
On Friday, we had an important meeting regarding Tim’s progress and it was wonderful to see him talk so articulately about his hopes for his future in front of people who he doesn’t know very well. When I got back home, I got stuck into the manuscript and also worked through Saturday, so I should be able to have review copies available by the beginning of the coming week – phew!
Today is my father-in-law’s birthday and Oscar’s birthday tea. Bless him, he has kept our present unopened even though his birthday was earlier this week, so that we can watch him unwrap it.
This week I have read:
The Medusa’s Daughter – Book 1 of The Mask of Medusa by T.O. Munro
Haunted by very different pasts, three travellers journey together across a continent riven by clashes of faith and race. Odestus, the war criminal flees from justice. Persapha, new to all things human, yearns for a way and a place to belong. Marcus Fenwell, schooled in diverse talents, seeks a future beyond a wine bottle
But past and future entwine to snare them all, for the Medusa has not been forgotten nor her daughter forgiven.
This entertaining epic fantasy story is about three strong characters – one has been seriously maimed when engulfed by sorcerous fire; one is on the run from a powerful secret organisation and the Medusa’s daughter, only part human, begins to learn what she is capable of. I will be reviewing it in due course.
My posts last week:
Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:
The Chickpeeps – How to Go Vegan with Erik Marcus https://www.thechickpeeps.com/
This is a new podcast to assist people wishing to go vegan, or begin making changes in their diet towards veganism. I’m declaring an interest – my son is involved in this project and I’m so very proud…
How Well Do You Know SFF?
https://www.playbuzz.com/orbitbooks10/how-well-do-you-know-sff?utm_campaign=social&utm_medium=Orbit+Books&utm_source=twitter&utm_content=OrbitQuiz%252COrbitBooks Test your knowledge on this admittedly very small and limited quiz
Tammy’s Top Twelve 2018 YA Sci Fi Books #RRSciFiMonth http://booksbonesbuffy.com/2017/11/07/tammys-top-twelve-2018-ya-sci-fi-books-rrscifimonth/ This is an excellent article with Tammy’s top 12 picks for the coming year – given that it’s #SciFi Month, this is a great opportunity to compile your Christmas list
The Plot Thickens: How To Improve Young Children’s Critical Thinking Skills During Storytime https://freespiritpublishingblog.com/2017/11/07/the-plot-thickens-how-to-improve-young-childrens-critical-thinking-skills-during-storytime/ Reading to children can be so much more than reciting the words on the page…
…an Author’s lament… where Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and modern pirate’s differ…
https://seumasgallacher.com/2017/11/07/an-authors-lament-where-johnny-depps-jack-sparrow-and-modern-pirates-differ/ This is an article about the kind of pirates that don’t sail around the seas sporting a skull and crossbones, wonderful hats or a surprisingly sexy shamble…
And as this is Remembrance Sunday, I wanted to add one of the poems I grew up with – one that my grandmother used to read to me while telling me about all the soldiers who died so we could be free. The wrenching pity is that young men are still falling miles away from their homes. Lest we forget…
For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
The Titanic disaster has spawned a number of books, and this is one of them. But the difference is it takes that historic event, following a handful of characters snagged by the tragedy to see what happens next in their lives.
For May Smith stepping aboard the Titanic marks the start of an incredible journey, destined to take her, along with her husband Joe and baby Ellen, from the back streets of Bolton to the land of opportunity: America. But when the unsinkable Titanic hits an iceberg, May’s dreams are shattered. Jumping from the sinking ship, May loses her grip on Joe’s hand. Distraught, she is pulled into a lifeboat and under the wing of first-class passenger Celeste Parkes. Minutes later, Captain Smith himself swims to the lifeboat and hands May her baby. Celeste does everything she can to keep the pair safe whilst in horror they watch the death throes of the mighty ship. As dawn arrives and the two women are rescued, a friendship is forged, one which is destined to transcend their social differences to last a lifetime.
This is a fascinating take on the most famous shipwreck in history. From that fateful night in 1912, we follow Celeste and May after their lives are changed forever by what happened to them. May, as a poor widow with a tiny daughter to care for, faces an uncertain future, while Celeste’s future is all too plainly laid out in front of her as she returns to a bullying husband. But against all the odds, these two women maintain their friendship and end up each helping the other during various crises during their lives.
However, there are other characters whose lives have been touched and altered by the loss of the Titanic without their even knowing it – and this book also charts their lives. Fleming’s characterisation is strong and her writing vivid and uncluttered. Historic novels need to depict a sense of the period without holding up the narrative pace. Fleming succeeds in doing this, while making the necessary jumps across her long narrative timeline without jarring or defusing the immediacy of her characters – which is far harder to pull off than she makes it look.
As she takes us down the years following the sinking of the Titanic, we are given a ringside seat through both World Wars, witnessing the subsequent tragic loss of life, while relationships are forged and broken. The events and the way they impact on the lives of Celeste, May and those close to them are entirely believable. I was pulled into the book, reading far later than I should have to discover what befalls the main characters.
I love Fleming’s perspective – she could have written something cosier and far less thought-provoking. As it is, this is an enjoyable and worthwhile read and if you have any weakness at all for historical novels, then track down this offering. It is so much more than yet another rehash of the sinking of a famous ship.
I went looking for this author after both my mother and a widely read student of mine recommended her work. The book is a dual narrative about an impressionist painting, The Girl You Left Behind.
In 1916 French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie and goes to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant. As his obsession deepens, she will risk everything – her family, reputation and life – in the hope of seeing Edouard again. Nearly a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. Its beauty speaks of their short life together, but when the painting’s dark and passion-torn history is revealed, the first spark of new love Liv has felt is threatened…
Moyes’ depiction of the bleak conditions prevailing for French civilians in WWI occupied France is compelling – all the more so for being an under-reported slice of history. The Germans’ continual intrusion into everyday life with a range of rules and regulations; their ‘procurement’ of anything they fancy – from fine furniture, family heirlooms and any stored food and drink, in contrast to the starvation rations they eke out in return, is a grinding, frightening experience. Living under those conditions meant that anyone singled out by them immediately came under the spotlight – so when Sophia and her sister are commanded to cook the evening meal for the German officers and given rations to do so, their ravenous fellow villagers watch with envious eyes. Sophia’s raw courage and gritted determination to survive for the sake of her husband bounces off the page – and when the book suddenly switched to Liv’s story, a hundred years later, I was initially less than pleased.
However, Liv is suffering a different sort of hell. Probably as soul-rotting as Sophia’s plight, if not as extreme. Still struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband four years earlier, she lives in a house she cannot afford and endures the misery of concerned friends trying to ‘fix her up’ so she can move on. The painting that David bought her is a source of great comfort, so when it becomes the focus of unwelcome interest, Liv is determined to hang onto it, whatever the consequences.
In writing about the fortunes of two women confronted with such very different lives, Moyes is faced with the predicament of ensuring that the reader stays sympathetic to both of them. They share the same gutsy determination not to give in – and the same impetuous impulses that cause both of them to make decisions that are potentially disastrous. But Sophia is far tougher and more practical than Liv, brought up in harder times with an abusive father – and I liked the fact that Moyes doesn’t attempt to depict Liv as anything less than rather spoiled, in comparison. Of course she is – those of us living with the advantages of modern living all are. And unless we were confronted with the same terrible choices of imminent starvation and the daily misery of an invading army, we wouldn’t know how we would measure up.
But what starts as two love stories, linked by a painting spirals off into a far more interesting, nuanced narrative. Liv is informed that her beloved painting was appropriated by a German officer during WWI, and as such, truly belongs to the family of the artist, living in France. Who is more entitled to it? The current owner, who bought it in good faith – or the relatives of a family who had everything unfairly ripped away by an invading army, even when that deed occurred a century ago? While we all think we know the answer, Moyes poses the question where the original family’s motives are purely financial, compared to Liv’s gritted emotional reaction to being forced to relinquish the one possession that has come to symbolise her lost marriage. It’s a very neat device – and completely drew me in.
This is an intelligent, able author at the height of her powers, who has written a compelling story full of twists and turns. It could so easily have all gone pear-shaped… Sophie’s terrible experiences could have completely overwhelmed the second narrative, making Liv’s plight seem anaemic in comparison, thus unbalancing the whole book. That it doesn’t shows a depth of skill in the crafting that is belied by the readable, unflashy style which, nevertheless, had me reading waaay after I should have got up and got cracking this morning.
Any niggles? The supporting cast are mostly very strong. I enjoyed the contrasting worlds – Hélène, Sophie’s sister, gives a believable slice of sisterly support and criticism that is pitch perfect. I also found Liv’s eccentric actor father and step-mother enjoyably plausible. But one character did have me gritting my teeth by the end – Mo, the goth waitress that ends up moving in with Liv is far too knowing and wise. Consequently, in a book filled with well-drawn, realistic characters, she stands out like a sore thumb… However, in the overall scheme of things, this is a minor quibble – and I am certainly going to hunt down more books by this talented writer.